SILVIS, Ill. — Let the record show that Mike Van Sickle parred the first hole he ever played on the PGA Tour. The record will also show that he missed the cut Saturday at the John Deere Classic by two shots. Despite that, it was a pretty good week for my son, a recent graduate from Marquette University, a first-team All-American and the Byron Nelson Award winner.
It was definitely a memorable week as Mike got a small taste of the good life on the PGA Tour — free balls and gloves, new grips, a few new clubs and a daily clubhoused buffet. He’s still an amateur and trying to play his way onto the Walker Cup team — making the cut here would’ve helped — and he left here this week knowing that he is, indeed, good enough to make a living at this game if he can get out here. Mike will also play the U.S. Bank Championship next week in Milwaukee.
At the John Deere, he was paired with former U.S. Amateur champion Colt Knost and long-hitting Gary Woodland and not only held his own but displayed a more solid tee-to-green game. I checked Mike’s stats when he finished early Saturday afternoon — one interesting number was that he ranked sixth in driving distance at that point. Length is an important asset on tour but of course, it’s all about scoring and Mike didn’t quite make enough birdies.
He was four under par through his first 11 holes but made three bogeys on the way in. In Saturday’s second round, he missed three birdie putts inside six feet on the front nine, and another from eight feet on the back. If those putts drop, he’s not worried about the cut line and he plays the back nine freer and easier, maybe. But they didn’t. On at least three of them, we didn’t read the break correctly. So that wisecrack that Wisconsin’s Steve Stricker made a few days earlier in the parking lot when he heard that I was caddying for Mike wasn’t too far off. “That’s a two-shot penalty,” Stricker quipped.
Good point. An experienced tour caddie who knew the TPC layout might’ve saved him some shots Saturday. You learn. At future tour events, we’ll try the tour-caddie route.
Still, Mike made a late second-round run with a birdie at 16, then drained a must-make 25-footer for birdie at 17. He needed one more on the tough 18th to get to two under par for the tournament, which we thought would be the cut line at that time. He hit a perfect drive and draped a 9-iron shot over the flag but a helping wind pushed it long. His 20-footer slid past.
Prime scoring conditions turned Saturday afternoon into a birdie-fest, though, and scores plummeted. Mike was in 78th place when he finished and was already down into the low 90s two hours later as the birdies kept piling up. So that birdie putt at 18 wouldn’t have mattered.
It was a disappointing week in the sense that he played pretty well and scored only one under par on a course that others lit up. We’ll remember a lot of shots but that start will stay in our minds for a while. That first par was no ordinary par.
The tenth hole at the TPC John Deere was his tour-debut hole, a par 5 with a green guarded by a pond on the right. Mike hit a pretty big drive just into the left rough. The lie in the rough was thick so he laid up. His adrenaline was pumping, as you might expect in his first tournament. He came over the top and blew his sand wedge shot left and over the green, a pretty poor shot.
Now he faced a chip to a pin cut near the water at the bottom of a tier. He pitched the next shot onto the green’s upper tier, where it quickly came to a stop, leaving himself a slick putt down the slope. The PGA Tour electronic scoreboard in front of the hole flashed his mug shot and had this stat: “Putting for par, 28 feet 3 inches.” Not what you want on a par 5. Mike stroked the putt, a little too hard, I immediately thought, but it stayed on line. It still had a lot of speed as it approached the right side of the cup, maybe too much speed.
“Get in!” I urged, and the ball dived into the cup. Quite a par. Welcome to the tour.
Mike missed the green at the second hole (No. 11) and played a bunker shot out to ten feet. He rolled that one right in. On his third hole, he flushed a 6-iron shot right over the flag at the par-3 12th. He poured the 20-foot birdie putt into the cup. Three holes, three putts.
There were other highlights from the week. Many of them included trading jabs with tour pros who found my new position as caddie amusing. We were warming up before Thursday’s first round and as I walked past Stricker on the chipping green he spotted me and asked, “Tired yet?” I gave him my best wheeze in reply, “Wha-what?” Then I said, “They’ve got beer on all the tees for us, right, Steve?” He laughed.
Kirk Triplett was another comedian. We met him on the practice range and he immediately had a tactical suggestion for Mike. “What ever he tells you,” Triplett said, pointing to me, “do the opposite.” Mike thought that was particularly funny. “I’ve got four kids,” Triplett added, “and they never listen to me, either.”
Mike signed a few autographs last week, also a new experience. His first came in the Monday pro-am after he’d hit a cool shot out of the trees and made a short birdie putt at the 15th hole. A youngster standing by the ropes asked him to sign and Mike said, sure. While he signed, Mike tried to make conversation and said, “So who’s going to win this week?” The kid looked at Mike’s bag, then back at Mike and hesitated. “Uh, you?” he asked.
Not this time, kid. One of these days, we hope.