Smithfield: Sports

Neal Lancaster: a pro at a crossroads

Neal Lancaster demonstrates his new swing during the Neal Lancaster Charity Golf Classic to benefit the Johnston Community College Foundation. The fundraising tournament was held at Johnston County Country Club in October.
Neal Lancaster demonstrates his new swing during the Neal Lancaster Charity Golf Classic to benefit the Johnston Community College Foundation. The fundraising tournament was held at Johnston County Country Club in October.

Neal Lancaster pulled into the driveway of his Smithfield home on a Sunday afternoon, fresh from the SAS Championship. He had carded a disappointing 76 in the final round, following up a 75 in the second round.

The two tough rounds had made his opening-round 69 in the Champions Tour event almost inconsequential. But the convergence of his two worlds – one relatively new and one he’s been a part of for decades – were about to flip his mood again.

“I’d shot 75, 76, just felt horrible on those drives home,” Lancaster said. “I pull in that driveway, and I’m all smiles. Hell, I’d be all smiles in that situation, if I’d shot a hundred.

“Five minutes after I’m home, I’m in the floor playing with dolls, and I’ve never been happier.”

So goes life for a successful tour pro who continues to make the transition to the later stages of his competitive golf career. He has the drive to continue to compete in the game he loves but also the pull of home, where wife Ashley awaits with two little girls, 4-year-old Gabrielle, or “Gabby,” and 22-month-old Elizabeth Grace, or “Lizzie”.

“I never thought I’d love kids as much as I do,” Lancaster said. “I didn’t have them and couldn’t have cared less about them. Now, my whole world revolves around those girls.”

Lancaster talked of his family, the state of his game, the game of golf and his relationship with the Johnston County Community College Foundation during the golf portion of the annual Neal Lancaster Charity Classic at the Country Club of Johnston County.

He marvels at what has been created with the help of the Johnston Community College Foundation over the past 21 years. For Lancaster, it started with a simple endowment in the name of his grandfather, Charles Thelbert. He credits the work of Jeff Pope, foundation director Twyla Wells and various businesses for helping push the event past a milestone: $1 million raised.

“I wanted to help do something for the kids in the area,” Lancaster said. “Jeff, Twyla and the foundation leaders have done it all. I basically lend my name and show up. To think that we’ve been able to raise ($1 million) in a town of 12,000 people is something that makes you feel very good about what you’re a part of and where you live.”

Funds raised from the event provide scholarships for students, money for faculty and staff development and support for other college programs. The foundation has recently added an expanded alumni program that will allow former JCC students to return for skill development or advancement with funding help, Wells said.

Wondering what’s next

While the foundation celebrates reaching that seven-figure total, Lancaster is dreaming of what’s next for the annual fall event. He’s seen it transform from an event mainly funded by a live auction to one that uses a large raffle to raise most of the money. (This year’s tournament raised about $75,000.)

Now he has visions of a more celebrity-driven event – featuring stars and legends from other sports with North Carolina ties – to bring fans to the event and draw more corporate sponsors.

“Who says we can’t get the right celebrities out here and draw a few thousand fans out to watch?” he asks. “I never thought we’d have done what we’ve done so far. It makes you feel good. But you ask, ‘What else can I do?’ 

Lancaster is one who has gotten used to playing in front of large crowds over the past few decades on the PGA Tour and in major championships. He’s Mr. 29 when it comes U.S. Open time (the score he twice shot over nine holes in the national championship) and a former winner on Tour.

The self-taught Smithfield native figures he has three or four more years of really competitive golf left. He’s in as good a shape physically as he’s been in years, but he’s still over 50.

“I’ve got everything else physically a guy who’s 53 years old has,” Lancaster said. “I see these guys out here in their 70s on the golf course and all I wonder now is, ‘What do they feel like every morning?’ 

The next big target on his calendar is Champions Tour qualifying this week in Reunion, Fla., outside of Orlando where he will shoot for a high finish, which would put him in the field for Champions Tour Q-School in Arizona the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

There he’d vie for one of five fully exempt spots on the tour next year. A top-12 finish would give him conditional exemption into any field that has space available.

