Alabama wins first NCAA golf title
With Alabama getting set to play in the final of the NCAA men’s golf championship for the second year in a row, coach Jay Seawell got a good-natured call from Nick Saban.
Obviously, the Crimson Tide’s football coach knows a thing or two about winning national titles.
”He asked, `Do you want me to come over and coach your team?’ ” Seawell said Sunday, breaking into a big smile. ”I was like, `Sure. You’ve got a better record in championships than I do.’ ”
No need. The Tide did just fine without Saban’s help.
Showing again it’s more than just a football school, Alabama won its first national title in men’s golf with a dominant 4-1 victory over Illinois in match play Sunday.
This championship was especially sweet for a team that lost to Texas in last year’s final.
”It’s been a long 365 days,” Seawell said. ”But that just makes it more special. It makes you appreciate it more.”
Bobby Wyatt got the Tide off to a rousing start in the first match at Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course north of Atlanta, winning the first seven holes on the way to a 6-and-5 blowout of Thomas Detry. Alabama didn’t have to sweat it in the final match, either, as Cory Whitsett went 5-up by the turn and cruised to a 4-and-3 victory over Alex Burge.
The middle three matches were much tighter — each of them all-square at one point coming down the stretch, giving Illinois a glimmer of hope at improbably pulling out its first national title.
But Trey Mullinax, after squandering chances to pull ahead with three-putts at the 14th and 16th, two-putted from 60 feet for a par at the 18th for a 1-up victory over Charlie Danielson. The Illinois player missed the green with his approach, chipped up to about 10 feet, but rolled the putt past the right lip of the cup for a bogey.
When Mullinax knocked down his 3-footer, a huge roar went up from the predominantly Alabama crowd that could be heard by the other groups still on the course.
After that, it ended quickly.
When Burge missed a 15-foot par putt at the 15th, he conceded Whitsett’s short bogey attempt to end that match. Up ahead on the 16th green, at essentially the same time, Scott Strohmeyer rolled in a 3-footer for par to beat Brian Campbell 3-and-2.
”Roll Tide!” someone in the gallery shouted.
Wyatt’s strong start helped calm his teammates. They knew the Tide already had one point in the bag, which meant the other four players merely had to split their matches.
”He’s a really streaky player,” Whitsett said. ”When he gets hot, he’s really hot. No one can beat him when he’s firing on all cylinders.”
Even so, Wyatt never envisioned being 7-up as he walked off the seventh green.
”It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. ”I just had to keep my head down, keep plugging along. I wanted to get to the finish as early as possible.”
Thomas Pieters, the 2012 individual champion, earned the Fighting Illini’s lone point with a 1-up victory over Alabama’s top-ranked player, Justin Thomas. That wasn’t nearly enough to halt the Tide, which had been on a mission ever since the bitter loss to Texas a year ago.
Alabama lost to the Longhorns 3-2 when, on the final hole, Whitsett came up short of the green and missed a birdie chip, then watched helplessly while Dylan Frittelli rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt to give Texas the crown.
”I remember kneeling beside my bag,” Whitsett said. ”It’s the worst I’ve ever felt on a golf course.”
This was the best.
”Pure joy,” Whitsett said.
The victory came nearly five months after Alabama routed Notre Dame in college football’s championship game, giving the school its third national title in four years in the sport that dominates most of the attention on campus.
But the Tide’s athletic success goes far beyond the gridiron. Over the last two academic years, Alabama has also captured national championships in women’s golf, softball and gymnastics.
”We are a football school. No doubt. We don’t have a problem with that,” Mullinax said. ”But I know the coaches on campus don’t feel we’re just a football school. We’ve got a lot of great athletes at Alabama. We’re a great athletic school.”
The start of the match was moved up two hours because of the threat of an approaching storm, which was expected to hit the Atlanta area around mid-afternoon.
There was no rain during the match, which ended just before noon under partly sunny skies.
While Alabama was the nation’s second-ranked team, the Fighting Illini was a surprising finalist. They stunned top-seeded California 3-2 in the semifinals when Pieters defeated individual champion Max Homa on the second extra hole of their match.
But Illinois couldn’t pull off another upset.
”Alabama had an edge to it today,” coach Mike Small said. ”We were up against a buzz saw.”
While the Fighting Illini has a bright future after sending out a lineup that included two freshmen and two sophomores, they’ll have to make do next season without their top player.
Pieters, a native of Belgium, had already announced his junior season would be his last before he turns professional. He broke down in tears after coming so close to adding a team title to the individual championship he won in 2012.
”I don’t think a lot of people expected us to be in the national championship,” Pieters said. ”We thought we could do it. We worked so hard to get to this moment. It’s a shame we didn’t get it done today. But Alabama played really, really well.”