At age 10, Thornberry found the right game

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Ole Miss media relations

Braden Thornberry is playing golf as well as any collegiate player in Mississippi history.

 

Editor’s note: Braden Thornberry won the NCAA Arnold Palmer Individual National Championship on May 29 and was named one of 10 PING First-Team All-American by the Golf Coaches Association of America on May 30. Here’s what Rick Cleveland wrote about Thornberry  in April. 

Ole Miss sophomore golfer Braden Thornberry, currently experiencing the most successful season in the history of Mississippi intercollegiate golf, wasn’t your typical junior player.

He didn’t start playing when he was five or six. He didn’t grow up on a golf course. He didn’t have swing coaches.

No, Thornberry, who grew up in Olive Branch, was first competitive at motocross. Vernonica Thornberry, his mother, remembers.

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

“Braden was really in to motorcycles, he was really competitive,” she says. “Then when he was nine years old, he crashed and broke his leg. When he recovered from that, he had another wreck and broke his shoulder.”

He was hobbling around and was at a point where the bikes were about to get bigger and faster. There was only one of him.

“We started looking for something else,” Veronica Thornberry says. “Golf seemed a lot safer.”

Les Thornberry, Braden’s father, dabbled some at golf himself. He took Braden to the golf course and watched him swing at the golf ball. Hmmm, he said to himself, we may have something here.

So they looked for a junior tournament and found one down the road at Tunica.

Veronica Thornberry remembers. “It was so cold, down in the 30s,” she says. “It was really windy and it even sleeted. There was one other kid in Braden’s division. Braden shot 92 and 96 and won, mainly because the other kid froze nearly to death.”

Braden Thornberry was hooked. “He just had a passion for golf,” the mother says

“We started to sign him up for everything there was,” Vernonica Thornberry says. “I’d take him to the golf course on the way to work every morning and pick him up late every afternoon.”

Braden Thornberry became a competitive junior player, rising to No. 6 in his age group in the world, but there was still nothing to suggest what has happened lately.

Such as this: Last week Thornberry won the Ryman Hospitality Intercollegiate Classic at Richland Country Club in Nashville by a whopping 13 shots. He lapped the field is what he did, shooting 65, 69 and 65 to beat everyone else on his own team by 18 shots. His score was within one shot of his own school record. It included a 29 on the back nine the last day, when he went six-under par in one five-hole stretch.

That was PGA Tour quality golf. And that was a record fourth championship of this school year, heading in in the SEC Tournament next weekend at the Seaside Course in St. Simons Island, Ga. That doesn’t count the prestigious Jones Cup championship he won in February against the best amateur payers from around the globe. Thornberry finished that tournament at 4-under-par for 54 holes when nobody else shot even par. Among the previous names of winners etched on the Jones Cup are these: DJ Trahan, Gregg Jones, Nicholas Thompson, Luke List, Kyle Stanley, Patrick Reed and John Peterson. Past participants who didn’t win it are even more impressive: Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler, Lucas Glover, Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Bubba Watson.

“It’s not just winning tournaments,” Ole Miss coach Chris Malloy says. “It’s how he’s winning them. What he’s doing right now is as impressive as anything I’ve seen in college golf.”

Malloy played college golf at Ole Miss and was the coach at South Florida before coming back to Oxford. He’s seen plenty.

Thornberry, just turned 20, had the best stroke average in college golf during the fall season when he won three times, including the Autotrader.Com Collegiate Classic when he shot 68-64-66 and won by eight shots, shooting tournament records for low round and low 54-hole scores.

His game includes decent length off the tee, but, as Thornberry puts it, “There’s lots of college golfers who hit it further than I do.”

What separates Thornberry for the rest of the field is his work around – and on – the greens.

Ole Miss media relations

On the greens is where Thornberry takes over.

“His short game is as good as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Malloy says. “It’s so good, it’s almost like he says to himself, ‘If I can go out there and hit it remotely decent, I can win this thing.’”

That’s precisely the attitude Thornberry plans to take to the SEC Championship at Seaside, a course he says he loves. He finished 12th in the SEC as a freshman.

If he hits remotely decent, watch out…

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Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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