Miller tries many doors in quest for Tour opening

Mike Miller during the 2014 Valero Texas Open on PGA Tour.

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That Mike Miller is teeing it up in this week’s Web.com Tour stop, the South Georgia Classic, is a tribute to his doggedness.

When the door shut on Miller's bid to win an exemption into the tournament a few weeks ago, he could have returned to the eGolf Tour. Instead, coming close made him only more determined. “It gets me fired up and excited,” he said.

So, a few weeks later, Miller went to another door – the Monday qualifier – and with a round of 67 secured a spot into the South Georgia Classic, which gets underway Thursday at Valdosta Country Club.

Funny things, these doors. Sometimes they don’t open; other times they do. It’s all about giving it a try and not being afraid of taking a different route. And say what you want about the kid from Brewster, N.Y., but he’s not shy about establishing his own identity.

In fact, he embraces it.

“It couldn’t be more exciting the way it has panned out,” Miller said recently, before teeing it up in the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open. “If you had told me a couple of years ago that this is where I’d be sitting (at TPC San Antonio) at 22, I probably wouldn’t believe you.

“But it made me grow up as a person. It made me realize how good these guys really are and how many are really pushing and wanting to be here.”

So, no, the decision to leave Penn State in the fall of 2010 after just one semester doesn’t gnaw at Miller. He walked out of that door and saw that other doors were ready to be opened. There were two productive seasons of high-level amateur golf, much of which came when opened doors shown to him by Northern Ireland’s Pat Finn.

“He took me under his wing, made me believe in myself,” Miller said. “He showed me that I have the game to play globally, to never second-guess myself, that I belong out here.”

Having dominated amateur tournaments in the Met section around New York, Miller followed Finn’s lead and took his game to Ireland, Spain and Portugal where he had resounding success. By late 2012, Miller’s star had risen enough to warrant consideration for a U.S. Walker Cup berth, but all along he knew his eventual goal was professional golf.

That move was expedited when Team USA bypassed Miller for last September’s match. No worries, because Miller posted the best score by any American in 36 holes of U.S. Amateur qualifying, then after losing in the first round of match play at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he announced he was a professional.

“I couldn’t have been more excited to get things kicked off,” Miller said. When he finished first in a pre-qualifier to advance in the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament, “it was happening so fast, so quick.”

It has, of course, slowed down, relatively speaking, though Miller has remained on the move. He has been turning the knobs to a variety of doors, all in an effort to advance his pro golf career. Settled on the eGolf Tour as his home base, Miller played beautifully in the North Stone Open in early March, a tournament that offered more than a big check to the winner; it also provided an exemption into the South Georgia Classic the first weekend in May.

Miller wanted that spot, but fell short. At 2 under, he finished joint third, three behind Adam Webb.

Again, it was only short-lived heartache for Miller, for two weeks later he was teeing it up at the Valero, a last-minute sponsor exemption. Though he didn’t make the cut, Miller drew confidence by his scores (74-75 to miss by two) and by hanging around the practice area to talk with his peers.

“I saw a bunch of familiar faces (J.J. Henry, Andrew Svoboda, Kevin Foley),” Miller said. “They made me feel comfortable. They looked at you not like you’re anything different, but like you belong. It was cool.”

Still, Miller didn’t get carried away. He may belong at the PGA Tour level someday, but now he’s at a point in his career where it’s the eGolf Tour, and so two weeks after Valero, he found himself at something called the Championship at St. James Plantation, where a share of 20th earned him $1,675.

“I’m still trying to figure everything out,” he said. “I feel like I belong and I want to be (on the PGA Tour).”

He benefited from the week at the Valero in many ways, not the least of which was the fact his father traveled with him and caddied. Bob Miller is the longtime head professional at Knollwood Country Club in Elmsford, N.Y., and he has a great respect for the game. It was Bob who sat with Mike after leaving Penn State and suggested what route to go.

“He was the one who was the deciding factor and gave me the OK to make the jump (from amateur to pro),” Mike Miller said.

So far, baby steps. Some good finishes on the eGolf Tour, a chance on the PGA Tour, and now this week, Miller will tee it up on the Web.Com Tour. He travels frequently with his girlfriend from Brewster, Casey Donnelly, and always has a loyal supporter if he wants to call Finn.

“I can’t thank him enough,” Miller said. “He showed me so much.”

The rest is up to Miller.

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