Jake Yount had just completed his final qualifying round at the 2004 U.S. Junior Amateur at the Olympic Club when a slender gentleman wearing a University of San Diego cap and logoed shirt approached.
A hand was extended, but no dialogue occurred. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from making official contact with a rising high school senior until the competitor has completed the competition. Yount had qualified for match play, so all Tim Mickelson could do was shake hands. He had already chatted up Yount’s parents about the private West Coast Conference school, so the seeds were planted.
Months later, Yount would make an official campus visit and eventually commit to Mickelson and USD. As a senior in 2009, Yount, the 2008 WCC Player of the Year, led the Toreros to their first-ever NCAA Championship appearance.
“I always respected him because with a lot of golf coaches it’s all about golf,” said Yount. “Coach not only helped with golf, but also the game of life.”
Their relationship extended beyond college. Yount, a sales rep for a San Francisco-based tech company who resides in Washington, D.C., contacted Mickelson, now the golf coach at Arizona State, about teaming up for the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship. With the inaugural event being at Olympic, where Yount reached the Round of 32 at the U.S. Junior Amateur and where Mickelson first saw him play, it seemed like the perfect place for a reunion.
Yount didn’t know anyone in the D.C. area and Mickelson could squeeze in the championship between the Pacific-12 Conference Championship and NCAA regionals.
They agreed to try to qualify at Poppy Hills in Pebble Beach, Calif., as the event came right after Thanksgiving weekend, when Yount was visiting his parents in the Bay Area. A 63 was good enough for medalist honors.
“It’s special for me because it’s where I played my first USGA event,” said Yount after their side posted a 2-under 68 Saturday on the Lake Course in the first round of stroke-play qualifying. “I had good success here. I always liked the course. It’s always nice to come back.”
Mickelson hadn’t played at Olympic since the 2011 California Amateur, where he missed the cut a few weeks before being named ASU’s men’s golf coach. But in 2009, his USD team qualified for NCAAs at Lake Merced Golf Club, a stone’s throw from Olympic.
“We talked [at the qualifier] about how cool it would be to come back to where we first met,” said Mickelson, who is seven years younger than brother, Phil, a Hall of Famer with five major titles to his name, as well as the 1990 U.S. Amateur.
The partnership works well, even though Mickelson’s schedule with ASU prevents him from practicing or playing in many tournaments. He rarely practices with the team, preferring instead to focus on player and team development.
“Theoretically, I could play more than I do,” said Mickelson, 37, a two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur quarterfinalist (2007 and 2010). “What good do I do as a coach if I am practicing my own game? What good am I doing if I am playing with the guys instead of figuring out who is going to the next tournament?
“I’m a big feel player. I don’t believe I am going on the range and reinventing the wheel. You have to know what you are capable of and stick to that. You know what your strengths are and play to those.”
Yount and Mickelson seem to complement each other perfectly. Yount prefers a draw, Mickelson a fade. Yount likes a left-to-right wind, Mickelson a right-to-left. When one got into trouble on Saturday, the other picked up the slack. It was rare that both were putting for birdie on the same hole.
“We ham-and-egg it well,” said the 28-year-old Yount. “I thought [Mickelson] would be a good fit. We used to always play each other [at USD]. He’d win. I think I won twice. He was very tough to beat in college. For as little as he played, he could hold his own. I wanted to be on the same side of the coin for once.”
Yount and Mickelson each briefly played professionally, with little success. Yount played in Canada before applying for amateur reinstatement after failing to advance out of the second stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School in 2011.
Mickelson played one year on the NGA Hooters Tour and, after missing during the second stage of Q-School, realized he wanted a different lifestyle. But it took him six years to apply for reinstatement.
“Players who can’t play coach,” said Mickelson smiling.
Mickelson landed an assistant coaching position at San Diego State in 2001 and was hired at USD two years later. His USD success attracted ASU, where he played for three seasons before finishing at Oregon State. Mickelson’s brother also was a four-time ASU All-American. It was a natural fit that has worked out well. ASU is one of the country’s top programs and currently boasts the No. 1 amateur in junior Jon Rahm-Rodriguez, of Spain.
“As a coach, it’s not your responsibility that they aren’t going to be the next star. I help advise them to aspire to that, but to be smart enough to realize that you might not be,” said Mickelson. “The reality is maybe one or two [players] will have a chance to qualify to play the PGA Tour. That’s what the stats will show. I want the guys to know there’s something after college golf.”
Mickelson can point to Yount, who had a job lined up at Merrill Lynch until the economy crashed in 2008. He tried professional golf and realized his game wasn’t good enough. So he switched careers and landed his current job in sales. And his golf game can still take him to places like Olympic. This is his first USGA championship since the 2005 U.S. Amateur at Merion.
A Bay Area native, Yount has family and friends supporting him this week. He even stayed at home a few nights.
Mickelson, meanwhile, is not only focused on his golf game this week, but also the pending regionals. On Monday, the NCAA will announce where everyone is headed. Mickelson hopes he’ll hear the news after his first-round match. Either way, the brief respite from coaching has been rewarding.
“There are two things about this event: first, it’s cool to be part of the first one,” said Mickelson. “Second, it’s less stressful than the U.S. Amateur. You have a partner who can back you up if you hit a bad shot.”
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.