This year’s Masters Tournament features one of the strongest amateur contingents in recent memory.
There’s Hideki Matsuyama, who successfully defended his title in the Asian Amateur and backed it up with a victory against professionals in Japan.
Patrick Cantlay, the UCLA sophomore, made the cut in five PGA Tour events and shot 60 in the Travelers Championship last summer.
Then there’s Randal Lewis, who at 54 became the oldest U.S. Mid-Amateur champion. Kelly Kraft and Bryden Macpherson won the U.S. and British amateurs, respectively, to punch their tickets to Augusta.
That leaves Corbin Mills,
a Clemson junior who claimed the U.S. Public Links to earn his Masters invite. He’ll join former Clemson stars Jonathan Byrd, Lucas Glover and Kyle Stanley in this year’s field.
Though Mills might not have earned as many headlines as his fellow amateurs, his journey to get to Augusta was an adventure.
It began when he traveled to Oregon for the Public Links at Bandon Dunes. He missed his original flight, which put him a day late arriving. With an ear infection already bothering him, Mills developed pinkeye on the cross-country flight.
“So I couldn’t see. The whole flight out there I sat with a towel on my eye,” he said. “People probably thought I was crazy.”
After taking an antibiotic, the eye condition cleared up, but the ear issue persisted.
Still, it didn’t deter him from winning medalist honors. As the top seed, he had to fight his way through five opponents in match play to reach the title match.
Mills faced Derek Ernst of UNLV in the 36-hole final. The Clemson golfer jumped out to the early lead and was 4 up with nine holes to play.
“Then things went kind of south on me. I was still hitting good shots, but my competitor was hitting great shots like this,” said Mills, holding his hands close together. “You
can’t do anything about it. Next thing you know I’m one down with four holes to play.”
Mills decided to change
“All the momentum’s going his way, but my caddie and I decided OK, we’re going to slow everything down and we’re going to get back to our pace and get things turning my way,” he said.
Mills won the 35th hole with a conceded eagle, then matched Ernst’s par on the final hole. In sudden death, with a trip to Augusta on the line, Mills made a 5-foot putt for par on the 37th hole while Ernst 3-putted for bogey.
He joined Kevin Johnson (1987) and D.J. Trahan (2000) as Clemson golfers who had won the Public Links and a trip to the Masters.
Through early March, Mills had made three trips to play Augusta National.
“I’m just kind of trying to get used to it,” he said. “It’s a pretty special place, and I want to get rid of the jitters.”
Jordan Byrd, the older brother of Jonathan and a Clemson assistant coach, will caddie for Mills, who plans on setting up practice rounds with some of the former Clemson golfers, too.
He’ll spend a couple of nights in the Crow’s Nest, the area reserved at the top of the clubhouse for amateurs.
Though Clemson has done well as a team this year, Mills hasn’t quite gotten on track. That’s understandable for an amateur with a Masters invitation, his coach said.
“We’re just not going to see his best golf until that tournament’s over with,” coach Larry Penley said after the Tigers won the USC Aiken tournament in March. “I’m not criticizing him. There’s no way to eliminate it from your brain. It’s just there.”
Mills agreed it is hard to focus on both.
“I didn’t play great but I’ve been working on my short game,” he said of his play at the Cleveland Golf Palmetto Intercollegiate, where he tied for 21st. “It’s kind of hard knowing I’m three or four weeks going down there, but I’m doing OK.”