Braden Thornberry

OXFORD – The planet’s No. 1 ranked amateur golfer should not lack for confidence. And Braden Thornberry, an Ole Miss junior, most certainly does not.

Never mind that he’s the only amateur playing along with 155 professionals in the North Mississippi Classic, a new stop on the PGA’s web.com Tour.

Never mind that he’s under the weather with a sore throat.

Never mind that Thornberry stumbled out of the gate Thursday, making two triple bogeys and one double bogey en route to a 75.

He didn’t get flustered – and he surely didn’t back down.

Rick Cleveland

No, Thornberry shot a second round 69 at hilly and difficult Country Club of Oxford in windy conditions Friday morning. He not only made the cut but also gave himself a chance, at least in his mind, to still win the tournament.

Said his father, Les Thornberry, who was in a sizable gallery who followed his son’s group, “There’s no quit in that boy.”

Braden Thornberry moved from a tie for 102nd after Thursday, to a tie for 45th after Friday. That’s moving up – and he clearly plans to do it again Saturday.

“A 65 or 66 is out there for me if I can continue to hit the ball this solidly and make some putts,” the 21-year-old Southaven native said. “That would put me right back in it. I’ve shot a 64 on this golf course during a college qualifying round. It wasn’t playing as difficult as it is right now, but it can be done.”

This has been quite the week for Thornberry who won the prestigious Old Waverly Collegiate at West Point over 54 holes Monday and Tuesday. Thornberry shot 71-67-66 to win by five shots for his school record 11th college tournament win. He had a day off Wednesday, except for morning classes and then an afternoon practice at Country Club of Oxford. Thursday, he attended classes again, going straight from a psychology class to teeing it up against the pros.

And he played a lot better than 75 sounds on Thursday.

“Three bad swings cost me eight strokes,” Thornberry said.

He made five birdies Thursday but those were more than drowned out by the two triples and the double bogey, all caused by errant tee shots. He finished his round at dark, and did not leave the course until after 8 p.m., mentally exhausted and physically ill.

“I was asleep by 9,” he said.

And Friday was a different day. Thornberry hit 15 greens in regulation and missed several makeable birdie putts. His round included five birdies, two bogeys and two mammoth shots that put him on the green on the 607-yard par 5 fourth hole where he made a two-putt birdie.

Obviously, Thornberry doesn’t lack for length, but the main reason he is the world’s best amateur golfer is his game from 100 yards and in. In short, the kid knows how to get the ball into the hole.

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

Thornberry, the defending NCAA Champion, was hitting the golf ball a lot better than “remotely decent” Friday. So maybe that’s why he still thinks he can win.

“I’m going to be seven or eight shots back probably going into Saturday,” he said. “At Memphis last year (the PGA Tour’s Fed Ex St. Jude Classic), I was nine back after two rounds.”

He was nine back and then shot rounds of 67 and 65 to finish two shots back in a tie for fourth that would have earned him about $250,000 if he had been a professional. He beat the spikes off guys named Mickelson, Cink, Koepka, Poulter and Goosen. That’s why many people expected him to turn pro later last summer. He did not.

And he may not this summer, either. “I’m exploring all options but right now the plan is to be at Ole Miss next year as a senior.”

But first there are the final two rounds of this tournament, then the SEC Tournament next week. Then, he’ll defend his NCAA title. And he’ll be back in Memphis in June. His busy schedule won’t ease up any time soon.

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 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.