When I heard that the Masters was being pushed back to November, my heart sank.
You’ve got to understand … I’ve been waiting my whole life to compete at Augusta National.
Because it’s the place. Because it’s just different there. Because, before I made it onto the PGA Tour, and before I was invited to the Masters, I started my journey at The Hill.
And if you want to know who I am, you need to know what The Hill is.
The local municipal course in Blacksburg is known as The Hill. It’s a short, nine-hole course that you could play all day for nine bucks. It’s got all the little quirks that make up so many of the great muni courses around the country. There’s a pro shop that can’t be much bigger than 1,000 square feet, and it’s got the clubs and the shoes on the wall that you can buy right there. There’s a little patio to soak up some sun after the round. There’s a putting green that sits right beside the clubhouse at the top of the property with an incredible view of Blacksburg. You can see Merrimac and Ellett Valley to the south. To the west, there’s the Virginia Tech Campus and Lane Stadium, where the Hokies play.
It’s really a beautiful spot for a course. The holes themselves aren’t that much to write home about, but it’s just got that character to it, you know? I’ve brought some friends there from out of a town a few times, even in the last couple of years, and they all feel right at home when they step on the first tee. It’s a great place.
For a long time in my mind, golf and The Hill were synonymous.
I remember when I got my first set of clubs, on Christmas morning in ’96. The night before, my dad had allowed me to open one gift. It was a putter. And if I had only got a putter that Christmas, I would have been the happiest eight-year-old kid in Blacksburg. I loved anything related to sports. I played baseball and soccer growing up, and was always trying to keep up with what was happening in the pro leagues.
So that next morning when I saw a 5-iron … a 7-iron … a 9-iron … a driver — I was so excited.
At the time my family was renting an old farmhouse out in the countryside. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but we had everything we ever needed. My parents weren’t focused on jobs all the time, or on their careers, necessarily.
My mom had a masters degree in teaching, but decided to homeschool me, my older sister and two older brothers instead of putting us in the public school system and returning to teach. She worked nights at a restaurant in town as a server to help cover bills — that way she could be home during the day while my dad managed his health food store.
They put all their energy into raising all four of us and being around when we needed them. They made sure we knew the meaning of family, the meaning of love. That shaped the way I saw the world, and how I still see it now. Life, for me, was about family. So our home was a special place.
We had this huge yard and I’d borrow my mom’s gardening tools and dig out little holes to make my own nine-hole course. It wasn’t much … just some shaggy greens where I’d cut the grass one notch lower on the lawn mower. But man, it was just heaven.
We eventually left there, though, and moved into town. And that’s when we found The Hill. My dad and my brother and I would go out there every once in a while, but it wasn’t too serious. I liked the game, but I really loved baseball and soccer. My dad coached basically every team I ever played on and that really made me connect with those sports. Golf was just something to do when I had some downtime.
But that all changed one day when I was 11.
My dad hadn’t been feeling well for a few weeks and our family wasn’t too sure what the problem was. That summer I went to a camp with my best friend at the time, Jake Bodtke. It was a typical camp where we were away from home with a bunch of kids and all sorts of things to do. I remember being interrupted by Jake’s mom one day during the camp.
“Lanto, you need to come with me for a little bit.”
I knew something was wrong right away, just by the look on her face.
She told me that my dad had Stage IV cancer, and that he was in surgery to remove the tumor from his brain.
You know, as a little kid you don’t really know how to react to something like that. I was just hoping that he’d be able to keep coaching my teams and stuff and that he’d feel better soon. I thought, He’s Dad, he’s a superhero. He’ll be fine.
He made it out of surgery, and a few weeks later, he and I drove up to The Hill. He told me he had beaten cancer, that it was gone. I had no reason to doubt him — but it wasn’t the truth. I found out not long after that the cancer had persisted. I think he’d told me otherwise because he couldn’t stand to see me scared, to see me sad. He told me he had beaten cancer because dads are supposed to beat everything.
He had to stop coaching my teams and he couldn’t work much anymore. The fees and traveling for baseball and soccer became a strain on my family. I sort of stopped having any interest in those sports because my dad wasn’t there anymore. My mom had to go back to work as a teacher to help cover some of the costs we had that were piling up.
He told me he had beaten cancer because dads are supposed to beat everything.
