Playing at home a big advantage in regionals

By Ryan LavnerMay 13, 2015, 9:16 pm

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After the NCAA regional assignments were unveiled last week, North Carolina coach Andrew Sapp perused the six tournament fields and cracked that his draw would lead in one category:

Sprinter vans.

Sure enough, there were 10 Mercedes eight-passenger vans in the parking lot here Wednesday, with license plates ranging from Maryland to Tennessee to Pennsylvania.

While there’s plenty of local flavor this week at Finley Golf Course, there’s an odd dynamic here too – two of the top teams traveled the farthest to get here. Little wonder this is the most difficult regional to forecast.

Seven of the 13 teams traveled less than six hours to get here. But instead of piling into the team van and heading up the interstate, No. 1-ranked Florida State and No. 2 seed Stanford crammed into a plane to prepare for this all-or-nothing, survive-and-advance tournament.

All Sapp had to do Wednesday was kiss his wife goodbye, climb into his SUV and make the 15-minute drive to work. His players had an even shorter commute – campus housing is less than two miles from the course.

“It’s a nice feeling,” Sapp said, smiling.

UNC is one of four host schools in this year’s six-regional field, the biggest advantage a team can have in this 54-hole tournament in which the top five teams move on to the NCAA finals and the rest begin their summer vacation.

Each of the last 11 host teams has advanced out of regionals, and 18 of 22 since 2009. Last year alone there were three: No. 4 seed Auburn, seventh-seeded Oregon and eighth-seeded Missouri. Put any of those three teams in another regional, and there likely would be a different outcome.

This year, you can all but guarantee that No. 2 seed Texas Tech (Lubbock), No. 2 seed Washington (Bremerton) and No. 3 seed North Carolina (Chapel Hill) will steamroll through regionals. Even the University of San Diego, a No. 9 seed, threatens to wreak havoc in its home regional that features such teams as Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Virginia and New Mexico.

So, no, the current system doesn’t exactly reward the teams that perform the best during the regular season. Just ask South Carolina, the last of the six top seeds. The Gamecocks’ reward for a five-win season? A seven-hour flight to Seattle.

Although there is no shortage of ideas on how to improve the format, they haven’t gained much traction with the NCAA competition committee:

 Most appealing is for the top six teams in the country to host a regional at their home course. Those againstthis plan argue that there isn’t enough time for the schools to prepare the course for tournament conditions, but the NCAA could put the top 15 teams on notice in the spring and have a cutoff date for the postseason.

• An extension of that plan: Create 16 four-team regionals, with the top teams hosting and the low two squads after 54 holes advancing to the finals. Hey, it works in baseball.

• Let the top six seeds choose where they want to go, rather than be assigned based on geographical consideration. For instance, since Florida State is the top overall seed this year, coach Trey Jones could decide whether he wants to stay close to home or travel to, say, a course where his players have the most experience.

• Six neutral sites spread out around the country, though this seems the least likely, since the committee prefers to have a school attached to hosting the event.

Look, it’s impossible to quantify a home-course advantage, but nearly every coach agrees that it’s significant.

Washington’s Matt Thurmond says it’s about three to five shots, mostly because of strategy.

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South Carolina’s Bill McDonald believes it’s even higher – about half a shot per player per nine holes, so as much as 12 to 18 strokes over the course of the tournament.

Even Sapp conceded, “Yeah, it’s quite an advantage.”

Teams that host regionals in baseball have the benefit of a boisterous home crowd, but the distance between the rubber and home plate is the same no matter where they play.

That’s not the case in golf, of course, and the biggest challenge for visiting teams is how quickly they can get acclimated to the time change, the weather conditions and, most importantly, the different types of grass.

Says FSU’s Jones, “It can be as simple as what you’re used to seeing with your eyes.”

No team traveled farther to get here to Chapel Hill than Stanford, the No. 2 seed and Pac-12 champion.

The Cardinal was fortunate to score a direct flight from San Francisco to Raleigh, and coach Conrad Ray has done his best to spin the trip positively.

This is why we play a well-rounded schedule, he says, because this isn’t the first time Stanford has played on Bermuda grass, nor is it the first time it has had to change time zones and adjust.

“That’s why you focus on playing great golf in all different circumstances,” he said. “But then again, sometimes, if you feel like you’ve got a team that’s going to win, you could put them in a bowling alley and they’ll be fine.”

His players’ “homework” assignment over the past week? To learn the course digitally, using Google Earth. They charted their way around Finley Golf Course just by surfing the Web and reading the yardages.

“It’s like you’re walking the fairway,” says Ray, so when it came time for his team’s official practice round Wednesday, it was like they’d already toured the place a few times. The running joke in Stanford’s van this week is to ask, What’s the fifth hole this week? Tell me the yardage.

South Carolina was also left scrambling.

As the last No. 1 seed, McDonald figured that his team would receive the least amount of geographical consideration. So when it was confirmed that the sixth-ranked Gamecocks were headed to Bremerton, Wash. – nearly 3,000 miles away – well, he wasn’t the least bit surprised.

“You more or less have to say, these are the rules and I better have a great attitude,” McDonald said, “or it’s gonna whip my butt.”

