Erin, Wis. - Mike Ignasiak is back in the big leagues this week – the big leagues of amateur golf, that is.
Ignasiak, 45, spent parts of four seasons in Major League Baseball, pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1991 and from 1993-95. He compiled a 10-4 record with a 4.80 earned-run average, but a succession of problems with his lower back eventually forced him to call it a career.
I actually turned down a contract with the Yankees right after the (1995) season, Ignasiak said. They offered me a deal but I said, 'You know what, let's just wait.' And I love Boston, so I signed with the Red Sox. Then I hurt my back in '96 spring training and the Yankees went on to win the World Series that year.
If the end was forgettable, Ignasiak will never forget the way his major league career began. I was pitching in Toronto against John Olerud, he said. I was petrified. I mean, if the stadium hadn't had a dome on it, I might not have kept the ball in the stadium.
I have no idea how I got it to the plate. But B.J. Surhoff caught it on the outside corner for a strike, and I said to myself, 'You're in the big leagues!'
Ignasiak had a similar experience on Tuesday. After a disappointing 76 at Blue Mound Golf and Country Club on Monday, he started the second round with back-to-back bogeys. If he had been on the mound at Miller Park, he might have gotten the hook.
But on the mounds at Erin Hills, Ignasiak put on a rally cap. A long weather delay and gusting winds notwithstanding, he bounced back to play his remaining 16 holes at eight under par and register a big-league 66. The remarkable reversal landed him at even-par 142 for the championship and put him in a favorable position to make match play.
Ignasiak said a friend and fellow Michigan golfer, Bill O'Connor, got his attention during the weather delay. O'Connor was playing in the group behind Ignasiak's threesome and took an opportunity during the break to scold Ignasiak.
He kind of put me in my place, Ignasiak said. He said, 'Stop complaining. You're capable of doing it. Just go out and do it.'
Ignasiak now makes a living operating a Dairy Queen restaurant in Saline, Mich. A standout shortstop in high school, he became a pitcher at the University of Michigan when a guy named Barry Larkin arrived in the program, the same Larkin who became a perennial All-Star shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds.
Ignasiak was only a part-time, recreational golfer early in his life. But when his baseball career came to a premature end, he began playing golf more seriously in 1999. Remarkably, he qualified for the 2000 U.S. Amateur at Baltusrol. His caddie, Charlie Wolford, said the U.S. Amateur qualifier in 2000 was the first competitive event (Ignasiak) ever played in.
Ignasiak has now qualified for two U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Amateur Public Links Championships and three U.S. Mid-Amateurs.
And he's still learning how to play, Wolford said, after traveling Ignasiak's personal Route 66 yesterday. He's got a lot of talent and he's just getting better all the time.
The first thing Ignasiak learned about competitive golf is that there is much more to it than meets the eye.
I used to play when we were playing baseball, just for fun, things like that, he said. And you hear guys say all the time, 'That course isn't that tough.' Well, it's not just the course. It's the competition, the fact that every shot counts... it's a totally different ballgame. It's like comparing softball with your buddies to playing in the major leagues.
Not many softball buddies can approach what Ignasiak did at Erin Hills. He got his crooked round headed in the opposite direction with a birdie on his fourth hole, No. 13. He then made birdies at Nos. 18, one, four and five before coming to No. 7, a par-5, 623 yards into the wind.
A long hitter, Ignasiak pounded a drive more than 360 yards, drilled a 3-wood to 10 feet of the flag and sank the putt for eagle. He added one more birdie at No. 8 to complete the renaissance.
I must have hit a sprinkler head with the drive at No. 7, Ignasiak said. I mean, I wasn't even trying to get there in two off the tee. I had to have hit something in the grass for it to go that far. I've always had length, but not like that.
It's hard to figure. The Brewers did not move to the National League until the year after Ignasiak departed. Thus, during his four major-league seasons, and all of his eight professional seasons, he never had a plate appearance, never swung the bat.
Who would have thought he might become a powerhouse amateur golfer. Hey, I was a pitcher, he said. I had a lot of free time. Ignasiak laughed at his own joke. He loved reminiscing about his experience in major league baseball.
It was a great experience, and I had a lot of fun with those guys, he said. I wish I would have stayed healthy. My back still bothers me. I can play golf, but I can't do those quick motions like covering first base or things like that.
Yeah, poor guy. All he can do now is shoot 66 at a U.S. Amateur.