Lavner: Strohmeyer the difference for Alabama
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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Alabama junior Scott Strohmeyer essentially played more than half the season for practice. Competing for the second-ranked team in the country, this No. 5 man’s score counted in only seven of 18 rounds played. His scoring average was nearly four strokes (3.86) higher than his ballyhooed teammate, Justin Thomas. And he shot par or better only five times in competition.
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“It’s hard,” Strohmeyer said, “because sometimes I’ll play well and think, Gosh, my score didn’t even count.”
So, naturally, the Crimson Tide’s hopes of advancing to the semifinals of the NCAA Championship came down to Strohmeyer. For a national title-caliber team, there are no weak links.
In top-seeded Alabama’s first-round match Friday against Kent State, Thomas had won handily, 6 and 5 against Kevin Miller. So had sophomore Cory Whitsett, after a 5-and-4 victory over Kyle Kmiecik.
Strohmeyer, though, had surprised many by jumping out to a 5-up lead over Taylor Pendrith at the turn. Then Strohmeyer lost No. 10. Then he double bogeyed 11. Then he bogeyed 15, too. Now, he was only 2 up.
“That last point,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell would say, “is always the hardest.”
’Bama was reeling. Bobby Wyatt had lost his match, 4 and 2, to Kent State's Corey Conners, and senior captain Hunter Hamrick was in a slugfest with Mackenzie Hughes in the anchor match, so the Tide’s first-round tilt – and, really, their entire season – hinged on a player who hadn’t finished better than 16th in an event all season, who most weeks blends into the background.
But on the par-3 16th, and with his lead quickly disappearing, and with his team in need, Strohmeyer holed a 20-foot par putt to remain 2 up with only two to play. Last night, after the pairings were announced, Seawell approached Strohmeyer and told him, “I put you in the middle (the No. 3 spot), because I believe you’re the guy who’s gonna win us the third point.”
Sure enough, Strohmeyer stood on the back edge of the 17th green, 40 feet and two putts away from the clinching point. Seawell stood behind the green, in the shadows, digging in his pockets for something to chew on. Thomas and Whitsett stood anxiously on the side, near their parents. Alabama assistant coach Scott Limbaugh paced on the green, making sure Strohmeyer had the right read.
When Strohmeyer lagged to 3 feet, and then brushed in the birdie putt, Limbaugh yelled, “Here we go, ’Bama!” Players and family members poured onto the green. They slapped the No. 5 guy’s back and his hands and his curly hair. For a national title-caliber team, there are no weak links.
“I’m really proud of him,” Seawell said. “He became the anchor of why this team went from pretty good to one of the best teams in the country. He just brought some confidence to the other guys, some maturity, and they just believe in him.”
Said Strohmeyer, “I was glad to be in that situation to pull through for our team. That’s the fun part, being able to test your nerves and see how you handle it. It’s what you practice for, for moments like these.”
It can’t be easy, being the No. 5 guy on the second-ranked team in the country. Thomas, the presumptive Player of the Year, garners all the headlines, and deservedly so. Whitsett and Wyatt have bright futures. Hamrick has been a steadying presence for the Tide ever since he arrived in Tuscaloosa.
But Strohmeyer belongs in this lineup too, and he’s been particularly proficient in match play. He’s reached match play two of the past three years at the U.S. Amateur - advancing to the Round of 16 in 2010 - and he has won the state match play at the amateur and junior levels.
“He’s got as much confidence as anyone on this team,” Thomas said. “For some reason, people just keep underestimating him.”
Match play seems to appeal to Strohmeyer, he said, “because I like knowing what I have to do to win. In stroke play, you don’t even know what it’ll take.”
That’s particularly true when you play for the Tide, who won five of their seven starts in the spring and boast one of the strongest (and deepest) lineups in the country.
“It’s fun,” Strohmeyer said of playing out of the No. 5 spot, “and I just relax and play my own game. My job is really to set the pace for the team, walk well, keep my head up.”
But isn’t it frustrating, knowing that even a good score, even something around par, might not count?
“I’m getting to play with the top players in the country,” he said. “I just try to beat them. If I beat them, I’m doing pretty good, right?”