Freshman trio helps re-establish standard for men’s golf


Photos courtesy of UA Athletics Graphic by CW / Hannah Saad

Three freshmen for Alabama men’s golf accomplished a rare feat to open this season: Thomas Ponder, Simms Abney and Tyler Lipscomb became the first freshman trio to start a tournament for Alabama in nearly a decade.  

The 2010 class – Bobby Wyatt, Cory Whitsett and Trey Mullinax – helped the team reach three straight national championships, including wins in 2013 and 2014, but even they didn’t all start their first tournament. Ponder, Abney and Lipscomb did.

“They came out and played well in qualifying, which is really good to see,” junior Wilson Furr said. That doesn’t happen a lot when all three freshmen make the team for the first event. That’s not easy adjusting into college and getting ready.” 

Ponder acquitted himself especially well at the season-opening Carpet Capital Collegiate, finishing tied for 18th at 4-over par. That was within two shots of Furr and sophomore Frankie Capan, who finished tied for 15th and 12th, respectively. Abney and Lipscomb finished tied for 59th and 66th in the 78-player field as Alabama tied for fifth out of 15 teams. 

Where coaches and teammates have seen the freshmen make a more immediate impact, though, is in re-establishing the team’s standard of competition. Injuries and early departures hurt the team’s depth last year during a trying spring semester, as it used the same five players in each of the last five tournaments despite late-season struggles. 

We need to remind ourselves we’re Alabama golf in our expectation of how we play, how we handle, how we compete, how confident we’re gonna be,” head coach Jay Seawell said. To do that, it’s the day-to-day stuff – what are we doing every single day in our work, in our practices, in all the things that we do? 

Seawell and multiple players described the standard as “competitive,” with Furr saying the team couldn’t have its usual competitive standard last year because there were so few players. The players who were starting knew they would be starting, so they didn’t have to fight to keep their spots. 

The team’s first qualifier for the Carpet Capital was three total rounds – one at Ol’ Colony Golf Club and two at Indian Hills Country Club. The top four players from that qualifier earned their spots on the team, with the final spot to be decided in a second qualifier a few days later. 

The four qualifiers were Furr, who developed into the team’s leader last spring, and the three freshmen. Capan, sophomore Prescott Butler and junior Davis Shore started a combined 29 tournaments last year, but only one would begin this year in the starting five. 

“That’s the best thing about qualifying, to be honest with youYou don’t play well, you don’t get on the team,” Furr said. “That pisses you off, you work hard, fix what you need to fix and then come back better the next qualifier. 

The team’s qualifying format varies for each tournament. Some qualifiers are for three or four spots and Seawell chooses who fills the remaining one or two. With three freshmen entering the fray, it’s fair to wonder why the coach didn’t leave at least one spot open in case an experienced player didn’t qualify. 

It shows confidence in Ponder, Abney and Lipscomb, but it also sends a message to every player about how roles on the team will be earned. 

“I want our guys to be responsible and own up to what they shoot,” Seawell said. It’s not, ‘Well, I shot this score but I was really good except for this hole.’ No, I wanted our guys to control their own destiny in this. I wanted to take any subjectivity out of it.” 

After missing the cut in the first qualifier, Capan shot 10-under par for 36 holes in the second qualifier (which Seawell called a “horse race”) to run away with the fifth spot.

“I was very excited to see what he shot,” Seawell said. “He kind of walked away with the qualifier, and that’s what you want. You want somebody to take that spot. You don’t want somebody just to get it; you want somebody to go and take it and earn it.” 

After the scare of missing the cut, Capan said he can see the competition growing. No one’s spot is secure, not even the team’s most accomplished players.

“This year I guess there’s not gonna be any B.S.,” Capan said, “because we have a lot of guys that are good players and that want to be out there competing.”  

Two years ago, the team’s veterans had the same wake-up call when Furr and Shore arrived. The youngsters immediately proved they belonged and were capable of sniping spots from experienced starters.

Eight months later, a team composed of two seniors, a junior and two freshmen reached the national championship match.

Now history is repeating itself, as those freshmen are learning the same lesson they taught to the team’s veterans two years ago.

Seawell said the competition so far has been “heated,” and he’s pleased to see “the old Alabama golf,” the Alabama golf that reached four championship matches in six seasons, beginning to re-emerge.

“Everybody was at ground zero and you’re gonna earn the respect. You’re gonna earn the spot,” Seawell said. “It didn’t matter if you had played in a national championship or you just got here for the first week.” 

All three freshmen, as well as the rest of the team, will be back in action on Tuesday at the Bush Cup, a head-to-head competition against Army West Point in Birmingham. Four alternate shot matches in the morning will be followed by nine singles matches in the afternoon. The team that wins the majority of the 13 matches will be declared the winner.