Jason Millard packed his bags, tossed his clubs in the car, and headed off to Pinehurst No. 2 to play in his first major championship.
It should’ve been the thrill of a lifetime.
Instead, he turned the car around.
“I couldn’t be at peace about it,” Millard said Wednesday, one day before the start of a U.S. Open he could’ve been playing in but will have to watch on television — if he can bear to watch at all.
What gnawed at him was maybe, just maybe, he had cheated.
Not intentionally, for sure. Perhaps not at all.
But the lingering doubt was enough for Millard to give up what could be the chance of a lifetime.
“I want to be at Pinehurst right now with a free conscience,” he said when reached on his cellphone. “I wish it never happened. Unfortunately, it did.”
What happened was a scenario unique to golf, the one sport that relies on its players to largely do their own officiating. Millard may have touched the sand ever so slightly with his club before hitting a plugged shot out of a bunker during sectional qualifying in Memphis, Tennessee, last week. It didn’t really affect his shot, but “grounding” a club is against the rules and requires a two-shot penalty.
No one else saw it. There’s no video of the shot. And Millard just isn’t sure.
“Right about the time I was taking my swing is when I saw what I think was an indentation in the sand,” he said. “That little image keeps popping up in my head right now. But it happened so fast. I really don’t know.”
Millard signed for a 68-68 score, without a penalty, and wound up earning a spot in the U.S. Open. He wanted to celebrate but couldn’t. Not with that shot playing over and over in his mind.
Did he ground the club? Was that tiny crevice in the sand really there? Was he just imagining the whole thing?
Last Saturday, Millard and his caddie (who wasn’t at the sectional qualifier) headed out from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the nearly eight-hour drive to Pinehurst. They made it about 90 minutes before Millard pulled into a convenience store and began searching for a number to the U.S. Golf Association.
He wouldn’t be going any farther.
He had decided to turn himself in.
“There was something in my heart,” he said, “telling me this didn’t feel right.”
Millard disqualified himself for signing an erroneous scorecard. If he had taken a two-shot penalty on the day of the qualifier, he still would’ve missed the Open by a single shot.
“I feel like the way I played that day, I deserved to make it,” Millard said. “I’ve never called a penalty on myself for grounding a club in the bunker. Unfortunately, it happened at the absolutely worst time.”