TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — They celebrated with milkshakes, which is always the goal for the University of Alabama men’s golf team. That’s a tradition head coach Jay Seawell established for whenever the Crimson Tide shoot the low round at a tournament.
They also went to a Major League Baseball game at Safeco Field before heading out of Seattle, but the real reward of the recent Washington Regional was qualifying for the NCAA Championships, which tee off Friday morning. Considering everything this Alabama team had been through, few thought it would be one of the teams to qualify.
“I think this team is better than people think we are, and I think some coaches realize that now,” Seawell said. “We have some great players. This is a special group.
“That’s what we talked about before the final round of the regional, every time their back has been up against the wall, they’ve responded. There’s character there, there’s something about that. That kind of gives you some energy heading into the national championship.”
Although this will be Alabama’s ninth appearance in 11 years at the season-ending tournament, and the Crimson Tide captured the 2013 and 2014 national titles, most had written off this team months ago after getting off to a slow start and two of the key contributors sidelined by injuries.
Junior Jonathan Hardee didn’t play in the fall, and sophomore Davis Riley, Alabama’s leading scorer, missed part of the spring schedule. Consequently, junior Lee Hodges, a transfer from UAB, was the only one to be in the Crimson Tide’s starting lineup in all 10 tournaments this season.
Yet they earned their way to play at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill. (par 72, 73,000 yards), after being seeded 36th by the NCAA selection committee — which means Alabama wasn’t supposed to make it this far.
It went into the final round of the Washington Regional with a one-stroke lead for the fifth and final qualifying spot after the team combined to shoot +12 over the difficult final four holes at Aldarra Golf Club in Sammamish, Wash., the day before. With the season on the line they finished those same holes at 5-under par.
“I think it gives us a lot of confidence,” Hardee said. “We were definitely not expected to be there from the standpoint of the rest of the world looking in. But all of us believed our best was ahead of us and this spring season has been really good for us.
“I definitely think we have some momentum heading into the national championship.”
— Jon Howell (@Jonny_GolfCoach) May 24, 2017
Actually, Alabama has a lot of momentum. Over the last six tournaments, it finished outside the top five only once. The exception was a sixth-place showing at the SEC Championships, but the Crimson Tide reached the semifinals in the match-play portion of the event.
“I think everyone’s playing pretty well,” Hodges said.
Coming on the heels of the women’s national championship that concluded on Wednesday, the format and location are the same, with four rounds of stroke play and then the top eight teams moving on to match-play quarterfinals.
The Alabama women went in ranked second, with the Chicago-area weather causing such havoc that they finished tied for 14th at +64, even through the Crimson Tide shot the only under-par round of the tournament (-1) on the final day. With one round of the stroke-play rounds canceled, seven of the 24 teams, roughly one-third of the field, were on pace to finish worse than +100.
Consequently, in terms of the women’s seedings, it looked like someone had thrown darts to pick out the final eight teams with one important exception: No. 12 Northwestern, which was used to the conditions. The Wildcats were leading after stroke play at +33, and went on to reach the finals before losing to No. 7 Arizona State.
“It looked rough,” Hardee said. “I know they were having a tough time dealing with rain delays, cold and stuff. It’s hard to go from 90-degree weather to 40 and try and play good golf.”
The men likely won’t have to deal with such extremes as the forecast is much more favorable this weekend, but of the teams remaining Alabama is ranked 23rd, and will be paired with No. 22 North Carolina and No. 24 Lipscomb for the first two rounds.
It’ll only be tougher to have a milkshake round at this tournament, but Alabama had planned to hit Wrigley Field to see the Cubs and Giants beforehand. In other words, it’s almost playing with house money while the pressure will be on the favorites, on a course that can be extremely frustrating
“I think this is a good golf course for us,” Seawell said. “We needed a course like this, where every day, every shot, every moment is of high demand.”
— jay seawell (@jcwellbamagolf) May 17, 2017