Rick Cleveland

What would Cary Middlecoff say about the current run of Ole Miss Braden Thornberry

Ole Miss’ Braden Thornberry won the Division I men's golf championship at Rich Harvest Farms May 29, 2017 in Sugar Grove, Illinois. Last weekend he was among the best golfers at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis.
Ole Miss’ Braden Thornberry won the Division I men's golf championship at Rich Harvest Farms May 29, 2017 in Sugar Grove, Illinois. Last weekend he was among the best golfers at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis.

In the recent Fed Ex St. Jude Classic, Ole Miss sophomore Braden Thornberry shot 71 in the first round, 69 in the second. Thornberry, playing for the first time in a PGA Tour event, was warming to the task.

So, he shot 67 in the third round and then 65 in the final round Sunday. No telling what he would have shot had they played a fifth round Monday. Sixty-three seems likely. There was a definite trend working. He was cutting himself two shots a day.

Thornberry darned near won the thing is what he did. As it was he finished tied for fourth. Had he been competing as a professional, he would have earned nearly a quarter of a million bucks.

This came on the heels of his winning the NCAA Championship by four shots, which came on the heels of his completing the most successful individual golf season in Mississippi history. Late Sunday, I found myself wondering what the late Cary Middlecoff, the great champion turned TV commentator, would have to say about young Thornberry.

In fact, I would love to compare what Thornberry, 20, has accomplished this spring with something in Mississippi golf history but there is really nothing with which to compare it without going all the way back to Middlecoff. He is in a rare zone.

The last time any amateur golfer finished so high in the Memphis PGA Tournament was 59 years ago in 1958. The late Mason Rudolph finished tied for third at Memphis way back then, turned pro the next year and was PGA Tour Rookie of the Year the next year.

Clearly, Thornberry has a decision to make. He has two years of eligibility remaining at Ole Miss. He loves the college experience and has a close relationship with his coach, Chris Malloy. He also must ask himself what more he can achieve in college golf and if he is ready for the emotional grind of the PGA Tour. His finish at Memphis might be the best indication.

That’s a story for another day.

Today, we’re trying to establish his place in Mississippi golf history, which is fairly heady stuff for a guy who can’t legally purchase a beer.

To find a Mississippi collegian with such promise we must go all the way back to 1939 and the first Ole Miss golf All-American, the future Dr. Cary Middlecoff, who actually won a PGA Tour tournament as an amateur in 1945 and would go on to win 40 PGA championships, a Masters and two U.S. Opens Dr. Cary could play.

Middlecoff fully intended to practice dentistry and play his golf as an amateur after finishing at Ole Miss and dental school at Tennessee. He graduated from dental school in 1944, just in time to become a U.S. Army dentist in World War II. In that capacity, Middlecoff filled 2,093 teeth in 18 months as an Army dentist. I don’t know what is more impressive: his filling that many teeth or the Army’s keeping that detailed a record.

His father, Herman Middlecoff, wanted him to continue to practice dentistry and play golf as an amateur. In fact, Herman enlisted the great amateur champion Bobby Jones to help convince his son that amateur golf was a worthy pursuit.

Middlecoff wanted to play golf against the best. He is reputed to have said, “When I got out of the Army, I didn’t want to see any more teeth.”

In 1955, after Middlecoff won the Masters, beating the great Ben Hogan by seven shots, Jones quipped, “The way he filled those 72 cavities during the last four days makes me think I may have been wrong.”

Middlecoff’s two Open victories came on two of America’s greatest tests of golf: in 1949 at Medinah and in 1956 at Oak Hill in Rochester. At Oak Hill, he defeated Hogan by a single shot.

As great a golfer as he was, Middlecoff is perhaps better remembered as a TV broadcaster. Surely, he would marvel over what Thornberry has accomplished at such a tender age. Among those accomplishments is causing us to look all the way back to Dr. Cary Middlecoff for an appropriate comparison.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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