Staying in moment, Bama wins 2nd straight title

Alabama head coach Jay Seawell (right) congratulates freshman Robby Shelton after the Crimson Tide defeated Oklahoma State on Wednesday in the NCAA Men's Division I Championship at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kan.

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HUTCHINSON, Kan. – There were many texts populating the cellphone belonging to Alabama golf coach Jay Seawell on Wednesday, and one such missive arrived from the school’s well-known football coach, Nick Saban – a man who knows a thing or two about performing on a big stage.

Saban's simple advice: “Be where your feet are." Which the Tide golf coach later would translate, pointing his hands in various directions, to mean, “Not over here. Not over there.” Seawell pointed to the green turf beneath his feet, and said, ”Right here.”

That’s in-the-moment kind of stuff. The “moment” for Alabama, on a breathlessly still, steamy day at storied Prairie Dunes Country Club, was the final match of the NCAA Div. 1 Golf Championships, which would culminate in a second consecutive national crown for the Tide, a fitting sendoff for three classy, talented seniors – Bobby Wyatt, Cory Whitsett, Trey Mullinax – who have accomplished so much in their four years.

Call it a dynasty if you’d like, though Seawell will need to do some serious replenishing to continue it, trying to somehow replace a senior triumverate that was the nucleus behind nine victories this season and 27 over the last three, including three SEC titles and NCAA Regional crowns.

“There are so many good teams,” Seawell said, “and I’m very proud that these guys have brought Alabama golf into the talk with other programs that warrant a head turn. Our ‘A’ is a little more noticed now, maybe. I don’t know if we’re a dynasty; we have three seniors who are really, really good. And if they were coming back for a fifth year, I’d feel really comfortable if you wanted to call it a dynasty. But they’re going to turn pro here in what (looking at his watch), about 30 seconds? We’re going to have to start over.”

Well, at least not from scratch. That’s the good news. As building blocks go, he does have a solid one to start his new foundation. As much as Wednesday’s championship final was about the here-and-now (Alabama defeating OSU, 4-1), it also provided a telling glimpse into the future, an exciting one at that. By far the most electric match of the day was turned in by a pair of freshmen, Oklahoma State’s Zach Olsen and Alabama’s Robby Shelton.

How good was the matchup? Well, consider this: Olsen would finish the day with seven birdies on a pretty rugged track … and he didn’t win his match.

Shelton, who trailed in all three of his matches over two days, would flip all three, earning three significant points for the Tide. He saved his best for last. Trailing 2 down through 11 holes, he would birdie six of his last seven, and nine of his final 13. Counting a conceded short birdie putt inside 10 feet at the 16th, Shelton would have shot 63 with a pair of bogeys on his card.

The best part? Even when he trailed, the frosh never, ever seemed the least bit rattled.

“He’s taught me a lot about how I’ve been trying to teach kids for 28 years,” said Mike McGraw, the Alabama assistant who had been the main man at Oklahoma State the last seven seasons and walked every step of all three of Shelton’s matches. McGraw said Shelton isn’t necessarily the most talented freshman player he ever has watched, but he is the most composed by far.

“He’s an unusual kid. I’ve never seen Robby lose his composure in nine months,” McGraw said. “When he hits a bad shot, the next one will be great. One of the things I haven’t loved that much about golf the last several years is that kids think it’s OK to throw a fit and get really upset. Robby never gets down. He just lets his clubs do the talking.”

A quiet kid, Shelton eased into his role on a senior-dominated team, and once there, made an instant impact. When it appeared as if he wouldn’t travel to Alabama’s first tournament last fall at Olympia Fields, he posted a bogey-free 65 on the final day of qualifying – then joined his teammates and won in his first start.

“Yeah, the amount of faith I have in a freshman,” Whitsett said, almost in disbelief, “I would have never thought possible. But he’s something else.”

OSU head coach Alan Bratton spent much of the day alongside Olsen, and had this takeaway as his impression of what he’d just seen from two first-year collegians: “Wow. That’s all you can say. If you were out there watching, that was a great stage. . . . You know, I was pleased to just be kind of a fly on the wall out there.”

Shelton leveled the match with birdies at the 13th and the driveable 14th, where he hit a tee shot over the green, then made a deft pitch down a sharp slope that stopped about 4 feet from the flagstick. He grabbed the lead for good at the lengthy, par-4 16th, where he hit his approach to 7 feet and was conceded the putt for 3. (Olsen had made a rare mistake there, hitting his tee shot into some brush left of the fairway, and had to declare his ball unplayable.) The two traded birdies once more at the 17th – Olsen keeping the match alive with a clutch 10-footer up and over a swale. Then Olsen stuffed a wedge 8 feet below the hole at the par-4 18th for one last good birdie look.

He’d never get a chance to putt. Shelton struck first, nestling in a quick, sliding 12-footer for his seventh 3 of the back nine.

“To have one of their guys play that well, and for him (Shelton) to come out with the victory, that was huge,” the Tide’s Wyatt said. “He’s a fighter, he’s a competitor, and I’m glad that he’s on our team.”

Added Olsen, “I’m disappointed we lost, obviously, but I think we both knew we were playing some incredible golf. I shot 4 under on the front and was 1 up. In talking to some of the guys afterward, they said they didn’t make a single birdie; I think we made 16 between us. So it was an incredible match.

“Robby and I have played together before, so we were comfortable, and I think we pretty much knew, for some odd reason, we both were going to throw down the hammer. It was exciting. We both hit some spectacular shots.”

McGraw: “I saw today why I recruited Zach Olsen (to OSU). He is a stud.”

Wyatt called Shelton Alabama’s hero for the week. The freshman tied for third in the stroke-play portion of the event, then went 3-0 and lifted his team by turning around a deficit in all three of his matches. He’s a serious, reserved young man of few words whose life is consumed by golf and his studies, but after it was over, he allowed himself to smile and enjoy the spotlight.

“I knew I had to birdie to beat Zach, he was playing so well, and those last three holes (16-18, all birdies) were good to me all week,” Shelton said. “Somehow on the back nine, the swing felt good and I started rolling in some putts. It’s match play, and it’s way different. If you get down, you have a lot of holes to come back and make it up. So I don’t get too worried if I’m down after the first couple.”

In a season in which Shelton won two events in addition to the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman and was player of the year in the SEC, the nation’s former No. 1 junior from Wilmer, Ala., could not think of a better way to send the team's seniors out. If this was about Alabama's legacy, Shelton played a big hand in it.

By the time Alabama’s plane was scheduled to hit the runway back home in Tuscaloosa late Wednesday, you can bet Seawell already was thinking about a team rebuilding project. But with Robby Shelton in tow, the Tide's cupboard certainly was not left bare.

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