Blue-collar ethic drives golfer Nick Carlson’s success

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Nick Carlson, ranked 1,981st in the world, reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur this week at Oakland Hills Country Club.

Bloomfield Township — Nick Carlson is no phony.

What you see is what you get, and what you get almost always leaves you smiling — and, no, we’re not just talking about his vast array of amazing and sometimes wildly creative golf shots.

Shortly after Saturday’s grueling, thrilling, 21-hole semifinal match came to an end on an increasingly cloudy day at Oakland Hills Country Club, a tournament worker pulled aside Steve Carlson, Nick’s dad, and whispered in his ear, “You’ve got a great kid.”

Steve Carlson, grinning all week, let out one, last, giant beam.

“That means more,” Steve Carlson said, “than saying he’s a great golfer.”

Nick Carlson, a University of Michigan sophomore, turned Oakland Hills into his own personal Big House over the last week, riding a hot game — and booming drives that don’t seem physically possible from a 5-foot-5 squirt of a 19-year-old — before the clock finally struck midnight on his Cinderella story, in a loss to Australian Curtis Luck.

But just as much, Carlson impressed the masses — the fans who drove from his hometown of Hamilton in West Michigan, the fans who didn’t know his name when he teed off for the first time Monday morning, and tournament workers who paid the USGA $80 for the right to volunteer in the sweltering heat all week — with his personality, his graciousness, and his politeness.

When he wasn’t staking iron shots or holing out chips that would later air on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” he was bouncing along the lush grounds of one of the nation’s most prestigious golf playgrounds, thanking every employee and volunteer he saw.

That’s just who he is, which is to say authentic. It’s because of where he came from, which is to say, not a whole lot.

So many youth golfers come from money. Nick Carlson, most certainly, does not.

Instead, he comes from a super-tight-knit family that makes do, thanks to two selfless parents who work third shifts, one in the sweltering heat of a factory, the other in a children’s hospital.

“They’ve done so much for me,” Carlson, through tears, said of his parents, Steve and Lori. “They drive me places that I couldn’t go when I didn’t have a car. They give me gas money when I need it. I just got a job for the first time, if that tells you anything about how good my parents are to me.

“We couldn’t afford a hotel room a couple nights ago when I kept going. They did everything they could.

“They’ve done so much for me,” says Nick Carlson of parents Steve and Lori Carlson.

“You’re playing a rich man’s sport, to be honest. I don’t like saying that, but that’s kind of what it is, that’s how it’s perceived. ... I’ve been lucky enough to be able to play it, and play it well.”

From modest means

Chris Whitten, entering his 11th season as a golf coach at Michigan, including his sixth as the head coach, has seen a whole lot of amateur golfers, through recruiting trips and watching junior tournaments.

What he typically sees are kids who come from great means.

“Some kids come to college,” said Whitten, “and the facilities that we have aren’t as good as what they used to have at home.”

Then there’s Carlson, who started golfing at age 5, thanks to a local company that cut him some clubs, and immediately started beating old ball after old ball on a driving range he calls “crappy,” with just a little patch of grass for tees, dirt everywhere else, and an old tractor that was used to retrieve balls.

His home course was, and remains, Diamond Springs in Hamilton, population-3,000ish, about 30 miles southwest of Grand Rapids.

Carlson volunteered at the course, so he could have the run of the place, where he once shot a 62.

It’s no Oakland Hills, where he got to play seven rounds of golf over the past week — and where membership fees are said to be around $100,000. But, hey, it’s home.

“This is a treat,” Carlson said, standing off the lush driving range at Oakland Hills. “But there’s no place I’d rather be than Diamond Springs, to be honest.

“I’ll probably go there (Sunday), just to play golf with my friends. That’s what I want to do.”

A big story line over the last week has been Carlson’s world amateur ranking, which is 1,981st — until the new rankings come out. He beat Nos. 6, 35 and 43 in the world, and lost to No. 7 Luck.

Here’s what you need to know about the rankings. The points are accumulated through playing in tournaments, and the highest-ranked guys typically come from families that can send their child golf prodigy all over the globe. Nick Carlson could afford, this summer, to play in the U.S. Amateur qualifier, a Michigan Amateur qualifier, the Kent County Amateur (which he won) and the U.S. Amateur, which stretched the family budget as Carlson kept winning and winning and winning.

But that’s OK, Steve Carlson said.

“I’ll work overtime, I’ll go without. I will not take vacation. If you want to work your passion that can take you somewhere, I’ll put up the money,” said Steve Carlson, 51, who works 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. at Mead Johnson in Zeeland, where the temperature in the baby-formula factory gets up to 110 degrees.

