Conditions making Women's NCAAs a test of survival

By Ryan LavnerMay 21, 2017, 11:18 pm

SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – Florida State’s Amy Bond, in her 17th year as a coach, has already experienced two career firsts this week at the NCAA Women’s Championship.

Both happened Friday, when the Seminoles and a few other highly ranked teams blew themselves out of contention for a national title.

First, Bond snapped wooden tees so a few of her players could tee up their hybrid shots on a – get this – artificial mat on the par-4 fourth hole, an emergency move by the NCAA after it became clear that some players wouldn’t be able to carry the hazard with the wind pumping into their face.

“Broke ’em in my hand,” Bond said. “It’s dumping rain, and I said, ‘Ah, just get them to me.’”

Later, she watched three of her players lay up on a 368-yard hole that they treated as a par 5, with a long carry over a hazard and a tree blocking the flag on the left side of the green.

It’s the luck of the draw, of course, but for two and a half hours Friday, the best teams in the country – the top seeds in the tournament – slashed away in horrible conditions that Bond said were the worst she’d ever seen on a course.

There was sideways rain that rendered umbrellas useless.

There were 30-mph gusts.

There was a 36-degree wind chill.

Not surprisingly, the golf was ugly: The top four seeds counted just 12 birdies, total, and there were 76 rounds in the 80s and 90s.

Rich Harvest Farms is a brute even when it’s calm, and the first two rounds here presented a challenge that no team could have possibly prepared for.

And, oh, did they try.

Bond’s FSU squad signed up for a four-team match-play event with Northwestern (about 60 miles away) on April 29. The reason Florida State, Duke and Alabama all made the trip up north was simple: They wanted to simulate the conditions they’d face a few weeks later, at nationals.

“A great idea,” Duke coach Dan Brooks said. “We thought we did all the right things.”

Right idea, poor execution.

Yes, Northwestern has cruised through 36 holes, leading the way here by eight shots at 23-over 599, but look at the last three teams from the morning wave:

Duke at 58 over.

Florida State at 59 over.

And Alabama, dead last, at 65 over.

“When you get a pencil in your hand and you have to put down a score,” Alabama coach Mic Potter said, “everything changes.”

Last year, as the No. 1-ranked team in the country, the Crimson Tide struggled in Round 1 at Eugene Country Club and failed to make match play. Now, even after Potter scouted Rich Harvest Farms last June and then added the match-play event to the schedule, his team appears poised to miss out again.

“It’s tough,” he said, “because we pointed toward this all year and coming into it, I felt like we were really prepared.

“I felt much more prepared this year coming into this. Even though I saw what the conditions were going to be the first day, I thought we had a team that was prepared to battle through it. But obviously we’ve got a little more work to do.”

What that means going forward is that the NCAAs will be missing some serious star power, with the eighth-, fifth- and second-ranked squads all essentially eliminated with one more round before the cut to the low eight teams for match play. (Stroke-play qualifying was reduced from 72 to 54 holes, because of weather.) More powerhouse programs are sure to join, after a second round that produced a scoring average north of 77 and no team score better than 10 over.

Said Brooks: “It’s like I told the team: We’re playing bad. That’s it. The sentence stops right there. If someone else has anything to say, don’t say it around me, because the sentence that needs to be said is that we’re playing bad, period. It’s not wrong tee times or they cut a day away. If they gave us five days and we played like this, it’s not going to make any difference.”

Even for those in contention, there’s a familiar sense of frustration and exasperation.

Two years ago, at Concession Golf Club outside Tampa, the cutoff for match play after four rounds was 62 over par.

It’s reasonable to expect the cut line here to fall somewhere around 50 over par – and that’s after only three rounds.

“You definitely have another Concession on your hands here,” Bond said.

But as much as the first two rounds were a test of survival, eight teams will still move on to the match-play portion, no matter how poor the golf has been to this point.

Said Florida coach Emily Glaser: “We’ve just got to try to give ’em heck and see what happens.”

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.