PINEHURST, N.C. –– Jason Millard was driving from Tennessee to Pinehurst to play in the U.S. Open. Sam Love was in his car to start a journey to Johnstown, Penn., for the Sunnehanna Amateur.
Two phone calls later, two trips were turned around, and destinations were changed. Millard went back to Tennessee, Love wound up in Pinehurst.
Crazy game, this golf, and Love was still trying to comprehend his good fortune. But so, too, was he dishing out accolades to Millard.
“I respect him a lot. It was very honorable for him,” Love said, reacting to Millard’s call to USGA officials last Saturday that led to this last-second change in the U.S. Open field. Five days after he had earned one of the qualifying spots in a sectional in Memphis, Tenn., Millard couldn’t stop thinking that he had grounded his club while standing over a bunker shot.
He said he wasn’t 100 percent sure he had done it, but felt enough of a tug on his conscience to disqualify himself. That led officials to go to the list of alternates and Love was awarded a spot. Having shot 68-69 at the Memphis site, Love lost out in a five-for-two playoff and was relegated to second alternate. As fate would have it, first alternate Scott Langley got in when Thomas Bjorn withdrew and then came the Millard decision that benefited Love.
When he got the call from the USGA, Love – who recently closed out his University of Alabama-Birmingham career – was headed home to print out his boarding passes for a flight to Pittsburgh. His summer schedule of marquee amateur events was going to begin at the Sunnehanna, but oh, how that plan has changed.
Having arrived in Pinehurst Sunday as an amateur, Love woke up Wednesday morning, walked into USGA offices here at Pinehurst, and signed papers declaring that he was now a professional. “Needed to tell them where to send the check,” he said with a smile.
“Once I got the call, I figured I was going to turn pro later in the summer” so the 22-year-old just jump-started the process.
He wasn’t alone, either, because his fellow Alabaman, Smylie Kaufman will be making his pro debut at this week’s U.S. Open, too. Convenient, then, that they were together for a final practice effort at Pinehurst No. 2, the two of them going out for the front nine with Graeme McDowell. It was clearly a threesome with serious Irish and UAB ties.
McDowell, of course, is from Northern Ireland and starred at UAB where his coach was Alan Kaufman, Smylie’s grandfather. Love has played several times with McDowell in the Shoal Creek Invitational Hosted by Graeme McDowell as the 2010 U.S. Open champion makes a point of visiting and supporting his alma mater.
The group also consisted of Alan Murray, Love’s coach at UAB and Alan Kaufman’s former assistant. The fact that Murray hails from Dublin (he played collegiately at the University of Toledo) continued the theme of the nine-hole walk. “He’s a class act,” Murray said of McDowell. “A great experience for Sam.”
At one point, McDowell and Love both hit approaches into a greenside bunker and when they got there, the man from Northern Ireland insisted on playing Love’s ball. He holed it. “I was always good with those balls,” he said, a reference to the fact that they emblazoned with Blazer logos.
McDowell was clearly grinding away, still trying to figure out the nuances of this devilish golf course. As he putted and pitched and chipped and wedged away with his different options behind the third green, McDowell laughed. “A guy would be better off to skip the range and spend a few hours with his psychologist,” he said.
But his workload aside, McDowell “was great, he shared a few thoughts and it was great to see how he goes about his preparation,” Love said. “I took a lot of his thoughts into consideration.”
As for Murray, he, too, got a phone call that changed his schedule. Having been at the Alabama State Amateur (where a UAB golfer, Will Cannon, won) talking to potential recruits, Murray didn’t hesitate when he talked to Love on the phone.
“I don’t know if he asked me to caddie or I volunteered, but here I am,” Murray said. “It’s a thrill to be here, and Sam has handled it all so well.”
Down to the official documentation complete with his signature that he can now accept whatever check he may earn this week.