Alabama wins, bounces back from heartbreak

By Ryan LavnerJune 2, 2013, 7:58 pm

MILTON, Ga. – Nearly a year ago today, Cory Whitsett watched helplessly as a herd of Texas fans stormed the 18th green at Riviera. He remembered weaving his way to the side of the green and kneeling beside his crimson Alabama bag, his head buried in his hands.

“That was the lowest I’ve ever felt on the golf course,” Whitsett said Sunday. “No one really wanted to talk to me because they didn’t know whether they should say something or hug me, and so I was just left alone.”

It was quite a contrast to this year. Once more he was in the match that decided the NCAA Championship, but this time his conceded bogey on the 15th hole was enough to clinch the Crimson Tide’s first national championship, 4-1, over Illinois at Capital City Club.

When it was over, Whitsett once again found himself looking for someone to hug, and he found no shortage of open arms.

He hugged Bobby Wyatt, who began his finals match with seven consecutive wins on his way to a 6-and-5 rout.  

He hugged Scott Strohmeyer, the team’s lone senior, who won three holes in a row on the back nine to turn an all-square match into a 3-and-2 victory.

And he hugged Trey Mullinax, who despite being so nervous he could barely grip his putter, two-putted from 50 feet on the final green for a crucial 1-up victory.

“I couldn’t think of a better person to have that happen to,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said of Whitsett. “You get both sides of the emotion. That probably made me the happiest.”

Fortunately, this will no longer be remembered as the NCAA Championship that Cal did not win.

Lost in the Golden Bears’ historic 11-win season, which ended with Saturday’s semifinal loss to Illinois, was this: Alabama had something special brewing, too.

Entering nationals, the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide had won seven times, including six of their seven spring starts. They captured the SEC title. They captured their regional, too.

Last year, they won the stroke-play portion at NCAAs, but that has proven a bad omen for every team. Since 2009, no top seed has gone on to win the championship, this year included.

Tied 2-2 in the 2012 final, each team’s title hopes came down to Whitsett and Texas’ Dylan Frittelli. After sailing his approach over 18 green, Whitsett cut completely under his flop-shot attempt, moving the ball nary an inch, and made bogey. Very few remember that blunder – Frittelli holed a 25-foot birdie putt to win in dramatic fashion.

The scene afterward was a whirlwind.

The senior captain tearfully gathered the team on the first tee.

Whitsett and then-assistant coach Scott Limbaugh broke down in the locker room, unable to speak.

The two coaches sped off to catch a flight at the airport.

Four players boarded a charter plane, en route to their U.S. Open sectional.

“We all went our separate ways and couldn’t say goodbye,” sophomore Justin Thomas said. “It was weird. That was a spot where you needed each other to lift you up.”

The gut-wrenching loss lingered for months – OK, exactly 364 days – and was erased only after the Alabama players hoisted a title of their own Sunday.

“That’s what losing last year does to you,” Illinois coach Mike Small said. “They were reinvigorated. They proved to the world that they’re good. Really good. They were on a mission today.”

Alabama boasts arguably the strongest 1-2-3 combination in the country, with Thomas (the 2012 Player of the Year), Whitsett and Wyatt. All three players were ranked inside the top 10 and combined for five wins and 20 top 10s this season.

But a Big 3 can only take a team so far in this format. Unlike in stroke play, the Nos. 4 and 5 players can’t hide at NCAAs. Each player – regardless of rank, experience, past results – counts the same in single-elimination match play. That’s where this story truly begins.

Three years ago, Strohmeyer was constantly bickering with his coach. Back then “Strobe” was a know-it-all sophomore who was under the impression that his big, brawny game would translate to immediate success. When it didn’t, he resisted coaching.

The turning point – for Strohmeyer and, most importantly, for Alabama – came at the Schenkel Invitational in March 2012. (“That changed our program,” Seawell said.) Strohmeyer was inserted into the lineup, in the No. 5 spot, and thrived there. He started the final six events, won two matches at the 2012 NCAAs and helped lead the team to the finals.

This week, he posted a 2-0-1 record in match play and walked away with the trophy in his final college start.

“We’ve had a nice labor of love,” Seawell said. “And now, I’d run through a wall for him.”

Mullinax was a highly touted freshman when he cracked the lineup at the 2011 NCAA Championship. Overwhelmed by that moment, however, he shot 84-80-84 and was part of an epic collapse that saw the Tide shoot 28 over in the final round to plummet from safely inside the match-play cut to 14th.

Fast-forward to Saturday’s semifinal against Georgia Tech, and Mullinax was 2 down through seven holes before he posted five consecutive 3s on his card to roll to a 4-and-3 win.

In the final against Illinois’ Charlie Danielson, Mullinax two-putted from 50 feet on the final green to win, 1 up – a strong close for a player who had three-jacked three times on the final day, including on Nos. 14 and 16.

“I was really excited about coming back to this big stage and proving that I can play well here,” he said.

Said Seawell: “Today will do more for his career in golf than anything I could have ever said.”

Alabama’s golf team is beginning to resemble its football squad, only with slighter builds, of course. They restock and rebuild, each year seemingly better than the previous.

The Tide’s Big 3 of Thomas, Whitsett and Wyatt are all expected back next season. They’ll also welcome Robby Shelton, the No. 1-ranked junior in the country, and Gavin Moynihan, the 2012 Irish Amateur champion. In other words, Alabama will likely be top team in the 2013-14 preseason rankings, as well.

“That’s the goal. That’s the reason I decided to come here,” Thomas said, his NCAA champion’s hat turned backward. “I wanted to be a part of something that could become a legacy.”

Erasing a crushing disappointment with a commanding finals performance a year later? Yes, that’s some legacy to forge.

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.