After tragedy, UM's Mueller looks to close career with triumph
This would've been a hectic time for Monica Mueller, and she would've loved it.
She rarely missed seeing her son, Kyle, play in a golf tournament, and consider this schedule over the past month: Big Ten championships, U.S. Open local qualifying, NCAA regionals and, finally, this week's NCAA championships — which will be followed by U.S. Open sectional qualifying, ideally the U.S. Open, and then a steady stream of PGA Tour Monday qualifiers.
Kyle, one of the most decorated golfers in University of Michigan history, plans to turn professional immediately following the NCAAs.
"She went to probably 90 percent of my tournaments," Kyle said Wednesday before flying out to Stillwater, Okla., for the NCAA championships. "I spent a lot of quality time with her on the road."
Monica was on her way to see Kyle play in an amateur tournament in Hilton Head, S.C., in July 2016, planning to arrive for the July 6 practice round — because Kyle's older brother, Kurt, was set to caddie during that practice round.
During that practice round, Kurt received a phone call from their dad, and took it. Monica had been in a car accident. So the Mueller brothers immediately left the course, Kurt hopped on the driver's side, Kyle the passenger's, and they rushed to the hospital in Savannah, Ga., where she was in critical condition when they arrived.
Monica died that day. She was 52.
And Kyle's world, just like that, changed forever.
"The last two years have been some of the hardest years I've experienced," said Kyle, "not only myself, but my dad and my brother."
And the entire Michigan golf team, really.
"She was kind of like the team mom. She was probably one of the most supportive parents we've ever had," coach Chris Whitten said. "She was a pretty incredible lady."
As Kyle prepares for his final collegiate tournament — he's one of the top-ranked amateur golfers in the country and has realistic visions of winning a national championship — that incredible lady, who made a habit of hanging way back of Kyle while he played, will instead be on every tee, right by his side, as she's been for every one of his rounds the last two years.
Kyle plays No. 10 Titleist golf balls.
Monica's birthday was June 10.
"She's still there watching over me," said Kyle, "I truly believe that."
'She wanted me at MSU'
Kyle's parents — Eric and Monica, the latter who grew up in Saginaw — both went to Michigan State and studied veterinary medicine. So it was a bit of a surprise when Kyle, late in his sophomore year of high school, told his parents he received a recruiting email from Whitten at Michigan. It wasn't a very detailed email. More of a form letter, really.
"They probably send them out to every junior golfer," Kyle said, laughing.
Whitten confirms that, sort of.
"We probably contact the top 100 junior players in the country every year," he said. "But it's not 1,000."
Kyle, though, hit reply, the next thing he knew he was taking an official visit to Ann Arbor, his parents by his side, of course.
But, interestingly, he wasn't even Michigan's main recruiting target.
"Then, the summer after his junior year, we got to watch him in person and spent time with him," Whitten said. "His game looked so good."
Conversely, Michigan looked so good for Kyle, who committed to the Wolverines over Michigan State, Mercer and Central Florida.
Dad was cool with it. While he was a Michigan State fan, it was a casual fandom. He was all-in on vet school as a student.
Mom, well, that was a different story.
"Mom," said Kyle, chuckling, "she didn't take it so well. She wanted me to end up at Michigan State."
It didn't take long, of course, to realize her son made the right decision.
Whitten wasn't sure how quickly Kyle would adapt to the college game, or what the future held. Then, on Sept. 7, 2014, less than a month into his college career, Kyle was holding a medal. He won his collegiate debut, the Wolverine Intercollegiate, with rounds of 67, 60 and 69.
"And then, everything changed," Whitten said. "Because he won.
"All of a sudden, we thought, well, this might be different."
For the first time in four years, Michigan made the NCAAs, thanks to Kyle's runner-up showing at regionals. His average score was 72.56. As a sophomore, Michigan made the NCAAs again. His average score was 71.72, making him the first Wolverine ever to average below par. As a junior, the season after his mother's death, he won two more individual championships, and got Michigan to the NCAAs again. His average score was 71.36.
