BLOOMINGTON — After watching Drew Miller for a couple hours Friday morning, Mike Cushing is confident the future of the Illinois State University golf program is in good hands. Cushing just showed that the Redbirds of old can still play, too.
Miller rallied from a 2-down deficit with five holes left to square the match heading into No. 17. But the ISU recruit suffered a rare 3-putt and Cushing took advantage to record a 1-up victory in a Bloomington-Normal Match Play Tournament championship flight quarterfinal match at The Den at Fox Creek Golf Course.
“I felt like the underdog, but I never feel like I’m going to lose,” said the 30-year old Cushing. “He plays so much tournament golf. He beat me Thursday at Railside in Gibson City in qualifying (for the Chicago District Golf Association Amateur).”
Cushing advanced to today’s semifinals for the first time. He knows he’ll be the underdog again when he meets co-worker, good friend and defending champion Todd Mitchell at 8 a.m. Mitchell was rock solid from tee to green in the breezy conditions to eliminate Ryan Meier, 2 and 1.
Two other first-time semifinalists, Ryan Miller and Todd Manning, square off at 8:10. Miller ousted three-time champion Elston Mitchell, 4 and 3, while Manning birdied the 17th hole for the second straight day to beat Jay Sparks 1-up.
Cushing struggled in his first match to beat 15-year old Tim Gaertner. He has straightened out his driver while beating Mike Henry and Drew Miller.
“I had a couple of loose shots on the front nine, but I never hit it out of play,” said Cushing.
Cushing sank a 4-foot birdie putt at No. 12 and used a two-putt par on the 13th to grab a 2-up advantage. Miller came right back with short birdie putts on Nos. 14 and 16 to tie the match heading into the 160-yard 17th.
“I wasn’t bothered because he had made two birdies to get back into the match. I did not hit a bad shot to go from 2-up to even,” said Cushing. “I thought I needed to hit 17 into the middle of the green.”
Cushing did that. Miller then ran his birdie putt from 40 feet about 8 feet past and missed the comeback par putt. Cushing safely 2-putted for par and the lead.
Both players hit off the back edge of the green on the 18th. Cushing went first and chipped within a foot. Miller knew he needed to make his chip to extend the match and ran his attempt past the hole.
“If you don’t play your best against a guy like him, you’re not going to get it done,” said Miller.
Todd Mitchell, an agent for Clemens & Associates along with Cushing, hit 15 greens in regulation against Meier. However, Mitchell struggled on the greens. He suffered 3-putts at Nos. 7 and 9, and when Meier sank a 15-foot birdie putt at the 10th the match was even.
“I hit some good putts today but was fooled and misread them, and I hit a couple putts that didn’t have a chance,” said Mitchell. “It’s a great feeling when you look up and your putt is already off line.”
However, Mitchell didn’t have to putt at Nos. 11 and 12. Meier hit his tee shot into the creek on the 11th and conceded Mitchell’s birdie on the next hole after taking a bogey.
Meier won No. 13 with a par before Mitchell sank a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 14th. Meier got up and down for several pars, but knew he needed to hit more than seven greens.
“The irons let me down a little today. It’s tough to beat a player of that caliber when you only make one birdie,” said Meier. “I duck-hooked into the creek on 11 and it was downhill from there, but it’s still been a good week.”
Ryan Miller, who is no relation to Drew, still hasn’t played Nos. 16, 17 and 18 since earning qualifying medalist honors last weekend. Miller took advantage of a shaky start by Elston Mitchell to go 3-up after the first three holes.
The elder Mitchell seemed to be on the verge of a comeback when he birdied the par-3 eighth by making a 20-foot birdie putt. However, Mitchell couldn’t take advantage of a Miller mistake at the ninth and both players took bogey. When Mitchell missed a 3-foot birdie putt on No. 10, Miller went 3-up again.
“I didn’t start relaxing until 11,” said Miller, who was 1-over for 15 holes. “After that I started striking the ball like I have all week.
“I made some 6- or 7-footers coming back for par. A couple years ago when I played those guys they would kill me because I would miss those. Elston thought that’s one thing that’s changed in my game because I’m making those.”
Manning has made the 17th his favorite hole the past two days. He birdied No. 17 on Thursday to clinch an upset victory over four-time winner Tom Kearfott in the second round.
Playing against his good friend Sparks, Manning went to the 17th tee even after Sparks took a bogey on No. 16. Manning’s thoughts immediately went back to about 18 hours earlier.
“It was downwind, same distance, same club,” said Manning, who reached for his 9-iron. “It was a perfect club. I could just hit it and let it go.”
Manning was further away Friday, but he drained the 20-foot birdie putt to go 1-up. When Sparks couldn’t chip in for birdie from behind the green on No. 18, he conceded Manning’s 3-foot par putt.
“I didn’t have the heart to make him putt that. It was probably outside the grip, but it wasn’t the right thing to do,” said Sparks.
B-N MATCH PLAY RESULTS
Championship Flight Quarterfinals
Todd Mitchell def. Ryan Meier, 2 and 1
Mike Cushing def. Drew Miller, 1-up
Ryan Miller def. Elston Mitchell, 4 and 3
Todd Manning def. Jay Sparks, 1-up
First Flight Semifinals
Curt Bressner def. Aaron Good, 2 and 1
Mike Nalewajka def. David Perry, 5 and 3