Without a home after Katrina eliminated the Tulane golf team, Michael Thompson is thriving at top-ranked Alabama
University of Alabama golfer Michael Thompson has made the winding journey from Tucson, Ariz., to Southern Methodist and Tulane until landing in Tuscaloosa with the top-ranked Crimson Tide golf team.
By Tommy Deas Sports Writer
Published: Thursday, November 23, 2006 at 6:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 22, 2006 at 11:00 p.m.
A year ago, Michael Thompson was in limbo, one of hundreds of thousands of evacuees displaced by Hurricane Katrina contemplating his future in the wake of what may have been the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Today, the 21-year-old is competing for the No. 1-ranked University of Alabama golf team at a tournament in Hawaii. His golf game and his academic career are back on course after a long, difficult trek that took him from New Orleans to Houston to Dallas before finally landing at the Capstone.
Thompson was a student-athlete at Tulane when Katrina impacted the Gulf Coast in August 2005. The native of Tucson, Ariz., landed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, along with other members of the Tulane golf team, for the fall semester. He continued to compete for the displaced Tulane squad, taking classes at SMU and biding his time until he could return to New Orleans to return to his school.
Road to Alabama
Thompson had no way of knowing he was on a path that would lead him to Alabama, where he would help make the Crimson Tide the nation’s top-ranked golf team.
“Being at Alabama was the farthest thing from my mind," Thompson said. “Before Katrina, I could never have imagined I would end up here."
It was just a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving last year that Tulane announced it was cutting eight athletic teams, including men’s golf, along with several academic programs, to help offset the cost of recovering from the storm, an estimated $200 million.
Thompson and his Tulane teammates continued to compete for their school while taking classes at SMU, but he felt his game suffered.
“My putting fell off," he said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen with us. I guess I had a lot on my mind."
The distractions didn’t take too much of a toll. He accumulated a 72.7 stroke average, earned first-team All-Conference USA honors and was named male golfer of the year by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association for 2005. He also won two individual collegiate tournaments, and when Tulane disbanded the team he became a much-sought-after commodity on the collegiate circuit.
Thompson was courted by several schools, including Oklahoma State, which was on its way to winning its 10th national championship last season, and Florida, a longtime Southeastern Conference power, but his former coach had a hand in getting him to consider Alabama.
“I knew who he was just because in college golf you know who the good players are," Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “I had a relationship with his former coach at Tulane, Tom Shaw. He was an assistant coach for my brother when my brother was playing at South Carolina."
Thompson and Seawell hit it off immediately, and the golfer was impressed with the rising program at Alabama.
“His coaching style is a lot like my coach at Tulane’s," Thompson said. “I liked that, and when I met the other golfers they made me feel at home. This is where I was most comfortable."
Thompson decided to take one more semester at Tulane in the spring before arriving at Alabama as a junior this fall.
Eye of the storm
Thompson was completely comfortable at Tulane before the hurricane hit. After adjusting to the New Orleans lifestyle, he fell in love with the city.
When the evacuation order came late last August, Thompson wasn’t too concerned. It wasn’t his first hurricane warning at Tulane, and the previous one had been a false alarm. For Thompson, it was like walking through a fire drill, only this time the fire was real.
“We didn’t think it was a big deal," he said. “We’d been through it with [Hurricane] Ivan, and it changed course. It didn’t do anything in New Orleans. As a matter of fact, it ended up coming through Tuscaloosa. It did more here than it did there."
Thompson’s car was in the shop when the word to leave New Orleans came, so he hopped in with a teammate and headed west on a highway jam-packed with fellow evacuees. After covering about 200 miles in 10 hours, Thompson and his teammate decided to take a break. They called a Tulane booster who helped them get a last-minute tee time.
“We stopped in Lake Charles and played 18 holes," he said.
Thompson didn’t find out how serious the situation was until he checked into a hotel in Houston. On Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, he awoke to the horror of Katrina.
“We didn’t do anything but watch TV for two days," he said. “I think we were in shock. We couldn’t believe what was going on."
Thompson gradually absorbed the enormity of the disaster. A teammate’s father drove into New Orleans to salvage what he could of the golfers’ belongings. Thompson’s apartment survived the flood, but his car was lost forever, submerged under water.
“It goes to show you that [material] things don’t really matter," he said. “Those things that used to mean a lot to you aren’t really what’s important."
Atop the golf world
Thompson’s life had been a whirlwind when he arrived at Alabama, enrolled at yet another new school and trying to fit in with a new golf team.
Success on the course has made it easier. He qualified for the U.S. Amateur, where he finished 275th after a poor score of 85 in the opening round. Once the collegiate season started, however, he became a big part in a major success story. Alabama won its first three tournaments and finished fourth in its fourth event, jumping to the top slot in all three collegiate polls. The Tide took its No. 1 ranking into the Aloha Purdue Collegiate on Kauai Island, Hawaii, which concludes today.
Thompson has averaged 71.42 strokes with a low round of 67, shooting under par in six of 12 rounds going into the Hawaii event. He’s ranked 36th in Golfweek magazine’s individual collegiate rankings, giving Alabama three golfers rated in the top 40. Joseph Sykora is ranked 12th and Gator Todd is 16th.
Adding a golfer of Thompson’s caliber has been the difference between Alabama being a very good team and becoming a national title contender.
“It really is, Seawell said. “He is a great player. I knew he was going to be good, but to be honest he’s probably better than I thought he was.
“I knew he was probably the missing piece in our team. I thought we had a top-10 type team, but the defending national champion [Oklahoma State] had all their starters back, so to think we would be ranked ahead of them I’d have to say is a surprise."
Seawell has watched Thompson find his place on the team.
“We had a good nucleus, a good chemistry, on our team," the coach said. “I think that helped.
“There was probably a two- to three-week period where he had to adjust to the University of Alabama. He’s like a 21-year-old freshman. Any time you go somewhere, you’ve got to start over."
The biggest change for Thompson has come off the course.
“At Tulane I was one of the leaders," he said. “That’s one of the things I miss. That’s been kind of hard for me, but I understand it. That’s something for me to work for for next year.
“My teammates have been great. They welcomed me from the start. I had to get used to Alabama. It’s a lot different from New Orleans. They’ve made things a lot easier."