He called it “complete craziness.”
To say Harrell won his third Calhoun County Golf Tour title of the season with a sliding four-foot putt for par on the 36th hole of the championship after Gonzalo Berlin had trouble extricating himself from the greenside bunker would grossly simplify and shortchange the drama of the day.
Harrell shot a final-round 3-over-par 75 to finish at 7-under 137 for the tournament, one better than Berlin, his former Jacksonville State teammate who needed three shots to escape the bunker.
But in the run-up to the final drama, Harrell lost a big overnight lead and then battled back from three shots down with three holes to play by executing some brilliant greenside maneuvers while Berlin faltered.
“I had mixed emotions from all different angles,” Harrell said. “In my mind it was complete craziness. Literally, for everyone it was complete craziness, but personally, with the mixed emotions, with the play that happened on 18, for me it was definitely complete craziness.”
It’s been said the hardest thing in golf is playing with a big lead. Harrell went into the day with a five-stroke lead — six over Berlin — after a record-setting 62 the day before, and it appeared the day could have ended only one of two ways: Harrell would be like Rory McIlroy stretching out a lead in the 2011 U.S. Open, or like Adam Scott — long putter and all — losing it all at the 2012 British Open.
He ended up being Ernie Els.
Berlin played loose and brilliantly early, going out in 5-under through 12 holes and eventually taking the lead after Harrell played holes 9 and 10 in 3-over.
When Harrell made bogey at the par-3 14th, Berlin’s lead was three with four holes left. Then the Spaniard hit his second shot into the 15th green for a potential eagle, and that’s where he made his fatal error.
“After 14, I thought I had the tournament and then I hit a great shot into 15 and said, ‘That’s it,” Berlin said. “Maybe that was it. I just lost a little bit of my momentum, because in my head I thought that’s it.”
He three-putted the green for par, bogeyed the par-3 16th after Harrell made an incredible up-and-down for par, parred 17 to a Harrell birdie, and then let it all get away on 18.
With no defense in golf, Harrell applied all the pressure — even when it looked like things were lost.
His tee shot on 16 was so far left of the green, he needed his rangefinder to determine a yardage to the hole — then he pitched from 48 yards to 18 inches to save his par. On 17, he drove the short side of the pin, but nearly holed his chip shot for eagle and tapped in for his only birdie of the day to take the margin to one with one hole to play; Berlin was on the other side of the green and his birdie putt just dove below the hole, leaving him with par.
“This is the first time all year I had a big lead; it was a bit different,” Harrell said. “I kept trying to not make mistakes instead of trying to make birdies and that’s not the way I play. I started playing better once I got down.
“I always try to be a positive guy and always think there’s a chance. I’ve won tournaments like that and I’ve lost tournaments that way as well, so you know there’s always a chance. We saw Adam Scott in the Open; there’s always a chance.”
Both players hit good drives on 18, with Berlin’s running farther down the fairway. Harrell was 275 yards out into a stiff wind and was quite conflicted on his play.
Not only was he challenging for the tournament title, he also was in the lead to get the most County Tour points if he didn’t win; he didn’t want to lose either.
“I couldn’t make up my mind on 18; I had mixed emotions,” Harrell said.
But after seeing playing partner Ott Chandler find the water from the nearby rough, Harrell laid up to the pond with a pitching wedge.
The plot thickens. Berlin’s 3-wood from 240 yards, while hit solidly, sliced and ultimately landed among the trunk of a crepe myrtle that separates the 18th hole from No. 1. Knowing Berlin was stymied, Harrell then left his 150-yard 9-iron approach just below the green.
Weighing his options, Berlin moved his ball back from the tree a scorecard length in accordance with the rules and drove a 60-degree wedge through the trunk, but his ball came out so hot it ran through the green and into the bunker. Harrell flipped a wedge up to four feet.
“I have to say I like hitting those hard shots and I tend to be very good at it,” said Berlin, who plans to return to his native Spain after playing in next month’s Calhoun County Championship to begin preparations to play pro golf in Europe. “I didn’t think it was that hard a shot. I had a gap.”
Berlin had a terrible lie in the bunker — downhill and in a badly raked area — but not even his typically strong bunker play could save him on this. He didn’t get out on the first swing. The ball fell back into an equally depressing lie and he failed to get out again. His third attempt stopped two inches from the hole, but he was now laying six.
“I knew he was going to make that putt,” Berlin said. “I just thought I had to fancy and try to make an impossible shot and it didn’t work out.”
That left Harrell with one putt to win, two to force a playoff. He dropped the putt for the par.
“I was thinking if I made a par, I’d probably get in a playoff once he hit in the bunker because it was a really hard up-and-down because of the hole location,” he said. “I was thinking if I could make this putt, I’m going to go to a playoff, but once he left it in the bunker I was thinking I may have this to win, and the whole mindset changed.”
Berlin shot a final-round 70. Matt Rogers finished third in the Championship A flight. Defending champion Jason Johnson won Championship B, while Matt Smith won the First Flight and Danny Shears won the Second Flight.
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.