Landon Michelson nobly DQ’ed himself from U.S. Open qualifying—and it still haunts him

May 11, 2017

Pick one: Fulfill your wildest dream, or keep your conscience clean.

Remember, you can only choose one.

Three years ago, at a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in South Florida, Landon Michelson made his choice.

“When I left the scorer’s table,” Michelson says, “I thought I was in. It was so surreal. I was the 1,035th-ranked amateur player in the world, a nobody, and I’d just qualified for the U.S. Open.”

Michelson’s story is a reminder of the democratic beauty of the U.S. Open’s qualifying format, and of the fact that competitive golf’s greatest drama often resides far away from the action on the big Tour. Landon, a 22-year-old Rice graduate, had just battled his way to a berth in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, one of the few survivors from the 10,127 applicants who started the grueling test.

Or so he thought.

“I did a few interviews, and then as I walked back over to join my caddie, Chris, someone looking at the scoreboard on their phone, turned to me and said, “You shot 70? Great round!”

“Chris looked at him. And looked at me. And looked at the phone. And then we looked at each other and looked at the phone again and together had this sudden realization: holy s—.”

Michelson hadn’t shot 70. In fact, he’d shot 71, matching his 71 from the morning round. But one of his playing partners had written “4” instead of “5” for Michelson’s score on the 11th hole, and Landon, who’d abandoned his own scorekeeping out of superstition and nerves, hadn’t paid close enough attention to correct him.

“You ever get in trouble in school?” Michelson asks. “When you know you’ve screwed up and you’re gonna get caught and you’re just like, Wow, there has to be something I can do to change this. It was like that. Full-crisis mode.

“We had to make a decision. Chris took me aside and said, ‘Look, dude, if you don’t say anything, there’s a chance it’ll haunt you for the rest of your life. But also, if you decide not to say anything, I promise that I will never tell a soul. We’ll go to Pinehurst, we’ll tear it up and we’ll have an absolute blast.’ ”

Pick one.

“I was holding this towel over my head just tugging at it, thinking about how there’d be no better way to start my professional career than by going to the U.S. Open,” Michelson recalls. “I’d be able to meet club sponsors, clothing sponsors, pretty much any important coach or guy you’d need to talk to for a golf career. Seeing the best of golf and being a part of it? It would’ve been incredible.”

But Michelson knew what he had to do. He headed back to the scorer’s table and pointed out his error. Officials asked him if he understood that the penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard was disqualification.

“Oh, I knew,” Michelson says. “It was such a doomed choice. I was in shock, and I walked out to the parking lot and sat on the hood of my car and just started bawling. I opened up my phone and had about 75 texts from people who’d been following, telling me they’d been watching all day, they couldn’t believe it, they’re so happy for me… and then the messages started to change: ‘What the hell? How’d you get DQ’d?’ Stuff like that. After a while, I headed back to get my bag; there were like 10 reporters standing next to it.” (For the record, the 142 Michelson shot would have landed him in a two-for-one playoff for the final Open spot.)

The next morning Michelson appeared on Golf Channel, and he took full responsibility. “Basically,” he told the hosts, “I’m here because I’m a huge idiot. You have to be responsible for signing your own score and for writing everything down. It’s not my caddie’s fault. It’s not my playing partner’s fault. It’s my fault.”

Before long, the story was streaming all over the Internet. The (New York) Daily News, CBS Sports, Yahoo and seemingly every sports blog with a URL had picked up a version of the story: Look at this Moron, the headlines shouted. Check out the Talented, High-Integrity Moron.

Still, the feedback Michelson received was mostly positive. Messages littered his Facebook inbox, praising his integrity. As much as he was tortured by how it had gone down, part of him enjoyed the newfound fame. “I was so aware of it,” Michelson says. “I mean, I’d never been on the Internet. I kept googling myself—I wanted to see what people were saying.” An envelope arrived in his mailbox; a well-wisher had sent $25 in cash.

After a week or so, the attention subsided. The articles were quickly buried beneath newer, shinier objects of the Internet’s fascination and ridicule. To the outside world, Michelson vanished.

* * * * *

He didn’t actually disappear, of course. Michelson moved to Bradenton, Fla., and turned pro in the anonymity of the West Florida Golf tour—a far cry from the glamorous Pinehurst debut he’d envisioned. He had begun the mini-tour march, the daily grind of getting a little better, of gaining competitive experience, of playing tournaments with four-figure purses with no guarantee of getting paid even if he made the cut. Slowly it began to sink in just how hard it was going to be to get back into the same position he’d just forfeited.

“The attention started to sour, to sit a little funny with me,” Michelson says. “The only reason I was on TV was because I signed for the wrong score. Is that a blessing? Or did this just become my cross to bear?”

Golf is an inherently isolating profession, but for a cerebral type like Michelson, his career choice meant spending altogether too much time in his own head. The summer days dragged on. The troubling circularity of days spent practicing not-good-enough golf began to encroach on his off-course life. Michelson began to shut out the world.

At Rice, Michelson had been diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder and Depression. He’d managed it well; now, he was finding his condition to be a tougher opponent than any golf course.

“Honestly,” Michelson says, “most days it was a battle to get out of bed. I just wanted to lie down and not do anything, especially if I’d played poorly the day before or struggled at practice. Why would I want to get up and go play golf and grind at it again when I knew what it could do to my mood? When people said they were worried about me right after it happened, I thought that was sweet, but so unnecessary. I was going to be fine. Then I started to realize: They had a point.”

His relationships suffered, his golf suffered, each reinforcing the inadequacy of the other.

