Augusta, Ga. – Being an amateur at The Masters is like coming on stage as a warm-up act at a big concert. You're not who everyone has come to see, but you're good enough to have been invited to the party, all the same.
Corbin Mills knows he's not the main event – or perhaps the most decorated amateur among the six in the field – but he earned his invitation, just like the 95 other players in this year's field. However, he never would have believed this could have happened to him.
"Never in a million years," he said after a 2-over-par 74 in Thursday’s first round. "It's an honor and privilege to be here. It's just a dream come true. It's awesome, unbelievable. I'm starting to get more comfortable and feel like I belong here. I earned my way in and that's what everybody keeps telling me. I keep telling myself the same and am starting to feel that more."
Mills made his way into The Masters by winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship last July. He beat Derek Ernst on the first extra hole of the scheduled 36-hole final at Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon. Mills also became the first stroke-play medalist to take the title since fellow Clemson Tiger and current PGA Tour pro D.J. Trahan pulled off the feat in 2000, ironically also in Oregon.
The APL triumph led to a tremendous summer for the Clemson University junior. A week after his APL title, Mills fulfilled a commitment and won the Players Amateur at Berkeley Hall Club in Bluffton, S.C. He also qualified for match play at the U.S. Amateur before losing to Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup member Jack Senior in the first round at Erin Hills.
In Thursday’s first round, Mills shook off some early nerves and turned in some quality golf.
Mills had a birdie at the par-5 eighth to offset an early bogey to turn in even-par 36. He three-putted the par-4 10th and made bogeys at the par-5 15th and the par-3 16th before coming back with a birdie at the par-4 17th.
"I made a few bogeys, just some simple mistakes," said Mills, who is from Easley, S.C. "I didn't do anything really bad. I played solid golf and I'm happy with it. I gave myself some opportunities to make some birdies. But it's still pretty nerve-wracking on the greens. I left a lot of putts short today. It's hard to be aggressive on these greens. Leaving yourself two feet [for a second putt] is pretty good. Pars are good scores here."
Mills was paired with European Tour star Simon Dyson and 1988 Masters champion Sandy Lyle. Mills was low man in that three-ball as Dyson struggled to a 78 and Lyle, who plays on the European Senior Tour, struggled to an 86.
Despite going around the course in relative anonymity, Mills was all smiles afterward. "I had a blast today," he said. "I was just in a dream out there. It was everything I thought it would be and more."
Playing in competition at Augusta National is a two-part job. First, you have to learn as many of the nuances and intracies of the course as you can in a short period of time. Then, you have to find a way to deal with the large numbers of patrons, which seems to swell from Wednesday's final practice round to Thursday's official first round.
For the first part, Mills had Clemson alums Lucas Glover and Jonathan Byrd, both in the field at The Masters. The threesome had a couple of practice rounds and the veterans took the rookie to school. Mills also had a practice round on Monday with former champion Zach Johnson, young PGA Tour star Webb Simpson, and Tour winner Scott Stallings, all of whom contributed to the education of young Mills.
"It's pretty difficult [to learn the course]," Mills said. "But I put in a lot of work during my practice rounds. The main thing to deal with was the crowds. I think I handled it pretty well today. It was actually a little louder than the practice rounds. But the first tee this morning was still nerve-wracking."
Mills got a first taste of nerves during the Par-3 Contest, in which he played with Masters legends Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw. Early in the week, he saw a blank spot beside the two champions’ names on the sign-up sheet. After summoning up some courage, he penned his name in the blank. Mills' brother, Parker, was his caddie.
"That helped me deal with the nerves today," Mills said. "I was pretty nervous [Wednesday] with them. It was one of the highlights of the week."
Jordan Byrd, Jonathan's brother and Clemson’s assistant golf coach, is serving as Mills' caddie this week and the pairing couldn't have been better. "He's been fantastic," Mills said of Jordan, a solid player in his own right who has qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur. "He's very focused and has helped me quite a bit."
Mills' outlook for Friday's second round is all about attitude. "If you stay confident and don't get ahead of yourself and let bogeys go, you'll be fine," he said. "Patience is the key to getting around this golf course."
While he'd like to be the low amateur this week, he's keeping things in perspective. "My goal is to stay in the moment, play well and let's see what happens," said Mills.
Finishing his first official round at The Masters has provided Mills with an extra boost of confidence. He is certain this experience will help him in the rest of the college season and beyond.
"I see it as a stepping stone and hopefully as a jump start," said Mills, who unfortunately shot an 81 on Friday and missed the 36-hole cut. "I'm going to take this as something that's making me better and helping me get to the next level. I just hope to play well and then see where this takes me from here."
In the meantime, Mills will appreciate each and every minute he's spending at golf's high cathedral.
"I was on a high all day," said Mills, whose smile never seemed to leave his face. "I got caught in the moment a couple of times today and just realized how lucky I am to be here."
Note: Patrick Cantlay, the 2011 U.S. Amateur runner-up and the world’s top-ranked amateur, shot a 1-under 71 to share low-amateur honors on Thursday with Asian Amateur champion Hideki Matsuyama. Reigning U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft rallied for a 74, while U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Randal Lewis had an 81.
Mike Purkey is the deputy editor of Global Golf Post. To subscribe, go to www.globalgolfpost.com.