2015-16 College Preview: New class, attitude at Florida

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 9, 2015, 2:00 pm

Florida coach JC Deacon prides himself on getting to work early. A few days after returning from the U.S. Amateur in Chicago, he pulled into the team’s practice facility in Gainesville at 7:35 a.m. and was stopped by one of the cart guys.

“Do you know who that is right there?” the man asked Deacon, pointing to a solitary figure on the range, beating balls. 

“Yeah, that’s Blake Dyer,” Deacon replied. “He’s a freshman. You can introduce yourself.”

“Well, he’s been here since 5:55,” he said, heading back toward the pro shop.  

Deacon smiled, because that meant Dyer was logging a two-hour practice session before his first class of the day.

No, these aren't your typical college newcomers. 

“When you don’t have to chase the guys and tell them to work harder,” Deacon says now, “it sets the tone for everybody else.”

Deacon never lacks for energy or enthusiasm, but he’s been looking forward to this class, to this week, to this first event ever since he was named the Gators’ 15th head coach on June 14, 2014.

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A former Canadian Tour player, Deacon, 33, took over for Buddy Alexander, the legendary coach who in 27 years won two NCAA titles and eight SEC Championships, and oversaw the development of 31 PGA Tour players, including Chris DiMarco, Billy Horschel and Camilo Villegas.

It was time for a change. The Gators hadn’t seriously challenged for a NCAA title in nearly a decade, and in 2014, Alexander’s last year, they placed 12th at SECs and failed to reach nationals for the first time since 2000. 

The program was scuffling, and of greatest concern to Deacon in those early days was that he might not be able to retain assistant coach John Handrigan, who was being pursued by other top schools. After all, the two coaches barely knew each other, but Handrigan figured to be a key figure in the Gators’ future success, having established relationships and earned verbal commitments from Sam Horsfield and Jorge Garcia, two of the top prospects in the high school class of 2015.

“That uncertainty was probably the most stressful part of it,” Deacon said, “because then we would have had to start all over again.”

Handrigan agreed to stay, and together they formed a vision for what they wanted the program to become.

Their first task? Repairing the splintered relationships within the team. 

“I didn’t like the energy,” Deacon said. “I didn’t like the way the guys were treating each other. It was really difficult, and there were some pretty big issues – some tears and fighting and all of that good stuff. We really just focused on the relationships and building a team again.”

Not much was expected of the Gators, and they played like it too, finishing second-to-last in their season opener and stumbling to another poor finish against a strong field at Lake Nona.

What helped assuage the concerns in town was that Florida had landed arguably the best recruiting class in the country, built around Horsfield, a decorated amateur and English protégé of Ian Poulter, and Garcia, who moved from Venezuela when he was 12 and quickly became one of the most sought-after juniors.

They proved to be strong recruiters, as well: Horsfield introduced Deacon to Kyler Tate, one of his close friends and a highly regarded prospect out of Winter Garden and then Garcia helped convince Gordon Neale to spurn SMU and sign with the Gators.

Before long, Florida had amassed a super class, with three of the top-15 juniors, and four of the top 40. It was the college golf version of the Miami Heat’s Big 3 – an orchestrated attempt by close friends to join forces and try and win championships.

“That was one of the things that was really important to me,” Horsfield said, “being around people I know and really good players. I have that at Florida.” 

Of course, the team back in Gainesville felt the buzz, was asked endlessly about the incoming class, read the stories about another big-time junior victory, listened to the coaches talk about how good the Gators were going to be … and began to feel like they were left behind.

Finally, during the winter break, JD Tomlinson, a graduating senior, walked into Deacon’s office and spoke up.

“We just feel like you’re waiting for next year and that class,” he said, “and not focusing on what we’re doing now.” 

After that meeting, the Gators turned around their season and notched a couple of runner-up finishes, but they were dealt another huge blow late in the spring when their best player, Alejandro Tosti, was hospitalized because of viral meningitis. They were thought to have little chance of advancing at regionals, where only five of 13 teams move on, but they challenged for medalist honors before settling for fourth and an NCAA berth.

Those 20-year-olds who didn’t like each other, barely talked or hung out? Now they were laughing and celebrating and hugging each other behind the 18th green. 

“Seeing that,” Deacon said, “was one of the best moments of my coaching career.”

Sure, the Gators were overmatched at nationals, but merely reaching that point, with that group, and without Tosti, exceeded Deacon’s expectations “by a million miles.” 

And so, on June 2, the day after their NCAAs were over, it was time for Deacon and Co. to move forward.

He started an iPhone group chat that included all of his players – the promising freshmen, the established returners – and they chatted all summer, congratulating each other on strong performances in amateur tournaments and hyping up the year to come.

“By the time they got here,” Deacon said, “the seniors and older guys felt like they’d known them forever.” 

Dyer may have been the only player on the range at 5:55 that morning, but soon he was joined by Horsfield and Garcia, who were late arrivals after the U.S. Amateur. The older players have followed suit too, realizing that their roster spot is no longer guaranteed. 

“They’ve had a bit of a wakeup call,” Deacon said. “These kids mean business and they want to achieve the highest level they can. This is what we all wanted.”

So is this: On Friday, when the Gators open their season at the Carpet Capital in Georgia, they will start four of the heralded freshmen. A new era has begun. 

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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."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.