Mueller feels comfortable competing against professionals at U.S. Open

Monday, July 4, 2016 - 12:10am

It was during his freshman year of college that Michigan junior Kyle Mueller realized he had a legitimate chance of one day qualifying for the U.S. Open.

He had tried to qualify a few years prior, before coming to Ann Arbor, but missed out by five strokes.

“I was an okay golfer in high school — not a great golfer,” Mueller said. “But when I got to Michigan my game started to develop, I became a better player and I got some confidence.”

So when a year and a half later Mueller competed at the U.S. Open Sectional Qualifier in Springfield, Ohio, it was no surprise that he was able to come in second place — securing his spot among the best in the world at Oakmont Country Club outside of Pittsburg, June 16-19.

Heading into the week, the tournament didn’t feel all that different from the collegiate or amateur tournaments Mueller was accustomed to. He still had to sign his scorecard, he still had to think through what 14 clubs to put in his bag and most of all, he still had to shoot a low score. But for an amateur used to playing against other student-athletes, there was one notable difference: the competition.

“When you’re driving in the front gates or driving at the driving range, you’re surrounded by the best players in the world,” Mueller said. “It was pretty cool to just be surrounded by all these guys, and growing up you idolize these guys and want to be like them.”

Mueller was surrounded by many of the world’s most-idolized players early in the week, playing practice rounds alongside defending U.S. Open champion Jordan Spieth, defending British Open Championship Zach Johnson and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson.

He also played alongside James Hahn, whom Mueller had met six years earlier when Hahn was playing a tournament in Mueller’s hometown of Athens, Ga. Hahn stayed at Mueller’s house during the tournament, and has since been one of his favorite players.

“I was definitely in contact with some of the best players in the world,” Mueller said. “I really got to pick their brains about what they were thinking about the course, course management and really just how they play golf.”

When Thursday hit, Mueller played alongside professionals Richie Schembechler, a distant relative of Michigan great Bo Schembechler, and Derek Chang. On Thursday he shot a seven-over-par, 77, and on Friday he shot a three-over-par, 73, for a total of a ten-over-par, 150 — a decent score for a first-time amateur, but alas below the six-over-par needed to make the cut and play on the weekend.

“I would say I played a lot better than my score reflected,” Mueller said. “I was a little disappointed I missed the cut; I felt that I had some silly mistakes throughout both rounds that could have easily been avoided, just stuff I don’t normally do when playing competitive golf. I wasn’t really nervous. I felt comfortable in both rounds.”

But although his weekend ended early, the two days he spent in the tournament, in addition to the practice days earlier in the week, gave him a more important revelation than the one experienced during his freshman year: he felt comfortable amongst the best in the world.

Where Mueller at first saw professionals as otherworldly athletes, he later saw entirely different things — human compatriots with the same motives and goals as he had.

“I would pass Jordan Spieth in the locker room, and the first couple days I was there I was like, ‘Wow! That’s Jordan Spieth,’ ”Mueller said. “But by the end of it, he was just another guy trying to do what I’m doing.”

For the rest of the summer, Mueller is scheduled to play in various amateur tournaments across the United States, culminating in the U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mi. — only 40 miles from Ann Arbor. These tournaments will feature the players Mueller is more accustomed to: high schoolers and college students trying to establish a footing for themselves. But as his week at Oakmont taught him, no matter the tournament, the competitors have the same goal, and no matter the competitors, Mueller can feel right at home.