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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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.