Rebel Yell: Ole Miss' Braden Thornberry leads college charge

Mark Terrill/Associated Press

Rebel Yell: Ole Miss' Braden Thornberry leads college charge

College

Rebel Yell: Ole Miss' Braden Thornberry leads college charge

Braden Thornberry kicked off Oct. 21 with a hole-in one during a morning round at Oxford (Miss.) Country Club. By evening, the Ole Miss junior was at Vaught–Hemingway Stadium for the Rebels’ home football game against LSU. At halftime, Thornberry walked out to the 7-yard line, teed up a football and with his 8-iron hammered the ball through the uprights, igniting thunderous applause.

“Packed house, everyone going crazy,” Ole Miss men’s golf coach Chris Malloy said. “… That was our moment to recognize Braden.”

So sure, Oct. 21 was quite the day for Braden Thornberry. But 2017? It was the year of Braden Thornberry in college golf.

The 20-year-old from Olive Branch, Miss., won five times as a sophomore, including the 2017 NCAA individual title at Rich Harvest Farms. He led Division I in stroke average (69.57), and for his season-long efforts received the Fred Haskins Award as the top male college golfer. He also won a pair of notable amateur events, the Jones Cup Invitational and Sunnehanna Amateur, and helped the U.S. to Walker Cup victory at Los Angeles Country Club.

Success comes in bunches

Many of Thornberry’s peers can only dream of a year like this. A year ago Thornberry imagined this kind of success, yet he never got too far ahead of himself.

“Going into the season, it’s everyone’s goal to achieve those kind of things,” Thornberry said. “But for me, I kind of took it step by step, took things one goal at a time. … You know that it’s all possible, but to look back and realize all that I’ve done, it’s still pretty cool.”

Thornberry’s 2017 was a vindication of sorts. As a junior golfer, Thornberry was known as the kid with the weird swing. Instructors offered to help him change it, and some college coaches avoided recruiting him because they didn’t think it would hold up.

“Boy were a lot of people wrong,” Alabama men’s coach Jay Seawell said. “He’s the real deal.”

Thornberry always has owned that weird swing, but it took a little longer to possess the confidence he has now.

Malloy constantly refers to Thornberry as one of the nicest and most humble players he has coached. (There’s a reason Thornberry’s nickname is “Teddy,” as in teddy bear.) But before his sophomore season, Thornberry was a little too nice. He gave too much respect to talented peers such as Sam Burns and Sam Horsfield. He didn’t fully believe in himself, and he lacked a killer instinct.

5 Moments of Note in 2017

At the 2016 SEC Championship, Malloy finally told Thornberry to go ask Horsfield for his autograph since Thornberry thought the Florida freshman was so great.

“Do you want to get his autograph or do you want to beat him?” Malloy asked Thornberry. Thornberry took that moment to heart.

These days, people have been asking Thornberry for autographs. He won over the golf world in June at Rich Harvest Farms with his polite yet competitive demeanor and lightning-quick pace of play, and he beat what many consider to be the toughest field in all of amateur golf while becoming Ole Miss’ first NCAA individual champion.

“I put my game right up there at the top with anyone,” Thornberry said earlier this year.

Favorite for a Haskins Award repeat

That statement is truer now than ever. This fall Thornberry already has won twice. He has nine individual titles, an Ole Miss record, and is an early favorite to defend his Haskins Award.

Thornberry’s goals for 2018 include winning an SEC title, defending his national title and, most importantly, helping the Rebels to many more team victories, including at Karsten Creek in the spring at the NCAA Championship.

“When I first got to Ole Miss, I remember we’d finish fourth in an event and we’d come back to school and everyone would be giving us high-fives,” said Malloy, now in his fourth season in Oxford. “Now we finish fourth and we come back and people ask us what went wrong.”

With Thornberry’s help, Ole Miss has transformed into a perennial force. The expectations have been raised. A common phrase among Ole Miss athletic programs is “This is the new normal.”

For Ole Miss and its “Teddy,” that new normal is winning.

(Note: This story is one in a series reviewing the year in golf. It appears in the November 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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