“The way I understand anxiety and depression, they’re not diseases like cancer or the flu or measles or mumps,” Michelson says. “They’re maladaptive thinking disorders, and they can get worse over time. When I think about things in the past, it makes me regret, and then I get angry because I’m regretting, and then it triggers anxiety, and then I’m worried about making the same mistake again going forward. The U.S. Open [qualifier] was a trigger, and it remained a trigger, especially when I could sit alone and think about what could have been.

“I am so hard on myself that doing something that stupid and that careless drove me insane, because it’s something that I could have controlled.”

By September 2014, Michelson was spending more and more time in the throes of depression. Some days he didn’t even want to be alive.

* * * * *

I met Landon in October 2014 when I joined Sara Bay Country Club, in Sarasota, Fla., which was frequented by an assortment of aspiring pros, both of us among them. The kid I met was intimidatingly cool—his flat-brim and shades, his snappy trash talk, his 200-yard 7-iron—but also exceedingly friendly. I liked Landon from the start. He came across as jovial and genuine; he’d ingratiated himself with the members and staff alike.

Still, it was obvious Landon was caught in some sort of in-between. There were moments, sometimes full days, when he was cloaked in a darkness. A different Landon would emerge: sullen, or standoffish, or enraged. I saw him snap a wedge over his knee like a piece of kindling, and I saw him punch a hole through a golf cart windshield, a decidedly disproportionate response to losing a $10 match. Landon was hardly the only one who battled a sense of despair on the Florida mini-tours—frustration was the only thing we all had in common—but his despondency ran deeper.

We played together most days that winter, but much of Landon’s personality remained a mystery to me. I tried to make sense of him—I figured that maybe all of his frustrations and anxieties could be tied to a singular root cause, like his chipping yips. Landon abruptly quit and took a sales job in town; he swore he wouldn’t be back.

Less than three weeks later, he was back.

“I still wanted to play golf,” he says today. “It’s something weird about me. As much as I hated being driven crazy, it was still what fueled me. It’s why I kept going out to Sara Bay when I couldn’t hit a chip shot on the green, because something about me just loved the broken part of it all.”

Landon remained an enigma as I headed north that spring, but we kept in touch as he sought how to combat his toxic thoughts with productive strategy. He had to ditch the broken parts of his game to have any hope of mending the rest. He returned to Rice, where he served as a volunteer assistant coach, and he credits the experience with broadening his perspective.

“Seeing those kids who had such good swings and so much talent but didn’t believe it, that was a basic realization that allowed me to progress a little more,” he says.

Landon started reading more about the mind, too, and he worked with Steven Yellin, a mental-game expert. The effects were immediate. Landon talks with the vocabulary of a golf whisperer—he’ll say things like, “the most important part of hitting a shot isn’t what you think, it’s how you think it”—softly and with the deeper parts of your mind.”

Landon is 25 now, a borderline veteran having fully immersed himself in the lifestyle of a mini-tour player with big aspirations. He’s traveled to Monday qualifiers, he’s played across the Adams tour in Texas and various satellite tours in Florida. He’s twice played tour Q-school and made it through the pre-qualifying stage both years, but fell short in the next stage. This year it was by just one stroke.

This isn’t a story with a clear-cut ending—or even a linear progression. Time hasn’t cured Landon. But as he has sought out change and perspective and experience, the pain has dulled, muted by a litany of newer successes and failures. He has taken direct action to combat the anxiety, the demons, the depression; he has sought out help. A coach to guide him through the yips. A paradigm shift to vanquish the demons that would haunt him before a tricky shot. A doctor and a prescription to battle the depression and anxiety.

He doesn’t say it, but one wonders: Where is Landon’s reward? When does he cash in on his decision to do the right thing? If peace of mind is the ultimate repayment, it seems to have taken a while to arrive in the mail. Three years later, it would be nice, although impossible, to know that he made the right decision. But the golf gods work in mysterious ways. Landon makes it clear that he has no time for regrets.

But replays? All the time.

“I tell myself plenty of stories,” he says. “All about how it could’ve gone down. I go back through the whole thing, play it out differently. Less so recently, because it’s a little more removed. But every time I hear about someone going to the U.S. Open, it brings it back again. Maybe I would’ve gotten DFL and shot eight million, I don’t know. But it would’ve been such an experience.”

Now more than ever, things have been looking up for Landon. He’s a better, more complete player than he was in 2014, and it’s starting to show. In January, he shot 11 under over four days at PGA Tour Latinoamerica’s Q-school, which put him in a tie for fifth and assured him a season full of starts on a tour that provides passage to the next level. A week later, he checked another box: With a seven-under 64 in a one-day West Florida Golf tour event, he won for the first time as a pro.

“Getting a win was huge to cement what I’d been doing,” Landon says. “I’d told my parents that if I didn’t win something, anything, in 2017, it would probably be time to move on.”

To Landon, everything continues to come easily even while nothing does. A week after his win, he found himself in a playoff at another West Florida Golf tour event, seeking another victory. Instead, he hit a root in the follow-through of his approach shot and tore a ligament in his wrist, forcing him to miss the first stretch of Latinoamerica events.

But now, he’s mostly healthy, and on Thursday he was back at U.S. Open local qualifying, one of 9,450 hopefuls looking to punch a ticket to Erin Hills. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Landon shot 74 at the Club at Emerald Hills in Hollywood, Fla., three off the pace.

“I’m still known as the guy who signed the wrong scorecard,” Landon says, and it’s clear that part of him still looks at himself as that guy too. “When I qualified for PGA Tour Latinoamerica, they ask you to list your greatest golf highlight. I thought, Maybe I should put that. Qualified for the U.S. Open. Almost.”