SCOTTSDALE — At the Waste Management Phoenix Open, shades of green are everywhere. But as the final group of the day made its way around TPC Scottsdale Thursday, it was a different color that dominated the gallery: purple.
Jesse Mueller, PGA Director of Golf for the Grand Canyon University Golf Course, donned a purple Antelopes polo as he and caddie James Drew maneuvered through his first PGA Tour round in his home state. He was followed by a herd of ‘Lopes fans roaming the freshly manicured lawn on the first day of the tourney dubbed the “Greenest Show on Grass.”
Among the followers was Brian Mueller, his father and president for GCU.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” the elder Mueller said. “When he was 10 years old, he was in the program because he was winning a lot of championships as a junior golfer.”
Mueller missed the cut after finishing the tournament 14-over. But in many ways, his greatest achievement was qualifying.
After nearly six seasons off the PGA Tour, Mueller played his way into the Phoenix Open with a win in the 60th PING Southwest PGA Championship at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa in September.
Since competing in the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Mueller went 1,964 days without playing a round on tour. But after qualifying for Phoenix, he traveled to Las Vegas, tying for 51st at the Shriners Hospital for Children Open at 2-over.
“It was nice to get that tour event a couple months ago under my belt before this weekend,” Mueller said. “That gave me some confidence that I can play and compete out here with these guys.”
Alongside tour rookies Julian Suri and Tom Lovelady, Mueller trudged through his round, beginning as the last group to tee off at hole 10.
With each shot, nervous chatter spread through Mueller’s cheering section, tensing up when things went bad — including when several balls went into the water — and letting out a sigh of relief when they went right — like on his first birdie of the day on hole 14.
It was far from Mueller’s first time at the course. He has attended tournaments over the years and played rounds to prepare for his first time competing in the Phoenix Open.
Drew is on the other end of the spectrum. Having never been to the course before Wednesday’s practice, Drew was in awe of what he saw.
“It’s unbelievable,” Drew said. “I’ve been to a lot of tour venues and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Even from those not following his group, Mueller received vocal support, like a “Muel-ler” chant on 17 and multiple “G-C-U” chants throughout his round, which he responded to each time by flashing the ‘Lopes Up signal.
“I love being part of the GCU family,” Mueller said. “Everybody is so close-knit in the community … It’s fun to be involved and to see the critical growth in the last 10 years has been amazing to watch.”
In his fourth year at GCU, Mueller serves as an assistant coach for the men’s golf team alongside his brother, Mark, in addition to running the course.
“Being a local and playing in this tournament,” Mueller said. “I’m honored to represent Arizona.”
Mueller was a part of three state championships at Red Mountain High School in Mesa. At 18, he became the youngest player since 1926 to win the Arizona Amateur Championship, beating a 47-year-old to do it.
He was named the Arizona Golf Association Player of the Year in 2001, then enrolled and played four years at Arizona State, continuing to compete for his state through his college years.
Now, rekindling his PGA Tour life just miles from his hometown, Mueller is living his dream in front of the people who watched him strive for them.
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