PINEHURST, N.C. — Jason Millard packed his bags, tossed his clubs in the car, and headed off to Pinehurst No. 2 to play in his first major championship.
It should’ve been the thrill of a lifetime.
Instead, he turned the car around.
‘‘I couldn’t be at peace about it,’’ Millard said Wednesday, one day before the start of a U.S. Open he could’ve been playing in but will have to watch on television — if he can bear to watch at all.
What gnawed at him was maybe, just maybe, he had cheated.
Not intentionally, for sure. Perhaps not at all.
But the lingering doubt was enough for Millard to give up what could be the chance of a lifetime.
‘‘I want to be at Pinehurst right now with a free conscience,’’ he said when reached on his cellphone. ‘‘I wish it never happened. Unfortunately, it did.’’
What happened was a scenario unique to golf, the one sport that relies on its players to largely do their own officiating. Millard may have touched the sand ever so slightly with his club before hitting a plugged shot out of a bunker during sectional qualifying in Memphis, Tennessee, last week. It didn’t really affect his shot, but ‘‘grounding’’ a club is against the rules and requires a two-shot penalty.
No one else saw it. There’s no video of the shot. And Millard just isn’t sure.
‘‘Right about the time I was taking my swing is when I saw what I think was an indentation in the sand,’’ he said. ‘‘That little image keeps popping up in my head right now. But it happened so fast. I really don’t know.’’
Millard signed for a 68-68 score, without a penalty, and wound up earning a spot in the U.S. Open. He wanted to celebrate but couldn’t. Not with that shot playing over and over in his mind.
Did he ground the club? Was that tiny crevice in the sand really there? Was he just imagining the whole thing?
Last Saturday, Millard and his caddie (who wasn’t at the sectional qualifier) headed out from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the nearly eight-hour drive to Pinehurst. They made it about 90 minutes before Millard pulled into a convenience store and began searching for a number to the U.S. Golf Association.
He wouldn’t be going any farther.
He had decided to turn himself in.
‘‘There was something in my heart,’’ he said, ‘‘telling me this didn’t feel right.’’
Millard disqualified himself for signing an erroneous scorecard. If he had taken a two-shot penalty on the day of the qualifier, he still would’ve missed the Open by a single shot.
‘‘I feel like the way I played that day, I deserved to make it,’’ Millard said. ‘‘I’ve never called a penalty on myself for grounding a club in the bunker. Unfortunately, it happened at the absolutely worst time.’’
The timing couldn’t have been better for Sam Love, who just finished his college career at Alabama-Birmingham. He was the second alternate in Memphis; when Millard dropped out, Love got in.
‘‘I really respect him for that,’’ Love said in the bowels of the Pinehurst clubhouse after a practice round. ‘‘He could’ve easily just played this tournament and nobody would’ve ever known.’’
When Love tees off Thursday afternoon in the opening round, Millard will be at home in Tennessee. He plans to watch at least some of the tournament on TV, but knows it won’t go down easily.
‘‘I haven’t really watched any of the coverage yet,’’ said Millard, a two-time All-American during his college career at Middle Tennessee State. ‘‘I’m sure I will at some point, especially the last round. I’ve played Pinehurst before. I like watching tournaments, especially on courses I’ve played before.’’
Of course, he’d much rather be playing.
‘‘Unfortunately, this is what happens in life,’’ Millard said. ‘‘Hopefully, I’ll be back there one day.’’
He’s already dealt with issues far more serious than missing a golf tournament. His father Eddie, who steered him to the game and drove him to all his tournaments as a kid, died in April 2013 from leukemia. Millard’s mother, Debbie, can barely get around after being stricken with multiple sclerosis. Jason, in fact, still lives with his mom when he’s not on the road trying to qualify for PGA Tour and Web.com events. He pays her bills, does the grocery shipping, takes care of odds and ends around the house.
Millard was thinking about his dad when trying to decide whether to disqualify himself from the Open.
‘‘He was pretty much my best friend,’’ Millard said. ‘‘When stuff would happen, I always called him first. In this instance, I definitely would’ve called him first, talked to him about it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t.’’
Millard is only 24, with plenty of golf still ahead of him. He surely will have more chances to qualify for the Open.
That said, there are no guarantees in life.
This might be as close as he gets.
If that’s the case, at least he can go through the rest of his years with a clear conscience.
‘‘I’m at peace,’’ Millard said, ‘‘with my decision.’’