Justin Lower hit 960 shots over the course of the 2018 Korn Ferry Tour Finals. One fewer, any of them really, and he’d have earned his PGA TOUR card. Instead, he missed his lifelong dream by a shot – narrowly missing a 7-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship – and headed home for the fall while his good buddy, Jim Knous, headed to Napa for the TOUR’s first event with the last spot in The Finals 25.
“It was tough. I never really missed something that big by a shot, so it was tough to deal with obviously,” Lower said. “But Jimmy’s a great buddy, and I was extremely happy for him and I wanted to let him know that I was happy for him even though I was heartbroken at the time. But the thing that helped me was it wasn’t just that one shot in the four Finals events. It could have been any shot in those four events.”
At 32, Lower is back on the bubble for a PGA TOUR card this season, and his moment for redemption is now. Sitting 24th on the Korn Ferry Tour Points List, the highest he’s ever been at this point in the Regular Season, the Malone University grad is staring down his first TOUR card but needs to hold on for three more events. So he’s keeping it simple, taking it one day and one shot at a time, but all with the hope that this is it and it’s his time for the jump to the big show.
“I feel like I’m ready to go. I feel like I’ve put in my time out here,” Lower said. “That timeframe is a little different for everyone, definitely been different for me as compared to other guys, maybe a little longer than I expected, but I think I’ve proven that I can compete and I’d like to take it to the next level for sure.”
If the last five Korn Ferry Tour events are any indication, he’ll be just fine after posting four top-20s including a runner-up at the BMW Charity Pro-Am.
“It’s definitely been the most consistent I’ve been this season. Game feels good,” Lower said. “The putter’s been the biggest change from the beginning of this year until now. I feel like I’m finally making some. It was pretty frustrating at the beginning of the year, but I feel like that’s the biggest difference so far and hopefully continue to strike it well, which I feel like I’ve always done, and just go from there.”
It hasn’t always been as easy over the course of his 10-year career as he’s made it look this season. He remembers the lowest point being in 2015 when he had lost his Korn Ferry Tour status from the season prior and failed to advance out of First Stage of Q-School.
“I remember feeling pretty down in the dumps,” Lower said. “I birdied my last three at First Stage of Q-School, and I thought I was in and then someone in the last group made a birdie to knock me and a couple others out. I just remember that was really tough because I didn’t even have a chance at the next stage. I just had another year on the mini-tours. It was not anything I wanted.”
But that’s the year that sparked change. Frustrated with his 2015 season, Lower went to a new coach in 2016, Mike Emery, and he felt like he really started to gain more clubface control. He has also gained 15 to 20 yards over the last four or five years by learning to use his body and the ground more effectively.
Although the ball-striking has become a strength over the last four or five years, Lower has also had to fight through the same mental struggles that all longtime pros go through. The COVID-19 pandemic brought on mental struggles for so many around the globe, but it actually helped bring Lower out of his. Entering the pandemic-forced three-month break with four straight missed cuts, he came back to competition a different player, finishing 22nd and runner-up in his first two starts last June.
“The first two events were really validating for me. It was really big for me because I was in a pretty dark spot mentally before COVID hit, and I’d really worked on my well-being mentally through that time and it was pretty tough,” Lower said. “I remember playing the event in Mexico, which was our last event, and I didn’t want to be there. It was just a horrible feeling and it’s no fun to go through on the golf course, let alone another country. We all go through low times, but the break during COVID was huge for me.”
The rest of the 2020-21 season has provided further validation. There was the runner-up at the BMW Charity Pro-Am, where he led by three after 54 holes, a fourth at the 2020 Albertsons Boise Open and eight other top-25s since the pandemic hit. Now, the next step is obvious – the PGA TOUR – and if he can hold on and secure his first TOUR card over a decade after turning pro, the emotions on the first tee at the Safeway Open in September just might be a bit overwhelming.
“It’d be validation of a lot of hard work. I’ve been grinding a long time for it,” Lower said. “It’d be a lot of fun. I always picture what it’d be like to play as a member out there, so I want to say I’m looking forward to it but trying to not get ahead of myself at the same time. But I think it’d be a lot of fun.”