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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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.