VERO BEACH, Fla. – For about 15 minutes, it looked as if Landon Michelson might be heading to Pinehurst.
The 22-year-old amateur picked an opportune time to string together 36 holes of stellar golf amid windy conditions Monday during the U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Quail Valley Golf Club. He’d broken par both rounds, and at worst looked to be facing a 2-for-1 playoff for a spot in his first U.S. Open.
With the stroke of a pencil, though, it all ended in a disqualification.
Michelson shot a 1-under 71 in both rounds, but in the midst of his euphoria signed for a 70 after his second round. A three-putt bogey on the 11th hole went unnoticed by his playing partner and was mistakenly recorded as a par.
“I’m pretty devastated,” Michelson said. “Just so frustrating.”
Michelson, who arrived at the course at 6 a.m. as the first alternate and got into the field only after PGA Tour winner Fredrik Jacobson withdrew, was one of only eight players to break par during the morning wave. He began the second round tied for fifth among a field of 55 players with four spots at Pinehurst up for grabs.
An eagle on the par-5 14th vaulted Michelson into contention. When he finished the day at 2-under 142, he was tied for fourth place with veteran Aron Price and was preparing for a possible playoff, with Price playing the difficult finishing hole two groups behind.
Then came two warning signs - caddie Chris Ingham started to get congratulatory phone calls, even though a spot at Pinehurst was not locked up, and caddie and player noticed that Michelson’s name was listed on the leaderboard at 141, not 142.
A perfect storm of events led to the DQ. Ingham had made an effort to keep Michelson shielded from scoring info all day long. Then Ingham opted to watch Price play his final hole rather than accompany Michelson to the scoring area.
“Generally I would go over there with (Michelson) and make sure everything was OK, but I was slow getting there," Ingham said. "I was hoping he would be pretty meticulous checking his score, but he was the most excited he’s probably ever been in his life. I was too.”
The final blow was Michelson failing to catch the error on his scorecard before he signed it.
“Today was one of the first rounds I’ve ever been like, super focused,” Michelson said. “I didn’t even know what I was at, to be honest with you. The guy (in scoring) told me I shot 70 and I was like, ‘Yeah, sounds right.’ Looking over it, Chris and I went over it and it was a 71.”
It didn’t take long for Michelson to realize his mistake, though the question of what to do next was one that weighed on him as he contemplated the possibility of playing against the game’s best at Pinehurst.
“If you think about it, I’m like the 1,000th-ranked amateur in the world,” said Michelson, a Miami resident and recent graduate of Rice University. “Going to the U.S. Open, it would be so much to me. Getting clothing sponsors, club sponsors – everything would have been so much easier.”
Michelson assessed his options – stay quiet and make the Open, or confess his mistake and face disqualification for signing an incorrect scorecard. While finishing his senior year at Rice, he had done a project for a Sports Ethics class on Blayne Barber, who famously disqualified himself from the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School in 2012.
“I told myself then that I don’t know what I would do in that situation,” he said.
Faced with the same situation, he didn’t hesitate. Michelson headed back to the scoring area and alerted officials to his error, which gave the fourth and final qualifying spot to Price.
“I had to go,” Michelson said. “I was just hoping there was something the rules official could do.”
Ingham, a childhood friend who plays college golf at Ole Miss, agreed with the decision.
“I can’t tell you what to do, I can only tell you what I would do. I think you’re going to regret it if you don’t come forward,” he told Michelson. “Before I could say anything else, he just walked right over there and DQ’d himself.”
Price became the beneficiary of Michelson’s mistake, and after bouncing between the PGA and Web.com tours in recent years, the Aussie is now headed to his first U.S. Open. He offered a philosophical take on the situation, having gone from first alternate to last qualifier within about 10 minutes.
“I’ve had good breaks and I’ve had bad breaks. I’m 32 and I’ve been playing (professional) golf for nine years,” Price said. “It’s a crazy game.”
For Michelson, though, a whirlwind day where he briefly reached the highest of highs ended with brutal finality.
“It’s just frustrating,” he said. “People tell me to move on and use this as a stepping stone, but it’s hard to do.”