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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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.