Corbin Mills' incredible journey: from Russia to Italy to Clemson to Magnolia Lane

'I feel like I have the game to go down there and compete, and that’s what I want to do'

Corbin Mills

Photo by Kerry Capps

Corbin Mills

What are the odds?

A globe-trotting child, the son of missionary parents, grows up playing street hockey in Russia and tennis in Italy, on his way to Magnolia Lane and the first tee box at Augusta National.

Forgive Corbin Mills if somewhere along the way, he stops and pinches himself.

This Thursday will be Mills’ first Thursday at the Masters.

While his Clemson peers, most of whom came to the game via the nationally renowned South Carolina Junior Golf Association, were dreaming of Rae’s Creek and Amen Corner, Mills was far removed, both physically and emotionally, finding his way as an adolescent in foreign lands.

He came to golf also most by chance, encouraged in the game by his grandfather, Boyd, an avid golfer at Southern Oaks in Powdersville, SC, where his parents – dad Stoney and mom Kristi – settled after returning to the States before Corbin’s freshman year of high school.

His history with the Masters, in which he’ll play this week as one of six amateurs, is a short one.

Two years ago, his granddad, who passed away just over a week ago, gave Corbin tickets to a Monday practice round.

Until he returned to the course in January for his first individual practice, that single day summed up Mills’ experience with the Masters.

He’s catching up on the tradition and lore of golf’s greatest spectacle, including a healthy case of butterflies as he anticipates stepping to the first tee; and yet his innocence and businesslike ‘it’s just golf’ approach are perhaps his greatest assets as he takes the next step in his incredible journey.

“I knew about the Masters, but it probably wasn’t like most people,” Mills said recently before a work session at Clemson’s golf practice facility. “For me, it was never ‘It’s the Masters and we’re going down there on Thursday.’

“Living overseas and missing that stage of my life, getting back into the States, the first three or four years were just about learning what’s going on, and trying to figure out the tournament stuff. So the Masters just wasn’t that big a thing for me…

“I’ve definitely gotten into it,” he added. “I almost feel a little shaky now, driving down Magnolia Lane. I think a big part of that is feeling ‘am I supposed to be here?’ I’m starting to feel that way. It’s starting be a little more natural. I roll up to the gate and security guard recognizes who you are, and that’s really cool. The guys in the clubhouse know you by name, and that’s pretty special.”

On The Course, And Out Of Trouble

As a child, Mills said he was always into sports. But traveling and living overseas, it look him a while to find his niche.

In Russia he played a bit of hockey – a street game there, pickup basketball style. He still loves to ice skate, though his opportunities are infrequent now.

When his family moved to Italy, he tried out tennis, but he and the sport never really meshed.

His opportunity in golf came when his dad joined a club and he began spending time with friends at the course.

“I played tennis over there, probably the first year or so that I was there,” Mills said. “But I wasn’t too into it. But I grew up playing sports, and I just had to be doing something all the time.

“Golf seemed to become that ‘something.’ My dad joined a club, and I could be at the golf course all day long and my parents weren’t even worried about me. I loved being outdoors, and that’s kind of how it all started.

“I began putting all my focus into that. My friends were at the golf course, and I grew to really love golf.”

Tall and strong with a seemingly natural ability to hit the ball hard and straight, Mills began to seriously hone his game when his family returned to the Upstate seven years ago. He began playing in junior tournaments and found himself holding his own, or better, against peer-aged players with more experience and a longer history in the game.

After being home-schooled for two years, Mills attended Wren High School in 2008 and 2009, and quickly made his mark, both on the high school and junior golf circuits.

He played in eight AJGA tournaments in 2008, and finished second at the Horseshoe Bend Junior Classic and 12th at the Ringgold Junior Classic.

As a high school senior, Mills won his region 4-A championship with an eight-under par total and was named the Independent Mail Area High School Player of the Year. He earned honorable mention All-America honors and before enrolling at Clemson in the fall of 2009 was ranked as the No. 48 junior player in the nation.

Since then, he’s established himself as one of the college game’s rising stars.

Concurrent with his college career, Mills jumped into the summer amateur arena in 2010 and recorded four top-20 finishes.

He pushed on last summer with the goal of winning a major tournament, and his breakthrough came at the U.S. Public Links Championship at Bandon, OR, where he won the stroke-play qualifier and then marched through his first match-play competition to the title – following in the footsteps of former Tiger D.J. Trahan and punching his ticket for the Masters.

A Special Opportunity

Mills has emerged this season as the leader of a Clemson team determined to re-establish itself as a national championship contender.

And now, after helping the Tigers win back-to-back tournaments and climb into the nation’s top 15, he’s taking a month away to play in both the Masters and RBC Heritage, whose invitation came as a result of his victory in the Players Amateur last summer.

Mills says his Clemson teammates have been supportive as he’s dealt with sudden celebrity and prepared for his special opportunity.

“They’ve been really good about it,” Mills said. “They kid around a lot, but they would want to be in my shoes, as well, and I would want them to be in my shoes. It’s an awesome experience, and they’ve been there to cheer me on and help me get through this time.

“I think it’s helped their golf. I think it pushes them and I think they look at me and say ‘I play with this guy every day, and I beat this guy a lot.’ I think it helps them, and I think that’s shown in our golf this spring.”

Clemson assistant coach Jordan Byrd, who is caddying for Mills this week, says Mills has worked especially hard on his game in preparation for the Masters, and, in doing so, has set an example for his teammates.

