Indiana local Mills battles for West Penn Open win

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Jon Mills entered the final round of the 110th PNC West Penn Open Championship Tuesday with a three-stroke lead and later exited with the same, though his final 18 holes at Indiana Country Club didn’t exactly go according to plan.

Mills, 36, soared up the leader board Monday with a 9-under 62 in the second round, but saw his cushion vanish Tuesday morning with double bogeys on the eighth and 10th holes.

“It happens quick when you start hitting some wayward shots into the trees,” Mills said.

Locked in a three-way tie with John Aber and Zack Kempa at 6 under down the back nine, Mills went birdie-birdie-birdie on the final three holes to pull away. Mills carded a 9-under 204 for the 54-hole tournament. Aber and Kempa were runners-up at 6 under.

“It was a struggle out there,” Mills admitted afterward. “It seemed like I fought my swing all day. … There were times I hit into the trees and just had to punch out and take my medicine.”

Mills, an Indiana resident and native of Belleville, Ontario, looked relieved as he lifted the silver cup outside the clubhouse, and his voice wavered as he spoke of the emotional victory.

“It’s been a few tough years for me, so this is definitely special,” he said.

A former staple on the Tour, Mills has slogged through a frustrating golfing drought. He knows the talent is there, but it hasn’t always been paired with equal confidence.

“I’d come out here and play well in regular rounds, but get me in a tournament and I … ” Mills’s voice trailed away midsentence. “I guess that’s golf. Mentally I struggled. This was the first year I really felt a change for the better.”

Mills attributed the turnaround in part to his decision to stay in Indiana for the winter instead of training in Florida.

“I took some time off,” he said. “Didn’t touch a club.”

Now, thanks to his birdie-birdie-birdie finish and 9-under 62 Monday, the low round of the championship by three strokes, the hometown guy’s approach paid off.

“This is the first time I’ve won any professional event in probably three or four years,” Mills said. “It’s nice to get into the winning circle again and know you can do it.”

Kempa, a recent IUP graduate, was one group ahead of Mills on the course and hoped to stay blissfully unaware of the final-round fireworks behind him. After Mills’ two double bogeys, though, Kempa was clued in.

“I really wasn’t trying to watch the leader board, but then some guy came up and told me I was only one shot behind,” Kempa said. “There went that plan!

“But honestly, on this golf course I knew watching the leader board didn’t really mean anything because there are so many birdies to be had.”

Among the players chasing Mills down the stretch was 2012 West Penn Open winner Mike Van Sickle, 27, of Gibsonia.

Van Sickle was the runner-up last week at the Frank B. Fuhrer Invitational and got some support from Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, an old friend from their Pine-Richland High School days.

“Congrats on a good tourney bro, keep swinging it, stay positive!” Walker tweeted.

Van Sickle and Walker played a round together in the winter in Tampa, Fla.

“He’s actually a pretty good golfer,” Van Sickle said of Walker. “Unsurprisingly, he can really smash it.”

Van Sickle’s odds to defend his West Penn Open crown appeared slim after a 3-over 74 opening round, but he closed with rounds of 69 and 65 to take fourth place at 5 under.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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