GOLF: Mills closes with birdie spree for first tournament win since 2007
The wave of pressure that crept in could have easily caused Jon Mills to fold in the late stages of the final round of the 110th West Penn Open Championship golf tournament on Tuesday.
But rather than succumbing to the stress, the former PGA Tour player and Indiana resident buckled down and proved to the rest of the field that he still possesses the talent and discipline to win tournaments.
Mills birdied the final three holes of the day, pulled away from fellow pros John Aber and Zack Kempa, and finished the event 9-under-par to win his first tournament since 2007 on Tuesday at Indiana Country Club.
Mills, who hails from Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, posted an even-par 71 in the third and final round to finish the two-day tournament with a score of 204. He finished at 9 under, three strokes ahead of Aber and Kempa, who finished in a tie for second place at 207.
Mills has provisional status on the Web.com tour (previously the Nationwide Tour). He shot a 150 (73-77) on Day 1 of last year’s event and failed to make the cut for the final round.
A newly turned pro, Kempa, a native of Brantford, Ontario, Canada, was named an NCAA Division II All-American at IUP three times before graduating in the spring.
Reigning ICC Invitational champion and Plumville native Doug Gradwell finished in a tie for first place for the low-amateur score with former pro Rick Stimmel. Gradwell posted a 215 and placed 11th overall.
Matt Holuta, an ICC member and 2014 Indiana High School graduate who will play golf at Rutgers University in the fall, fired a 218 to finish in a three-way tie for 26th place.
Don Erickson III, the winner of 15 Indiana Country Club Invitationals, began the day in fourth place, but shot an 81 in the final round to finish the tournament tied with Holuta in 26th.
“It’s nice to get back in that winning circle again and know that you can do it,” said Mills, who placed third in the event in 2012 at Fox Chapel Golf Club. “I knew I had the talent. I’d been to the PGA Tour and I’ve been to the Web.com Tour, and I’ve won on the Web.com Tour, so I know it’s there. It was just a matter of trying to fight through the issues I had the last few years.”
Mills tallied a tournament-low 62 in Round 2 and began the day with a three-stroke lead on Kempa and eventual fifth-place finisher John Popeck. Mills held an eight-stroke advantage on Aber.
Mills, however, didn’t adjust to the high winds and the fast-moving greens on the front nine of Round 3, settling for a bogey on No. 2 and a double-bogey on No. 8 to finish with a 37.
Kempa and Aber each capitalized on Mills’ momentarily lapses on the front nine. Kempa sunk two birdies and pulled two strokes within the lead with a 36, and Aber drilled three birdies and moved four strokes behind Mills with a 33.
“I was pretty nervous the whole third round because it’s been a while since I’ve been in this situation, (and) in a way, I put more pressure on myself playing here,” said Mills.
“Being local (and) having a lot of people rooting for you — you don’t want to say you expect to win — but when those thoughts creep in your mind and everyone expects you to play well, that adds pressure. … Fortunately I was able to deal with it, which definitely will help me in the long run.”
Mills double-bogeyed the first hole on the back nine before parring each of the next five holes. Kempa had a bogey and three pars on his first four holes of the back nine. Kempa then birdied No. 14 to pull into a momentary tie with Mills at 182 overall.
Aber parred the first five holes after the turn. He then birdied No. 15 to pull within one stroke of tying Mills and Kempa.
Mills didn’t waiver, however, and birdied No. 16 to take a one-stroke lead on Kempa, who parred the hole. Aber also parred No. 16 to fall two strokes behind Mills.
Mills then birdied both No. 17, a 180-yard, par-3 hole, and No. 18, a 535-yard, par-5 hole, to seal the win. Aber birdied No. 17 and parred No. 18, and Kempa parred each of the last two holes.
“John closed really well, and today was his day, but I’m still quite happy with second place, especially in front of my second home,” said Kempa. “He finished with three straight birdies, and he was rather impressive out there. I’m very proud of my friend, so good for John. If he closes like that, he definitely deserves to win.”
Mills changed his offseason routine and credited his performance to his decision to relax and spend time with his family, rather than travel south to refine his game during the winter months.
“I took a lot of time off in the winter, and I usually go south and work on my game to get ready for the Web.com tour,” said Mills, who played in the 2007 and 2008 U.S. opens. “This year I stayed here and didn’t touch a club. I took some time off, and once it got nice here, I started my normal offseason golf stuff. And actually, in a way it was kind of a blessing that we had that prolonged spring. It gave me more time to refocus and everything.
“In my opinion, there are still a lot of things I need to improve on to get back to that level, but at least I see improvements and see things going in the right direction, instead of backwards.”
A winner of the ICC Invitational 14 times, Gradwell carded four birdies, 12 pars and two bogeys to finish Round 3 with a 69.
Despite the fact that he outlasted so many pros in his first appearance in the event, Gradwell said he has no plans to turn pro.
“I’m too old. I’m just having fun and trying to compete on the golf course with some of the better competitors in the area,” said Gradwell. “I don’t play that much because I work 40-hour weeks. I get out in the evening and play one round a week, and that’s basically it.”