Coaches experience anxiety, paranoia during regionals

By Ryan LavnerMay 14, 2014, 7:00 pm

AUBURN, Ala. – From the moment when last week’s NCAA men’s regional bids were announced until the final putt is holed Saturday, college coaches’ blood pressure remains a few ticks north of normal.

They fret. They pace. They experience live-scoring withdrawals. Over the past week, they have made travel arrangements, found a place to play the day before the practice round, learned the host course, studied the competition and rehearsed the game plan. Now, the only thing left to do is take … a … breath.

After all, only their entire season is riding on this three-day tournament.

“It’s the most paranoid week of the year,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “There’s nothing like it.”

The make-or-break, 54-hole event begins Thursday at six sites around the country. The Auburn regional here features 14 teams, including the top-ranked Crimson Tide, and five individuals. The rest of the top 6 in Golfstat’s rankings – Oklahoma State, Stanford, California, Georgia Tech and Georgia – represent the No. 1 seeds at the Columbia (Mo.), Eugene (Ore.), Sugar Grove (Ill.), Raleigh (N.C.) and San Antonio regionals, respectively.

After three rounds, the low five teams and low individual on a non-qualifying team from each regional – a total of 30 teams and six individuals – will advance to next week’s NCAA Championship at Prairie Dunes.

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The beauty of this event: For the next three days, a team’s national ranking guarantees nothing. If it doesn’t finish in the top 5 here, summer vacation starts early.

“When you’re a high seed, it’s everything to lose, nothing to gain,” said SMU coach Josh Gregory, who led Augusta State to back-to-back national titles in 2010-11.

And it’s true: The predominant feeling post-round is relief, not joy. The powerhouse programs are expected to win their regional and head to Kansas. If they barely advance, doubt creeps in. If they’re left out, it’s utter devastation. For the top teams so used to collecting titles all season, it’s really a no-win situation.   

“For those of us who have lived it,” Cal coach Steve Desimone said, “I don’t care if we finish first or fifth. You just want to take that next step.”

If nothing else, this week offers fascinating insight into the mind of a leader.

Some coaches, like Texas A&M’s J.T. Higgins, prefer to simply step back and let their players perform. “I’m tougher on them and more intense during the regular season than regionals,” he said. “This is what we’ve worked for all year, and I want them to play free.”

Others, like Seawell, try to exude an air of calm and tranquility, if only so their players aren’t spooked, too. After all, ’Bama’s 12th-year coach learned his lesson back in 2006, when his team played in the Arizona regional. Late in the first round the Tide had stumbled, dropping out of the lead and into eighth place. There still were two rounds to go, plenty of time to regroup, but Seawell panicked.

“We talked too much about the situation and what happened instead of the fact that we’re playing really good,” he recalled. “We got caught up in the importance of qualifying and what qualifying might mean.”

Alabama didn’t advance that year. A long summer of second-guessing ensued.

Desimone’s wild ride came in 2004. His Golden Bears had enjoyed a strong fall, but late in the season his guys were banged up – every starter missed at least two events because of injury. By the time the spring ended, Cal was a borderline top-25 program, a postseason afterthought.

That year at regionals, Cal was 21st out of 27 teams after the opening round in Sunriver, Ore. “One of my assistants said to me, ‘Are you going to read them the riot act?’” Desimone recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s the least I’m going to do!’ But I thought about it for an hour, and I knew how much these guys cared, how hard they’d worked all year, how they were in a bad spot. They needed more hugs than me flogging them.”

The next day, second-round conditions were cold, windy, brutal. Cal shot 11 under on a day when only two other schools broke par. The Golden Bears rocketed up to sixth place, advanced to the NCAA finals, and then won the whole thing a few weeks later.

After Cal won the national title, then-Arizona State coach Randy Lein ran up to Desimone, grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “That second round at regionals was the best round in college golf all year!”

But that’s what can happen at this tournament that requires a steady hand as much as a polished game. Some players will rise to the occasion; others will falter under the pressure. Some coaches will breeze through the week like it’s a fall practice; others will burn through gum as quickly as their cellphone battery.

“The emotions of it are so pure, so demanding, and the stress level is at an all-time high,” said Gregory. “You’re always on edge, and you never really breathe or relax until the final three holes.”

As for Desimone, now 65, he says he has chilled only slightly over the years.

When asked to describe his mindset during regionals these days, he laughed and said, “Neurotic. Our behavior this week will be the most erratic of the entire 52 weeks of the year.”

Desimone didn’t sleep very well the night the regional assignments were announced, and he likely won’t again until the NCAA finals conclude later this month. Cal has been a top-5 program each of the past two years, coasting through regionals each time. This year, as the top seed in the Illinois regional, the Golden Bears will travel two time zones and play in the backyard of not only the second-seeded and 2013 NCAA finalist Illini, but also Kent State and Purdue. The latter two teams have nothing to lose, a terrifying prospect for a coach.

“Last year was the most comfortable I’ve ever been,” Desimone said. “I told my wife last week, ‘Regionals are hardly ever a time to get comfortable.’ Something tells me this year will be anything but.”

Which is why on Saturday, he and longtime assistant Walter Chun will hustle to watch every shot on the back nine, to utilize every location they’ve mapped out, to say a few more prayers coming home.

“All of us coaches are going to have blurry vision watching our damn phones,” said Desimone, who, to be safe, packs three pairs of reading glasses – you know, just in case he loses the other two.  

At least then he’ll still be able to see what kind of madness is unfolding.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

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Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


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The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.

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Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:07 pm

Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.

The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.

It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.

"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.

Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.

"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."