Lighten up: Too tough is bad for NCAA women's optics

By Ryan LavnerMay 25, 2017, 2:16 pm

SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – When the thrill of victory finally wore off Wednesday night, Arizona State coach Missy Farr-Kaye was so exhausted that it appeared as though she might fall asleep right there on the dais, the NCAA team trophy positioned in front of her.

“This is a grueling championship now with the format,” she said.

And there’s no disputing that.

With the days long and the nights short, the Sun Devils’ demanding week included three 4 a.m. wakeup calls, 36,000 steps a day and 108 holes – actually 18 fewer than it should have been, after the second round was canceled because of inclement weather. Making this year’s task even more arduous was the venue, Rich Harvest Farms, a brawny, penal and quirky course that for the second time in three years tested the boundaries of what’s fair in the NCAA Women’s Championship.

This is the third time that the women’s and men’s championships are being played on the same venue, an opportunity to showcase both events on television. The doubleheader began inauspiciously. In 2015, at Concession Golf Club in Florida, players and coaches were incensed by what they thought was an unfair setup. The course’s slick, undulating greens became unplayable for many of the game’s brightest stars, and the 72-hole stroke-play portion was a disaster – 62 over par was good enough to advance to match play, and only three individuals finished under par.

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The NCAA put Janet Lindsay, a 20-year veteran on the LPGA rules staff, in charge of the championship’s course setup, and she and the committee hit a home run last year at Eugene Country Club, which many coaches said was one of the fairest tests they’d played for nationals. The cutoff for match play: 14 over par.

No doubt, the weather last week at Rich Harvest Farms was dreadful. During the first round, players slogged through sideways rain, howling wind and 35-degree wind chills. Somehow, two players shot even par – “We shook our heads and said, ‘We can’t believe how good that is,’” Lindsay said – but many of the top teams in the country fired their worst scores of the season to blow out of contention after one round. The conditions Sunday weren’t much better, as the field scoring average hovered around 78, and through two rounds players recorded 316 double bogeys and 65 triples or worse on the wet course.

By the end of stroke play, the cut line fell at 55 over – seven strokes lower than Concession, but with one fewer round – and for the first time since 2009, there was an over-par medalist. Only one school, Alabama, shot a sub-par team round (1 under); had there been 72 holes, it’s likely a team would have been triple-digits over par.

In a tweet that has since been deleted, the 2016 NCAA champion Washington women’s golf team, which did not qualify for nationals, posted this: “1, yes, 1 subpar round from 24 of the VERY best teams in the nation over 3 days #NCAAGolf #really? Congrats to survivors.”

Of course, it wasn’t all chaos: The top four players in college golf all finished among the top 10 individually, with Player of the Year favorites Leona Maguire (Duke) and Jennifer Kupcho (Wake Forest) sharing second place. But other scores were alarmingly high.

“It bothers me because I know how good the golf is out here,” Duke coach Dan Brooks said. “Leona is a different character” – she’s the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world – “but it shouldn’t be that the only ones who are able to shoot 74 are your very cream. There should be a few more. This is a little bit of survival out here.”

Tournament officials immediately pointed to the weather – again, it was a significant factor – and how they tried to adapt each day to the changing conditions.

“But the golf course alone would have put us all the way to the red line,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said. “We were pushed past because of the weather.”

The coaches’ main concern is the perception of women’s college golf if the public sees players who are unable to hold greens or clear hazards or break 80. As one coach said, “We don’t have the best rep, anyway.”

“I don’t think it needs to be scoreable,” Walker said, “but it always needs to be fair. That’s what we have to keep an eye on.

“We have 120-plus players in the field. How many of those players will go on to become LPGA stars? Maybe eight to 10? And if you look, the majority of those kids are in the top 10 – for a reason, because they can handle it.

“But we’re not at the LPGA level. We’re not the U.S. Open. We’re at a college golf event, and we have to create a situation where it tests the world-class players but we also don’t lose the general population of women’s college golf.”

To its credit, the NCAA understands this dilemma.

“Of course we’re concerned,” Lindsay said, “because I don’t think those scores were a fair reflection of the talent in college golf. We’re the ones that made them go out and play in those conditions on a challenging golf course, and I think they held up very well.”

Unfortunately, it won’t get any easier in the future, with Oklahoma State’s Karsten Creek (2018) and Arkansas’ Blessings Golf Club (2019) on the schedule.

Rich Harvest Farms built a few new tees for the women’s championship, and the upcoming venues likely will have to do the same. Last year, during a three-round NCAA men’s regional at Karsten Creek, the fifth-place team shot 46 over par, while Blessings, with a rating of 79.1 and a slope of 153, is one of the most difficult courses in the country. When the women’s SEC Championship was last held there, in 2012, the winning score was 52 over par.

“If these girls want to play professional, they have to play difficult golf courses,” Florida State coach Amy Bond said. “But I’d like to see it where it’s truly scoreable for all of the girls, because there are some wonderful players who really deserve to be highlighted.”

