Four days after the Alabama women's team claimed the NCAA title in Tennessee, the men's squad shot a one-over 285 at Riviera CC to take the Day 1 lead at the 115th NCAA Championship.
On a crystal clear day with afternoon winds making the greens crusty, Jay Seawell's squad finished strong, sophomore Bobby Wyatt making a 25-foot birdie putt on his last hole, the par-4 ninth, and freshman Justin Thomas following suit with a 14-foot birdie of his own to close out the round and give Alabama a three-stroke lead over Florida and Auburn.
Individually, UCLA's Anton Arboleda posted a four-under 67 to set the pace. The sophomore from La Canada, Calif., turned in one over, but then made five birdies on Riviera's back nine to take a one-stroke lead on Kent State's Corey Conners and Florida's Tyler McCumber.
"It does turn the spotlight a little more on us," Seawell (above) said. "It's a great learning [experience] for me as a coach but more importantly for the players because one day they're going to be playing for a living. They're going to have to learn to play with expectations their entire life."
Suffice to say, Alabama wasn't coming to Southern California under anybody's radar. Ranked No. 2 in the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll--the same spot the women's team sat in entering nationals--the Crimson Tide had won five of its last seven starts, including triumphs at the SEC Championship and NCAA Regional in Athens, Ga. The average margin of victory: 19.2 strokes.
Aside from maintaining his team's confidence, the biggest challenge facing Seawell was figuring out a way to get his squad comfortable with Riviera and its unique challenges as quickly as possible. One practice round on the course, the 10th-year coach admitted, wasn't going to be enough, so he decided to enlist the advice of a couple friends of the program: Lee Janzen, whose agent is the uncle of Alabama assistant coach Scott Limbaugh, and Michael Thompson, a former Crimson Tide All-American. Both golfers emailed Seawell a description of each hole and some of their trade secrets on how to play them.
Additionally, Seawell has the broadcast from this year's Northern Trust Open saved on his DVR, in the event his team got to Riviera for nationals. While what you see on TV does look different in person ("the greens are so much smaller"), listening to players and commentators talk about the course gave him some insight he has then passed on to his squad.
"It's challenging," Seawell said. "You have to stay patient. You just have to get the holes that are getable. The first hole [a par-5 that's reachable in 2] is very important to get a 4 there. It just kind of settles you down because you're getting ready to go into the teeth of it."