Hamrick softens NCAA sting by earning Open spot

Alabama's Hunter Hamrick during the finals of match play at the 2012 NCAA Championship at Riviera Country.

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“Well I’m no longer on the university of Alabama golf team. Does that mean I have to change my twitter info? What an honor it has been.” – Hunter Hamrick (@William_HH), on June 3

• • •

There was no time to grieve. Last Sunday, at 2:26 p.m. local time, Alabama lost the NCAA Championship when Texas’ Dylan Frittelli drained a 30-foot birdie putt on the final hole to beat Cory Whitsett, 1 up. Texas players and coaches rushed onto the 18th green at Riviera, engulfed Frittelli in a burnt-orange blur, made the “Hook ’em, Horns!” sign with their hands, snapped pictures with the NCAA trophy and – all together now – gleefully sang the fight song.

Waiting by the clubhouse, arms crossed, stood many of the Alabama players. “That’s what we wanted to do,” Alabama senior Hunter Hamrick said. “We wanted to have that celebration.”

At least Hamrick did his part for the top-ranked Crimson Tide, thumping red-hot Julio Vegas, 6 and 5, in what would be the final round of Hamrick's college career. Though “Hambone” played well – really well, in fact – it still wasn’t enough to propel his team to the title. That part stings the most. “I would rather have taken the loss and played bad for us to win,” he said. “That’s worth more to me.”

What happens now?

• • •

“Losing sucks but thinking of everyone that has supported and helped not only this week but over the course of these 4 years makes me feel blessed.” – @William_HH, on June 3

• • •

What happens now? On to the next event, of course. That happened to be U.S. Open sectional qualifying, which was this past Monday, which was the morning after the NCAA Championship final. There was no time to grieve. The university arranged a private plane to take four Alabama players – Cory Whitsett (Houston), Justin Thomas (Columbus, Ohio), Bobby Wyatt and Hamrick (Memphis, Tenn.) – from the Santa Monica Airport to their respective sectionals, a three-city flight.

After six days of stressful competition, and after an emotional final day, the players tried, rather unsuccessfully, to sleep on the plane. Instead, they found themselves discussing the final match. And the week. And the season, which had included five victories, an SEC title, an NCAA regional crown and the country’s top ranking.

“It hurts to walk away and know that it’s over,” Hamrick said. “I got on the plane Alabama and left no longer a part of the team.”

First stop: Houston.

Whitsett, Hamrick’s teammate for the past two years, stepped off the plane.

Wheels up again.

• • •

“Currently 41000 feet above el paso in a gulfstream and there are so many thoughts and emotions I have right now so I guess I’ll just tweet.” -- @William_HH, on June 3

• • •

The next stop was Memphis. Wyatt and Hamrick reached their gate at about 3 a.m., 12 hours after the Tide lost the NCAA Championship and four hours before play started at sectionals. (Thomas would arrive in Columbus some two hours later.)

After finally arriving at his hotel, Hamrick slept for an hour and a half before the alarm chimed, at 5. He dressed, went to Waffle House for breakfast and drove to the course early, only to find out that tee times were pushed back two hours because of overnight rain.

When play resumed at Germantown Country Club, Hamrick found the fairway with his opening tee shot and hit his first approach shot onto the green, to about 15 feet. Then play was suspended for a few hours. Eventually, it was called for the day. They’d resume at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday.

“I had no desire to play that day, being so tired,” he said, “and the next day I felt re-energized and it was kind of like, Oh, maybe this is meant to be. They’re giving me a second chance.”

At the qualifier Hamrick was paired with Stephen Ames, and for 36 holes the 48-year-old journeyman called Hamrick “Junior” because he looks young and, apparently, could be confused for a junior player. Anyway, they played well, making birdies and avoiding blowups, and each chipped in twice. Whenever Ames and Hamrick missed a green, in fact, they had mini-chipping contests to see who could make more. Each shot 8-under 134, good enough to finish in the top 9, and now both players, young and old, are headed to next week’s U.S. Open in San Francisco.

The significance of that achievement wasn’t lost on Hamrick. Here’s a guy who, at the 2011 NCAA Championship, finished with the team’s low 54-hole score despite spending each night in the hospital, getting pumped full of IV fluids, after being diagnosed with pneumonia. For all his grit, though, Hamrick had never played a professional event, of any kind, while his peers and even his teammates were receiving sponsor exemptions, Monday-qualifying or playing in their national opens overseas.

“It’s kind of a dream come true,” Hamrick said, “and it’s definitely a confidence-builder, going out there and seeing how you stack up against them and then proving that you can hang there, too.”

Reached Wednesday at his family’s home in Montgomery, Ala., Hamrick detailed the past 72 hours, the absurdity of it all, and the discussion always returned to the team, to his season, to the NCAA finals. “I’d still take our team right now and play anybody,” he said.

They can’t do that, of course. Now, everyone speeds off in different directions, Hamrick included, which is merely the reality of a four-year program. Careers end. Of the 10 players who competed last Sunday in the NCAA finals, he’s the only one teeing it up at the Open. Hamrick still has two more courses to take (an elective and a computer class), and he expects to receive his diploma sometime in August. Then, he’ll play a few more pro events, assess his options and, hopefully, slog through Q-School.

What happens when there’s no time to grieve? Well, a player flooded with conflicting thoughts, emotions and beliefs – a player physically spent – can summon his best golf.

• • •

“Well if you dream enough they finally do come true. Would have still liked to turn last weeks dream into reality. #warriormentality” -- @William_HH, on June 5

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