Mystery man of U.S. Am semifinals

By Ryan LavnerAugust 19, 2017, 3:09 am

LOS ANGELES – Three of the four U.S. Amateur semifinalists are standout college players and known commodities in the amateur golf community.

And then there’s Mark Lawrence Jr.

He’s No. 386 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He’s a dominant player in his home state of Virginia but a mystery to the rest of the country. This isn’t just his first U.S. Amateur appearance. It’s his first USGA appearance, period. He didn’t play the U.S. Junior. Or the now-defunct Public Links. Or the Four-Ball. Or the Open. Nothing.

Not even his fellow competitors knew anything about him.

“Before this tournament? No,” said his quarterfinal opponent, Dawson Armstrong.

But that all changed Friday, when Lawrence moved two steps away from the U.S. Amateur title with a 3-and-2 victory over Armstrong, one of the favorites entering the match-play portion at Riviera.

“He’s got a good golf game,” Armstrong said in the locker room afterward. “He’s in the semifinals for a reason.”

Lawrence, a rising junior at Virginia Tech, will face Doc Redman on Saturday, with a likely invitation to the 2018 Masters on the line.

“I’m maybe a little bit surprised,” Lawrence said, “but I’ve been really confident in my golf game. I thought if I could get myself in the right position, I could go pretty far.”

But this far?

Lawrence’s most significant victory to date was the Virginia State Amateur title, which he captured last month, 37 years after his father won. All of his other victories have been regional.

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“But he’s been a great player for a long, long time,” said Virginia Tech coach Jay Hardwick, “so it’s not a surprise to any of us in the state that have seen him play.”

For everyone else, though, this is the first time Lawrence has starred on a big stage.

He attempted to qualify for the U.S. Junior once, but he shot the third-lowest qualifying score in the country and was beat out for the lone spot. He didn’t tee it up in any U.S. Amateur qualifiers, either, because the event always conflicted with the first week of school.

“I haven’t played in a lot of big events,” he said. “It’s really expensive and you have to have a good rank to get in to begin with.”

Unlike many of his peers who travel the world playing in amateur events, Lawrence works full time in the summer at Kinloch Golf Club, about 10 minutes from his parents’ home in Richmond.

Valet attendant, range picker, shuttle driver – Lawrence does it all four days a week, in eight-hour shifts (from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.).

“He doesn’t really get the opportunity to travel much in the summer,” Hardwick said, “but that also makes him hungrier. It can be a catch-22, because if you don’t get to play a lot the pressure isn’t as easy to handle, but he’s always been strong when it comes to that. This plan works for him, and I admire him for that.”

Added Lawrence’s caddie and friend of 13 years, Chris Kapsak: “Mad respect for him. It’s a lot of money to do these types of tournaments, but he said he wanted to give it a try, and he took advantage of the one opportunity and did something like this.”

Lawrence began his college career at Auburn but transferred to Virginia Tech after one disappointing season to be closer to home. Working with assistant coach Brian Sharp, Lawrence overhauled his game, transitioning from a push-draw to a slight fade, a move that has produced more consistent, controlled shots.

Another change was his unique putting method, which combines a mid-length putter, an armbar, a ball position near his back foot and a claw grip. Yeah, there’s a lot going on.

“But it works for him,” Hardwick said. “Putting is the one thing that doesn’t have to be perfect looking. What’s perfect to me is when the ball goes in the hole.”

And it has all week.

Lawrence opened his U.S. Amateur with a 64 at Bel-Air. Even with a 3-over 73 in the second round of qualifying, he earned a high seed in match play.

Jumping out to quick leads each round, Lawrence knocked off 2015 U.S. Amateur runner-up Derek Bard, Tyler Strafaci and Shae Wools-Cobb. His opponent in the quarterfinals was Armstrong, the 2015 Western Amateur champion and one of the Walker Cup bubble boys.

But Lawrence caught a break when Armstrong came down with food poisoning Thursday and spent most of the night in the bathroom. Armstrong’s fever spiked in the afternoon, and he did well just to last until the 16th hole.

“Taking so many pills to stay physically stable, your touch and feel goes away,” Armstrong said afterward. “I tried to stay as mentally sharp as I could, but sooner or later, with those feelings happening, you’ve got to get lucky on a day like this, and I just didn’t have it today, sadly.”

And Lawrence played solidly after a shaky start, winning three holes in a row on the back nine to cruise to a convincing victory.

“With his distance, he’s able to hit softer shots when fuller shots are demanded for the shorter players,” Armstrong said. “He’s able to have more control of his game, and when his putter is rolling like it is this week, he can be pretty dangerous.”

Another stiff challenge awaits, against Redman, a sophomore at Clemson who two weeks ago reached the finals of the Western Amateur.

It’s another match in which Lawrence will be the underdog. Not that he’s paying attention.

“I was about 200 ranking spots behind the other seven guys in the quarterfinals,” he said, “but I still had the mindset that I could compete.

“The way golf is right now, everybody is really good. Everybody can win.”

And that includes No. 386.

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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.