Michaux: Former USC Aiken golfer will get U.S. Open shot if Mickelson can’t make it

Even in absentia, all eyes are on Phil Mickelson and his long-shot hopes of pulling off the daughter’s graduation-U.S. Open double 2,000 miles apart this week.

 

There is no more interested party than former USC Aiken star Roberto Diaz — the player-to-be-named-later in Mickelson’s potential cross-country race against time.

Diaz is the next alternate in line to make the field at Erin Hills if anyone withdraws before their tee time Thursday. The 30-year-old, four-time Division II all-American is hoping to compete in his first major championship.

“I haven’t really thought too much about it since I’m not yet in, so I’ll have to wait and see what happens,” Diaz said. “It would mean the world. It’s like I’m in Disney. I was walking in and I was feeling butterflies just looking at everything. It’s the dream that everybody has as a golfer.”

Diaz just missed qualifying outright when he lost on the second hole of a playoff to Matthew Campbell after shooting 7-under in the 36-hole sectional at Canoe Brook in New Jersey last week. He also missed in a sectional playoff two years ago before the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.

Five alternates from sectional qualifying have already secured a spot in the field thanks to unfilled vacancies for top-60 players: Davis Love IV, Ryan Palmer, Whee Kim, Gregory Bourdy and Todd Light.

That moved Diaz into the Mickelson spotlight. The record six-time U.S. Open runner-up is scheduled to tee off at 2:20 p.m. Central time with local favorite Steve Stricker and former British Open champ Stewart Cink. But Mickelson is attending the California high school graduation scheduled at 10 a.m. Pacific time for his oldest daughter Amanda, who will deliver the commencement address. Foul weather permitting – and there is a 60-percent chance of scattered morning thunderstorms at Erin Hills on Thursday – Mickelson will try to private jet his way to Wisconsin to pursue the elusive last leg of his career grand slam.

“I need a minimum four-hour delay most likely,” Mickelson said Sunday. “That’s the way I kind of mapped it out. I should get in the air right around my tee time. It’s about a 3-hour, 20-minute flight.”

Barring no other withdrawals, that leaves Diaz in a difficult and tedious limbo. Currently sitting 11th on the Web.com Tour money list, he needed to decide by Wednesday whether to stay and risk Mickelson showing up or leave for Wichita, Kansas, for this week’s Web.com Tour event. By Tuesday, Diaz had decided to stay even though he’ll be required to be ready at 6:45 a.m., nearly eight hours before Mickelson’s scheduled time slot, in case someone else withdraws earlier.

“Obviously, everybody is telling me that I might take Phil’s spot,” Diaz said. “Monday is very far from Thursday. Anything can happen. It’s Phil Mickelson. With him, you never know. We know how important he is to the game and how many things he’s done on the golf course. They might change the graduation. He might take a plane and get here in time. It wouldn’t surprise me if he shows up here on Thursday and plays the U.S. Open.

”I’m mentally ready to see everybody (in the field) go by and not having me tee off,” he told the USGA on Tuesday. “Even if I don’t play, I know I’ll benefit a lot from this week.”

The odds are in Diaz’s favor and would be another milestone step in what is turning out to be a breakout year for the former Pacer. This season he has a runner-up, third and three additional top-20 finishes in 11 starts on the Web.com Tour. He would have had a victory in Colombia if Ethan Tracy had not holed out for eagle from 101 yards on the last hole of regulation to erase a two-shot deficit and force a playoff Tracy later won.

Diaz also earned a spot in the WGC-Mexico Championship in February as the highest-ranked player from Mexico, eventually finishing tied for 67th in the 76-player field.

“I think it’s just maturity,” he said of his 2017 success. “The game has been improving every year since I got on the Web four years ago.”

With 11 weeks left before the top 25 on the Web.com Tour money list secure PGA Tour cards before the Web.com Finals, he stands a good chance of advancing.

“I should be fighting more to get that No. 1 spot than thinking about the card,” he said. “It’s week to week. I play good this year and the goal is to win.”

His focus this week is preparing for his major opportunity if it comes. The USGA this year finally relaxed its arcane rule forbidding alternates from playing practice rounds to familiarize themselves with the course. As the first alternate from his sectional, Diaz got his first taste of Erin Hills with nine holes Monday .

“It’s tough; it’s very difficult,” he said of the long, undulating, fescue-lined layout in rural Wisconsin. “It’s not going to be easy for sure. You’re going to have to hit it in the fairway and have to hit it in a good spot around the greens because the greens have a lot of movement. It’s a good golf course but very difficult.”

That degree of difficulty narrows any sort of goals Diaz might set for himself should he get to tee off.

“To be honest you have to go one hole at a time and hitting the fairway is the main goal,” he said. “This is going to be a position golf course and one of those courses where the smarter player wins.”

The smart money – with Vegas prop bets forecasting Mickelson as a 10-to-1 chance to play – is that Diaz will at least get his first chance.

 

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