Augusta State’s men’s golf team didn’t qualify for the NCAA postseason for the first time since 2006, but that doesn’t mean the “A” wasn’t represented in a third national title in the past four years.
Former Jaguars head coach Jay Seawell led Alabama to its first national championship on Sunday at the Crabapple Course near Atlanta. Former Augusta Prep star Lee Knox cheered his Crimson Tide teammates on from outside the ropes to cap his college career with an NCAA ring.
“It was just fun being out there and pulling those guys through after working so hard throughout the year together,” said Knox, a two-time Georgia Amateur champion and son of decorated amateur golfer Jeff Knox. “It’s fun having an individual sport played as a team sport. Obviously it’s disappointing I’m not out there playing, but I’ve got to do what I can to help the people who are out there succeed and try to accomplish the goals we set.”
Seawell, who coached Augusta State to four consecutive NCAAs during his tenure from 1998-2002, has turned Alabama into a collegiate golf powerhouse. The Tide were the prohibitive favorite a year ago to win the title after Augusta State’s two-year reign in 2010-11. But in the championship match against Texas at Riviera, Alabama suffered a heart-breaking 3-2 loss in the match-play format.
That setback spurred on this year’s team that returned four NCAA final starters.
“We really enjoyed the championship last year, and to have your heart kind of taken away from you in it, you want to get back,” Seawell said. “It’s not like we talked about it a great deal, but it was something we did use to keep focus and working towards our goal to win. We had a lot of experience returning. Maybe not quite as good as we were last year, but more experienced and ready for the opportunity.”
While much of the focus all season had been on California’s juggernaut men’s team that won a record 11 tournaments, Alabama remained intent on finishing what it started last year. Even after Cal was upset by Illinois in the semifinals, the attention stayed off the Tide despite aiming to win their seventh tournament in eight spring starts.
“Even going in to (Sunday’s final), all the talk was how Cal didn’t make it,” Seawell said. “When you’re playing in something this big, anything you can do to get a little more relaxed, it helps. It relaxed us. Everybody wanted to talk about that and not about us, which was good.”
This time, Alabama’s stars didn’t leave anything to chance. Bobby Wyatt went out in the first match and blitzed to a 6 and 5 victory that set the tone for the 4-0-1 team win.
“I followed Bobby Wyatt at the beginning to get that first point in,” Knox said. “He won seven holes in a row which was pretty cool. After Bobby clinched I just followed Trey Mullinax around. He was all square and I knew that would be a huge point that we needed. He went to the 18th and closed out. Me, Bobby and our assistant coach sprinted from 18 green to 15 to where Cory Whitsett was about to close out there.”
Seawell described the atmosphere at the Crabapple Course as “Ryder Cup-esque” with more than 1,000 fans heavily siding with the Tide stalking the five matches on the course.
“It felt like we were the U.S. team and Illinois was the Europeans,” said Knox, who just graduated and plans to turn pro at the end of this summer’s amateur campaign. “There were huge roars and people cheering on the Tide.”
The match-play element that was added to the NCAA Tournament recently has its share of critics, who claim it doesn’t favor the powerhouse teams such as Cal who might have dominated in the old stroke-play format. Augusta State was a prime example of that, defeating more prominent programs like Oklahoma State and Georgia to claim its back-to-back titles.
But Seawell – who has seen both ends of what match play can do to a team – believes it’s the right format to take collegiate golf to the next level. The energy and excitement that was on display last weekend is what attracted the Golf Channel to start televising the finals next year.
“I think it’s probably the best thing we’ve got in college golf right now,” Seawell said. “The atmosphere we’ve had at both these championships ... it was Ryder Cup-esque. People understand Alabama vs. Illinois. There’s a finality and head-up to it. By doing so, you’ve interjected the energy of athletics. Are there issues with it? Absolutely. But who says that life is fair. You still have to win and do the things you have to do. The basketball tournament is the same way. I think it’s been great for college golf.”
Seawell has led Alabama to 10 postseason appearances and seven NCAA final berths in 11 seasons at the helm since leaving Augusta. His last two years with the Jaguars, his teams finished seventh and fifth in the NCAAs.
He was thrilled to see Augusta State continue to succeed.
“I was so excited for them,” Seawell said. “That’s what we dreamed about when I got there to try to win national championships. We got close and competed for those the four years I was there. I was proud of that. To see the success they had, I was proud of them.
“It gave me hope that we could do this (at Alabama).”
Seawell drove the team van home Sunday night with the NCAA trophy strapped into the passenger seat. He’s spent all of his time since trying to catch up on the avalanche of congratulatory e-mails and texts he’s received since Sunday. As he walked past the football offices on Monday, his fellow Tide coaches were offering their congratulations.
“We did it!” Seawell hollered back.
“Tuscaloosa is called ‘Titletown,’” said Seawell. “We’re really the first men’s program other than football to win a national championship here. So there’s a lot of people who are really proud of that.”
What did winning the title mean to Seawell personally?
“I don’t know, I’ve always just wanted to be a coach,” he said. “For me it means a lot just to see the smiles on the players’ faces. That’s what means the most to me. To see Cory Whitsett, after the pain of last year, this will probably always be in my heart, and to see the happiness today – that’s just what means the most. I don’t make a shot. I’m just a van driver. It is just truly great to see the happiness of our players.”