(Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Braden Thornberry fended off a field of the nation's best players en route to Ole Miss' first golf national championship

Braden Thornberry knew when he hit the 17th green at Rich Harvest Farms Golf Club on Monday that he had made history.

He'd holed a slew of par putts to build a lead that now stood at three shots heading into the 17th hole. For most of the day, he could feel the horses coming behind him, attempting to take the lead out of his hands. But as he strolled to the penultimate green after navigating the trickiest hole on the golf course, including an approach shot with water lurking in front of the green with a shaved fringe, the sophomore could finally breathe easy.

"Until I got to 17 I wasn't real confident," Thornberry said. "I had a bunch of par putts and had some guys one and two behind me."

It all began to slowly sink in. He'd just won a national championship, the first golfer in the state of Mississippi to do so. He dismantled a golf course that boasted a final round scoring average north of 77, and did so by winning by the largest margin since 2006.

"It still hasn't sunk in completely," he said. "I am trying to enjoy it as much as I can. I have had friends and everything texting me. It has been a fun experience."

Thornberry capped off a historic week with a birdie on the par five 18th, his 20th of the week with an eagle thrown in there too. An impressive feat, especially considering the fact that he was playing on Bent grass greens, which you seldom see in the southern region of the country.

"We've only played on them once or twice. I played it in junior golf some. The greens  and the fairways were not that big of an issue. It is the rough out there, that bluegrass or whatever it is is so much different than Bermuda," Thornberry said. "That was definitely the biggest factor to me. There is no grain on the green, but overall, good Bent and good Bermuda is not that much different."

His coach Chris Malloy watched it all unfold, and has watched Thornberry's rise to the national stardom come to fruition more than two years in the making.

"He's really built for this," Malloy said. "His short game is so good, and we knew the wind was going to be pumping through there the next day pretty good, so with his short game that just played into his hands. His mentality, too, he doesn't freak out. We knew the stag was not going to be too big for him."

It hasn't always come easy for Thornberry, who slogged through most of his freshman year struggling on the golf course while he adjusted to being a college player and everything that comes with it.

"We laugh because he was an 80's shooter his first collegiate round of golf, and now he's an NCAA champion," Malloy said with a smile.

"It's coaching," Thornberry quickly quipped back.

Thornberry quickly developed his ball striking and his game began to come together. He won at the end of his freshman year, and then fired off three victories this past fall season as the confidence level began to rise.

"I think any of Braden's struggles at the beggining of his freshman year were just life stuggles," Malloy said. "I think he would say that, and just getting adjusted like we all have those adjustments. Once he got that behind him and got a little bit of confidence and realized 'Okay, I have everything outside of golf settled down' the golf game continued to develop."

The consistent level of play and the wins prepared him for this moment.

Thornberry quickly distanced himself on the first day of the tournament with a masterful, bogey-free, six-under 66, before falling back into the pack a bit over the next couple of days. He started his final round with a lead as the field fell victim to the golf course and the conditions, but Thornberry only went forward.

"The golf course itself gives enough challenges. I wasn't too worried about the outside stuff. I was worried about keeping it in play on each hole," Thornberry said. "I kept leaving myself six and seven footers for par. I was more concerned with that than anything."

He carded a 34 on the front, and clung to the lead for the back nine. He went under par in all four rounds he played, and joined names like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite as an NCAA Champion.

"It's priceless," Malloy said. "I think bigger picture-wise, not just for our university but for the state of Mississippi. Braden is the first division one championship in the history of the state. That is big. That is big, in my opinion, for junior golf and for golf in general. I do not care if you are a Mississippi State grad or a Southern Miss fan, we are all apart of this family in this state. I think we can all latch on to this. It is big."

Thornberry has taken the last couple of days off before another grueling stretch begins. He will play 36 holes in Memphis on Monday for  US Open sectional qualifying and then will turn is attention across town to play in the PGA Tour's St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind. It's a lot to process, but the Olive Branch native is taking it one shot at a time, and enjoying what has been a historic ride.

"With my history on that golf course, I would not be surprised at all if I played well and put myself in contention," Thornberry said. "Overall, I am just trying to stay patient and see what happens."

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