Eyes on reigning NCAA champs at East Lake Cup

By Ryan LavnerNovember 1, 2015, 9:44 pm

ATLANTA – Forty-eight hours after her team won the NCAA Championship, Stanford women’s coach Anne Walker finally looked down at her phone. She had more than 1,000 unread messages. 

There was the note from the viewer watching at home in New Zealand, and from the man sitting in a pub in England, and from the guy waiting in the airport in Oakland, who was apparently so engrossed in the championship match against Baylor that he nearly missed his flight.

“It was just nuts,” Walker said Sunday. “I had so many text messages, I thought I’d have to throw my phone away.”

The memories have come rushing back now that all four teams from last year’s NCAA semifinals have reconvened here for the inaugural East Lake Cup. Stanford, which returns all five starters from last year’s title-winning squad, will face off against No. 2-ranked Duke in the first round of matches Monday.  

The party rages on for the Cardinal, even five months later.

Over the summer, Walker and junior Casey Danielson attended the ESPY Awards. Upon returning to campus, the entire team attended a party with some of the program’s most prominent boosters. The players gave speeches and made toasts and received their NCAA rings. A few weeks ago, they had a fun photo shoot with the NCAA trophy in San Francisco – in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, at the Twin Peaks, on Lombard Street.

“We decided as a group this fall that we obviously want to be focused and get better, but we really want to make the most of being the reigning national champions,” Walker said. “First-hand experience tells me that it’s really hard to win, and we might never get another chance.”

It hasn’t been all fun and games, of course. Stanford already has two wins this fall and is ranked sixth in the country. To hear Walker, though, this celebration was a year and a half in the making: The program’s transformation began at the 2014 Pac-12 Championship, where the Cardinal outdueled USC, UCLA and Arizona State to win the conference title.

“That feeling of getting that championship really inspired the group,” she said, “because they asked themselves: If this win feels this good, what does a national championship feel like? It’s an addictive feeling, that high that you get of just being in the moment and getting it done.”

That feeling is a distant memory for the reigning men’s champion, LSU.

The Tigers, who stormed through the spring and thumped Southern Cal in the final, have been beset with injuries through the first four events of the season. They will face Georgia in the first match Monday.  

Heralded freshman Nathan Jeansonne has missed two events this fall – the first because of mononucleosis, the latest because of an eye abrasion he suffered while trying to remove a contact lens. Sophomore Blake Caldwell’s back went out in the second event. Another of the team’s top freshmen, Luis Gagne, played the first tournament but has been out since because of a wrist injury.

And that list of the walking wounded doesn’t even include junior All-American Brandon Pierce, who is trying to play his way back into shape after suffering a broken neck the day after NCAAs.

The injury list has been so long, coach Chuck Winstead joked, that “it feels like they’ve been trying to tackle Leonard Fournette,” the school’s Heisman Trophy frontrunner.

Every week, it seems, the Tigers have been trying to make it work, to find a starting lineup that will keep them competitive. So far, they’ve had mixed results, with their only win coming in their home event and two other finishes outside the top eight.

This fall has been nothing like Stanford’s joy ride.

“For me the fall has not been fun at all,” Winstead said, “because we haven’t played like we’re capable of playing. Every individual has their own threshold of what is acceptable to them relative to their performance. Every team has one, too. For these guys, and for their coach, the results this fall are not acceptable relative to what we’re capable of, and that’ll create what we need to keep going.”

Yet it’s fair to wonder here whether LSU’s fall results even matter. College golf is all about peaking at the right time. That’s the late spring, not midway through the fall. There is still plenty of time for the Tigers to get healthy, to gel as a team, to prepare to defend their title.

“The fall matters to me,” Winstead said. “If you’re a great player, you want to be great all the time. I don’t think great players show up for Augusta and all of a sudden are Masters champions. Great players are great players because they bring it every week.”

LSU is loaded with those great players, from Zach Wright to All-American Eric Ricard to No. 1-ranked freshman recruit Sam Burns. But the Tigers have looked lethargic so far, perhaps because of a national-title hangover, or maybe because of all the injuries that have thrown their lineup into flux. Teams that face tough competition at home, in head-to-head battles in practice, often fare better on the road.  

“We’ve had our ups and downs this fall,” Wright said, “but we have a really good team. It’s gonna be all right.”

A national title leads to increased expectations, sure, but also an added level of perspective. And patience. Walker knows this. Now Winstead does, too. 

“You know what it looks like now to build a team into being able to perform like that,” he said. “I felt like I had an idea before, but I don’t have to wonder. I’ve seen it. Hopefully we can trend heading back that way soon … like, tomorrow.”

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... 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."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.