NCAA title just the beginning for LSU?

By Ryan LavnerJune 3, 2015, 10:36 pm

BRADENTON, Fla. – The only untidy aspect of LSU’s victory over Southern Cal on Wednesday was the celebration.

Brandon Pierce right here, Zach Wright over there … and Ben Taylor, up on 18 with nary a teammate in sight, closing out this NCAA Championship.

Once they met up behind 17 and checked live scoring on their phones, Pierce and Wright decided to sprint toward the final green to watch the clinching putt. They slowed down at the 150-yard mark, long enough for the TV cameramen to catch up, and when Taylor dropped his 8-footer for par, they took off running again, faster now, screaming and throwing up their hands and mobbing their All-American senior who sealed the 4-1 victory.

“Right now this means everything to me,” Wright said. “We came here on a mission to try to win this.”

And to think: The Tigers almost didn’t even make it to Concession.

Frustrated by the bumpy greens at The Course at Yale, LSU was 11 shots off the fifth-place cut line entering the final round of the regional tournament.

Full coverage: NCAA Division I National Championships

The night before that round, LSU coach Chuck Winstead gathered his players and showed them examples of how previous teams had snuck into NCAAs, how it was possible, how they just had to believe.

“We started getting our minds wrapped around that we could actually make the comeback,” senior Stewart Jolly said.

Even with the pep talk, the outcome looked grim – the deficit swelled to 14 shots at one point in the survive-and-advance tournament. But after a furious back-nine rally, all five starters ended up shooting in the 60s, none better than Taylor and Pierce, who carded matching 65s.

That it was Pierce who delivered that day was only fitting.

Last spring, when doctors discovered a stress fracture in his back that would force him out of competition for eight months, he didn’t go into hiding or distance himself from the team. No, he pulled closer. He attended every practice, flying around in a golf cart to encourage his teammates. He waited at the golf house until the Tigers returned home from an away tournament. And on the eve of a big event, he tapped out one-page notes to each of his brothers and left them in their locker, hoping to provide a little inspiration.

Pierce shot 29 on his final nine holes that day in New Haven. The Tigers moved on to nationals by a single stroke.

Turns out LSU’s entry into the NCAA Championship was more riveting than its exit.

In winning the first four matches Wednesday, the Tigers trailed for only a total of eight holes, and never by more than a one-hole deficit. It was a thoroughly dominant performance by a team with no weaknesses in its lineup.

“They’re all interchangeable,” Winstead said of his five starters.

LSU’s total team effort capped a long week when many of the favorites fell short.

No. 1-ranked Florida State didn’t even advance to match play. Texas, the hottest team in the country with six wins in its last seven starts, bowed out in the quarterfinals. Illinois, which won an NCAA-best eight times this season, looked flat in the semis.

Left standing was No. 9 LSU and No. 13 USC – teams that likely would have combined for more than seven wins this season if they didn’t play such a grueling schedule.

Nevertheless, it was the first time since 2009 – the first year of NCAA match play – that the championship match did not feature at least one finalist with a top-5 national ranking.

A surprise, maybe, but there’s never been more parity in college golf, the margin of error at a brutal golf course like Concession is razor-thin, and 18-hole match play is a shortened game that doesn’t always determine the best champion.

That background might help soften the blow for many of the top seeds, but one thing was still abundantly clear Wednesday: LSU was the most deserving team after enduring eight rounds in seven days here.

“They’re really good,” USC’s Sean Crocker said. “They just beat us today.”

And they didn’t waste any time in the championship, either, with the top three in the lineup – Pierce (2 and 1), Taylor (1 up) and Wright (3 and 2) – all winning their final match to stomp out any potential upset.

Not bad for a group that didn’t even know the tournament format until last week, a few hours before their first-round tee time.

Winstead said he only learned that the schedule was 72 holes of stroke play followed by three rounds of match play during the coaches’ meeting Thursday night. He thought it was a 54-hole qualifier, just like in 2014.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “If you don’t play great, you’re not going to be around, whether you play 54, 72, 36 or 108.”

A year ago at Prairie Dunes, the Tigers were ecstatic just to reach NCAA match play. They eventually lost to Alabama in the semifinals. This year, they had bigger goals, even after losing Smylie Kaufman, who recently won on the Tour, and Curtis Thompson, one of Lexi’s long-hitting brothers.

“Last year it was kind of a shock,” said Wright, who extended his NCAA match-play record to 5-0. “We weren’t prepared for it. This year we were mentally there."

