After watching his former University of Alabama teammate Justin Thomas complete a record 9-under-par 63 Saturday at Erin Hills with a remarkable eagle, Trey Mullinax orchestrated his own fine finish Sunday afternoon in the 117th U.S. Open.
A rookie on the PGA Tour competing in his first major championship, Mullinax rebounded from a double bogey to birdie his final three holes for an impressive 4-under 68, which tied 1997 U.S. Amateur winner Matt Kuchar for second-low round of the day. Hideki Matsuyama surpassed them with a sterling 66.
The finishing kick not only enabled Mullinax to climb into a tie for ninth at 8-under 280, it also was worth an exemption into the 2018 championship at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y. And as it turned out, he finished in a deadlock with Thomas by day’s end, when Thomas backtracked with a 75 on Sunday.
“To play in your national championship pretty much is awesome,” said the soft-spoken Georgia resident. “It’s an honor to be here at Erin Hills. To be top 10 in my first major would be pretty awesome. It’s what you dream about playing. You dream about playing the majors when you’re a kid playing golf. And I got to play in my first one.”
It took a rather awesome finish after he bogeyed the 13th and then three-putted the 15th hole from 34 feet to fall to 1 under on the day. But he rolled in a 20-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th to get one stroke back and stiffed a 9-iron on 17 to 4 feet for another.
Another in a line of young bombers on Tour, Mullinax nearly reached the green in two on No. 18, which was playing 681 yards on Sunday. He chipped to 12 feet and rolled it in, a putt he had to have for a return invitation.
“Hit the ball great all day,” the 6-foot-4 Mullinax said. “Kept telling myself after I double-bogeyed 15, just keep grinding. Just tried to take it one shot at a time and keep my focus.”
Ranked 373rd in the world – compared to 13th for his ex-teammate Thomas – Mullinax, 24, was an integral member of the Crimson Tide teams that won consecutive NCAA Division I national titles in 2013 and ’14. (Thomas was a sophomore on the 2013 squad before turning pro.) A native of Birmingham, Ala., Mullinax won two tournaments in college and was a second-team All-American as a senior.
He turned professional in 2014 and won the 2016 Rex Hospital Open on the Web.com Tour, which propelled him to a PGA Tour card. His best finish prior to the U.S. Open was a tie for 14th at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He qualified with rounds of 68-66 at the Memphis sectional to earn one of nine spots and then finished T-18 in the FedEx St. Jude Classic before arriving at Erin Hills.
How does he explain his first top 10 coming in the U.S. Open?
“I’ve been playing well throughout the year, I just hadn’t had the weekends,” he said after a weekend of 69-68 at Erin Hills. “At the beginning of the year, I played really well. The last couple of months hadn’t been great. Had some stuff happen, just had to go back to the drawing board and go from there. And the last two weeks, played well in Memphis, so had good feelings going into this week after playing well in Memphis.”
Mullinax, who earned a degree in communications, definitely took some inspiration from what Thomas accomplished on Saturday, his 63 setting a U.S. Open record in relation to par, eclipsing the mark held for 44 years by Johnny Miller.
“Watching Justin do that, make history, doesn’t surprise me at all. If you’ve seen him at every level, he’s been great at every level he’s played at. To have him as a friend and a guy I can talk to and a good buddy, I’m blessed to have Justin as a friend.”
And as a friend, he couldn’t help getting in a little dig about their shared college years at Alabama.
“Justin was there for two years. He’s a dropout, so he was only there for two years,” Mullinax said with a grin. “I graduated, so I got my diploma.”
He appears ready to graduate to bigger things in golf, too.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.