It isn’t quite what Ben Hogan had in mind, but golf’s most dedicated practitioner would surely approve of Lukas Michel’s preparation in his debut appearance at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship this week in Dubai. While the 2019 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion can’t claim to have hit Hogan-like quantities of range balls over the last few months, in his own unique way Michel has adhered to the nine-time major champion’s oft-repeated truism that the game’s secret is to be found “in the dirt.”
Over the last few months, the 27-year-old Australian, who owns a Masters degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Melbourne, has spent time working with some of the most high-profile names in course design, courtesy of a grant from the Victorian State government. In the eight weeks he had spare between the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont to his title Mid-Am title defense at Sankaty Head, Michel spent a month in the employ of Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner at the West Palm Beach Municipal Course, what will become the West Palm Beach Golf Park.
“I was there in the early stages, and most of the work I was involved in was almost like de-construction,” Michel says. “I got a lot of seat time in bulldozers and excavators. That is super-useful. My time with Gil and Jim and their crew in Florida will surely be invaluable down the track. Getting to sit on those machines when I have little or no experience is huge. I spent hours figuring out how to work them and got the chance to build some bunkers. I was going home from the site mentally exhausted. I was so focused on not messing up what I was doing. I was literally not blinking. My eyes were completely bloodshot at the end of every day. I was so concentrated I was literally forgetting to blink.”
Suffice it to say, the apprenticeship is shaping his career aspirations. “I think my future in the short-term is in course design,” he says. “My opportunities to play any professional golf are even more limited than they were three or four years ago. When I won the Mid-Am I was looking forward to the opportunities that would bring if I turned professional. But hardly any of the Q-Schools have happened [due to COVID]. So there is no way of getting on tour through that route. You really have to be on a lower-level tour and get promoted. There is actually no way for an amateur to get a start in pro golf right now.”
Given that unfortunate reality—and despite the severe travel restrictions in place to and from Australia—Michel, 92nd in the latest World Amateur Golf Ranking, has kept busy playing as much competitive and social golf as possible. Indeed, surely no one on the planet has visited more of the best courses on either side of the Atlantic this year.
A sample: Bloomfield Hills, Oakland Hills (South), Long Vue, Oakmont, Kingsley Club, Crystal Downs, Greywalls, Pine Tree, PGA National, Sunningdale (N.Y.), Winged Foot (East), Ridgewood (East/West), Hollywood, Piping Rock, Garden City, Miacomet, Sankaty Head, Charles River, Myopia Hunt, Essex County, The Country Club, Winchester, Salem. And in England: The Addington, Queenwood, The Berkshire (Blue), Worplesdon, Calcot Park, New Zealand, Swinley Forest, Woking, Sunningdale (Old and New), Royal St George’s, Royal Cinque Ports.
How much all of the above will benefit Michel when he tees up this week on the Dubai Creek course (the four-day event ends Saturday, Nov. 6) remains to be seen. But such a wide range of experiences is more likely to help rather than hinder, even if his most recent competitive play has been less than promising. After winning the “Master of the Amateurs” event in his home state of Victoria in January and running T-3 in the prestigious Riversdale Cup, he missed out on the Australian Amateur in February when he was a close contact of a COVID case. The U.S. Amateur and the Mid-Am were also unproductive, Michel failing to advance to match play in both. Which was not so surprising. Because of the pandemic-provoked lock-down in his home state of Victoria, Michel played no competitive golf between March and August this year.
Still, Michel has gained much design experience through his friendship with former European Tour player Mike Clayton, now a name partner in the design firm CDP (Clayton, DeVries and Pont).
“Following the example of three of the current best in the field—Gil Hanse, Tom Doak and Mike DeVries—Lukas is into the business early,” Clayton says. “He’s learning how to use machinery. Being able to build work isn’t critical, but it’s a big help. Lukas is passionate and is articulate and likeable. That is an important part of the design business—winning jobs and selling ideas to often skeptical members. He’s obviously a very good player, too. Again, that’s not really essential, but it doesn’t hurt as long as you understand that most of the people you’re designing for can’t do what you can do.”
Upon his return to Australia, Michel will be employed at CDP’s construction of the Seven Mile Beach project at Hobart in Tasmania.
“Lucas has no problem fitting into any situation,” DeVries says. “He asks many, many questions and is comfortable offering his opinion on what he sees. His ability as a player, and the fact that he grew up in an era very different from the one I did, gives him a different perspective on how the game is played today. I like to hear how he would attack holes. All in all, he has become a great part of our team at CDP and will be again at Seven Mile Beach. He’s always wanting to learn. And I’ve learned from him. We’re both better for knowing each other.”
Still, for all that lies ahead for Michel “off” the course, the pull of competitive golf remains strong in his mind.
“So, I’ve got opportunities in architecture and limited chances in pro golf,” he says. “It makes sense to spend my time on the former. I’m not too old to turn pro if I keep my game intact. There might be chances to work on that more next year. I especially want to play in Asia, Japan in particular. My game would be suited to the courses there. It’s the same time zone as Australia and only a direct flight away from Melbourne. There’s a lot of positives. Having said all that, I can see my priority being Seven Mile Beach, as long as that takes. But you never know where the world will be when that time comes.”
OK, bottom line: what is Michel right now? Professional golfer in waiting, or a trainee course architect?
“I’m probably both,” he says. “I’m not going to say no to either. I don’t want to look back in 20 years and know I didn’t give my golf everything. But while the opportunities are there in architecture I’m going to make the most of them. At some point I will turn to architecture exclusively. So it’s ‘when’ not ‘if.’ But pro golf could be more of an ‘if,’ although I’m still hopeful of ‘when.’
“I will arrive in Dubai a bit under-cooked competitively. I’ve played a lot of golf recently, just not competitively. But my game is is trending in the right direction even if I didn’t play my best at either the U.S. Am or the Mid-Am. We’ll see how it goes.”
Fair enough. Amidst education, there must be room for at least some fun and games. Even the notoriously austere Hogan would surely agree with that.