DALLAS – The 36-hole sectional qualify rounds for the U.S. Open each year constitute what could easily be called golf’s longest day. It is the game’s version of a marathon.
That was certainly the case Monday when 55 players converged on a rain-soaked Lakewood Country Club in quest of one of only three spots into the 2017 championship. This year’s Open will be contested June 15-18 at Erin Hills Golf Club, a links style course in Wisconsin. It is the first U.S. Open to be played in Wisconsin and the course is similar to those in Scotland where golf began centuries ago.
Because of a rain delay of almost two hours, play Monday did not conclude until dusk with three players going off in playoff to determine two alternate spots. Most of the players began their day as early as 7:30 am so stamina was an attribute as important as a good swing and touch around the greens.
The sectional qualifier is meant to be tough because the USGA wants its champion to be a golfer possessing all of the requisite skills required for championship golf – physical prowess, mental toughness and emotional balance. Any golfer with a 2 handicap or less is eligible to participate in the two stages of qualifying comprised of a local 18-hole test and the two rounds in the sectional.
Only the British Open predates America’s national championship with both tournaments dating back to the 1800s. Winning a U.S. Open is prestigious and usually the realization of a childhood dream. What ambitious young golfer has not said to himself on the practice green late in the evening, “this putt is to win the U.S. Open!”
Into this cauldron of competition Monday stepped Tyler’s 27-year-old Stetson McMillan. The former Lindale and Stephen F. Austin golfer has been playing the mini-tours of golf since leaving school in Nacogdoches some five years ago. He showed promise in the game as early as age 16 when after only two years of playing, he qualified for the Texas State Open - then held at The Cascades.
McMillan grabbed the attention of the local golf media when he fired a 67 in the local qualifier in early May at the Split Rail Golf Club in Aledo, just southwest of Fort Worth. On a day when most of the gallery at Split Rail was following Dallas Cowboys retired quarterback Tony Romo, McMillan shot 38 on the outward nine but came home with a 29 to advance to the sectional. As the saying goes, 29 is good at Putt Putt.
“I remember telling my caddie Larry Nance that day that we need to shoot us a 30 coming home to make sure we qualify and we did one better,” McMillan said. “And yeah, I thought about that when we turned to come home today with our final nine holes but I just never got it going. I kept thinking this is the hole I will start my run but it just didn’t happen.”
McMillan began his quest to qualify with a promising morning round of 67, four under par at venerable Lakewood, a short but tight course in East Dallas that opened in 1912. Impeccably maintained, Lakewood will host the Texas Amateur championship later this month.
The 67 left McMillan tied for fourth, four off the pace of leader and eventual medalist Roman Robledo of Humble, another professional trying to make the grade by honing his skills on the lesser tours. Robledo followed up his morning 63 with an afternoon 66 for a 129 total, 13 under par. The second spot was won by Nick Flanagan of Australia, the 2003 US Amateur champion who now lives in San Antonio. Flanagan has labored in obscurity for many years due to various injuries. He was 11 under for the two rounds. The third and final spot was taken by a young high school graduate from Houston headed to Texas A&M - Walker Lee. He is the grandson of the late Jacky Lee, a talented amateur golfer who once quarterbacked the Houston Oilers during the early 1960s, and the nephew of Jacky Lee Jr., who lives in Tyler.
McMillan had only played three holes in his afternoon round when the golfers were pulled off the course for an hour and 50 minutes due to dangerous weather and rain. The delay seemed to quell McMillan’s momentum as he turned in one under par, but could do no better than one over on his final nine for a 71 and a 138 total. Good enough for 14th place.
The round was interesting because McMillan’s scorekeeper was former Tyler resident Jim Holitik, a member at Lakewood. That seemed a good omen, as did McMillan’s comfort with a pairing that included two guys who have had some success on the PGA Tour. He played with Hunter Mahan and Martin Piller, both residents of the Dallas area and both well known in the golfing world, but for different reasons.
Mahan is an impressive athlete who pounds the ball and has made a bunch of money during the past decade with numerous wins. He once was as high as the 4th ranked golfer in the world but after a prolonged slump now finds himself in need of a good tournament and ranked 214th. It was strange to see him hit a drive out of bounds to the left on the par 5 9th and then hit his drive way right on the par 4 10th. The dreaded two-way miss that dooms good golf.
Piller is a talented player who has won on the Web.com Tour but better known as the husband of LPGA Tour player Gerina Piller. He too struggled at the qualifier Monday. In fact, McMillan’s total was two better than Mahan and three better than Piller.
McMillan is not afraid of hard work and has been doing that daily at Pine Dunes Golf Club near Frankston, considered one of the best courses in the state. As he enters his prime years for golf, he is excited about getting married in July and sees good things on the horizon. He wants to get on the Web.com Tour this fall and maybe even sign a hat deal with his namesake company.
“My mother just liked the name Stetson so it seems a natural to wear their hats once I get on tour,” McMillan said.
At the conclusion of play, with darkness settling on the lush landscape of Lakewood, McMillan was philosophical.
“I’m right there with my game,” he said. “I just didn’t get it going with the putter today. But it’s another good learning experience that I know will benefit me down the road.”
When asked about the long journey to achieve success in professional golf, McMillan did not hesitate a moment.
“This is what I have always wanted to do so I am going to keep working hard. I love this game and the competition.”