National champs Oklahoma get grit from coach

By Ryan LavnerJune 1, 2017, 4:24 pm

SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – On the course, in the locker room, Oklahoma coach Ryan Hybl kept preaching it.


You don’t often hear that word in the privileged world of college golf, where most of the problems are trivial, like whether players are able to pack a vest and a sweater or if they have enough snacks to last a five-and-a-half-hour round. But Hybl, 35, is a coaching throwback, a no-nonsense, straight-shooter who would fit in just as easily on the sidelines of a football game.

“Ryan is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met,” Baylor coach Mike McGraw said, “and that trickles down to his entire team. He’s the leader.”

And he’s one of the main reasons why 17th-ranked Oklahoma defeated Oregon and captured the NCAA Championship on Wednesday at Rich Harvest Farms. The Sooners were the rare title team with no superstar – their highest-ranked player was Grant Hirschman, at No. 48 – which points to Hybl’s sizable impact. He was able to maximize the potential of a group of largely unheralded players, lifting Oklahoma to its first national title since 1989. 

“We were talented enough; the talent was there,” Hybl said. “But now these guys just believed in themselves.”

NCAA Division I National Championships: Articles, photos and videos

It’s little surprise that Hybl took a hard-nosed approach to coaching. His father, Tom, was a high school football coach. His brother, Nate, went 19-3 as the Sooners’ starting quarterback and led the team to a Rose Bowl victory in 2003. Doggedness came naturally.

Ryan was a former junior world-beater who drained every ounce of his talent to become a two-time All-American at Georgia. With his playing career curtailed by an elbow injury, he signed on at his alma mater as an assistant to coach Chris Haack.

“Ryan was a grinder, even back in junior golf and college,” Haack said. “He was one of those blue-collar guys who worked hard and put in a lot of effort and never gave up on a shot. He brought that same mentality to his kids. He pushed the guys to dig deep.”

Hybl was only five years removed from college when Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione hired him to lead the men’s golf program, which was in need of a reboot after falling outside the top 100. It didn’t take long for Hybl to make his mark – Oklahoma has qualified for NCAAs each of the past seven seasons, joining powerhouse programs Southern Cal, Texas and Illinois.

Last year, the Sooners took another step, qualifying for match play for the first time, but they were smoked in the quarterfinals by Big 12 rival Texas.

“Back in our locker room in Norman, you could tell they were thinking about getting back here and showing that we’re better than that,” Hybl said. “Personally, I think that’s where this all goes back to. They were hungry to get back here.”

Their mantra became “OUrtime,” which appeared on nearly every social-media post. In practice they started playing fierce “Optimus Prime” matches, where all nine team members competed for points. The coaching staff pushed players to battle in the weight room and the classroom and on the range.

“He’s the most competitive guy I’ve ever worked with,” said Hybl’s assistant, Jim Garren. “We don’t just have fun days where we mess around. We want to win.”

Said Hybl: “You just have to be able to get as gritty as possible. We talked about it all the time. My guys know that they’re going to give everything that they can on every single shot, every single day, otherwise you don’t get a chance to play for us.”

Just ask Max McGreevy. The team’s senior leader, a third-team All-American, nearly didn’t qualify for Georgia Tech’s premier tournament in the fall. He won.

Just ask Grant Hirschman. The team’s best player, the Sooners’ “rock,” nearly didn’t qualify for the Southern Highlands event in Las Vegas. He won.

“You’ve got to find the right kids who are willing to buy into what you want to do, and clearly Ryan has done that,” Haack said. “In this day and age, some kids have their own agendas, but to be successful they have to give 100 percent all the time. Whenever they do that, whenever they’re all in together, they can accomplish special things.”

Three Oklahoma players won five individual titles this season, but no top-15 program had a lower-ranked No. 1 starter than the Sooners. Yes, the 5-on-5, match-play format reduces the overall impact of a star player, but Oklahoma’s balanced attack still bucks a recent trend at NCAAs, in which most title-winning teams were powered by a stud, whether it was Augusta State’s Patrick Reed, Texas’ Jordan Spieth or Alabama’s Justin Thomas.

There was no headliner on this Sooners squad, but even more importantly, there also was no weak link.

McGreevy is an undersized and under-recruited kid from Edmond that Hybl molded into a three-time winner. Little wonder McGreevy wiped away tears as he posed for pictures with the trophy and his coach. “I was able to get past the looks a little bit more and look into what’s inside of him,” Hybl said, “and he’s got the heart of a lion.”

Hirschman is one of the straightest ball-strikers that Hybl has ever coached … “but personally,” Hybl said, “I didn’t know if he had that in him to go out and win.” But he did this season. Twice.

Struggling with his putter, Blaine Hale didn’t have a top-20 finish in his last seven starts this spring, but he tied for 11th in NCAA stroke play and then went 2-1 in match play, including a thorough dismantling of Freshman of the Year Norman Xiong in the finals.

Loose off the tee, Rylee Reinertson wasn’t a fixture in the lineup until the spring. But on Feb. 16, Hybl tapped out a note about the 6-foot-3-inch Nebraska native in his phone: “Stalk looks the best I’ve ever seen him. He can take us the distance.” Sure enough, Reinertson, who has been deaf since age 2, earned the clinching point in the semifinals against Illinois.    

And though Brad Dalke has name recognition, after he committed to the school as a 12-year-old and advanced to the finals of the U.S. Amateur, he is not yet an elite, consistent college player – he entered nationals ranked 138th.

What do they all have in common?

“We’re gritty,” Dalke said, “and we fight until the very last stroke.”

Seems the coach’s message was received. 

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Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”