Lower's powerful journey to the Memorial
May 29, 2014
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
- Justin Lower, along with Carlos Ortiz, made their first TOUR appearances this week at the Memorial Tournament. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, Ohio -- Justin Lower had been waiting patiently for nearly an hour. The Saturday afternoon shadows were lengthening, and his father Tim and little brother Chris still hadn't come to the golf club to pick the 15-year-old up.
Justin's mother Debbie was worried, too. So she called Justin to find out where he was.
"I told her I was still at the course, and I hadn't heard anything from Dad," Justin remembered Tuesday after cutting short a practice round at Muirfield Village. "She knew something was wrong. She just kind of felt it."
Debbie got in the car and collected her oldest son. Together, they drove to the house, hoping to find the rest of the family, hoping beyond hope that Tim had just forgotten and he'd be sitting in his favorite chair in the living room with Chris. But no one was home.
So Debbie and Justin turned around and headed back to the course, hoping to intercept Tim and Chris along the way. As they were driving, though, Debbie's phone rang.
"They said that there was a wreck," Justin recalled. "They weren't sure it was him which was kind of not a legit excuse because the description of the car and on that road, I mean, it had to be them. My mom knew right away. We ended up driving up on the scene."
The teal station wagon Tim had been driving had plowed into a utility pole and flipped over. Emergency vehicles were everywhere, lights flashing. Yellow crime scene tape sealed the perimeter.
The firefighters told Justin his brother, the precocious 10-year-old, the American history buff who loved playing with toy soldiers, had died on impact.
"They said my dad was alive at the time but the car was so badly damaged that they couldn't get him out and it was only a matter of time before he died right there," Justin said. "... When the firefighters told my mom it was pretty intense.
"It just wasn't anything I'll ever forget."
Justin learned something else that night. His father's blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit, and he had been driving nearly 80 miles an hour.
His dad, the man who took him to every tournament and cheered every pinpoint shot, was an alcoholic.
"He did a good job of hiding it from me and my brother," Justin said. "... I guess I was just kind of a naive teenager.
"I started thinking back, it just kind of clicked. Wow, all those times he was driving fast and whatnot, he was intoxicated."
The accident happened nine years ago last March in Canal Fulton, a small town just south of Akron, Ohio. Justin, devastated, took refuge in the game. The first tournament he played after the accident, Justin shot 64 and won by seven strokes.
He's a professional now. But Justin still plays golf to honor his father and brother, this year plying his trade on the Web.com Tour, and he wishes they were at Muirfield Village this week to see him play in the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance.
"I don't know (what my dad would have thought)," Justin said. "It would be pretty crazy. Like I see my friends and I wish I had (been able to) go through from 16 to where I am now with (my dad). ... It would have been cool to share the experiences with him, throughout college and whatnot. It would have been fun for sure."
Of course, college was the furthest thing from Justin's mind after the accident. He went to class but he didn't study. All he wanted to do was play golf, the game his father, who normally shot in the mid-80s, taught him.
"He wasn't really good but he taught me the basics," Justin said. "He always taught me to be respectful of the game. He said if I ever find out that you break a club in anger, I will literally tie you to a chair and break all your clubs in front of you and you'll never play the game again."
Justin smiles at the memory. He admits he gets mad on the golf course from time to time. Everybody does. But he remembers what his dad would have done, and the moment passes.
"He'd always have his arms crossed, like this, just watching and he had his own way of looking at me with his head turned if I started off bad," Justin said. "It was just his way of saying, like, what are you doing? Play like you know how to.
"It always seemed to help when he would give me that look."
Time helped, too. Justin's grades suffered enough schools didn't recruit him. So he ended up at Malone College, an NAIA school, and found balance to his life again.
"I knew as soon as I got out of high school I would be fine," Justin said. " ... All the emotions you feel in high school, all the hormones that are going through your mind and everything like that, I just knew that as soon as I got to college and things would slow down a little bit, I would be all right.
"And that's how it turned out."
In fact, Justin became the first person in his family to graduate from college, earning a degree in sports management. He was a four-time NAIA All-American, the first in history; medalist at the 2010 NAIA Championship and winner of the Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year Award -- even though he didn't get to come to the Memorial Tournament and accept it because he was in Spain competing in the World University Games.
"I remember playing a practice round and thinking, dang it, this is the day I was supposed to receive the award," Justin said. So maybe this week three years later is karma.
Justin also received the David Toms Award, presented by the Golf Coaches Association of America, to a player who has overcome adversity and excelled in college.
"I have never coached anyone with such determination and desire," Malone coach Ken Hyland has said.
Justin turned pro in 2011. He played the mini-tours for a while and earned conditional status on the Web.com Tour for 2014. Earlier this month, he Monday qualified for the South Georgia Classic presented by First State Bank and Trust Company.
It was the same day he found out he had earned the exemption to play in the Memorial. He ended up making the cut on the Web.com Tour event that week, too.
Justin, who had written a letter to the Captain's Committee at the Memorial asking for the exemption, was on his way to lunch when he saw the voice mail from Dublin, Ohio. He called immediately and got the good news.
"I literally thought I was being pranked for a split second," Justin said.
But he wasn't, and Justin teed off with South Africa's Branden Grace and Billy Hurley III, who was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy before turning pro, in Thursday's final group, shooting a respectable 74.
"I'd just like to play well," Justin said quietly, no doubt thinking about his father and his brother. "... It would be awesome to play the weekend. If I could do that it would just be a great time."
Just getting to Muirfield Village has been quite a journey, though.