The University of Alabama golf teams, the men and the women, have a long tradition that includes NCAA championships and, along the way, a fair share of professional success.
For pure professional drama, though, Sunday may be the biggest day of major play for an Alabama player in roughly 40 years, particularly if you choose the ecstasy: Jerry Pate’s remarkable win as a 22-year old rookie in the 1976 U.S. Open. Since then, there’s been some agony, too, including Pate falling just short of the 1978 PGA Championship with a missed putt on the 72nd hole. Steve Lowery’s third place finish in the 2001 PGA deserves a mention as well.
Fair to say, though, Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Open will have the most Alabama anticipation since Pate hoisted the trophy back in ’76.
Justin Thomas won’t go into the final round as the leader – which might not be a bad thing. Instead, he is one stroke off the lead, one of three players just behind leader Brian Harman. But coming off a record-setting round of 63 that included some jaw-dropping shot making, Thomas is clearly the hot story at Erin Hills.
It wasn’t just the birdie putt he made on No. 5, looking away from the hole and at the ridge that guided the ball into the hole after a perfectly-read break. It was the saves from a frightening rough. It was the dramatic 3-woods that set up, among other success, an eagle on the 18th hole. On Saturday, Thomas, at 24 years old, was a sensation. He impressed everyone in the golf-watching world, with the possible exception of Johnny Miller himself, which is another story.
Thomas’ college coach, Alabama’s Jay Seawell, wasn’t surprised in the least.
“That 3-wood is so pure,” Seawell said in a phone interview after Thomas’s historic round. “For one thing, he hits it so straight and so high. Then, given his stature, that makes it seem even longer, that a player his size can generate so much power. We’ve all seen it before. He had that shot when he was here. But sometimes it’s still hard to imagine.”
Thomas has bubbled with potential since his Alabama days, of course. If he’s has a drawback, it’s been managing the moment at times – but Seawell does not see that as an obstacle.
“The more you can make it normal, the better it is,” Seawell said. “His father is there, I think, and the more people around him who treat him the same as they always do will help. One thing I love about Justin is he is comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
“The hard part is going to come in the morning. You wake up at 8 a.m. and you’re six hours away from playing for the U.S. Open. So how do you handle that?”
A firm understanding of the stakes, Seawell said, are part of Thomas’ Tuscaloosa legacy.
“Mr. Pate’s U.S. Open Trophy is in the Jerry Pate Center, our clubhouse here,” Seawell said. “It’s not a replica. It’s the real thing. They only make one of those and Mr. Pate chose to put it there so our guys would see it.
“Justin would walk past that trophy on the way to practice every day. He knows what it means.
“Who knows what will happen today? But we sure would be glad to find the room for another trophy.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225