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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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."

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Rahm (62) shoots career low round at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 10:33 pm

After a banner year in 2017, Jon Rahm found a way to add yet another accolade to his growing list of accomplishments during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Rahm got off to a fast start at La Quinta Country Club, playing his first seven holes in 6 under en route to a 10-under 62. The score marked his career low on the PGA Tour by two shots and gave him an early lead in an event that utilizes a three-course rotation.

La Quinta was the site of Adam Hadwin's 59 during last year's event, and Rahm knew full well that a quick start opened the door to a memorably low score.

"Any time you have that going for you, you get thoughts come in your head, 60, maybe 59," Rahm told reporters. "I knew that if I kept playing good I was going to have more birdie opportunities, and I tried not to get ahead of myself and I was able to do it."

Rahm birdied his first two holes before an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole sparked him to an outward 30. He added four more birdies on the inward half without dropping a shot.

The Spaniard is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and while many players opted for a two-week stint in Hawaii he instead came home for some practice after opening the new year with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That decision appears to have paid some early dividends as Rahm gets set to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Low scores were plentiful on all three courses during the opening round, and Rahm remained pleased with his effort even though he fell short of matching Hadwin's sub-60 score from a year ago.

"That's golf. You're not going to make every single putt, you're not going to hit every shot perfect," he said. "Overall, you've got to look at the bigger picture. I birdied the last hole, had a couple of great sand saves coming in, shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for."

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''