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. 

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.