“What I see right now is Corbin working and getting better every week,” said Byrd. “I think on his first trip down to Augusta National, he realized that his short game had to get better. Going down there and hitting different shots around the greens has helped him get his short game significantly better, and that’s the area he needed to improve on the most.

“He’s worked really hard on his putting over the past year, and I think he’s begun to see the fruits of his labor. That was the main reason he won last summer. He devoted a lot of time to his putting. He putted great at the U.S. Public Links, and he putted great at the Players Amateur.

“The time he’s spent is really beginning to show.”

Byrd said Mills has improved primarily “because he’s learned how to practice.”

“Our guys think they work hard, and they do work hard,” said Byrd. “But whenever one of them qualifies for something like the Masters, they figure out a way to do twice as much as they were doing. That’s what Corbin has done. He’s working out, and he’s figured out how to practice, and his teammates have seen that.”

A Masters-Friendly Game

Byrd believes that Mills’ game, while it is still a far-from-finished work-in-progress, is well-suited for big-time golf.

“First, Corbin has got a relaxed attitude on the golf course,” Byrd explained. “Poor shots don’t seem to bother him a whole lot – he’s over them pretty quickly. And then I just think he has the game for this golf course. He hits it hard and he hits it straight.

“That’s a big advantage on any golf course. But with Augusta National being 7,500 yards and rye grass, you have to hit it long. Also, he hits his mid-irons and long-irons exceptionally well. That’s the real strength of his game, which makes it well-suited for majors and for professional golf.

“The players on the PGA Tour don’t hit wedges into every par four the way Corbin does in college. They’re hitting six-irons and seven-irons and eight-irons, and that’s really the strength of Corbin’s game. He can make a birdie with a six-iron nearly as well as he can with a wedge. That’s just not the case, normally, with college golfers.

“Corbin hits the ball high and straight and really controls his distances pretty well for someone who hits it as hard as he does. So he should be a great fit for Augusta National. I’m extremely biased, but of all the amateurs, I think he has the best chance of making the cut, just because he has a more professional golf game.”

Mills sees his game coming around at just the right time.

“My game has started to come together recently,” Mills said. “I really focused during the off-season on my short game – mainly chipping and putting, and I kind of neglected my full swing. It wasn’t that big of a deal, because my ball-striking is an easier fix for me than my chipping. In the first couple of tournaments this spring, I could tell that my ball-striking wasn’t quite there, but I saw a lot of positives in my short game.

“After the Aiken tournament (the USCA Cleveland Classic), I felt like I could say ‘my short game’s there, now let’s attack the ball-striking.’

“That’s what I did before Furman, and it all came together on the last day (with a seven-under 65), and that’s really given me a lot of confidence knowing that my game’s getting really close.”

Mills will do more fine-tuning this week during his practice rounds at Augusta National.

“His practice rounds are important; but he’s already been down there three or four times and he has a game plan set for the golf tournament,” said Byrd. “It’s going to change some based on weather and temperature, how fast the golf course is, and whether it rains. But he knows his sight-lines off the tee – where he’s going to aim – and where his finish line is on the fairways. He knows where he’s going to aim on 12, with the different hole locations.

“Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s going to be ultra-important for him just to get more comfortable. And he will. Hopefully by Thursday, it won’t be such a shock to the system to see the No. 1 tee box lined (by spectators) on both sides.

“It’ll be different on Thursday, but he’ll be more prepared than he thinks.”

First Thursday, First Tee

Mills would like to say that it’s ‘just another round of golf’ when he steps to the No. 1 tee box on Thursday.

But he knows better.

“I don’t know that anybody’s mentally tough enough to just blow everything off and not really realize what’s going on,” he said. “But it’s something that I’ve been trying to work on and prepare myself for mentally…

“I get a little nervous teeing off when there’s nobody on the golf course. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like with that many people. I’ll get a little more comfortable after playing my practice rounds, but it’s still going to be the first tee…I was a little nervous on the first tee at Furman. That’s golf, and that’s how it is. It’s just a matter of how you deal with.”

He knows that his ride at Augusta National will inevitably include both ups and downs.

“You can never give up in golf,” Mills said. “It’s just a crazy game. Sometimes you hit a good shot and you don’t get away with it, and sometimes you hit a bad shot and then you make a long putt.

“I’ve learned over the last year that it’s not life or death. It’s just golf, and it’s fun. So I’m just trying to go with the experience of what’s going on in my life right now.”

He says he hopes his Masters experience fits into his career as “a stepping stone.”

“I see it as a stepping stone, and hopefully as a jump-start,” Mills said. “I’m going to take this as something that’s making me better, and helping me get to the next level. I just hope to play well and then see where this takes me from there.”

“As long as Corbin keeps improving, he has a great future in the game,” said Byrd. “I don’t think he’s quite ready yet to go play on the professional circuit, but I certainly think he has the game and has the talent. He just needs to keep getting better with his short game and his putting, and his short wedges need to keep getting better. He’s pretty good from 90-120, but he needs to get better in the 30-80 range.

“He knows what he needs and now he knows how to work at his game. This experience is just another part of that.”

Mills says his only goal this week is to be competitive.

“One thing I’m really not to focus on and worry about is making the cut,” he said. “That’s something I’m going to be asked a lot, and I don’t want to make that my main focus. Of course it would be great; but I think I can make the cut.

“I feel like I have the game to go down there and compete, and that’s what I want to do.”

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