MILWAUKEE(AP) College golf hotbeds generally are, well, hot. That makes Mike Van Sickle a likely PGA Tour prospect playing in an unlikely place.
Sure, warm-weather schools such as Oklahoma State, Southern California and Georgia still rule college golf. But the nation’s best player just might be a personable 22-year-old currently making his rounds at Marquette, where spring weather is more likely to involve scarves and boots than sun visors and spikes.
A late bloomer, Van Sickle was skipped over by the nation’s elite golf schools coming out of high school but feels at home at Marquette. And unlike other sports, where coming from a marquee program might be an advantage when it’s time to go pro, golf’s playing field is level.
“Whether you play golf at Marquette or USC, it doesn’t matter,” Van Sickle said. “There is no draft. It’s not like playing at a bigger school or being more publicly recognized is going to get you more money when you get out there. Because you just go out there, and everyone has to play the same golf course in the same conditions – whatever those conditions are – and at the end of the day you earn a score based on the way you played.
“It’s just the most fair game out there.”
Van Sickle, a senior, won five of the 11 tournaments he played for the Golden Eagles this season – including the All-America Classic in November, where he beat Oklahoma State’s Trent Leon on the sixth hole of a playoff. He’ll get another shot at top golfers from other marquee schools when NCAA tournament play begins in mid-May.
Van Sickle leads Division I in scoring average at 69.67 strokes per round and is the eighth-best amateur player in the world according to the R&A world amateur rankings. He has been invited to the Palmer Cup, a Ryder Cup-style competition in June between top U.S. and European college players.
He’ll turn professional at some point after that, and is hoping to earn invitations to play in a pair of PGA Tour events in July: the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill., and the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee.
With continued improvement to his wedge play, Van Sickle is confident he’ll make it.
“I think my game for the most part is ready,” he said. “I just need to focus on the short game, because those guys out there are just unbelievable with their wedges.”
Marquette coach Tim Grogan played at UNLV at the same time Phil Mickelson was at Arizona State. One of Grogan’s teammates, Warren Schutte, won the NCAA championship in 1991 and one of his roommates was an All-American.
“Mike’s better. Mike’s better than all those guys,” Grogan said, pausing to reconsider. “Not better than Mickelson, I’m not going to go that far. But just straight-up ball striking? He’s as good as anybody I’ve seen.”
If Van Sickle makes it to the tour, he’ll run into a familiar face. His father, Gary, is a golf writer for Sports Illustrated.
An accomplished golfer who made it to sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open in 1996, Gary Van Sickle hopes for the chance to write about his son.
“I’d just blast him – ‘How could you miss that putt, you choking dog!’ “ he joked.
Kidding aside, Gary Van Sickle sees tour potential in his son, given the fact that he had such success in college despite a short game that still needs work. The real question, Gary says, will be whether Mike can get through the tour’s rigorous qualifying school and then handle the weekly grind of tour play.
“Hopefully, we get to find out,” Gary said.
Mike Van Sickle’s love of golf came from his father. His first driver was a made from a club that some hack at their local club had snapped in half over his leg; they fished it out of the garbage and put a grip on it.
Mike’s serious injury in a baseball game at age 13 – he broke his left elbow sliding into a base and still has a titanium pin in his arm – helped steer him toward golf. But he wasn’t pressured to go into the family business.
“You hear all these horror stories about dads forcing their kids to practice,” Van Sickle said. “My dad was never like that. He’d just let me do whatever I wanted to do, whatever made me happy. And I loved golf so much that by the time I got to high school, I started to focus on that a little bit more and really improve my game.”
Nor was there pressure to go to Marquette – even though Mike’s father was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal in the late 1970s and ’80s while his mother, Betsy, was Marquette’s sports information director.
“They never pushed Marquette on me,” Mike said. “My mom actually never really expected me to come to Marquette. We were always thinking, ‘Oh, it’s cold there. You don’t want to go there.’ But things happen for a reason, and it’s funny sometimes how things work out. This is the one place that seemed to fit me the best.”
His success has been a boost to Marquette’s program, providing proof that elite college golf can be played in a chilly climate.
“I just think it shows that you can go to Marquette and do it,” Grogan said. “There’s nothing holding you back. I think a lot of players at a midwestern school, there’s always a little bit of an excuse. There’s always, ‘Well, we’re not an Oklahoma State. We don’t have the same facilities.’ And Mike kind of took that notion and dispelled it. You can go to Marquette and be the top player in the country.”