Despite drawbacks, 72 holes validates NCAA champ

By Ryan LavnerMay 20, 2014, 1:30 pm

Back in 2009, a few college coaches were hustling to catch up to their team when they squinted and saw a small crowd gathered around the ninth green at Inverness Golf Club. Off in the distance was N.C. State’s Matt Hill, putting the finishing touches on one of the most dominating seasons in recent memory.

Hill had just won the NCAA Championship. It was his eighth victory of the season. It was a crowning achievement. And the coaches kept walking.

An overlooked winner? Well, it won’t happen this year. The individual champion will be impossible to miss next Monday at Prairie Dunes.

Responding to “input from college coaches nationwide,” the NCAA announced last year that the 2014 finals will introduce a fourth and final round of stroke play in addition to the match-play team championship.

Above all, the move to 72 holes legitimizes the individual championship and potentially positions the event to someday receive a Masters berth.

Few disagree with the premise that 72 holes is a better way to determine the winner. After all, it’s the standard in championship golf, and elite players tend to distinguish themselves the longer they compete.

Not that recent NCAA champions have been unworthy, of course: Since 2009, the roll call of 54-hole winners includes Hill, Scott Langley, John Peterson, Thomas Pieters and Max Homa. Just last weekend, Pieters lost in a playoff on the European Tour and Homa closed with 63 to win a Tour event. There are no fluke winners here.

Alas, on college golf’s biggest stage, those wins were both overshadowed and anticlimactic.

For years, the individual title has served as the undercard to the race for match play. The pairings for the third and final round of stroke-play qualifying were based on the team standings, not individuals. So, as it turned out, the medalists in 2009, 2010 and 2012 began their final round on the back nine, because their team was out of contention. In 2011, Peterson had to wait six hours to find out whether he had won. Buzzkill.

That said, as much as coaches pushed for this change, for some of the best amateurs in the world to be recognized, there are potential drawbacks to this new 72-hole format – all of which figures to make next Monday’s televised event an intriguing experiment.

First, let’s start with the basics. The three-round qualifier for match play will be held Friday-Sunday. After three rounds, the field is cut to the low eight teams for the match-play bracket, but – new this year – also the low 40 and ties individually. Those players then will compete in the final round Monday, with Golf Channel cameras rolling.

What left many coaches unsatisfied, however, was the condensed match-play schedule. Because of the additional day of stroke play, the quarterfinals and semifinals are now squeezed into one day (Tuesday), with the two-team finals on Wednesday.

Yes, college golfers are used to playing 36 holes in one day – that’s the first-day format for most regular-season tournaments – but never when the stakes are this high. Even the NCAA tournament committee is aware of the potential ramifications.

“I’m not going to suggest that the stress and the moment isn’t greater (than regular 36-hole days). It certainly is,” said Mike Carter, chairman of the NCAA golf committee. “But this is an opportunity to learn how to manage those emotions and learn how to deal with that stress.”

As we’ve seen in the past, however, it oftentimes is difficult for the five players to sustain the momentum of a huge upset. In 2009, No. 2-ranked Georgia knocked off No. 1 Oklahoma State in the first round of match play. For the Bulldogs, it felt like they’d won the championship. But a few hours later, their energy was sapped and they lost to an inferior Arkansas team in the semis. Each match is so emotional, so intense, so draining, there often isn’t much left for the afternoon.

“That 36-hole day is going to be brutal,” said Cal coach Steve Desimone. “No doubt some of these players (not in the individual championship) are going to be able to recharge their batteries and rest while some of the best players keep going. I can see where that can be a great equalizer.”

Said SMU coach Josh Gregory, who led Augusta State to back-to-back national titles in 2010-11: “It’s the worst change made in college golf in a long time. You’re absolutely worn out after each match. You need the rest of that day to detox, rest and recover.”

Ask players which championship they covet most, and the answer is almost unanimous: the team title. They have the rest of their professional lives to pursue individual accolades. They’re part of a team only once.  

“They’re trying to be a house divided,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “They’re trying to create high priority on the individual champion and high priority on the team champion, and they don’t go together. Never have, never will. Until we get that, we’re always going to be just missing.”

