This past July, Ole Miss golf coach Chris Malloy strolled into the pro shop of Kaskada Brno Golf Resort in Brno, Czech Republic, about three hours southeast of Prague. Malloy was there for the European Boys Team Championship to get a glimpse of some of the best junior players in Europe.
Clad in Ole Miss gear, Malloy walked through the door to an interesting greeting.
“Braden Thornberry,” the woman behind the counter said.
“What?” Malloy replied.
“Your hat. Braden Thornberry,” the woman repeated.
Malloy was a little surprised. It was a fleeting moment, but one representative of the sort of notoriety the greatest golfer in Ole Miss history has given a once dormant program.
“That it is when it really hit me,” Malloy said. “When you go to Europe, they see that logo and they know Ole Miss Golf now. Before, we would go different places and they would see an Ole Miss logo and say ‘The Blind Side.’”
Thornberry announced on Friday he is turning pro after becoming a member of the Web.com Tour by making it to the final stage of Web Tour Qualifying School. The decision wasn’t surprising, but it was one that marked the end of the most decorated career any player has ever put together in Oxford.
So excited to see what the future holds for this young man!??? pic.twitter.com/Nx2fFstUQi
— Chris Malloy (@coachmalloy12) December 14, 2018
Thornberry won 11 tournaments, claimed the school’s first ever individual National Championship in 2017, won the Fred Haskins Award, held a share of the lead on a Sunday on the PGA Tour at the Fedex St. Jude Classic and played in the 2018 US Open. He represented the United States on the 2017 Walker Cup Team, was once ranked the number one amateur in the world and already boasts more top five finishes on the PGA Tour than some aspiring professionals have in their careers.
Malloy took the Ole Miss job in 2014 with the hopes of building his alma mater into a national power, a goal that quite honestly could have more accurately been described as a pipe dream that the time. The program was dreadfully behind in facilities, had virtually no presence on the PGA Tour and poor reputation. When Thornberry arrived on campus the following year, momentum began to shift.
“What I had heard coming into college, it didn’t have a great reputation,” Thornberry said. “It wasn’t a golf school by any means. When Coach Malloy got there, that completely changed the vibe of everything.”
Recruiting in college golf is similar to football and other major sports in the sense that facilities and the path to play professionally matter. As Thornberry began his ascent to stardom and became national name, Ole Miss’ reputation began to change.
“He’s a program changer,” Malloy said. “You need someone like that when you are trying to build a program into a national power with notoriety. All it takes is one guy to change everything.”
It became easier for Malloy to recruit talent. He had something to point to in terms of what a player can be at Ole Miss. The school recently put $3.2 million into renovating the practice facilities. The image of the program — physically and figuratively — is unrecognizably different than when Thornberry arrived three and-a-half years ago.
“We are certainly going to miss Braden,” Malloy said. “Anytime you lose the best player in college golf, it is going to hurt. However, we are in a whole lot better position to do it now than we were four years ago. I think the depth and talent we have on this team is night-and-day. The culture and the synergy have here is awesome. They’re on the verge of doing something special.”
Ole Miss is losing the core of the foundation upon which Malloy built the program. It took a bunch of people to construct the rise, but it would be hard to argue that anyone one person has had a bigger impact on the program than Thornberry.
So, why now? The summer of 2017 saw Thornberry win the NCAA Championship, get into contention on the PGA Tour and play on the Walker Cup Team. It didn’t seem like he had much left to accomplish as an amateur, and he didn’t. But he had a hell of a lot more to learn. Life as a professional golfer is far from simple, and in some ways golf is the easy part. When golf becomes your job, everything off the course becomes harder. It’s booking travel, planning your schedule, selecting a caddie and selecting brands of equipment and sponsors.
“People thought that was a realistic time to do it and it really wasn’t,” Thornberry said. “I didn’t have my life in order. I didn’t know how the tours worked. I didn’t know where I would be playing and all of that stuff. I wasn’t mentally ready.”
Why now? As previously mentioned, making it to the final stage of Q-School earned Thornberry status on the Web.com Tour. He is also eligible to receive up to seven sponsors exemptions into PGA Tour events. Those are decided based on accomplishments as an amateur among other things. Tournament directors want someone who will draw a crowd. Thornberry should have no problem getting all seven. Hours after turning pro, he received his first of the seven PGA Tour exemptions to play at the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January.
“He is going to have a great schedule to play,” Malloy said. “It is an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. He is set up for success right now. If he didn’t do this now, there is just no guarantee on the other side that he would be in this position again.”
Malloy has worked with his fair share of professionals. He was an assistant at Florida State when a kid named Brookes Koepka played for the Seminoles as well as Jonas Blixt. Malloy sees similarities in those two and Thornberry that have nothing to do with swinging a club.
“A lot of what you see in them is confidence and self-confidence,” Malloy said. “Nobody was going to tell those players they were anything less than great. They thought they were great and knew they were going to make it.”
Thornberry already flashes signs of the traits that equate to success in professional golf. He doesn’t let poor play get to him mentally. After his freshman year, he’s worked to build his on-course demeanor into a strength. When he was preparing to make his PGA Tour debut at the 2017 Fedex St. Jude classic, Thornberry elected to hire veteran tour caddie Kip Henley as opposed of having a friend or relative loop for him. Thornberry got into contention on Sunday afternoon and the decision to hire Henley paid dividends.
“Here is the question I posed to him: ‘Why are you playing in this event?,’” Malloy recalled. “Are you playing to have fun and be in front of the hometown? Or are you using this as a dress rehearsal for doing this professionally one day? When you are on the back nine on Sunday and your name is in the top five on the leaderboard and you have your dad or buddy on the bag, how do you think they are going to react?”
While that may seem like a minute detail, it is indicative of a larger sense of maturity. Some young players get a friend to caddie for them after they turn pro as both try to make it in an unfamiliar industry. It’s as risky move. Thornberry hasn’t selected a full-time caddie yet, but has put a great deal of thought into it and one of the candidates include Matthew Achatz, who has caddied for the likes of Rocco Mediate and Matt Bettencourt.
Thornberry has elected to stay in Oxford in an effort to keep his life and routine the same as it has been the last four years, a decision that also speaks volumes about the quality of the Rebels’ practice facility.
“It is as good as it gets,” Thornberry said. “You can hit any shot you want on it. Whether you are in college or doing what I am doing, it is a good spot.”
Ole Miss must now replace the most successful player in its history, one that’s given them notoriety from Oxford to Europe. Thornberry’s impact on the program is hard to quantify. Malloy came to Ole Miss with the arduous task of building his alma mater into a winner. Thornberry’s arrival’s year later changed everything. It expedited the process.
“I think it is cool, the timing of it all,” Thornberry said. “I was able to get here and he made me a better player. I was able to do some of the stuff I did and kind of put the program on the map a little bit. Both ways, it has worked out great.”