In the world of professional golf, the chances of making it big are slim. For a small-town boy who learned the game on home soil, the chances are even smaller.
But don’t tell that to Williams Lake’s Mitch Gillis. The 28-year-old golfer took the game by storm, coming into his own near the beginning of the millennium right here in the lakecity, and he continues to see improvement each year he plays professionally. He currently plays on the Web.com Tour, formerly known as the Nationwide Tour.
Growing up in the lakecity sports played a big role in Gillis’s life. In the summers he played soccer and golf, while during the winter his focus shifted to curling and hockey.
He attended elementary school at Marie Sharpe and later went on to graduate in 2002 from Columneetza secondary.
“I kept pretty active,” Gillis said. “But it was somewhere around the 14 to 16 range when the competitive rep soccer schedule really started conflicting with golf, so I ended up having to choose a sport. I quit rep soccer and focused on golf in the summer and ended up folding the hockey career and focused on curling in the wintertime and I guess the rest is history.”
Gillis began golfing around age six. His parents let him tag along with them during their rounds at the Williams Lake Golf and Tennis Club.
“When I first started, at that age, my parents would hit their drives and then I would start from where their drives were, and then I would play the hole from there because I couldn’t hit it far enough,” he said. “I worked my way up to the point where I started out on the red tees at the Williams Lake club, which is probably only about 5,000 yards, until I was playing OK there. Then I moved up to the white tees, which is now a pretty short course, but it seemed really long at the time.”
He credits learning the game at the WLGTC as a great starting point to his career since he said it forced him to develop a strong short game.
“I wasn’t able to get to any of the par-4s in two [shots] so it forced me to develop a good short game if I wanted to shoot any sort of respectable score,” he said. “I was chipping on every single hole because I couldn’t get it to the green, so it was a good base for me. Once I got a bit bigger and stronger it was nice that I had that base of the short game to support my long game once it developed.”
Through climbing the ranks of the national junior ladder, including representing Canada at the Junior Open Championship in 2000 in St. Andrews, Scotland, Gillis earned himself an academic and athletic scholarship at Oregon State University.
Up until his third year at university, Gillis said he never really considered a professional career in the sport.
“It was kind of just a transition — it wasn’t planned or anything,” he said. “I just wanted to play good junior golf and get recruited to an American university. Then in 2006, I started playing really well and had a really hot season.”
Gillis won the Oregon Amateur Championship, the Oregon Stroke Play Championship, the PNGA Public Links Championship and the University of Michigan Invitational, beating some of the best golfers in the U.S. along the way.
“I sort of came to a realization then,” he said. “I had one more year of school after that and I hadn’t won the BC Amateur or the Canadian Amateur, which I wanted to do before I turned pro.”
In 2007 he earned the distinction of BC Amateur Champion and was a quarter-finalist in the Canadian Amateur Championship. At the Canadian Tour’s qualifying tournament that September he placed 16th, earning his Tour Card for the 2008 season. He also graduated with an honours degree in business administration focusing on international business.
Since then, Gillis said he’s seen steady improvement.
“One of my goals when I turned pro was that I always wanted to improve year after year, and so far I’ve done that,” he said. “I’m currently in my fifth year and I’ve improved my status and my results have improved along the way.”
In 2008, with 90 players keeping their tour cards, Gillis finished 89th. The next year he finished 20th, followed by a 17th-place finish in 2010, including a second-place finish at the Canadian Tour Championship.
“That year I also advanced through stage one of the PGA Qualifying School,” he said.
“I also went to Europe to play in the European Tour Qualifying School and made it through the first stage there, but missed advancing to the final round by one shot.”
Last year Gillis qualified for the final round of the PGA Qualifying School, earning him conditional status in this year’s Web.com Tour, along with playing several Canadian Tour events.
“Once again, I’m in a better spot than the year before, but it would have been nice to skip a step in the process and go straight to the PGA Tour,” he said, adding his focus is currently on this year’s PGA Qualifying School in September.
“I’m just now getting ready for Q-school,” he said.
“I’ve shifted my focus to basically just that — improving my status. This is the last year you can go to the PGA Tour directly from qualifying school. Starting in 2013 Q-school will only get you access to the Web.com Tour.
Gillis, who currently lives in the Phoenix area, plays his first stage in Beaumont, CA., followed by stage two in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. This year’s final stage will be held in La Quinta, CA.
“It’s going to be good,” he said. “I’m excited. I’ve done well at it [Q-school] so it’s an exciting time of year.