UA Player in U.S. Open

Mark Harrell has long been a fan of PGA Tour golfer Davis Love III, a man some 21 years his senior. On Tuesday Harrell got to play right alongside one of his golf favorites.

Harrell, who will be a senior this fall, is one of 10 amateurs among the field of 156 playing at the 2007 United States Open Championship. The event began with the first of three practice rounds Monday at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa., a par 70 layout that is both heralded and cursed by the greatest golfers in the world who will be competing as professionals along with Harrell and the other amateurs.

Major golf events are becoming routine on the Hazlehurst, Ga., native's summer calendar. In 2005 and again in 2006 Harrell participated in the U.S. Amateur Championship. Last year he finished second in stroke play. But this one, he admits is special. He felt it the moment he stepped on the course Monday for the first practice round.

"It was fun. You've got people out there watching you, gallery rows and grandstands, so it was exciting being a part of that kind of scene when you'd never experienced it before. But believe it or not, I was really relaxed, which is good," said Harrell who helped Alabama to a sixth place finish at the NCAA Championships on June 2 and then qualified for the US Open two days later by tying for first place with Nationwide Tour member and former Auburn golfer Lee Williams at 7-under at the sectional qualifier in Ball Ground, Ga.

On Tuesday waiting at the tee for the second day's practice round was Love and PGA Tour player Lucas Glover. Playing 18 holes with the professionals, says Harrell, helped him learn.

"I had a good pairing today," said Harrell by phone Tuesday night as he ate dinner with his parents, Ray and Angela Harrell, following the practice round. "They were real helpful; I was learning the way they prepare mentally and prepare for a big major golf tournament. It was interesting observing them, seeing the way they practice and were learning how to play the golf course.

"Davis Love has been one of my favorite players, so it was kind of fun to play with him today, kind of enjoyable," said Harrell who played in all 13 golf tournaments for the Crimson Tide this past season and had a 73.25 stroke average to go with six Top 25 individual finishes, including a 9th place finish at the 2007 Southeastern Conference Championships.

This week stories have been emerging from Oakmont regarding how tough the Oakmont Country Club's course is to play. In a story circulated by the Associated Press, PGA Tour golfer Paul Goydos said Monday in describing Oakmont, "It is stifling difficult, to the point of walking off and feeling like you've got 12 rounds with Ali."

As a mere 21 year old—he'll turn 22 on August 27---Harrell has not had as many courses to compare Oakmont to as the 43-year-old Goydos who turned pro in 1989, but Harrell says the course is every bit as tough as the lore has it.

"It's every bit as tough as they say it is. Every bit. No doubt about it," said Harrell after two days on the course. "It's probably one of the hardest golf courses I've ever played. It's very tough. The greens, they've got a lot of undulation complexes and they're fast. So you've got to understand where to hit it and you better hit it there. So it is tough."

Cheering him on at Oakmont will be his own mini-entourage. One of his Alabama teammates, sophomore golfer Matt Hughes, is Harrell's caddy at The Open. His gallery will also include his parents, both of his brothers, his aunt and uncle, and, making the drive from Tuscaloosa, his Alabama teammate Ben Moody who will pick up another Tide teammate, Athens' Stewart Whitt along the way and make the drive to Pennsylvania. These are the same two who just recently returned from a road trip to Williamsburg, Va., to watch their Tide teammates play in the May 30-June 2 NCAA Championships.

Picking Hughes, a Dalton, Ga., native as his caddy was an easy choice, Harrell says. Hughes was the 2004 AAAA individual state champion who led his Dalton High to the team title.

"He's loving it. He gets to be inside the ropes like me, so he's enjoying it. We're having a good time," said Harrell. "I needed a caddy, and we're good friends. And he's a good caddy. He caddied for (UA teammate Thomas) Hagler last year in a Nationwide event, so he's building up a resume real quick. He's a good caddy and I knew we'd get along and have a good time together, so I asked him to come. I had to have a caddy and he's been a great choice."

Harrell doesn't play his first official round until Thursday afternoon. Just his luck, this first-timer has the very last tee-time on Thursday. He'll go off the No. 10 tee at 2:42 p.m. CT/1:42 p.m. CT. Paired with him in that final wave of the day will be Frank Bensel and Todd Rossetti.

"I will definitely be nervous when I step on that first tee. They call out your name, same as they do Tiger Woods and Davis Love and all those guys, the best players in the world. It's going to be exciting. You'll have 1,000 people standing around the tee, so if I wasn't nervous, I believe something would be wrong. But I think there's a difference between being nervous and being excited, so I'm going to be excited.

"I'll probably sleep in a little that morning. I'm not used to playing that late, so it'll be different. So I'll probably sleep in, go out to the golf course around lunch and eat some lunch, just kind of relax. I'm not real sure. I'm going to have to figure it out. It seems like a long time between now and 2:42 Thursday afternoon."

Harrell will be a part of the same three-some on Friday but they'll have a morning tee-time off the No. 1 tee at 9:12 a.m. ET/8:12 a.m. CT. His goal is to make the cut. Play includes 18 holes of stroke play each day, Thursday through Sunday. The field of 156 is cut to the low 60 scorers after 36 holes. According to the USGA's website on facts about this year's US Open, the USGA, which runs the event, accepted 8,544 entries. Local qualifying was held at 109 sites in May. Of those original 8,544, only 550 advanced to sectional qualifying which was held at 14 sites, including sites in Japan and England.

Harrell has already blown away the odds just by being at Oakmont. Always the competitor, he's playing to make the cut. But even if he doesn't, before he even steps on the tee Thursday, he realizes this has already been an experience and memory of a lifetime. And it's also given him a taste of what he wants for his future.

"It's just fun being around all these guys you see (play) on TV every week, in the same locker room, seeing your name on the locker right beside them. You go in there and they're all sitting in there. You're around all these tour vans where you see all these agents and reps, it's just fun to be around all those things, these people. It's something that I'm not used to. Unique. Something I want to be a part of one day."

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