NCAA women's Championship: The course is winning

By Ryan LavnerMay 25, 2015, 2:15 am

BRADENTON, Fla. – The numbers are jarring.

The 54-hole cut at this women’s NCAA Championship will fall somewhere around 65 over par. No player is in red numbers. The scoring average for the 24-team field is 78.47. There has been one round in the 60s – and seven in the 90s.

No wonder this place is nicknamed Concussion.

Look, it’s no surprise that players and coaches have voiced their displeasure about the penal setup. But it’s the volume of the complaints that has everyone's attention.

So what happened? How did this championship at least temporarily spiral out of control?

There are a few explanations, which is why Jerry Lemieux, director of rules for the women’s NCAA Championship and the man responsible for the course setup at Concession Golf Club, is taking a seat in a chair outside the extravagant clubhouse here.

He begins by saying that he’s made a few mistakes, that maybe he should have eased into the week, that maybe he should have ramped up the intensity with each passing round, instead of dialing it back after the big scores and the bellyaching.

“But we looked at this thing on the scorecard,” he says, “and playing it at 6,400 yards in firm and fast conditions didn’t scare us."

It does now. Through the first two rounds, 17 of the 24 teams posted their worst 18-hole score of the season.

USC, Duke lead women's NCAAs

Scores: Women's NCAA Championship team | Individual

Playing bad golf is frustrating, and the annoyance is only amplified when the heat index creeps over 100 degrees and the wind blows and the pressure mounts and the nerves start and the expectation rises and the crowd swells and the cameras power on.

“And once it starts,” Lemieux says of the criticism, “it can breed a slippery slope as a player and that can be their get-out-of-jail-free card.

“The coaches that you see with their teams with a positive attitude, who know that this is a week of survival, who have prepared their players for this and held their chins up, those are the teams we’ll see in match play.”

It’s a delicate balance: A setup that is too easy doesn’t separate the field, while one that is too difficult tends to cause turmoil.

But there’s also an underlying issue at work here.

Women’s college golf hasn’t been on national television in years, and everyone hopes to make a good impression when the cameras start rolling for real Monday afternoon. That’s problematic now, Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur says, because “people will see teams 40 over par in the mix, and it doesn’t make us look very good.”

No one wants to see these elite players get embarrassed. 

“This setup is the most difficult I’ve been on,” Alabama coach Mic Potter added. “And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t hurt the perception of our sport.”

It's important to note that Lemieux had a few disadvantages this year.

Concession is a relative newcomer, having opened in 2006, and there have been no significant women’s events held here. Officials at host sites the past three years relied on ample data for how the course played for a women’s event. Not so here. All Lemieux had to work with were discussions with the club, chats with a few LPGA players who are members here, and then visits to the course last September and then again a week ago.

Another factor: Players and coaches always had two practice rounds in the lead-up to the championship. But with the women’s move to match play, visiting teams weren’t allowed to see the course until Thursday morning, the lone practice round. To adequately prepare for this championship – and specifically the severity of these green complexes, which are 9,000 square feet but with only about 500 square feet of usable targets – they needed more than a six-hour tour with their teammates.

“’Brutal’ is probably a good word for it,” Washington’s Charlotte Thomas (+6, T-11) said. “Bogey is not a bad score, and that’s a scary thing.” 

All of that said, let's face it: Concession is playing as expected. The course rating is 78.1, and members joke that it’s really a par 80. The scoring average for the first two rounds: 78.35 and 79.21, respectively.

“That’s what we signed up for with this golf course,” Lemieux said. “We signed up to play a very hard course.”

Have there been a few surprises? Sure.

All four par 3s are longer than 160 yards, but the greens haven’t been as receptive to shots with long irons or hybrids.

The par-4 16th is one of the course’s signature holes, but over the first two rounds the players shied away from the water on the left and bailed out, leaving 200-plus yards into a treacherous green.

And instead of playing to conservative quadrants, dozens of players have been seen pinballing their shots across the green.

As Arizona coach Laura Ianoella said: “You never feel safe out here.”

“If you are not on your game,” Lemieux said, “mentally as well as physically and you make a mistake, it will bite you in the ass.”

The South Carolina men’s team arrived at Concession on Sunday, and expect plenty more to take in the final few days of the women’s championship.

Seems everyone is spooked by the high scores.

“There’s no pride of authorship in this,” Lemieux said. “I signed my name to this at the end of the day. If the coaches are having a problem with this, then we’ll continue to try to make it better.”

Yet the goal of any setup specialist – whether it’s Lemieux, the USGA’s Mike Davis or the PGA’s Kerry Haigh – is to identity the best teams and players.

And, well, look at the leaderboard here: USC and Duke, the two best teams in the country, are positioned 1-2 with a few holes left in their third rounds, at 28 and 31 over, respectively. The individual standings show Alabama's Emma Talley, a player with major-championship experience, leading 2013 NCAA champion Annie Park of USC and No. 1-ranked Leona Maguire of Duke. 

“I don’t see tremendous flukes,” Potter said.

Lemieux told every coach at the start of the week that though this is a difficult golf course, they are grading on a curve. It doesn’t matter whether they’re 33 over or 33 under – the eight teams that advance get A's. And then it's on to match play, a format that perfectly suits this ruthless track.

“We’ll give the trophy to five women who will be really happy,” he said, “and it’ll be like a badge of honor – we won it at Concession.”

Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Getty Images

McIlroy making big statement in first start of 2018

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 3:40 pm

Rory McIlroy marched the fairways of Abu Dhabi Golf Club Saturday with that fighter pilot stride of his, with that confident little bob in his step that you see when he is in command of his full arsenal of shots.

