Alabama Men's Golf At NCAA Tournament

WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – On Sunday afternoon, Michael Thompson boarded a plane, making his last official trip as a University of Alabama golfer.



He and his Crimson Tide teammates, Mark Harrell, Matt Hughes, Matthew Swan and Joseph Sykora, are in West Lafayette, Ind., where Alabama is one of 30 teams competing for the NCAA Men's Golf Championships. The other four have all played this course before as Alabama competed here at Purdue's Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex in the Golfweek/Ping Preview in late September. Thompson sat out that tournament because it came on the heels of his back-to-back-to-back trips within three weeks to the U.S. Amateur in California, the Topy Cup in Japan, and the Carpet Capital in Georgia, so Monday's NCAA practice round marked his first time out. He likens the course and the way it plays to the Ohio State's Scarlet Course, a course that challenged Alabama May 15-17 in the NCAA Central Regional as the team made the cut to advance to Purdue but finished at 44-over par, 896, its highest score all season.

"The course is in great shape. The rough is up. The fairways are really good, just about the right speed. They'll probably get a little faster, but the course is playing very, very, very tough. It's going to be a good test this week," said Thompson, the Southeastern Conference's 2008 Champion and SEC Golfer of the Year. "The golf course compares to the one we played at regionals. The rough is similar. The greens are similar. The length is similar. We're only three hours away from that golf course, so being in the same part of the country, it's a very similar style golf course."

Learning courses and their tendencies is all a part of the game, a game Thompson, who finished fourth at the NCAA Championships in 2007, plans to make his career. This week the senior will play his final college round, he hopes on Saturday. After practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday, May 28 marks the first of 72 rounds. There's a cut to the top 15 teams after 54 holes on Friday and the 15 teams standing play for the national title on Saturday.

Watching him play his final collegiate round will be his parents, Mike and Beth Thompson. They travelled to Augusta, Ga., in March to see their son compete as an amateur in the Masters, but, because they live in Tucson, Ariz., they've rarely gotten to see their son play in his collegiate matches.

"Being from Arizona, it's tough for me in terms of having my family there at tournaments," said Thompson who was an All-Conference USA golfer at Tulane for two seasons before transferring to Alabama last season and becoming a two-time All-SEC golfer after Tulane dropped its golf program. "My parents have only seen me play in two collegiate events my whole career. And they're coming this week because it's such a big tournament."

Packing your family along on a golf trip is always a plus for these college students. Squeezing in quality time with them on the road, however, is not always easy. Alabama had an 8:40 a.m. tee time Monday for the practice round. That meant a 6:15 a.m. wake up call, followed by breakfast, a warm-up at the course, then 18 holes of play. They finished up shortly after 1:00 p.m., grabbed a quick lunch in the players' tent and then went back to the putting and driving ranges for another hour and a half.

"Once you feel comfortable, that you're ready for the next day, you go back to the hotel and relax," said Thompson. "Sometimes you watch a movie on TV. Tonight we're going to go to a movie after the tournament banquet later this evening just to take our mind off golf and relax and get ready for tomorrow."

Thompson has had the rare opportunity to compare the collegiate golfer's day to a typical tournament day for a PGA Tour golfer, a glimpse he got when he competed at the Masters.

"There's no difference at all except in the number of people involved with a tournament," said Thompson who graduated from Alabama on May 10. "With professional golf you've got thousands and thousands of spectators. You still get treated to food, usually breakfast and lunch every day. The travel is the same. The golf courses are the same. So really, there's not a whole lot of difference. It's just a little bit more fun playing in front of a whole lot of people."

Thompson smiles when asked about Alabama's team travel. The No. 1 ranked team in the country goes in style, he says.

"We've been kind of spoiled this year," admits Thompson whose team co-leads the country in team tournament victories with a school record six this season, including the 2008 SEC championship. "We've been able to use the university jet one time. We've flown privately everywhere we've gone except Puerto Rico and then the guys flew to Austin commercially (Thompson was playing at the Masters that week). One of our former golfers has a plane we use for most of our travel and for this tournament our charter was actually almost like a corporate jet, like a G-2 or G-3 from what I hear. Leather La-Z-Boy seats. Couches in there. It's a great feeling. And it's really easy. You show up 15 minutes before you take off. And it took us maybe 1:45 total travel to get here, so it's quite nice. Something we really appreciate."

Constantly travelling together allows Bama's golfers, who are all close friends in addition to being talented golfers, to closely observe one another's travel habits. "One person we always make fun of is Swan. Swan always packs a whole lot. He always has a good number of things and all his bags are really heavy. So we always poke jokes at him and tell him he needs to take some stuff out."

Packing for a golf tournament, as Swan would likely attest, can be challenging. For instance this week in West Lafayette, on Monday it started out sunny. It was slightly windy and it was sprinkling as Alabama hit the driving range after its practice round. Tuesday it's supposed to be in the mid to low 60's. By Saturday it's supposed to be in the low 80's.

So how does one pack to prepare for such a large temperature and weather swing? What goes in Thompson's bag every trip?

"You never want to leave your golf clothes at home," said Thompson when asked what Bama's golfers typically pack to be prepared to face all elements. "Golf clothes and golf clubs are most important. Everything else you can live without. Everywhere we go, doesn't matter if we know it's going to be warm or we know it's going to be cold, we always also bring clothes to fit the opposite of what it's going to be. Like this week, it's actually going to be a mix of rain, cold and also some warm weather. So you bring shorts, you bring pants; we bring all of our rain gear including the umbrella, short sleeve rain jacket, rain gloves. And then on top of that you've got to bring sunscreen and hats, long socks, short socks, just a whole slew of things. So your bag gets kind of heavy. You try not to leave anything behind, but when you do travel, you always leave something."

Which brings up another topic: weather watching.

"For a golfer, any serious golfer, the Weather Channel is almost like our bible. I watch that more than anything else so I can see what's going to happen during the day or at least of have a sense of what's going to happen so I can prepare according. Weather is a very important aspect of our game unlike some other sports where it doesn't play that big of a role. Weather really affects us so we have to know what's going to happen."

Weather of the tropical sort provided Thompson with his favorite tournament trip as an Alabama golfer. It was last season when the team travelled to Hawaii to play, oddly enough, another event hosted by Purdue, the Aloha Purdue Classic. "We didn't play very well, but we sure had a good time," said Thompson smiling. "We got to go to the beach. We had great food. We got to go hiking. We got to go on a helicopter ride. It was probably the most fun we ever had on a trip."

The next time Thompson makes a trip to play golf, it will not be as a member of the University of Alabama golfer. He will play in the U.S. Open as an amateur in June and will travel to Scotland in June to play on the United States Palmer Cup team. And then he will turn pro where his life will be similar to what he has experienced in travel at Alabama, with the exception of never having to carry school books and class work with him.

"Just playing golf. I love playing golf. I love being out of doors, being outside, challenging myself on a golf course, trying to see how well I can do," said Thompson of why he knows it's a life he wants to continue as a career. "I don't mind the travel. I've gotten used to the media a little bit. Just the experience of playing golf and playing competitively is what makes it fun for me."

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