Kyle Mueller’s collegiate career already has been historic, at least in terms of University of Michigan lore.
But, boy, adding one last line to his bio that includes the name Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Jack Nicklaus, now that would be really sweet.
With a blistering round of golf at the regional finale Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio, Mueller has advanced to the NCAA Championships, where he will try to become Michigan’s fourth-ever individual national champion, and first since 1936 — which would also put him in the company of Tiger, Phil and Jack.
“His game,” said Michigan coach Chris Whitten, “is good enough.”
At the Scarlet Course at Ohio State, Mueller shot a 5-under 66 to earn Columbus Regional medalist honors by two strokes. He became Michigan’s second-ever regional medalist, and first to win one outright. Lion Kim was co-medalist in 2011.
Mueller, 22, was even par through two rounds and in ninth place, individually. But he got off to a scorching start in the third and final round, shooting a 4-under 32 on the front nine, and skyrocketed up the leaderboard.
That was the goal all week — to win the regional outright, and not leave his spot in the NCAA Championships up to chance.
“My mind set the whole week was to go out there and win the tournament. That would take care of everything,” Mueller said Wednesday afternoon, early in his drive back to Michigan, along with Whitten. “I didn’t want to leave it up to anybody else.”
He didn’t know it, but he didn’t have much reason to sweat. More on that in a moment.
Mueller made his first bogey of the round on 11, but answered with a birdie at the par-5 12th.
Interestingly, though, he didn’t know where he stood until after making bogey at the 14th hole. He asked Michigan assistant coach Patrick Wilkes-Krier where he stood, and he was told the bogey dropped him into a tie for medalist.
As one of the last golfers on the course, he knew he controlled his own destiny for sole medalist honors.
That’s why missing a 6-footer for birdie on 15 was so disappointing.
“I was a little rattled after that,” Mueller said. “At the same time, I knew that 16 was a very accessable pin and a really good birdie chance.”
Sure enough, he hit wedge to 4 feet on 16, made the putt to regain the lead — and then, as an added bonus, hit 6-iron to 15 feet on the 220-yard, par-3 17th and made that putt, too, to open up the cushion.
A safe, no-sweat par on 18 sealed the deal.
Mueller was runner-up in his regional as a freshman, the only other time he’s made the NCAA Championships.
While Mueller didn’t want to leave anything to chance, it ended up that only a complete disaster would’ve cost him a trip to the NCAA Championships later this month in Stillwater, Okla. He was competing at the Columbus Regional as an individual, as Michigan’s team didn’t qualify. Five of the 13 teams advanced to the NCAA Championships, and then the next-best individual scorer also got to advance.
In the end, the 14 golfers right behind Mueller were members of the five qualifying teams — Oklahoma State, Illinois, UNLV, Northwestern and Texas Tech,.
Next best was Penn State’s Cole Miller, whom Mueller beat by eight shots.
Mueller opened with a 73, done in by some poor putting. He responded with a 69 in the second round, before the closing 66, tied for the best round of the day. Being in the Big Ten, he was familiar with the Scarlet Course, and that certainly helped.
“I played there my freshman and sophomore years, and had two pretty good finishes,” said Mueller, who earlier this month also qualified for U.S. Open sectionals. “The golf course definitely fits my game. It’s a big-boy course. You have to hit it long and straight, and if you miss it, you better be able to hit it out of thick rough.
“It definitely benefits my game. I was excited when I found out we’re going there. I felt comfortable and had a lot of confidence.”
Whitten said the next course — Stillwater’s Karsten Creek Golf Course, widely considered the toughest course in college golf — could similarly fit Mueller, an Athens, Ga., native whose strengths are accuracy off the tee and ball-striking.
It’s that driver and those irons that had Mueller shattering a slew of Michigan records, including single-season scoring average (70.32; 2017-18) and career scoring average (71.65). He’s the only Wolverine to post sub-72 season averages, and he did it three seasons. He’s the first Wolverine to lead the team in scoring all four season.
Now, he gets one more shot to bring another national champion to Michigan, and first since 1947. Michigan’s other national champions were Dave Barclay (1947, at Michigan Golf Course), Charles Kocsis (1936) and John Fischer (1932).
The NCAA Championships are May 25-30. The individual tournament is stroke play; the team tournament is match play.
“I was there for nationals in 2011 with the team,” Whitten said of Karsten Creek. “It’s all in the length and requirements in your ball-striking, and Kyle’s game is built around hitting great tee shots and really good approaches. That’s what he did this week, and the driver and irons, that’ll carry over hopefully.”
Michigan State was in Columbus competing as a team, and finished seventh — 14 shots out of the top five. Senior Michael Sharp finished 7 over, and tied for 24th, to lead the way for the Spartans.
Wolverine makes Volvik
Michigan freshman Ashley Kim was awarded a sponsor’s exemption into next week’s LPGA Volvik Championship at Travis Pointe Country Club in Ann Arbor.
The invitation comes a year after her sister, Michigan senior Megan Kim, got to play on the LPGA Tour, in the Meijer LPGA Classic near Grand Rapids.
“And now for me to follow makes for a great family moment,” said Ashley Kim, of Redondo Beach, Calif. “I have dreamt iof playing on the LPGA and challenging myself with some of the best players in the world.”
Megan will caddie for Ashley in the Volvik, which begins May 23. Ashley, 19, is the fourth Wolverine in the last five years to earn a spot in an LPGA Tour tournament.
Ashley Kim started all nine events for Michigan this past season, and led the Wolverines in four of the events. Her 75.17 scoring average was second on the team