NCAA seeding minimizes season-long accomplishments

By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2014, 11:15 am

When it was over, Cal coach Steve Desimone led his shell-shocked team into one of its hotel rooms outside Atlanta.

What could he say?

An hour earlier, arguably the greatest season in college golf history had come to a cold, cruel conclusion. In the semifinals of the NCAA Championship, Thomas Pieters had defeated Max Homa (pictured above at right with teammate Joel Stalter) in 20 holes to earn the decisive point. The final score was Illinois 3, Cal 2.

“Absolute heartbreak,” Desimone said. “Crushing heartbreak.”

And now the team’s five players were in tatters, eyes red, as they staggered into associate head coach Walter Chun’s room. Their heads were spinning, their hands shaking, and in the immediate aftermath there were flights to catch, awards to claim, qualifiers to play.

Suddenly, after nine long months, after five hard-fought days at NCAAs, all Desimone had left was 15 minutes.

He faced the group, cleared his throat and delivered the most difficult speech of his 35-year career.

A YEAR LATER, Desimone is still coming to grips with the fact that his team didn’t even reach the finals.

The 2012-13 Golden Bears won 11 of 13 events, a modern-day record. 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 of their starters were ranked in the top 25 nationally – three were first-team All-Americans, the other two second-teamers.

But for the fourth time in the past five years, the No. 1 team in the country left the NCAA Championship without the trophy.

That’s part of sports, of course – the best team doesn’t always win. Alabama was ranked No. 2 last year, won seven of its last eight starts, dominated the match-play bracket and deservedly captured its first men’s title in school history.

Which team was better, Cal or Alabama? Unfortunately, we’ll never know, and lately that’s been an all-too-familiar refrain. 

Since 2000, the No. 1 team entering NCAAs has captured the national title just twice (2003, ’12). Since match play was implemented in 2009, the team that led the field after stroke play – the squad clearly in the best form entering the final stage – has yet to win.

That would seem to suggest that the NCAA finals are slightly askew, but one small tweak to the format could ensure that at least Nos. 1 and 2 have an opportunity to meet in the finals. 

Whether they do, of course, is entirely up to them. Just ask Cal.

THE MATCH PLAY ERA got off to both a rollicking and rocky start.

In 2009, the top two teams in the country were Oklahoma State and Georgia. That year at Inverness, the Cowboys won the stroke-play qualifier while the Bulldogs lost a tiebreaker and settled for the eighth spot.

Because the seeds in the match-play bracket are based on the stroke-play standings, not an overall national ranking, one side of the draw had the Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 7 ranked teams. The other: 8, 14, 21 and 30.

Some reward for a great season: Oklahoma State and Georgia squared off in a win-or-go-home first-round matchup.

The No. 1 Cowboys lost the wildly entertaining match on the final hole. A few hours later, the No. 2 Bulldogs were gone too, having run out of steam in the semifinals. By day’s end, the top two teams in the country had been sent packing.

“An absolute crime,” says Texas coach John Fields.

Oklahoma State also boasted the No. 1-ranked team heading into the NCAAs in 2010 and 2011, only to leave each time without the title to validate it. Though in 2012 college golf fans finally got the championship match they were hoping for – top-ranked Texas vs. No. 2 Alabama – it was only because of a fortunate match-play draw. (They were Nos. 3 and 1 seeds, respectively, after stroke play.) They just as easily could have seen Oregon and San Diego State in the final match.

An instant classic, probably not.


IMAGINE THE SAME format in college basketball: 

Connecticut runs the table during the regular season, dominates the conference championship, and its first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament is not South Dakota State, Weber State or Wofford. No, it’s Kansas. Or Duke. Or Syracuse.

That’d never happen.

In fact, in the NCAA Tournament, the top seeds are nowhere near each other – they’re on opposite sides of the bracket, unable to even meet until the semifinals.

In no sport can the two best teams ever face each other in the first round … except, of course, in college golf.

At its biggest event, the NCAA ignores seven months of results and rankings and sets the all-important match-play bracket based on a 54-hole qualifier.

“They’ve obviously tried to make the regular season important,” former Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw said, “but at the most important juncture of the season, we throw it out. At the end it doesn’t matter what we do all season long. If the regular season means something, then it has to mean something all the way until the end.”

A national ranking determines which teams make the cut for regionals.

A national ranking determines the pairings for the first two rounds of the NCAA Championship. 

Why does a national ranking not determine the seeds for match play? Why not input one more 54-hole result into the system – there will be little, if any, fluctuation – and set up the bracket based on that yearlong ranking?

After all, the goal of any championship is to determine the best team – not the one that receives the luckiest draw.

Obviously, this tweak wouldn’t guarantee that the top two teams meet in the finals. But at least it would ensure that Nos. 1 and 2 have that opportunity – an important distinction, especially now with a live-television audience to consider.

“Moving forward it makes tremendous sense to go back to the original seeds,” Fields says. “I think it’s fair and I think it’s healthy, because then you’ve got the real deal right there in front of you.”

A YEAR AGO, right there in front of Desimone was a group of devastated kids who were gathered in a hotel room. They ached. They searched for understanding, for an explanation, for solace.

“It was my great honor and privilege,” Desimone said softly, “to coach the best team that has ever played college golf.”

The impromptu team meeting marked the last time they’d ever be together in the same room, all seven of them. At the NCAAs there are no long, emotional goodbyes. The finality is swift, merciless.

“That hit home for all of us,” Desimone said. “Our dreams had come crashing down. You know that it can happen, everything falling apart, but that doesn’t make it any easier when it does. It was probably the most difficult time of my career, and it took me awhile to recover from that.”

Fifteen minutes later, and they had already gone their separate ways – to their award ceremonies, to their qualifiers, to their families. Even now the head coach can’t begin talking about his 2013 team without first sighing deeply.

“Sports are fraught with disasters and disappointments,” he said. “All you can do is prepare your players for when it inevitably comes.”

And hope that the next No. 1 team doesn’t suffer the same heartbreak.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.