By Alex Urban, Golfweek Contributor
When New York native Mike Miller left Penn State after just one semester with the Nittany Lions, he wasn’t sure where his life would take him or how he would pursue his dream of one day becoming a professional golfer.
Turns out, all he needed was a little luck of the Irish.
Miller played just one fall season for the Penn State golf team, winning in his collegiate debut, before leaving the team and the university as a result of conflicts with the coach over playing style. But the decision to leave wasn’t easy, and Miller wasn’t convinced he made the right decision.
“I didn’t know how everything would turn out,” Miller said. “I second-guessed my decision to leave. I was deciding if I wanted to turn pro, but mentally, most 19-year-olds don’t turn pro.”
It was a confusing time for Miller, who left Penn State after the fall 2010 season. He decided in 2011 to focus on the amateur circuit in metropolitan New York in lieu of a college season. That decision proved fruitful, as Miller racked up victories at the Brae Burn Invitational and the Met Amateur, plus four runners-up on his way to winning the 2011 Metropolitan Golf Association Player of the Year Award. He also qualified for the U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills, his second consecutive U.S. Amateur appearance.
But those accomplishments still didn’t help Miller feel like he could achieve his goals. That confidence would come soon, and from an unexpected source: Northern Ireland's Pat Finn.
Miller’s outstanding play in 2011 earned him a spot in the MGA Carey Cup, an event that matches teams from the Golf Union of Ireland and the Metropolitan Golf Association. While playing in the event at Bethpage State Park's Black course in late 2011, Miller impressed Finn, the general secretary of the Golf Union of Ireland, with his play.
Finn instantly gravitated toward Miller, and told him that he would get him a spot at the prestigious Lytham Trophy, played at 2012 Open Championship site Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Finn also landed Miller a spot in the Irish Amateur and a place to stay overseas.
“He really took me under his wing and opened doors that I never thought could be opened,” Miller said.
With those opportunities, Miller took advantage. He finished fourth in the Lytham Trophy and the Irish Amateur against strong international competition.
“All the sudden it jump-started my confidence that I could compete with the best players in the world,” he said.
Miller rode that wave of confidence to another stellar summer of amateur competition in 2012, including a victory at the Westchester Amateur, a runner-up finish at the Sunnehanna Amateur and fourth place at the Azalea Amateur. He went through a two-month period this summer during which he finished no worse than fifth in any tournament.
He also found success this year in U.S. Golf Association events, advancing to the Round of 32 at the U.S. Amateur and winning the USGA Men’s State Team Championship and leading New York to its first victory.
“I am just really confident and enjoying the amateur circuit right now,” Miller said.
His play in some of the largest amateur events in the country has turned heads in the world of amateur golf. Miller is No. 38 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and has received an invitation to the practice session for the Walker Cup, the biennial matches against the top amateurs from Great Britain & Ireland set for Sept. 6-8 at National Golf Links in Southampton, N.Y.
“To have the opportunity to wear the red, white and blue and play for my home country in my home state of New York, it is something that I didn’t even think could be possible before I really started playing well,” Miller said. “It is truly a thrill just to be invited as a top-16 golfer in America. If you sat down and thought about it, there are so many golfers that can play well and go low.”
Miller said he understands that nothing is given in golf and that he must work to achieve his goals.
“I can’t wait to go down there (Walker Cup practice) and show team spirit and prove that I can compete,” Miller said.
Aside from the Walker Cup, Miller has other opportunities in 2013 as a result of his strong play and his connection to Finn. He will be traveling to the Iberian Peninsula early in the year to play in the Portuguese Amateur and the Spanish Amateur. Without Finn, Miller said, these opportunities would not be available.
“I can’t say enough about Pat,” Miller said. “He is just a down-to-earth, hysterical guy from Ireland and has opened up my eyes. He is always positive.”
When asked about his ultimate goal in golf, Miller clarified that while making the Walker Cup team is priority No. 1, his dream is to one day be a successful professional golfer. What makes his path to professional golf unusual is that it resembles the road many Europeans take, rather than the path of collegiate golf taken by most Americans.
“It is a different experience from playing college golf,” Miller said. “I am not playing against the guys from Alabama, Texas or Illinois. But the best thing about golf is that you don’t have to play against anyone to get better.”
Miller also mentioned that having the opportunity to play golf around the world gives him an edge on learning how to manage his schedule and play golf in unfamiliar places. He also is able to practice as much as he wants at his home course of Knollwood Country Club in Elmsford, N.Y., where his father, Bob, has been the head golf professional for 27 years.
“If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Miller said. “I feel like I am getting more prepared for what I want to do. The road I am on is really working out, and hopefully I can keep getting better.”
At just 20 years of age, Miller doesn’t feel any urge to turn professional yet, as many do when they forgo collegiate golf.
“I realize I am only 20, and you can play golf until you are 100,” Miller said. “I would love to play professionally, but you have to start somewhere.”
For Miller, that “somewhere” is making the Walker Cup team and continuing his string of top finishes. He hopes to build on his success of the last two years and see where it takes him.
While Miller has taken the road less traveled in American golf, he still feels that he is on track to achieving his goals of making the Walker Cup team and someday turning professional. The opportunities are piling up for Miller thanks to hard work and a little bit of Irish luck.
“If I didn’t have Pat (Finn), I don’t know what exactly I would be doing,” Miller said.