Several coaches also expressed concern about the potential for withdrawals on Monday. The top 15 finishers receive All-American status, but if an advancing team has a player plodding along in 35th place, what’s stopping that kid from pulling out of the event, resting and working on his game for match play? One coach joked there might be an epidemic that day of back tweaks, wrist sprains and flu-like symptoms.

Carter, though, said he wasn’t concerned. “This is all about the student-athlete experience,” he said. “This is an opportunity to play for themselves, for their family, for their team and for their school. We really did not have any serious consideration about that happening.”

The obvious question, then, is this: Why not just extend the NCAA Championship another day? That way there could be a 72-hole individual title, with the match-play bracket also spread out over three days. Though college coaches rarely agree on anything, that format would seem a logical compromise. But it’s not that simple.

“Those (six) are the days set by the NCAA and those are the number of days that they’re providing financial support for the tournament,” Carter said. “To stretch it out another day, that’s money that the committee doesn’t have the authority to spend.”

We’ll soon discover whether this experiment proves a grand success, or if it forces the NCAA to once again reexamine its championship format.

One thing is for certain, though: The individual champion no longer will play in obscurity. 

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Rahm manages frustration, two back at CareerBuilder

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 1:21 am

Jon Rahm managed the winds and his frustrations Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge to give himself a chance to win his fourth worldwide title in the last year.

Rahm’s 2-under-par 70 on the PGA West Stadium Course left him two shots off the lead going into the final round.

“I wasn’t really dealing with the wind that much,” Rahm said of his frustrations. “I was dealing with not being as fluid as I was the last two days.”

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The world’s No. 3 ranked player opened with a 62 at La Quinta Country Club on Thursday and followed it up with a 67 on Friday at PGA West. He made six birdies and four bogeys on the Stadium Course on Saturday.

“The first day, everything was outstanding,” Rahm said. “Yesterday, my driver was a little shaky but my irons shots were perfect. Today, my driver was shaky and my irons shots were shaky. On a course like this, it’s punishing, but luckily on the holes where I found the fairway I was able to make birdies.”

Rahm is projected to move to No. 2 in the world rankings with a finish of sixth or better on Sunday.

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Cook leads by one entering final round at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:51 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Austin Cook hit a hybrid into the fairway bunker on the par-4 18th on a breezy Saturday afternoon at La Quinta Country Club, then chunked a wedge and raced a chip 20 feet past the hole.

Kip Henley, the longtime PGA Tour caddie who guided Cook to a breakthrough victory at Sea Island in November, stepped in to give the 26-year-old former Arkansas star a quick pep talk.

''Kip said, 'Let's finish this like we did on the first day at the Nicklaus Course.' We made a big par putt on 18 there and he said, 'Let's just do the same thing. Let's get this line right and if you get the line right it's going in.'''

It did, giving Cook an 8-under 64 and a one-stroke lead in the CareerBuilder Challenge going into the final round on the Stadium Course at PGA West. Fellow former Razorback Andrew Landry and Martin Piller were tied for second, and Jon Rahm and Scott Piercy were a another stroke back after a tricky day in wind that didn't get close to the predicted gusts of 40 mph.

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''I know that I wouldn't have wanted to play the Stadium today,'' Cook said. ''I think we got a great draw with the courses that we got to play on the days that we got to play them.''

Cook played the final six holes on the front nine in 6 under with an eagle and four birdies.

''Starting on my fourth hole, I was able to make a birdie and kind of get the ball rolling and it never really stopped rolling,'' Cook said. ''Kip and I were doing really good at seeing the line on the greens.''

After a bogey on 10, he birdied 11, 12 and 15 and parred the final three to get to 19-under 197.

''I think that tonight the nerves, the butterflies, all that will kind of be a little less,'' Cook said. ''I've been in the situation before and I was able to finish the job on Sunday. I think it would be a little different if I didn't play like I did on Sunday at Sea Island.''

He's making his first start in the event.

''I came in from Hawaii on Monday, so I only had two days to prepare for three courses,'' Cook said.

Landry, the second-round leader, had a 70 at the Stadium. Piller, the husband of LPGA tour player Gerina Piller, shot a 67 at La Quinta. Winless on the PGA Tour, they will join Cook in the final threesome.

''Piller's a good guy and we have played a lot together and same with Cookie,'' said Landry, the only player without a bogey after 54 holes. ''Hope the Hogs are going to come out on top.''

Rahm had a 70 at the Stadium to reach 17 under. The third-ranked Rahm beat up the par 5s again, but had four bogeys – three on par 3s. He has played the 12 par 5s in 13 under with an eagle and 11 birdies.

''A little bit of a survival day,'' Rahm said.

The wind was more of a factor on the more exposed and tighter Stadium Course.

''The course is firming up,'' Rahm said. ''I know if we have similar wind to today, if we shoot something under par, you'll be way up there contesting it over the last few holes.''

Piercy had a 66 at the Stadium.

''I controlled my ball really well today,'' he said.

Adam Hadwin had a 67 at La Quinta a year after shooting a third-round 59 on the course. The Canadian was 16 under along with Grayson Murray and Brandon Harkins. Murray had a 67 on the Nicklaus Course, and Harkins shot 68 at the Stadium.

Phil Mickelson missed the cut in his first tournament of the year for the second time in his career, shooting a 74 on the Stadium to finish at 4 under – four strokes from a Sunday tee time. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer was playing for the first time since late October. He also missed the cut in the Phoenix Open in his 2009 opener.

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on the first sponsor exemption the event has given to an amateur, also missed the cut. He had three early straight double bogeys in a 77 on the Stadium that left him 1 over.

John Daly had an 80 at La Quinta. He opened with a triple bogey and had six bogeys – four in a row to start his second nine - and only one birdie. The 51-year-old Daly opened with a 69 on the Nicklaus layout and had a 71 on Friday at the Stadium.

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Phil misses CareerBuilder cut for first time in 24 years

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 am

Phil Mickelson missed the cut Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge. It’s a rare occurrence in his Hall of Fame career.

He has played the event 15 times, going back to when it was known as the Bob Hope Classic. He has won it twice.

How rare is his missing the cut there?

The last time he did so, there was no such thing as a DVD, Wi-Fi, iPods, Xbox, DVR capability or YouTube.

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The PGA Tour’s Jon Rahm didn’t exist, either.

The last time Mickelson missed a cut in this event was 1994, nine months before Rahm was born.

Mickelson struggled to a 2-over-par 74 in the heavy winds Saturday on the PGA West Stadium Course, missing the 54-hole cut by four shots. He hit just four of 14 fairways, just nine of 18 greens. He took a double bogey at the 15th after requiring two shots to escape the steep-walled bunker on the left side of the green.

Mickelson won’t have to wait long to try to get back in the hunt. He’s scheduled to play the Farmers Insurance Open next week at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.

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Defending champ Gana co-leads Latin America Amateur

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 11:20 pm

Toto Gana moved into early position to try to win a return trip to the Masters Saturday by grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship.

The defending champ posted a 3-under-par 68 at Prince of Wales Country Club in his native Chile, equaling the rounds of Argentina’s Mark Montenegro and Colombia’s Pablo Torres.

They are one shot ahead of Mexico’s Alvaro Ortiz and Mario Carmona, Argentina’s Horacio Carbonetti and Jaime Lopez Rivarola and the Dominican Republic’s Rhadames Pena.

It’s a bunched leaderboard, with 19 players within three shots of each at the top of the board in the 72-hole event.

“I think I have my game under control,” said Gana, 20, a freshman at Lynn University. “I hit the ball very well, and I also putted very well. So, I am confident about tomorrow.”

The LAAC’s champion will get more than a Masters invitation. He also will be exempt into the The Amateur, the U.S. Amateur and any other USGA event he is eligible to play this year. The champion and players who finish runner-up are also exempt into the final stages of qualifying for The Open and the U.S. Open.

The LAAC was founded by the Masters, the R&A and the USGA, with the purpose of further developing amateur golf in South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.