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Former VCU standout Lanto Griffin heads into golf's FedEx Cup playoffs with upgraded career goals

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It’s interesting, Lanto Griffin said, how your perspective changes when you finally obtain goals that for so long seemed so unobtainable.

The former VCU standout from Blacksburg struggled for years on pro golf’s lower-tier circuits to make ends meet. In the past 11 months, he’s gotten a foothold on the PGA Tour with a season of firsts — including his first win — spurring him to reset his goals, his image of himself as a golfer and what he can accomplish.

Thoughts of giving up his pro career — “20 or 30 times,” he said — have given way to expecting to be near the lead, as he was two weeks ago at the PGA Championship. In his second career major, Griffin was four shots off the lead after 36 holes. He finished tied for 19th at 5-under, eight shots behind winner Collin Morikawa.

He knows now he can compete in majors, especially since he didn’t putt all that well (one of his strengths) and because he’s not quite over a muscle he tore in his lower back just before the Tour restarted in June after being shut down by the pandemic.

“The way I think of myself as a golfer and what I can accomplish now is just 180 compared to what it was a year ago,” Griffin said on Tuesday. “I feel really comfortable in uncomfortable situations. In the past, anything in the top 30 I’d be happy with. Now when I’m in the top 30 or top 20, I want to be in the top 10. When I’m in the top 10, I want to win.

“This year has been big for me in a lot of ways, but especially with the self-image … as a golfer. We are playing against the best players in the world. It’s been fun. It’s been a dream year.”

Griffin, 32, broke through with a win in the Houston Open in October. He has three top 10 finishes and has finished in the top 25 in half of his 24 events, has spots in the U.S. Open in September and the Masters in November and probably all four majors next season, and goes into this week’s FedEx Cup playoffs 12th in points.

He has earned almost $3 million this season going into the lucrative playoffs, which begin Thursday with the top 125 golfers at the Northern Trust in Boston. The top 70 move on to the BMW Championship next week outside Chicago, and the top 30 make it to the Tour Championship Sept. 4-7 in Atlanta.

The financial security is welcome, especially since he had more than $30,000 in credit card debt at one point. If he’s eating dinner, he doesn’t have to worry about ordering an appetizer. And he has been able to take care of his mom.

Happiness to him, though, comes from achievement.

“Winning in Houston really gave me that self-belief that all right, I can do this now,” said Griffin. “I’ve always been one of those guys that it took me a little longer to get where I wanted to go, but I always figured it out.”

Griffin was 12 when his father died, and he’s grateful that a lot of people stepped into his life to help him and fund his golf career. After graduating from VCU in 2010, Griffin toiled on smaller tours, including in South America and on the Korn Ferry Tour, the PGA’s developmental circuit. He earned his PGA Tour card in 2017, lost it in 2018 and regained it last year after winning a tournament on the Korn Ferry Tour and finishing sixth in points in the regular season.

There have been several turning points along the way, but Griffin points out two: getting the “chippy yips” around the green under control in South America and caddying for Will Wilcox at the Greenbrier Classic in 2014.

“My short game around the green is one of my strengths now, which is pretty incredible looking back four years ago,” Griffin said. “If I’d miss a green by two yards, I was nervous and worried about even hitting the green, much less chipping it in or getting it close. If I had figured that out three or four years earlier, I probably would have made it sooner.”

Wilcox was a good friend who asked Griffin to caddie for him at the Greenbrier. Wilcox finished fourth and stroked a $17,000 check to Griffin.

“I think I had 176 bucks in my bank account,” Griffin said. “Back then, $17,000 was life changing because it gave me an opportunity to keep playing and keep chasing my dream. I’m extremely grateful to Will for playing well that week. I didn’t do a whole lot on the bag. I was a friend and hopefully helped him a little bit, but I definitely didn’t do enough to earn that big of a paycheck.

“It’s kind of ironic that one of the biggest turning points of my career was actually caddying. I had never made a check over $10,000 at the time in my four years of playing mini tours, and I made $17,000 carrying a golf bag and not hitting a shot. I look back on that day a lot.”

Griffin is in a position to give back these days. He established a charitable trust that he said has raised more than $225,000. He has a fundraising event scheduled next year at Ballyhack Golf Club and hopes to do something similar in Richmond in the future. He’s grateful for the community here and his time at VCU, where he said he learned to be a man.

“It’s exhausting to have to rely on other people to open their wallets for you,” he said. “As much as they believe in you and as much as they say, ‘Don’t worry about it. I want to help,’ at the end of the day it’s really hard to be a beggar.

“I want to help the next generation of kids that are in similar situations because I can remember how desperate of a feeling I was in. Hopefully, I can be the guy to help those kids coming.”

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