PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – This wasn’t by accident. Alabama senior Hunter Hamrick was supposed to be standing on the 18th green Saturday at Riviera, clinging to a 1-up lead over California’s Joel Stalter, with the Tide’s national-title aspirations on the line. It was decided more than a month ago that he’d be the anchor man, the difference, the closer.
“I told my wife (Kate), there isn’t a person alive that I would want playing that final hole other than Hunter Hamrick,” said ’Bama assistant coach Scott Limbaugh. “I mean that. No one else. I love him in that moment.”
A few hundred spectators had crammed around the 18th green to watch the conclusion of this taut NCAA Championship semifinal. No spectators were more interested than Hamrick’s four teammates, who stood to the right of the green, a squad in emotional limbo. Hamrick had missed the green to the right but was left with a simple putt from the fringe. From 40 feet, he lagged to within a few inches. Easy par.
Stalter, meanwhile, had missed the green to the left, and his ball nestled against the collar. When his last-ditch birdie effort didn’t drop, and Alabama had advanced to the NCAA finals, 3-2, Limbaugh – a football coach trapped inside a golf coach’s body – rushed under the rope line and passionately high-fived his players.
“Stone-cold killer!” Limbaugh yelled. They’ve been preaching that all season – finish.
On a day when presumptive Player of the Year Justin Thomas failed to win his match, it was Hamrick and fifth-man Scott Strohmeyer – again – who stepped up for second-ranked Alabama, leading the Tide into what figures to be an epic NCAA Championship final against top-ranked Texas.
“He’s been with us for 4 1/2 years,” Limbaugh said of Hamrick, an early enrollee in 2008, “and for him to deliver like that, it’s just about as sweet as it gets.”
At last year’s NCAA Championship, Hamrick spent more time in the Stillwater, Okla., hospital than at the golf course. He had a full-blown case of mononucleosis. His fever spiked to 103 degrees. He couldn’t swallow. He needed three bags of IV fluid per night.
“It got to a point,” sophomore Cory Whitsett said, “where we’d just go to every meal and ask, ‘What’s up with Hunter now?’ ”
Twice – on the morning of the first and third rounds – Hamrick rolled out of the hospital bed, drove to Karsten Creek and, “walking around dead,” teed it up. Unable to eat, he sipped on water and sucked ice cubes.
“He’d just look white and have no idea what planet he was on,” Whitsett recalled. “The fact that he even went out and competed was special. It gives me goosebumps just talking about it.”
A year later, those memories linger still, and Hamrick’s teammates and coaches haven’t forgotten the sacrifice and the courage and the heart he showed that week in Stillwater. It’s why his clutch performance Saturday almost seemed expected.
“Last year I think he showed himself that he’s a tough rascal,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “We’re golfers. We’re country-club kids. We’re softies. We’re not athletes sometimes. He showed himself that he was tough. He showed his teammates that he was tough.”
What, then, has Strohmeyer shown his star-studded team?
After “Strobie” defeated Cal’s Pace Johnson, 1 up, Limbaugh said with a smile, “He’s the difference right now.”
Said Whitsett, “He’s been the difference for us.”
Said Seawell, “He’s been a total difference-maker.”
When the Tide finished a season-worst ninth at the Southern Highlands event in March, Seawell told Strohmeyer that he was the new No. 5 man. They needed help. They needed a consistent presence.
In his first start since September, Strohmeyer tied for 21st at the Schenkel Invitational. Alabama won that event by 22 strokes. There hasn’t been a different No. 5 man since.
“There was something missing,” Seawell said, “and he was the perfect fit for this team. I think the fact that these other guys want him in the lineup really gave him some confidence. He doesn’t have to be a shooting star; he just has to do his job.”
One more day of work looms Sunday.