HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Even national titles can feel bittersweet.
For players and coaches alike, there is joy – for winning a championship that was nine months in the making.
And there is sadness – for it marks the end of a golden era in their careers.
These conflicting emotions tugged at Alabama coach Jay Seawell this past week at the NCAA Championship, and it’s why he blinked back tears Wednesday following top-ranked Alabama’s 4-1 victory over No. 2 Oklahoma State.
“This is a long journey,” he said, “and I’m kind of sad to see it go. My day-to-day with them will end tonight, which kind of hurts me.
“I know they’re not going to miss workouts, and they’re not going to miss my Seawell-isms, but I love them, they’re winners, they’re champions and they’re men to me, and that’s all I care about.”
Winners and champions, indeed, after the Tide’s victory at Prairie Dunes capped one of the most successful four-year stretches in college golf history – a run that saw Alabama capture three SEC Championships, appear in three consecutive NCAA finals and win back-to-back national titles (the first two in school history). Prior to this senior class, Alabama had captured only one SEC title since 1980.
The Tide won at least five events during each of the past four seasons, including a school-record nine-win campaign in 2013-14. As a team, Alabama’s seniors – Cory Whitsett, Bobby Wyatt and Trey Mullinax – won 27 of their 47 tournaments, including 16 of their last 21. Apparently, the football team isn’t the school’s only dynasty.
“They’ve put us in the spotlight and helped me realize my dreams,” Seawell said. “We’re now one of those programs where the logo comes on the screen. That wasn’t the case before.
“And it’s a whole new world for me. I now have a voice that supposedly means something, because of them. They’re the reason we’re great.”
Which is why all week here Seawell maintained that what he wanted most was “one more day with my guys.” On Wednesday morning, before a caravan of Oklahoma State fans descended on Prairie Dunes, Seawell called an impromptu team meeting. “It was some of the best 10 minutes of my life,” he said.
They discussed legacy and adversity and opportunity, but Seawell also wanted to make one thing abundantly clear:
“They’re bringing buses,” he said, “but there are not enough buses or people in the state of Oklahoma to break the bond of the people in this room.”
How fitting, then, that in the championship match, all three of Alabama’s seniors put a point on the board.
“I wanted to go out on top,” Whitsett said. “I felt like we were winners while we were here, and I wanted to be remembered for that.”
Said Wyatt: “I was way more nervous on the back nine than I’ve ever been. I just wanted it so much more.”
In this era of big-money deals and early defections, Alabama’s stars chose to return to school for their senior season. Both have been ranked as the No. 1 amateur in the world at some point and represented their country at the Walker Cup, but the prospect of finishing out their careers in style, with these teammates and coaches, meant more than potential riches.
“This is why we came to the University of Alabama,” Whitsett said. “To win championships.”
The other Alabama senior is Mullinax, who rebounded from a poor sophomore season to play a significant role in helping the Tide capture the school’s first national title in 2013.
Not as heavily recruited coming out of high school, it was a family friend who helped send Mullinax to Alabama’s camp as a 15-year-old. After a few days, Seawell’s father, Jackie, a legend in South Carolina golf circles, called his son and told him to hustle to the sixth tee.
“I don’t know if you like them long and down the middle,” Jackie Seawell said, “but you should probably drive over here and see this kid.”
Afterward, Seawell told Mullinax that it was the first time that he’d ever been pleasantly surprised at camp. A few years later, Trey and his sister were driving home from Montgomery when Seawell called and offered him a spot on the team.
Fast-forward four years, and Mullinax was standing on the fringe on the par-5 17th, with a chance to earn the clinching point for the Tide.
Though he was attempting to cozy his putt down the hill, Mullinax instead snuck his eagle putt in the side of the cup. Seawell simply lost it, hollering “Roll Tide!” and pumping his fist and kicking his leg and leaping into the arms of his senior.
“That’s what you always dream about, that putt to win the national championship,” Mullinax said. “To share that with Coach Seawell, who has mentored me for four years and done so much for me in my golf career, I can’t tell him thank you enough. He means the world to me.”
The 17th green soon overflowed with revelers, but Seawell knew someone was missing from the celebration. He spun around wildly and screamed, “Where’s Cory?!” The coach finally spotted Whitsett in the middle of the fairway, so he sprinted down the hill, weaved around TV cameramen, wrapped his senior leader in hisarms and cried, “We did it – again!”
Later, Whitsett, cradling the NCAA trophy in his left arm, smiled and said, “I feel like we’ve solidified Alabama’s place as a national power.”
On Wednesday night, the Crimson Tide players and coaches packed away those trophies, boarded their charter flight and returned to a hero’s welcome in Tuscaloosa.
It was a bittersweet moment, their final celebration together.