If you are looking for a new player to root for as the PGA Tour season picks up again next week in the wine country of Northern California, Justin Lower deserves to be at the top of the list.
The 32-year-old Ohioan has trudged through tragedy and 11 nomadic years of professional golf playing in front of sparse crowds. But last week at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship when he clipped a 30-yard pitch shot to perfection on the final hole – setting up a tap-in par that secured the 25th and final PGA Tour card available at Victoria National – Lower walked down the stairs of the clubhouse into a beer shower celebration some fellow players had waiting for him.
That was the first time Lower knew of his fate. He didn’t look at a leaderboard all week. Despite admitting that he tends to be on his phone longer than he should, Lower didn’t open any apps that could have given away where he stood. He even signed his scorecard without knowing if he had made it.
“Literally I was just trying to grind it out,” Lower said in the aftermath of a back-nine 33 that clinched his ticket to the big leagues, tears welling up in his eyes as he spoke. “This tour is great, the Korn Ferry Tour is amazing, but obviously you want to go to the PGA Tour. That is everyone’s dream, and I guess mine is coming true next week.”
Along the path to this point, Lower had several moments where a decision not to pursue professional golf would have been a completely reasonable one. The fact he overcame all that he did just to reach this juncture makes Lower one of the stories of the year in golf.
Growing up in Canal Fulton, Ohio, near Akron in the northeast section of the Buckeye State, Lower lost his father, Tim, and 10-year-old brother, Chris, in a single-car crash. Lower, 15 at the time, was dropped off by the two at Lyons Den Golf Club on the morning of March 26, 2005. They never came back to pick him up. Tim, who worked as a grave digger, had been driving more than 80 mph in a 55 mph zone, his blood-alcohol level at .23, nearly three times the legal limit. Both Tim and Chris were not wearing a seatbelt. Their car veered off course, striking a utility pole and killing them both.
Last Sunday when Lower was being interviewed, he was asked to look at his new tour card and describe what he felt.
“I see my dad and my brother,” Lower said.
Their presence in Lower’s journey has been a meaningful one. After the accident, he coped with the pain by spending more hours on the course. His grades suffered and, although he was talented enough to play Division I college golf, he couldn’t get a scholarship because of his academic shortcomings. Lower instead decided to attend Malone University in nearby Canton. The program turned out to be a great fit for him as he earned NAIA player-of-the-year honors his junior season after winning six times.
The ability was there, although it should be noted that reaching the PGA Tour after attending an NAIA school is a nearly unheard-of accomplishment. Tyrone Van Aswegan has made 154 PGA Tour starts and 156 Korn Ferry Tour starts after playing at Oklahoma City University. Jim Renner played at Johnson & Wales and then made 76 PGA Tour starts.
Still, it’s an incredibly rare feat given the depth of talent in the game. When Lower turned pro in 2011, he felt like he could play with anybody. That confidence was tested.
He started out on the NGA Pro Golf Tour, now called the SwingThought Tour. Although he gained conditional status in 2013 on the Web.com Tour, now the Korn Ferry Tour, Lower struggled to get enough starts to make a dent. He only made 29 starts from 2014 through the 2017 season, earning less than $50,000 total. He scrounged around at Monday qualifiers and random mini-tour events, attempting to make ends meet.
Even being a full-time player on the Korn Ferry Tour is difficult financially and emotionally. When you have next to no status, the clock is ticking and every year could realistically be your last. Six years into his pro golf journey, Lower had little to show for it.
And then came Korn Ferry Tour Q-School in 2017. It was Lower’s sixth trip to Q-School, just desperate to earn some meaningful status on the Korn Ferry Tour. One time he came to the last hole needing only a bogey to advance to the final stage. He made a double. One time he birdied his last three, thinking he had made the final stage. He was one stroke short. Two other times, he reached the final stage but played poorly.
This time it was different. Needing a birdie on the last hole to clinch full-time status on the Korn Ferry Tour, Lower came up with two clutch shots and converted his birdie putt. Less than a year later, he had compiled seven top-25 finishes and reached the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where an avenue to the PGA Tour was available.
“It took me a while to realize that watching the triumphant one is a lot more healthy for someone than watching the one where you fail. I knew I could do it when I needed to.” – Justin Lower
Suddenly, he was a 7-foot birdie putt away from making it happen. If it went in, he made the PGA Tour. If it didn’t, he was still on the Korn Ferry Tour. A professional golfer makes a 7-footer a little over 50 percent of the time. It was a coin flip, really.
He hit a good putt, but it burned the edge.
Shortly after, Lower asked a Korn Ferry Tour staffer for a video clip of the missed putt. He also asked for a clip of his birdie in Q-School a year earlier. He watched both on repeat several hundred times.
In time, he learned that watching the birdie was more beneficial to his mental state. Having been someone who struggles with negative thoughts, Lower went to a therapist to get help.
