Match play giving women's college golf its due

By Ryan LavnerMay 26, 2016, 6:29 pm

EUGENE, Ore. – The NCAA Women’s Championship – a niche of a niche of a niche – was a top-10 trending topic on Twitter on Wednesday night. That hasn’t happened since … well, this time last year.

Despite the initial handwringing, match play has been a game-changer for women’s college golf.

The most stubborn critics will point to the fact that the No. 1-ranked team hasn’t yet won the national title; that the top seed in stroke play hasn’t also swept the match-play bracket; that Stanford (2015) and Washington (2016) needed a format change to bring home the program’s first NCAA Championship.

All true, but that perspective is shortsighted: Most importantly, the new-look NCAAs are smashing perceptions of the women’s game.

The past two championships have produced some of the most riveting golf of the year, at any level.

“It’s showed people that girls can do it, too,” Washington senior Charlotte Thomas said. “Some people don’t believe that, and it kind of sucks, but it’s just as thrilling watching the women’s game as it is watching the men. We may not be able to hit it as far, but we can deal with the same things.”

Thomas is right, unfortunately: There is a stigma attached to women’s golf, especially at the college level. They don’t play very fast. They don’t hit it very far. They don’t create much spin.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of producing thrilling golf.

Last year, clinging to a narrow lead in the pivotal match, Baylor’s Hayley Davis slashed a 9-iron out of a muddy hazard to 7 feet. It was a brazen play, one of the shots of the year, an unlikely birdie that appeared to give the Bears the title. Then Stanford’s Mariah Stackhouse birdied the final two holes of regulation, including a gut-check 15-footer on the last, and prevailed in a playoff.

“I thought last year was drama and it could never be topped and never be matched,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said, “and then this happened.”

The shots Washington pulled off at Eugene Country Club were so clutch, and so unpredictable, that Walker was convinced there was a “bigger force at play.”

In the semifinals against UCLA, Washington freshman Sarah Rhee won four holes in a row, slam-dunking a long bunker shot on the first playoff hole to send the Huskies to the finals.

It was just the beginning.

In the championship match, Washington senior Ying Luo birdied the 17th hole against the previously unbeaten Casey Danielson, then nipped her 61-yard pitch shot perfectly, with the ball tracking into the cup and touching off a wild celebration around the 18th green.

For the second consecutive day, Rhee won three holes in a row late on the back nine to square her match against Stackhouse, Stanford’s team leader, before eventually falling in the playoff.

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And then there was the wild ride of fellow freshman Julianne Alvarez. She coughed up a 3-up lead against Stanford’s Lauren Kim, three-putting the final green from 25 feet because of nerves, and then hooked her drive into a fairway bunker on the first extra hole. After laying up, she stuffed her 81-yard wedge shot to 18 inches to save par, then hit what turned out to be the decisive stroke – a tricky chip up and over a slope for a conceded par.

“Any of these girls up for hire on a couple short-game lessons this week?” tweeted Wake Forest star Will Zalatoris. “My goodness … impressive.”

Even in defeat, Kim took a big-picture approach to another memorable performance on the biggest stage in the sport.

“It puts women’s golf in such a positive light,” she said, “that women can make it exciting, as exciting as the men, and we can make those shots under pressure.”

And the match-play heroics are sure to overshadow a sublime four days from Duke freshman Virginia Elena Carta, who shattered the NCAA scoring mark with a 16-under performance and won the individual race by eight.

“Maybe they can’t hit it as far,” Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur said, “but that doesn’t mean they can’t get it in the hole just as well.”

Match play has been used to determine the men’s team champion since 2009. It was announced five years later that the women would follow suit, though the majority of coaches were against the move.

Like most sports, the postseason might not always crown the best team that season – that's why they play the games and the matches, after all – but it has created a more exciting finale that keeps more squads emotionally invested. A few years ago, the big question tournament week was whether Arizona State, Duke or Southern Cal would win by 10, 25 or 50 strokes.

“When I was on a team,” said Walker, who played for Cal, “we weren’t really playing for first. We made it to the national championship, but that was like a participation medal. There was usually 24 teams showing up and one, maybe two or three were thinking about winning and the rest were just taking a week off from school to go play a great golf course.

“This week, we had 24 teams show up, and I guarantee there wasn’t a coach or a kid in the field that wasn’t thinking, Gosh, we could be the ones in there with that trophy, and I think that’s pretty cool.”

Some of the perennial powerhouses might disagree, of course. USC and Duke – winners of eight of the past 15 NCAAs – have failed to reach the finals each of the past two years, and top seed UCLA fell to Washington in a taut semifinal. But much like the players, coaches have needed to adjust their styles, as well.

In four years at Stanford, Walker has developed a reputation as one of the sharpest minds in the game. Along with Stackhouse and Kim, Walker has helped shape the culture in Palo Alto, becoming more family-oriented and placing an emphasis on strong communication, respect and a passion for the game. It’s been crucial to the team’s success in the match-play format; Stanford was a hole away from becoming just the fourth program to win back-to-back titles.

“To succeed in this format,” Walker said, “you have to know your players really well. We’ve had some success because I feel like I have a strong connection and the players are willing to tell me what they need in that moment.”

Washington assistant coach Andrea VanderLende, a former NCAA runner-up at Florida, realized early that one of the advantages of this format was a strong mental game. “They’re all skilled,” she said, “so who can pull off the clutch shots?”

And so during the tense final hour, VanderLende worked to keep Luo and Rhee in the moment. She asked them to close their eyes and listen to their surroundings, and they reported hearing cameras, a plane, feet traipsing through the grass.

“They were thinking about the here and now,” VanderLende said, “and not what had happened before or after.”

The tactic worked. After sizing up the pitch shot on 18, VanderLende told Luo that she could make it. A few moments later, she did.

“Five years ago,” VanderLende said, “I wasn’t the same coach.”

The move to match play – and the national TV exposure – has also turned what would be anonymous players into recognizable stars. Now, when Stackhouse or Luo reach out to sponsors for tournament exemptions this summer, they’ll already know all about the players' exploits in college.

“I’ve heard it over and over again, that I can’t believe how good these female golfers are in college,” Walker said. “Women are driven socially, and when you can be a part of a team and not just see it as an individual sport, it’ll keep young girls in the sport. They put a face with a name and remember what they did. I think that’s a positive.”

Strongly opposed to match play when it was first introduced, Mulflur might never have won a national title without the format change. For 31 years, her teams never came particularly close. In Year 2 of match play, they won it all.

Not that Mulflur seemed to care, as she hoisted the NCAA trophy high above her head, whooping and hollering, after one of the most dramatic finishes in college golf history.

“I have a saying,” she said late Wednesday night, “that it doesn’t matter what they say, as long as they’re talking about you. And people are talking about women’s college golf.”

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Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

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McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.