Lukas Michel's fateful family journey to Augusta
Courtesy of Lukas Michel
Editor’s Note—This story was first published in April, when its subject, Lukas Michel, had arrived in the United States from his native Australia in anticipation of his debut in the Masters. Of course, COVID-19 had other plans. This story has since been updated to include more on the extraordinary journey of the (still) reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and his family as Lukas prepares to finally compete this week at Augusta National.
• • •
The year is 1968. Czechoslovakia, like so many nations in Eastern Europe, is under Soviet Russian control. Life is bleak, the communist regime harsh and unforgiving. Lining up for food is a depressing and desperate part of the daily routine for many citizens. For most, the future holds little in the way of promise, a fact not lost on Ivos Velikovsky, who was born and brought up in Suchdol, a town near the city of Ostrava in what is now the Czech Republic.
Along with a few of his fellow army conscripts, the then-21-year-old is planning a daring escape. Beyond the nearby Austrian border lies a new and better life on the more prosperous side of what former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill first christened the “Iron Curtain.”
America was the destination of choice for the young men. But that was soon to change, at least for Ivos. Climbing the fence to freedom—he was the last to do so—his suitcase burst open just as he reached the top. At risk of being shot, he was forced to abandon his belongings and documents. With only the clothes on his back and a bar of soap in his pocket, Ivos made a (successful) run for it.
After being picked up by the Austrian military, the group was sent to England. The United States remained their ultimate goal, but Australia was on the lookout for immigrants. At the Australian embassy in London, Ivos was given an invitation of sorts, one that read, “affidavit in lieu of passport.” The land Down Under would be, he felt, an attractive stepping stone en route to his American dream. So, unable to speak a word of English, he boarded a one-way boat to Melbourne. All he had to his name was that bar of soap.
• • •
Melbourne to Perth
Three months after arriving in Australia, Ivos was working in a factory, his English improving every day. His next employment was down a uranium mine in Western Australia. After a few years of that, he moved to Perth, where he opened a deli. All the while he felt like he was being watched. Which he almost certainly was, by Czech spies. His brother, Milos, got in touch to say that he had been questioned by the authorities back home. They knew where Ivos was.
At that point, Ivos Velikovsky disappeared. In his place was Ivor Michel, the name he used when he met Cheryl Armistead. Originally from the state of Victoria, Cheryl moved to Perth when she was 12. Not long after they married, Ivor was working in construction again, this time on skyscrapers. Seeing what he was doing, Cheryl insisted her husband wear a harness at all times. Two days after he put one on for the first time, he fell. The harness—and his wife—saved his life.
The couple had one child, a boy they named Lukas.
• • •
Perth to Melbourne
Ivor never played golf, but his son did. Introduced to the game by a neighbor, the young Lukas played with one borrowed club until he was 8. It was then that he spent his $100 birthday money on his own set. He had seen Tiger Woods on television and wanted to be like him.
That aim might still be a ways off, but this week Lukas was scheduled to at least be with Woods, inside the ropes at Augusta National for the 2020 Masters. As the reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, Michel is an invitee to the postponed tournament. The Mid-Am victory at the Colorado Golf Club also earned Michel (pronounced ME-shell) an exemption into September’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot (of which more later), another championship postponed by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Courtesy of Lukas Michel
While Ivor Michel didn't play golf, his son, Lukas, took to the game at an early age.
“My dad got me lessons,” Lukas says. “He could see I could hit the ball. He pushed me into playing junior events. And I got to play the nine-hole short course at Lake Karrinyup. They let me join when I was 10. It was $20 for the year, and I was there every Sunday. I grew up playing with [2013 U.S. Amateur runner-up] Oliver Goss. And I was in high school with [2016 U.S. Amateur champion] Curtis Luck.”
Education was important to the Michels. As his contemporaries made their way in golf, Lukas focused on his studies.
“I felt like I owed that to my parents,” he says. “They spent just about everything they had sending me to the best private school in Perth. mum always wanted to be an architect, but she had to leave school at 15. And my dad never had anything like that sort of opportunity. I did really well in school to the point where I wish I had played more golf. I could have gone to college in the States. But I stuck with the books and ended up at university in Melbourne, which coincidentally is the best place to be for golf. Which is not to say I was playing at the required level at that point.”
In Melbourne, Lukas joined the Metropolitan Golf Club, where former European Tour player and now course designer Mike Clayton is a member. The pair struck up a friendship and played a lot of golf together.
“Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lukas was interested in both the process and the philosophy of golf course architecture,” says Clayton, who had hoped to caddie for Michel in the U.S. Open. “We spoke often about what made a good hole, and his extensive traveling gave him the opportunity to study some of the best courses. His engineering expertise and love of architecture has led us to a partnership in my new design business.”
Courtesy of Lukas Michel
With a masters in engineering, Lukas Michel has an eye for technical drawings, which he put to use when rendering these drawings of three of his favorite courses at home in Australia: Metropolitan, Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath.
They are a well-matched pair.
“Mike redesigned Lake Karrinyup when I was 12 or 13,” Lukas said. “I was there and that got me interested in architecture. He transformed the course. I liked the look and creativity of it. But I couldn’t really explain why. I have always been able to draw. So I was drawing holes. And understanding more and more. I was studying at the time, but I always knew I was going to give golf a crack. I did a BSC first, then my masters in engineering. I would be unemployable with just the first of those.”
• • •
Melbourne to St. Andrews
In the second half of 2015, Lukas spent a few months at the University of St. Andrews, where he took courses in finance and physics. Billeted in the Macintosh Hall of Residence (Room B31), he was afforded a great view of the Old Course. Three stories up, he looked down Golf Place, past Auchterlonie’s golf shop and the Dunvegan Hotel, towards the R&A clubhouse.
“My first reaction was to think, I could hit a shot from here onto the 18th green,” he says. “But my second thought was that it had to be a bad idea. I could see myself crunching one through a window or into an ancient wall. But the seed was planted in my brain.”
Time flew. Lukas was having fun and playing lots of golf. Taking only two subjects, he had to sit for only one exam. By late November, he was looking seriously at the idea of hitting “the shot.” A few were skeptical, but Lukas was determined. And so the date and time was set—at midnight before he left for Australia the next morning.
“The first issue was the steel bar across the window,” he says. “That had to go. Then I measured the distance from the ground to the middle of the window. I went on the range and set an alignment stick at that height. I punched a hole in an empty golf-ball box and placed it on top of the stick. Then I measured how far back I had to hit from in order to create the right trajectory on the shot. I had already gone on Google Earth and measured how far my room was from the 18th green. It was 150 meters.”
Further calculations were made. In order to hit the box every time, Lukas had to set-up two full 7-irons away, around seven feet.
“The hardest part was actually my alignment,” he continues. “When you hit into a net, for example, it can appear as if the ball hits to the right of where you are aiming. So I had to take that into account. Plus, it was dark. So it was hard to know exactly where I was going, although I had lined up on a post on top of the building opposite.”
Hitting off a small turf mat, Lukas sent a few friends down to the 18th green to watch where the balls ended up.
“I thinned the first shot,” he says with a shudder. “The only thing I didn’t want to do was chunk it. That would have sent the ball too high and broke the glass. Thin was better because under the window was just wood. Anyway, the first ball hit the woodwork and popped back into the room. No one was hurt although there is a little mark on the wall.”
The next two shots were more successful. Grabbing his putter Lukas putted out in the pitch dark. Damp, the green was running slow. But he made “par” with both balls.
“Before anyone panics, there wasn’t much risk involved,” he says. “I was always going to get the ball over the building. And there was no one walking around at that time of night. But yes, there was some alcohol involved.”
• • •
St. Andrews to Melbourne to the United States
Within three weeks of finishing his studies, Lukas won the stroke-play section of his state amateur championship. But for the next 18 months he struggled. It wasn’t until the end of 2018 that significant improvement emerged. But perhaps his biggest break came through failure. At the Australasian Tour School, Lukas missed his card by two shots.
“I was 25 by that time,” he says. “And I was thinking about doing something else. I am the same age as Jordan Spieth, and I was miles behind. Anyway, I went to America last year and played some amateur events. I played in the Sunnehanna, the North and South and the Northeast. All great events. I missed the cut in the first. I was about 30th in the Northeast. But in the North and South at Pinehurst I was awful and missed the match play. I was seriously thinking about going home and getting a real job.”
Before that though, there was one thing left to do, one last place to play: the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Colorado Golf Club.
Copyright USGA/Chris Keane
• • •
To Parker, Colo.
Exempt into the Mid-Am through his world amateur ranking, the event, if nothing else, was going to be Lukas’ last hurrah in amateur golf. Afterwards, he would turn pro if he stuck with golf. That was the plan.
