Local golfers set for U.S. Open test

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Kyle Mueller hits a tee shot during practice at Oakmont on Sunday.

Kyle Mueller and Patrick Wilkes-Krier knew they were set to play a practice round with Zach Johnson, which was plenty cool in itself.

A friend of Mueller's dad used to sponsor Johnson on what used to be called the Nationwide Tour, and Wilkes-Krier had crossed paths with Johnson on occasion in Florida.

But when Mueller and Wilkes-Krier showed up to the first tee Sunday at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, there was a surprise, a big surprise, filling out the foursome.

Some guy named Jordan Spieth.

"I think today was a good way to kick it off," Mueller said over the phone Sunday night, chuckling at the understatement. "I don't think you can get much better than that."

And the U.S. Open, golf's national championship, doesn't even start for another few days.

"Spieth will probably forget about it," Wilkes-Krier said. "But it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

One hundred and fifty golfers will compete in this week's U.S. Open, the second of four majors on the golf calendar.

Most eyes, to be sure, will be on the Big Three -- world No. 1 Jason Day; Spieth, the defending champion; and Rory McIlroy -- but Michigan will be represented in the field, too.

Mueller, who just finished his sophomore season on the University of Michigan golf team, and Wilkes-Krier, an Ann Arbor native and Ypsilanti resident, both qualified at a sectionals tournament last week in Ohio.

Michigan golf alum Justin Hicks, a PGA Tour member, also is playing in the tournament.

This is the sixth U.S. Open for Hicks, but the first for Mueller and Wilkes-Krier. So they can be excused if they'll spend the practice days -- or every second before teeing it up for real, both at 8:57 a.m. Thursday, Wilkes-Krier off No. 1 and Mueller off No. 10 -- soaking every last bit of the experience.

"I was hitting balls on the range, and I look to my left, and there's Zach, Jordan and Adam Scott," Mueller said. "It's all starting to hit me."

All the cameras, plus the thousands of fans -- and autograph seekers -- hadn't even come out in full force, yet.

"Each day, it kind of settles in a little bit more," Wilkes-Krier said. "I think it's gonna be a pretty crazy next few days. Oh, my, I'm playing in a major championship."

Different points

Mueller and Wilkes-Krier are at very different points in their golf careers.

Mueller, from Athens, Georgia, is just 21, and has some key experience playing in a big event -- he made the final 16 in last year's U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields in Illinois. He's fresh off a season in which he averaged 71.72, making him the first Wolverine to average a sub-72 score for a full season.

Patrick Wilkes-Krier

Meanwhile, Wilkes-Krier, 32, is a decade removed from his college golf days at Ball State. He's done some grinding on the mini-tours, made a cut and $2,548 in his lone made cut on the Web.com Tour in 2013, and doesn't play nearly as much these days, but rather he teaches. He's an instructor at the Kendall Academy at Miles of Golf in Ypsilanti.

Both finished at 5-under over 36 holes in the sectional qualifier last Monday, even though both had very different expectations.

Wilkes-Krier, for example, had none.

"I knew the chances were pretty slim," said Wilkes-Krier, who attended Ann Arbor Huron High School. "The field had PGA Tour winners -- from this year. To think that I was in position where I should get past them ..."

One of them was Jackson native Brian Stuard, a former Oakland University golfer who in May earned the first PGA Tour win of his career, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

Stuard finished the qualifier in Springfield, Ohio -- where 58 players vied for four entrants into the U.S. Open -- at even, one shot out of a playoff for the final spot.

During the qualifier, Mueller didn't want updates on where he stood. He wanted his focus to stay on his shots. But when his caddie, Chris O'Neill, told him to use an iron off the tee on the second-to-last hole, a driveable par 4, that's when he knew.

O'Neill, who just graduated from Michigan and was a teammate of Mueller's on the golf team, again is on the bag for the U.S. Open. They've become fast friends in their two years together at Ann Arbor.

Caddying for Wilkes-Krier, meanwhile, will be David Szymanski, a Grosse Pointe native who is one of his students at Kendall, and a member of the golf team at Robert Morris University, a 45-minute drive from Oakmont.

So it's not just an exciting week for the golfers.

"He knows my game well," Wilkes-Krier said. "This will be, obviously, an incredible experience, even for his own golf game."

After a late dinner Sunday with Mueller, O'Neill talked about nerves. As in, his own.

"I don't want to mess anything up," O'Neill, from Glen Allen, Virginia, said, laughing. "I myself have hopes of playing in this someday, so it's really cool getting to watch all the guys and being along on the bag with one of my best friends."

Both golfers figure to have fairly decent cheering sections, given the proximity to home. Michigan golf coach Chris Whitten is among those traveling to Oakmont, on Wednesday. Mueller, of course, will be using his maize-and-blue Michigan golf bag.

‘Anything can happen’

The fun and games of the practice rounds, and the star-gazing, eventually will end, and on Thursday morning, Mueller and Wilkes-Krier will step on that first tee, butterflies doing somersaults, no doubt, in their gut.

The course plays about 7,200 yards, with one par 3 that can play up to 300 yards, par 4s close to 500 yards or over, and a par 5 that could play as much as 667 yards. But distance won't be an issue for either golfer, as they learned in Sunday's practice round. With firm, hard fairways, they more than hung with Johnson and Spieth on that front.

Putting on lightning-fast greens and accuracy off the tee and on the approach shots will be much more of a premium, given the extreme length of the rough -- rough with thickness that even amazed Spieth and Johnson.

"It's out of control," Wilkes-Krier said. "You're almost forgetting where the pin is, even when you're hitting chips around the green."

Driving accuracy and distance is a strength for Mueller, whose goal is to make the cut after two days -- "and from there, who knows? Anything can happen."

Battling the nerves will be a challenge, too, perhaps the biggest one.

That's where the caddies will be leaned on the most.

O'Neill and Szymanski know their golfers' games better than anyone. They also know their golfers -- and their psyches -- as well as anyone.

"It's huge," Mueller said. "He keeps reminding me that I belong here. We're here with the same goal that these guys have. We might be in college, but we're just as good. They might have a little more exposure, but we're here to compete with them. It's huge to take a step back and realize I can play with these guys.

"They just have a couple more years under their belt."

Playing the practice round with Spieth and Johnson probably helped on that front.

Known as two of the better guys on the PGA Tour -- despite super-impressive resumes, with 20 wins and four major championships between them -- they were plenty chatty with Mueller and Wilkes-Krier during the round, talking about the course, the setup, and there was plenty of joking around.

The joking began on the first tee, when Johnson told Wilkes-Krier and Mueller they would be joined by a guy he purposely mispronounced as "Spythe." The practice round was chronicled on Twitter, but there's no posed picture with Mueller, Spieth and Johnson.

Mueller couldn't bring himself to ask.

"I can't be that kid that asked for autographs, as much as I wanted to," Mueller said. "They're competitors now."

U.S. OPEN

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

TV: Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on FS1, 5-8 p.m. on Fox; Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. on Fox; Sunday, 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. on Fox

Defending champion: Jordan Spieth

Local entrants: Justin Hucks, UM golf alum and Wyandotte native; Kyle Mueller, UM golfer; Patrick Wilkes-Krier, Ann Arbor native and Ypsilanti resident.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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