Jason Millard will sleep soundly
PINEHURST, N.C. -- The most honorable man in sports is doing his damnedest to avoid the TV. Jason Millard is a golfer who does not want to watch the golf at Pinehurst, not yet, anyway. He thinks he might give in for the final round of the U.S. Open, right after a planned Father's Day visit to his father's grave.
Millard peeked at a few highlights and updates Thursday and Friday, and there was a price to pay.
"It definitely is painful to see it," he said by phone. "Playing in the U.S. Open has always been a dream of mine, so it definitely hurts some inside."
He was supposed to be in the field at Pinehurst, measuring himself against Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson and the rest as a 24-year-old prospect living out that dream. But about 75 minutes into a 500-mile drive from his Murfreesboro, Tennessee, home to the North Carolina Sandhills, Millard told his caddie and childhood friend, Ryan Pierson, that the haunting thoughts of the past five days had broken his will to play.
Millard wasn't sure that he grounded his sand wedge in a bunker on the 27th hole of the 36-hole qualifier in Memphis, or that he deserved the 2-shot penalty he didn't assess himself, the penalty that would've knocked him out of the Open. But the former two-time All-American at Middle Tennessee State thought it was possible he did make a slight indentation in the sand on approach, and did sign for a 68 that should've been a 70. That stood in violation of Rule 34-1b.
"We were in the car heading to Pinehurst, about 30 minutes in," said Pierson, "and it was really tearing Jason up inside. We discussed it for 45 minutes, and we agreed that it was weighing on his mind so much that no matter how he played, it wouldn't be the week he wanted it to be."
They were teammates at Riverdale High School and golfing buddies at the local course, Indian Hills, where Pierson gives lessons and harbors his own visions of someday playing on tour. He had to miss the sectional qualifier to attend a wedding in Jamaica, but he'd been on Millard's bag for six years.
Jason and Ryan would act as one. They were going to DQ from the U.S. Open together.
"Are you still going to be my friend if I do this?" Millard asked.
He already knew the answer. They pulled off I-40 and found what Pierson called "an old, run-down gas station. I'm not even sure anyone was there." They called number after number in search of the proper golfing authority, but it was a Saturday and they kept getting funneled into voice mail.
Finally, Millard reached a USGA official and confessed to a crime he might not have committed against a plugged ball in a trap.
"I'd played well enough to qualify for the U.S. Open, and I'd played a U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst [in 2003] and loved the course," Millard said. "But the image of that bunker shot kept coming back to me, and it made me sick to my stomach for five days. It just gnawed at me, and I've never felt anything like it."
Of course, Millard didn't have to make the decision he made. The possible infraction wasn't spotted by any official or competitor, and wasn't called in by some fan washing down nachos in front of his high-def TV.
Millard also had endured more than any 24-year-old should. His father, Eddie, had succumbed to leukemia 14 months earlier, leaving the only child as one of the primary caregivers for his mother, Debbie, whose long battle with multiple sclerosis has left her in a wheelchair.
"He's been a really big help to me," Debbie said Friday by phone. She said Jason walks her dog, picks up her meds, buys her groceries, you name it.
So maybe after losing his father and caring so much for his ailing mother, Jason Millard might've figured he deserved a break, or the benefit of the doubt.
"Yeah, that did pop into my mind," he conceded. "But then again, every single thing you can think about popped into my mind over those five days."
Pierson understood why his friend was so tormented by the possibilities of what did or did not go down that day in the sand.
"Jason can't bear guilt," he said. "He has high morals and great character, and I'm just surprised it took as long as it did. But I think one reason it took as long as it did was Jason wanted to play the U.S. Open for his father on Father's Day."
Eddie Millard was only 60 when he died from leukemia. He'd spent four decades in the car dealership business, selling and repairing and painting, and in his time off he appreciated nothing more than the time he spent with his boy on the golf course.
The father was tough on the son, but he was forever quick to boast to friends about the birdies on Jason's cards.
"Eddie was always there with Jason," Pierson said. "He was one of those neighborhood dads who gave us all direction, and Jason listened to what he had to say."
Eddie Millard used to tell his son that he shouldn't dwell on a bad shot, that he needed to get over it and move on. So that's what Jason tried to do on the road back from that run-down gas station on I-40 last Saturday. It was the road back from a U.S. Open spot he'd just handed to an alternate out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham named Sam Love, who missed the cut after expressing his admiration for Millard's grace and integrity.
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On arrival in Murfreesboro, Millard spelled out his decision to his mother, who grew emotional.
"I was disappointed for him, but I was very proud that he did the right thing," Debbie Millard said. "He's an honest person. I'm sure Eddie would've been proud of him too."
Eddie would've expected nothing less. When Jason hasn't been tending to his mother the past few days, running the errands his old man used to run, he's been working on his game with Pierson. He's been trying to escape the sport by playing it.
"The best thing for me was to be on a golf course," Jason said, "even if it's not the one I want to be on."
Friday morning, Millard said he knew enough about the tournament to know that Kaymer was running away with it. Slowly, if not so surely, he was adjusting to the fact that life at the U.S. Open was going on without him.
Of the first highlights Millard saw Thursday, he said, "They gave me chills. I felt like, 'Why can't I be there right now?' But I know I did the right thing, and I have a clear conscience. I still don't know to this day if I grounded my club in the bunker, and if I did, now I don't have to live with that guilt the rest of my life."
Millard said that he expected to visit Eddie's grave site on Father's Day, and that he hoped to feel enough peace with his choice to sit down and watch Kaymer try to get this one to the house.
Either way, they will give out a big, shiny trophy to someone at Pinehurst, and that's OK. Jason Millard has already won his first major.
This week, by a 10-shot margin, he became the most honorable man in sports.
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