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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Rahm, with blinders on, within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”

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Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.

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Rahm focusing on play, not shot at No. 1

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 9:06 pm

SAN DIEGO – Jon Rahm’s meteoric rise in the world rankings could end with him reaching No. 1 with a win this week at Torrey Pines.

After winning last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his fourth title in 51 weeks, Rahm has closed the gap on Dustin Johnson – less than 1.5 average points separates them.

With Johnson not playing this week, the 23-year-old Spaniard has a chance to reach the top spot for the first time, but only if he defends his title at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Farmers Insurance Open: Articles, photos and videos

“Beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task. It’s no easy task,” he said Tuesday. “We still have four days of golf ahead and we’ll see what happens. But I’ll try to focus more on what’s going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win.

“I’ll try my best, that’s for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

Rahm has already become the fourth-youngest player to reach No. 2 in the world, behind Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. 

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Rahm: Playoff wasn't friendly, just 'nervous'

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 8:53 pm

SAN DIEGO – Too chummy? Jon Rahm says he and Andrew Landry were just expending some nervous energy on the walk up to the fairway during the first playoff hole of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

“I wouldn’t have been that nervous if it was friendly,” Rahm said with a smile Tuesday. “I think it was something he said because we were talking going out of the first tee.

“I didn’t know Andrew – I think it was a pretty good time to get to know him. We had at least 10 minutes to ourselves. It’s not like we were supporting each other, right? We were both in it together, we were both nervous together, and I felt like talking about it might have eased the tension out of both of us.”

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On Sunday, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange saw the exchange on TV and tweeted: “Walking off the tee talking to each other. Are you kidding me? Talking at all?”

Strange followed up by saying that, in a head-to-head situation, the last thing he’d want to do was make his opponent comfortable. When his comments went viral, Strange tweeted at Rahm, who won after four holes: “Hopefully no offense taken on my comment yesterday. You guys are terrific. I’m a huge fan of all players today. Made an adverse comment on U guys talking during playoff. Not for me. A fan.”

Not surprisingly, the gregarious Rahm saw things differently.

“We only talked going out of the first tee up until the fairway,” he said. “Besides that, all we said was, ‘Good shot, good putt, see you on the next tee.’ That’s what it was reduced to. We didn’t say much.” 

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Tiger grouped with Reed, Hoffman at Torrey Pines

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 8:35 pm

SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods will make his 2018 debut alongside Patrick Reed and Charley Hoffman.

The threesome will go off Torrey Pines’ South Course at 1:40 p.m. ET Thursday at the Farmers Insurance Open. They begin at 12:30 p.m. Friday on the North Course.

Woods is an eight-time winner at Torrey Pines, including the 2008 U.S. Open, but he hasn’t broken 70 in his last seven rounds on either course. Last year, he shot rounds of 76-72 to miss the cut.

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Reed, who has grown close to Woods after being in his pod during the past two international team competitions, is coming off a missed cut last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Hoffman, a San Diego native, has only two top-10s in 20 career starts at Torrey.

Other featured groups for the first two rounds include:

• Jon Rahm, Jason Day and Brandt Snedeker: 1:30 p.m. Thursday off South 1, 12:20 p.m. Friday off North 10

• Rickie Fowler, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele: 12:30 p.m. Thursday off North 10, 1:30 p.m. Friday off South 1

• Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama: 12:40 p.m. Thursday off North 10, 1:40 p.m. Friday off South 1