Mike Miller is ready (he hopes!) for the hardest round of his life

Mike Miller is ready (he hopes!) for the hardest round of his life

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It’s Tuesday afternoon at the U.S. Open, and Ollie Schniederjans steps up to the 12th tee with his 3-wood, eying his sight line for a moment before hitting his signature laser beam down the left center, catching the downslope and rolling to a comical 328 yards.

Mike Miller is watching and shakes his head in approval. “Ollie,” he says. “I need that 3-wood.”

Then Miller tees up his own 3-wood. He hits it a little higher but dead solid and straight down the middle. It catches the same downslope and rolls out towards Schniederjans, settling 322 yards from the tee. He looks to his caddie, Dante Antonini, and shrugs. “I’ll take that,” he says.

Schniederjans, 25, is among golf’s rising stars and has made over a million dollars on the PGA Tour already this season. Miller, 26, has been playing well, too; his latest results include a T11 after Mondaying into the Web.com’s United Leasing and Finance Championship as well as several victories on the Florida-based Minor League Golf Tour. He has not made a million dollars this year. The two pros have known each other since they were elite junior amateurs a decade ago, and even better after playing 27 holes together in practice at Shinnecock.

You can count Schniederjans among those who believes in Miller’s game.

“He looks good,” Schniederjans said. “He looks prepared and relaxed. I know he got to see the course a lot, and he was giving me a bunch of help, actually, the first day we played together. He’s got his family with him, too, and everyone seems like they’re having a good time.”

Miller is a veteran of golf’s various secondary tours at this point. He turned pro after just a semester at Penn State in 2010, and his gray RLX pullover, Titleist hat and fresh T2 driver serve as reminders that he has a team of legit sponsors who have stuck by him, recognizing his promise. They’re still bullish on his prospects, although to this point his career has been defined by small steps forward and big almosts — single shots at qualifying schools, Monday qualifiers, cut lines from the European and Web.com tours and some mini-tour events dotting the U.S.

There’s a fatal flaw among most of these mini-tour pros who toil for mini-tour cash. Temper too hot. Driver too short. Putter too balky.

Miller has no such obvious flaw. He hits it long and straight. His irons are pure. He’s confident in his own game and his mindset is simple and effective. Miller has won 10(!) times on the Minor League Tour, dollar-for-dollar the hardest tour in golf, since 2016 (sample headline from Febuary: “Mike Miller birdies the final 7 holes to win by one”). His competitors attest that he’s one of the most complete players on the mini-tour circuit. Rather than a reflection on Miller’s own game, his lack of status seems more a reminder of the surplus of able professionals and the thin line between riches and anonymity. He just hasn’t broken through — but he’s hoping to change that this week, in his second U.S. Open start.

Two years ago, Miller qualified for the U.S. Open at Oakmont, where he shot a respectable first-round 72 before a Thursday evening round of food poisoning took out any chance he had of making the cut. I asked Miller if he’s more comfortable at his second national championship.

“I wish I could tell you I knew this time would be a lot easier, but the main thing I learned is that it’s hard as hell, no way around it,” he said.

It’s clear he learned plenty, but most importantly this: trust yourself. Miller has always had plenty of game and has never been one to spend hours grinding on the range the week of an event, but it’s easy to get caught imitating at a tournament as big as this one. He’s committed to his own routine this week — but that doesn’t mean he’s not appreciating the play around him. In addition to Schniederjans, he played nine in the drizzle with Tommy Fleetwood, who impressed.

“Pure and low and straight through the wind,” Miller said of Fleetwood. “And his caddie was the man.”

Mike’s father Bob, the club pro at Knollwood in Elmsford, N.Y., is here with him, providing encouragement and occasional calm, subtle advice. Shinnecock is only a couple of hours from Knollwood, with the right traffic. Wednesday was not the right traffic to get to Shinnecock. Thursday wasn’t any better.

For Schniederjans and Fleetwood and many of the rest in the field, this is a stop along the way. They’ll head to the next Tour event of their choice, whether they win or don’t make the weekend. Miller’s lead-in event was the Cape Cod Open (total purse: $30,000). He’s just hoping this is the week he breaks through.

“I believe I can do some damage this week,” Miller says, and seems to mean it. Beyond the baseline goal of playing well, he’s got a couple specifics in mind. “I’d love to get it in the top 20 here,” he says. “And more basically, I’d love to hit the fairway. You’ve got to hit the fairway here or you really can’t play the golf course.” If this isn’t the week it all happens, he’ll head back to Canada, and to Web.com Monday qualifiers, and to continue giving himself chances at the game’s next echelon. Entering the first round of his second U.S. Open and his 2:31 p.m. tee time, he only knows one thing for sure.

“It’s gonna be about as hard a round as I’ve ever played in my life,” he said.