Alabama wins, bounces back from heartbreak

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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.