"Our guys played really well throughout the summer," said Coach Jay Seawell, who enters his fourth season as Alabama's golf coach. "At the end it was nice how we performed at the United States Amateur with three guys making it all the way to the tournament and two of those making it into match play."
Those three U.S. Amateur participants, sophomores Joseph Sykora and Mark Harrell and freshman Matthew Swan, will all represent the Tide in Knoxville. The remaining two spots will be determined by the team qualifier that continues through Friday afternoon.
The season opener will mark the collegiate debut for Swan, who, among his many successes as one of the top junior golfers in the country, helped lead the USA to win the gold medal this past summer at the World Team Junior Championships in Japan. As a true freshman last season, Harrell was Alabama's low stroke leader, averaging 73.38 and playing in all 13 of Alabama's tournaments. In fact, Alabama returns six of its seven golfers who competed last season, a year Alabama advanced to the NCAA team finals. Alabama's lone loss was a key one, Clint Provost, who made his second U.S. Amateur appearance this past summer. Provost competed in nearly every Alabama tournament for four seasons, playing in a total of 48 for a 73.36 collegiate career stroke average.
Alabama's returning veterans include transfer Thomas Hagler who is a senior and played in 13 tournaments last season for a 73.82 stroke average, sophomore Gator Todd who played in 11 tournaments (73.91), Sykora, who played in 12 tournaments, senior Dwight Johnson who played in two tournaments, and senior Lance Walker who played in one tournament last season. Also back after redshirting last season are sophomores Max Alverio, a two-time World Amateur participant, and Stewart Whitt, as well as redshirt freshman Matt Hughes. Thomas Huggins and Swan make up the true freshman class.
All spent the summer competing, and, among those, Seawell says he saw the biggest surge in play in Sykora, a Daphne native, who, in addition to advancing to the U.S. Amateur, collected the state match play championship.
"Joseph really used his summer to take his game to another level, and he was a great player when he got here," said Seawell. "He put himself into position to become one of the better players in college golf.
"I think Mark Harrell, because of his play last year and this past summer, has put himself in a position to have a great year. I really do believe that he can be an All-American and All-Southeastern Conference performer this year. He's still a sophomore. And I guess that's the main thing about our team: we're still pretty young. We're going to start at least two sophomores and a freshman for sure in the first week. We've talked about this as a team. We as a team are committed to today. We're young and there is a bright future for Alabama golf, but we are really dedicated and our goals are for today. And I think that's the biggest thing we want to come out of this: though we are young, we are good enough and I think experienced enough to do some things today."
The play of Alabama's golfers this past summer has been a source of pride and hope for Seawell and the Tide golf program.
"It gives you confidence, and golf is a game of confidence. The more confident you are, the better you are," said Seawell. "And when you see golfers play well in the summer, it's usually an omen that they'll have a good college year that year because they do springboard from the summer into the college season because of that added confidence.
"I thought, at the beginning of last season, that we'd be a top 25 program, and we ended up being 22 and 23rd all year," said Seawell. "I really do think that we have the potential to be at top 15 program this year. I think by the end of the year, with their capabilities and as their experience grows and the team works together, this team could be a top 10 team."
Alabama's 2005-06 season will include hosting one of the nation's premier events, the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate. Among the 12 teams that will gather October 10-11 at Birmingham's Old Overton Club are the teams expected to contend for the national championship, including defending national champions, Georgia. The Tide plays in five fall events, breaks for the winter from mid-November through the first of February, and then picks up the season again with six more regular season tournaments.