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Underdogs have their day on PGA Tour

Houston winner Lanto Griffin shows that top pro circuit exists for more than golf’s brightest stars

Before Sunday, unless you’re from Blacksburg, Va., or a college teammate or close friend, the name Lanto Griffin likely wouldn’t have rung any bells. And you might not even remember the name after today.

But Griffin is just as important to the PGA Tour as Brooks Koepka or Rory McIlroy or Justin Thomas. The Tour is not just about the big names, although they corral most of the attention. But Griffin and those like him are the lifeblood of the PGA Tour, and not just because they’re needed to fill a 144-man field.

2019 Houston Open
With his victory in the recent Houston Open, Lanto Griffin wins some job security and perhaps even a bit of name recognition.

They are the reason why the PGA Tour exists.

The Tour is a place where dreams come true just as much as it is a place where hopes and ambitions go to die. Making it to the big Tour is one of the most difficult things any golfer will achieve. It means that he is one of the top .001 of 1 percent of all golfers in the U.S. The odds against it are staggering.

The PGA Tour is the elite, but it comes with its own set of obstacles to trip over or holes to fall into. When a player slips, it seems as if the whole world is passing him by. But if he plays somewhere near his best at the right time, it seems as if the whole world has opened up to him.

That’s how Lanto Griffin no doubt feels today. At age 31, he won the Houston Open on Sunday for his first PGA Tour victory and all the usual perks that come with it. He has job security for the next three seasons. He will be eligible to play in the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, the Players Championship – and the Masters and the PGA.

“I've always joked with people, pro-ams when people ask, ‘Have you ever played Augusta?’ I'm like, ‘No, I'm going to wait until I earn a spot.’ Well, really, I had never been invited to play.

“But, I mean, that week's going to be – just thinking about it is an absolute joke to me, that I'm going to be there. There's so many different things that I can't even fathom that are going to happen after this week. I'm just so grateful that I pulled it off and we can enjoy it.”

Griffin lost his father at age 12 and was mentored by Steve Prater, who was the pro at Blacksburg Country Club. Prater is still one of Griffin’s teachers. Griffin played college golf at Virginia Commonwealth and bounced around the mini-tours, the China and Latinoamerica tours and the Korn Ferry Tour after school. Short on money and success, he nearly called the whole thing quits.

“You don't blame anybody for being well off, but for me … I kind of had to earn everything,” Griffin said. “I had to meet the right people. Man, there's 20 or 30 people that, if they didn't open their checkbooks to me in amateur golf, junior golf, mini-tours two years ago, I couldn't have kept playing.”

He made the PGA Tour in 2017-18 and failed to keep his card. Another year on the Korn Ferry Tour and he had his second Korn Ferry victory and finished sixth on that tour’s regular-season points list.

In the same boat as Griffin was Scott Harrington, who earned his first trip to the PGA Tour off the Korn Ferry Tour at age 38. His story has been told often, from his 17 years on the small tours to his wife who has battled leukemia. The PGA Tour is about Harrington, too. He tied for second at the Houston Open and now has 309 FedEx Cup points, nearly enough to lock up his card for next season. It took 376 points to finish 125th in 2018-19.

“I'm not a household name; I'm far from it,” Harrington said. “In general, people haven't known me for my whole career except for pretty extreme golf fans. So far, just in the early part of the season, the number of people who have put out their hand and said, ‘Hey, really pulling for you this week.’

“They know our story, and I can tell there's been a lot of instances like that. There's big-name players the first couple events of the year coming up and wanting to shake my hand and introduce themselves and say, ‘Hey, I'm really happy for you.’ For them to take their time and do that is really neat.”

In spite of his rise to the top of golf’s consciousness today, Griffin still knows his place, and he is happy to have that place.

“Not everybody's going to be a Jordan Spieth or Rickie Fowler or the top in the world,” Griffin said. “Some of us, it takes us until [ages] 28, 29 to get on Tour. George McNeill, I talked to him last week, and he was 30 [when he made the PGA Tour], and he's played for 14 years.

“So, hearing stories like that, that's more who I am. There's nothing wrong with that at all. Life's still great, and I'm not going to change. This win's not going to change me, I can promise you that. I'll be the same person.”

He will be Lanto Griffin, and along with the Scott Harringtons and the other names you don’t recognize immediately or at all, they know more every day that they belong. And if you take the PGA Tour’s pulse, theirs will be the heartbeat you hear.