That was when I remembered The Hill. And I remembered golf. I started to spend more time up there. I didn’t need my dad to coach me, I didn’t need other people to play with. Sometimes I’d play with friends for a round, and then I’d continue on by myself and play 54 holes in a single day. It let me keep my mind from wandering into dark places about my dad’s illness.
As I played more, I fell in love with the individualism of golf — the inner strength you need to have to succeed. There’s something so unique, so addicting, about that feeling of carrying your clubs on your back, sweat running down your face as you walk up the 18th fairway and you get up to your ball. It’s just … it’s hard to describe what the game can mean to you when it feels like it’s all you have, even for just four hours.
When my dad was sick, golf became everything.
I made some friends who were members at Blacksburg Country Club, and they invited me to come play a few times with them. Blacksburg CC is a great country club course. And at the time, compared to The Hill, it felt like Augusta National. I could have never imagined playing a course so nice. At the club, I met an instructor by the name of Steve Prater. He had connected with my dad while he was sick, and he helped get me into a few of the camps and clinics he ran.
I was just beginning, really, on my golf journey, and Steve always showed such incredible patience and care in his work. He understood me and he understood the way I saw the game, which meant the world to me.
In 2001, 10 months after his surgery, Dad passed in the middle of the night.
To this day it’s very difficult to put into words how his death impacted me. My dad was an incredible father. One of the reasons we didn’t have as much money as some other families was because Dad just wanted to spend all his time with us. He was always there for me to play catch or kick a ball around, or to go grab nine holes. He was there when I needed help with homework. He was there. Always there. Then one day, he wasn’t.
I wouldn’t trade the childhood I had — the love I felt, and still feel from my dad — for all the money in the world.
I know that for sure.
On the day he passed, I got a call from Steve Prater.
He offered me a membership at Blacksburg. I couldn’t believe it. I truly could not wrap my head around the fact that I would be able to play my Augusta National every day. My life changed in more ways than one that day. What Steve did … I can never truly repay him for it.
I accepted without any hesitation, and I sank my teeth into the game even more.
Steve’s passion for the game was contagious and there was something inside me telling me that, if I wanted to keep going somewhere with golf, I should stay close to him. I spent so many nights at his house so I could go to the course with him and his son Jack when the sun came up, and then come home with them when the day was over. And do it all again the next day. Jack was 4½ years younger than me but our love of golf connected us and we spent hours pushing each other on the course.
My mom let me go over there because she knew how important it was for me to have the game as an outlet. My mom is one of my heroes because she gave me every opportunity to succeed in life. Even after Dad’s passing, she would pick me up from the course any time I needed and gave me the guidance to keep pushing myself. There is a special relationship every boy has with their dad, and she knew she couldn’t replace that, but also knew she could make sure that the relationship never ended. And she did just that.
Between her and Steve, and countless other people, they helped push my game along through high school.
There’s a thousand different ways my life could have gone after my dad passed, but it was the people around me — and their love and selflessness — that allowed me to develop into the player I am today.
And, in 2019, when I had the moment I’d always dreamed of, I knew who to think of — who to thank.
The last hole at Golf Club of Houston is brutal. Just an absolute monster of a par-4. Nearly 500 yards (it’s the hardest hole on the PGA Tour this season) and the wind can really swirl around there. Even if you’re out there for a casual round it’ll beat you up. But on Saturday, during the third round of the Houston Open last year, I stepped up to that 18th hole and, man … it’s embarrassing, but I was thinking about freaking Augusta National. And I mean the real one. I knew I was close to the lead and that if I won the tournament the next day, I’d be in the 2020 Masters.
I made a terrible, terrible bogey. I ended the day in first by a shot, but I knew I couldn’t be thinking about Augusta when I was trying to win a tournament I’d never played in, on a tour I’d never won on.
So Sunday rolled around, and in the morning I had a brief moment when I let my mind wander. I thought of all the places I had been before that day. All the small tours, all the hours in hotel rooms in South America playing on the Latin America Tour. I thought of how badly I just wanted to get to Augusta — how badly I wanted to be a consistent Tour player. Because at this point, I was up and down between the PGA Tour and the Korn Ferry Tour.
And then it hit me. I knew that if I finished in the top 10 it would guarantee my PGA Tour card for the next season. That took some of the pressure off.
Ben Jared/PGA Tour via Getty Images
I was calm the whole day, I couldn’t believe it. The whole experience was so surreal because I’d always wondered what I’d feel like leading a tournament on a Sunday on the PGA Tour … but I was so calm. I was actually making myself nervous because I wasn’t nervous.
