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.”

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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.'"

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

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.