Mike Van Sickle has been reading Dave Stockton's new book, "Unconscious Putting," hoping to unlock some secret that will help him with his pre-shot process on the putting green.

But, after three-putting the par-3 second hole for bogey at Valley Brook Country Club in McMurray, Van Sickle was told by his caddie -- his dad, Gary -- that the pre-shot routine he used on the second hole was not the same as the one he used on the first.

"He said, 'You got to pick one and stick with it,' " Van Sickle said. "So I committed to not taking any practice strokes next to the ball. That's what Stockton talked about in his book."

The advice worked for Van Sickle, who played the rest of the round bogey-free to take another step closer to the U.S. Open.

Van Sickle, 27, a mini-tour player who went to Pine-Richland High School, shot 3-under 69 Wednesday to lead four players into the sectional round of qualifying for the national championship, which is June 12-15 in Pinehurst, N.C.

"I've been struggling on the greens," Van Sickle said. "I didn't make many [Wednesday], but I didn't have any more 3-putts."

That was enough to grab one of the four qualifying spots available for the field of 75 players. Two of the other spots went to the youngest player in the field -- Luke Miller, 17, of Venetia (70) -- and the oldest -- Oakmont Country Club pro Bob Ford, 60, who has appeared in four U.S. Opens in his sparkling career.

Ford birdied the final hole from 18 feet to shoot 71 and tie Nevillewood director of instruction Kevin Shields for the final two qualifying spots. Ford has not appeared in a 36-hole sectional qualifier since 2007, when he was exempt into that stage because the U.S. Open was at Oakmont.

"It's been so long I don't remember the time before that," said Ford, who will play in a sectional qualifier in Purchase, N.Y.

Ford made five birdies to offset four bogeys. He started his round by holing a greenside bunker shot for birdie at No. 1. After giving the shot back with a bogey at No. 2, he got himself going at the par-5 fifth when he rolled his second shot in the fairway, then hit a 4-iron from 202 yards to 4 feet for birdie.

Shields got off to a similar start, stuffing a 6-iron approach to an inch at the opening hole for birdie. But, after hitting a wedge from 80 yards for birdie at the par-4 10th to get to 3 under, he made back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 11 and 12 for his only blemishes of the round.

"I never hit it better in a round of golf in my entire life," Shields said. "I hit it close on every hole."

This is the eighth time Shields has advanced to a sectional qualifier, though he has never made it to the U.S. Open. Part of the reason is because he usually elects to play in the Columbus, Ohio, sectional qualifier that annually attracts all the PGA Tour players from the Memorial.

"I like to go and get all the autographs," Shields said.

Like Shields, Van Sickle also will go to Columbus to try to make it to the U.S. Open. He almost did in 2007 when he missed one of the qualifying spots by a shot of going to Oakmont.

After running off three consecutive birdies, beginning at No. 4, and using his new-found pre-shot putting process, Van Sickle ensured himself of his fourth opportunity of getting to the Open.

"I've been playing well, the problem is I'm just not making putts," Van Sickle said. "I needed to change my process on the greens. Stockton doesn't like taking practice strokes next to the ball, so I've been trying to get behind the ball to get the feel. It seems to be working."

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.

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