Neal Lancaster has made 580 starts on the PGA Tour, which is another way of saying that he went 16 consecutive seasons being consistent enough to be invited back. His career earnings, when you include time spent on the Korn Ferry Tour and PGA Tour Champions, is just shy of $7 million.
He’s won a PGA Tour event – albeit a 36-hole affair at the 1994 GTE Byron Nelson Classic, dubbed the “Half Nelson” that ended in a six-man playoff and was considered official at the time – and blew a two-shot lead on the last hole of the 2002 Bell Canadian Open. In back-to-back years, 1995 and ’96, Lancaster shot 29 for nine holes at the U.S. Open, this at a time when red numbers were an endangered species at the championship.
So why would Lancaster, now 58 years old, want to play in a 312-person event full of club pros who spend more time folding shirts than playing golf?
The PGA Professional Championship concluded this past Wednesday at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Omar Uresti, another hardened PGA Tour journeyman, demolished the field to win for the second time. Lancaster, Uresti and a few others have taken advantage of a noticeable loophole in the rules. A PGA Tour player is technically an A-3 PGA professional. If they play on tour for at least 20 years and pay membership dues throughout that time, they can be classified as a Life Member with the same playing rights as a head professional who coordinates tee gifts for the member-guest. If you can fulfill a few education requirements to maintain your status, you can play in all the club-pro events.
It’s a hot debate whether this falls within the spirit of the competition, one which sends the top 20 finishers to the PGA Championship. The idea is that hard-working club pros get to have practice rounds with the game’s royalty and tee times in a major championship environment. Occasionally a PGA pro will make the cut, and it’s a moment of immense pride for their home club. It’s a reward, a way to showcase instructors, general managers and other guardians of the game who can also play golf at a high level, even if it’s far from their main focus on a daily basis.
So why is Lancaster playing? It’s an interesting story, and he is more than willing to tell it. The gap-toothed, self-taught, born-and-raised-in-the-countryside Lancaster gives the impression that he had already started your conversation before the phone rang, his southern accent quickly and transparently maneuvering between topics. If you are on the phone with him, there’s a good chance he is walking out in nature or at the Country Club of Johnston County in his hometown of Smithfield, North Carolina.
“There’s two sides to every pancake,” Lancaster said. “I think if you make an effort to help other people in the game, to teach them or encourage them to get better and be involved in golf, that’s really what the PGA of America is about. And there are a lot of great players who are club pros.”
Before he made it playing for a paycheck, Lancaster was a club pro himself. He dropped out of the University of Mount Olive (N.C.) after three semesters. The head pro at local Southern Wayne Country Club offered Lancaster the assistant pro gig.
For four years, he did the dirty work. Washing carts. Picking the range. Changing grips. Giving lessons in the heat of summer. If he could avoid sitting inside working on the books, it was an enjoyable day.
But like so many in the golf industry, Lancaster wanted to play competitively and still harbored aspirations of playing at the highest level. He cobbled together some cash and went out west to play in a couple of tournaments– one of those was the 1989 Utah Open, which he promptly won by nine strokes. Feeling his game measured up, he went to PGA Tour Q-School and got through.
Although not many will remember his playing record, Lancaster put together a career worth admiring. He was intuitive, making up for his lack of physical prowess by playing golf like the kid who learned the game by chipping into Maxwell House coffee cans in his backyard.
When he got to the PGA Tour in 1990 and saw all of the great players around him, Lancaster panicked and went for his first lesson. L.B. Floyd, Raymond Floyd’s father, watched Lancaster play five holes.
“When we got done, we went into his office,” Lancaster said. “I said, ‘Well what do you think, Mr. Floyd? How can I improve?’ And he said, ‘You’re just a natural player, you just have to go out and do what you do.’ That was basically it.”
Lancaster would waver from that advice during portions of his career as he tried to learn more about the golf swing, but he always found himself high enough on the money list to get his card back. He was known more for his one-liners than his play, but there were a few moments when the two ran together beautifully. When Lancaster stood in the fairway on the 72nd hole of the 2002 Canadian Open knowing a bogey would win the tournament, he pull-hooked his second shot left of the green and then raced a difficult pitch 30 feet past the hole. He three-putted from there, and then went on to lose a three-man playoff to John Rollins.
“I walked up on the tee for the playoff and I turned to both of them and just said, ‘You’re welcome,’ ” Lancaster remembers.
“I flew home that night and my dad asked me if I was okay. He said, ‘Good thing you weren’t driving a racecar or flying a plane because you would have killed a lot of people.’ ”
“I was never a guy that worked out. I went to play golf, I went out to dinner and then I did it again.” – Neal Lancaster
It’s easier to laugh about it now. Lancaster made 30 or more starts in 12 different seasons and cumulated 326 made cuts. The PGA Tour’s pension program, which is based on made cuts, is widely regarded as the most lucrative in professional sports and Lancaster is a prime example of a little-known player who benefits greatly from the program.
It did come at a cost, however. Lancaster withdrew 27 times during his career and is still plagued by health issues. He had a blockage in his leg, three ruptured discs in his neck and developed trigger fingers – a condition where fingers are stuck in a bent position and then snap straight – which have dampened his ability to play over the last decade or so. He needed a pain-relief shot to play in the PGA Professional Championship last week.
“I was never a guy that worked out,” Lancaster said. “I went to play golf, I went out to dinner and then I did it again. When you’re playing every week and trying to make money, it’s kind of hard to take off and quit.”
Had Lancaster won that Canadian Open 19 years ago, he would have earned full status on the PGA Tour Champions because two PGA Tour wins accomplishes that. Instead he went to Q-School for the senior circuit and shot 15-under par, one stroke shy of making it. He’s made 33 starts on the Champions since 2012 while also making 23 starts on the PGA Tour over that timespan, but his golf career has mostly turned into something else entirely.
He doesn’t classify himself as a teacher, but he has spent the past several years offering free lessons to anyone at his home club who is interested.
“Mostly I’m helping our kids and our members, just local people,” Lancaster said. “I haven’t advertised myself as a teacher. But I just want to get people started in the game. If I can get them to hit one good shot out of 20, they are hooked. It’s nothing formal, I just want to help people out.”
At the Country Club of Johnston County, a picture of Lancaster winning the Byron Nelson is on the wall and you can typically find him out on the practice range. If he isn’t teaching, he’s hitting balls himself.
“He likes to have a good time, but he responds well to people,” Chris McDonald, the club’s general manager, said.
Since 2016, Lancaster has been playing in both section tournaments and national club pro events. He won the Carolinas PGA Senior Professional Championship in 2017 and then won an even bigger event, the Carolinas PGA Match Play Championship in 2019. He’s finished runner-up twice in the Carolinas PGA Section Championship, which offers a handful of spots into the PGA Professional Championship. He’s yet to have luck in the PPC, this year shooting 78-72 to miss the cut by four strokes.
Lancaster has never viewed his playing in the club pro tournaments as unfair. For him, it’s a way to compete against club pros such as Gus Ulrich and Rick Morton, people he grew up playing against as a junior.
“I’m just as nervous in any of these events as I was on the PGA Tour,” Lancaster said. “The nerves are the nerves. And we have a lot of great players in our sections, so it isn’t easy.”
It’s been a journeyman career, and the journey is still ongoing.
Top: Neal Lancaster reads his putt on the fourth hole during the first round of the PGA Professional Championship. Photo: Montana Pritchard, PGA of America
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