After unthinkable tragedy and years of doubt, Nate Lashley perseveres

Nate Lashley, whose parents and girlfriend died in a plane crash while he was in college, is on the brink of earning his PGA Tour card at age 34. Enrique Berardi/PGA TOUR/Getty Images

Nate Lashley doesn't speak about it often. He doesn't want to relive the tragedy or retell the story or revive the memories of having to pick up all the pieces and continue living his life. On those rare occasions when he does, though, you quickly come to appreciate his matter-of-fact approach. He doesn't sugarcoat things and doesn't offer a line just because he thinks it's the one he's supposed to say.

Ask him whether he was thinking about them -- all three of them -- when he was recently closing out his first Web.com Tour win, likely ensuring his PGA Tour card for next season, and he simply responds that he wasn't. That final hole is a tough one, he explains, and so all of his energy was focused on the task at hand.

Ask him whether he holds on to any keepsakes, and he similarly shakes his head. There are no photos of them lurking in his golf bag, no other tangible reminders alongside him on the golf course. Besides, he says, he's really not superstitious.

Ask him whether the day you're speaking of holds special meaning, whether he thinks a little more about them on this morning of May 23, the 13th anniversary of when it happened, and he literally has to check the date to make sure that's right. He has been so busy lately, he admits, that the day totally caught him by surprise.

Even when you ask him about that line in his bio, the prescient one among factual data such as height, weight, hometown and college, which lists his personal motto, he says it's less a mantra than just something he wrote down years ago that somehow has stuck to his profile.

Live life as if it were your last day.

"I don't know that I could say I live by that," he says. "I think it's a great quote, but I don't know. I'm the person who a lot of people would say doesn't get too caught up with the little things anymore. Little stuff doesn't bother me; I can brush off anything."

Like with everything else, he speaks these words in a measured tone. He isn't saying them just because they're the right things to say. He means them.

After all, when you're a college junior and your parents and girlfriend travel to watch you compete and then die in a plane crash returning home, even all these years later it's hard to sound anything but completely genuine all the time.

HE WAS AROUND 7 or 8 years old when he first was bitten by the golf bug. There wasn't a golf course in their little town of Mitchell, near the western border of Nebraska, so young Nate would hop in the car with his father, Rod, and play a few holes over in nearby Morrill.

A car dealer who had gotten into the wholesaling business, Rod Lashley had some clout in their town. Within a few years, he was influential in helping build a nine-hole track called Scenic Knolls Golf Course. This is where Nate would spend most of the summer during his formative years. Sure, he'd play sometimes with his dad, who hadn't taken up the game until his late 20s but still could shoot under par. Or his mom, Char, who hardly ever missed a fairway. But more often than not, they'd drop him off just after sunrise and pick him up before sundown, leaving him to hone his game for hours on end.

Nate inherited their natural athletic ability. Rod played basketball for Kearney State, and Char played volleyball there. At Mitchell High School, Nate would become a three-time all-state selection in basketball, averaging 23.5 points per game his senior season. Even so, he always knew his journey would focus on golf.

Rod often did business in Phoenix, and he'd sometimes bring his son along.

"I'd help him out with cars; there was always stuff to do," Nate says. "I'd play some golf, too."

Nate enjoyed the area, liked the idea of being able to play golf year-round. And so when he started getting recruited by colleges, the idea of competing for the University of Arizona in Tucson, just a couple of hours from Phoenix, seemed like a natural fit.

Right from the beginning of his freshman year in 2001, Nate was playing in tournaments -- no small feat. The Wildcats already boasted a lineup that included Ricky Barnes, who would win the 2002 U.S. Amateur Championship, and Chris Nallen, who would become a four-time All-America honoree.

"I played OK at times and not-so-good at times," Nate says with his usual humility.

With business flourishing in Phoenix, Rod and Char bought a little house there during Nate's sophomore year. It allowed him to visit them more frequently than in Nebraska, and, more important, it allowed them to come watch him play on a more regular basis.

Sometimes they would drive, but Rod had gotten his pilot's license a few years earlier and now owned a single-engine Cessna plane, which offered them even more mobility.

Toward the end of Nate's junior year, he and the nationally ranked Arizona team were preparing to compete in the NCAA West Regional at Crosswater Club in Sunriver, Oregon. Rod and Char decided to make the trip to watch the third-seeded Wildcats, and Nate invited Leslie Hofmeister, whom he'd been dating for the past year, to join them.

"She was great," he says. "She was the nicest person ever."

With Rod piloting the Cessna, the three of them flew to Sunriver and watched a virtuoso performance. In winds gusting more than 30 mph, Nate posted a 2-under score on the final nine holes, punctuated by a lengthy birdie putt on the last. Some say it was at least a 40-footer; Nate -- there's that humility again -- contends it wasn't much more than 25. Either way, he helped Arizona easily advance to the NCAA championship tournament.

When he was done, he found his parents and girlfriend. He didn't have much time before the team had to leave, so they quickly exchanged the usual pleasantries.

He thanked them for coming.

They congratulated him.

Everybody hugged.

Then they parted ways.

BY THE NEXT MORNING, Nate still hadn't heard from his parents or Leslie, which was unusual. He called them, but there was no answer. Now back at school, he sought his coach, Rick LaRose, who started making some calls of his own.

What happened next, according to Nate, is a blur.

Somebody, he thinks, contacted the FAA. They tracked the plane, figured out its flight path. Rod, Char and Leslie were flying back to Nebraska but hit a rough patch of weather over Wyoming.

