ROLAND, Ark. — Tracking an Alabama threesome, I have a new appreciation for golf as a team sport.
Until watching Justin Thomas, Bobby Wyatt, and Cory Whitsett learn from each other and laugh at each other, team golf consisted of two low scores per four-man team vs. the same from another four-man team on Sunday morning for $1-$1-$1. Other than that, golf is one on one.
Thomas, Wyatt, and Whitsett — all members of the Alabama team that recently won the NCAA title — teed off at 9:40 Monday for a practice round at The Alotian Club where the Western Amateur begins today. Monitoring the interaction, the camaraderie seemed genuine. That’s not to say they won’t compete like heck against each other if they square off in the match play competition that begins Saturday, but I do believe they will root for each other to make the Sweet Sixteen.
If a rivalry can be fierce and friendly, this qualifies.
Lessons they learned about The Alotian occurred mostly on the par fours with fairway bunkers protruding into the fairway. Like on No. 2, where Whitsett asked his caddie the distance to a bunker on the left. Three-wood, the caddie said. Perfect was the result.
Taking note, Wyatt smacked driver on the 400-yard hole and hit a tiny cut off the bunker. The result — an approach shot of 83 yards.
On the fifth, the left-handed Whitsett hit one up the left side dead at a bunker. The caddie said it carried the sand. Wyatt and the others filed away the information although Wyatt flew his tee shot into the sand. From there, he hit it inside 15 feet, eliciting a "Yes, Bobby," from Thomas in the middle of the fairway with his mother/caddie.
"My mom goes, ‘He got it on?" Thomas said, smiling at Wyatt.
Standing on the seventh tee, the group went through a similar give and take about the bunker up on the right side where the fairway turns left to the green with a distinguishable false front.
Thomas sighted the bunker and I asked the distance. Turns out, he wasn’t checking the yardage.
"I’m taking pictures," he said. "I’m a picture-taking fiend today."
Spectators and volunteers, including hardened golfers who have played many courses, did the same.
Two groups in front of the Alabama trio, Cal’s Michael Kim, who tied for 17th in the U.S. Open, drew a driver off the bunker. Whitsett pulled 3-wood. "Good luck, Cory," one of his teammates whispered, "Thank you," he breathed and split the fairway.
With 3-wood, Wyatt did the same, earning a "prudent play." Thomas beat him to the ball, tossed it into the trees to the left, and said, "You’re going to need a new ball."
Before Whitsett could hit, Thomas’ mother crossed in front of him, toting the Alabama bag with her son’s name.
"Terrible caddie," Whitsett said, laughing.
Nobody kept score. On some holes, two or three chip shots arrived at the hole at the same time from different directions.
Pairings were casual. Three Oklahoma State Cowboys and an Oklahoma Sooner were in one foursome. Another group included players from Arizona State, Northwestern, UC-Davis, and 15-year-old David Snyder, who won the U.S. Kids Golf Teen championship for boys up to 18 a couple of days ago.
Green after green, players wandered around to putt at anticipated hole locations. On three, two foursomes chipped and putted at the same time, waiting for the fourth tee to clear.
Many of the tournament participants seem cut from the same mold — narrow at the waist, 5-foot-10 or better, with a free-flowing swing, and unafraid to lay a lob wedge wide open from a tight lie around the greens.
The field is so chock full of quality that some very good players will miss the 36-hole cut on Wednesday.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org