When Justin Lower glances down at his ball marker, he sees this date: 3-26-05. It’s the day his dad and younger brother died in a car accident.
“I look down on them when I putt and I focus,” he said. “If I get too intense, it reminds me to slow down.”
Six years ago, Justin’s father and only sibling were driving to pick up Justin as he finished practicing on the golf course. When they struck a light pole, his brother Chris died instantly and his dad died soon after.
Now, the recent graduate of Malone University in Canton, Ohio, plays for his family. Lower plays with skill, but doesn’t forget his story.
“I don’t want people to feel bad for me,” Lower said. “I’ll never forget my dad and Chris, but now I want to follow in my own career. I want to honor them.”
The Golf Coaches Association of America recently surprised Lower with the prestigious David Toms Award. For the second year the award has been given, the association selected one winning men’s collegiate golfer among all levels who has overcome adversity to achieve collegiate excellence.
Gregg Grost, CEO of the Golf Coaches Association of America, said Lower has the same qualities that make the award’s namesake – David Toms – such a positive example in golf.
“David Toms is a tremendous role model for these young golfers. He has a family, career and priorities,” Grost said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
In his four years at Malone, Lower was an individual star as well as a stellar team member.
As a Pioneer, Lower was the first four-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American. Last year, he won the Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year Award for the NAIA. It goes to the player who had the best overall season.
Lower won the 2010 NAIA national championship by six strokes, leading Malone to a third-place team finish.
“When he won the national championship, the first thing that he asked when he saw me was, ‘How did we do team-wise?’” Malone coach Ken Hyland said. “When I said we finished third, he broke down crying. He wanted to win the team championship. He’s just a flat-out tremendous team player, and he really cares about what the team does over what he does.”
Hyland nominated Lower for the Toms award.
The two share more than just a love of golf. They’re the only players in Malone history to win the national title.
Hyland started watching Lower play when the young golfer was in high school.
“When I recruited him, I predicted he would shatter every record that Malone has ever set,” Hyland said. “And he did.”
Lower remembers his dad and brother with each stroke. His dad was the one who started Lower on the game, and within a couple years, Lower was winning on the course.
“My dad wasn’t a great golfer,” Lower said with a laugh. “The first time I beat him, I was 10. We had a warm New Year’s Day in Ohio and we went out to the golf course. I beat him by one stroke. He was happy for me.”
Lower will carry the dated ball markers in his golf bag as he continues to play amateur tournaments this summer. In the fall, he plans to start qualifying school and go pro.