PGA Championship 2020: Who is Mike Lorenzo-Vera and how is he contending at a major?

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The first two days of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park delivered a delicious leader board laden with star power (Brooks Koepka, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood), feel-good stories (Brendon Todd) and delightfully unexpected ones (Haotong Li).

Then there’s Mike Lorenzo-Vera. The 35-year-old from Bayonne—France, that is, not New Jersey—enters the weekend tied for second, two strokes back of Li after a two-under 68 late on Friday afternoon.

Aside from the most unlikely of characters to be in contention in the year’s first major, who exactly is Lorenzo-Vera?

“Charismatic Frenchman,” the PGA of America’s player guide begins. “One of the biggest characters on Tour, known for his sharp short game, quick wit, and fine mustache.”

As glorious as that description is, it doesn’t begin to cover it, or his incredible journey to the game’s biggest stage.

He also battled anxiety issues and credited French psychologist Meriem Salmi for turning his life around.

On the course, things have been just as intriguing.

After turning pro in 2005, Lorenzo-Vera headed for the Alps Tour, where he won a year later, capturing the Open International de la Mirabelle d’Or before finishing fourth on that circuit’s Order of Merit. That catapulted him to the European Tour’s Challenge Tour, and in 2007 he finished in the top 10 eight times on his way to finishing seventh on the money list.

A victory in the season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, where he set a course record in the opening round, led him to the European Tour, where he finished second at the 2008 Volvo China Open, which he’d led after 36 holes.

Soon, though, it all came unraveled.

Those “bad decisions” led to Lorenzo-Vera running out of money, an alarming fact he discovered one day when he went to use his bank card and it didn’t work. When he called the bank shouting at them, he was informed he was out of cash.

Things spiraled from there. Between 2011 and 2013, Lorenzo-Vera missed the cut 21 times in 43 starts. Along the way, he also made mistakes on his taxes and his father passed away.

Eventually, though, after more than a year of sessions with Salmi, things took a turn for the better for the Frenchman. He twice finished runner-up on the Challenge Tour in 2014, which helped him land back on the European Tour the following year. Since then, he’s been a mainstay and steadily climbed the World Rankings, reaching No. 67 at the end of last year after a season in which he twice finished runner-up and nabbed five other European Tour top 10s.

Then there’s this week.

Lorenzo-Vera is making his first start since March, when golf was put on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also playing in just his fifth career major and it’s only his third tournament in the United States, with his best result coming at last year’s PGA at Bethpage Black, where he was tied for fourth after the opening round but faded to a T-16 finish.

Friday, he rattled off five birdies, including three straight on his back nine, against just three bogeys, including one on the par-4 ninth, his final hole of the day, to finish at six-under 134 through 36 holes.

The sudden success naturally sparked curiosity, which brought back to light Lorenzo-Vera’s past struggles. Not that he seemed to mind. Asked how much debt he amassed during his darkest days, he smiled, and said, simply, “Oh, too much.”

The same could be said about his incredible story.

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