Braden Thornberry tees off from the 11th tee box during the second round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind in Memphis June 09, 2017.

First things first: If I am Braden Thornberry, the most accomplished college golfer in Mississippi history, I would have turned pro yesterday.

Rick Cleveland

That’s because I don’t know what more I can achieve as an amateur and college golfer. I’ve won the NCAA Championship tournament. I’ve won five more tournaments as a sophomore. I’ve not only been an All-American, I’ve also won the Haskins Award as the best college player in the country. I’ve won seven college tournaments over my two seasons at Ole Miss. I followed that up by winning the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur tournament this summer against the best amateurs in the world and then beat the world’s No. 1 ranked amateur in the first round of match play of the U.S. Amateur.

What’s more, I darn near won the Fed Ex St. Jude Classic on the PGA Tour. I finished two shots behind the winner and had to turn down nearly a quarter of a million bucks for finishing fourth.

You want comparisons? Jordan Spieth, who has won more than $25 million in four seasons on the PGA Tour, left the University of Texas after one season. Spieth won three tournaments and had a stroke average of 70.91 per round. This past season, Thornberry – I can no longer dream or type in the first person – won five tournaments and had a per round average of 69.57, nearly 1.5 shots (per round!) better than Spieth’s season at Texas.

This is what Spieth said when he turned pro back in December of 2012: “The decision to turn pro was a difficult one, but I’m looking forward to the challenge of competing at the highest level and accomplishing the many goals I’ve set for myself on and off the course.”

And this is what Thornberry, a 20-year-old from Olive Branch, told The Golf Channel Thursday when he announced he will return to Ole Miss for a third season of college golf: “I’m still working on some consistency. Coach [Chris] Malloy, he has really groomed me, and I’ve gotten better every single semester. I think it would kind of be a dumb decision for me to leave early while I’m still in that environment and I’m still getting in tournaments for free and can have a great practice facility.”

On the greens is where Thornberry takes over.

So, classes begin Monday at Ole Miss and Thornberry presumably will be there when the professors call the roll. He will begin the fall season when Ole Miss competes in the Shoal Creek Invitational Sept. 25-26. The last week of October, when PGA pros are in Jackson for the Sanderson Farms Championship, Thornberry likely will be in Hawaii where Ole Miss plays in a big college tournament.

He will be the favorite in every college tournament he enters. That’s how good he is.

And what makes him so good?

Lots of college golfers hit their drives farther than Thornberry. He will tell you he is about average as far as distance. So is Spieth.

Where Thornberry excells is from 100 yards and in. He knows how to get the ball in the hole. He believes he can make any putt he stands over. When others are thinking: “Get it close,” he’s thinking, “I can make this.”

Often, he does.

So more power to him on his decision to remain at Ole Miss. It’s refreshing to see a college kid having fun and believing there is still more to learn and more to enjoy before playing for the big bucks.

He makes the same decision Eli Manning made back in 2003 when he returned to play at Ole Miss despite getting a first-round grade from NFL front office people. I remember what his daddy said at the time.

Archie Manning told Eli the same thing he told Peyton Manning when he was at Tennessee. Essentially it was this: It’s your decision. All I can tell you is I wouldn’t take anything for my last season at Ole Miss. Peyton Manning has never regretted his decision. Neither has Eli.

The guess here is Braden Thornberry won’t either.

But don’t doubt for a second Thornberry couldn’t go on tour this second and win big. Because he could. He’s that good.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.