“My game was OK in practice,” he says. “But I drove horrendously in the first qualifying round. My short game saved me. And the next day I played better, making match play by three shots, despite putting into the water on the 17th hole. I was just happy to be there. I certainly wasn’t thinking about the Masters. I was actually more excited by the prospect of turning pro.”
After winning his first-round match, Lukas had a mate, Will Davenport, as his caddie. Davenport lost his own opening match to tournament favorite Stewart Hagestad. But before that second round, there was drama. Stuck in traffic, Lukas sat immobile for more than 20 minutes, before arriving at the course with just 15 minutes to spare. He hit maybe 10 balls and five putts before winning at the second-extra hole.
“I never got that nervous,” he says. “The reassuring prospect of turning pro was always at the back of my mind. It was only when I played Hagestad in the semifinal that I started to think about winning. We were square with four to play. But he mis-clubbed on the 17th and hit into the water. Then he hit a horrible tee shot on the last. Only at that point did it occur to me that I was in a ‘win-lose’ situation.”
Up against Joseph Deraney in the final, Lukas was 3 down after 11 holes of the 36-hole match, but got to 1 down by lunch. Early in the afternoon, however, he found himself 3 down once more. “Almost flawless” was Lukas’ assessment of Deraney’s play over the first 27 holes.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Deraney’s behavior.
“All day, he was doing stuff,” Lukas says. “On the first tee, he spotted someone in his peripheral vision maybe 40 meters away. He was acting like the chief marshal. And on another tee he made a sarcastic comment towards two guys who were chatting. He was way too fussy with the crowds.”
The ongoing friction between the pair climaxed on what turned out to be the final hole of the match. Lukas arrived on the 17th tee with a 2-up lead. On the green, Deraney missed a birdie putt that would have extended the match, at which point he removed his cap, shook Lukas’ hand and conceded the match.
Only he hadn’t. Changing his mind, Delaney asked Lukas to make his putt, maybe a 2½-footer, straight uphill. He did so, the ball lipping-in on the right side.
“I have to think he was trying to put me off,” says Lukas, the first Australian to win the U.S. Mid-Amateur in its 38-year history. “I can’t see any other reason for what he did. He wasn’t apologetic at all. If he had miscounted and done it by accident, he would have been really sorry. But he wasn’t. If it had been me and I had made that mistake, I would have conceded the putt anyway. Just have it mate. But he was smug about it. He knew what he was doing. When I holed out and he came to shake hands—again—I was tempted not to do it. I hugged my caddie first. I didn’t like what the guy did.”
• • •
To Winged Foot (eventually) via Bandon Dunes
Other than that coveted invitation to the Masters, the other big perk that came with victory in the Mid-Am was exemption into the next U.S. Open. Normally that would involve a nine-month wait. But 2020 has been far from conventional; that interval stretched to a full year before Lukas made his way to Winged Foot for America’s national championship.
As things turned out, the U.S. Open was Lukas’ first tournament play since the U.S. Amateur five weeks earlier. Competitively rusty—and on the “wrong” end of the draw—he missed match play by three shots at Bandon Dunes. Then he spent time working as an “intern of sorts” for course architect Mike DeVries (one of Clayton’s design partners) at Bloomfield Hills Country Club in Michigan.
“I was actually participating in some pretty intense manual labor,” he says. “Which was maybe not the best preparation for Winged Foot.”
Still, although he ended up missing the six-over-par cut at the U.S. Open by 11 strokes after rounds of 80-77, those numbers are perhaps not as depressing as they first appear. Of the 17 shots Lukas finished over par, 11 were frittered away on just five holes, courtesy of four double bogeys and a first-day triple on the par-4 18th.
“My tee shot on 18 was pretty embarrassing,” he says. “The ball clipped a tree, went only 67 yards and finished close to the 17th green. The guys playing behind actually had to give way to me as I hit my second shot. Not too impressive. But it looked really funny on shot-tracker.”
Michel talks with his caddie during the first round of the postponed U.S. Open in September at Winged Foot.
That sort of erratic driving was Lukas’ biggest issue over the two days. Only five times out of 28 attempts did he find short grass off the tee. Throw in what he calls “too many silly mistakes” and Winged Foot set-up for a major championship was always going to be a struggle. He wasn’t alone in that, of course. Michel departed the championship in the knowledge that his 157 aggregate was only four shots worse than Phil Mickelson, three more than Jordan Spieth, two more than Sergio Garcia and one adrift of Graeme McDowell. And his second-round 77 matched that shot by Tiger Woods.
