Griffin's incredible journey leads to an emotional win
October 13, 2019
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Inside the PGA TOUR
Lanto Griffin reflects on his journey
HOUSTON – When the decisive 6-foot par putt fell Sunday at the Houston Open, Lanto Griffin raised both arms in celebration while a look of rapturous disbelief crossed his face. Then he started sobbing, the long, unique and heartbreaking journey to becoming a PGA TOUR winner fueling his emotions.
Some 1,200 miles away in Roanoke, Virginia, Steve Prater was jumping for joy, his head nearly reaching the ceiling. It had been the same reaction the day before when Griffin holed a bunker shot for a much-needed birdie. “I’ve jumped so much this week that I’ve got a headache,” Prater said.
Prater is the Director of Instruction at Roanoke Country Club, but several years ago he worked at Blacksburg Country Club. That’s where he met Griffin, who back then was a boy with self-described “hippies” for parents -- including his dad, Michael, who managed a health food store and knew a little about baseball and soccer, but not as much about golf.
So they went to a junior clinic, where Michael met Steve to discuss young Lanto’s interest in golf. Prater soon took over the teaching.
And then when Michael died of a brain tumor, Prater became much more to the 12-year-old Lanto. Friend, confidant, a father figure. The connection was golf but really, it became about life.
“I remember when Lanto’s dad died,” Prater said. “I knew he was sick but it was still kind of a shock to me. Lanto was in the bag room when I saw him. … He was sad, crying. We hugged for a while. Ever since, we’ve had a bond.”
Griffin was asked Sunday about his dad.
“I bet he’d be pretty proud,” he responded while trying to hold off the tears. “He got me started. He got me a set – I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell this story – but for Christmas in 1996, he got me a 5-iron, 7-iron, 9-iron, putter, 3-wood and he got me into golf.
“And then Steve Prater, he took it from there.”
Losing a parent at any time is difficult, but for a teenager, it can be devastating. That same horrible day that Michael Griffin died, Prater told Lanto that he had secured him an honorary membership to Blacksburg. And as Lanto threw himself into golf, Prater was there to teach and support.
When Virginia Commonwealth University came looking for golfers, Prater pointed to Lanto. They signed him to a scholarship.
And as Lanto turned pro, Prater helped navigate him through the ups and downs – especially the struggles that left Griffin nearly penniless and caused him to question his career choice.
In 2014, Griffin had $176 in his bank account. In the spring of 2017, he told his agent he was quitting the sport. But then he started seeing a sports psychologist, and turned things around, winning in Nashville on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Lanto Griffin wins on first playoff hole at Nashville Golf Open
That led to membership on the PGA TOUR in 2018, but Griffin could not keep his card. He was too aggressive, firing at pins he had no business seeking. He lost his card but gained perspective. Back on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2019, he won again and earned a second shot at the TOUR.
And now he’s a TOUR winner, breaking a tie with playing partner Mark Hubbard and Scott Harrington with a 33-foot birdie putt at the 16th hole – his caddie Chris Nash said Griffin called it before his stroke -- and then parring the two hardest holes on the course to finish it off.
Lanto Griffin drains lengthy birdie putt at Houston Open
The journey from the poor house to the penthouse was difficult to comprehend. He won’t have to worry about his TOUR card for a few years. He’s headed to Maui in January, and his Season of Championships schedule next year will be pretty full. He’s now No. 1 in FedExCup points, so the Playoffs are a given now.
Griffin, in fact, has already achieved several of his goals for this season; he keeps the list on his phone and was happy to share Sunday. Among them: Playing in a final group on Sunday, keeping his card, top-70 FedExCup, qualify for THE PLAYERS Championship and other invitationals, and producing a Sunday scoring average within a 1/2 stroke of his normal scoring average.
His No. 1 goal, though, was simply to win.
“It’s incredible,” he said.
Also on his phone, the text count was growing, reaching upwards of 500. Everybody who knew his journey wanted to congratulate him. No doubt one of those texts was from Prater, who had sent a text the night before the final round as Griffin prepared to sleep on a one-shot lead. It read:
Are we having fun yet?
On Sunday, Lanto Griffin had plenty of fun. But he also had plenty of people to thank. His mother, who had made Team Lanto T-shirts. His girlfriend, Maya, an attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina, who had flown in this weekend to walk outside the ropes. Stuart Swanson, who had provided so much support and used to drive him to junior events. So many others – “20 or 30 people that if they didn’t open their checkbooks to me in amateur golf, junior golf, mini-tours two years ago, I couldn’t have kept playing,” Griffin said.
And of course, Steve Prater, the man with the headache.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” Griffin said. “He opened every door in golf that I ever had, teaching me for free, giving me a membership. He’s had my back the entire journey.”
Said Prater: “It’s been a great relationship. He’s such a special person. At the time, when you’re doing those things, you don’t realize how beneficial they can be. Only later in life, you understand that those things were really important for him.”
Prior to this season, perhaps around the time he was making out his list of goals, Lanto Griffin decided to put Prater on his payroll as part of Team Lanto. Until now, he had never been in financial position to do that.
“He deserved every penny that I’m going to pay him,” Griffin said. “I can’t wait to write that check to him.”
Lanto Griffin's news conference after winning the Houston Open