As great as it was for Smithfield golfer Neal Lancaster to hop back in his car with a top 10 finish and a big check on the way after a long week working his way into a Champions Tour event, a third place finish in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open on Sunday didn’t change a whole lot of the immediate future for the mostly self-taught pro.
Lancaster chatted about his upcoming schedule and the things a top 10 finish and a $144,000 payday did change via phone on his drive home from Endicott, N.Y. Monday afternoon.
“It opened a few doors, but I’m still in a situation where I’ve got to play these qualifiers to get into the tournament on a regular basis,” he said.
Lancaster, who had one PGA Tour win in his career, earned his spot in the DSGO field by winning the qualifier on Tuesday with a round of 65. He’s played in the Monday or Tuesday qualifiers for the next Champions Tour event numerous times (that’s the easiest way in a Tour event without a full playing card), but finishing in the top five or so of those events is always a challenge unto itself.
Lancaster just missed out at qualifying school on a Champions Tour card last fall.
“I played well,” Lancaster said of his tournament. “I really thought it was going to be my week to win.”
But, like everybody else, his scores went up in the final round with winds gusting to 20 mph on the narrow course.
Still, the 53-year-old had a chance to tie for the lead in the late stages of the final round. He came to the tee at the short par-4 16th hole, two shots back of eventual winner Paul Goydos.
“It was 308 yards to the hole and I was able to hit it on the green and leave it about hole high, but a good ways away,” he said. “I knew that was my chance. I couldn’t leave the putt short.”
The putt slipped by the hole on the low side, leaving him a short putt for birdie.
“The putt coming back for birdie, it was 10 inches I think, and I missed it,” Lancaster said. “I regrouped on 17 with a par, then made par on 18.”
He finished his round still uncertain about his positioning for the spot that goes each week to the highest finisher in the top 10 that does not have full playing status on Tour. John Riegger played the final hole needing a birdie to surpass Lancaster for that spot, but he made bogey instead, giving Lancaster a solo third place finish and the top top 10 spot.
It is his largest payday on the Champions Tour in his three-year off-and-on career on the circuit for golfers age 50 or older. It’s already his biggest earnings total in a year ($149,600) in pro golf since 2007 ($229,053).
Lancaster opened the tournament with a 69 on Friday, shot 66 Saturday and finished with a 70 on Sunday. He was briefly tied for the lead at 11-under early in the final round.
“You’ve just gotta make putts out here,” Lancaster said of succeeding on Tour. “And I made some putts. Got off to a good start with two or three birdies for the first four or five holes all three days, even though I wasn’t hitting the ball like I wanted to.”
He decided against trying to qualify for the British Senior Open — set for July 21-24 at Carnoustie — over the weekend. And his status for the U.S. Senior Open is up in the air as the No. 2 alternate for that field.
“The chances I get in there, that two guys drop out of the field there are very slim,” said Lancaster, whose name is frequently mentioned in U.S. Open discussions having carded scores of 29 for nine holes twice in the event. “Guys will hop around the course on one leg, roll around on their belly, whatever it takes before they withdraw from a U.S. Senior Open.”
He does know he will be in the field for the 3M Championship Aug. 5-7 in Blaine, Minn. And feels like he’ll have a good shot at a spot in October’s SAS Championship in Cary because of his history in the event and his relationship with tournament organizers. Lancaster also earned a spot in the Senior Players Championship in 2017 with his finish on Sunday.
The finish moved him up to 58th on the Champions Tour money list (up from 140th) and in the season-long Charles Schwab Cup standings. He will make the Tour Championship if he’s able to finish the season in the top 72 on the list and getting into Tour events will be much easier with that top 72 finish as well.
Lancaster’s weekend was complete with other, off the course challenges as well. Even though he was staying “at the nicest hotel around,” he had to change rooms three times in six days because of problems. “The air conditioning went out in two of the rooms and there were fleas in the bed in the other one,” he said.
Then, trying to get a jump on the 10-hour trip back home Sunday, he had his caddie pick up his courtesy car from the hotel and leave Lancaster to drive his own car to the course for the final round.
“Then, I got in my car and the dang thing wouldn’t start,” Lancaster said. “Here I am an hour and a half before the start of my round with a 30-minute minimum drive to the course still ahead and I’d left by lights on or something. Luckily, the first guy I came upon in the hotel lobby had a pair of jumper cables in his car and I got out of there within a few minutes.”