For Michael Tobiason Jr., it was a bittersweet moment. For years, the Wilmington pro had struggled on the fringes of professional golf, playing small tournaments in the summer, teaching juniors during the fall and winter. Now, after two grueling qualifiers, he had made it to the 2011 U. S. Open—one of golf’s four major tournaments.
But his biggest fan—his father—wasn’t there to share this moment. “Big Mike” had succumbed to cancer 11 months earlier.
As he approached the first tee—he couldn’t help himself—the 27-year-old Tobiason began to tear up. But then, shirt collar up, driver in hand, he gathered himself and approached the ball. A moment later his long, lean body uncoiled into a textbook swing and the ball came off the tee like a rifle shot and landed 310 yards down the fairway. So began a six-day odyssey that would capture the imagination of many in the golfing world and fulfill the dream of the man who wasn’t there.
It had been a bumpy journey for Tobiason to the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Not the literal journey—the two-hour ride from Wilmington with his best friend and manager, Kyle McMahon, his caddie, Gerry “Mungo” Thornton, and his teacher, Eric MacCluen, crammed into Tobiason’s 2006 Honda Ridgeline. That had been a blast. So too was their stay at a $43-a-night motel in Fairfax, Va., where the four slept in a suite meant for two. Tobiason and McMahon bunked together, MacCluen got the pull-out couch, and Thornton slept on an air mattress between the bathroom and the kitchenette. For meals, they grazed the bountiful—and free—spreads put out by the Open, paying for only one dinner—at a sports bar—during their week-long adventure. This was not the typical buttoned-down, pastel-clad country club entourage that accompanies most professional golfers. But it was typical Mike Tobiason, who in turn is much like his father, “Big Mike,” who succumbed to bile duct cancer 11 months earlier at the age of 60.
His father was the one who would’ve derived the most pleasure from his son’s Open performance. Golf was the special bond that Senior and Junior shared. Big Mike was a “weekend warrior” who got his handicap down to 8 despite never taking a lesson. He was soft-spoken, but on the golf course father and son found a common language. “My dad had more fun on a golf course, and we always had fun playing together,” says Tobiason. “He was my biggest influence.”
And his No. 1 fan. It was Big Mike and his wife, Joan, who started their 7-year-old son on this golfing journey, buying him clubs for Christmas and scheduling lessons with MacCluen at Delcastle Golf Course, just minutes from their Albertson Park home.
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At first, young Michael showed more interest in his new Nintendo game than in golf. “He was a handful, very stubborn,” remembers MacCluen, now head instructor at Applecross Country Club in Downingtown, Pa. “But he had all the talent in the world. And big; he was 7, but I thought he was 11.”
Tobiason soon grew to love the game, followed MacCluen to Hartefeld National in Avondale, and by the time he was 9, began playing in local and regional tournaments.
After St. Elizabeth High School, where he was all-state in golf and honorable mention in basketball, the 6-3 Tobiason went to Goldey-Beacom College on a golf, basketball and academic scholarship. A natural forward, he was pressed into service as a center at the Division II school. Going up against much bigger players, he got banged around and suffered multiple broken noses, but, he says, “It was a good test.” His Goldey golf career was much less bloody and much more successful: He was a Ping All-American two years running.
After graduating with a degree in human resource management, he took his $3,000 savings, put his clothes and clubs in his dad’s 2005 Chevy Malibu, and headed for Florida to play the minor league circuit. It was a ritual he has followed every summer since. The thriftiness he displayed at the Open was honed on those trips to Florida, the Carolinas and many other parts of the country. He rarely flies, drives to almost every tournament, usually sleeps at friends’ homes—and, when necessary, in his car.
“I’m not picky,” he says. “I don’t need a lot. I’m used to sleeping on the floor and in awkward positions, and I’ve become a good cook by cooking for myself on the road. And I like to drive.”
The tough part of his summers is being away from his 5-year-old son, Aiden. Tobiason shares custody with Aiden’s mother, who lives in Newark.
Often, the friends he calls on for overnight accommodations are former students. He started teaching at MacCluen’s academy in 2004, and in 2007 became an assistant pro at Hartefeld, and went back to MacCluen’s academy for the 2011 season. “I probably know 90 percent of the [junior golfers] in the state,” Tobiason says.
“He’s wonderful,” says MacCluen. “The kids love him, the adults love him. He makes people feel good.”
Tobiason was playing in Florida in March 2009 when he learned about his father’s cancer. “It wasn’t something we wanted to tell him over the phone, so we planned a trip to take Aiden down to see his daddy,” says Joan Tobiason. “It didn’t need much explanation. Mike Sr. was ashen and had little stamina and had lost weight. Michael knew immediately.”
After 15 months of bi-weekly chemotherapy sessions failed to stop the cholangiocarcinoma, Joan set up home hospice for her husband. For eight days in July of last year, she, Michael Jr. and her daughter, Michele, tended to Big Mike around the clock. Her stepson, Bob, who was fighting a failing kidney, checked in most nights.
Sitting in her tidy living room recently, she recalled her husband’s last days. “Michael took the midnight-to-eight shift. Michele would come in at eight and find Michael with the couch pulled up against the bed, holding his dad and talking golf. He died here, and my daughter, my son, and my stepson were all here with him.”
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Less than a year later, after two qualifying rounds, Michael Jr. was one of the more unlikely golfers among the 156 who teed off at the U. S. Open. But he quickly became a media and fan favorite after The Washington Times reported his everyman’s story. A Golf Channel crew filmed his every move for a documentary, and his gallery swelled to more than 100, including many who followed him from Delaware. They were intrigued not only by Tobiason but by his caddy, Thornton. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by Mungo, a 56-year-old cigar-smoking superintendent of grounds at the Chester County Prison who gives up his vacation to caddy for his friend, and whose nickname comes from a ’70s English rock group?
The two became semi-rock stars at the open. While people asked Tobiason for his autograph—for which he thanked them unfailingly—others placed side bets on how many cigars Thornton would smoke during a round.
Says Thornton, who is something of a surrogate father to Tobiason, “I smoke three to four cigars when he plays. It’s a great wind tool and it helps with the bugs.”
Joan Tobiason says a group of fans from New Jersey were particularly enthusiastic, following her son from hole to hole, many with beers in hand. As they headed to each new hole, she says, “They would yell, ‘Collars up!’” in honor of Tobiason’s habit of putting up the back of his collar—not as an affectation, but to protect his fair skin.
He finished 96th, missing the cut for the final two rounds by just three strokes. But for Team Tobiason, the tournament was a huge success. Not only did it get him major publicity, but it established his bona fides. Young Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa told him, “Michael, you can really hit it.” Veteran pro Bo Van Pelt told McMahon, “This dude belongs on the [PGA] tour.”
That may happen soon. Tobiason is in Orlando at the PGA Qualifying Tournament. Held each fall, “Q School” is an intense, three-stage event where more than 1,000 participants pay approximately $5,000 each in hopes of capturing one of the 30 spots on the PGA tournament, or the consolation prize of the Nationwide Tour.
The affable Tobiason has many friends in the Delaware and Pennsylvania golf communities, and they’ve arranged several benefit tournaments, including one at the DuPont Country Club—his dad’s home course—as well as other events to help cover his expenses. And, naturally, he’s staying at a golfing buddy’s house in Orlando.
Meanwhile, he just became the golf coach at his alma mater, Goldey-Beacom, where he will teach his basic approach to the game: Keep it simple. And have fun. It’s a lesson he learned from his biggest fan.