Three of LSU’s players are ranked inside the top 65 nationally. The other two are established seniors: Jolly, ranked 123rd, is a former All-American, while Taylor, ranked 137th, added an NCAA title to the national championship he won at Division II Nova Southeastern.

“We don’t have a superstar,” Winstead said.

But the Tigers might have a couple of ’em next season.

Pierce sure looks like one, after he broke David Toms’ LSU single-season scoring record (71.0) in seven starts this spring. Yes, the Tigers lose the two seniors, but they also will welcome top-10 prospects Sam Burns (No. 1) and Nathan Jeansonne (No. 7) in addition to Luis Gagne. More studs are expected to arrive in Baton Rouge beginning in fall 2016.

The perception of LSU is changing, from a middling team ranked outside the top 80 when Winstead took over in 2005, to an emerging threat with NCAA champion John Peterson at the top, to now a powerhouse-in-waiting with a bevy of hungry recruits.

“When it’s going the wrong way, you have to hold on to the train a long time just to get it to stop,” Winstead said. “Just hold on, hold on, until you get it to stop. Then you have to turn it around. And then it takes a while to build speed.”

After this NCAA title, it’s full speed ahead.

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After Further Review: Tiger's return comes at perfect time

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 2:19 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the current state of golf as Tiger Woods returns to competition ...

Less than four days before Tiger Woods returns to official competitive golf for the first time in a year, Jon Rahm, the new second-ranked player in the world, won on the PGA Tour and Rory McIlroy made an impressive 2018 debut on the European Tour (T-3).

Not since Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus crossed paths at the 1960 U.S. Open has there been so many superstars all poised for big seasons, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson having already won this year and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas both coming off stellar seasons.

It’s a good time for golf. - Rex Hoggard

On Tommy Fleetwood's continued success ...

There have been scores of talented European players whose skills didn’t translate to the PGA Tour … and maybe, in a few years, Tommy Fleetwood will prove to be no different.

He sure looks like the real deal, though.  

His title defense in Abu Dhabi – on the strength of a back-nine 30 in windy conditions – was his third title in the past 12 months and 11th top-10 overall. A few of those have come in majors and World Golf Championship events, too, which led the reigning Race to Dubai champion to accept PGA Tour membership for this season.

Beginning at Riviera, he plans to play exclusively in the States through May, then reassess for the rest of the year. Hope he sticks, because he’s a fun personality with tons of game. - Ryan Lavner

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Rahm passes Spieth to become world No. 2

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:25 am

With his win Sunday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jon Rahm picked up his second PGA Tour victory and moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.

He picked up one more No. 2, too.

The 23-year-old Spaniard passed Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Dustin Johnson.

In 19 months, since June 2016, Rahm has rocketed from No. 776 in the world to No. 2, thanks in part to his low divisor, his number of events played.

Asked after his playoff victory over Andrew Landry to discuss his rapid ascent up the world rankings, Rahm was almost at a loss.

“It's hard to believe to be honest, passing Jordan Spieth,” he said. “That's a three-time major champion. I only have two wins. He's got 10-plus, right? It's again – I've said it many times – I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now.”

Rahm may only have two PGA Tour titles, but this is his fourth worldwide win in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. He also took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship on his way to claiming the European Tour’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Award.

Dating back to the start of last season on the PGA Tour, Rahm has racked up 12 top-10s, three runner-ups, and two wins.

He will head to Torrey Pines next week ready to defend for the first time.

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Brady compares self to Woods after winning AFC title

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 1:05 am

Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are two of the all-time greats in their respective sports ... a fact that is not lost on the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Fresh off leading the New England Patriots to a AFC Championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady was asked about winning the game despite a cut on his throwing hand - which made national news heading into the matchup.

His response invoked the name of a certain 14-time major winner, something that would be tough to pull off, if not for the fact that he is, you know, Tom Brady.

“I think it's kind of arrogant to say it bothered me when we had a pretty good game, so I wouldn't say that," the 40-year-old told reporters after the game. "It's like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game’ and he won the tournament."

Tiger Woods winning with his "C game" may be a distant memory for golf fans, but no matter what game he brings, his next chance to win comes next week at Torrey Pines during his official comeback to the PGA Tour.

Brady has a shot at his sixth Super Bowl title in two weeks. The Patriots would probably benefit from him bringing a little better than his "C game" as well.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

Jon Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means: This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Rahm missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18 of the day, his birdie bid found the cup. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest: A two-time winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day: Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day: "One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry