NEWBURGH, Ind. – Three years ago, Justin Lower faced a 7-foot birdie putt on the final hole of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance.
The stakes were clear. With a birdie, Lower would earn his first PGA TOUR card via The Finals 25. Par, and the final spot would go to Lower’s good friend and frequent trivia buddy Jim Knous.
Lower’s putt burned the edge, and he returned to the Korn Ferry Tour for 2019. And 2020. And 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic hiatus leading to a combined 2020-21 Korn Ferry Tour season.
More than 600 days since the 2020-21 Korn Ferry Tour commenced at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, the season concludes Sunday at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance, contested at sprawling, demanding Victoria National GC in southern Indiana.
Once again, Lower is central to the drama. The 11th-year pro enters the final round of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship in a tie for ninth on the leaderboard – and crucially projected No. 21 on The Finals 25. After made cuts in the first two of three Korn Ferry Tour Finals events, the Ohio native knew a solid – not spectacular week – at Victoria National GC could mean the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Unlike past years, though, Lower has vowed to live in his own bubble throughout the week as much as possible. He hasn’t checked leaderboards. He hasn’t scanned projections on the PGA TOUR app.
With a tunnel-vision approach, the Malone University alum has navigated Victoria National GC to the tune of 70-70-68, positioning himself to secure that elusive PGA TOUR card with a solid Sunday.
Lower knows the work is not yet done, and that Sunday will present the ultimate test of the personal and professional growth he has seen in the past two or three years.
The 32-year-old is looking forward to it.
“It means everything,” said an emotional Lower after Saturday’s third round, when asked to contextualize the weekend implications at Victoria National GC. “You saw (Scott) Gutschewski’s interview last week (after securing a PGA TOUR card at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship) … you saw Callum (Tarren)’s interview last week. If you don’t feel anything watching those two guys talk about what it means, then I don’t think you understand what we’re playing for.
“I mean, it’s everything.”
After The 25 PGA TOUR cards were awarded upon the conclusion of the Korn Ferry Tour Regular Season-ending Pinnacle Bank Championship presented by Aetna in mid-August, the three-event Korn Ferry Tour Finals represents a second opportunity to attain 2021-22 PGA TOUR membership via the Korn Ferry Tour.
Four players crossed the 210-Point, fail-safe threshold to secure a TOUR card at the Finals-opening Albertsons Boise Open presented by Chevron – J.J. Spaun, Aaron Rai, Lucas Herbert and Matthias Schwab.
Another five players cemented 2021-22 TOUR membership via The Finals 25 at last week’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship – Bronson Burgoon, Vincent Whaley, Alex Smalley and the aforementioned Gutschewski and Tarren.
After a T4 finish last week in Columbus, Pepperdine alum Sahith Theegala secured his spot in The Finals 25 by virtue of making the cut at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship.
Fifteen spots remain up for grabs, setting the stage for a wild Sunday at Victoria National.
“Everybody is out here trying to get a PGA TOUR card for next year,” reflected veteran Trey Mullinax, who holds the 54-hole tournament lead at 14-under, one stroke ahead of Joseph Bramlett. “We know what’s at stake. We know what’s happening.”
Mullinax entered the week at T25 on The Finals 25, squarely on the bubble, and has played his way into strong position with rounds of 63-71-68 in southern Indiana.
Although the University of Alabama alum is currently projected No. 1 on The Finals 25, he knows the three-event nature of Finals Points makes for volatile projections as the weekend progresses.
Anything can happen at Victoria National, particularly on the water- and trouble-infested back nine. Take Taylor Montgomery, who carded a second-round 85 – including two double bogeys, a triple bogey and quadruple bogey on his final five holes Friday – to miss the cut and leave his fate in the hands of the field.
Montgomery entered the week at No. 14 on The Finals 25, and his projection has alternated inside and outside The Finals 25 over the course of the weekend. Entering Sunday’s final round, the UNLV alum is projected No. 24.
Montgomery is no stranger to the bubble. The Korn Ferry Tour rookie stood No. 24 on The 25 into the Regular Season-ending Pinnacle Bank Championship, only to miss the cut and ultimately finish No. 26, passed by Austin Smotherman and David Skinns.
Interestingly, Peter Uihlein – who entered the Pinnacle Bank Championship at No. 25 on The Finals 25, only to miss the cut and fall outside – is currently projected No. 25 on The Finals 25. He stands T62 into Sunday at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship.
In addition to Lower, several players will go to bed Saturday knowing they’re one solid day from securing a PGA TOUR dream.
Missouri alum Hayden Buckley, who began the season with conditional status and entered the week at T12 on The Finals 25, stands T4 into Sunday at Victoria National. He’s projected No. 7 on The Finals 25.
Central Oklahoma alum Joshua Creel, who gained Finals entry via a late-season surge including a victory at the Utah Championship presented by Zions Bank, stands T9 into Sunday at Victoria National. He’s projected No. 13 on The Finals 25.
UNLV product Kurt Kitayama, who has played everywhere from the Korn Ferry Tour to the European Tour and Asian Tour, currently holds the distinction of projected No. 26 on The Finals 25.
The 28-year-old California native carded a third-round 68 at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship to move into T14 for the week, giving himself a chance at his first TOUR card. Uniquely, Kitayama and Montgomery were college teammates – and Montgomery’s ultimate TOUR fate could be tied to that of Kitayama come Sunday afternoon.
“It means a lot,” said Kitayama of Sunday’s implications. “It would be really big. I want to play in the U.S., and that would be really cool.”
Sunday’s play will be contested in threesomes off two tees, with tee times running from 7:40 a.m. CT to 9:52 a.m. CT.
With fifteen more TOUR cards to determine upon the conclusion of play Sunday at Victoria National, volatility is sure to ensue throughout Sunday morning and early afternoon.
It’s no exaggeration to say, in the words of Hilary Duff, this is what dreams are made of.
“I’ve grown a lot in the last two years, and I just want to be happy,” reflected Lower as the sun set Saturday in southern Indiana. “Obviously good golf makes a lot of people happy, but it’s not everything.
“I’ve just really grown as a person the last two or three years, and I just want to take it into tomorrow and give it my all and see if it’s enough.”