This is what the U.S. Open qualifying is all about: Any professional or amateur golfer with a handicap index of 1.4 or lower can sign up for a shot at playing their way into the major championship. Not that it’s easy, but having the chance is what matters, which Dennis Miller, a 42-year-old director of golf at Mill Creek Metroparks in Boardman, Ohio, reminded us at the Columbus sectional, held at Scioto Country Club and OSU Scarlet Course.
This is also why you should stick around for the playoff at the end: Miller’s 18-footer for birdie from the fringe on the fourth hole in sudden death, the 18th at Scioto, looked like it was good as it made its way down the hill, then it turned just to the right at the last roll and sat on the lip. As Miller, with his shoulder’s slumped and head down, started walking to the hole to tap it in, the ball disappeared.
Here’s a video (thanks to @alexjhuang) of the actual video of the Golf Channel footage:
Amazing. It doesn’t get any better. By far, it was one of the coolest moments in sports I’ve seen in person (along with Tiger’s Chip on No. 16 a day earlier at The Memorial).
After bombing a drive 330 yards down the middle of the fairway, Miller had 140 in and the challenge was keeping the ball on the green.
“What was hard was trying to keep it below the hole on the second shot (on 18), it’s impossible,” said the likeable and jovial Miller.
I already had my phone out and ready to snap a shot of the ball hanging on the lip because I couldn’t believe it didn’t go in. The greens were firm and fast in true U.S. Open-style — the 18th was one of the many greens that was impossible to keep the ball below the hole, leaving players with a slick downhill putt.
Miller stared in disbelief and disappointed for a few seconds before he came to terms that he had just missed. When the ball fell in, the crowd of about 50 roared — high-fives all-around, guys pumping both arms in the air. Similar to a day earlier at The Memorial, I thought to myself, did that just really happen? Knowing me, I’m sure my jaw dropped in awe and wonder. Moments like that are reserved for movies like Tin Cup; not in real life!
The Reaction may have been just as incredible as The Putt. It certainly completed the theatrical four-for-three (four guys playing for the three final qualifying spots in the 16 available) playoff and topped off the feel-good story.
“This is the most exciting thing ever, no question,” said Miller.
Miller, who played on the men’s golf team at Youngstown State from ’89-’93, wasn’t even certain he’d get the chance to play in his 7th sectional qualifying (in 12 total attempts via the local). He showed up to the golf course Monday morning as the third alternate, but got the nod when David Hearn withdrew. A total of seven PGA Tour pros pulled out before their tee times (not counting the mid-round WDs, walk-offs, NCs, DQs, etc.).
Last week Miller wasn’t feeling about his game, particularly his putting. At the last minute he made a switch and threw in an old Maxfli Tad Moore from circa 1992. (In case you don’t remember what it looks like, here’s a picture of Miller’s.) He stroked about 20 practice putts before his starting time. His caddie Kirk Hough, a good friend, said Miller had been rolling it well for the first 36 holes, but they just weren’t falling with the exception of a 15-20 footer here and there…until the playoff.
“Seems like he’s a good wine, he gets better as he gets older,” said Hough of Miller, who won the Ohio Open in ’96.
By far, the U.S. Open at Olympic Golf Club will be the largest stage Miller has experienced. He estimates he’s played in seven or eight PGA Professional National Championships. Conveniently, the 2012 edition of the event will be held the following week at the Bayonet and Black Horse Golf Courses in the Monterey Peninsula, which is about a three-hour drive from the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
What happened in the previous three sudden death holes shouldn’t be discounted. Miller, the only “wait-who-is-that?” name, in the playoff. He was joined by the former Oklahoma State University standout Morgan Hoffman, PGA Tour player and ’11 Reno-Tahoe Open champ Scott Piercy (aka the guy who snapped his putter over his knee walking off the 18th green in San Antonio), and Nationwide Tour journeyman Justin Hicks, who didn’t earn enough to keep his PGA Tour card during his 2011 rookie year campaign.
“On the first hole I was trying not to embarrass myself with the crowd, but after that, I kind of got relaxed,” he said when I asked how he handled his nerves.
Miller was the only one to hold the green, knocking it to about 20-feet pin-high.
That’s when I turned to a fellow reporter and asked, “Wait, so who is this guy? Just a random club pro?” No clue, but he’s not Dennis Miller, the comedian.
This guy pulled his drive on the second extra hole, the par-4, 440-yard 10th hole and he managed to hook an 8-iron through the trees to make it to the front part of the green, leaving him with about a 50-footer to the back-right pin location. He lagged it to seven feet, which he made for par and advanced to the par-3, 204-yard 17th hole.
Meanwhile, Hoffman dropped a 20-footer for birdie to clinch the first of three remaining spots.
Miller’s tee shot on 17 landed in the right bunker. From there, when the club made contact, it clanged like the he hit a rock before the ball — which he confirmed afterward — making it difficult to control and took the spin off. A water hazard was on the other side of the green, but his ball rolled through the green and stopped on the fringe. He made an 18-footer for par.
Holy #$*&! This just got silly.
Collectively, the four players put on the most impressive display of clutch putting I’ve ever seen in person — I’ll save the other details for another post. I mean, I thought last year’s sectional qualifying was intriguing and it ranked in my top-five, possibly three, favorite events to cover all season. Well, this Monday blew it out of the park.
Congrats again to Miller and best of luck at the U.S. Open. We’ll see him at Olympic.