Last year, this identical Gamecocks lineup headed to Eugene, Ore., for what was the most difficult regional in terms of scoring average. They played terribly for three days and were lucky to escape with the fifth and final spot.

“I have fond memories,” McDonald said, “but maybe it was a little like childbirth. Maybe it was hell and I just don’t remember it.”

Host teams may almost always breeze through regionals, but they’re not without their challenges, too.

Thurmond, whose Huskies are hosting South Carolina and 12 other teams at Gold Mountain, explained that the hormones in the body that lead to high performance and focus are produced at a much higher level when they are needed. That’s why players tend to “rise to the occasion” in the most challenging times – the brain has another gear when it needs it.

“People don’t perform their best when they feel like they are advantaged,” he said. “It’s easy to be flat as a home team and not prepare with as much urgency and focus. Some of our best performances as a team” – such as at regionals in 2013 and ’14, when Washington traveled to Tallahassee and Raleigh and advanced easily – “have come when we were most disadvantaged. That’s just a basic life principle.” 

The fear of failure – especially in front of friends and family – can be a powerful mental enhancer, as well.

“I’m glad we are home,” he said, “but I’ll want to feel like it is a big challenge.”

Sapp, meanwhile, has tried to keep everything the same at UNC – the same schedule and same routine, even the same catering (Nantucket Grill and Maggiano’s) for their post-round meals at the team’s practice facility.

The Tar Heels won their home tournament here in the fall by 23 shots, and they’re considered a significant favorite even in a regional that includes the country’s top-ranked team. His biggest issue isn’t unfamiliarity, but complacency.

As for everybody else, the teams who arrived by van or plane and are simply trying to stay alive in this NCAA postseason?

Says FSU’s Jones, with a smile: “There are about 80 coaches around the country right now telling their guys that no matter where they are, this course is perfect for them.”

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After Further Review: Tiger's return comes at perfect time

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 2:19 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the current state of golf as Tiger Woods returns to competition ...

Less than four days before Tiger Woods returns to official competitive golf for the first time in a year, Jon Rahm, the new second-ranked player in the world, won on the PGA Tour and Rory McIlroy made an impressive 2018 debut on the European Tour (T-3).

Not since Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus crossed paths at the 1960 U.S. Open has there been so many superstars all poised for big seasons, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson having already won this year and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas both coming off stellar seasons.

It’s a good time for golf. - Rex Hoggard

On Tommy Fleetwood's continued success ...

There have been scores of talented European players whose skills didn’t translate to the PGA Tour … and maybe, in a few years, Tommy Fleetwood will prove to be no different.

He sure looks like the real deal, though.  

His title defense in Abu Dhabi – on the strength of a back-nine 30 in windy conditions – was his third title in the past 12 months and 11th top-10 overall. A few of those have come in majors and World Golf Championship events, too, which led the reigning Race to Dubai champion to accept PGA Tour membership for this season.

Beginning at Riviera, he plans to play exclusively in the States through May, then reassess for the rest of the year. Hope he sticks, because he’s a fun personality with tons of game. - Ryan Lavner

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Rahm passes Spieth to become world No. 2

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:25 am

With his win Sunday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jon Rahm picked up his second PGA Tour victory and moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.

He picked up one more No. 2, too.

The 23-year-old Spaniard passed Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Dustin Johnson.

In 19 months, since June 2016, Rahm has rocketed from No. 776 in the world to No. 2, thanks in part to his low divisor, his number of events played.

Asked after his playoff victory over Andrew Landry to discuss his rapid ascent up the world rankings, Rahm was almost at a loss.

“It's hard to believe to be honest, passing Jordan Spieth,” he said. “That's a three-time major champion. I only have two wins. He's got 10-plus, right? It's again – I've said it many times – I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now.”

Rahm may only have two PGA Tour titles, but this is his fourth worldwide win in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. He also took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship on his way to claiming the European Tour’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Award.

Dating back to the start of last season on the PGA Tour, Rahm has racked up 12 top-10s, three runner-ups, and two wins.

He will head to Torrey Pines next week ready to defend for the first time.

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Brady compares self to Woods after winning AFC title

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 1:05 am

Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are two of the all-time greats in their respective sports ... a fact that is not lost on the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Fresh off leading the New England Patriots to a AFC Championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady was asked about winning the game despite a cut on his throwing hand - which made national news heading into the matchup.

His response invoked the name of a certain 14-time major winner, something that would be tough to pull off, if not for the fact that he is, you know, Tom Brady.

“I think it's kind of arrogant to say it bothered me when we had a pretty good game, so I wouldn't say that," the 40-year-old told reporters after the game. "It's like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game’ and he won the tournament."

Tiger Woods winning with his "C game" may be a distant memory for golf fans, but no matter what game he brings, his next chance to win comes next week at Torrey Pines during his official comeback to the PGA Tour.

Brady has a shot at his sixth Super Bowl title in two weeks. The Patriots would probably benefit from him bringing a little better than his "C game" as well.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

Jon Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means: This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Rahm missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18 of the day, his birdie bid found the cup. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest: A two-time winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day: Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day: "One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry