Southern Highlands a de facto NCAA preview

By Ryan LavnerMarch 6, 2014, 4:33 pm

There was not an official NCAA Preview last fall at Prairie Dunes.

No matter.

This weekend’s Southern Highlands Collegiate should help identify which teams are trending upward as we reach the final leg of the 2013-14 college season. Consider it a de facto NCAA preview.

Eight of the top 15 teams in the country – including each of the top 5 (Alabama, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, California and Georgia) – will tee it up in Las Vegas in the strongest regular-season field of the year.

What’s more, 10 of the top 12 players in Golfstat’s individual rankings (including No. 1 Joey Garber, No. 2 Robby Shelton and No. 3 Brandon Hagy) will compete at Southern Highlands. 

“To have so many top teams and players get together on a good golf course, it’s great to stack them up and see where they stand,” said Stanford coach Conrad Ray. “It’s a really high-quality event with all the big teams there.”

Here’s a quick primer on the three-day event, which begins Friday:

WHICH TEAMS ARE MOST INTRIGUING?

• This is Alabama’s first start since it lost to Houston earlier this week in Cabo. That runner-up finish – against a field that did not feature a single other top-10 team – stopped the Tide’s 11-event win streak and showed the rest of the country that they could be beaten if not on their A-game.

• Cal lost one of its best players, Michael Kim, to the pros during the winter, but the Golden Bears have won each of their two starts this spring. They’re the defending champions at this event, and another victory here would send a message that they’ll still be one of the teams to beat at NCAAs. Senior Brandon Hagy has asserted himself as one of the best players in the game – he has yet to finish worse than eighth in seven starts this season – while junior Joel Stalter has a pair of wins and two other top 5s in his last four appearances.

• Can a team with four consecutive wins still be underrated? We will find out this week with second-ranked Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have notched a few big-time victories this season, but another title here would move them out from Alabama’s considerable shadow.


WHICH TEAM COULD SURPRISE?

• On paper, at least, it seems like Stanford should win nearly every time it tees it up. The Cardinal have junior Patrick Rodgers, a two-time All-American who announced this week that he would turn pro after NCAAs; Cameron Wilson, a crafty left-hander who has surged to No. 3 in the country; Viraat Badhwar, the 2013 Australian Masters of the Amateurs champion; David Boote, a decorated amateur player in England; and Jim Liu, a former U.S. Junior champion. Stanford has struggled with week-in, week-out consistency, but when all of the pieces come together, this group will be dangerous.


DOES A TEAM’S PERFORMANCE HERE USUALLY PORTEND NCAA SUCCESS?

Not always. Let’s take a look back at the team and individual champions here since 2009, the first year that the NCAA Championship implemented match play. 

2013: Cal won by double digits, but that wasn’t surprising since it won 11 of 13 events a year ago. The top 3 teams at the Southern Highlands all eventually advanced to match play at the NCAA Championship, including NCAA champion Alabama, which tied for second here. Individual winner: Patrick Rodgers, Stanford. 

2012: UNLV swept both the team and individual titles, though that didn’t help the Rebels much come postseason time. They failed to even advance past NCAA regionals, while Texas (sixth at Southern Highlands) and Alabama (T-9) eventually got the last laugh. Individual winner: Blake Biddle, UNLV.

2011: Oklahoma State had both the team and individual champion in Las Vegas, and the Cowboys eventually reached the semifinals of the NCAA Championship. Georgia, meanwhile, tied for sixth at Southern Highlands but advanced to the NCAA finals. Individual winner: Morgan Hoffmann, Oklahoma State 

2010: Host UNLV and UCLA shared the team title at Southern Highlands, but that didn’t help either school when it came to NCAAs – they both didn’t advance to match play, and neither did the teams that finished third and fourth, respectively, in Vegas, USC and Texas A&M. Oklahoma State finished 11th at Southern Highlands and eventually lost in the NCAA finals. Individual winner: Jesper Kennegard, Arizona State

2009: Since 2002, when the event was moved to Southern Highlands, UNLV has won the title outright five times and tied another (2010). This was another one of those victories, though the Rebels failed to even make the cut at NCAA regionals. The team that won the NCAA title that year, Texas A&M, was 11th in Vegas. Individual winner: Cameron Tringale, Georgia Tech


SO, WHO WINS?

The best team doesn’t always win here, as we just highlighted, so let’s go with third-ranked Georgia Tech. Making their first start in this event since 2011, the Yellow Jackets have won or finished second in five of their six starts this season, and they’re solid (and experienced) all the way down their lineup. Individually, it’s hard to look past Alabama super-freshman Robby Shelton, who has four top 5s in six starts, but there hasn’t been a first-time winner here in the past several years. So here’s predicting a Patrick Rodgers repeat. With the clock ticking on his college career, he’s ultra-motivated to hunt down Tiger Woods’ school record of 11 wins. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in four months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014. 

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"


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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."