PINEHURST — Sam Love finished a round at a golf course outside of Birmingham, Ala., and he started the drive home. Before he received a phone call that changed his life, he had been planning to print out his boarding passes for a flight to Pennsylvania, where he was set to play in an amateur tournament.
By then, Love wasn’t thinking much about Pinehurst, or about playing in the U.S. Open. He left his sectional qualifier in Cresswell, Tenn., as a second alternate for the Open, and he knew his chances of making the field were slim.
“I didn’t think I had a very good chance,” said Love, who recently graduated from the University of Alabama-Birmingham after playing golf there for four years.
But then came that call. Love was in his car. He answered and a man from the USGA was on the other end. He informed Love that another player, Jason Millard, had disqualified himself from the Open because he was fearful that he had committed a rules violation.
Millard’s disqualification opened a spot in the field, and Love learned during that phone call that he would fill the vacancy. Earlier this week, speaking after a practice round at Pinehurst, Love described with a sense of calm receiving word that he’d be playing in the Open.
“I was definitely excited when I got the call (for) the opportunity to play in the U.S. Open,” he said. “Not too many people get that chance, so I’m going to come here and just try and take good advantage of the opportunity.”
Love is essentially the last man in the field, and his arrival in Pinehurst was among the most unlikely of any player competing in the U.S. Open. Love made it through a local qualifier, and then advanced through a five-man playoff to earn the second alternate spot in his sectional qualifier.
And then he only made the field after Millard disqualified himself for a violation he may or may not have committed. Millard thought he might have grounded his club in a bunker during his sectional qualifier, but he wasn’t sure. After thinking about it for several days, he alerted the USGA and disqualified himself from the Open.
“I’m pretty sure I grounded my club in the bunker,” Millard said in a statement released by the USGA. “I didn’t see anything for sure but I felt something and I saw a small indentation. It happened so fast, I really don’t know 100 percent but deep down, I believe I did.
“I couldn’t find peace about it. For five days, I practiced and I couldn’t get it off my mind.”
Millard, from Murfreesboro, Tenn., would have played in the Open if not for his admission. Love has thought about that in recent days – about the honesty it takes to give up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It’s one of those things (that) nobody knew about it,” Love said. “I mean, he could have easily just played in this tournament and nobody would have known. He had some doubts about it and called it into question and ended up disqualifying himself. And it’s very honorable of him. So I have a lot of respect for him.”
Love has thought about what he would have done in similar circumstances. He said he “would love to think” he’d have done “the right thing.”
But, he said, “It’s a tough thing to do.”
Aside from his UAB golf bag and his attire – a UAB hat and polo – Love has blended in. He’s the last man in the field, but the moment and the stage didn’t faze him while he prepared for the tournament.
Love on Tuesday played in a practice round with Jordan Spieth, and on Wednesday Love played with Graeme McDowell, who also played college golfat UAB. At the end of their practice round, Love and his caddie, UAB coach Alan Murray, posed for a quick picture with McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion.
Outside of that, there have been few star-struck moments.
“It’s really impressive how he’s handled it,” Murray said. “All the crowds and everything. It’s not your typical college golf event here.”
Last week, Love was headed home after that round outside of Birmingham, about his next amateur event. When he arrived in Pinehurst, he filled out paperwork to become a professional, and he began his round in the Open on Thursday at 2:42.
The last man to make the U.S. Open was also among the final ones to tee off on Thursday.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter