Emotional ride has led Justin Lower to brink of first PGA Tour title in Napa
Just over a month ago, Justin Lower was an emotional mess. He had fought hard in his last-gasp attempt to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs, but suddenly he found himself fighting back tears, his three-putt bogey on the final hole of the PGA Tour’s regular-season finale in Greensboro, North Carolina, leaving him No. 127 in points, two spots shy of a postseason ticket.
More consequential, of course, Lower’s final positioning had cost him his full Tour membership, relegating the 33-year-old rookie to conditional status for the following season.
“It just flat-out sucks,” Lower said as he fielded questions inside the flash area at Sedgefield Country Club.
Soon he’d be on a flight to Boise, Idaho, for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals opener – or so he thought.
Lower was among a handful of players who were given new life a few weeks later. On Sept. 2, after Cameron Smith and five more recent LIV Golf defectors hit their first tee shots for the Saudi-backed league outside of Boston – and activated their Tour suspensions – Lower and five others were notified that they had been bumped inside the top 125 in FedExCup points and thus earned fully exempt status for another season.
“I’m very grateful to be here and very grateful to be in the position I am,” Lower said earlier this week at the Fortinet Championship, the Tour’s 2022-23 lid-lifter. “Obviously with Wyndham and everything, it sucked honestly, like I said, but it turned out for the better.”
He’s wasted no time taking advantage of his second chance.
Lower, who jumpstarted his tournament with a 9-under 63 on Thursday, will sleep on the solo 54-hole lead Saturday night following his third-round 69 at Silverado Resort in Napa, California, where he holds a one-shot edge over defending champion Max Homa and Danny Willett, another of those six players who kept their cards after the most recent LIV bans.
It’s Lower’s first time entering Sunday on Tour with the lead.
In fact, his best position after three rounds prior to this week was T-6 at the Bermuda Championship.
“I’m sure I’ll be nervous, for sure, but just part of it,” Lower said Saturday upon finishing. “I mean, it’s why we play … playing on the PGA Tour with a chance to win, it’s pretty cool.”
Especially for Lower, whose path to this point is unlike any other.
As a 15-year-old, Lower experienced unthinkable tragedy. His father, Tim, and 10-year-old brother, Chris, were killed in a car accident in which Tim had fallen asleep at the wheel while driving drunk and speeding.
Lower went on to play college golf at Malone University, a private Christian school in Canton, Ohio, and won an NAIA national championship.
He turned pro in 2011 and three years later earned his way onto the Korn Ferry Tour, where he spent six of the next seven years. He nearly graduated to the PGA Tour in 2018, but similar to this year’s Wyndham, he missed an 8-foot putt on his final hole of the Web.com Tour Championship and stayed put for two more seasons.
After earning his first Tour card via the KFT’s super-season in 2020-21, Lower managed only a pair of top-10s in 24 starts.
The next chapter will finish being written on Sunday.
Lower is scheduled to tee off in the final threesome alongside Homa and Willett at 10:12 a.m. local time (1:12 p.m. ET), a poor weather forecast pushing tee times up several hours. He planned to grab some dinner (he was starving!), maybe check out the OneRepublic concert later. But with the early start, he’d also be calling it an early night.
“Get to go right away, I guess,” Lower said. “I mean, I would honestly like it the traditional way, just twos and late and everything, but it’s whatever.
“At least it’s not 54 holes.”
If it were, Lower would already be a first-time Tour winner. But it’s not, and that’s fine by Lower. Through tragedy, close-calls and tears, this is the moment he’s been waiting for.
And should this emotional ride continue Sunday with that maiden Tour title? Well, it wouldn’t suck.