FARMINGDALE, N.Y. --- To say that Cortland Lowe III arrived at this week's U.S. Open out of nowhere would be grossly unfair. But it's not too far from the truth.
The one-time Augusta golf prodigy removed himself from the competitive side of the game about four years ago, but the desire never really expired. Mr. Lowe, 29, spent the past three years as a teaching pro in San Diego at the Santaluz Club. With the downturn in the economy, his lessons took a hit last fall.
"I always still had the itch to play more, and I'm not getting any younger," said Mr. Lowe, who will turn 30 later this summer. "It just seemed right. If I was going to give it another shot, this is probably the right time to do it."
To kick things off, Lowe decided to try to Monday qualify for the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines in February. He not only made his first PGA Tour field, he made the cut into the weekend on the course that played host to last year's U.S. Open. Bolstered by that performance, he moved back east to Charlotte, N.C., in the spring and joined the eGolf Professional Tour, formerly the Tarheel Tour, where he has made seven of eight cuts.
"In the past three years that I've been working, I just kind of matured a lot mentally," Mr. Lowe said. "I've worked on my game but haven't played tournament golf. Honestly, I think it's just mental. I don't take it so seriously and live and die with every bogey I make. I play a little smarter. It all kind of adds up."
A few months after his Torrey Pines experience, Mr. Lowe made it through U.S. Open local qualifying for the sixth time. At the 36-hole sectional qualifier last week in Dayton, Ohio, he set a course record with 62 in the first 18 and secured a spot in the field at Bethpage Black with medalist honors.
How does a man go from quitting tour golf for three years to trying and qualifying for the toughest tournament test in golf?
"It's not trying, it's believing," said Mark Wood, Mr. Lowe's swing instructor. "Once you feel like you belong and that you're good enough, you can play. He's one of those guys. You don't get here without having what it takes."
Mr. Lowe has always had what it takes. At age 8 he caught the golf bug from a childhood neighbor after his family moved next door to Charles Howell in Augusta.
"He was the reason I started playing all the time," Mr. Lowe said.
The two children bashed Wiffle balls around improvised par-3s in the cul-de-sac and tore up divots in everyone's yards. Both kids cut their golfing teeth at West Lake and later Augusta Country Club. They were high school rivals -- Mr. Howell establishing himself as a prodigy at Westminster while Mr. Lowe broke all of Larry Mize's Augusta Prep scoring records and won two Georgia state championships.
Mr. Howell went on to become NCAA champion at Oklahoma State while Mr. Lowe went on to play at Wake Forest. Mr. Howell left school and has become a PGA Tour regular since 2001, but Mr. Lowe didn't distinguish himself in college. He thrived as an amateur, qualifying for the 2002 U.S. Amateur and twice was a semifinalist in the prestigious North & South at Pinehurst.
"Different paths, that's for sure," said Mr. Lowe, who made this week's field while Mr. Howell failed to qualify.
Mr. Lowe's first foray as a pro started in 2003. After two seasons bouncing around mini-tours, he veered off the competitive path and into the pro shop. But after achieving his Class A teaching status from the PGA of America last year, the course drew him back.
"Once you're a player you always want to be a player," Mr. Wood said.
Yet it's different this time for Mr. Lowe.
"I feel like I am more ready for it now," he said. "My coach says you kind of have to realize how good you are before you can be that good. Maybe I felt a little more pressure out of college to get out there and make it. Now I do have that Class A status to fall back on and can go out and get a job if I have to. But I really enjoy this."
Mr. Lowe is not a stranger to the U.S. Open experience. In 2003 at Olympia Fields, he caddied for his college roommate Bill Haas in the tournament. He got a full taste of it carrying Mr. Haas' bag during a practice round with Tiger Woods.
"I've never even been to another Open," Mr. Lowe said.
Torrey Pines was the first time Mr. Lowe had played in front of large galleries, and he was surprised at how comfortable he felt in front of an audience.
"Cortland is incredibly laid back," Mr. Wood said. "I was kidding with him that sometimes you have to check his heart rate to see if it's beating."
But that debut was nothing compared with what he's already experienced in the practice rounds at Bethpage. He played nine holes with three-time major winner Padraig Harrington on Sunday and nine more with 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk on Monday.
"Once you get out there and get your head down you don't really see anybody," he said. "It's been that way this week. I've been out there with two top-five players in the world, and it didn't really bother me. I'm sure I'll be nervous on the first tee and nervous on 17 in front of thousands of New Yorkers yelling at you. But I think I like it."
His experience in the Buick Invitational proved to himself that he can hang with the big boys of golf. He has bigger goals this week in front of his parents, Cortland Lowe Jr. and Debra Neumann, and younger brother, Jonathan, who will all make the trip to Long Island from Georgia.
"Torrey Pines kind of just gave me a lot of confidence knowing that I can make the cut and play out here," he said. "I'm not just here to make the cut. I'm here to play four days and play one shot at a time and see where it gets me at the end of the week."
When it's over, Mr. Lowe plans to return to the Golf Professional Tour and get his game ready for another shot at the PGA Tour qualifying school.
At the rate he's going, CL3 could be joining his childhood rival CH3.
"I'm not out on tour yet, but I hope I soon will be," Mr. Lowe said.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How he qualified
Augusta native Cortland Lowe is one of a handful of golfers who qualified for the U.S. Open by going through local and sectional qualifying.
- On May 11, Mr. Lowe shot 70 in local qualifying at The Cardinal Golf and Country Club in Greensboro, N.C. He was one of eight from the event to move to sectional qualifying.
- On June 8, Mr. Lowe shot 62-68 at NCR Country Club in Dayton, Ohio. He was one of four in that sectional to advance to the U.S. Open.
Former Louisville, Ga., resident Brian Gay was a late entrant into this week's U.S. Open, qualifying Sunday with his second PGA Tour victory in 12 months.