Watch: Fleetwood gets emotional with family after Race to Dubai win

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 19, 2017, 5:30 pm

Tommy Fleetwood took home the season-long Race to Dubai title on Sunday after a T-21 finish at the DP World Tour Championship.

He was, understandably, emotional after learning his fate while sitting with his wife and baby following a career year in which he won the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and the French Open and finished fourth at the U.S. Open.

Luckily for us, cameras were rolling:

Matsuyama after Koepka rout: 'Huge gap between us'

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 4:22 pm

Hideki Matsuyama offered a blunt assessment after finishing 10 shots behind Brooks Koepka at the Japan Tour's Dunlop Phoenix event.

Koepka waxed the field en route to successfully defending his title in Japan, shooting a 20-under par total that left him nine shots clear of a runner-up group that included PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele. Koepka's score was one shot off the tournament record, and his margin for victory eclipsed Tiger Woods' eight-shot romp in 2004.

Matsuyama appeared set to make a final-round charge after a birdie on No. 2 was followed by an ace on the par-3 third hole. But he played the next eight holes in 3 over and eventually finished alone in fifth place following a 2-under 69. Afterwards, he stacked his game up against that of Koepka in a telling comment to the Japan Times.

"I feel there's a huge gap between us," Matsuyama said.

The Japanese phenom entered the week ranked No. 4 in the world, though he will be passed in the next rankings by Jon Rahm following the Spaniard's win in Dubai. Matsuyama won twice this year on the PGA Tour, including the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but he has largely struggled since missing out on a maiden major title at the PGA Championship, where he tied for fifth.

Matsuyama was a runner-up to Koepka at the U.S. Open earlier this summer, and the 25-year-old seems headed back to the drawing board before defending his title at the Hero World Challenge in two weeks.

"I don't know whether it's a lack of practice or whether I lack the strength to keep playing well," Matsuyama said. "It seems there are many issues to address."

McCormick to caddie for Spieth at Aussie Open

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 2:21 pm

When Jordan Spieth returns next week to defend his title at the Australian Open, he will do so without his regular caddie on the bag.

Spieth and Michael Greller have combined to win 14 tournaments and three majors, including three events in 2017. But Greller's wife, Ellie, gave birth to the couple's first child on Oct. 13, and according to a report from the Australian Herald Sun he will not make the intercontinental trip to Sydney, where Spieth will look to win for the third time in the last four years.

Instead, Spieth will have longtime swing coach and native Aussie Cameron McCormick on the bag at The Australian Golf Club. McCormick, who won PGA Teacher of the Year in 2015, is originally from Melbourne but now lives in Texas and has taught Spieth since he was a rising star among the junior golf ranks in Dallas.

While Greller has missed rounds before, this will be the first time as a pro that Spieth has used a different caddie for an entire event. Greller was sidelined with an injury last year in Singapore when Spieth's agent, Jay Danzi, took the bag, and trainer Damon Goddard has subbed in twice when Greller was sick, including this year at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational.

Spieth's torrid 2015 season traced back to his win at The Australian in 2014, and he returned to Oz last year where he won a playoff at Royal Sydney over Cameron Smith and Ashley Hall.

Rahm wins finale, Fleetwood takes Race to Dubai

By Will GrayNovember 19, 2017, 1:42 pm

Jon Rahm captured the final tournament on the European Tour calendar, a result that helped Tommy Fleetwood take home the season-long Race to Dubai title.

Rahm shot a final-round 67 to finish two shots clear of Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Shane Lowry at the DP World Tour Championship. It's the second European Tour win of the year for the Spaniard, who also captured the Irish Open and won on the PGA Tour in January at the Farmers Insurance Open.

"I could not be more proud of what I've done this week," Rahm told reporters. "Having the weekend that I've had, actually shooting 12 under on the last 36 holes, bogey-free round today, it's really special."

But the key finish came from Justin Rose, who held the 54-hole lead in Dubai but dropped back into a tie for fourth after closing with a 70. Rose entered the week as one of only three players who could win the Race to Dubai, along with Sergio Garcia and Fleetwood, who started with a lead of around 250,000 Euros.

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Full-field scores from the DP World Tour Championship

With Fleetwood in the middle of the tournament pack, ultimately tying for 21st after a final-round 74, the door was open for Rose to capture the title thanks to a late charge despite playing in half the events that Fleetwood did. Rose captured both the WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open, and was one round away from a two-trophy photo shoot in Dubai.

Instead, his T-4 finish meant he came up just short, as Fleetwood won the season-long race by 58,821 Euros.

The title caps a remarkable season for Fleetwood, who won the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship as well as the French Open to go along with a pair of runner-up finishes and a fourth-place showing at the U.S. Open.

"I find it amazing, the season starts in November, December and you get to here and you're watching the last shot of the season to decide who wins the Race to Dubai," Fleetwood said at the trophy ceremony. "But yeah, very special and something we didn't really aim for at the start of the year, but it's happened."