Photo Credit: USGA
After winning four consecutive matches that went down to either the 18th or 19th holes, Mark Harrell finally experienced what it meant to be on the receiving end of a razor-thin defeat, losing his semifinal match 1-up in the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Capital City Club’s Crabapple course.
Harrell, who was born and raised in the central Georgia community of Hazlehurst and currently resides in the Chattanooga suburb of Lookout Mountain, Ga., played outstanding golf throughout the match play portion of the event, playing his five rounds in 13-under par, spanning 92 holes. He broke 70 in four rounds on the par-70 Tom Fazio layout, and carded just seven total bogeys in the five matches, all of which went at least 18 holes.
The highlight of Harrell’s week at the Capital City Crabapple course, which had previously hosted a World Golf Championship event and the 2013 NCAA Championship, was a 63 in the third round that was likely the match of the tournament, with Harrell winning 1-up over an opponent who shot 64. It was one of two matches in which Harrell did not make a bogey, the other coming in his 1-up semifinal loss to North Carolinian Josh Nichols.
Harrell and Nichols halved 10 of the first 11 holes with pars in their match, with Harrell taking a 1-up lead with a birdie at the short par-4 fifth. Nichols captured the lead with back-to-back birdies at the par-5 12th and short par-3 13th, almost scoring a hole-in-one on the latter. Harrell battled back with a birdie on the 476-yard, par-4 17th to square the match. But Nichols pulled out the win with a beautiful second shot and birdie putt on the difficult par-4 18th after Harrell holed a par putt of some 15 feet to possibly send the match to extras holes.
“I missed some putts I should have made, but when a guy beats you, a guy beats you,” Harrell said after his loss. “I feel like I had a chance to win (the tournament) and I feel like I played well enough today to have a chance to win. Match play is a lot of fun, but it’s a tough animal.
“You never want to lose, but it’s better to get beat than to beat yourself. I’m glad I made him earn it. It was a good week but I just came up a little bit short.”
Harrell was one of the state’s top junior golfers in the early 2000s, and played his college golf at Alabama, qualifying for the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont and as an amateur, where he finished as low amateur but missed the cut by one shot.
This was Harrell’s seventh appearance in a USGA event. He played in three U.S. Amateurs and two Public Links Championships during his years at Alabama, making it to the second round of the U.S. Am a few times and earning stroke play medalist honors in the ’07 Public Links. He also made it to the second round of match play in the Mid-Am two years ago in his first USGA since regaining his amateur status.
After completing his college career at Alabama, Harrell played on the mini-tours from 2008-13 and played respectably as a tour pro with “a lot of top tens on the Hooters Tour,” but was never able to secure status on the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour before leaving the mini-tour grind.
Harrell, 32, shot 4-over 145 to tie for 28th in stroke play qualifying, avoiding a massive playoff by one shot. He was the 42nd seed in the 64-player match play field and defeated four straight higher seeded players before losing to No. 43 Nichols in the semifinals.
In the opening round, Harrell went 19 holes to defeat No. 23 Andrew Rhodes of Indiana, with the initial report on the match a 1-up victory for Rhodes. Neither player led by more than one hole, with Harrell taking a 1-up lead with birdies on the two par 3s on Crabapple’s back nine – the short 13th and long 15th. Rhodes pulled even with a birdie at the demanding par-4 16th, and the match went to extra holes, with Harrell winning with a par on the par-4 opening hole. Both players shot 69 for 18 holes, with the first of Harrell’s three birdies coming on the drivable par-4 fifth.
Harrell never trailed in his second round match, winning 1-up over 10th seeded Chad Wilfong of Charlotte. Harrell jumped out to a 2-up lead after three holes, and was still 2-up after a birdie at the 11th, hitting his second shot on the par-4 to two feet. Wilfong pulled even with an eagle at the 12th and a birdie at 14, but Harrell won the 16th with a par and preserved his slim lead with pars at 17 and 18. Harrell shot 67 on the day with five birdies.
In the third round, Harrell faced seventh seed Michael Muehr, who competed on the PGA Tour before undergoing cancer surgery and regaining his amateur status in 2007. Muehr has played in 18 USGA events and has twice reached the quarterfinals in the Mid-Am, and shot 64 against Harrell in his bid to advance that far for the third time.
With four consecutive birdies at holes 2, 3, 4 and 5 and a fifth birdie at the seventh, Harrell took a 4-up lead, but Muehr fought back with five birdies in seven-hole stretch beginning at the 11th. But he won only three of those holes, as Harrell scored matching birdies at 12 and 13. Muehr closed within 1-down with a birdie at the 17th, but Harrell halved the 18th with a par to win the match.
“That was exciting but nerve-wracking,” Harrell said of shootout victory. “There were a lot of birdies.”
Harrell said if he had shot 64 and lost, “I would not feel great. It’s tough to play that good and get beat, but somebody has to lose.”
Californian Tyler Crawford won his second and third round matches by scores of 7&6 and 6&5, trouncing the No. 2 seed in the second round. He led Harrell 2-up after eight holes in the quarterfinals, but Harrell won three of the next seven holes to take a 1-up lead before Crawford pulled even with a birdie at the 17th.
Crawford’s third winning birdie of the front nine put him 2-up after eight, but he gave Harrell a break when he double-bogeyed the ninth, losing the hole to a Harrell bogey. Harrell squared the match with a birdie at 11 and took the lead when he holed a birdie putt of some 35 feet at the 15th after Crawford had seemingly earned a half with a deft bunker shot.
Harrell saved par with a sand save at the 16th to stay ahead, but Crawford holed a birdie putt at 17 to pull even, and narrowly missed his birdie try at the 18 to win the match, with Harrell saving par after a testy pitch shot.
After splitting the fairway with his tee shot on Crabapple’s opening hole, Harrell hit an 8-iron approach inside three feet, and Crawford pulled his second from the rough well left of the green. His chip from the rough came up short, and after his fourth shot rolled past the hole, he conceded the hole and match.
“That was awesome,” Harrell said of his clutch approach shot on the first playoff hole. “That’s what we play for.”
Harrell was even par for 19 holes, with all three of his birdies coming on his final nine holes.
In Harrell’s semifinal match against Nichols, neither player made a bogey, with Nichols running off 11 straight pars before scoring birdies on three of the last seven holes to pull out a 1-up victory.
Nichols had less success in the title match, losing decisively to Matt Parziale of Brockton, Mass. Parziale led 6-up after the morning round with eight birdies to build an insurmountable lead. After winning four straight matches that went 18 holes or longer, Parziale rolled to big wins in the semifinals and finals. His highlight victory came in the quarterfinals when he rallied from 5-down after 10 holes to knock off top-seeded Bradford Tilley in 20 holes.
With his victory, Parziale earns invitations to the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open.