DECATUR – Daniel Miller is on a hot streak for the ages.
The 2016 Mount Zion graduate won the Drysdale Golf Tournament Collegiate Division in Springfield Thursday and opened the first round of the Rex Spires Decatur Men's City Amateur Saturday with a low score of 68.
His 4-under par performance came after he bogeyed the first hole at Hickory Point Golf Course into the trees.
The University of Illinois-Springfield golfer answered back quickly with a birdie on three of the next six holes – on his way to a personal best of five at the course – to get out of the front nine with a 2-under 34. He matched the score with a 34 on the back nine.
“I've hit off the fairway here before, but I was in a tree so I thought I was going to start getting screwed all day,” Miller said of the first hole. “I kind of had a round like that in my tournament in Springfield on Monday, but it was only my first hole so I wasn't too concerned.”
Things could not have been more different for Miller Saturday after a forgettable first round in Springfield Monday.
Monday was his “worst round of the summer,” with an 83 in the match play event. He was seeded last in the tournament after the round, but gradually lowered his scores before leaving Thursday with a tournament win.
Saturday was a far cry from that. Miller turned in a career-best effort at Hickory Point with his 68. Going into his sophomore year of college, he's having the best summer of his career.
The upswing in his game comes from a change in mindset.
“I changed my swing a little bit, not swinging as hard and getting myself in a different mentality where I don't have to try to go and get shots or I'm worried about getting good shots,” Miller said. “I'm just worried about hitting the ball solid and making good contact with it and it's made me a lot more consistent.”
Miller has never won the event. He tied for seventh last year and enters today's play at Red Tail Run with a two-stroke lead on three other golfers at a course that's preferable to him.
But, he's keeping a level head on the heels of the second round. For years, Miller sat in lower flights and watched other golfers learn to balance the mental strain of the four-round, two-week tournament.
“I can't be like, 'Oh, this is going to be a cakewalk.' I still have to have the right mentality,” Miller said. “Just going into (Saturday) the same way I came in today, knowing I have to shoot low and not try to do too much with it.”
No margin for error
The field behind Miller is strong and includes golfers who have won the tournament or are no strangers to top five finishes.
Wes Hillen, Sam Osborne and Kraig Rogers sit in a tie for second with a 2-under par 70.
Osborne, the head golf coach at Millikin, and Hillen, an assistant coach for the Big Blue, shared a cart for their opening round, nearly the only thing they shared on the day.
Hillen had an up-and-down start to his morning. The two-time winner (2014, 2015) who tied for second last year bogeyed the first hole, birdied the second hole and double bogeyed No. 3.
Osborne, on the other hand, shot a bogey-free round with a pair of birdies to notch his 70. By his own account, he left a few birdies on the putting green, including on Nos. 16, 17 and 18.
Hillen finished the front nine with two bogeys, a double bogey and a pair of birdies. On the back nine, he got back in his groove by birdying No. 11 and delivering an eagle on No. 15 to climb back to a 2-under par 70.
"I know that I can make birdies out there so I wasn't real concerned that I would make more bogeys," Hillen said. "It was a little bit of an emotional roller coaster after the first few holes, but it's early. You still have to play three more rounds of golf so I wasn't too shaken up about it."
Hillen gambled on No. 15 and it paid off. He hit a 3-wood into the rough through the fairway and had 230 yards to the flag. From there he risked a 4 iron over the trees onto the green before he dropped a 20-footer for eagle.
"I only had 230 yards, so I could reach it. It was just a matter of hitting a good golf shot -- which they were rare today," Hillen said of No. 15. "I figured I didn't have much to lose, if I hit a bad one I would make bogey."
Rogers is the veteran of the second-place group. Approaching 50 years old, he made a pair of birdies on holes 11 and 12 to secure a tie for second after the first round.
It was almost even better.
After his birdies, he had a strong drive on No. 13 but missed his chance to make it three in a row.
"I hit a lot of greens today. I didn't drive it really great, but kept it in play and in the fairway. I putted all right," Rogers said. "I had a couple good looks on the front nine that I missed, but that's golf. You don't make them all. I didn't have any bogeys today, so that's obviously helpful when you don't make any bogeys and it lets you make up for some mistakes."
He won't out-drive his younger counterparts, but he has 30 years of experience in the tournament to help him keep pace with the college, or recent college golfers.
Rogers doesn't even watch them tee off, because he doesn't want to pressure himself into changing his swing in an attempt to procure longer drives.
As a winner in 2012, he also doesn't have the pressure of winning his first city amateur hanging over his head, which eases the emotions going into the next three rounds.
The five-day break can pose challenges for golfers who stand at or near the top of the leaderboard, he said.
"It can be a little nerve-racking if you're near the top and want to do well -- everybody wants to do well, it's the way golf is," Rogers said. "It's just tough."