Although the Michigan men’s golf team’s season ended at the Big Ten Championships in April, senior Kyle Mueller’s kept going. The senior advanced to the postseason for the fourth consecutive time — his second time as an individual — and competed at the NCAA Columbus Regional in mid-May.
Mueller excelled at the Regional tournament. He hovered near the top of the leaderboard the first two rounds, then shot an astounding five-under-par 66 during his final round to win the tournament and thus qualify for the NCAA Championships at Karsten Creek Golf Course.
Off to Stillwater, Okla. he went to compete on collegiant golf’s biggest stage for the second time in his career.
Back in Mueller’s freshman year, his team’s season ended at the Regional tournament, yet he qualified individually for the NCAA Championships in Bradenton, Fla.
The NCAA Championships begin with three rounds of stroke play. From there, the top 15 teams as well as the top nine individuals qualified for a fourth round of stroke play. During the fourth round, the individual champion is decided and the top eight teams move on to a match play tournament for the team title.
As a freshman, Mueller was tied for 94th after the opening three rounds and thus failed to make the cut.
“I think my freshman year I was just thrilled to be there,” Mueller said. “I had a different mindset going into it this year. … It was different coming back as a senior because I really believed that I had a very good chance of going out there and — if I played my best golf — of competing and potentially winning it.”
Despite the new mindset, Mueller tied for 117th — out of the 156-man field — through three rounds to miss the cut and end his career as a Wolverine.
“Both years I was there I played very poor, so that’s very disappointing,” Mueller said. “But it is a pretty big accomplishment to make it there, so I just kind of have to take the positives away from that.”
Weather disrupted the opening round on Friday, May 25. Everything got pushed back later in the day due to over three hours of lightning delay. Because of this, Mueller only finished his first nine holes before play was stopped due to darkness.
“When eventually I got out to play, the conditions were very getable. It was playing really easy soft, no wind,” Mueller said of Friday’s round. “But once again I didn’t play my best golf, so I didn’t really take advantage of those conditions. But it was getable for sure.”
He was three over par through those nine holes and sat tied for 80th.
Early Saturday morning, Mueller set out to finish the leftover nine holes from his opening round. He got off to a rough start with a quadruple bogey on his first hole, a par four.
But he kept his composure and capitalized on his first par five of the day, hitting the green in two and sinking a long putt for eagle from the back of the green.
“It’s very easy to make a big number out there,” Mueller said. “You're hitting a really tough shot on every single hole, pretty much. … If you don’t have your best stuff, the golf course will expose you. It’s very important to take it one shot at a time. And you hear that so often — it’s such a cliché golf term — but to really be able to do that out there is definitely key.”
He ended up carding a 79 — seven over — for round one, and after a short break, he began the second round.
Mueller fared better in round two. The par five he made eagle on earlier in the day? He eagled again, this time with a chip in from behind the green. By the end of the day, he notched a 73 — one over — but the competition was strong, so Mueller was tied for 120th.
“I guess it makes it a little harder just because it’s kind of stop-and-go and you can’t really get in any rhythm,” Mueller said about playing two rounds in one day. “But you know, I’ve dealt with that my entire golfing career. … So it’s nothing new, nothing that I’m not used to. That’s not why I played bad golf; I just didn’t have my best stuff.”
On Sunday, Mueller couldn’t quite buy himself more time, as he shot a five-over 77 to miss the cut.
“It just kind of felt like I was struggling with my golf swing a little bit throughout the whole tournament, and I think a lot of that is definitely due to Karsten Creek,” Mueller said. “It’s an extremely demanding golf course.”
This tournament aside, though, Mueller’s career at Michigan has been remarkable. He’s started in all 50 events in his four years and boasts a 71.71 career scoring average — the lowest in program history. And his 70.76 scoring average this season is the program’s best single season average as well.
“It’s what every coach wants, you know, to have somebody who not only plays well but leads the team and sets an example in every possible way — everything from school to work ethic, being friends with every single guy on the team,” said Michigan coach Chris Whitten. “And then on top of that, he shoots the lowest score of the team at almost every single tournament without really needing a lot of help or even asking for any special attention."
“So, we’ve been very lucky.”
It’s safe to say he’s one of the best — if not the best — player the program’s ever had.
“I really attribute all of it to the coaches and the guys on the team. Every day, even after class, we’re going in there and the coaches they’re pushing us to get better and we’re pushing each other to get better,” Mueller said. “Going back to my whole recruiting process, my number one priority was finding a school where I would get better every year. The University of Michigan, I can 100 percent say that was the right decision.”
Mueller plans to turn professional soon and will compete at an upcoming U.S. Open Sectional Qualifier to try and qualify for his second U.S Open. He competed in the 2016 U.S. Open.
“Turning professional is pretty easy — you just call up the U.S.G.A. (United States Golf Association) and just tell them your're turning professional — so I’ll turn professional,” Mueller said. “Staying professional is the hard part.”
But throughout his career as a Wolverine, Mueller’s proved he’s ready for the challenge.