Ohioan chasing a dream – and dominant leader – at the Memorial

DUBLIN, Ohio — Rory and Justin were just a couple 25-year-old guys out swinging for dollars at the Memorial on Thursday.

That’s Rory McIlroy. And Justin Lower.

Last weekend, McIlroy won the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship in England. Last weekend, Lower finished tied for 37th at the Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh, N.C., a Web.com Tour event. 

When he was finished, Lower drove home to Ohio. He’s from Canal Fulton, a Northeast Ohio suburb that’s a little north of Massillon, and he got into the Memorial on an exemption from something called the tournament’s Captain’s Club, to whom he’d written a letter expressing what it would mean to have a spot this week among the world’s best golfers.

McIlroy got into the field because he’s one of the world’s best golfers. He’s a two-time major winner, a former world No. 1, a wiz kid who shot a 9-under 63 on Thursday, zooming three shots clear to the first-round lead. 

Lower shot 2-over 74. Playing off the No. 10 tee, Lower started with a double bogey.

"Because I was nervous," Lower said. "Just that hole…the only time I felt it. I knew it would be like…just no getting around it. I felt better instantly going to the No. 11 tee box. 

"It was a good day other than the first hole."

You’d be nervous, too, if your only prior PGA Tour experience was in last August’s Reno Tahoe Open, a Stableford scoring system event in which Lower finished Day One in 130th out of 132.

"Two over isn’t bad," Lower said. "I’ll take it.

"This is a great learning experience. I came in wanting to learn from it and I felt like I learned a lot today. Past that first hole, I was calm. I was competing. This is my chance to show I belong out here."

Lower said he slept "like a baby" Wednesday night. He didn’t even have time to pace his hotel room or overthink things because he spent much of the time with another task.

"I got my tournament courtesy car stuck in the mud where I’m staying," he said. "I’m ashamed to share it. I’m ashamed that it happened. But we got it out and got it clean."

Now there’s a story.

"It’s a good thing I had a late tee time (Thursday)," Lower said. "I spent a long time on that car."

McIlroy knows stories. At his post-round press conference, McIlroy was asked about "adversity" in relation to his recent — and very public — breakup with fiancee professional tennis player Caroline Wozniacki a few days after wedding invitations had been sent out.

Lower knows adversity. Nine years ago, his father and 10-year-old brother were killed in a single car crash on their way to pick up Justin at the golf course. Tests showed Tim Lower had been drinking. 

In part because his grades suffered after the accident, Lower ended up at Malone University (then Malone College) in Canton, where he became a four-time NAIA All-American, won an individual national championship and won a plethora of awards including one named for Jack Nicklaus, host and founder of the Memorial, and the David Toms Award, given to the college golfer who has overcome adversity to achieve excellence.

Now, he just wants to make his living playing golf.

With the big boys. Like Rory.

"My goal was to shoot something under," Lower said. "I didn’t see someone shooting a 63 out here today. Not on this course. Wow."

Hundreds followed the group of McIlroy, Adam Scott and Jason Day during their round Thursday afternoon. Lower had 30 or so friends and family following his group, which also included Branden Grace and Billy Hurley III.

McIlroy just missed tying the PGA Tour record for lowest round that included a double bogey. For a while, he was flirting with the course and tournament records.

For comparison’s sake, McIlroy birdied No. 10. Then he eagled 11. He eagled again on 15, one hole after a double bogey that erased what was then a two-shot lead.

Lower birdied Nos. 2, 4 and 15. On No. 9, his final hole of the day, he missed a 17-foot birdie putt he wishes he had back.

He hit 5-of-14 fairways and 12-of-18 greens. McIlroy hit 10-of-14 fairways and 13-of-18 greens. His eagle putts covered 27 and 15 feet, respectively.

As "incredible" — his word — as the opportunity to play in the Memorial and soak it all in this week has been, Lower said he never spent an extra second thinking about or reflecting on anything until he looked up at leader board about halfway through his round Thursday and saw McIlroy had pulled into first.

"I’m chasing Rory McIlroy," Lower thought.

He almost smiled.

"I really want to play better tomorrow," Lower said. "I really want to make this cut."

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