June 10, 2016
ANN ARBOR — For an amateur, Kyle Mueller handled things like a pro. In discussing, among other things, the fact that he’s about to go to Pittsburgh to take on perhaps the world’s most difficult golf course, the Michigan junior played it cool.
“It’s still just a tournament,” the 20-year-old said, “You’re going out trying to win.”
It’s next week’s U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
“I’m just trying to treat it like any other tournament that you play in,” Mueller said, offering some quixotic ambition.
Maybe that objective is the product of this all happening so quickly. Last week, the idea of playing in an Open was still beyond the horizon, buried in a bunker.
But then Mueller arrived at Springfield (Ohio) Country Club on Monday for the 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier. He shot a 2-under 70 in his first round of the day, well positioned to take a run at a top-four finish and capture a spot in the Open field.
At the same time, he thought it would take at least a 6-under of 7-under score to make it.
In his second round of the day, Mueller pushed his composite score to -3 through eight holes before birding back-to-back holes.
Scoring dropped, though, as the wind picked up and the greens dried out. Firmer and faster, Springfield didn’t offer many more opportunities and, at 5-under, Mueller had a clear path toward qualifying.
While Mueller didn’t track the leaderboard, his caddy, Michigan teammate Chris O’Neill knew where Mueller stood the whole round. Mueller didn’t feel safe until arriving at a drivable par 4 with one hole to play. O’Neill pulled a 4-iron from the bag — the safe play — and the message was clear.
Mueller ended up parring the final eight holes to finish one stroke behind University of Illinois golfer Nick Hardy, who qualified for his second straight Open, and tying Patrick Wilkes-Krier, an Ypsilanti native and current teaching pro in Ann Arbor. The fourth qualifying spot was snagged by Charles Danielson, another college player at Illinois.
“I definitely thought it was doable,” Mueller said. “Going in, I didn’t really have any expectations. I was just going to play aggressive. I really didn’t have anything to lose. That’s how I played it and it ended up working out.”
A two-year standout at Michigan, Mueller says he played through “a little bit of a slump” as a sophomore after posting a top-16 finish in the U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields Country Club in August. Nonetheless, he became the first player in Michigan history to finish a season with a sub-72 scoring average (71.72) and was named First Team All-Big Ten.
These past two weeks, though, Mueller has seen a notable change.
“It finally clicked and came together and it felt like all aspects of my game were on,” he said. “It finally felt like the golf I was playing in the fall.”
He’ll try to carry that mojo into Oakmont, no small task. Comically downplaying the course, Mueller noted, “The rough is up, the greens are fast and you’ve got to hit the ball straight.”
In reality, Oakmont is a cruel monster. Fairways are lined with rough that can amount to a cemetery. The greens roll like glass. Some bunkers are diabolical. Prior to the 2007 Open, Arnold Palmer said, “You can hit 72 greens (in regulation) in the Open at Oakmont and not come close to winning.”
That year, Angel Cabrera won with a jarring score of 5-over.
Since Monday, Mueller has been studying Oakmont’s layout online and watching highlights from the 2007 tournament. He’s trying to approach it like he would any other course.
“You can’t psyche yourself out,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard golf course, but it’s definitely doable.”
Mueller will leave for Pittsburgh on Saturday and hopes to play nine holes that day. With O’Neill back on his bag, he’ll use practice rounds on Sunday through Wednesday to get acquainted with the course that Tiger Woods once called “one of the toughest tests that we’ve ever played in a U.S. Open.”
Growing up in Athens, Georgia, Mueller has attended the Masters, walking on the other side of the ropes to catch a glimpse of PGA stars. Now he’ll share a driving range with Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy.
Moreover, he’ll compete with them.
The goals will be simple: Be patient, putt well and hit the ball both left-to-right and right-to-left into those treacherous greens.
And then, since this is just a tournament, go try to win.
“When people psyche themselves out, they’ll think, ‘Oh, I’m playing in a U.S. Open or the Master’s, so I’ll just go out and try to make the cut,'” Mueller said. “But I feel like, once you do that, you’re already throwing yourself out. So as silly as it sounds, we’re going to treat it like any other tournament.”
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