“I would rather give all my kids whatever they need, but I just don’t hand it to them. You’re gonna work for it. You’re gonna go practice for it. You’re gonna work at your game, or you’re gonna practice at your game, or your craft. I don’t care what my kids are, they could be a musician. If you’re gonna practice for three hours a day, I’ll pay for it!”

Lori Carlson, 46, works as a respiratory therapist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, from 6:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. They each sleep about four or five hours a night, to the amazement of their four boys.

When they do take a family vacation, it usually has to revolve around a golf tournament — Nick, 19, and Zach, 17, are players. Friends often ask why they don’t get a nicer car. Simple. A nicer car won’t pay for, say, golf-tournament entry fees, which aren’t cheap. So they get by with a used 2011 Mitsubishi, a 1999 Suburban and an old Ford Escort that Steve Carlson drives to work. The boys can use the cars, so long as they’re working hard at that passion.

Nick Carlson finally just got his own car, a used car, after getting a job as a cart boy at posh Ravines Golf Club in Saugatuck this summer — “Way too nice for me to play,” Nick Carlson said, with a grin, “until I got the job.”

“Every parent says they want their kid to have a better thing than them, give them a step up,” said Steve Carlson, who comes from a big family, and had just one sibling who went to college. “You really want them to have something better, and I want that for every one of my kids.

“That’s what you do. You sacrifice yourself, so your kid can make it to the U.S. Amateur.”

While walking down the 14th fairway during Saturday’s match, with Nick Carlson clinging to a 1-up lead, Lori Carlson — on course all week sans one day, when she was back home watching Zach in a junior qualifier — said she was the most calm she’d been all week.

Carlson volunteered at Diamond Springs in Hamilton, Mich., where he could play regularly. He once shot a 62 there.

Asked how that could be the case, with a spot in the 2017 Masters and U.S. Open at stake with a win Saturday — reigning U.S. Amateur runners-up get invites, along with the champions — she smiled.

“He’s gonna make me spend my money!” Lori Carlson said. “I’ve got a grandbaby on the way.”

Josh Carlson, 23, stationed in the Marines in San Diego, is going to have his first child. He was the one Carlson who couldn’t make it home for Nick’s big week, but he watched as much as he could on TV, even snapping a selfie of himself with Nick from the FS1 broadcast. He constantly texted and talked to Nick all week. The youngest Carlson boy is Luke, 15.

‘Something to prove’

Nick Carlson might’ve been the fan favorite by week’s end at Oakland Hills — the USGA announced an attendance of 5,800 for Saturday, absolutely huge numbers for a tournament that has plenty of prestige, but not a ton of cache among the casual golf fan because the competitors are usually so little-known — but he wasn’t even the favorite from his own college team to get to the match-play portion of the tournament. That would’ve been Kyle Mueller, who made the Sweet 16 a year ago, and played in this year’s U.S. Open.

Carlson is just the No. 4 golfer on Michigan’s team. Five Wolverines hit it longer than him, and Carlson hits it a mile.

Of course, that’s just par for the course for Carlson, who’s never gotten anything easily.

“I think he probably always has felt that he has something to prove,” Whitten said. “Whatever he had, he had to work for, and never took anything for granted.”

It goes back to Steve’s edict — Mom and Dad will front the cash, but there’s one main condition: hard work.

And Nick Carlson, boy, did he work for it — spending mornings, afternoons and nights at the golf course, pounding balls on the range. Even Steve Carlson would occasionally say, “Come on, let’s go fishing.” The response from his boy almost always was, “Sure, just after a few hours at the range.” He’d usually come home eight or nine hours later.

That devotion paid off big-time in high school, when he won a state championship as a freshman and senior, with runners-up showings as a sophomore and junior.

That was the springboard to a partial golf scholarship — the team gets 4.5 a year, divided at the coach’s discretion to the eight-man roster — to the University of Michigan.

And then came this week, the biggest week of his golfing life, made all the more special by the support he received at Oakland Hills, from appearances by Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, to old teachers and youth pastors, to friends he hadn’t seen in years.

Where Carlson goes from here, we’ll see — but he’ll certainly be off to Los Angeles in 2017 for the U.S. Amateur at Riviera, and in 2018 at historic Pebble Beach. As a semifinalist, he’s exempt from qualifying for two years.

So, has the kid from blue-collar Hamilton and even-bluer-collar Diamond Springs ever played those two world-class golf courses?

“Pssshhh, are you kidding me?” Carlson said Saturday afternoon. “Not a chance.

“I can barely afford to get home tonight.”