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The Bell Tolans for Thee

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- The U.S. Open is the most democratic of all sporting events. It allows anyone with a handicap of 1.4 or lower the opportunity to qualify and compete in the nations premiere golf tournament.
Whether a promising professional or an aged amateur, a club pro or a local legend, a major champion or veteran journeyman, a dream can be corralled at the U.S. Open.
Many players are living a weeklong fantasy this week at Bethpage State Park, including an unassuming 16-year-old from Colorado.
Derek Tolan chipped in from 50 feet last week at the Columbine Country Club in Denver to earn a spot in the 156-man U.S. Open field. He did so on the first playoff hole, besting former PGA Tour winner Mike Reid and PGA club professional Mike Zaremba in the process.
At first it was confusing. It hasn't hit me that I'm playing in probably the biggest golf event in the world, the 6-foot bespectacled Tolan said.
Without a hint of nervousness in his voice, Tolan calmly addressed the media Tuesday. His composure was another reassurance that todays youth is overly prepared for things once thought impossible - or at least improbable.
While most high schoolers are spending the summer enjoying the sun or saving money, Tolan is playing golf. In fact, the sport controls the majority of his interests.
Im not a very good student. I dont have any good subjects, he said, adding, I have a hard time focusing on two things at one timeI put most of my effort into one thing.
Therefore, golf trumps academics.
To me, I just feel like golf can get me further (in life) than (academics), he philosophized.
Where his single-mindedness takes him in the future is in doubt, but for now hes playing alongside the game's greatest.
Monday, he played a practice round with Steve Jones; Tuesday, Bob Tway, Scott Verplank and Justin Leonard; Wednesday it will be Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and one of his idols, David Duval.
Thats probably the most exciting part, Tolan said of his getting to play with golfing luminaries. Theyve been great. Yesterday, Paul Stankowski came and shook my hand and told me, 'Congratulations.' I dont think he knows how much that helped me settle down.
Obviously, Dereks game is still under construction. He said he gained length over the winter ' partly due to a change in his swing and partly due to the course of nature ' that will allow him to contest the 7,214-yard par-70 Black Course.
Experience is still an attribute he is trying to possess. He qualified last year, at the age of 15, for both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Junior Amateur championships, and won this years Arizona Junior Classic.
Playing in the U.S. Amateur helped me tremendously, he said. I walked up to players like (defending champion) Jeff Quinney and I felt intimidated. I felt like I didnt belong.
Now I know theres no need to be intimidated. I earned my spot here.
Though hes the youngest competitor in the field this week, hes not quite the youngest to participate in a U.S. Open. That distinction belongs to Tyrell Garth, who at 14, was too young to defend his country in 1941, but not too young to vie for a national title.
Should Tolan feel frisky this week, he can check the record books to see that John McDermott, at 19 years, 10 months and 14 days, is the most nubile Open champion.
Of course, Tolans mind ' congested as it is ' is focused on just enjoying the experience ' and maybe making the cut.
I just want to play well. I want to see what its like and get experience, he said. Well see where it takes me.
The benefits of competing in a national open are immense ' and often immeasurable. But there was one tangible perk that Tolan received once his unconscionable chip shot rolled into the bottom of the cup. Dereks father, John, who is the head pro at the South Suburban Family Sports Center, promised him a car if he qualified.
We always set little bets like that; not in golf but in everything, said Derek, who mentioned he was playing poorly at the time he and his dad made the bet. It was more of a pride thing.
The keys to the car were in doubt during the most part of the 36-hole qualifier. As one of 35 players vying for two spots, he was 1-under-par through 10 holes when he triple-bogeyed the 11th. However, by the time he again reached No. 11 in the afternoon, he had played some of the best golf of my live to reach 7-under. He finished with rounds of 70-69 to make the playoff.
Someone chipping in crossed my mind a little bit, but I didnt think I would be the one to do it, Derek said of the playoff-ending shot.
But he did, and now hes here. And his friends have one request: Get autographs.
I think they have enough to worry about without me bugging them, he said. Thats one thing I will not be able to bring back for those guys.
Tolan, however, will bring back plenty of more important things upon his return.
I just want to take in all of the experiences and take advantage of all the hospitality and stuff there is here.
This is incredible.
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