With just 78 fully exempt spots available on the Champions Tour, the competition for those spots increases every year. Lancaster dreams of another year or two of playing competitively after weathering major shoulder, back and neck surgeries.

The Monday qualifier circuit is getting less stimulating each time out for Lancaster. All in all, he’d rather play with dolls.

“Golf has been great to me,” he said. “I’m grateful every day.”

He knows what he’ll have to overcome in order to make it back to a major tour. He’s learned he can’t work the ball in the air – fading or drawing – as easily as he once did.

“It’s the damn ball,” Lancaster said. “You can’t move it like we used to. The shorter-hitting guys who made their career off of it – Ian Woosnam, Corey Pavin – they’ve got the same problem I’ve dealt with.”

The swing is there to make one more exceptional run happen. He shot 68 in the first round of the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open this summer. That’s the same site where he came so close to winning his second PGA Tour title in 2002. But he lost a two-shot lead on the last hole, then fell in a playoff.

It would have destroyed many, and in his post-round news conference, Lancaster said aloud the cliches others were surely thinking.

“I blew it.”

“I choked.”

“I played like a blind man.”

“Folded like a cheap suit.”

But he kept playing through injuries and collected more than $6.3 million in earnings on the PGA Tour. He made his last cut on Tour in 2013, but played well in spots in his four Champions Tour events this year, pocketing $43,592 and making all four cuts.

It gives him hope for the upcoming work ahead needed to qualify for a full-time spot on the Champions Tour.

Connecting the game to new players

When it comes to what else he can do in golf, Lancaster thinks he knows.

He’s more thankful for the impact the game has on his life and sees the impact it’s had in some of the golfers he’s been able to mentor around the Country Club of Johnston County. Many of those went onto play college golf, graduated and are thriving in their chosen professions.

“I want to build a stellar junior golf program in Johnston County,” Lancaster said. “Young people are how to keep this game going when casual players are on the decline every year right now.”

He sees himself when he sees the Johnston Community College students who are aided by his work with the foundation. It’s the same thing he sees when he spots a young golfer on the driving range or a putting green.

“I see the good work a program like the First Tee Program does at the Tour events I’m at,” Lancaster said. “I could see that happening here. The PGA Tour will give you exceptional backing for those types of things. I think that’s what’s next.”

Through the days when he was the gruff guy with the media or the guy with language a little too salty for TV broadcasters at times, he remained the same guy who was enthralled by the first great golf shot he hit as a kid figuring out how to swing the club on his own.

“That’s all it takes, that one good shot, and you’re hooked,” he said. “Golf, once it gets in your blood, it stays in your blood.”

It’s still in his blood, but so are dolls and three people named Ashley, Gabby and Lizzie.

With golf, Lancaster is trying to figure out how to hang around a little longer. With Ashley, Gabby and Lizzie, well, they’re in his blood now more than golf ever was or will be.

D. Clay Best: 919-524-8895, @dclaybest

Neal on ...

On the influx of young stars like Jordan Speith, Rory McIlroy, etc.: “So many of these guys have been trained to do what they’re doing for every day of their life since they were five years old or something. The teachers, the coaches, the top equipment, they have it all from the beginning.”

On the biggest change in the game during his career: “It’s the equipment. It’s so good now. My first year on Tour, I was third in driving distance at 279 yards. In 2009, my average was 301 yards. I was 62nd on Tour. You think I found that distance in my swing? It’s all the equipment and that ball.”

On Tiger’s troubles: “He tried to come back from an injury that takes you a year or 18 months to get over in six months. He hurt himself more.”

A prediction for the future: “The day’s coming when a guy like Rory is going to hit it 400 yards off of the tee. Unless they do something to reign in the clubs and the ball.”

The Neal Lancaster File

Age: 53

Hometown: Smithfield

Career PGA Tour starts: 576

Career PGA Tour Top-25 Finishes: 81

Career PGA Tour wins: 1

Career PGA Tour Earnings: $6,312,668

Career Champions Tour Starts: 16

Career Champions Tour Top-25s: 4

Career Champions Tour Earnings: $183,224