Birthday boy Justin Lower celebrates in style by shooting 66, takes early lead at Valero Texas Open

SAN ANTONIO — He might hail from Northeast Ohio, but Justin Lower sure felt right at home in Central Texas on Thursday during the first round of the 2024 Valero Texas Open.

And why wouldn’t he?

With winds swirling in all directions, TPC San Antonio’s Oaks Course felt akin to a breezy day in Akron, where Lower was born. His putter, long the strength of his game, came through in big ways down the stretch as he saved par on both 16 and 17 and then dropped a long birdie putt on 18 to post a 66 that made him the clubhouse leader.

His wife, Janise, was quick to kiss him when he stepped off the final hole, oh, and by the way, Lower just happened to be celebrating his 35th birthday.

Not a bad day for a guy who posted a career-best third-place finish at the Mexico Open at Vidanta less than two months ago.

And while his tee-to-green game was strong early on while posting birdies on two of the first three holes and hanging up a 33 at the turn, the short game was what really kept his round on track at day’s end when he missed a few greens.

“The short game … it can really save you around a place like this,” Lower said. “Luckily, the rough isn’t too penalizing. If it was five inches everywhere, I don’t think we’d finish probably with the wind and everything. My short game’s been great, my putting’s finally starting to come around. Hopefully, it continues that trend and yeah, I’m extremely proud of the round.”

Lower had an emotional moment at the Valspar Championship when he stepped on his wedge after a missed bunker shot, but it’s one of the few lowlights in what’s been an upward trajectory for the Malone University product. Last week at the Texas Children’s Houston Open, Lower made four birdies down the stretch to get on the right side of the cutline and then fired a 68 on Sunday to finish inside the top 30.

“That moment of frustration that probably a lot of people saw, I wasn’t feeling great,” Lower said. “I had been not sick, but just battling kind of physical ailments, I had like a trap thing going on and I was just really frustrated. It was my I think fifth (tournament) in a row. I know better than to play four in a row.

“And I’m human, we’re all human out here. I just had a moment of frustration. We went home after that round and it was just nice to be home and sleep in my own bed for a couple nights. Then we went down to Houston and I played solid last week, it was nothing great. But yeah, I just needed a moment, I guess.”

Lower now finds himself in unfamiliar territory as he’ll be looking back at most of the field when Friday’s second round begins, but he doesn’t feel he’s got a target just yet. For example, as the opening round’s first wave concluded, Max Homa (68) was two shots behind Lower, while Collin Morikawa and two-time champ Corey Conners were both four back after posting rounds of 70.

And besides, why not just enjoy a day like Thursday, when he was leading a PGA Tour event and planned to head out to a nearby joint called Blanco BBQ, a spot his cousin recently introduced him to?

“I don’t know if I’m the hunted at all. I’m still a quote-unquote mule out here as compared to other guys, but I’m just trying to play as best as I can, I’m trying to learn as much as I can every day,” Lower said. “I find myself watching guys on the range just to see if I can pick anything up, stuff like that, and around the greens especially. I’ve learned a lot and I feel like I’m kind of coming into my own finally.

“I’m happy to be here, for sure.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek