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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Woods impresses DeChambeau, Day on Tuesday

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 11:27 pm

SAN DIEGO – Bryson DeChambeau played with Tiger Woods for the first time Tuesday morning, and the biggest surprise was that he wasn’t overcome by nerves.

“That’s what I was concerned about,” DeChambeau said. “Am I just gonna be slapping it around off the tee? But I was able to play pretty well.”

So was Woods.

DeChambeau said that Woods looked “fantastic” as he prepares to make his first PGA Tour start in a year.

“His game looks solid. His body doesn’t hurt. He’s just like, yeah, I’m playing golf again,” DeChambeau said. “And he’s having fun, too, which is a good thing.”

Woods arrived at Torrey Pines before 7 a.m. local time Tuesday, when the temperature hadn’t yet crept above 50 degrees. He warmed up and played the back nine of Torrey Pines’ South Course with DeChambeau and Jason Day.

“He looks impressive; it was good to see,” Day told PGATour.com afterward. “You take (Farmers) last year and the Dubai tournament out, and he hasn’t really played in two years. I think the biggest thing is to not get too far ahead, or think he’s going to come back and win straight away.

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“The other time he came back, I don’t think he was ready and he probably came back too soon. This time he definitely looks ready. I think his swing is really nice, he’s hitting the driver a long way and he looks like he’s got some speed, which is great.”

Woods said that his caddie, Joe LaCava, spent four days with him in South Florida last week and that he’s ready to go.

“Before the Hero I was basically given the OK probably about three or four weeks prior to the tournament, and I thought I did pretty good in that prep time,” Woods told ESPN.com, referring to his tie for ninth in the 18-man event.

“Now I’ve had a little more time to get ready for this event. I’ve played a lot more golf, and overall I feel like I’ve made some nice changes. I feel good.”

Woods is first off Torrey Pines’ North Course in Wednesday’s pro-am, scheduled for 6:40 a.m. local time. 

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With blinders on, Rahm within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”

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Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.

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Rahm focusing on play, not shot at No. 1

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 9:06 pm

SAN DIEGO – Jon Rahm’s meteoric rise in the world rankings could end with him reaching No. 1 with a win this week at Torrey Pines.

After winning last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his fourth title in 51 weeks, Rahm has closed the gap on Dustin Johnson – less than 1.5 average points separates them.

With Johnson not playing this week, the 23-year-old Spaniard has a chance to reach the top spot for the first time, but only if he defends his title at the Farmers Insurance Open.

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“Beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task. It’s no easy task,” he said Tuesday. “We still have four days of golf ahead and we’ll see what happens. But I’ll try to focus more on what’s going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win.

“I’ll try my best, that’s for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

Rahm has already become the fourth-youngest player to reach No. 2 in the world, behind Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. 

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Rahm: Playoff wasn't friendly, just 'nervous'

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 8:53 pm

SAN DIEGO – Too chummy? Jon Rahm says he and Andrew Landry were just expending some nervous energy on the walk up to the fairway during the first playoff hole of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

“I wouldn’t have been that nervous if it was friendly,” Rahm said with a smile Tuesday. “I think it was something he said because we were talking going out of the first tee.

“I didn’t know Andrew – I think it was a pretty good time to get to know him. We had at least 10 minutes to ourselves. It’s not like we were supporting each other, right? We were both in it together, we were both nervous together, and I felt like talking about it might have eased the tension out of both of us.”

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On Sunday, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange saw the exchange on TV and tweeted: “Walking off the tee talking to each other. Are you kidding me? Talking at all?”

Strange followed up by saying that, in a head-to-head situation, the last thing he’d want to do was make his opponent comfortable. When his comments went viral, Strange tweeted at Rahm, who won after four holes: “Hopefully no offense taken on my comment yesterday. You guys are terrific. I’m a huge fan of all players today. Made an adverse comment on U guys talking during playoff. Not for me. A fan.”

Not surprisingly, the gregarious Rahm saw things differently.

“We only talked going out of the first tee up until the fairway,” he said. “Besides that, all we said was, ‘Good shot, good putt, see you on the next tee.’ That’s what it was reduced to. We didn’t say much.”