So much for easing into the new year.

So much for working off rust and treating these first few months of 2018 as a warmup for the Masters and his bid to complete the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy, 28, is poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion Sunday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

With back-to-back birdies to close his round, McIlroy put up a 7-under-par 65, leaving him just one shot off the lead going into the final round.

“It’s good,” McIlroy said. “I probably scored a bit better today, short game was needed as well, but I hit the ball very well, so all in all it was another great round and confidence builder, not just for this week but obviously for the rest of the season as well.”

McIlroy can make a strong statement with a win Sunday.

If he claims the title in his first start of the year, he sends a message about leaving all the woes of 2017 behind him. He sends a message about his fitness after a nagging rib injury plagued him all of last year. He sends a message about his readiness to reassert himself as the game’s best player in a world suddenly teeming with towering young talent.

After his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro, McIlroy is eager to show himself, as well as everyone else, that he is ready to challenge for major championships and the world No. 1 title again.

“It feels like awhile since I’ve won,” McIlroy said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

A victory would be all the more meaningful because the week started with McIlroy paired with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning European Tour Player of the Year Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy acknowledged the meaning of that going into Saturday’s round.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent healthy,” he said. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and one of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

It’s worth repeating what 2008 Masters champ Trevor Immelman said last month about pairings and the alpha-dog nature of the world’s best players. He was talking about Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge, when Immelman said pairings matter, even in off season events.

“When you are the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Immelman said. “They want to show this guy, `This is what I got.’”

A victory with Johnson in the field just two weeks after Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in an eight-shot rout will get the attention of all the elite players.

A victory also sets this up as a January for the ages, making it the kind of big-bang start the game has struggled to create in the shadow of the NFL playoffs.

Johnson put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Hawaii and the confident young Spaniard Jon Rahm is just a shot off the lead this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia is just two off the lead going into the final round of the Singapore Open. Tiger Woods makes his return to the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines next week.

To be sure, McIlroy has a lot of work to do Sunday.

Yet another rising young talent, Thomas Pieters, shares the lead with Ross Fisher. Fleetwood is just two shots back and Johnson five back.

McIlroy has such a good history at Abu Dhabi. Over the last seven years, he has finished second four times and third twice. Still, even a strong finish that falls short of winning bodes well for McIlroy in his first start of the year.

“I have never won my first start back out,” McIlroy said.

A strong start, whether he wins or not, sets McIlroy up well for the ambitious schedule he plans for 2018. He’s also scheduled to play the Dubai Desert Classic next with the possibility he’ll play 30 times this year, two more events than he’s ever played in a year.

“I’m just really getting my golf head back on,” McIlroy said. “I’ve been really pleased with that.”

A victory Sunday will make all our heads spin a little b it with the exciting possibilities the game offers this year.

Getty Images

Garcia 2 back in weather-delayed Singapore Open

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 3:06 pm

SINGAPORE - Danthai Boonma and Chapchai Nirat built a two-stroke lead over a chasing pack that includes Sergio Garcia and Ryo Ishikawa midway through the third round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open on Saturday.

The Thai golfers were locked together at 9 under when play was suspended at the Sentosa Golf Club for the third day in a row because of lightning strikes in the area.

Masters champion Garcia and former teen prodigy Ishikawa were among seven players leading the chase at 7 under on a heavily congested leaderboard.

Garcia, one of 78 players who returned to the course just after dawn to complete their second rounds, was on the 10th hole of his third round when the warning siren was sounded to abruptly end play for the day.

''Let's see if we can finish the round, that will be nice,'' he said. ''But I think if I can play 4-under I should have a chance.''

The Spanish golfer credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his first major championship title at Augusta National because of the stifling humidity of southeast Asia and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore in 2017, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the subsequent week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later. He is feeling confident of his chances of success this weekend.

''I felt like I hit the ball OK,'' Garcia said. ''My putting and all went great but my speed hasn't been great on this green so let's see if I can be a little more aggressive on the rounds this weekend.''

Ishikawa moved into a share of the lead at the halfway stage after firing a second round of 5-under 66 that featured eight birdies. He birdied the first two holes of his third round to grab the outright lead but slipped back with a double-bogey at the tricky third hole for the third day in a row. He dropped another shot at the par-5 sixth when he drove into a fairway bunker.

''It was a short night but I had a good sleep and just putted well,'' Ishikawa said. The ''greens are a little quicker than yesterday but I still figured (out) that speed.

Ishikawa was thrust into the spotlight more than a decade ago. In 2007, he became the youngest player to win on any of the major tours in the world. He was a 15-year-old amateur when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup.

He turned pro at 16, first played in the Masters when he was 17 and the Presidents Cup when he was 18. He shot 58 in the final round to win The Crowns in Japan when he was 19.

Now 26, Ishikawa has struggled with injuries and form in recent years. He lost his PGA Tour card and hasn't played in any of the majors since 2015. He has won 15 times as a professional, but has never won outside his homeland of Japan.

Chapchai was able to sleep in and put his feet up on Saturday morning after he completed his second round on Friday.

He bogeyed the third but reeled off three birdies in his next four holes to reach 9-under with the back nine still to play.

Danthai was tied for 12th at the halfway stage but charged into a share of the lead with seven birdies in the first 15 holes of his penultimate round.

Getty Images

McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54

By Randall MellJanuary 20, 2018, 1:09 pm

Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.

McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.

McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, five shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.

Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.

“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''