Luke DeCock

This Champions Tour golfer doesn’t ‘want to wind down,’ but his chances to play are getting harder to find – DeCock

Neal Lancaster, left, gets ready to head onto the course after speaking to the competitors at the SAS Junior Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary on Thursday. “When I was younger, we had nothing like this,” Lancaster said. “At least we didn’t know nothing about it in Smithfield.”
Neal Lancaster, left, gets ready to head onto the course after speaking to the competitors at the SAS Junior Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary on Thursday. “When I was younger, we had nothing like this,” Lancaster said. “At least we didn’t know nothing about it in Smithfield.” ldecock@newsobserver.com

When healthy, Neal Lancaster can still hit a golf ball far enough to compete on PGA Tour courses. His self-taught swing remains as sweet as ever, even if his body has lately tried to reject it like a transplanted organ, with first a shoulder then his neck and lately a knee breaking down.

When he gets a chance to play, he does. There just don’t seem to be many chances left.

Which is how Lancaster’s summer schedule looks so bizarre: the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the Web.com Tour’s Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh and two Champions Tour events – both majors. There’s some rhythm behind that randomness, but mostly it’s left him at home in Smithfield with his two young daughters instead of traipsing around the country, a welcome unintended consequence.

“I don’t want to wind down, I want to play,” Lancaster said. “When I did play two weeks in a row, I did tell a lot of the players, I couldn’t do this 25 times a year if I wanted to. I’d like to play 12-14, would be my schedule.”

At 54, Lancaster is the elder statesman of a growing group of Triangle touring pros. While Grayson Murray, who’s from Raleigh, was posting a low number at the PGA Championship in Charlotte on Thursday, Lancaster was at Prestonwood Country Club speaking at the SAS Championship’s first-ever junior tournament to impart some of his hard-earned knowledge to teens and pre-teens who probably didn’t have much of an idea who Lancaster is, since none of them were born for either of his 29s in the U.S. Open. (And they’re all too young for any of his really good stories.)

“When I was younger, we had nothing like this,” Lancaster said. “At least we didn’t know nothing about it in Smithfield.”

But showing up at Prestonwood on Thursday, along with Reidsville’s Mike Goodes, keeps him in the good graces of the SAS Championship, where he can always count on a sponsor’s exemption to play. It’s not as easy elsewhere. Lancaster finished third in the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open last year but couldn’t get an exemption to return for next week’s tournament – although in the end, he couldn’t have used it anyway, since he tore cartilage in his left knee standing in the surf at Ocean Isle and had surgery last week and hasn’t lifted a club since.

Over the course of the summer, Lancaster has only been able to get to two Monday qualifiers – only 14 Champions Tour events even offer it – which has left him somewhat bereft of chances to play. Some of that’s by choice: Lancaster used his final, carefully preserved medical exemption to play Pebble Beach in February, his farewell to the tour. That meant missing two early season Champions Tour qualifiers, which left him behind on the money list, which left him at home in Smithfield. A lot.

“I made a mistake,” Lancaster said. “I should have gone to Florida and tried the first two instead of Pebble Beach, because that sets your whole year up.”

It wasn’t worth it, to play Pebble Beach one last time?

“It was, it was,” he said. “Your last tournament on tour, you want to go walk Pebble. It was worth it, but you can’t go both ways I guess.”

So Lancaster got into the Senior Players Championship based on his success on the Champions Tour last year – he was 75th on the points list – and finished second behind Tommy Tolles at a qualifier in Greensboro to make the Senior Open, making the cut at both. But those were the only doors that opened.

Now, he’s just healing and waiting for the SAS Championship in October, where he annually rides around in a cart, holding court between shots at the center of the biggest gallery on the course, and inevitably driving the ball out of bounds left on the 9th. (“Five years in a row,” Lancaster moaned Thursday, before turning to Prestonwood director of golf Larry Conner: “Change the hole, Larry.”)

That’s when he’s really in his element, and he’s hoping he can still do that for another six years by playing Monday qualifiers, USGA events and Carolinas PGA events. With his PGA Tour pension, he’s not under pressure to bring home a paycheck, but golf is still in his blood.

“I got these two little girls,” Lancaster said. “Maybe that’s telling me not to play. But I want to play.”

For the first time in a long time, he’s really just playing for fun. When he can.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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