Following her title-clinching victory last Saturday at the French Open tennis championship in Paris, Serena Williams said: “I’m still a little bit upset about that loss last year, but it’s all about, for me, how you recover. I think I’ve always said a champion isn’t about how much they win, but its about how they recover from their downs, whether it’s an injury or a loss.”
Williams was referring to her only first-round loss in a Grand Slam event at last year’s French Open – and a 10-month stretch in 2011 that included two foot operations and treatment for blood clots in her lungs.
Upon reading her comments, I thought of the Alabama men’s golf program and what its players and head coach Jay Seawell have gone through the last couple years – before reaching the pinnacle of college golf with their NCAA Championship earlier this month at Capital City Golf Club’s Crabapple course just outside Atlanta.
• It’s the 2011 NCAA Championship finals with the 54-hole, stroke-play portion of the event winding down. A little ways away from the 18th green at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla., the Alabama team sat quietly under a tree. Seawell was standing among them – Bud Cauley, Hunter Hamrick, Cory Whitsett, Bobby Wyatt and Trey Mullinax.
No one spoke. All were in a state of shock and each face was a picture of devastation.
The Crimson Tide entered the championship as one of the top-five ranked teams in the country. They were the No. 3 seed in the 30-team starting field. After two stroke-play rounds, they were in fifth place and 10 shots inside the cut line to advance to the Elite Eight and match play.
But on this day, the Tide self-destructed. They shot 28-over-par 316, having to count 81s from their top two players, Cauley and Whitsett. Bama wound up finishing 14th.
“It was a nightmare of a day,” Seawell said afterwards. “In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think we would play like this.”
• It’s 2012 and the Crimson Tide back in the NCAA finals at Riviera Country Club just outside Los Angeles. With five wins – all in the spring and including the SEC Championship and Southwest Region – Alabama and Texas rate as the event’s top two seeds.
Unlike the previous year, Alabama comes on strong in the stroke-play segment. With a lineup that includes three players from the 2011 NCAA squad – Hamrick, Whitsett, Wyatt – as well as Scott Strohmeyer and Justin Thomas, the Tide are the qualifying medalists and the No. 1 seed for match play.
They defeat Kent State in the quarterfinals and California in the semifinals to earn a spot against Texas in the title match.
But again, there’s heartbreak for the boys from Tuscaloosa. Longhorns senior Dylan Frittelli sinks a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole and Texas edges Alabama 3-2 for the national championship.
• Now it’s 2013 and Alabama again is back at college golf’s big show, hoping to release the previous two years of frustration and disappointment. The Tide easily advance to match play, tying for third in stroke play.
Like 2012, they win their quarterfinal match (4-1 vs. New Mexico) and semifinal match (3-0-2 vs. host team Georgia Tech).
Another opportunity for a national title. This time Alabama makes the most of it. Shaking the monkey that had been on their backs the two previous years, the Crimson Tide five – Whitsett, Wyatt, Thomas, Strohmeyer and Mullinax – defeat Illinois 4-1 to claim the program’s first NCAA golf title.
“When they (the players) came to Alabama, they wanted a ring; they wanted a national championship,” Seawell said. “The last two years have been hard, really gut-wrenching. But the way they handled this year, especially this spring (seven wins) is just amazing. I’m really proud and satisfied for our guys.
“After all they’ve been through, to finally get that national championship, means so much, to them and to me,” Seawell added after his 11th season leading the Tide. “I’m 46 years old and have been coaching more than 20. I’ve been through a lot coming up the coaching ranks. So to be here, the reach the top of the mountain, to take home that championship trophy, no words can describe how I feel.”
During that final match June 2, more than 100 Alabama fans turned out in support of the team. For Seawell, that made it even more meaningful.
“A lot of people put in a lot of work over the years in building the foundation for our program,” he said. “Right after we clinched the win, I saw a player from the 1970s, Cecil Ingram, and he had tears in his eyes. So this is for all the guys who have played Alabama golf. And the best part for my players here, they get to live it.”
As Serena Williams said, the sign of a true champion is how they recover from those down-and-out times.
Welcome to the championship world of Alabama golf.