“It took me a while to realize that watching the triumphant one is a lot more healthy for someone than watching the one where you fail,” Lower said. “I knew I could do it when I needed to.”
Lower played well enough in 2019 to maintain full status on the Korn Ferry Tour, but a painful finish in the Louisiana Open held him back from having a better chance to advance to the PGA Tour. He held a two-stroke lead through 54 holes and was 18-under for the tournament, but he struggled to a final-round 70, making two bogeys and no birdies over his last six holes. He then lost in a three-hole playoff to Vince Covello.
That one stung. Lower would have to keep fighting to get back to another moment where he had a shot at his ultimate goal.
There are two chances for Korn Ferry Tour players to earn PGA Tour status. The first is if you rank in the top 25 of the points list for the regular season. The closest Lower ever came to doing that was this past season when he finished 30th.
The other path is to finish in the top 25 of the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, a three-tournament swing where points are earned each week. To be eligible to compete in the finals, you need to finish the regular season in the top 75 on the Korn Ferry Tour. However, it’s not just places 26-75 who gain access to the three tournaments. The top 25 who already have their PGA Tour card can play, and so can PGA Tour players who finished from 126th to 200th in the FedEx Cup standings. Also, non-members who finished with enough points to where they would have fallen into that 126-200 zone are also exempt. Players like Viktor Hovland and Bryson DeChambeau have used the route to earn PGA Tour status, and there is always a list of experienced names who gain access back to the PGA Tour through this route. This year it included the likes of Patrick Rodgers, Kelly Kraft, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Trey Mullinax, Peter Uihlein, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, J.J. Spaun and Austin Cook.
Korn Ferry Tour players have their hands full.
Lower didn’t come close to advancing out of finals in 2019 and the Korn Ferry Tour did not award any cards a year ago due to the pandemic. It resulted in a super season that included results from both 2020 and 2021. In that super season, Lower had runner-up finishes at The King & Bear Classic at World Golf Village and the BMW Charity Pro-Am. A win would have gotten him into the top 25 for the regular season, but he had to sweat it out in finals once again.
In the first event of finals, the Albertsons Boise Open, Lower opened with a 2-over 73 and appeared almost certain to miss the cut. With five holes remaining in his second round, he was three strokes back of the cut line.
“Taylor Montgomery, if you’re listening, I’ve been in your spot before and I know it’s not any fun but, oh man, you’re a heckuva player and just keep grinding. Good things will happen.” – Justin Lower
Lower closed with five consecutive birdies. The next day he shot 65. Missing the cut in any of the three finals events is essentially a death sentence because of how the points are accumulated, so those closing birdies in the second round were crucial.
“Without that, I wouldn’t be standing here with you right now,” he said after finals were over.
Lower tied for 32nd in the Boise Open and then tied for 45th in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship, leaving him in 40th place on the points standings for the finals and needing a good week to finish in the top 25. After opening the Korn Ferry Tour Championship with a pair of 70s, followed by a third-round 68, Lower was looking at a top-10 result and a PGA Tour card.
And then, disappointingly, he appeared to play himself out of contention when he opened the last round with a 2-over 38 on the front. On arguably the most difficult course the Korn Ferry Tour plays all year, he needed something special coming home.
Birdies on Nos. 10, 12 and 15 turned the tide. On the treacherous 18th, he pulled his tee shot way left of the fairway so he could avoid the water down the right side, chopped it out just short of the green and saved his par. Taylor Montgomery, who started the week ranked 14th, shot 70-85 to miss the cut and fell to the 26th spot. The margin between the two was just five points. One stroke either way could have flipped it.
“Taylor Montgomery, if you’re listening, I’ve been in your spot before and I know it’s not any fun but, oh man, you’re a heckuva player and just keep grinding,” a visibly shaken Lower said. “Good things will happen.”
As if Lower’s road to the PGA Tour wasn’t difficult enough, he now faces another uphill battle. Although he has his card, he is at the bottom of the pack for priority getting into tournaments.
Every PGA Tour event is filled based on status. First dibs go to categories like players who have exemptions from winning in recent seasons and those who finished within the top 125 on the FedEx Cup standings last season. Then the 50 Korn Ferry Tour players who made it are ranked Nos. 1-50 starting with those who made it in via the regular season.
Lower’s number is 50. He will get some starts in the weaker events this fall, but nothing is guaranteed. Luckily, if he does play well, that priority number will change. There is something called a reshuffle every handful of events. After the RSM Classic in November, those 50 Korn Ferry Tour graduates will be rearranged based on how well they have played on the PGA Tour this fall.
If he doesn’t play well in the opportunities he has, much of his year will be spent on the Korn Ferry Tour or attempting Monday qualifiers.
It’s another grind, but that has been Lower’s experience for most of his life.
“No words really,” he said. “It means everything, and I don’t think this is it. I don’t think my journey is over at all. I think it’s just getting started.”
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