Bridgehampton, N.Y. — Nolan Mills had plans to see comedian Ron White tonight in his hometown of Charlotte. The tickets were a 50th birthday present.
But a call, a voicemail actually, forced Mills to make a decision. At about 4 p.m. on Thursday, Mills listened to the message left by a U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship official.
He said that someone had dropped out and that there was a spot available if I was interested in playing, said Mills, who lost a 4-for-3 playoff on Sept. 7 at the Croasdaile Country Club sectional qualifier in Durham, N.C., and was the site’s first alternate.
Mills’ decision took less time to make than it did to punch in the phone numbers to return the call.
It was an easy decision, Mills said. You’re playing for a national championship.
Mills flew into New York early Friday morning, drove out to the eastern end of Long Island with childhood buddy Chris Hughes -- who is Mills’ caddie for the week -- and played a practice round at Atlantic Golf Club, host venue for the 30th annual championship.
On Saturday, Mills showed up to play The Bridge, the second course being used for stroke-play qualifying.
I played it sight unseen, said Mills, who pieced together a nifty 3-over 75, including a 1-under 35 on the inward nine. You never know what to expect and I have to admit I was a bit nervous, a little scared. But I drove that first tee shot into the fairway and I quickly settled down. Great golf course, very fair, and a lot more elevation than I expected. There were very few shots where I didn’t know what to expect.
Mills admits to having left a few strokes on the Rees Jones design, mostly around the greens. Part of the reason may be that Mills played just one round of golf between the sectional qualifier and Friday’s practice round.
The operative word is played.
I don’t want it to sound like I just showed up and shot 75, Mills insisted. I like to practice and I've been working on my game, practicing quite a bit to get it in the shape it’s in.
Mills, who works for the recently merged commercial real estate firm Merrifield Patrick Vermillion, practices six hours a week on average. For a field of working men who are balancing the commitments of work, family and golf, that is a fair amount of devotion.
That type of practice is necessary to compete at this level, which is nothing new to Mills, just a bit dusty.
The last time MIlls played for such a title was 30 years ago in the 1980 U.S. Amateur. The venue was the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, practically a home game for the native of the Tar Heel State. Mills advanced to the third round of match play before losing 5 and 4. The intervening years have faded the opponent’s name (Dick Von Tacky) from Mills' memory.
Keep in mind that was a long time ago, he said.
Three decades between appearances in a USGA championship is quite a chasm, but Mills’ gap is made more compelling by the fact that one day he just gave up the game. He simply quit.
When I say I quit, I mean I put them in the closet, said Mills, who was an All-American at North Carolina State (1983) prior to the 'retirement' in his late 20s. It just got to the point where it was not as enjoyable as it once was. It was more work.
He left the game until his late 30s. Probably played 10 rounds during that decade.
The game slowly returned. Mills was enjoying golf like he did growing up. He wanted his son Nolan to also experience the same fun. He rejoined Charlotte Country Club, his childhood haunt and the site of this year's U.S. Women's Amateur.
In 2008, Mills tried his hand at qualifying for the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. That was followed by another attempt in 2009, along with his first Mid-Amateur attempt. Those attempts, however, were unsuccessful.
Now he’s back, and he wouldn’t have accepted the offer to play if he did not think he could be competitive past stroke play and into match play, which begins on Monday. So in a small way, Saturday was a celebration of sorts.
There are also several reminders of home.
He was quite familiar with fellow competitor Scott Harvey, of Greensboro, N.C., whom Mills competed against at the Mid-Amateur sectional qualifier. Harvey, who helped North Carolina share second place at last week's USGA Men's State Team Championship, tied for second with a 69.
I told you [earlier] we were paired together, Mills mentioned to a previously skeptical Harvey on the first tee. And the two chatted amicably throughout the round.
There are also The Bridge’s historical newsContents. For years Bridgehampton Race Circuit wound subtly over the terrain and through forests. Leftover Chevron signage serves as design elements around the course.
In 1958, Charlotte-based NASCAR, the governing body for stock car racing, held its first Grand National (now known as the Sprint Cup series) road course race here. NASCAR frequented Bridgehampton until 1966, by which time fan interest had waned. The total prize money for that year alone exceeded total ticket and concession revenue. The race track’s final race was in 1997.
So Mills may have missed his birthday party back home, but it was an easy decision.
After all, he's playing for a national championship — and that might be the ultimate birthday gift.
Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA championship websites.