Illinois ends Cal's dream season early

By Ryan LavnerJune 1, 2013, 9:35 pm

MILTON, Ga. – This was always the worst-case scenario for Cal coach Steve Desimone, only with more tears involved.

The possibility gnawed at him last week, when his top-seeded Golden Bears prepared to put their historic season on the line at Capital City Club.

It gnawed at him last June, when his team lost in the semifinals at Riviera.

It gnawed at him a few years ago, when top-ranked Oklahoma State – undoubtedly the best team in the country – was twice upset by upstart Augusta State and sent packing too early.

It gnawed at him in 2008, when the NCAA committee first decided that the team champion must not only navigate 54 holes of stroke play, but also an eight-team match-play bracket.

And now, here was senior Max Homa, Desimone’s star player, staggering on the front edge of the green, his face in his shirt, after his 12-foot par putt failed to drop. The miss gave Illinois a 3-2 victory in an epic semifinal Saturday at the NCAA Championship. The miss ended Cal’s dream season a day earlier than expected.

Video: NCAA semifinals

This, you see, was what Desimone had always feared.

“All today does,” he said in the parking lot late Saturday, “is demonstrate again that this is not the best way to crown the national champion.”

For the fourth time in the past five years, the nation’s No. 1 team is leaving NCAAs without the trophy.

But this was an even more extreme case.

The Golden Bears were the top team by a wide margin. They had won 11 of their 13 starts, a modern-day NCAA record. Entering this week, they were 173-3-1, head-to-head, against other teams. They finished the season more than 6,000 shots ahead of their opponents.

All five starters won an individual title this season.

All five starters posted a scoring average between 70.1 and 71.0.

All five starters were ranked inside the top 25. Three were first-team All-Americans, the other two likely second- or third-teamers.

On Thursday, the Golden Bears captured the 54-hole stroke-play portion by six shots. If this were a 72-hole championship, they likely would have won by a dozen or more.

“I don’t know another season like this is ever going to happen again,” Desimone said. “My humble opinion is this is the best college team that’s ever played.”

But that early-week success guaranteed little here except the No. 1 overall seed in match play, and an ever-present bull’s-eye, and mounting expectations.

In the quarterfinals Friday, they were pushed to the limit by an inexperienced Arizona State team, the 38th-ranked squad that hadn’t won a tournament all season. The Sun Devils played loose, with no pressure. They didn’t play intimidated. And they lost on the final green.

On Saturday, Cal faced a stiffer challenge in Illinois, which won five times but not against the strongest fields – the Illini had the 68th-most difficult schedule.

But Illinois freshman Charlie Danielson won his semifinal match, 3 and 2.

Sophomore Brian Campbell chipped in for birdie on the 15th hole on his way to a 2-and-1 victory over Cal’s Michael Kim, the No. 1-ranked player in the country, the presumptive Player of the Year in college golf.

And then it was down to junior Thomas Pieters, the 2012 NCAA champion, who erased a 3-down deficit at the turn to force extra holes against Homa.

Homa’s teammates watched anxiously, waiting to see if their star player, their spiritual leader, could send them to the finals. “I wanted the pressure so I was embracing it,” he would say afterward, “but it’s a lot to handle.”

On the second playoff hole – the par-4 second – Homa’s adrenaline-aided wedge shot sailed 50 feet past the cup, and he missed the 12-foot comebacker to lose in 20 holes.

Spectators gasped.

Illinois’ celebration was muted: “There are mixed feelings,” coach Mike Small said. “You obviously hurt for them.”

Homa dropped his putter in disbelief. He clasped his hands behind his head, letting tears stream down his face. Soon, he would collapse into his father’s arms, sobbing.

Asked later what stung most, Homa tearfully replied: “Letting my whole family down. Those guys put so much into this year. It sucks not being the one to move us on to tomorrow.”

Just two days earlier, Homa had won the NCAA individual title for the most significant victory of his career, a win that all but sewed up a spot on this year’s Walker Cup team, one of his main goals for this season.

“I’d throw them in a grinder right now,” Homa said of his other individual accomplishments. “Anyone here can take them. I just wanted the team one.”

There always was a risk that this season – this incredible, historic season – could come crashing down with one poor day of match play.

That’s why Desimone opposed the format change when it was first adopted for the 2009 championship. He was even more convinced it was the wrong direction for college golf after seeing what happened to Oklahoma State, which for three consecutive years (2009-11) was the undisputed No. 1 team, only to leave NCAAs each year empty-handed.

And more change is likely coming to this championship. In two weeks, the Sports Management Cabinet will vote on a proposal that will extend the individual championship from 54 to 72 holes, then cram the quarterfinals and semifinals into the same day. If you remember the 2009 event – when Georgia knocked off the top-ranked team in the quarters, only to run out of steam and lose in the same-day semis – you can’t help but wonder whether that format change is for the best, either.

Said Desimone: “If you’re still tweaking it five years later, maybe it’s telling you something. It’s telling you it’s still not right.”

So now on Sunday morning Alabama will seek redemption for last year’s finals loss, while Illinois will attempt to become the first team outside the top 20 to win a title since the match-play format was instituted.

Meanwhile, the country’s best team – the group with five top-25 players, the winners of 11 of 13 events – will stay the night in Atlanta, then head for summer break, unfulfilled.

“This shouldn’t be about drama,” Desimone said. “This shouldn’t be about suspense. If you want drama, build a theme park. This is about identifying the best team in college golf. And I’m not sure the NCAAs did that this year.”

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.