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.”

If Park is nervous, she sure doesn't show it

By Randall MellNovember 17, 2017, 11:24 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Sung Hyun Park says she can feel her heart pounding every time she steps to the first tee.

She says she always gets nervous starting a round.

You don’t believe it, though.

She looks like she would be comfortable directing a sky full of Boeing 737s as an air traffic controller at Incheon International Airport . . .

Or talking people off the ledges of skyscrapers . . .

Or disarming ticking bombs . . .

“In terms of golf, I always get nervous,” she insists.

Everything about Park was at odds with that admission Friday, after she took control halfway through the CME Group Tour Championship.

Her Korean nickname is “Dan Gong,” which means “Shut up and attack.” Now that sounds right. That’s what she looks like she is doing, trying to run roughshod through the Tour Championship in a historic sweep of all the LPGA’s most important awards and honors.

Park got just one look at Tiburon Golf Club before this championship began, playing in Wednesday’s pro-am. Then she marched out Thursday and shot 67, then came out Friday and shot 65.

At 12 under overall, Park has a three-shot lead on Caroline Masson and Sarah Jane Smith.

She is six shots up on Lexi Thompson, who leads the CME Globe point standings in the race for the $1 million jackpot.

She is 11 shots up on world No. 1 Shanshan Feng.

And 11 shots up on So Yeon Ryu, who leads the Rolex Player of the Year point standings.

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Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship

There’s a long way to go, but Park is in position to make an epic sweep, to win the Tour Championship, that CME Globe jackpot, the Rolex Player of the Year Award, the Rolex Rookie of the Year Award, the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, the LPGA money-winning title and the Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Nobody’s ever dominated a weekend like that in women’s golf.

It’s all there for the taking now, if Park can keep this going.

Park has another nickname back in South Korea. Her fans call her “Namdalla.” That means “I am different.” She’ll prove that if she owns this weekend.

Park, 24, isn’t assuming anything. She’s humbly aware how much talent is flooding the LPGA, how the tour’s depth was underscored in a year where five different players have reigned as world No. 1, five different players won majors and 22 different winners stepped forward in 32 events.

“I don’t think it’s quite that far a lead,” Park said of her three-shot advantage. “Two, three shots can change at any moment.”

About those nerves that Park insists plague her, even Hall of Famer Judy Rankin can’t see it.

Not when Park unsheathes a driver on a tee box.

“She’s the most fearless driver of the ball out here,” Rankin said. “I would put Lexi a close second and everybody else a distant third. She hits drivers on holes where you shouldn’t, and she hits it long and she just throws it right down there between hazard stakes that are 10 yards apart, like it’s nothing. Now, that’s a little hyperbole, but she will hit driver almost everywhere.”

David Jones, Park’s caddie, will attest to that. He was on Park’s bag when she won the U.S. Women’s Open in July and won the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in August.

“She reaches for driver a lot because she is a good driver,” Jones said. “She isn’t reckless. She’s as accurate with a driver as she is a 3-wood.”

Park and Thompson played together in the first round. Park is eighth on tour in driving distance, averaging 270 yards per drive, and Thompson is third, averaging 274.

Thompson loves to hit driver, too, but . . . 

“Lexi hit a lot of 3-woods compared to us when we played together yesterday,” Jones said.

Jones doesn’t find himself talking Park out of hitting driver much.

“It’s really simple,” Jones said. “When you hit driver as straight as she does, why mess around?”

Count Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, a student of the swing, among admirers of Park’s abilities.

“No other swing in the game comes close to her technical perfection and elegance in my opinion,” Chamblee tweeted Friday.

Come Sunday, Park hopes to complete a perfect sweep of the LPGA’s most important awards.

National champion Sooners meet with Trump in D.C.

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 17, 2017, 11:10 pm

The national champion Oklahoma men's golf team visited Washington D.C. on Frday and met with President Donald Trump.

