For pro golfer Mike Miller, who qualified for the recent U.S. Open Championship, there’s a golden hour on the course.
“There’s nothing better than playing golf at 6:30 at night with no one around,” he says. “It’s the perfect time.”
Often — when he’s not playing tournaments or on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada — Miller’s on the verdant course at historic Knollwood Country Club in Elmsford, a member-owned club founded in 1894. Playing without pressure on a course that feels like home reinforces a love for the game that consumes most of his waking hours.
“There’s no one to get in your head and no one to influence you,” he says. “You’re just out here enjoying yourself.”
It’s no secret that the life of a pro athlete can be relentless. “It’s an all-day thing for me at the moment,” he says. “I played a tournament this morning (the 96th Westchester Open at Sunningdale Country Club in Scarsdale) and shot 70.” The next morning he’d be playing round two and maybe should’ve gone home to rest. The Westchester Open had three rounds and he finished the tournament in ninth position. But with golden hour approaching, there was only one thing to do.
“I’m actually over at Knollwood now practicing,” he says. “My father’s here; my caddy’s here (long-time friend Dante Antonini). We’re going out there and we’re going to grind and practice. And try to work on my putting.”
It was his putting that got in the way of recent success at the 118th U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton. Miller was fresh off his turn in Southampton where he shot 77 and 78 in the first two rounds and missed the cut.
“I’m a very good ball striker but I’ve always kind of struggled with putting and trying to get the ball in the hole,” he says.
This particular evening at Knollwood, he knew what he had to focus on. “It’s what makes a living on PGA tours,” he acknowledged, “being able to get the ball in the hole much quicker than the next guy.”
Shinnecock was the second U.S. Open for Miller and, as a local boy, he couldn’t help but be partial to the location.
“I played Oakmont in 2016,” he says. “But this one was more satisfying. Just knowing that it was in New York. And knowing that so many family and friends were going to be able to come out and watch … was truly tremendous. You want to play well and you want to qualify. Then to actually go out and do it makes it that much more special.”
Despite his early departure from Southampton, Miller has been gaining momentum from a string of recent wins. They’ve proven to him that winning begets winning. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s a local tournament at home or if it’s the U.S. Open,” he says. “A win is a win and you feel great about yourself.”
Learning to deal with defeat is just as important. “Knowing that I wasn’t going to play Saturday and Sunday (at the Open) definitely hurt,” he says. “Walking up the 18th hole on Friday and knowing that I wasn’t going to make the cut, that was probably the most disappointing moment because everyone is still there rooting you on. But you don’t want to be the guy that’s the Debbie Downer, because they’re all there supporting you.”
That sportsmanship has been ingrained in him from early on. His father, Bob Miller Jr., has been head golf pro at Knollwood for 35 years.
“He started out as a member here and my grandparents were on the board. Now that he’s the head pro, it’s kind of always been in the family. I’ve been able to grow up basically my entire life here.”
His father’s tutelage has been instrumental in the way Miller approaches the sport. “My dad always told me, ‘You can borrow the game; you never own it.’” Attaining perfection is a lifelong pursuit. “It’s such a mental game,” he says. “You’ve got to keep working at it. The minute I think I’ve reached my maximum potential is when I’m probably going to start to go backwards. It’s a law of nature … You can’t win it the first day but you can certainly lose it the first day.”
Miller, who turned pro at age 21, has played competitively since age 11. “Now I’m 26 and I’m still learning and I’m still trying to get better,” he says. “If I think it’s going to help me, I’ll try anything just to get 1 percent better.” There’s no prescription, he says, but “there’s a process.”
“Everyone wants to just step right out of college and be the next Tiger Woods. The harder you are on yourself, the worse it gets. That’s kind of where I am now. I’m not standing still, but I’m not progressing at the pace that I want to be progressing at.”
Miller’s learned to accept that it’s all part of the game. “You don’t want get down on yourself, because there’s nothing really wrong.”
His advice for youth players considering the sport is simple.
“You just go out there and you just practice and you play,” he says. “Don’t worry about what you’re shooting because if you’re a great player, you’ll know. And if you’re not a great player, don’t let the score affect you. Just love the game and love every shot because one shot could change your entire outlook.”
He also advises not to commit to golf as a young kid “unless you really know,” he says. “I played a lot of sports growing up, but I didn’t know I wanted to play college golf — professional golf — until I was 17 or 18 years old. I just knew I wanted to play a sport like any other young person that picks up a racquet or club or a ball or a stick.
“Don’t ever think you have to put all your apples in one basket,” he adds. “Golf is a game you can pick up when you’re 20 if you want or 30, it doesn’t matter. You can do it till you can’t walk anymore. As long as you can hit (the ball), find it and hit it again you can enjoy yourself.“
His most vivid memory took place on the course with his father when he was 15 years old. “It was the first time I broke the course record,” he says.
“It was probably 6:30 (p.m., golden hour) and I was gonna shoot 62 and break his . . . record. It was one of my biggest moments. We were driving home and (my father) was so excited, he couldn’t wait to talk about the round. I remember how appreciative I was.”
The moment influenced Miller’s determination.
“The minute you stop believing (in yourself), you’re going to be passed by somebody.”
Miller’s advice is to take advantage of opportunities, put in the work that no one sees and “hopefully, at the end of the day, you shoot a lower score then the next guy,” he says.
“Then you’ve gotta do it all over again the next day.”
For more, visit Kccclub.org.