Can’t-miss prospects are in the midst of a heyday right now on the PGA Tour, where wins prior to age 25 are becoming commonplace. But the landscape was far different nine years ago, when Lovemark emerged as a player with seemingly unlimited potential.
Back in 2007, Lovemark had capped his freshman season at USC by winning the NCAA individual title, shooting 64-64 over the weekend in Williamsburg, Va., to win by two shots. As the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, he not only had a spot on the decorated 2007 U.S. Walker Cup team, but he was seen as one of the best players on a squad that included Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk.
“You definitely looked at him as one of the guys that you thought had the most potential, somebody that you saw making a name for himself on the PGA Tour kind of straight away,” Fowler recalled. “He was someone that everyone knew had a lot of talent.”
The two grew up playing junior golf against each other in California, and Fowler has vivid memories of their first high school match against each other. Playing for Torrey Pines High, Lovemark stepped to the tee box and promptly dropped a 5-under 31 on Fowler in their nine-hole match.
“It was like, hey, what’s up. Yeah, we’re playing. Cool, 31, thanks,” Fowler said. “So obviously I knew he was a good player.”
Lovemark turned pro after his junior season at USC, and it looked like that smooth transition to the big leagues was well underway when he lost in a playoff at the 2010 Frys.com Open in just his fourth start as a pro.
But plans have a funny way of changing.
Lovemark is now once again on a leaderboard, this time at the Shell Houston Open where he trails by one shot after rounds of 67-68. But his journey from amateur stud packed with promise to PGA Tour contender has been anything but seamless.
It was right here at the Golf Club of Houston in 2011 where things began to go awry. Lovemark arrived in the midst of his rookie season, still looking for a follow-up performance to his Frys.com runner-up. But during the Wednesday pro-am, he felt his back give out.
“Couldn’t really bend over to get into my set-up, and I knew that day that I was in trouble,” Lovemark said. “I just knew I couldn’t swing. I could barely walk.”
He shot an opening 80, then withdrew. He hoped some rehab would do the trick, but it got him nowhere. The diagnosis turned out to be a herniated and bulging disc in his back, and at age 22 Lovemark underwent a microdiscectomy – the same procedure that has sidelined Tiger Woods in recent months.
The surgery was in August 2011, and Lovemark wouldn’t hit a competitive shot for another five months.
“It was tough. I’m just sitting at home, not able to do much,” he said. “Watching from the sidelines is never fun, especially after having a good college career and a good (Web.com) season in 2010. So it was tough just sitting there.”
Since that setback, Lovemark has bounced back and forth between the PGA and Web.com tours. At 6-foot-4 with an athletic build, he has always had the raw power and natural ability to play at the highest level.
Translating that potential into results, however, has proven to be a struggle.
But Lovemark teamed with swing coach Chris Como two years ago, and he earned his card back last year on the Web.com circuit. Now age 28 and equipped with a new perspective, he has finally found his footing against the game’s best, with four top-10 finishes this season.
He tied for sixth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his most recent start, and he appears poised to build upon that momentum this week at the Golf Club of Houston.
“I’m playing better. I’m older, more mature. Got my stuff together,” Lovemark said. “Lot of patient stuff, just not putting too much into one single shot. It’s been a big key for me the last couple years.”
Lovemark has always possessed prodigious length off the tee, and this season he is averaging more than 306 yards per drive. It’s a powerful edge at any venue, but especially this week’s layout where – like at Augusta National, after which it is styled – the bombers tend to thrive.
“I’m super aggressive, probably a little too aggressive. I would love to hit driver on every hole,” he said. “I might hit 11 or 12 drivers around here. Just hit it hard and then go find it again. No rough, perfect conditions – just be aggressive.”
Back at the place where his body once failed him, Lovemark is healthy, confident and ready to challenge for his breakthrough victory.
It’s a testament to the circuitous route he has taken to get here, but also shows that the potential he once flashed as an amateur was hardly a mirage.
“Feels great to be playing at a course where I couldn’t even compete five years ago,” he said. “I’ve come a long ways, and hopefully I’ll be able to win it. That will be a cool story.”