Justin Lower's remarkable turnaround, a Korean duo crashing the leader board, and the rookie with a veteran looper
Two weeks after a tumultuous PGA Tour season ended in Atlanta, Ga., a new one began in Napa, Calif., for the Fortinet Championship. Several interesting storylines emerged after an interrupted first day’s play at Silverado Resort, although none more compelling than the leader, Justin Lower.
Last month, Justin Lower had one of the more crushing episodes of how to lose a PGA Tour card in three shots. The short version of the story is, he needed a two-putt par on the 72nd hole of the regular season-ending Wyndham Championship to make the FedEx Cup playoffs, but three-putted from 61 feet to lose his status. “It sucks to come up this short; it just flat out sucks,” he said at the time. During the ensuing relegation to the Korn Ferry Tour finals, Lower was given his card back thanks to the removal of six LIV Golf recruits from the top 125 on the FedEx Cup. On Thursday at the Fortinet Championship, Lower holed two slicey little flop shots from just off the green for birdie at No. 5 and No. 7 (his 14th and 16th holes for the day). They were the highlights of a blistering 63 to take the first-round lead at nine under. His opening round of the new PGA Tour season did not “flat out suck.” He said after Thursday’s round, “I feel really grateful to be here, and any time you can open up with a 63 it's awesome. But there’s a lot of golf left.”
Speaking of earning your way back to the PGA Tour, Byeong Hun An is glad to be back on the biggest stage after fighting his way back through the Korn Ferry Tour in 2022. The former U.S. Amateur champion missed 15 cuts on the PGA Tour in 2020-21, but in 2022 he finished inside the KFT’s The 25, courtesy of an early win, to secure a return. An joined fellow South Korean Si Woo Kim in firing a 66 to sit just three shots behind Lower after the first round at the Fortinet. Kim was seemingly inspired on Thursday after receiving a captain’s pick from Trevor Immelman for next week’s Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow.
Rookie with a veteran caddie
All 28 members of this season’s PGA Tour rookie class are competing at the Fortinet, but one stood out on Friday. Matti Schmid, from Germany, posted a 67 to sit at five under. Schmid secured his promotion to the PGA Tour by the skin of his teeth - he was one of four players who became eligible for the Korn Ferry Tour finals when LIV recruit Bubba Watson withdrew from the FedEx Cup, moving Schmid inside the top 200 who make the KFT playoffs. He then made the cut on the number in the first KFT playoff and finished T37th. At the second event, he made the cut on the number again and finished ninth. Although he missed the cut at the playoffs finale, Schmid locked up his card by finishing 22nd on the KFT’s Finals Top 25. Helping him through this rollercoaster was his caddie, Mike “Sponge” Waite, a New Zealander who carried the clubs for his countryman Michael Campbell during his win at the 2005 U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst.