While most 19-year-olds with golf aspirations were in college this past school year, Mike Miller was getting his education in a different setting – the elite amateur golf circuit. His classrooms were places like the Country Club of Charleston, where the Azalea Invitational is held, and Naples National Golf Club, home of the Terra Cotta. Miller even studied abroad, with a trip to the British Isles for the Lytham Trophy in Lancashire, England, and then the Irish Amateur at Royal Dublin.
Though he has eschewed school ever since he left Penn State in the winter of 2011, Miller has nonetheless learned a lot in his recent travels. About competitive golf, and also the life he hopes to one day lead as a touring pro. About believing he is good enough to play with the best. He has also managed to post some pretty good golf grades. Grades in terms of strong tournament finishes. Like a second in the Terra Cotta, and the T4s in the Azalea, the Lytham Trophy and the Irish Am.
Add those results to a golf transcript that already included a win in the Met Am last summer as well as qualifying for the last two U.S. Amateurs and being named the Met Player of the Year in 2011, and it is easy to understand why the only educational institution Miller truly wants to attend is Q-School. Which he plans to do at the end of this year.
“I’d like to make golf my profession,” says Miller, whose father, Bob, has been the head professional at Knollwood Country Club, in Elmsford, N.Y., the past 25 years, and whose Aunt Lynn is married to Jim Turnesa of the fabled Turnesa golf family. “Ideally, I’d like to make it to the PGA Tour.”
While playing golf without having to go to class may seem ideal to most 19-year-olds, this wasn’t exactly how Miller saw things working out a couple of years ago. Though he only started playing the game with any seriousness six years ago, when he went to his father for golf lessons after spending most of his athletic energy on baseball and hockey, Miller got very good very fast, qualifying for a pair U.S. Junior Amateur Championships.
He won the Met Junior in 2010 and that same year qualified for the U.S. Amateur for the first time, making it to match play, where he lost to Joseph Bramlett (now on the PGA Tour), 4 and 3. So, no one was really surprised when Penn State University recruited him while he was attending high school in Brewster, N.Y. – or when Miller decided to go there.
Miller quickly showed Penn State that it was getting someone special. He finished T6 in his first college tournament, the Wolf Run Intercollegiate, and then won his second, the Maryland Intercollegiate. But problems soon started to appear. “The golf coach and I just didn’t see eye-to-eye on some things,” Miller says. “My playing style, and his coaching style did not mix.”
So, Miller went home. And while that seemed to him like the right move at the time, it was by no means an easy one. “At first, I regretted leaving,” Miller says. “Then, I started wondering if it was going to work out. I worried about all the financial difficulties I had already put my parents through by playing golf.
“But I knew that nothing in this game comes easy. You just have to find it, and that is what I started doing. I knew I had a road to travel, and I knew there would be bumps. But I figured it was better to have things in my own hands, than in someone else’s.”
So, Miller began playing a lot of competitive golf, only in the extraordinary position as a teenaged independent. He no doubt felt like he had a lot to prove after his departure from Penn State, and he played like it. With his father, Bob, often on his bag, he tied for third at the 2011 New York City Amateur and finished second in the Hochster Memorial at Quaker Ridge and T2 at the Westchester Open.
He captured the Brae Burn Invitational. But Miller’s biggest triumph was in the Met Amateur, which was contested last August at Piping Rock. He found himself 3 down to Sam Bernstein in the 36-hole final, but then managed to card five birdies and two eagles in a torrid, nine-hole stretch to square the match at 26 holes. Miller then went on to win 3 and 1. A couple of months later, he received his Player of the Year honor.
Money was a strain throughout the 2011, as it so often is for amateur golfers. Especially those who are on their own. So, Miller caddied some at his home course of Knollwood when he wasn’t teeing it up in tournaments. A change in golf’s Rules of Amateur Status eased some of that pressure, as it allowed golfers to receive reasonable subsistence expenses.
That certainly made it easier for him to travel to places likes Charleston and Naples, to say nothing of that trip to the British Isles (though he still needs to be driven around when he is on the road because he remains too young to rent a car). And it will make it possible for Miller to venture far and wide this summer and fall for other tournaments.
“I think I’ve got a week off in June and maybe a few days in July,” he says. “Otherwise, I am going to be playing a lot.”
And getting on with his golf education.