USC, LSU last standing at another tumultuous NCAAs

By Ryan LavnerJune 3, 2015, 2:17 am

BRADENTON, Fla. – Parity and an unpredictable match-play format can make for a tumultuous championship.

We saw it seven days ago, when Stanford and Baylor knocked off the favorites and reached the NCAA women’s finals.

And that’s what we have again here at Concession, where over the course of 12 hours Tuesday, Southern Cal defeated Texas and Illinois – the popular choices to win it all with a combined 15 wins this season – to advance to the NCAA Championship final.

The 13th-ranked Trojans will face No. 9 LSU in the 18-hole championship match Wednesday.

Pressed for an explanation on how we arrived here, USC coach Chris Zambri offered: “Our championship is just incredibly difficult to win.”

Hey, no one understands that better than the top seeds.

Since match play was instituted in 2009, the team that won the stroke-play portion has yet to win the national title. Illinois was merely the latest match-play casualty.

In one day, the Illini experienced the wild swings of momentum that can make match play so maddening.

In the quarterfinals against UCLA, they enjoyed big-time performances from Thomas Detry (won Nos. 15-17), Charlie Danielson (won seven holes in a row) and Nick Hardy, whose pars on the final two holes were enough to secure a 3-2 win.



In the semifinals against USC, they looked tired, hit poor shots at inopportune times and failed to make a sustained rally.

“USC beat us today,” Illinois coach Mike Small said. “Their rhythm didn’t change, their walk didn’t change, and they hit good shots.”

No doubt the most clutch shots were struck by senior Eric Sugimoto, a transfer from Pacific, the team’s No. 5 man and a player with only one top-10 this season. His hybrid shot to 5 feet on 14, his two-putt from 40 feet on 15, his iron shot to 10 feet on 16, and then his amped-up 3-wood from 249 yards on 17 to close out the match were some of the best all week, given the circumstances.

Zambri joked that Sugimoto was the kind of player who showed signs “four out of the seven days a week” – or, in other words, during practice.

“But we’d known he had it all along,” said USC assistant Tyler Goulding, who walked alongside Sugimoto in the semifinals. “We knew he had those kinds of stones to hit shots when they really mattered.”

The Trojans’ appearance in the finals here will only fuel the debate as to whether the NCAA has found the right format.  

There’s little argument that the system worked in 2012 and ’14, when the top two teams in the country squared off, but there have been a few oddball showdowns that took some star power out of the event a day early.

What can be done?

It may not have mattered this week, but instead of seeding based on the four rounds of stroke play, the teams should be slotted in the bracket based on their rank entering nationals. In no other sport can the top two teams face off in anything other than the finals. So why is college golf different?

Another issue to consider: The last two weeks, on both the men’s and women’s side, coaches and players have cited fatigue. Yes, the national championship should be the most grueling test of the year, but at this point, with eight rounds in seven days, it’s almost as much about endurance as it is skill. When asked what he was going to tell his team on the eve of the NCAA finals, LSU coach Chuck Winstead replied: “Go to sleep.”

All of this isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of two richly deserving finalists.

The Trojans are coming off a last-place finish at the 2014 NCAAs at Prairie Dunes, a course that didn’t fit the team’s aggressive style of play. Zambri joked that so many of his players’ shots found the bushes, they needed a Sherpa.

Reminders of that debacle are in Zambri’s office back in LA. Tournament officials sent him a giant poster with his team’s scores, but he rolled it up and put it behind his desk, never to be seen again. A smaller version is tacked on his cabinet. Motivation.

USC won three titles this season, but none since late February. In three of the Trojans’ toughest tournaments this spring, they finished ninth, eighth and seventh.

When asked if he ever envisioned that his team would be staring at the possibility of going from worst to first, Zambri shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe, maybe not.”

OK, so, basically: No.

The Trojans are essentially a team that caught fire at the right time and capitalized on the capricious nature of 18-hole match play. 

“They deserved to win,” Small said.

The LSU Tigers, meanwhile, are a confident – cocky? – bunch with five solid players and a coach who has guided the program through lean times.

After losing in the 2014 semifinals, LSU almost didn’t even make NCAAs, after it trailed by 14 shots on the final day of regionals. Clutch performances by Brandon Pierce and Ben Taylor – the latter of whom delivered the clinching point Tuesday against Georgia – punched the Tigers’ ticket to nationals. 

Tuesday was relatively low stress, as they beat Vanderbilt and Georgia by 3-1-1 margins.

Said LSU’s Zach Wright, who improved to 4-0 in match play in two NCAA appearances: “We’re a team that doesn’t really have any weaknesses.”

Since the match-play era began, there has always been a dominant team, whether it was Oklahoma State or Texas or Alabama.

Parity reigned this year, as seven teams won five or more times. It’s revealing, though, that four of those teams didn’t even make match play, two lost in the quarterfinals and the other, Illinois, which won an NCAA-best eight times, fell one match shy of reaching the finals.

The same scenario played out on the women’s side a week earlier – favorites USC and Duke bowed out early, clearing the way for a pair of top-20 programs to fight for the title.

Yes, by now we’ve learned these NCAAs are a tumultuous championship. But that doesn’t make it any less surprising.

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Stock Watch: Strange grumpy; Tiger Time again?

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 1:00 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): This should put his whirlwind 17 months in the proper context: Rahm (38) has earned four worldwide titles in 25 fewer starts – or a full season quicker – than Jordan Spieth (63). This kid is special.

Tommy Fleetwood (+7%): Putting on a stripe show in windy conditions, the Englishman defended his title in Abu Dhabi (thanks to a back-nine 30) and capped a 52-week period in which he won three times, contended in majors and WGCs, and soared inside the top 15 in the world.

Sergio (+3%): Some wholesale equipment changes require months of adjustments. In Garcia’s case, it didn’t even take one start, as the new Callaway staffer dusted the field by five shots in Singapore.

Rory (+2%): Sure, it was a deflating Sunday finish, as he shot his worst round of the week and got whipped by Fleetwood, but big picture he looked refreshed and built some momentum for the rest of his pre-Masters slate. That’s progress.

Ken Duke (+1%): Looking ahead to the senior circuit, Duke, 48, still needs a place to play for the next few years. Hopefully a few sponsors saw what happened in Palm Springs, because his decision to sub in for an injured Corey Pavin for the second and third rounds – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard – was as selfless as it gets.


FALLING

Austin Cook (-1%): The 54-hole leader in the desert, he closed with 75 – the worst score of anyone inside the top 40. Oy.

Phil (-2%): All of that pre-tournament optimism was tempered by the reality of his first missed cut to start the new year since 2009. Now ranked 45th in the world, his position inside the top 50 – a spot he’s occupied every week since November 1993 – is now in jeopardy.

Careful What You Wish For (-3%): Today’s young players might (foolishly) wish they could have faced Woods in his prime, but they’ll at least get a sense this week of the spectacle he creates. Playing his first Tour event in a year, and following an encouraging warmup in the Bahamas, his mere presence at Torrey is sure to leave everyone else to grind in obscurity.

Curtis Strange (-5%): The two-time U.S. Open champ took exception with the chummy nature of the CareerBuilder playoff, with Rahm and Andrew Landry chatting between shots. “Are you kidding me?” Strange tweeted. “Talking at all?” The quality of golf was superb, so clearly they didn’t need to give each other the silent treatment to summon their best.

Brooks Koepka (-8%): A bummer, the 27-year-old heading to the DL just as he was starting to come into his own. The partially torn tendon in his left wrist is expected to knock him out of action until the Masters, but who knows how long it’ll take him to return to game shape.

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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.