Janise and Justin Lower are expecting. The due date for their first child is Christmas Eve. It will be a much bigger moment than Justin’s arrival as a hot PGA Tour prospect, but for the record, the date for that arrival is now.
At his previous Tour outing, in Napa, California, he opened with a career-best 63. He led an eight-man logjam after three rounds, and, in the end, tied for fourth place.
Sure, he would like to have won the Fortinet Championship, as opposed to finishing four shots behind five-time Tour winner Max Homa, who earned $1,440,000 with the win. Second place, paying $872,000, would have been nice, but 2016 Masters champ Danny Willett took that spot.
Third place would have been his had Taylor Montgomery not shot the round of his life, 64, on the final day.
Still, Lower made Stark County history. No one from the county ever finished so high in a PGA Tour event, unless you count Tom Weiskopf, who was born in Massillon but moved to Bedford before he was in grade school.
Weiskopf won the 1973 British Open and was runner-up in four Masters. Fun fact: Weiskopf’s total money from those five Majors was $95,000; Lower’s payday for his fourth place was $360,000.
“If you count Weiskopf, I would say Justin is No. 2 on the list of the best golfers to come out of Stark County,” Mike Emery said. “Other than that, there hasn’t been anything close to what Justin has done, and you would need to get into a discussion of the county’s accomplished women.”
Emery, who launched his long golf career at Canton Central Catholic High School, has been Lower’s swing coach the last five years.
“Justin is getting better by leaps and bounds,” Emery said. “His practice ethics are awesome, and it’s really paying off.”
Ken Hyland, Malone’s 76-year-old golf coach, weighed in on the best-in-county-history question by excluding Weiskopf and saying, “I’ve seen ’em all, and probably played with most of them. I would say, it’s early, but, yeah, Justin is.”
Lower, 33, has been around, having turned pro in 2011. Turning pro is nowhere close to the same thing as earning a PGA Tour card, which is the ticket to entering Tour events.
It took him 10 years and a marathon grind on the Korn Ferry Tour to get his hands on that elusive PGA Tour card.Next came the pressure of keeping the card for more than the 2021-22 season.
In April of 2022, in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Lower tied for 10th place. In July, he posted the best score for the final 36 holes of the Barbasol Classic in Kentucky and finished eighth overall.
He made 15 of 24 cuts and won $700,545. It wasn’t enough.
In late August, he three-putted on the final hole of the last event of the 2021-22 season, the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C.
Long story short: He would have kept his card had he two-putted. Tearful and exasperated on camera after three-putting, he stammered out the words, “This really sucks.”
The reprieve came when enough Tour qualifiers defected to LIV Golf to restore a card to Lower’s wallet. He responded with the best finish of his life in the first event of the 2022-23 season.
PGA vs. LIV is a complicated story. This is not: Golf is as deep in talent as it has ever been. The PGA Tour remains linked with the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. To many thousands of scratch golfers, a PGA Tour card is a wildest dream.
More on Justin Lower:Nicklaus Award winner Justin Lower grinding to fulfill dream of playing on PGA Tour
Lower is thankful for his.
“I still haven’t done a lot in this game,” he said. “There’s still a lot I want to do and need to do.
“I’ve never even played in a Major. There’s guys my age who have played in 20-plus already.
“I used to compare myself to a lot of people from Stark County, but I’ve kind of broadened that now. I want to be one of the best in the world if I can.”
Lower sill lives fairly close to where he grew up. He and Janise have a Uniontown mailing address near Prestwick Country Club. He trains at Prestwick.
“The whole neighborhood watches him on TV,” Prestwick pro John Moldovan said on a Tuesday. “He started off the new season awesome, then he was right back here working on his game. Today he was on the range for a good long while and he was also on the putting green.
“He’s worked his way up the ladder and now he’s in the biggest show there is. We love having him out here.”
On a worldwide scale, being in the the discussion of “best golfer in Stark County history” doesn’t much move the needle.
He intends to add substantially to the story. It is quite a story already, one Andy Lyons of Lyons Den Golf Course knows well.
“He was maybe 8 years old the first time I saw him,” Lyons said. “I was working on No. 9, changing a cup, and I saw him on the No. 1 tee with his dad and his uncle.
“I saw him take a swing and I was amazed. ‘What on earth was THAT?'”
“That” was a heavenly natural swing.
“I talked to his dad and said the door is always open,” Lyons said. “His dad said he was playing baseball and playing some golf at Chippewa. He started coming out, and we put him in a program.”
The Lower family lived in a Firestone Park neighborhood in Akron at the time and moved to Canal Fulton as he progressed through school.
Lyons Den is Lower’s field of dreams.
