In his first professional golf tournament in November, Lanto Griffin earned a tidy sum of $938.33. That might not be enough to merit driving around with a giant check in the backseat, a la Happy Gilmore, but it was enough to make the 22-year-old VCU alumnus proud.
Just six months later on May 5, the 2009 CAA Golfer of the Year was making his first PGA start and taking aim at a share of a $6.5 million purse at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C. All in all, it hasn’t been a bad start to life as a professional for the 2010 VCU graduate.
Griffin spent the winter and spring playing the Hooters and eGolf Tours, smaller, non-PGA affiliated professional tournaments, but fired a 65 during an 18-hole qualifier May 2 to earn one of four at-large spots into the Wells Fargo Championship. It was the realization of years of hard work for the Blacksburg, Va. native.
“They gave me a 2011 Mercedes courtesy car for the week. There were 40,000 fans there every day. It was pretty nuts. It’s one of those things where you always dream about playing in one,” Griffin said.
Proudly displaying a VCU golf shirt, Griffin spent Wednesday’s practice round consuming the experience. He played a few holes with well-known pro Stuart Applebee and 2007 Masters Champion Zach Johnson. Griffin marveled as kids staked out the practice round and fished for autographs, caps, balls and any other memorabilia they could pry from pros. He also ran into fellow VCU alum John Rollins, a PGA veteran of 300 tour starts, in the locker room.
“He just told me to enjoy the week, have fun and soak it all in,” Griffin said.
As Thursday’s opening round approached, Griffin grew anxious. He’d been watching the PGA since he was 13 years old and now he was just hours away from playing with the best golfers in the world. The 48 hours leading up to the tournament were hard on Griffin. He says he barely slept Tuesday night. Wednesday was even worse. However, by the time he reached the course Thursday morning, his uneasiness was washed away by adrenaline.
On the first tee, Griffin lined up and smashed his first PGA drive down the middle of the fairway. He was on the green in two and putted home a birdie. Not a bad start for a rookie.
“I wasn’t really nervous on the first tee,” Griffin said. “It was just kind of surreal. I wanted to make contact. I think everybody was a little surprised I birdied my first hole on tour.”
Griffin eventually missed the cut after shooting a 2-over 74 on Thursday and 75 on Friday. The former Ram was 1-under through the front nine on Thursday, but succumbed to Quail Hollow’s vaunted “Green Mile”, the moniker given to the course’s final three holes, which have been collectively rated the toughest finish on the PGA Tour each of the last two years.
Despite the finish, Griffin feels the experience he earned at the Wells Fargo will serve him well in the future.
“Basically, I learned that my game is now good enough to be out there. It’s not good enough to win out there, but I know I can compete with those guys,” Griffin said. “I learned my short game needs to improve a lot. I knew that going in, but I didn’t know that magnitude. The courses they play are so [difficult], everything has to be fine-tuned. You can’t get away with a mediocre or average short game out there.”
The Wells Fargo experience in his pocket, Griffin will now turn his attention to advancing his professional career. He’s living in Richmond when he’s not traveling for tournaments and has been working with two swing coaches, as well as VCU Strength Coach Ryan Horn. Griffin and his manager, Dave Maraghy, are also hoping to secure a sponsor’s exemption to play in the Greenbriar Classic in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. in July.
In the coming weeks, Griffin will attempt to secure sponsorships, which are vital to budding pros. Tournaments often cost more than $1,000 to enter and that’s before the cost of travel and lodging is factored into the equation. Q School, a series of tournaments used by the PGA to award tour cards, carries a $5,000 entry fee. Griffin’s website, www.lantogriffin.com, lists his current sponsors as Titleist, The Virginia Golf Club and Novocaine sports drink.
Griffin plans to enter Q School in September. It’s a series of three to four qualifiers in which players need to finish in the top 20 to advance to the next stage. In the final stage, held in December, the top 25 golfers earn a PGA Tour Card.
He doesn’t expect the road to a PGA career to be easy, but Griffin is determined to make it a reality. At 22, he knows there’s plenty of room for professional growth, but hopes to be swinging his clubs at Augusta or Sawgrass sooner rather than later.
“You see it on TV every week when you see the galleries, and you see the logos all over their shirts and the golf course is in perfect shape, and guys winning a million dollars at the Masters,” Griffin said, allowing himself to drift into a daydream. “I’ve seen interviews of rookies on tour and they’re like, I’m amazed that they let me in the gates. That would be an absolute dream. You have so much power to help people.”