Asked prior to the final round of NCAA Arnold Palmer Individual National Championship what chances his prize player, sophomore Braden Thornberry, had of winning the national title, Ole Miss Golf Coach Chris Malloy was very brash, almost cocky, in his prediction.
"Not only do I think he has a good chance to win it, I think he will win it," Malloy told The Spirit Monday morning before Thornberry teed off that afternoon. “I’ve been telling anyone who will listen up here all week that they were finally going to have to pay attention to my guy. I was probably more brash than I normally am, but I had that much faith in Braden and what he was going to do. He’s just that good.
"He shows up every single week and he isn’t afraid of the stage, no matter how big."
After three sub-par rounds of 66, 71,69, which put him two strokes behind the lead heading into the final 18, everyone had indeed taken notice.
"The 66 on opening day, which was one stroke off the course record and was shot in gusting wind that we had all week, opened the eyes of a lot of people," Malloy reflected. "This course can be very brutal and was most of the week with wind. It played as hard as it could play. The 66 was what Braden needed going forward. He had good vibes from that point on."
Even at 10-under heading into the final round, though, the odds of Thornberry winning against an elite field of collegians was iffy at best.
"If you look at the stats, the men's national championship is the best amateur tournament in the world. It does not get the attention of the U.S. Amateur or the British Amateur, but if you look at the strength of the field, this is it — the strongest amateur field there is," Malloy stated. "On top of that, everyone in the Top 10 or so headed into the final round was and is a proven, elite golfer."
The final day presented a major challenge — 25 miles-per-hour winds — but Malloy felt that played into Thornberry's hands.
"With his superb short game, with his calm mental approach, with his attitude and knowing how to win, I felt very good he would be right there at the end," Malloy stated. "Nobody in our locker room was surprised he won it, I can tell you that."
That's not to say the final round — a one-under 71 — was all birdies and dancing in the flowers though. But he did get off to a good start that settled him for the inevitable struggles.
"I think it was big that he birdied the first par 3. He three-jacked the fifth, but when we got to the short par 4 sixth, the tide turned with an eagle," Malloy said.
Thornberry took out his driver and drilled a blind shot toward the pin. It ended up about 22-feet away, and he buried the sidewinding putt for a deuce, the big bird.
"We knew the tee was going to be moved up for the final round on the sixth, and the game plan we discussed was for him to hit driver because his short game is so good. Even if he missed the green, I thought he'd make a birdie," Malloy stated. "Coming off that three-putt, he needed a bit of a jolt and to get back into an aggressive mindset, so I recommended driver, he was on board and he hit it on the green from 294 yards out. We couldn’t see where it ended up and thought it might be in the front right bunker, but it was on the green.
"And I don't know if anyone could see it on TV, but the putt broke about four feet and he just rolled it in like it was an easy putt. It was a huge swinger, a sidewinder."
Thornberry settled down for the next few holes.
"He played the next few holes like a rock star, but then we got a little shaky on the back nine," Malloy explained. "He said he felt fine, but he made a couple of bogeys and his short game saved him a couple of times to save pars on a couple of other holes. Then on 15, he blocks his drive to the right and it didn't look good; he would have to slice it over water out of the rough. But once we got there, we both felt it was a shot he could pull off because he likes that challenge. Once he pulled that off and made par, he settled down some."
Another big par putt on 16 steadied Thornberry more. Then he faced the hardest hole on the course, No. 17.
“Guys had been making eights there all week,” Malloy said. “It’s really tough, but he hit a big drive and a beautiful second shot to about 15 feet for an easy par. From there, we felt he had it made.”
There was one more decision to make, however, on the par 5 18th: Lay up or go for it.
"I knew he had a three-shot lead, and some folks probably would have wanted him to lay up, but Braden was so comfortable with his driver, I told him to step up and hit it. He had been hitting driver there all week. He had his best drive of the week and went on to finish the round in style with a birdie," Malloy noted. "Even had he hit it in the rough, he could had chopped it out, laid up and still make a par. For Braden, at that time, driver was the right call."
The Golf Channel television broadcast made note of two things all day: Braden's "homemade" swing and how quickly he stepped up to play.
"I would never touch his swing. Why would I? The guy understands the object of the game — to put the ball in the hole in the least amount of strokes," Malloy said. "Nothing else matters. As for his pace of play, that's just Braden. Once he makes up his mind on how he wants to play a shot, he doesn't stand over the ball and allow doubt to creep in. He commits to a shot and he steps up and hits it like he envisions it. There's not time for second-guessing. It's a breath of fresh air to see someone play that way, but don't think he isn't analyzing and thinking about his shots. He takes his time deciding what to do and is very analytical with the process."
Malloy didn't want to comment much on his role in the final round, but it was obvious it was beneficial to Thornberry that the rest of the Rebel team had not made the 15-team cut and Chris was able to walk every step with Braden rather than being spread out with five players.
"Humbly, I think that helped. Braden likes to talk and have a sounding board. I was a sounding board. There were a couple of times when he got a little fast and a little ahead of himself that I was able to slow him down some, but mostly my contribution was just some little things to help him settle down a couple of times," Malloy noted. “Ninety-five percent of the time, though, he was reading his own putts and executing his game plan and I was just there to agree with him and encourage him. He knows how to execute. I just had to stay out of the way and provide support the rare times he needed it."
Thornberry now brings back to Oxford the national championship trophy and Malloy said it could not happen to a finer young man.
“He’s the best. He’s so humble. There were a lot of players who hung around to watch him win and were genuinely happy for him," Malloy closed. "He is universally known in college golf as being a great guy. He is a wonderful representative for Ole Miss, Ole Miss golf and his home state.
“I’m glad he’s wearing our logo, for sure."