Mike Van Sickle: The Diary of a Monday Qualifier

February 4, 2015
Mike Iron 2.jpeg

LA JOLLA, Calif. — My timing is off, that’s all I can say.

Not the timing of my golf swing. That’s pretty good. You be the judge: I made seven birdies and two pars on the back nine Monday at El Camino and shot 66 in qualifying for this week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

We were playing for four spots in the PGA Tour event. I finished fifth.

It’s not quite the bummer it sounds. Well, maybe a little. The difference is, I saw a scoreboard at the turn. There were already four rounds of 65. I shot 36 on the front nine, 1-over par. So I knew what I had to do. It wasn’t like I finished off a low round, walked in expecting to score a PGA Tour start only to find out I’d been nosed out by a shot. I already knew.

When I came to the 18th hole, I needed to hole my wedge shot from the fairway for eagle to shoot 65 and get in a playoff for the Farmers. My focus was on holing it. I had 120 yards so I punched a little pitching wedge with the idea it would release and maybe roll toward the cup and get lucky. Guess what? It did. It went right over the left edge of the cup and stopped 4 feet away. A spectator who’d watched the shot told me, “Ohh, it was so close, it almost went in!”

Yeah, well, pardon me for not being too excited. I needed it to go in or else. It’s nice to post a good low score and get some momentum going but Mondays are a pass-fail test. You shoot 65, you pass. You shoot 66, 67, 72, 78 or 91—it doesn’t matter. You fail. Those PGA Tour commercials where they say, “These Guys Are Good.” They should probably update it to say, “This is a Tough League. Even on Monday.”

Where I went wrong was on that 1-over 36 on the front. You can’t do that on a Monday. Too many good players make too many birdies. You can’t shoot over par for a nine. If you do, then you’ve got to birdie every hole on the back, like I pretty much had to do. I haven’t done very many PGA Tour Monday qualifiers because I’m on the Web.com Tour. And when I say on the Web.com Tour, I mean loosely. I have my Web.com card but my priority ranking—we call it our “number”—is too low to get me in many Web.com events.

The Web.com Tour is in Colombia this week, part of a big South America and Mexico swing. I’m pretty sure I won’t get in any of those events. So meanwhile, I’m playing some PGA Tour qualifiers. Next up, I’ll do Honda Classic Monday, Puerto Rico Monday and Innisbrook Monday.

Unless some really nice, handsome tournament director notices my seven-birdie back-nine 30 and decides to give me a sponsor’s exemption. Then, instead of playing in a qualifier, I could play in a Monday pro-am to help that tournament out for giving me a spot. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that won’t happen. I am too far down the food chain to get a PGA Tour exemption. I’d be happy to get a Web.com event exemption but at those events, they usually give them all to players with local ties. There was a Web.com event for three years in Pittsburgh, where I live, but I never got an invite and missed qualifying for it by a stroke two years in a row. Wait, I said my timing was a problem and I never told you why. My bad. I was in Phoenix last week after coming up well short in Monday qualifying for the Waste Management Phoenix Open. It was played on a funky course, McCormick Ranch, and there were only three spots instead of the usual four.

My dad, Gary, caddied. He’s also the guy who’s going to type this up and make me sound smart. (Right, Dad?) He covers golf for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com. I played college golf at Marquette University, was a first-team All-American, won 11 college tournaments, ranked No. 1 in Division I scoring as a senior and won the Byron Nelson Award. A shoulder problem set me back a couple of years—first, the injury for about 18 months, then another 18 months trying to recover from swinging wrong while I was hurt all that time.

So here I am, having just turned 28, with my big toe on the Web.com Tour. I made the qualifier finals but after suffering a flu bug about a week before, I wasn’t sharp the first few rounds. I played well the last two days but not enough to get my number near where it needed to be to get into tournaments.

At Phoenix, I just didn’t make many birdies on Monday. I had an early double bogey, then followed it with an eagle, and then followed that with a bunch of pars. Since my dad was there all week to cover the Phoenix Open, I stayed over a few days to practice in the warm weather and take advantage of his free hotel room. Too bad there wasn’t a mini-bar with snacks.

The next day, we went out to play some late evening golf and teed off around 4 p.m. at the Arizona Golf Resort somewhere in east Mesa. The twilight rate there was $19.95. Not bad. The first hole was a par 5, I hit a good drive and then a pretty good second shot with my 6-iron. So good, in fact, that I said, “Oh no.”

