PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Steve Prater can recall only one time in more than 30 years as a PGA professional that he refused payment for a golf lesson.
Lanto Griffin doesn't know where he would be without it.
He certainly would not be spending six hours Tuesday scrolling through 475 text messages of congratulations in between a dozen interviews as the Houston Open champion. He would not be looking out the window at the TPC Sawgrass and realizing he'll be part of the field next March at The Players Championship, followed by his debut a month later at Augusta National for the Masters.
It explains why Griffin, not long after he rolled in a 6-foot par putt with eerie calm to win on the PGA Tour, fought back tears when asked how he got to this point.
His family always opened one gift on Christmas Eve, and Griffin was 8 when he got a putter. The next morning, he got the rest of his starter set — a 5-iron, 7-iron, 9-iron and a 3-wood. No one in his family played golf. Until then, his only experience was whacking balls in a field with a persimmons club his father had bought from a barrel of clubs that sold for $1 each.
A mile from their home in Blacksburg, Virginia, was a nine-hole course called "The Hill" where he could spend all day for $9. And then one day, Griffin was invited to Blacksburg Country Club, where he noticed Prater, the head pro, conducting a clinic for a small group of kids.
Prater took it from there.
"I wouldn't be here without him," Griffin said. "He opened every door in golf that I ever had — teaching me for free, giving me a membership. He's had my back my entire journey."
Prater, who now works at Roanoke Country Club, remembers a young boy who asked if he could come to the clinic. He didn't know much about the family's financial situation except it was clear Griffin could use the help and that he had a passion for the game.
When Griffin's father died of a brain tumor, Prater called the house that day and offered the 12-year-old boy a free membership to Blacksburg Country Club. Prater's son is five years younger, and he and Griffin became friends.
"He stayed at my house quite a bit because he could walk to the course," Prater said. "I took him on as another son. He was sad, and I think him coming down and staying with me some and getting away from things that reminded him of his father ... he pulled from playing golf. That was his way of getting away."
Griffin says he would leave the house at 7 a.m. and stay at the course until 7 p.m.
"That's what made me fall in love with the game at a young age," Griffin said. "If Steve didn't bring me in at that real vulnerable part of my life, then there's no chance that I would be playing golf in college — or winning the Houston Open."
Griffin shot 51 for nine holes in his first junior event at the club. By the time he finished high school, he was good enough to play four years at Virginia Commonwealth and told Prater he wanted to try playing for a living.
Just like everything else in life, nothing came easily.
Griffin made $975 in his first mini-tour event, minus the $950 entry fee. He picked up experience, along with plenty of debt. He thought about quitting more than once, and he might have done that if not for Will Wilcox — whom he met at that first mini-tour event — asking Griffin to caddie for him at The Greenbrier in 2014. Wilcox tied for fourth. Griffin made $17,000, at the time his largest check in golf.
Prater, who gleaned everything he could about instruction during stints at Sailfish Point and Jupiter Island Club in Florida, kept teaching through phone calls and texts and whenever he could get out to a tournament. He also knew Griffin needed more than he could offer.
"I mostly teach juniors and members. I build golf swings," Prater said. "When he was in Latin America, he was starting to spin his wheels. He needed some confidence. He needed other opinions."
Prater hooked him up with noted instructor Todd Anderson because they have similar philosophies, and Griffin became more polished. He still leans on Prater for the short game, and they keep in touch through texts, phone calls and the occasional video.
"Todd has been a huge help for Lanto," Prater said. "It's a team now, and it works really good."
And yes, it's finally work.
"He hasn't charged me in 17 years," Griffin said. "He would never let me pay. I gave him a bonus at the end of last year, and at the beginning of this season, I put him on the payroll — 1% of everything, and I put in a $25,000 bonus for a PGA Tour victory.
"It's going to be the easiest check I write."