I used to get more butterflies in my stomach coming up the ninth at The Hill. But that day in Houston, I just found that place in my mind where I needed to be.
I got to the 18th tee with a one-shot lead, and I didn’t dare think about Augusta. I was just thinking about the shot I needed to hit. After my tee shot, I had the thought, Man, you’ve hit hundreds of thousands of golf shots in your life, you just need three more good ones.
I hit a good one up to the green and I had two putts left. That’s when I said it in my head.
Two putts to Augusta.
I missed the first putt.
Six more feet to Augusta.
Rolled the par putt in, dead center.
Then everything just hit me square in the chest. I thought of my dad, my mom. I thought of Steve and Blacksburg. Golf is just … it’s like you do so much practice, hit so many balls and then in the end the difference between everything you’ve ever wanted and second place is a six-foot putt.
The same type of putt I’ve been hitting since I pulled out that putter on Christmas Eve in ’96.
My life changed forever, again, that day.
But I knew that it was my turn to repay the people who had changed it in the first place.
For 17 years, Steve had never asked me to pay him when he coached me. When I got on Tour, I made sure I put him on salary and I told him that, if I ever won, he’d get a nice big check. And that night, after I stopped celebrating, I wrote Steve a nice big check.
Easiest check I’ve ever written in my life.
That money doesn’t cover even a tenth of what he means to me, but I wanted him to know that I’ll never forget where I’ve come from. I called my mom and we just had a talk about everything and the journey and how it was such a great, great day.
I think about that tournament all the time, of course, because that win allowed me to get into so many events and is going to keep me on the Tour for a while. And when I think about it, it’s all the things that came before that really put it into perspective for me.
I wasn’t the typical youth golfer coming up. Even though I had a membership at Blacksburg, I wouldn’t consider myself a country club kid. I always felt people looked at me different, even in Blacksburg. I had a chip on my shoulder my whole golfing career because I never had the best clubs or clothes. I was a pretty good junior player and my dream was to go to Virginia Tech, but they turned me down. I went to VCU and in our third tournament of my freshman year, we played at Duke’s tournament. When I saw Tech was in the tournament, it lit a fire in me.
I went out and beat the entire Tech team that weekend.
That chip never left my shoulder, even when I graduated. Through all the mini-tours and travel across different continents, I felt like I never quite belonged. I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling either. There are a lot of chances to quit in a golf career. But every time I got close, I thought about all those who had helped get me to where I was.
That’s why I think Augusta has always been a dream of mine. It’s exactly where I never could have imagined myself as a little boy.
Magnolia Lane … Amen Corner … Butler Cabin.
It’s otherworldly for me.
And even though I’m invited this year, it still feels like that.
But that’s the great thing about golf — and a thing I thought a lot about during the PGA Tour’s break due to COVID-19. No matter how different the backgrounds and journeys are for those competing this fall at Augusta, we’ll still all be there just trying to whack around a ball a few less times than the rest of the guys.
I do my best when I’m out there to represent the kids who didn’t have the financial means so often needed to succeed in a sport like golf. I still think our game needs to do a better job of making the sport more accessible to those struggling to find their way in it, because I know how it can change a life.
I’m honored to give back to families touched by terminal illness in the Blacksburg area by starting my charitable trust and holding my first charity golf event in 2021.
I don’t want to judge other kids who had an “easier” route financially — because that’s my goal for my family one day. When I have kids, I’ll want to give them every opportunity possible. And I know I also wouldn’t be where I am today without financial help from my parents, my friends, who helped me through junior golf all the way through different mini-tours. But I can sympathize with the kid who so badly wants to travel and compete and earn a college scholarship but their families can’t afford it.
I may never be for a kid what Steve was to me, but I hope I can help get some kids on their way to a better life.
I will carry that passion, and that appreciation with me wherever I go.
And this November, it’ll be with me in Augusta, Georgia.
I have promised myself that when I walk down that first fairway — and hopefully catch my breath after the first shot — I will do all I can to soak it all in. The place itself is beyond words, I’m sure. And to be rubbing shoulders with that field of golfers will be an incredible honor, no doubt.
But what’s going to make that week so special will be the memories of The Hill, of my backyard course, of my dad, of Blacksburg.
When it ends, no matter the result, I’ll hug Mom and I’ll hug Steve and they’ll know that Augusta isn’t just great because of its history and beauty.
They’ll know that it’s great because of how we got there.