Jon Mills: From Canada to first new men’s golf coach in 41 years

2018 NCAA Men’s Golf National Championship participate at the Karsten Creek Golf Club. May 28, 2018 in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Hosted by Oklahoma State University

Zachary McKnight

Jon Mills grew up in Belleville, Ontario, in a golfing family.

That background led him to Kent State’s golf team, then the PGA Tour. Now, he is KSU’s first new golf head coach in 41 years.

Mills started playing golf when he was 6 years old.

“Being from Canada, you played golf in the summer and hockey in the winter,” Mills said. “My parents and my older brother played golf,” Mills said. “I fell in love with it. ”

At an Ontario amateur event when he was in high school, he was hitting shots at a driving range where Kent State men’s golf coach Herb Page was recruiting.

“I saw this skinny kid on the range,” Page said. “I watched him killing it off the tee. Two years later, I was recruiting him heavily. He was a very special player at only 17.

“(Mills) won a lot of junior tournaments and was playing at a very high level. I saw a winner and a champion. I was lucky to get him.”

So, Mills went to Kent State for golf from 1997-2001 and became one of the best golfers in KSU history. He was:

  • A two-time All-American and the only Kent State golfer ever to be named first-team All-American.

  • MAC Freshman of the Year in 1998.

  • An All-MAC golfer each of his four years

  • 2001 MAC Championship medalist

  • Medalist at the 2000 NCAA Central Regional Championship (best finish at a regional event for a Kent State golfer)

  • Sixth at the 2001 NCAA Championships (second-best finish by a Kent State golfer).

During that time span, Mills played alongside teammate Danny Saul and future British Open champion Ben Curtis on some of the best teams in school history.

“Jon loved to play and made me look good,” Page said. “Jon was very mellow on the golf course and well-behaved. He was a good student and a great player. He was the complete package.”

Mills said the same about his relationship with Page.

“It was great,” Mills said. “When I played, we won all four years. We were eighth in the country at one point. If we had a bad week, it started with a team meeting. We look at the positives, but we talk about the mistakes we can’t have happen. 

“We always focus on improving and for a golfer to improve, you have to be honest with yourself and understanding what happened. I respected that about Page.”

Saul said Mills “always worked hard and set a good example.”

 “Jon was always fun to be around, always had a great personality and a great golfer,” Saul said. “I was very happy to have Jon as a teammate.”

Mills was introduced to teammate Randy Dietz at Windmill Lakes Golf Club a week before classes started in 1997 by then assistant coach John Wiler. It was a relationship that has lasted for decades.

“We immediately hit it off,” Dietz explained. “(Mills) is such an incredible guy. He really cares and was an unbelievable teammate who led by example.”

After college, Mills asked Dietz to be his caddie when Mills became a professional.

“I tell people it was the second best job I had,” Dietz said. “It meant quite a bit. — being a local Kent kid and (Mills) to shine a light at Kent State.”

Mills went to professional golf’s qualifying school, then onto the Tour (then called the Nationwide Tour) but struggled, placing 173rd in Tour money list. The following year, he went to the Canadian Tour, where  he was the leading money winner on the Canadian Tour in 2002-2003, earning $55,000. That success took him back to the Tour.

In 2005, Mills won the Canadian PGA Championship and finished fifth on the Nationwide Tour in earnings on the tour. That qualified him for the PGA Tour, but he made only six out of 27 cuts and went back to the Tour for 2007. He won the Boise Open that year, which got him back on the PGA Tour for 2008. 

But again, Mills struggled on the tour and was back on the Tour the next year. Over the next four years, his scoring average kept going up. In 2014, he decided it was time to pursue other opportunities.

“I had to ask myself, ‘What do I want to do?,’” Mills said. 

Then he heard that KSU assistant coach Rob Wakeling was leaving. He called Page.

The two discussed coaching along with other parts: office work, recruiting, budgeting, how important it is to have someone with playing experience, etc.

Six months later, Page introduced Mills as an assistant coach for the 2015-2016 season.

On that team was Ian Holt, himself on his way to becoming one of Kent State’s best golfers.

“He not only helped me with my physical game but my mental game as well,” Holt said. “He really helped me play and see the game differently. He helps you play to your strengths. He used the phrase ‘Don’t live and die every hole.’  He keeps things simple. He’s such a calming influence on the golf course.”

Mills explained teaching the game is very different than playing it.

“As a coach, you have no control over what happens,” Mills said. “You can’t really do anything but to try to help and support any way you can.”

Mills was named the new head coach of Kent State after Page announced his retirement from coaching at a press conference March 25.

“It was a pretty easy decision,” Page said. “I’ve given him every possible duty, and he has never backed down once. He loves the game and the passion for it. The biggest thing I saw about him was his integrity. He will treat his players with respect and in a first-class manner. You can’t teach that. He’s a very humble man and a superb human being. He’s going to represent Kent State very well.

“Some people have said he’s got big shoes to fill with the expectations and with an elite program in the MAC and the country, but he’s got to teach his own way. Jon’s going to do a good job.”

Current senior Bjarki Petursson gives Mills a lot of praise.

“Jon is awesome,” Petursson said. “He’s a great friend with all the players. He’s really calm with a great personality. He never brings us down. Instead, he’ll sit you down and discuss what you can do to be better for practice and tournaments. He’s really sane and mature. There’s no situation that will upset him.

“Jon has given me a lot of preparation. He has helped me and others with game plans with golf becoming a very technology based sport.”

Petursson thinks Mills will become a “phenomenal” head coach.

“Page is one of the most successful NCAA coaches, taking a MAC team from zero to a top-20 program,” Petursson said. “It will be hard to fill those shoes. Herb has made that path for him and hopefully he will be just as successful as Page.”

Holt said Mills’ background at Kent State will help him greatly.

“He knows the culture and knows what’s expected,”  Holt said. “He’s proven Kent State is a huge force in the college golf world. The future will be bright. (Mills) really understands that and will be a great fit.

“What Page has done is unbelievable. I know it’s a big transition for Mills, but Herb has shown him the ropes, and Jon will step in and do a great job.”

Dietz echoed Holt.

“Herb has groomed him the last few years,” Dietz said. “I absolutely believe Jon will be a tremendous golf coach. He’s ready for the challenge.”

Saul described Mills as a “perfect fit.”

“He’s a players’ coach,”  Saul said. “ Jon knows what it takes coming down the stretch. He knows the advice he needs to give. He’ll be able to guide these guys to the finish line.”

Mills said he is ready.

“The goals will continue to stay high,” Mills said. “Everything is here for an elite program. I’m not 100 percent sure how my style will work. There are little aspects I will change, but the heart of the program will always be Herb.”