“I left with my confidence higher,” he says. “I know now that, if my game is good, I can compete with most guys. Even though I missed by so many, I know I could have made the cut. I wasted so many shots. All I needed to do was play well, not better than I ever had before. Plus, at the Masters, I’ll have more leeway off the tee. The course suits my game a lot more than Winged Foot.”
Speaking of which, Lukas gleaned one more thing from his U.S. Open experience. He won’t be playing endless practice rounds on what will be his third visit to Augusta National.
“I’m going to arrive Sunday afternoon,” he says. “Not crazy early. I felt like I was at Winged Foot a little too soon. Besides, I’ve played the course six or seven times now. So two or three more will be enough preparation. I don’t want to be standing on the first tee on Thursday feeling tired. My collapses on the back nines at Winged Foot were, looking back, at least partly down to mental fatigue.”
• • •
To Augusta (for a third time)
Lukas’ preparation for his Masters appearance actually began as long ago as last November, when he first made his way to Augusta National. It was to prove an interesting few days.
“Because I knew so much about the place I felt like I had seen so much of it before,” he says. “Everyone fawns over Magnolia Lane. But I thought it was a nice entrance road and that’s about it. Capital Golf Club in Melbourne has a better way in. It wasn’t exactly a spiritual experience.
“Having said that, I thought the club would be more stuffy. But I was treated like anyone would be. Of course, I guess someone like me appears every year. I hung out with the club pro for a bit. He walked me round and showed me all the buildings. I saw everything. It’s a bit like Disneyland.”
Still, that initial inspection of the premises did provide one vital piece of on-course information, something that has become even more pertinent in the wake of his waywardness at Winged Foot. Since the U.S. Open, Lukas has been working hard on shaping his tee shots both right-to-left and left-to-right.
“Everyone says you have to hit a draw from the tee,” he says. “And they are right. When I got there earlier this year I was favoring a fade. But I know I’m going to have to be comfortable hitting a draw. If I only have a fade to go to, I’m going to struggle.”
That’s what he did his first time round during his second visit in mid-March. But things improved. Lukas’ second round of the week, a three-under-par 69, was seven shots better than his first effort.
“The course was very different from my first visit,” he says. “The rye grass over-seed was in pretty thick. The fairways were much more densely covered with dark green grass. The greens were still a little slow and soft. But they had had a lot of rain. All in all though, it was in good shape. They were clearly getting everything ready for the tournament.”
A tournament that didn’t happen. Ten minutes before he boarded his flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Lukas heard the news that the 84th playing the tournament had been postponed. It was obviously a huge disappointment. For him, it was going to be an almost month-long trip of a lifetime, one that would have seen him play in the Azalea Invitational at the Country Club of Charleston (which he eventually did last month) before taking up his hard-earned place at Augusta National.
“Had I known what was going to happen before I left Australia, I probably would never have got on the plane in Melbourne,” he says.
Despite all that has already been placed in his way, Michel has never been tempted to turn down his Masters invitation. While he will turn pro at some point, he has chosen not to do so until after the tournament.
Copyright USGA/Chris Keane
Lukas Michel holds the trophy after winning the 2019 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.
“It was an easy decision to stay amateur and wait it all out,” he says. “It really hasn’t made a massive difference to me. Maybe the only thing I missed out on was the Japan Tour Qualifying School. Which is fine. All that has gone on has given me more time to work on my game.”
Not immediately though. Upon his return to Melbourne almost a year ago, Lukas underwent 14-days of mandatory self-isolation by the end of which, Australia had closed its golf courses.
Still, all of that is in the past. There is much to look forward to. When Lukas does return to Augusta National, he will do what all amateur contestants are invited to do, lodge in the Crow’s Nest high in the clubhouse. But only on Monday evening.
“The Crow’s Nest is tiny and not very private,” he says. “There are only saloon doors on each room.”
So it is that, a day later, Lukas will return to a house nearby to stay with friends. Disappointingly, neither of his parents will be in Augusta to see their son in action.
“My mum was originally intending to go, but like just about everyone else, she can’t get out of Australia at the moment,” he explains. “My dad isn’t coming over either. But he never was. He hates flying and his knees are shot. So they are both staying home and will watch on television.”
Which is a pity. But no matter. Ivos/Ivor was the start of this epic inter-continental journey. And, albeit later rather than sooner, his son will take care of the ending.
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