SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – To old-timers, Cary Middlecoff set the standard for golf at Ole Miss. He earned All-America honors in 1939 before giving up a promising dental practice to win 40 times on the PGA Tour, ranking 10th all-time.
Ole Miss opened a new era in its golf program Monday when Braden Thornberry won the school’s first NCAA individual championship. He shot a final-round 1-under 71 at Rich Harvest Farms for an 11-under 277 total and four-stroke victory. (Results: http://bit.ly/2r1XHQ1)
Thornberry drove the green on the 376-yard par-4 sixth hole and made eagle, securing his lead. From then on, Thornberry never looked back in posting his fifth – and certainly biggest – victory of the season.With an unorthodox swing, Thornberry, a sophomore from Olive Branch, Miss., recorded one of only four under-par rounds as 20-mph-plus winds blew consistently. Thornberry quickly erased the two-stroke advantage of overnight leader Scottie Scheffler of Texas, who dropped four shots to par in the first two holes after starting on the back nine.
He cited the windy conditions as a factor.
“That kind of suits my game,” said Thornberry, who qualified out of regional play as the low individual from a non-qualifying team. “Everybody else kind of dwindled down a little bit, and I usually play really well in those conditions, so I was really happy with the wind today.”
Arkansas’ Mason Overstreet (71) finished second, at 7-under 281. Vanderbilt teammates Matthias Schwab (75) and Theo Humphrey (70) joined Scheffler (78) in a tie for third at 6-under 282.
Vanderbilt shot 13-under 1,139 to lead the eight qualifiers for match play, which will be today and Wednesday and decide the NCAA team champion. The others, in order: Oklahoma (1-under 1,151), Illinois (2-over 1,154), Oklahoma State (3-over 1,155), Oregon (6-over 1,158), Southern California (6-over 1,158), Baylor (7-over 1,159) and Nevada-Las Vegas (7-over 1,159).
Thornberry owns a distinctive, homegrown swing.
Starting at age 10 under and his father’s tutelage, Thornberry has remained committed to his action.
“I've tried to just leave it alone. My good days, I hit it so good, I really just don't want to mess around with it,” Thornberry said. “If I can just get it more consistent on a day-to-day basis, that's really what I want to stick with.”
Now Thornberry gets to take his swing and newfound recognition on the road, starting with the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn., only about 10 miles from his home. He hopes to conclude the summer with one of 10 spots on the U.S. Walker Cup team that will play Great Britain and Ireland’s top amateurs at Los Angeles Country Club.
For now, he will have to be content with being the best-known golfer from Ole Miss – at least in the modern era.
“Today is probably when I was most proud of him,” Ole Miss coach Chris Malloy said. “He faced a lot of adversity, especially on that back nine. He had it rolling there for a little while, and he made a great par putt on 13, then made bogey on 14, and hit it in the trees on 15. It really wasn't going his way for a while, but that's what a true champion does. Right in that situation, they find a way, and he certainly found a way.
“At the end of the round, it probably seemed like it was on autopilot, but it certainly didn't come easy.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli