Getty Images

Fight on: USC coach Gaston back after cancer battle

By Ryan LavnerOctober 31, 2017, 9:30 pm

ATLANTA – Already despondent after a playoff loss in the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Championship, Southern Cal coach Andrea Gaston gathered her team for the most difficult speech of her Hall of Fame career.

On the putting green at Rich Harvest Farms, with their opponents celebrating just a few feet away, Gaston told the Trojans that they had a great season. That no one expected them to advance that far. That she was proud of them.

And that she had something else to share.

For two months, Gaston, 59, had kept her health a secret, revealing her diagnosis to only about 10 of her closest friends. Doctors determined that she could delay surgery until after nationals, and so she didn’t tell any of her bosses at USC. She came close to telling her assistant coach, Stewart Burke, over an early-week dinner at nationals, but she ultimately decided against it, so she didn’t ruin his first NCAAs.

Then the moment arrived after the crushing loss last May, and nothing was planned, and it all just came spilling out. She had uterine cancer. Surgery was planned for later that week.

“I went blank and just started crying,” said sophomore Muni He.

“It was a shock for me,” Burke said. “It was heart-wrenching.”

East Lake Cup: Articles, photos and videos

Men’s and women’s scoring from the East Lake Cup

And yet, when she was diagnosed in March, Gaston chuckled at the latest obstacle put in her path. She was only 15 when she lost her mother to colon cancer. Her grandmother also passed away early, at 61 to breast cancer. It’s one of the main reasons why she didn’t tell her players – she didn’t want to scare them.

“These are young people, and they haven’t lost anybody near and dear in their life like I did. I didn’t want to shock them,” Gaston said. “I didn’t want them to be afraid. Everyone is afraid of that word ‘cancer.’

“But I went through that early in life, and I said that I would never allow myself to be afraid of something I’d come up against, if there was something that I had to battle. I was unafraid.”

Gaston is coaching USC this week at the East Lake Cup, just as she has for all three of the Trojans’ events this fall. The past five months have been eventful: She underwent a 6 1/2-hour procedure to remove the tumor and some additional lymph nodes; had three radiation treatments; reconnected with dozens of former players; and, yes, returned to work, as dedicated and driven as ever.

A day after the surgery, Burke checked on Gaston in the hospital. “The first thing she said to me was that a pretty high-profile player had just gotten a release and sent it to us, and she asked if I had spoken to her yet,” Burke recalled, laughing. “I had gotten the release at 11:45, called the player at 12, I was in the hospital at 2, and she was already asking what my thoughts were. That’s when I knew she was in safe hands.”

The rest of the team came to visit a few days later. They were stunned to see her walking around the hallways of the hospital without any assistance.

“Seeing how well she was recovering,” He said, “it was a sense of relief, knowing she was going to be OK.”

Once she was discharged from the hospital, Gaston welcomed scores of USC alums into her home – former stars, former walk-ons, even those she had once kicked off the team. Those chats often lasted hours.

“I didn’t want people being afraid of it,” she said.

Declared cancer-free in late June, Gaston turned her attention to on-site recruiting. She flew to the U.S. Girls’ Junior in Missouri, then hopped on a plane to Canada to watch one of the Trojans’ incoming players. It’s a never-ending job, and there’s an expectation level to maintain at Troy – Gaston has led USC to three national titles and 12 consecutive top-5 finishes at NCAAs.

“It was a little bit of a baptism by fire,” Burke said, “but she’s one of the most driven people I know. To go out there and show that she was willing to fight from the first day, I knew everything was going to work out great.”

The biggest challenge for Gaston has been managing her fatigue. It wasn’t unusual for her to attend practice in the morning, then undergo radiation treatment in the afternoon. Now in her 22nd year, she has finally learned to just … relax. To enjoy being home. To delegate. To take on challenges when she can.

Of course, those challenges never end, not in the hyper-competitive world of college athletics. This fall has been particularly stressful, with the likelihood that the Trojans will lose their two best players, Robynn Ree and He, at the halfway point of the season because of LPGA Q-School. Both Gaston and Burke have worked tirelessly to ensure that they’ll have three early enrollees who can start in the spring.

“There’s always something new,” she said, “and you have to be creative and try to reinvent yourself.”

Last week, at the Pac-12 Preview in Hawaii, Gaston played two rounds of golf, her first since the surgery. Even in chilly temperatures here at East Lake, she has trekked all over the course, eschewing a cart.

“She’s such a fighter,” Burke said, “and the rest of the team just sees what a beacon it is. If you set your mind to something, you can come back.”

Given her family history, Gaston views her comeback with a different perspective.

“See, Mom,” she said, “I’m still fighting.”

Getty Images

G-Mac has Ryder Cup on mind with Genesis in grasp

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 2:12 am

LOS ANGELES – Graeme McDowell is four years removed from his last start in a Ryder Cup and golf is more than seven months away from this year’s matches, but then it’s never too early to start daydreaming.

Following a third-round 70 that left him tied for third place and just two strokes off the lead at the Genesis Open, McDowell was asked if the matches are on his mind.

“I feel like I've got a lot of things to do between now and getting on that team,” he said. “Standing here right now it's probably not a realistic goal, but if I continue to play the way I'm playing for the next few months, it may start to become a realistic goal.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

McDowell began his week at Riviera Country Club fresh off four consecutive missed cuts and has drifted to 219th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But his play this week has been encouraging and the Northern Irishman has always relished the opportunity to play for Europe.

“Deep down I know I'm good enough, but I've got to show, I've got to put some results on the board, I've got to take care of my business,” he said. “The greatest experience of my career bar none, and I would love to play another couple Ryder Cup matches before it's all said and done.”

McDowell does have a potential advantage this year having won the French Open twice at Le Golf National, site of this year’s matches.

Getty Images

Bubba on McGrady block: 'Just trying not to get hurt'

By Will GrayFebruary 18, 2018, 1:56 am

LOS ANGELES – A detour to the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game didn’t keep Bubba Watson from leading this week’s Genesis Open, although an on-court brush with Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady nearly derailed his chances for a third tournament win.

Watson enters the final round at Riviera with a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay after firing a 6-under 65 in the third round. The day before, the southpaw left the course around lunch time and headed across town to participate in the All-Star festivities, where during the celebrity game he tried to score 1-on-1 over McGrady.

Watson’s move into the lane went about as well as you’d expect given their five-inch height disparity, with McGrady easily blocking the ball into the stands. According to Watson, he had only one thought as McGrady came barreling towards him across the lane.

“When I saw him, all I saw was, ‘This is my moment to get hurt,’” Watson said. “This big tank is about to hit me, and I was like, ‘Just knock it into the stands. Just don’t touch me.’ So it worked out, he didn’t touch me so it was good.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

Watson’s attempt went against his wife Angie’s advice to avoid the paint area, but it provided a fun moment for a player used to carving up fairways and greens – not to mention the guy who played 15 seasons in the NBA.

“Well, he’s got like just under 800 blocks for his career, so I gave him one more, you know?” Watson said. “It was just, it was a blast. I wanted to see how good he was, see if he could miss it. He hasn’t played in a while.”

Watson took some heat on Twitter from his PGA Tour peers for the rejection, but few were still laughing as he rocketed up the leaderboard Saturday with five birdies and an eagle. Now he has a chance to win this event for the third time since 2014 – even if he doesn’t plan to go toe-to-toe with McGrady again anytime soon.

“Some guys wanted to try to win MVP, so I was trying to pass it and let them have their fun and their moment,” Watson said. “I was just trying not to get hurt.”

Getty Images

Spieth on third-round 69: 'Putter saved me'

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 1:37 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth has spent the last few weeks talking about his putting for all the wrong reasons.

Two weeks ago when he missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open he lost 3.76 shots to the field in strokes-gained putting, and last week he wasn’t much better.

It looked like more of the same at the Genesis Open when he lost about a half stroke to the field on Day 1 with 29 putts, but since then his fortunes on the greens have gotten progressively better.

“I thought each day last week I progressed,” said Spieth, who needed just 24 putts on Friday and moved into a tie for 20th after taking 26 putts on Day 3.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

Spieth said he started to feel things turn around at Pebble Beach after working with his swing coach Cameron McCormick and Steve Stricker, who has become something of a putting sounding board for players on Tour.

“I got set up really nice. I got really comfortable on the greens even though they were very difficult to putt last week and this week,” said Spieth, who rolled in a birdie putt of 14 feet at No. 12 and a par putt of 35 feet at No. 14. “Any putt, I either made it or I left it just short today. It was one of those days that with the way I struck the ball, it was an off day, but that putter saved me and allowed me to shoot the lowest score so far this week.”

Spieth’s third-round 69 is his best of the week and moved him to within seven strokes of the lead, which is held by Bubba Watson.

