By Adam Schupak
SEA ISLAND, Ga. – U.S. Walker Cup captain John "Spider" Miller had better add the name Braden Thornberry to the top of Miller’s "watch list" after Thornberry’s dominating performance at the Jones Cup.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Thornberry took a touchdown lead into the final round and cruised to a five-stroke victory in one of amateur golf's most prestigious invitationals. Thornberry, an Ole Miss sophomore from Olive Branch, Miss., closed with a 1-over 73 en route to a 54-hole aggregate of 4-under 212 at Ocean Forest Golf Club. Max McGreevy (70–217), an Oklahoma senior from Edmond, Okla., was runner-up, and Cole Hammer (71–218), a Texas commit from Houston, placed third.
Thornberry was the only player in the 84-man field to break par. Cue the Walker Cup talk.
"I have all the respect for Spider and consider him a friend,” Ole Miss coach Chris Malloy said, “but any captain who wouldn't put that guy on his team is missing the boat.”
Thornberry, a throw-back who never has had a swing coach, is best known as a magician with a wedge. Ballstriking is the most improved part of his game. Having access to practice facilities at Ole Miss has allowed him to groove his over-the-top motion until it has become one of extraordinary predictability.
"We may not have liked the action,” Malloy said, “but we liked the way he signed the scorecard.”
Thornberry has been signing for scores in the 60s with great frequency. He finished Ole Miss' fall season with the nation's best scoring average, at 68.87. Thornberry won the individual title at two of the Rebels’ last three spring tournaments and returned on a mission this fall, winning three of five events.
His homemade swing crafted an opening-round 67 at Ocean Forest and held up in Saturday's challenging conditions. His 72 bettered the field average by eight strokes. Sleeping on a big lead posed its own challenge.
"That was the most nervous I've ever been going into a round," he said. "It was almost more nerve-racking having a six-stroke lead than one or two."
Thornberry never cracked. Not even brisk temperatures that barely climbed into the 60s on Sunday could cool him off. He birdied two of the first three holes to open an eight-stroke lead and rolled to the title.
Thornberry joins a prestigious list of Jones Cup champions including Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas and Beau Hossler, and earned a berth in the PGA Tour's 2017 RSM Classic in the fall. Thornberry seemed equally pleased that his biggest trophy to date could give him a leg up on the competition for a spot in the biennial Walker Cup match against Great Britain and Ireland’s top amateurs, set for Sept. 9-10 at Los Angeles Country Club.
"This win should definitely help," he said. "I hope Coach Miller looks at me seriously because I'm definitely interested in that."
With his stellar short game, Thornberry is an ideal player for the Walker Cup, Malloy said.
"He is a perfect match-play player," Malloy said. "He is as good as anyone I've ever seen in my life in that environment."
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Follow @adamschupak on Twitter.