Eyes on NCAAs after Illinois, USC win East Lake Cup

By Ryan LavnerNovember 3, 2015, 11:57 pm

ATLANTA – They call him “Big Body Burge,” partly because the 6-foot, 185-pounder is a beast in the weight room, but mostly because he mashes the ball off the tee – he’s longer than any player in college golf.

The problem Illinois senior Alex Burge occasionally encounters, of course, is that those big blasts tend to drift off-line, leading to big numbers and squandered opportunities and disappointing rounds.

“He’s been so up and down,” said Illini assistant coach Zach Barlow, and so it wasn’t a total surprise that when he approached the penultimate group Tuesday at East Lake, Burge was searching, 3 down with six to play in his match against Georgia junior Greyson Sigg.

Then Burge won the next two holes with par. Then he drained a 20-footer for birdie on 16. Then he rolled in another one on 17. All square.

With his Illinois teammates now gathered around the tee box on the par-3 finishing hole, with the overall team match now hinging on his result, Burge flushed what he thought was a perfect long iron into a cold, steady mist. It came up short, in wet, juicy rough on a steep bank, a spot so awkward that he needed to balance on his toes just to avoid tumbling into the bunker.

“It could have come out a million different ways,” Barlow said, but instead the pitch shot came out perfect, soft and with spin, and nestled to within a few inches for a conceded par. Sigg holed an 8-footer just to stay alive.

That’s when Big Body Burge did what he does best, thumping one of his biggest drives of the week, a mighty blow up the hill on the par-5 10th that left him only 234 yards to the flag – and 30 yards ahead of Sigg.

Needing to step on a 3-wood, Sigg came out of the shot and flared it way right, his ball crashing around in the trees. Burge ripped a 2-iron right at the flag, to within 30 feet. His two-putt birdie gave him the win, yes, but also lifted the Illini to the overall team title, 3-1-1, at the inaugural East Lake Cup. It was a significant match-play victory for a squad that has come so close, so often over the last few years in the NCAA Championship.

“It’s a big confidence boost for me,” Burge would say later. “I’ve been on the other side of the spectrum a few times, so to be able to come back and pull it out was exciting.”

Illinois entered this week as the favorite – the No. 2 ranking, the three fall wins, the four top-50 players. But match play has been unkind to the Illini of late. In 2013, they lost in the NCAA final. The next year, they dropped a quarterfinal match. And then, in June, at Concession, they earned the No. 1 seed in stroke play but fell short in the semifinals.

“You just have to keep knocking on the door,” Illinois coach Mike Small said. “Match play is fleeting; it’s a different animal.”

Keep listening to Small and Barlow, though, and it’s clear that lessons were learned this week.

They learned that Belgian Thomas Detry has what it takes to lead off. He went 2-0.

They learned that Charlie Danielson, who is the highest-ranked player on the team (No. 7), is improving every week and makes for a tough out in the middle of the lineup. He went 2-0.

They learned that sophomore Nick Hardy is one of the grittiest competitors in the country, hanging with both USC’s Sean Crocker and Georgia’s Lee McCoy in the anchor spot despite driving it all over the map.

And they learned that they can never count out Burge, the No. 5 man with no top 10s, no rounds in the 60s and a national ranking near 200 this season.

“He never looked fazed today,” Barlow said. “He never looked out of it. Some guys look defeated and you can kind of tell that it’s set in on them, but he stayed the course.”

So did the No. 1-ranked Southern Cal women’s team, after knocking off No. 2 Duke in what could be a NCAA preview.

Last year’s national championship was the first time that match play was used to decide the women’s final. The Trojans struggled to adjust to the format and watched as less-decorated Stanford and Baylor programs slugged it out in the last match.  

Here, Southern Cal appeared more confident. The Trojans pulled away from an injury-depleted Baylor team to reach the championship match, then overwhelmed the Blue Devils with their depth, taking advantage of an off-day from world No. 1 Leona Maguire and winning the women’s team title, 4-1.

“It’s another experience for them,” USC coach Andrea Gaston said. “That’s what matters, to get into the rhythm of match play and know that you’re not just playing the golf course. Anytime players can get this experience, we can bethat much better next time.”

USC put early points on the board thanks to Karen Chung and Kyung Kim. Most impressive was the performance of Gabriella Then, a former U.S. Junior champion who matched up against Maguire, the reigning NCAA player of the year.

Then jumped out to a 2-up lead at the turn, withstood a Maguire rally and put her away with a spectacular up-and-down on the 18th hole.

“That was a huge point for Gaby,” Gaston said, and moments later, across the pond, USC junior Tiffany Chan closed out her match, 3 and 2, for good measure.

“This is a chance for us to see what we can do, Nos. 1-5,” Gaston said, “and I felt we were very strong.”

Georgia coach Chris Haack felt the same way, even in a losing effort. He approached Small at the trophy presentation, shook his hand and couldn’t help but look toward NCAAs.

“I’ll be glad to do this one more time with you in late May,” Haack said.

Big Body Burge will be ready.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.