April 18, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the famed Pinehurst No. 2 course in North Carolina, near the end of a June day that included a practice round for last summer’s North & South Amateur, Thomas Walsh finished his dinner, stood up and then dropped to the floor.

“My legs just collapsed,” Walsh recalled this week at the University of Virginia, where he’s established himself as one of the ACC’s top golfers.

He had dealt previously with back problems, but nothing like this. After rehabilitation failed to significantly improve his condition, doctors discovered a cyst in the facet joints of his spine, Walsh said.

“Any time my facet joints moved, I just spasmed,” he said, “and any time I hit a golf ball, my facet joints are moving.”

In late June, Walsh received a facet joint injection that eased the pain. Then, when he returned to UVA for the fall semester in August, the procedure was repeated, providing additional relief.

Still, after a summer in which he’d played much less golf than usual, Walsh struggled at his first tournament of 2017-18. In early September, at the Carpet Classic Collegiate in Dalton, Georgia, he shot 13-over-par 229 (75-77-77) for 54 holes.

“He played awful,” UVA head coach Bowen Sargent said.

“It was horrendous,” Walsh said.

His back bothered him during that first event, but it felt better two weeks later at the Northern Intercollegiate in Illinois, where Walsh shot 68-74-67 for a 7-under 209. He’s rarely cooled off since then.

“Since that first tournament, he’s probably had the best run of any player I’ve ever coached here,” Sargent said, “and that includes Denny McCarthy and Ben Kohles. He’s been unbelievable. I think he’s averaged 70.33 since that first tournament.”

Kohles was ACC Player of the Year in 2010 and `11 and a three-time All-ACC selection. McCarthy was a four-time All-ACC selection.

For the year, Walsh has a stroke average of 71.07. That leads the 48th-ranked Cavaliers as they head into this weekend’s ACC tournament at the Old North State Club in New London, North Carolina.

“Starting last spring, he’s played exceptional golf,” Sargent said. “This is a kid that has the ability to play at the next level and play professional golf.”

The fall wasn’t easy for Walsh, a junior from High Point, North Carolina. Opposing coaches allowed him to use a golf cart during rounds, and “had he not been able to ride, he wouldn’t have been able to play,” Sargent said.

“The [other] universities very crazy nice,” Walsh said.

After the fall season ended in late October, Walsh embarked on a rehab regimen that included stretches and exercises to improve his core strength and thoracic-spine mobility. He no longer requires a cart to get around the course.

“Knock on wood, I haven’t had back pain in a long time,” Walsh said.

A graduate of Westchester Country Day, Walsh comes from a family with numerous Wake Forest graduates, including his mother, his father, his paternal grandparents and various aunts and uncles.

During the recruiting process, Walsh settled on two finalists: Wake and UVA. He committed to the Cavaliers early in his sophomore year of high school, in part because of the bond he’d formed with Sargent.

“He’s awesome,” Walsh said.

It didn’t hurt, Sargent noted, that his program has “had a lot of success with North Carolina kids. We’ve had Will Collins and Ben Kohles and Bruce Woodall. There’s a long line of North Carolina kids that have been very, very successful here.”

Walsh has two sisters who attended Duke and East Carolina, respectively, “and that freed me up to go [somewhere other than Wake].” Even so, his decision to become a Cavalier didn’t please every Demon Deacon in the family.

“My grandparents, especially,” Walsh said with a laugh. “They really wanted me to go [to Wake].”

During his first two years at UVA, the team’s leaders were Derek Bard and Jimmy Stanger, both of whom now play professionally. This season, in a lineup that includes only one senior, Danny Walker, Walsh’s role has changed.

“Last year I would play well probably two out of [every] three rounds, and maybe throw a couple good tournaments in there,” Walsh said. “Now I think of myself as more like [Bard and Stanger] were. If I don’t play well, I feel more responsible for letting the team down. Because I feel like [the other Cavaliers are] looking at me to play well every round, and if I don’t, then I’ve let them down. So I’m trying to hold myself accountable to play well every round.”

From Bard and Stanger, Walsh learned valuable lessons.

“You have to be on your game at all times,” Walsh said. “It’s not like other sports [such as basketball], where if you’re not shooting your 3-pointers well, they just take you out of the game and sub someone else in.

“You have to be accountable for every round, and that’s what I really learned from Jimmy, consistency. He was always there. And I learned a lot from Derek about how to handle yourself on the golf course and how to manage yourself emotionally. It’s a sport, but’s it’s business. It’s his life now, and it’s eventually going to be my life, so you need to handle yourself.”

At last year’s ACC tournament, Stanger won the individual title, and Walsh hopes to match that feat this weekend. As a freshman, he placed ninth at the ACC tourney, the highest of any Cavalier. As a sophomore, Walsh placed 28th at the NCAA championships, shooting 2-over-par 290 for 72 holes, to help Virginia finish a program-best 10th. (Stanger was 11th.)

When Walsh arrived at UVA, Sargent wasn’t convinced he’d become an elite player.

“He had kind of a quirky swing and quirky chipping and putting,” Sargent said. “He was able to make it work in junior golf, but I didn’t know if we’d be able to make the necessary changes to make him into the player that he is today. But he’s an extremely talented kid, and he’s taken to everything that we’ve given him. He’s been very inquisitive, always wanting to know what’s next. He’s very golf savvy and has a high golf IQ.”

A politics major, Walsh remains thankful that he chose UVA.

“It’s been everything I hoped it would be,” he said on an unseasonably chilly spring day.

“It’s a touch cold, but I love every part of it. It’s been good, and I don’t think I would have progressed as fast had I gone anywhere else.”