A man’s dream deferred comes true

I was cleaning up my files Monday from our Greatest Golfer of the Valley program.

If you’re not a golfer, note that the Greatest has grown into a phenomenal golf cooperative in the Valley. What the prom is to high-school seniors, Greatest is becoming to the year-end local golf scene. It’s a special event for competition and camaraderie.

It’s also a lot of paperwork, and I’m not the best filer.

I stack, actually.

In cleaning three years of notes, I slowly got to our very first notes.

Our third meeting on Greatest noted: “Ed Muransky attended; loves Greatest idea; he’s in.”

Notes from our second meeting indicated John Diana from Trumbull Country Club who ran local LPGA event attended. “He likes Greatest; he’s in.”

The very first set of notes ever for Greatest had this: “w/Dennis Miller, Mill Creek pro; Greatest will work; says must get Diana and Muransky on board.”

Miller has spent years making golf work in various ways for others in the Valley.

Last Monday, he finally made golf work for himself the way he had always dreamed.

Miller’s “putt seen ’round the world” catapulted him into one of the world’s top golf events this week, the U.S. Open. He leaves tonight for San Francisco to play out a dream.

Tears. Pride. Confidence. Destiny.

Those are among the emotions shared by Miller’s peers this week.

“I damn near cried,” said Clarke Johnson, the boss at Mill Creek MetroParks where Dennis has been director of golf for 12 years.

Johnson said Dennis called him not long after the Monday miracle.

“He said, ‘I know it’s short notice, but I need next week off.’ He said to watch Golf Channel. I watched it again and again and again ...”

Dennis was a player at Youngstown State through 1996, a teaching pro at Trumbull Country Club and now Mill Creek.

For years, he has fueled aspirations of many in the Valley to play and grow via golf. Even PGA’er Jason Kokrak — the Valley golfer all expected to be the local at the 2012 Open — cited Dennis as one of his teachers and mentors.

Multiply that by the thousands who golf at Mill Creek, then couple it with Miller’s vivacious personality, and you have someone who’s put as much boom into golf as Bruce Zoldan has put into fireworks.

On Monday, Miller will give his own aspirations a bang.

It’s a dream deferred.

Dennis won the Ohio Open fresh out of YSU in 1996 and embarked on a pro career. He went to the tour school in Florida and realized it was not for him. He came back to Youngstown to hack away at a golf career.

But the dream never died.

For the past 12 years, he’s pursued the Open. It’s “America’s tournament” in that anyone with the right game can take a shot at it every year. He’s come close a couple of times.

Next to his wife, Denise, probably no one has heard more about the yearning for that dream than Dennis’ golf partner for years, Andy Santor.

“You get close a couple times, it keeps you going” said Andy about the dream. “And he’s played with those top players, and he sees that he can play with them.”

His golf peers remind him of that often.

“I always told Dennis, ‘You don’t know how good you are,’” said good friend Diana. “We’ve seen the top guys play. He hits it just as good.”

The depth of the pro talent is beyond imagination.

In golf, it’s easy to shave 10 strokes when you shoot 100; drop five strokes when you shoot in the 90s; and drop three strokes when you’re in the 80s. But every stroke shaved in the 70s is a bloodsport; and to do so in the 60s — some guys would give up limbs if they could.

One such golfer is Garrett Frank, a graduate of Austintown Fitch and the University of Akron.

Since 1999, he’s been on more tours than Bruce Springsteen — playing golf in obscure burgs in the U.S. and Canada, wisely budgeting his money when he wins and getting by when he doesn’t.

“The talent pool is deeper than folks could ever imagine. My world ranking — at my best — was in the mid-900s. In an entire world of golfers, that’s awesome. But it’s so far away from the top level. It’s a grind.”

One shot made, or not, is often the separator, he said, recalling Dennis’ putt.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been on the opposite end,” he said.

He replays one putt from a qualifier that circled the entire hole and stayed out. And kept him outside — again.

Frank was in town last weekend and talked to Dennis just before the Monday miracle. Dennis was not officially in, and he had to hope for three guys to drop out in order to play. He told Frank he wasn’t even sure about going down.

“I said I’d kill him if he did not go down. These chances don’t come often.”

Frank got his chance last summer when he finally — after 10-plus years as a pro — qualified for a PGA event, the Greenbrier Classic. He missed the cut by three shots. He advises Dennis what he was advised last year at Greenbrier:

“Take time to stop and look around. They put on a show, and you’re part of it.”

Miller’s week since “the putt” has been a whirlwind for him and all who’ve had a front-row seat — including Santor, Johnson and Diana.

They laugh at the attention it’s brought.

At Mill Creek on Friday, a girl who answers phones yelled to Santor: “It’s Golf Channel. Should I give them Dennis’ cell number?”

Dennis’ “42-year-old journeyman, everyman makes it” story will be lead news this week at the Open until the first tee shot.

The Golf Channel will be following his every step starting Monday morning.

That footage will become behind-the-scenes specials airing Tuesday through Thursday. His playing partner will be Casey Martin, another heartfelt golf story due to a leg condition that curtails his walking.

The USGA has Dennis scheduled for a full press conference Monday morning.

Then he’s on a live show Monday evening on The Golf Channel.

“It could not have happened to a better guy,” said Johnson.

Ask Miller, and he says that in two weeks, this will all be over and he’ll be back at Mill Creek and Denise will be back at nursing.

But ask his peers about the chances for this not to be over in two weeks, and ...

There’s a pause ...

“Any open is all about ball- striking and staying in the fairway,” said Frank. “That’s what Dennis does. I expect him to do well. If even par is a good score, he has a good chance to make the cut.”

“There’s no question he can be competitive out there,” said Diana. “He just has to know it. We know it.”

No person desires to not be wanted back.

But in this case, there’s a pocket of people who don’t want Dennis coming back.

At least not now. They’d like to see the dream continue.

Quietly, in the deepest part of his soul, Dennis acknowledges he’s pondered that “what if?”

But he’s working hard to not get ahead of things. And he’s working hard to battle a few tears as this opportunity sinks in.

He thinks of his mentor, Bob Woodfin, longtime pro at Trumbull who’s now battling Alzheimer’s and other health issues.

“He was so important to me. I sure hope he realizes I’m playing ...” he said, drifting off to silence.

“I just wish ...”

And he thinks of his son, Nathan, 5, a regular at Mill Creek.

“I’m looking forward to Nathan being able to tell his friends, ‘My dad played in the U.S. Open.’ I just hope I make him proud.”

That’s the nice guy in Dennis that endears him to many, many folks.

Diana points to the pro level as a place where arrogance and confidence and “I’m better than you and I know it” is the rule for winning. It’s not a place, unfortunately, where nice guys thrive.

But he hopes that changes this week.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.

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