WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS -- Lanto Griffin recalls playing at the Meadows Course at The Greenbrier during his days as a junior golfer.
He just never got the big prize on the Blue Ridge Junior Golf Tour.
"I remember the Tour Championship. If you won you got a free golf bag," said Griffin, who was 12 when he started playing in the BRJGT, a popular regional junior tour started by Fincastle Country Club in 1999.
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"I don't think I ever did (win one), but to be able to play for a golf bag was pretty awesome. I give them a lot of credit. Those tournaments are a lot of fun to play in."
It's safe to say Griffin has come a long ways. On Sunday, the 30-year-old PGA rookie played the final round of A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier at the Old White TPC with five-time major champion Phil Mickelson. They played in front of a large gallery, although Griffin added that his pairing with Rory McIlroy at the recent Travelers Championship was even more crowded.
"Phil was awesome. It is kind of what you would expect," said Griffin. "The personality in the media is how he is in person too so it was cool.
"Growing up watching Phil and Tiger (Woods), we were over there talking about that on 12. It is pretty cool seeing them both playing well. He won at the WGC in Mexico earlier in the year and Tiger is playing well so we talked about that. He was awesome."
Mickelson, who shot a 74 after a triple-bogey on the 18th hole, was impressed with Griffin's play on the course.
"He played really well," Mickelson said. "He's a heck of a player. He's got a lot of clubhead speed and played a nice round today."
Griffin, who will play in the John Deere Classic this week in Illinois, recorded an eagle, three birdies and three bogeys to finish with a 2-under 68 to finish in a tie for 26th with a 7-under 273. He bogeyed the 18th hole when his drive flew into a bunker behind the green and his par putt rolled just past the hole.
"It feels great. I would liked to have finished it off here on 18," said Griffin. "I hit a really good shot right there and the wind was swirling all day. We thought it was going to be perfect and it came out and found the lip of the back bunker. All in all, I think I shot 3-under on the back nine. I will take that and run with it. "
Griffin didn't hesitate to discuss the influence that the BRJGT had in reaching this point in his career, starting with a successful tenure playing golf at Virginia Commonwealth, earning Colonial Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors in 2009.
He turned professional in 2010, toiling on various mini-tours before finally earning his PGA Tour card after placing 23rd on the Web.com Tour money list last season, highlighted by a win in the Nashville Open. Griffin also won a pair of tournaments in 2015, including the Virginia Open and an event on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.
"It prepared me for bigger junior tournaments which prepared me for college which prepared me for this," said Griffin, a native of California, who spent much of his youth in Blacksburg, Va. "It is just a base, learning how to get the ball in the hole.
"It is sort of a steady progression from the Blue Ridge Tour to the VGA (Virginia Golf Association) to college to mini-tours and now out here playing with Phil. It is a pretty cool transition, but it all started back on the Roanoke Valley Junior Golf Tour and the Blue Ridge Tour.
"So stage one."
Griffin was a popular guy on Sunday, as evidenced by the huge galleries following behind. Many were watching Mickelson, but Griffin had his own fans, including around 16 friends and families who stayed in a nearby cabin and another 40 or 50 who made the trip from Blacksburg.
His mother wasn't hard to find. His girlfriend wasn't so lucky.
"My mom likes to cheer pretty loud so every time I made a putt I could hear distinctly from the crowd," he said, with a smile. "It was fun. It was fun playing in front of everybody, especially being paired with Phil.
"My girlfriend was upset. She wasn't going to be able to watch. She is short so big crowds are hard for her to see over."
Griffin has come far from his days playing for a golf bag in the BRJGT to now vying for championships and money on the PGA Tour. He hasn't forgotten where it all started, having played at Fincastle Country Club in both the Blue Ridge Junior Golf Tour and the Pocahontas Amateur.
"Fincastle is amazing ... ," said Griffin. "The Blue Ridge Tour, the Roanoke Valley Junior Golf Tour, any kids in the area, if you just play as much as possible, that is how they are going to grow their game."
Griffin finished his round several hours before Kevin Na completed his charge to victory, but he was hoping for a finish in the top 30, which would be his second best finish in eight cuts made this season. He did.
"I don't even know what place I am in. Hopefully it is the top 30, but that putt on the last hole might hurt," said Griffin, whose best finish this season was a tie for 12th at the Farmers Insurance Open, while accumulating earnings close to $300,000.
"You never know, we will see how it goes. The greens are tough, they are tough to putt on, there are some tough pins. Hopefully I can go have a beer and move up the board a little bit."
Griffin encourages kids of all ages interested in golf to take part in the BRJGT, which has created opportunities for an estimated 1,500 junior golfers over the last two decades.
"The big thing is just playing. It is not so much the big tournaments," said Griffin, whose rise to PGA success was featured in the July edition of Golf Digest. "You don't have to travel to South Carolina or California or wherever it is. If you just play tournaments, because when you play competitively and you are keeping score there is nothing like it.
"It doesn't matter if I am playing with Phil today or if I went out and played a one-day qualifier here I am going to be just as nervous. Just getting tournament reps in at a young age is priceless."
This article is written by Brian Woodson from Bluefield Daily Telegraph, W.Va. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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