My dad thought maybe I’d cracked a shaft or something. He asked what was wrong. “I think that might’ve gone in the hole,” I said. Really, he answered? “I think it did.” We drove to the green, I looked around in the fringe and said, “There’s only one place that ball can be. In the hole.” I took a few steps, looked in and there it was. A double eagle, barely 24 hours after Monday qualifying.

My timing was off. That happened this week, too. I flew to San Diego on Friday morning and had a couple days of practice rounds at El Camino. I called Torrey Pines and tried to get a practice round there but they said no. Web.com Tour players don’t rate. That’s what I figured but I had to ask, you know? I played the North Course there once with my dad—it had some great ocean views—but I’ve never played the South, where they had the U.S. Open.

Anyway, at El Camino one day, I got paired with three guys who work for TaylorMade, which is headquartered nearby in Carlsbad. At the ninth hole, I hit a wedge shot right at the flag. One of the guys yelled, “Get in the hole!” I followed that by saying, “Don’t get in the hole until Monday!” Except I only got “Mon-“ out before it went in the cup for eagle.

I told you my timing was off.

It wasn’t off on the back nine, though. I knocked an 8-iron second shot onto the par-5 10th green and two-putted from 40 feet. My dad didn’t caddie this time. He was still in Phoenix and I carried my own bag.

At 11, I hit a wedge to three feet for another birdie. At 12, I missed the green with a pitching wedge (I’d rather not talk about it) but then I chipped in with the same club, so it totally redeemed itself. I actually kind of gave that one a little fist pump there. My goal, I told myself at the start of the back nine, was to birdie every hole. I had leeway for one par. I had to be eight under on the back. I couldn’t quite drive the green at 13 but thought I could get up close enough so maybe I could chip in. I hit driver, cut the corner, had 50 yards and almost holed it—had four feet for birdie and made it. I hit gap wedge to 18 feet on the next hole because the pin sheet they gave us was totally wrong. The pin was probably minus-one (one yard short of the center) but the pin sheet said it was plus-8 (eight yards beyond the center). So I hit a decent shot to where we thought the pin was. That’s not where it was. Another guy in my group was on the back fringe and he said, “W-T-F?” Except he didn’t use just the initials. “The pin’s supposed to be back here,” he said. “I know!” I said.

He made his putt from 30 feet, the other guy chipped in, then I missed my 18-footer. So there went my leeway.

I hit 9-iron to 12 feet at 15, a par 3, and made it. I hit driver, hybrid at 16 and short-sided myself. It’s a par 5. I chipped a shot into the bank, it hopped up real nice to 12 feet—a pretty good shot—and I made it for birdie. That kept hope alive.

At 17, I hit a gap wedge just left of the hole. The green is banked back to front, and it was late in the day and starting to get damp and cooler. My ball hit and spun back down the slope to 30 feet. That was frustrating. The first kid chipped and left it a foot short, it was going in. Then Brian, the other kid, putted and it was a little bouncy and came up a foot short. So I thought, I’ve got to get this there so I gave it a little extra. It was in the jaws, going in, and stopped four inches short.

At 18, I hit driver just into the right rough, knew I had to hole out from 122, hit a little pitching wedge on the front of the green, it hopped up and just missed the left edge.

So it was a good round, that was nice, but it wasn’t good enough. The front nine killed me.

You could say I’ve never built up so much momentum before to be so demoralized. Being one shot back after one round is good in a real tournament. Not on a Monday. Not when you’re fifth in a race for four spots.

So now it’s back to Pittsburgh for a week or two so I can practice my snow shoveling. I’ll also work on my putting, either in the basement or at the golf dome on Neville Island—it’s 100 yards across, and is pretty nice, and there’s a practice green.

I guess these PGA Tour Mondays are good practice for Web.com Tour Mondays, which aren’t any easier. You’ve got to play well. Like I said, it’s a tough league. I’ve been hitting the ball really well lately, really straight. So I can’t wait for the next chance. I need to get that double eagle on a Monday, not a Tuesday.

I’ll be flying home Tuesday, the day my dad is flying here from Phoenix to cover the Torrey Pines event. It would’ve been nice if I could’ve gotten in the field—I could’ve scored another free hotel room from him.

Well, maybe my timing will be better at the next one. See you in Florida.

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