EXPORT – He’s no longer the fresh-faced youngster with the big smile and the big game.
He’s now a 28-year-old with an even bigger game, the same big smile and a much more mature attitude.
And the latter played a big role in Mike Van Sickle becoming a two-time West Penn Open champion Wednesday afternoon at Westmoreland Country Club in Export.
Van Sickle won the 111th playing of the event by four shots, but led by as many as six at one point in the final round. He blew by Butler Country Club professional Rob McClellan by making birdies on the fifth, sixth and seventh and, despite three-putt bogeys on the 17th and 18th holes, Van Sickle won comfortably.
“This place has beaten me up and taken my lunch money in the past,” Van Sickle said. “The course got its share of punches in, but I felt like I held my own.”
It was an unusual week for Van Sickle, who played in the PGA Tour Canada’s Mackenzie Tour’s Staal Foundation Open last weekend. He flew from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Toronto and then took turns driving with his mom, Betsy, to get back to western Pennsylvania in time to tee it up Monday morning.
“It shows what I think of the West Penn Open,” Van Sickle said. ìIt means a lot to me. “Sleep-deprived and travel-weary, Van Sickle went out and put up a four-under par 67 on the scoreboard and went about the process of making his way around the tricky Westmoreland CC layout in a calculating way.”
“It’s interesting to see how I see the course now through older glasses. I’ve wised up, apparently,” he laughed. “I used to just grab driver and see what happens. Playing more and more tournament golf should help you see things through those older glasses.”
He still used his drive a handful of times but opted most times for three-woods and hybrids to maneuver his way around the doglegs and angles that provide great tests for competitors. How did Van Sickle do in that regard?
He didn’t miss a green in the last two rounds, hit 52 of 54 over the three rounds and hit 48 straight. It’s no wonder then that he made 17 birdies in 54 holes. And had his putter been a bit more cooperative, that number could easily have been much higher.
Van Sickle finished nine-under par with rounds of 67-68-69, four shots clear of McClellan and eight shots ahead of Oakmont Country Club pro Devin Gee and Jimmy Gillam of Altoona.
The son of Sports Illustrated golf writer Gary Van Sickle has had a summer full of close calls and frustrating misses and those had begun to wear on him. He was very confident as the tournament started, saying nobody was hitting the ball better than he was and just needed to get the ball in the hole more.
“I wanted to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘That’s enough,’” he said. “It’s time for me to start closing the deal more. Pedal to the metal.”
Van Sickle’s other Open title came at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort’s Mystic Rock course in 2013. In those two victories, all six of his rounds were in the 60s.
“He played really well,” said McClellan, a former champion who posted the best round of the three days, a 66 in the first round. “And I played horrible on the front.”
Four players tied for low amateur in this year’s Open: Nathan Smith, the 2008 Open champion, West Penn Amateur champion Easton Renwick, Matt Haluta and Ryan Prokay.
Van Sickle heads back to Canada next week to play an event in Calgary. He’s made five cuts north of the border and is hopeful this victory will be a springboard for him.
“This was a nice pick-me-up,” he admitted. “There have been so many close calls this year. I grew up playing with guys like Sean Knapp and Nathan Smith, living legends. I am always chasing their history and their success (in the WPGA). And it means a lot to win on a course where I haven’t played well.”