The 26-year-old former New York State Open champion finished T16 at the final stage of qualifying to earn at least eight starts on the Web.com Tour
Mike Dougherty, firstname.lastname@example.org
The string of anonymous mini-tour events and cut-throat Monday qualifiers were never part of the dream.
Golf is hard, though.
Five years after deciding to play the game at the highest level, Mike Miller has one Foot Joy in the door. The 26-year-old Brewster native earned Web.com Tour status earlier this month, tying for 16th in the final stage of qualifying. He is guaranteed eight starts when the season opens in two weeks.
It’s a noteworthy promotion for a player who’s been toiling in professional golf purgatory.
“I never thought it would take this long,” said Miller, who turned pro at the 2013 Met Open following one semester of college golf at Penn State. “I thought I was going to turn pro and waltz onto the PGA Tour. Now I know how hard it really is.”
He needs to make a couple of cuts and cash a couple of checks to maintain playing status beyond the eight starts.
“I understand that I have to make money,” Miller added.
A full season on the Web.com Tour keeps the notion of graduating to the PGA Tour very much in play.
“It’s not the road I wanted to be on,” said Miller, who closed out the final round with a birdie to get to 21-under. “But it was so much sweeter because my girlfriend, Casey, and my father were in Arizona for this one. They have been through everything with me. Walking off that last hole, knowing I made a putt that meant something, with them watching, it was really cool.”
Needless to say, he’s charged up and waiting to leave for the Bahamas.
The ups and downs
Frustration was beginning to cloud Miller’s abundant optimism in the months before this latest breakthrough. He was playing well enough in June to qualify for a second U.S. Open and went to Shinnecock Hills with a faithful contingent of family and friends believing he was ready to compete at the highest level.
He missed the cut, forcing another stare down with an uncomfortable reality.
“I got some confidence from watching the guys I grew up playing against do well on the PGA Tour – Justin Thomas, Ollie Schniederjans, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Rodgers – and then I went to the U.S. Open and I fell flat on my face,” Miller said. “But that’s how I learn.”
The potential that long separated him from his talented peers was less apparent during the 103rd Met Open at Wykagyl Country Club. He ranked among the favorites to win last August but was 9-over after two rounds and missed the cut.
Candid visits with a sports psychologist were not in the original blueprint, either.
“There’s an abundance of great players in the Met area and when I reflect on that list, I can’t think of anyone better than Mike Miller,” said Metropolitan Golf Association executive director Brian Mahoney. “From an early age, he really stood out. Mike is a two-time MGA player of the year, which is an impressive feat. And he did it at a relatively young age. Mike was beating adults and beating them handily. I still remember him winning the 2011 Met Amateur at Piping Rock against Sam Bernstein, another incredible player who attended Yale, and through the first 11 holes Sam was three down and he was 3-under par. It was like, ‘Holy Cow.’ ”
Even so, Miller was back at Knollwood this fall, looking to rekindle the passion.
“I felt badly for him,” his father said. “As parents, we always want to see our kids do well, but some things can’t be rushed. You have to work in the bag room before you become the head professional. You have to work in the mail room before you become the CEO.”
So what happened?
“It wasn’t the best summer I’ve had,” said Miller, a past New York State Open champion who has nine wins on the Minor League Golf Tour and spent parts of four summers playing on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada. “I just kind dug myself into a hole. I wanted to play well, but after missing the cut at the U.S. Open I was down in the dumps. I went back up to Canada and missed two cuts by one stroke. I was 4-under and 5-under and missed both cuts, so I was looking at myself like, ‘Man, what do you have to do to get things going when other guys are shooting 20-under par every week?’ I spent a lot of time with my father at Knollwood. I went and saw a sports psychologist because I absolutely hated golf and all they did was remind me nothing was broken.”
There was no reason for physical changes.
“Nothing had to be fixed,” said Bob Miller Jr., the longtime head professional at Knollwood. “To be honest, Michael just needed to become comfortable in his own skin.”
A visit with New Jersey therapist Dr. Jay Granat was part of the process.
“I was skeptical about going, but when I missed the cut at the Met Open, there was something wrong,” Miller said. “I just wasn’t into golf. I was tired. I wasn’t playing well and that’s a tournament in the area where I grew up, so I had a lot of people there who have supported me. I was on a course where I should be comfortable and I just didn’t play well. It was a turning point, so I went to Knollwood and just kind of played my way out of it.”
Getting right back on the course was key.
“Michael has a different way of going about his business,” his father said. “He’s not a practicer. He’s not a grinder.”
During the final stage in Arizona, while other hopefuls were beating golf balls on the range or hitting putts in their hotel rooms, Miller was going out for dinner and watching hockey. He enjoys the down time, as well.
“Mike has an incredible temperament and perspective on life,” Mahoney said. “He’s a naturally happy person. It’s easy to root for Mike. Anyone who had interacted with him has made a friend and I think with that kind of positivity, good things were bound to happen. It’s no surprise to see Mike getting to this level and I think it will continue. I don’t think this is the plateau. I think he continues to grow and get better.”
Sweating out the final stage
There were some flop sweat moments during the final round of the qualifier.
“Michael hit about three shots on Sunday that could’ve gone either way, but he did a really good job of keeping himself under control,” Bob Miller said. “On the 14th hole, his approach from 87 yards was a little thin and got caught up in the flag and fell six feet from the hole.”
He rolled in the birdie.
“On the 16th hole I tried to give it away,” Miller said. “It’s too bad there’s no video to show where I hit my tee shot. It’s a par-4 dogleg right and I just blocked my drive dead right with a 3-wood. It bounced off the rough and into a bunker that you absolutely cannot be in. And it was up under the lip. I was 140 yards from the pin and was trying to make par. I ended up hitting this shot, as soon as I hit it, I was looking at my caddie and screaming, ‘Be right,’ or something stupid like that. It ended up 12 feet away from the hole.”
The putter worked all week.
“It’s always been my biggest issue,” Miller said. It’s really nice to know that I can putt under pressure. I was 21-under and it’s crazy to think 15 people finished in front of me. It wasn’t like I was making every putt I looked at, but I finally made all the putts I needed to make. I was able to slow myself down, which is something I wouldn’t have been able to do in the moment a year ago.”
Making birdie after birdie is the only way to survive cuts at the next level.
It will not be a completely foreign experience. Miller once closed out a round with seven consecutive birdies to win a MLGT event by one. He’s also played in nine Web.com Tour events over the years and made three cuts.
“We’ve ground up around here playing some of the best golf courses in the world and you learn how to make a good four,” he said. “I was struggling on Saturday at qualifying. I was even par after nine holes. I went over to Casey (Donnelly) and was like, ‘How bad has it gotten?’ Without showing me any emotion, she just said, ‘I think you need to make some birdies.’ I was like, ‘OK, you got it.’ ”
Sometimes, it’s just that simple.
Miller’s newfound wisdom comes from playing in the minor league events and Monday qualifiers where too many pars are costly.
“I had to have a different attitude,” Miller said. “I’m going in knowing that I have to play aggressive and I have to putt aggressive. Honestly, that’s how I played growing up. In a high-school match, you’re looking to go as low as you can. All through Q school I had a goal to make three birdies every nine holes. It’s a mindset I saw the guys who kept beating me using. I was always like, ‘Don’t make any mistakes.’ I’m done playing scared.”
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