“I love that place,” he said. “I’ve played more rounds there than anywhere else. Andy gave me an opportunity, as well as some other kids, to work for golf. The work basically was just cleaning up the driving range.
“There were some days in the summer when we sneaked in 54 holes. I remember being 13 and actually playing 63 holes with my friend Richie Schembechler.”
Schembechler lives in Memphis, Tennessee now. Lower planned to visit his old pal on the way to this week’s Tour stop in Mississippi.
“Justin has a better memory than I do if we played 63 holes,” Schembechler said. “One thing I remember clearly is our putting contests on the Lyons Den practice green.
“We would pretend our putts were to win a championship in one of the Majors. We would see who could win the most Majors in a day.”
By high school, Lower had spent countless days at Lyons Den. He did the Den proud as a Northwest sophomore in the autumn of 2004, when he qualified for the OHSAA Division II state tournament at Ohio State’s famed Scarlet Course. Joe Frustaci, a Canton Central Catholic senior, finished second with a two-day total of 150. Lower placed 19th at 164.
Several months later, on March 26, 2005, his dad dropped him off at Lyons Den at about 10:30 a.m. It was the Saturday before Easter,
They agreed Tim would return to pick him up at 5:30 or 6. The day passed. Those times came and went. Justin and Andy Lyons were the only two people left on the course when Justin’s mom, Debbie, picked him up, worried but hoping there had been a miscommunication.
Tim, 46, spent most of the day with another son, 10-year-old Chris, in Marshallville.
Tim worked for the village of Marshallville and had a side job with an excavation company, which included, that day, operating a machine to dig a grave at a cemetery not far from Marshallville American Legion Post 718.
Tim was a commander of the Sons of the American Legion and was a familiar face at Post 718. He and Chris spent some of the day there. Tim did some drinking.
Tim and Chris were on their way from Post 718 to Lyons Den when their Ford station wagon lost control on Fulton Road, went airborne, and hit a utility pole.
The crash took both of their lives. Tim’s blood-alcohol level was past the legal limit, compounding the psychology of the tragedy.
The obituary said of Tim, “He was very kind to everyone he met and was well loved by everyone.”
Justin lost focus for a while. A year and a half later, as a Northwest senior, he won a 2006 OHSAA state championship. Seventeen years later, he carries two ball markers that say “Dad, Chris, 3-26-05.”
Andy Lyons is moved by Justin’s resilience.
“He’s a true Phoenix,” Lyons said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen it from the accident and all the way to now. It’s just his story. Something deep within him.”
Lyons says it was “God’s plan” that Lower wound up at Malone, rather than in a major-college golf program.
“Ken Hyland is a beautiful man,” said Lyons, who was Malone’s top player for a stretch of the 1990s. “He certainly was the guy Justin needed to be under.”
Hyland held off on recruiting Lower.
“I knew he wanted to go D-I,” Hyland said. “Justin finally came in with Andy. We had a long talk.
“One D-I coach told him, ‘You won’t make it through one semester.’ Another told him, ‘You’re not good enough to play D-I.
“The coach who told him he wasn’t good enough for D-I … we played in their tournament. Justin won. Our team won. We played in the tournament the next year and won it again.
“The third year, we weren’t invited back.”
Lower won an NAIA national championship in 2010 and turned pro in 2011. Hyland gets emotional when he converses about Justin growing up.
“I really believe this is just the start of the story with him,” Hyland said. “We don’t know how it’s going to finish, but I think God still has plans for him.
“He has willpower, concentration, determination. He is the most positive person I’ve ever coached. I tell him, ‘Good luck today, play well,’ and he tells me, ‘I will.’
“It’s exciting to see how he’s matured and what he’s done. I look at him as a sophomore on the PGA Tour. I know personally what’s going to happen when he’s a senior. I think he’s going to be a dominant factor.”
Whatever is next, Schembechler says Justin will be his best friend. Years after spending sunup to sundown at Lyons Den, they were Malone teammates.
“Maybe it’s in his head that he would have liked to play D-I, but I doubt it could have worked out any better for him than going to Malone,” Schembechler said. “The year he won the national title the tournament was at TPC Deere Run. It was rainy and crazy windy. He shot a 70, which was the lowest round of the tournament by four shots.
“It came down to the last hole. We were all watching from a hill. He had a really tough chip.
“I was like … he’s going to chip it in. He chipped it in. Everybody laughed.”
Before shifting careers from golf to financial planning, Schembechler played in the 2016 U.S. Open. One of Lower’s immediate goals is to play in his first Major.
“That would be a pretty low bar for him, just trying to play in a major,” Schembechler said. “The first one he plays in will be very exciting, but I think it will be the first of many.”