Tide Opens No. 1

For the first time in its 55 years of fielding a men's golf team, the University of Alabama enters its spring season ranked No. 1 in the country. The Crimson Tide, the team champion in three of its five fall tournaments played, opens its 2007 spring season this weekend at the John Hayt Collegiate Invitational.

The tournament was previously called the Mercedes Benz Collegiate and was re-named to honor a long-time supporter for the golf program at the host school University of North Florida.

Play begins Sunday, February 18 and continues through Tuesday with 54 holes of competitive play. The annual tournament takes place at Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Verde, Fla.

"Friday afternoon we are going to get a tour of the new facilities at the TPC at Sawgrass," said Alabama golf coach Jay Seawell whose team is ranked No. 1 in collegiate golf by the Golf Coaches Association going into the spring. "They

just re-did them, so that will be fun. It's a good trip. It's a difficult golf course with the wind blowing. It's a good test. And it's something that I believe prepares your players for the end of the year. It's a similar set up to the Southeastern Conference Championships. Even though the tournaments are two months apart, they share similar conditions and are similar type golf courses."

Alabama is making a repeat trip to the tournament. Amid a field of 15 that included seven Top 25 ranked teams, in 2006 Alabama finished tied for third (300-300-305/905) behind winner UCLA (896) and Texas Tech (901). Alabama's Gator Todd finished tied for third among the individuals, and Matthew Swan, then a freshman, finished 11th.

"I think it helps a lot going in that three of our golfers playing in the tournament this year played the course last year," said Seawell. "The more local knowledge you get in golf, the better. We don't play a set parameter or field like most sports, so anytime you can play a golf course multiple times, the more you understand how to attack a hole. With our team this year, we're going to have most of our tournaments that we play in where we're going to have experience for the first time. We're not young anymore. So that part's going to be great. That's what we're looking forward to."

Seawell says while it's fun to be the nation's top-ranked team going into a tournament, he doesn't think Alabama's ranking has been a distraction for his team that has held the No. 1 ranking for several months now, since October.

"Anytime that you have such a ranking, it's exciting. They've worked hard. But the part I like the most is that I don't see our players looking at it at all. They're not even thinking about it, worrying about it. We haven't even really talked about it as a team," said Seawell. "They've seen that that's old stuff. They've gotten over all the hype that came with our success this fall, and you can tell they're ready to get down to business. You see it in their approach."

Alabama is taking Thomas Hagler, Mark Harrell, Gator Todd, Matthew Swan and Joseph Sykora to compete in the tournament. Harrell, Todd and Swan all competed in it last season. Alabama is leaving behind Michael Thompson, its two-time U.S. Amateur participant who transferred to the team this fall and played in all five tournaments, collecting a 71.80 stroke average who had three top 10 individual finishes in the fall.

"The competition within our team is really what makes us good," said Seawell. "We're going to leave Michael Thompson at home who just finished third the other week at the Jones Cup and has been a pretty good player for us. But he didn't finish high enough in our qualifier to make this trip. So we've had some really good competition and practices this spring. The weather hasn't been all that good for practice, but the competition has been. The preparation has been fantastic.

"We haven't competed since late November, so there's going to be a lot of rust. We are fortunate that three of the five guys playing this week played in the Jones Cup, and then we've had our qualifier where we try to simulate a tournament. Every team there will be rusty though. It's the beginning of the year. The expectations are a little bit lower at the beginning. You're trying to build into how you're going to play at the end. You don't want to be peaking in February. I do think we are ready. We will be rusty in some shots and some decision making, but I believe our competitiveness will be at a high level."

The field will include Alabama, Augusta State, Central Florida, Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, LSU, North Florida, Notre Dame, Pepperdine, South Carolina, Tennessee, UAB, UCLA and Vanderbilt.

"It's a great field. You've got UCLA which is many people's choice to win the national championship. They're one of the top two or three teams in the country, line-up wise. You've got Tennessee, which is in the Top 10. You've got Coastal Carolina who is in the Top six. And, of course, ourselves, Georgia State and South Carolina. So we're going to see a lot of teams that we don't see all the time. Tennessee is in the SEC, but we don't see them again until the SECs. So we're going to see some different teams, which will be great instead of your traditional teams that we see all the times—your Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma State—we're going to see a few different teams. A couple of West Coast teams that are really good, which is good because you want to see as many different teams as you can before the finals (NCAA tournament).

Alabama will return from the tournament Tuesday night and immediately prepare to go again. Its second tournament of the spring is February 25-27 at the Puerto Rico Classic.

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