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Neal Lancaster: 'Mr. 29' Still Plugging Away
By all accounts Neal Lancaster is a simple country man. He loves his cigarettes during a round of golf, made the PGA Tour as a self-taught player and never moved to a fancy club after making millions as a professional, opting to play with his neighbors and friends at the Country Club of Johnston County in a rural section of North Carolina.
Lancaster's golfing career is quite the dichotomy, though. He holds the U.S. Open record for not once, but twice shooting 29 for nine holes (1995 and '96), and once recorded seven straight birdies on Tour. Lancaster won $6.28 million in his career, but was victorious only once (the 1994 GTE Byron Nelson Classic) and never represented the United States in any Ryder or Presidents Cup matches.
"I wouldn't call myself a journeyman; I would say I was a middle-of-the-road player who probably couldn't get out of my way enough to win more," Lancaster said recently as he turned 50 and logged his first Champions Tour event at the SAS Championship in early October, finishing tied for 25th.
Shortly after the SAS event, Lancaster was on his way to see his doctor in Columbus, Ga., at St. Francis Hospital, once again to check out the neck and shoulder problems that have plagued him for a dozen years.
"I have been pretty good, but today is not a very good day for me," said Lancaster, whose worse "pain days" are away from the golf course. "When I don't play every day it seems like I get a lot of pain in my neck area and collarbone area. One of my shoulder doctors told me my left clavicle is like I am a 75-year-old man. A lot of it is just wear and tear."
With such agony and millions already pocketed, why continue and why play? Once again the answer is simple for Lancaster. The competition, coupled with the companionship of his fellow golfers, is as addictive as his nicotine binges on the links.
He looks at his friend and former pro-am caddie Webb Simpson, at his glorious U.S. Open victory this past year, and dreams of one more shot at the big time, one more time holding a trophy aloft.
"Definitely, without a doubt," Lancaster says when asked if he thinks about his 29s every June. "Every time the U.S. Open comes on I wish I was there. The ones I played in I played pretty well, but the qualifying process is hard just to get in them. Yeah, I relive them and then with Webb winning that was just awesome."
Sure, every time a player of note, a major winner like a Langer or Watson turned 50 there was a buzz on the Champions Tour. But it's players like Lancaster, with his unique personality and unlikely story, that make the senior golfing crowd an interesting take.
You see, Lancaster started with 93 bucks in his pocket, a key to a beat-up van and grew up with cheap golf clubs as a kid, who made it big his first four months on the 1989 mini-tours and the rest is history. In my book, Cuz, as he was affectionately called on Tour because he couldn't remember the names of all the caddies, has earned every cigarette puff along the way.
Simpson can still remember the day he caddied for Lancaster as a 16-year-old in the Greensboro pro-am event. The best friend of Simpson's father knew Lancaster and got the 2012 U.S. Open champion his first-ever big-time looping job.
"I had never been within the ropes of a PGA Tour event and Neal was so funny," Simpson said. "I had heard all these stories about him and some of the things he did that day were just hilarious; we had a blast. His caddie told me before the round that the only thing I could mess up was losing his cigarettes. That was the first time I ever had a pack of cigarettes in my pocket.
"We get done and we're at his car and he reaches in his bag and says, 'Here you go, this is for the day and he hands me a sleeve of balls.' I said to myself: 'What the heck, I was expecting some money or something.' I shook his hand and I got about 100 yards away from the car and I hear this belly laughing coming from Neal and he brings me back and gives me a couple of wedges and a $100. It was great joke to play on me."
Looking back at the injuries and the pain, it's amazing that Lancaster was able to perform as well as he did on Tour. He's most proud of the 330 cuts he made and his longevity.
"I stayed on Tour for 17 straight years and I think that's a pretty good deal," Lancaster said.
And Lancaster isn't done just yet. He plans to head to Coral Springs, Fla., on November 13-16 for the finals of Champions Tour qualifying. There will be 90 players on hand. Just five make the cut. He also has additional medical exemption starts (15) on the PGA Tour that he plans to use in 2013.
At the SAS, the 50-year-old Lancaster finished second in driving distance and fifth in greens in regulation.
"That gave me a lot of confidence. If I would have putted worth anything I would have been right there. In fact, the final round was the best I've ever struck the ball."
And then there was one final laugh in our conversation. "Riding that cart, now that sure was some fun," Cuz chuckled.
David Droschak has covered golf in the Carolinas for three decades, mostly with The Associated Press, where he worked for 20 years as AP sports editor in North Carolina prior to launching Droschak Communications, a full-service marketing and PR firm based in Apex, N.C. Dave, 51, has covered numerous major golf tournaments, including the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens at Pinehurst Resort, and is a longtime member of the Golf Writers Association of America.
Dave was honored with the Sports Writer of the Year award in North Carolina in 2005, and is currently editor of Triangle Golf Today (www.trianglegolf.com), a print and online publication regarded as the "No. 1 Source for Golf News in North Carolina." He is golf editor for Pinehurst Magazine, an award-winning glossy publication, and was instrumental in helping launch Triangle Golf Deals powered by Twongo (www.trianglegolfdeals.com) in the fall of 2011.
Dave also is the co-founder of www.HurricanesBeat.com, a website devoted to coverage of the Carolina Hurricanes, an NHL franchise he has covered since the team moved to North Carolina from Hartford in 1998.
Dave grew up in Penn Hills, Pa., about five minutes from the famed Oakmont Country Club and was introduced to the game of golf as a caddie at Green Oaks Country Club in nearby Verona, Pa.
Dave was the co-captain of the 1978 Penn Hills state championship baseball team, was a pitcher for the 1982 Atlantic Coast Conference champion University of North Carolina Tar Heels, and pitched professionally for two years in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He is a member of the Penn Hills High School Sports Hall of Fame, which also includes NBA coach George Karl and former four-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Bill Fralic.