Then, this year, his senior year, he won three more championships, qualified for NCAAs as an individual, and won the Columbus, Ohio, regional, making him the first Michigan player ever to win sole-medalist honors at a regional. That earned him his ticket back to this week's NCAA championships, for the first time since that freshman season. His average score was 70.23, setting Michigan's single-season record for a third time.
Three times, he was first-team All-Big Ten.
He's also played in three U.S. Amateurs and one U.S. Open, in June 2016 — the highlight of his life, just a month before the low point, Monica's accident.
There have been many more school records, many more collegiate accolades, to say nothing of a storied prep career — but Kyle, a rather reserved yet polite fella, probably already is embarrassed about the length of this story to this point. And, well, yeah, newsprint is expensive.
Kyle enters the final week of his amateur career ranked 25th in the world amateur rankings, and 14th in the United States. He could very well become the fourth Michigan golfer ever to win a national championship.
At Oklahoma State's Karsten Creek Golf Club, there will be three rounds of stroke play, Friday through Sunday, with the top teams and individuals advancing to Monday, when the individual champion will be crowned.
"I'm not necessarily the type to put a goal or expectation on how someone plays, because you can't control what anyone else in the field does," Whitten said. "Kyle could play great and five others could play better.
"But he's fully capable."
And completely confident.
"I want to bring back home some hardware," said Kyle, 22, "for sure."
He won his first collegiate event, so why not his last?
It'd be one hell of a story, to be certain, especially considering he almost left Michigan after two seasons, following his mother's death, so he could be closer to his dad and brother in Athens, Ga.
'Live our best life'
As far as funerals go, Monica's was impressive. It was July 14, 2016, in Athens. Turnout was enormous. And Kyle, Kurt and Eric greeted every guest — despite the 95-degree Georgia heat outside, which wasn't a whole lot better inside St. Joseph's Catholic Church.
Among the guests: Every member of Michigan's golf team, and the coaching staff. After the funeral, the Muellers invited everyone back to the house for hours of eating, grieving and story-telling. Until it was time to go.
But one guest, then-Michigan senior golfer Chris O'Neill, two years Kyle's senior, didn't leave. He stayed with Kyle for two weeks or so.
"After the incident, there were a lot of thoughts going through my head and moving back home," Kyle said. "But I figured that's not what she would've wanted. She would've wanted us to continue to live our best life, so I decided to stay and finish out my last two years.
"It was one of the best decisions I've ever made."
His teammates had a lot to do with that decision, including O'Neill, Nick Carlson (junior this year) and Bryce Evon (senior last year), with whom Kyle has become particularly close to.
"My teammates and coaches are really the reason," said Kyle, who this past February was presented the David Toms Overcoming Adversity Award during a live ceremony on the Golf Channel. "They really picked me up when I was in some pretty bad places.
"They're the reason I am the way I am today."
Said Whitten: "I wouldn't have faulted him or anybody else if they felt like being close to home. But probably within two weeks of the services, he wanted to get back into his summer schedule. That's what Monica would've wanted. This is Kyle's thing, he worked hard to earn these opportunities, and Monica would want him to play. He also was really looking forward to being back with all his teammates."
Monica — a casual golfer herself who played three or four times a year, but did have a hole-in-one on her resume, while dad, a much-more-avid golfer, still is searching for No. 1 — may have wanted Kyle to attend Michigan State.
But she quickly immersed herself into the Michigan family, the entire Michigan family. Whitten likes to fancy himself and his staff as pretty organized, but without fail, there was some detail they overlooked, and Monica always was on it — always making quick store trips, for snacks, fruit, beverages, sunscreen, anything, and not just for Kyle. For all his teammates, too.
At matches, while dad walked way ahead of Kyle — in case he sprayed a shot well off-line, he wanted to make sure the ball was found — she walked way behind, often allowing her to see Kyle's teammates play, and report to Whitten and other coaches about scores of interest.
Kyle keeps her memory alive with the No. 10 Titleists, and the team hasn't forgotten her, either. Whenever Kyle's dad is in for a tournament, Monica stories and memories, without fail, are a popular topic of conversation.
"She was there," said Whitten, "to watch everybody."
This week, in Stillwater, Okla., she'll be there to watch one.
Kyle has absolutely no doubt about that.