BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 19: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland walks to the 18th green during the final round of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 19, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jesse Mueller, who went to high school in Mesa and college at ASU, qualified for the US Open for the first time the hard way. He spoke to SB Nation Arizona.
At this year's US Open, there will be several players that went to Arizona State University. There are names you will recognize -- Phil Mickelson, Billy Mayfair and Paul Casey. But there is one former Sun Devil that you won't recognize because he is playing in the US Open --and his first PGA Tour event. That would be Jesse Mueller, who not only golfed at Arizona State, but also is a local high school product, playing four years at Mesa Red Mountain High School.
Mueller has been swinging a golf club since he was three or four years old, and started competing in tournaments at age nine and grew up admiring his three favorite golfers -- Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Ben Hogan.
How easy was the game for him? I was always pretty successful growing up," Mueller said in an interview with SB Nation Arizona. I was probably one of the better players in the state in high school. I definitely worked hard at it and practiced a lot, but things came fairly naturally."
He was part of a good group of players in high school at Mesa Red Mountain. "I played all four years," he told us. "Our team won the state championship three out of four years.
"We had a great team. It was just a great experience to play on a team around a lot of good golfers. It was a good time."
After he graduated in 2001, Mueller defeated two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur Bob Munoz, 47, of Phoenix 3 and 1 to win the 77th Arizona Amateur on July 21 at Oro Valley's Stone Canyon Club. He hit a 6-foot birdie putt on the first hole, a 25-foot par saving putt on the second hole and a 12-foot birdie putt on the third hole to get the lead for good.
From there, he went on to Arizona State University.
What influenced him to become a Sun Devil? According to Mueller, "everything was a win-win," considering the history, the program, the events, the weather, the players that have come out of ASU and the practice facility.
While Mueller said there was never really a point in particular in which he felt the game get difficult, just because he thinks "it happens all the time because golf goes so up and down," he did not have the college golf career that Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson had.
"I'd say my college career was just ok," he described his time at ASU in golfing. He did not win any events in his four years, although he did have some good finishes. However, if you look at his numbers, he continued to improve. He improved by about a stroke each year he was there. But it was after college where he felt it got better.
"I'd say my golf game definitely improved when I got out of college," he explained. "Just being able to play full-time and fully commit to it and not have to do any schoolwork and having to balance all that." The comment about schoolwork wasn't because school was that much of a challenge. He had great success as a scholar-athlete, as he was once named to the second team Pac-10 All-Academic team and twice got honorable mention.
As a professional, he is right there. "I've had success, but I just haven't been able to get onto the PGA Tour," Muller explained. "I have won a decent amount of tournaments and had some good years, but to get on the Tour you have to have good weeks at Q school in October and November. I got to the final stage a couple of times, but just haven't been able to put really good string of weeks in a row to get into the PGA Tour."
It is obviously more difficult for a pro golfer to make a living and stick around if you are not part of the PGA. In a field of 150 golfers in major events, one such as Mueller has to "get at least 30th or 25th place" just to break even with the money. "Normally people just try to hang on as long as they can, either through sponsors or do it themselves, to give themselves a chance to make it to the PGA Tour."
Currently part of the National Pro golf tour, at the end of this year, Mueller will enter the PGA Tour qualifying school (Q school) for the eighth time. In Q school, there are three stages. Mueller has been to the third and final stage twice.
He explained his experience.
"The first stage is 80-85 people and 20 get through. Second stage is 85 people, 20 get through. The third stage, there's about 175 players, 25 get their tour card. That's the stage you want to get to, but both times I got to that stage, I didn't play very well, so I was conditional Nationwide status."
Now, at the end of this week, Mueller will play in the US Open for the first time. He qualified for the Open the hard way, through sectional qualifying in Columbus, Ohio, as one of 16 golfers out of 132 to get in.
He explained how he got in.
"It's a 36-hole day. I shot 4-under in the morning. I played very well in the morning. I think I was second or third place after the morning. Then in the afternoon, it was definitely playing harder, the greens were firm, so we went to a different golf course. So we played two golf courses, and the afternoon I was even after the first nine, and shot three over on the back, so I ended up shooting one-under for 36, and even par ended up getting into a playoff. So I was one shot clear out of the playoff."
He was "relieved" because of the long day and because he "let a couple of shots go."
"It was nice to be able to hang on and get in," he said about the experience, noting that he was happy. And for obvious reasons, being that he now gets to compete at the highest level against guys like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
While he said he doesn't have any specific expectations other than that he thinks that "the course will be really difficult," he isn't just going to be there at the Open just for the experience. "I'm definitely going there to compete and finish as high as I can," he said. "I mean, anything can happen. It could be a life changing week for me, but I just play the golf course and see where that takes me."
More specifically, he thinks, "if I just stay within myself and play my own game, I'll be fine."
We hope he does well. Mueller has certainly paid his dues, and to see a local guy -- someone who was raised here in Arizona -- have success is what we should all want to see.
So, for those of you that look at the leaderboard at the end of each day, don't just look for Phil and Tiger. Look out for Mueller, who we are hoping not only makes the cut, but also does even more and perhaps has that life-changing week of golf.