Talented freshmen keep rolling in for Tide

Alabama's Justin Thomas after winning his college debut, the Carpet Capital Collegiate.

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Last season, a great deal of Alabama’s success could be credited to the play of freshmen Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt, who played key roles in leading the Tide to a No. 4 position in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.

Whitsett was named a second team All-American, and both players entered the current season as preseason Golfweek All-Americans – Whitsett on the first team and Wyatt on the second team.

Once again in 2011-12, it appears coach Jay Seawell will rely on a pair of newcomers to keep the Tide’s success rolling.

It will be up to Justin Thomas and Tom Lovelady to fill the holes in the Tide’s lineup, one of which came about when Alabama’s No. 1 player, Bud Cauley, decided to bypass his senior year and turn professional.

“You don’t replace someone like Bud Cauley that easily,” Seawell said. “But these two young guys are really stepping up and so far have had a huge impact with our team.”

That definitely has been the case in the Tide’s first two tournaments of the season.

Thomas, who was among Golfweek’s preseason top 10 freshmen, began his college career with an impressive four-stroke victory at the Carpet Capital Classic, then finished 22nd at Olympia Fields last weekend.

Lovelady, listed as a freshman to watch by Golfweek in the preseason, has been consistently solid, tying for 21st at Carpet Capital and tying for 25th at Olympia Fields.

Their efforts helped lead Alabama to fourth-place finishes in both events against strong fields.

“Both of these young men have adjusted (to college) well,” Seawell said. “I’m proud of how they have handled themselves in tournaments and the maturity they’ve shown.”

Thomas, of Goshen, Ky., came to Alabama with plenty of credentials after a stellar junior career. So far, he hasn’t missed a beat in continuing that same path.

“Justin won a lot in junior golf, so he knows how to win,” Seawell said. “But I’ll say I was really impressed with the way he handled those last seven holes (on his way to a closing 65 at Carpet Capital). He showed a lot of maturity and didn’t get scared in the situation.”

Oddly enough, entering the college season, Thomas was not feeling overly confident in his game.

“I had a very mediocre summer – a lot of 10th-through-20th places,” he said. “I just wasn’t consistent, and it was kind of frustrating.”

He opened the summer with a T-11 at the Sunnehanna Amateur and had his only summer top 10 (T-10) at the Dogwood. He finished T-22 at the Southern Amateur, T-15 at Porter Cup and failed to qualify for the Sweet 16 match play at the Western Am. He lost in the round of 32 at the U.S. Amateur.

“Going into Carpet Capital, I was probably hitting it worse than I have in the last two years,” Thomas said. “So I really didn’t know what to expect, and I was starting to panic.

“Then, all of a sudden, it turned around. The first two days (71-70), I hit it well but missed a lot of 10- to 12-foot putts. Then the last day, especially the final nine, the putts started to fall.

“So to shoot 65 the last round (for a 10-under 206) and get a victory in my first college start is pretty cool. The lesson I’ve learned is not to put too much pressure on myself and just go play.”

Lovelady didn’t enter the season with as much fanfare as Thomas or a lot of other players in this year’s extremely talented freshman class.

Lovelady, from Birmingham, Ala., is pretty much a local recruit for the Tide. But that doesn’t mean Seawell isn’t high on his ability and potential.

“He didn’t get out there and play in as many big tournaments as some of the other young guys, but when he did, he was successful,” Seawell said. “His experience level is a little less, but he has handled the situation and the transition into college golf extremely well. He’s got great skills and is a really tough competitor.”

With Whitsett, Wyatt and senior Hunter Hamrick as three solid returning starters, and Thomas and Lovelady figuring to add some firepower, Alabama was Golfweek’s preseason No. 1 team.

“It’s nice to get that kind of recognition,” Seawell said, “but we still have to go out there and get the job done on the course.”

For the second year in a row, ’Bama has a pair of talented freshmen to help.

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