SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – It took all of 30 minutes for the NCAA Championship to be turned upside down Monday.
Texas junior Scottie Scheffler lost his tee shot on his second hole of the day (the 11th) to hand Braden Thornberry a lead he wouldn’t relinquish.
Thornberry finished at 11-under 277 following a final-round 71, one of just four sub-par scores on Monday, when the wind gusted to 40 mph. Scheffler, who led by two shots heading into the final round, shot 78 to tie for third.
“It was a really special week,” said Thornberry, who played the final round as an individual after his team missed the 54-hole NCAA cut.
It was the 20-year-old’s seventh victory over the past two years, and his fifth this season. He also had 10 top-5s, putting him in line to sweep the season-ending awards.
“The only thing he’s ever struggled with is realizing he belongs,” Ole Miss coach Chris Malloy said. “I think that trophy will help prove that to himself.”
Thornberry mopped up on the local junior circuit in Mississippi but wasn’t heavily recruited, partly because of his unorthodox swing. It was his father, Les, a scratch golfer who works for UPS, who taught him that move.
“Everyone when they’re younger comes over the top,” Thornberry said, “so he gave me the little loop move to get that away, and I just liked the feel of it and went from there.”
Braden committed to Ole Miss as a high-school freshman.
“Some of us as coaches saw that funky swing and crazy grip and said, ‘Oh, that won’t last,’” said Alabama coach Jay Seawell, who has watched Thornberry play since he was 12. “But he plays golf his way, and it’s a good way. He isn’t scared, and I love that.”
Even with two victories during his freshman season, Thornberry wasn’t considered a top-tier player until his victory this February at the Jones Cup. In typically brutal conditions at Ocean Forest, one of the most difficult layouts in amateur golf, Thornberry won wire-to-wire to beat a top field by five shots.
This was much more stressful than that cakewalk.
Thornberry drove the par-4 sixth and made eagle to open up a four-shot lead, but he played the next 11 holes in 2 over.
Fortunately for him, all of his pursuers faded on their final nine holes.
Scheffler held steady after his 4-over start, but he twice hit a tree on his final hole of the day and made double.
Vanderbilt’s Matthias Schwab rinsed two shots on the 15th hole to make triple and fall five back.
Arkansas’ Mason Overstreet, playing in the same group as Thornberry, bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes to take some of the pressure off.
“Today is probably when I was most proud of him,” Malloy said. “He faced a lot of adversity.”
It’s the first NCAA golf title for the Rebels, the type of signature victory that can change a program.
“It validates everything that we’ve said since I got the job three years ago,” Malloy said. “All I heard was that if you go to Ole Miss you couldn’t win a national championship. He’s proven you can do that.”