Oklahoma topped Oregon, 3 1/2 to 1 1/2, in last year's national final at Rich Harvest Farms to win their second national championship and first since 1989.

These pictures from the team's trip to Washington popped up on social media late Friday afternoon:

Rookie Cook (66-62) credits prior Tour experience

By Rex HoggardNovember 17, 2017, 10:36 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Austin Cook is a rookie only on paper. At least, that’s the way he’s played since joining the circuit this season.

This week’s RSM Classic is Cook’s fourth start on Tour, and rounds of 66-62 secured his fourth made cut of the young season. More importantly, his 14-under total moved him into the lead at Sea Island Resort.

“I really think that a couple years ago, the experience that I have had, I think I've played maybe 10 events, nine events before this season,” Cook said. “Being in contention a few times and making cuts, having my card has really prepared me for this.”

RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic

Cook has been perfect this week at the RSM Classic and moved into contention with four consecutive birdies starting at No. 13 (he began his round on the 10th hole of the Seaside course). A 6-footer for birdie at the last moved him one stroke clear of Brian Gay.

In fact, Cook hasn’t come close to making a bogey this week thanks to an equally flawless ball-striking round that moved him to first in the field in strokes gained: tee to green.

If Cook has played like a veteran this week, a portion of that credit goes to long-time Tour caddie Kip Henley, who began working for Cook during this year’s Tour finals.

“He’s got a great golf brain,” Henley said. “That’s the most flawless round of golf I’ve ever seen.”

Cook fires 62 for one-shot lead at RSM Classic

By Associated PressNovember 17, 2017, 10:26 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – PGA Tour rookie Austin Cook made a 6-foot birdie putt on his final hole for an 8-under 62 and a one-shot lead going into the weekend at the RSM Classic.

Cook has gone 36 holes without a bogey on the Plantation and Seaside courses at Sea Island Golf Club. He played Seaside - the site of the final two rounds in the last PGA Tour event of the calendar year - on Friday and ran off four straight birdies on his opening nine holes.

''We've just been able to it hit the ball really well,'' Cook said. ''Speed on greens has been really good and getting up-and-down has been great. I've been able to hit it pretty close to the hole to make some pretty stress-free putts. But the couple putts that I have had of some length for par, I've been able to roll them in. Everything's going well.''

The 26-year-old former Arkansas player was at 14-under 128 and had a one-stroke lead over Brian Gay, who shot 64 on Seaside. No one else was closer than five shots going into the final two rounds.

The 45-year-old Gay won the last of his four PGA Tour titles in 2013.

RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic

''I've hit a lot of greens and fairways,'' Gay said. ''I've hit the ball, kept it in front of me. There's a lot of trouble out here, especially with the wind blowing, so I haven't had to make too many saves the first couple days and I putted well.''

Cook has made the weekend cuts in all four of his starts this season. He earned his PGA Tour card through the Tour, and has hired Gay's former caddie, Kip Henley.

''With him being out here so long, he knows everybody, so it's not like I'm completely the new kid on the block,'' Cook said. ''He's introduced me to a lot of people, so it's just making me feel comfortable out here. He knows his way around these golf courses. We're working really well together.''

First-round leader Chris Kirk followed his opening 63 on the Plantation with a 70 on the Seaside to drop into a tie for third at 9 under with C.T. Pan (65) and Vaughn Taylor (66).

Brandt Snedeker is looking strong in his first start in some five months because of a sternum injury. Snedeker shot a 67 on the Plantation course and was six shots back at 8 under.

''I was hitting the ball really well coming down here,'' Snedeker said. ''I was anxious to see how I would hold up under pressure. I haven't played a tournament in five months, so it's held up better than I thought it would. Ball-striking's been really good, mental capacity's been unbelievable.

''I think being so fresh, excited to be out there and thinking clearly. My short game, which has always been a strength of mine, I didn't know how sharp it was going to be. It's been really good so far.''