Nate and his older sister, Brooke, immediately headed there. They holed up in the small town of Lander. Leslie's family joined them. So did various aunts, uncles and cousins.

For three days, they waited, praying for the best but dreading the worst.

"With each passing day, it was becoming less and less likely," Brooke says. "But we didn't know the outcome until it was confirmed."

On the third day, about a mile from 13,780-foot Gannett Peak, rescue workers found debris from a single-engine Cessna crash.

They also found all three bodies.

"It was just shock," Nate says. "Shock and disbelief. It was a really tough time, especially that week with the funerals and the memorial service. I was just kind of out of it."

TIME PASSED. Nate spent the summer playing golf because, well, what else was he going to do? He returned to Arizona for his senior year for the same reason.

He also knew that's what his parents would have wanted.

The game provided a sanctuary, a few hours each day when he wouldn't have to think about everything.

"Golf was a release, something to get away from it all," he says. "When you're on the course, your focus is on golf. It took away some of the pain from thinking about my parents and my girlfriend and the crash."

The crash still loomed in the forefront of his off-course thoughts, but it didn't derail his impending career. Not immediately, at least.

He led the Wildcats back to the NCAA championship tournament during his senior season, earning All-America honors in the process. Upon turning professional, Nate was one of more than 1,100 entrants for PGA Tour Q-school. He advanced through each of the first two stages, reaching the final qualifier and eventually earning partial status on the PGA Tour's developmental circuit, then called the Nationwide Tour and now the Web.com Tour.

In 14 events during the 2006 campaign, he made the cut just twice, earning a grand total of $4,394.

"I just wasn't in a position," he admits now, "to be playing golf."

His next step was the same one that so many young professional golfers take every single year. He practiced a lot. He played mini-tour events. He tried, unsuccessfully, to again advance through Q-school. He also got his real estate license. Like so many of those other young golfers, he had a backup plan that he never wanted to use.

For years, he kept bouncing around. Two steps forward and one step back, as the saying goes. He'd start playing well, then suffer an injury. He'd feel comfortable with his swing, then begin working with an instructor who'd overhaul it.

More than anything, though, he was still trying to overcome that barrier.

"I always thought I was good enough, but mentally I was holding myself back," he says. "Especially for the first few years after the crash, it just always felt like something bad was going to happen. It took a long time to get over that."

In 2012, nearing his 30th birthday and failing to see a light at the end of the tunnel, he quit the game.

"I always thought I was good enough, but mentally I was holding myself back. Especially for the first few years after the crash, it just always felt like something bad was going to happen. It took a long time to get over that." Nate Lashley

For six months, Nate used that real estate license to work a real job. He flipped a few houses and earned a few commission checks, but he wasn't satisfied with his decision.

"I realized that golf was a lot easier than a regular job," he deadpans.

So, he started playing again. And within a few years, he started playing well. Mini-tour success led to him competing on PGA Tour Latinoamerica last year. He won his first two starts, finished the season atop the money list and earned an exemption onto the Web.com circuit for this year.

It's amazing how swiftly a gradual journey can eventually move. In his first start this year, Nate finished in a share of fifth place. Two starts later, he was 21st. Two starts after that, 25th. Then 25th again and eighth before a life-changing event, 13 years after the crash.

With scores of 70-65-67-66 at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship in the Dominican Republic, he won on the Web.com Tour, all but clinching a spot on the PGA Tour next season for the first time at age 34. The top 25 players on the final Web.com money list earn PGA Tour cards, and the win vaulted Lashley from No. 24 to No. 2 and gave him more earnings than last year's 25th qualifier.

"It's not really a surprise," he says of the victory. "I feel like I was improving on a lot of areas of my game; I just needed a little bit more consistency. I think it's just a matter of more and more confidence."

He might downplay the impending promotion, but others who have witnessed the journey are justifiably impressed at everything he has overcome.

"He's been able to keep his head above water and keep going," Brooke says. "Now it's paid off. It's just awesome. I'm super proud of him."

"There were down days, but there were never days when he threw a pity party," says Stephen Kim, his longtime manager. "There was always a strength and resolve with Nate. This is a big part of his life, but his story doesn't end here. There's a happy ending, and it's starting here."

"This just goes to show how much heart and determination and grit he has," says Nallen, his former college teammate and now an assistant coach at Arizona. "It's an unbelievable story. It just goes to show his willingness to compete and work his butt off to get to this next level."

NATE LASHLEY ISN'T a very emotional guy. He doesn't become excessively excited when speaking about teeing it up among the world's best golfers next season, just as he doesn't become excessively despondent when talking about the plane crash that took the lives of his parents and girlfriend.

At least, not outwardly.

Inside, there existed inner conflict for years. Dealing with the deaths of your parents and the death of your college sweetheart are two separate and unequal responses, but he was forced to deal with both in the same moments.

He explains that he felt guilty about Leslie's death, more than the deaths of his parents, because he'd invited her to join them. He's careful not to disparage his current girlfriend but admits of Leslie, "I haven't really found anyone to compare."

Even reliving these memories, he remains an emotional rock.

During a lengthy interview for this story, Nate tears up just once.

It's when he tries to find the right words to answer this question: What would your parents think about your current success?

He wipes his eyes. He thinks about it for a few moments and then finally offers a response.

"They would just be proud. They would be enthused. They would say great job. If it wasn't for my mom and dad taking me to play tournaments when I was younger, I wouldn't be the golfer that I am today."