Getty Images

Bouncing back: Watson seeks a third Riviera win

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2018, 1:25 am

LOS ANGELES – Yeah, but can Tracy McGrady smoke a 7-iron from 203 yards to kick-in range for eagle on Riviera Country Club’s opening hole?

The way Bubba Watson’s mind drifts there’s no telling if, as he began his day at the Genesis Open, he revisited his play from Friday night at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. If he did, it would have been an apropos conclusion after McGrady sent his weak floater into the cheap seats midway through the second quarter.

Either way, Watson made it clear playtime was over on Saturday. The eagle at the opening par 4 ½ sent Watson on his way to a third-round 65 and the outright lead at the Left Coast event that’s starting to feel like a second home for the lefthander.

In 11 starts at Riviera, Watson already has two victories. A third on Sunday could get folks talking about renaming the layout Bubba’s Alley. Or not.

What is certain is that Watson has emerged from a funk that sent him tumbling outside the top 100 in the world ranking and he’s done it in quintessential Bubba style.

If Friday’s detour to the celebrity game received worldwide attention it was only a snapshot of Watson’s Tinseltown itinerary. He taped a segment for Jay Leno’s Garage show, visited with Ellen DeGeneres and watched a taping of The Big Bang Theory. You know, L.A. stuff.

Oh, and he’s curved and carved his way around Riviera with signature abandon.

“You've got to hit shots from every different angle, you've got to move it right to left and left to right, so it's just fun,” said Watson, who also led by one stroke when he won here in 2016, his last victory on the PGA Tour. “Then the greens are the equalizer so it makes me look like I putt as good as the other guys.”

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

He “hammered” a 7-iron from 203 yards at the first to 1 ½ feet for his opening eagle, chipped in at the sixth to begin a run of four birdies in five holes and played the three par 5s in 3 under to move into a familiar spot after enduring his worst season on Tour in 2017 when he failed to advance past the second playoff event.

That he’s turned the tide in Los Angeles is as predictable as it is peculiar. Despite Watson’s record at the Genesis Open, Riviera wouldn’t seem to be the tonic for all that ails Bubba.

Ask a player - any player will do - the keys to playing Riviera and the answers range wildly from it being a bomber’s course to the need for ball-striking precision. But the word that comes up with regularity is "patience."

“Patience and pretty much just not being stupid, to be honest,” Justin Thomas said when asked the key to his third-round 67 that left him tied for eighth place. “Just stop trying to hit at pins with 5-irons and 6-irons, and when I hit in the rough, realize just try to make a par. When I get in places, when I'm out of position, realize that sometimes even bogey is what I need to make.”

While that thought dovetails with conventional wisdom, Watson’s not exactly known for his patience.

“Oh, for sure I do. Haven't you seen me in the last 12 years?” Watson laughed when asked if he had patience on the course. “The tougher the golf course, the more focus I have. The tougher the shot, I've been able to focus better. When I get my mind on something, I can focus and do pretty well at the game of golf.”

While Bubba drifts between artist and antagonist with ease, both on and off the golf course, his primary challenge on Sunday is the picture of thoughtful composure.

Patrick Cantlay, who returned to the Tour last season after struggling with back issues for years, began the third round with a share of the lead but quickly faded on the front nine. He rallied on the closing loop with birdies at Nos. 10, 11 and 18, where he capped his day with a 54-footer that assured him a spot in Sunday’s final threesome. Although he’s just 25 and playing his first full season on Tour, Cantlay’s approach to the game is patently different from Watson’s.

“I feel like if I can just engage and not worry about where I am on a particular hole or what's going on and I just engage and stay present in whatever I'm doing at that particular time, it all turns out better than what you would expect,” explained Cantlay, who attended nearby UCLA and played dozens of practice rounds at Riviera. “Making sure you stay present and having that confidence in yourself that if you just click in and focus, it all will be good and that's kind of the head space I'm in.”

It will be a clash of wildly contrasting styles on Sunday – Watson, who admitted he “(doesn’t) focus very well,” and Cantlay, whose approach to the mental side of the game borders on the clinical.

One player relishes the challenge of hyper-focus, the other is Bubba, but that’s not to say Watson is void of patience, only that he needs to be properly motivated.

“Like last night when Tracy McGrady was coming at me, I was focused on not getting hurt and I didn't, so it worked out,” Watson smiled.

And besides, T-Mac can’t bomb it like Bubba.