Mitch Lowe is a teaching pro with a big opportunity this week at the PGA Championship. (Ben Margot/AP)

Local teaching pro mixes with stars at PGA Championship

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — There’s a difference between a professional golfer,  someone like Jason Day or Jordan Spieth, someone who plays golf for a living, and a golf professional, someone like Mitch Lowe, who teaches others how to a play and now and then has a chance to compete with the big boys.

The PGA, Professional Golfers Association, is the group of teachers and club pros, but starting nearly a century ago it created a tournament that, along with the Masters and U.S. and British Opens has become one of the four majors. The PGA Championship saves a few places for people such as Lowe, who does his instructing at San Francisco’s Harding Park.

It’s a great opportunity for the men who are the backbone of the game. It’s also a great dose of reality.

One week they’re helping some 18-handicapper get a ball airborne. The next, they’re battling one of America’s premier courses, Baltusrol, in the leafy suburbs of New Jersey, west of New York City, where Jack Nicklaus twice won the U.S. Open and Phil Mickelson took the 2006 PGA Championship.

If you want some idea of how difficult Baltusrol was Thursday in the opening round, U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson shot a seven-over par 77 and Rory McIlroy, who’s won the PGA twice, the U.S. Open and the British Open, came in with a four-over 74. That’s the same as Lowe, who had three birdies and seven bogies.

“When you play with these touring pros, you realize how good they are,” said Lowe, who was in a threesome with Kevin Streelman, a two-time winner on tour — he shot 75 — and Yonghang Song of South Korea, who had a one-over 71.

“They hit the ball so far,” said Lowe

If they didn’t they wouldn’t be on tour.

The temperature in the early afternoon at Baltusrol reached 92 degrees, or about 30 degrees higher than it was at Harding, not far from the Pacific, where the PGA Championship will be held in 2020, the first time in Northern California since 1977 at Pebble Beach.

The 49-year-old Lowe, a University of Pacific graduate, isn’t planning that far ahead. This is his fourth PGA, and that hardly is unimpressive, even though he’s never made the cut. He was not particularly pleased with his driving Thursday — right off, his first tee shot landed in the heavy rough — but found satisfaction with his short game.

“I saved par a couple times out of bunkers,” he said.

The Lowe-Streelman-Yang group was the last of the day off the first tee, at 2:15 p.m. EDT. Lowe came to the course in late morning to hit balls and work on his putting, then went back to his hotel for a couple hours. However, despite the early practice, he started slowly.

“It took me a while to get my rhythm,” said Lowe. “Then I played pretty well.”

Lowe, as understood, likes the challenge — to a point. “I get emotions just playing in smaller events,” he said. “The difference in a tournament like this is the course. It’s so hard.”

As it should be for a major championship.

A five-time recipient of the Northern California PGA Player of the Year, Lowe spent time on the Nike and Canadian Tours and has competed in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Reno Tahoe Open.

But to the touring pros, the professional golfers, the majors are the ones that count. And since he finished three shots better than the current U.S. Open titlist, the first round of the 2016 PGA should count for a long, long while with Mitch Lowe.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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