Neal Lancaster considers himself a lucky man.
Many of his Smithfield neighbors were left flooded, homeless or powerless by Hurricane Matthew, which took a big toll.
“We got slaughtered,” Lancaster said of Johnston County and Eastern North Carolina.
But Lancaster, his wife and two young daughters are safe. No flooding at his home. Generators are providing power.
“And I’m outdoors playing golf for a living,” Lancaster said this week at Prestonwood Country Club. “I’m very fortunate.”
Lancaster will be competing in the SAS Championship at Prestonwood, which begins Friday, hoping to string together three strong rounds in the PGA Tour Champions event and see where it leaves him.
The top 72 money winners on the tour after the SAS Championship qualify for the inaugural Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs, a three-tournament format similar to the FedEx Cup Playoffs on the PGA Tour. Lancaster, who has played just five events this year, is 75th on the list, looking to move up.
“Top 20 should do it this week,” he said. “And I need a good week.”
Lancaster, 54, did finish third in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in July. It was his best showing in 21 career PGA Tour Champions events and accounted for $144,000 of his $158,503 in winnings this season.
In three tournaments since July, Lancaster has been no better than a tie for 60th.
Lancaster “retired” from competitive golf at 45, saying he was burned out. He had some injuries, undergoing neck surgery in 2009.
“But you can only sit for so long,” Lancaster said, smiling. “After three years I said, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll go out and try again.’ I still enjoy playing and I started taking lessons.”
That was an unusual step. Those who know Lancaster’s story know he was a self-taught golfer, his “lessons” often the instructional tips in golf magazines. He’s also self-made, starting his pro career with $98 and a beat up van, headed to the mini-tours.
Lancaster likes to talk about growing up putting into Maxwell House coffee cans in a field behind his house. “With irrigation flags as flag sticks,” he said.
When he complained about a need to improve his putting, his father would simply say, “Maybe I should make ‘em Dixie Cups.”
Lancaster, who turned pro in 1985, won once on the PGA Tour, the 1994 Byron Nelson Golf Classic. Severe weather shortened it to 36 holes – it has since been called the “Half Nelson” – and a 17-year-old Tiger Woods was in the field as Lancaster won after a six-man playoff.
Lancaster’s PGA Tour career earned him more than $6.3 million, and the guy known as “Cuz” on tour made 36-hole cuts in 325 events. He twice had nine-hole scores of 29 in the U.S. Open, sharing the tournament record with Vijay Singh.
The recent golf lessons, Lancaster said, were only so helpful. He played in the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship this year in Greensboro, and the Rex Hospital Open, the Web.com Tour event at Raleigh’s TPC Wakefield, and missed the cut in each.
“I kind of went into a mental block, studying golf swings,” he said. “Too much information. I’m out on the course trying 50 things.”
Lancaster has always been a golfer who plays by feel, who likes to shape shots, likes the challenge of trouble shots.
“I don’t have a pretty swing like Tom Purtzer, Gary Hallberg and them,” he said. “That’s not my style.”
With daughters Gabby (5) and Lizzie (2) at home, Lancaster often doesn’t practice as much, beating balls. He likes being a home-body when he can.
But this week it’s back to work at Prestonwood.
“As I told someone the other day, even when I have a bad day, who gets to play outdoors every day?” he said, beaming.