Late dad on mind, U.S. Open first-timer Justin Lower has Sunday to remember

June 16, 2024

PINEHURST, N.C. – Justin Lower is defined more by triumph than tragedy, but Father’s Day brings the void into the conscious mind. His life’s emotional extremes intersected at this week’s U.S. Open – he’d wish for nothing more than his late dad and brother to be here, but he’s here with his wife and daughter, and he fulfilled a dream of playing a Sunday in a major.

Lower, 35, has seen emotional extremes in his golf career as well; he once missed a TOUR card by a shot before getting his card with zero shots to spare. It’s heavy stuff but the Ohioan sees the big picture, living in the moment but allowing past experiences to fuel him. Those traits led him to fulfill a dream Sunday at the U.S. Open, where he carded a final-round 70 at Pinehurst No. 2 in his first career major start, a meaningful effort after grinding to make the cut on the number (5-over) and a bounce-back from a third-round 74. He won’t contend for the title, but the leaderboard is back-of-mind. No, this week was about validation and pride.

Lower does, though, wish his dad and brother were still here. Fathers and sons are at the core of golf, and of the U.S. Open, its final round occurring on Father’s Day. Lower’s dad Tim and brother Chris died in a 2005 car crash, when Lower was 15 years old, striving to play professional golf but knowing it was far from a sure thing. He worked tirelessly to find extra edges and improve bit by bit, playing collegiately at Malone University (winning 2010 NAIA Player of the Year) and spending a decade across mini-tours and the Korn Ferry Tour before dramatically earning his first TOUR card in 2021. He made it, and now he made it here.

“It’s been cool,” Lower said afterward. “Today was obviously cool, just being Father’s Day … With my past and with my life now, being a dad, it’s just really cool to play on this day for sure.

“I think (my dad) would have been happy the way I handled myself this week. I usually get pretty fired up throughout the week if I make mistakes and whatnot, but I told myself this week, it’s obviously going to be hard … just accept it and move on. I wish I could be like that every week; I think I’d be in a lot better shape. I think (my dad) would be happy, for sure.”

Lower wore a bracelet Sunday inscribed with his daughter’s name, Ariana Lynn. She’s 18 months old now, and Lower’s motivations at this stage of life are multiple – being a good husband to wife Janise, a good dad and a good professional golfer. He wants to fulfill his career dreams but not at the expense of those around him, a delicate balance that he keeps top-of-mind through the game’s inevitable ups and downs.

Lower has often spoken of golf’s fine line, which he epitomized in his path to the PGA TOUR – missing an 8-foot birdie that would have secured his card via the 2018 Korn Ferry Tour Finals, then getting up and down on the final hole of the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Championship to finally earn his card. His first U.S. Open experience followed the same patterns – he earned his spot at Final Qualifying in Columbus, Ohio, one stroke clear of a playoff, then made the cut on the number (5-over) with rounds of 72-73 at Pinehurst No. 2.

Justin Lower comments after earning first TOUR card at Korn Ferry Tour Championship

After a third-round 74, he stood T58 into Sunday’s final round in the Carolina Sandhills. It’s not always easy to get fired up for an early final-round start, from well back in the pack, but this day was different. Lower was motivated to post a good score to conclude his first major – these opportunities are fickle, he knew. (He rarely attempted U.S. Open qualifying as a Korn Ferry Tour member, as he didn’t want to surrender points toward a TOUR card – the Korn Ferry Tour has since added a provision for equivalent FedExCup points earned at the U.S. Open to cross over to the Korn Ferry Tour Points List.) He doesn’t take TOUR life for granted; he has seen one of his closest friends on TOUR, Jim Knous, recently depart from the pro game to take a full-time “normal” job with PING. He misses Knous out here, he said this week. He knows nothing is given in the cutthroat world of professional golf, with hundreds of players separated by fractional margins.

Hence it’s important to contextualize the achievements. A pro career builds toward memories like a U.S. Open Sunday, and Lower punctuated it with a 45-foot birdie at the long par-4 16th and two solid closing pars.

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