With the Mill River Club in Oyster Bay about to open the local pro season this week by hosting the Long Island PGA Championship, one expression comes immediately to mind: Gentlemen, start your engines.
That is homage to the fact that the LIPGA is the first major event of the spring, the one that gets local pros going. It also is a tip of the cap to host pro Mark Mielke, who is in his 15th year at Mill River, has been one of the top players in the section for two decades and, when he is not doing all of that, is a race car driver.
"It gets the adrenaline go- ing," Mielke said of his high-speed hobby. "It's very similar to golf. The concentration has to be there, the focus has to be there. There's a lot of time for self-talk. If you're thinking about, 'I don't want to hit this wall at 150 miles an hour,' well, that's not what you should be thinking about."
Mielke, 48, developed his interest in cars about the same time he fell in love with golf, when he was a youngster, moving from base to base as the son of an Air Force officer. At 48, he knows his way under the hood. He has a lift in his garage at home. He has become so savvy at racing that he now gives lessons in driving Porsches as well as Titleists.
Before and after each golf season, he makes the circuit: Watkins Glen, Pocono, Lime Rock, Motorsports Park. "The big thing is focus. You get out of the car, you are absolutely, mentally, physically exhausted," he said. "It makes golf a little bit easier. You make a mistake in a car going 120, you're going to be in some trouble. You make a mistake on the golf course, it's not as detrimental."
His focus this week, though, will be entirely on preparing his own game and on helping the Met PGA make the tournament run smoothly. Mielke said the Mill River membership is excited about showcasing the two diverse nines (one flat, one hilly) on the former Appledore estate.
"The front nine was an apple orchard, the back nine was where the horses went. It was just woods and trees. That's why the two nines are so completely different," Mielke said, adding that it is conducive to match play because it offers options. "I know it's a good golf course to play. Fourteen is a par 5 where you can hit driver, 7-iron or you can hit a driver out of bounds. Fifteen is a par 4 that you can drive or you can hit 3-iron, wedge. So depending on how you are in the matches . . . "
Plus, it is pleasant to look at, just what Mielke had never expected when he left the College of Charleston as a sophomore because the school cut funding for its golf team. He considered staying in the Carolinas before he received an offer from St. John's. "I'll never forget, I said, 'Where do you guys play? Are there any golf courses in New York?' You're thinking Manhattan and skyscrapers and pavement everywhere," he said. "Then I got here and I'm like, 'These are some of the best golf courses in the country.' "
He married a Long Island woman and has been here ever since, except for the three years he played on the Canadian and Australian Tours. Making a living on the latter was really tough, even with his wife Leigh working as his caddie to save on expenses. "I missed nine cuts in a row. The last two events were in New Zealand and I didn't even go. I didn't have enough money to go," he said.
But the experience toughened him. He has played in four U.S. Opens and five PGA Championships. In 1992, he won the local grand slam: State Open, Met Open and Met PGA. In 2005, he and Atlantic Golf Club pro Rick Hartmann reached the final of a national match play event that had a $3 million first prize. With his members' blessing, Mielke is hoping to earn his Champions Tour card and play some tournaments after he turns 50.
"Being a little bit nervous, having your hands not quite as steady, having the butterflies going and still getting up there and hitting a shot, you say, 'That was cool,' " Mielke said.
One of the few tournaments he never has won is the LIPGA. Beginning Tuesday, he will have the advantage of local know- ledge and the pressure of being expected to do well. "This," he said of the season opener, "starts everybody's juices flowing."
Not to mention their motors.