He wasn’t even enrolled at Alabama yet and Justin Thomas already had a good feel for the rivalry with Auburn.
As a recruit, his official visit with the Crimson Tide occurred the weekend of the 2010 Iron Bowl. Although Alabama was coming off the national championship, it was the game when Cam Newton led the comeback and then celebrated at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“I watched him run around that stadium with his hand over his mouth and just looking at the fans and my hatred for Auburn started pretty early,” Thomas said.
“This is a real thing and I'm ready to be involved in it.”
He did as a golfer, and now is doing so in a different way.
Thomas, who won the 2012 Haskins Award as the most outstanding collegiate golfer and was on the national championship team of 2013, is co-executive producer along wth Rickie Fowler of the Golf Channel’s “Driven” — a four-part documentary series that kicks off the buildup to this year’s NCAA Championships.
The series, following Alabama, Auburn and reigning national champion Oklahoma State, debuts at 8 p.m. CT.
The subsequent two episodes will air on the next two Mondays, with the final episode to premiere on NBC following the championship, which will take place May 27-29 at The Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Driven is written and produced by Ollie Stokes, a 20-time Emmy Award winner who also wrote and produced Showtime's All Access: Mayweather vs. McGregor. It’s the second year of the documentary series.
“Rickie had always talked about being able to partner with a friend and bring a buddy along, so that this year it made a lot of sense to bring Justin along and I'll tell you why is because last year at the NCAA championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State beat Alabama in the final and obviously with Justin's connection to Alabama it made a lot of sense there,” said Mike McCarley, president of golf for the NBC Sports Group.
“We liked the concept of really the Iron Bowl rivalry, as we're looking at college golf rivalries, it may be the best in college sports, and to have viewers be able to identify college golf along the same lines as they do the rivalries of other sports.”
The first episode has an early appearance by Nick Saban (Joe Namath will be on later in the series), and focuses on all three teams playing at the East Lake Cup, featuring the eight semifinalists from the 2018 NCAA Division I men's and women's golf national championships.
Alabama defeated reigning national champion Oklahoma State, but dropped a 4-1 decision in the championship match against Auburn.
But that was just the beginning of what’s turned into a long season for the Crimson Tide.
In December, senior Davis Riley, a two-time All-American decided to forego his final semester of eligibility and turn professional.
In March, sophomore Davis Shore, who was tied for the team lead in stroke average and average vs. par, suffered a season-ending injury.
Wilson Furr led the team to the Shoal Creek Invitational Team Title to wrap up the spring schedule, but then Alabama missed the cut for the match-play quarterbacks at the SEC Championships.
“I was in Tuscaloosa recently and I got to talk to Coach Saban about it and I think the same reason that makes Coach Seawell such a great coach is the same reason why it's going to be hard on a coach, since he takes ownership for everything that happens poorly for that team, and that's what a great coach does,” said Thomas, the PGA Player of the Year and leading money winner in 2017. “When they do well, when they win tournaments, the players played great and they did everything they were supposed to but if they don't perform well then he's like, ‘All right, well I did something wrong, what can do I differently,’ and that's the reason why I think he's taken that program from what it was when he got there to where it is now.
Because like Coach Saban said losing Davis Riley and D. Shore here with his circumstance, I mean they almost, they lost almost half of their team, of their best players, when you only start five guys. And like Coach Saban said to me, he said if we lost half of our players we wouldn't win half our games. So when you put it in perspective like that, they obviously are put behind the 8-ball and they have plenty of good players to where they can perform better than they have in some tournaments, but it's just, it's very difficult because of the rhythm that you were in and everybody kind of knows their role and then all of a sudden you get thrown curve balls and you have to change things up action you have to change lineups up, people that maybe weren't used to something now have to step up and do this.”
No. 21 Alabama begins play at the Athens Regional at the University of Georgia Golf Course on May 13-15. The top five teams after 54 holes of stroke play will advance to nationals.
Thomas won’t be there as the PGA Championship is that weekend, but he still keeps close ties to the Crimson Tide and still considers Jay Seawell to be a sort-of second parent. It’s part of what drew him to this project.
“It's going to be great to sort of, like you said, to be able to see another side of it and I know it would have been cool for, like looking back at our college careers or the guys that went through when we did, it's like these are the guys that are going to be the faces of the tour and we know the next five or ten years when Rick and I are long gone, these are the guys that could potentially be doing the same kind of thing we are,” Thomas said. “So it's going to give a great outlook, it's going to really create another, just another view of college golf as opposed to just going out and playing golf and traveling in the van and doing whatever. But it's a lot of fun and I know, I think about being in school all the time, so to be part of it and have a great team on board is pretty sweet.”