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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Farmers inks 7-year extension through 2026

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 24, 2018, 12:04 am

SAN DIEGO – Farmers Insurance has signed a seven-year extension to serve as the title sponsor for the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines, it was announced Tuesday. The deal will run through 2026.

“Farmers Insurance has been incredibly supportive of the tournament and the Century Club’s charitable initiatives since first committing to become the title sponsor in 2010,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.

“We are extremely grateful for the strong support of Farmers and its active role as title sponsor, and we are excited by the commitment Farmers has made to continue sponsorship of the Farmers Insurance Open for an additional seven years.

In partnership with Farmers, the Century Club – the tournament’s host organization – has contributed more than $20 million to deserving organizations benefiting at-risk youth since 2010. 

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Woods impresses DeChambeau, Day on Tuesday

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 11:27 pm

SAN DIEGO – Bryson DeChambeau played with Tiger Woods for the first time Tuesday morning, and the biggest surprise was that he wasn’t overcome by nerves.

“That’s what I was concerned about,” DeChambeau said. “Am I just gonna be slapping it around off the tee? But I was able to play pretty well.”

So was Woods.

DeChambeau said that Woods looked “fantastic” as he prepares to make his first PGA Tour start in a year.

“His game looks solid. His body doesn’t hurt. He’s just like, yeah, I’m playing golf again,” DeChambeau said. “And he’s having fun, too, which is a good thing.”

Woods arrived at Torrey Pines before 7 a.m. local time Tuesday, when the temperature hadn’t yet crept above 50 degrees. He warmed up and played the back nine of Torrey Pines’ South Course with DeChambeau and Jason Day.

“He looks impressive; it was good to see,” Day told afterward. “You take (Farmers) last year and the Dubai tournament out, and he hasn’t really played in two years. I think the biggest thing is to not get too far ahead, or think he’s going to come back and win straight away.

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“The other time he came back, I don’t think he was ready and he probably came back too soon. This time he definitely looks ready. I think his swing is really nice, he’s hitting the driver a long way and he looks like he’s got some speed, which is great.”

Woods said that his caddie, Joe LaCava, spent four days with him in South Florida last week and that he’s ready to go.

“Before the Hero I was basically given the OK probably about three or four weeks prior to the tournament, and I thought I did pretty good in that prep time,” Woods told, referring to his tie for ninth in the 18-man event.

“Now I’ve had a little more time to get ready for this event. I’ve played a lot more golf, and overall I feel like I’ve made some nice changes. I feel good.”

Woods is first off Torrey Pines’ North Course in Wednesday’s pro-am, scheduled for 6:40 a.m. local time. 

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With blinders on, Rahm within reach of No. 1 at Torrey

By Rex HoggardJanuary 23, 2018, 10:10 pm

SAN DIEGO – The drive over to Torrey Pines from Palm Springs, Calif., takes about two and a half hours, which was plenty of time for Jon Rahm’s new and ever-evolving reality to sink in.

The Spaniard arrived in Southern California for a week full of firsts. The Farmers Insurance Open will mark the first time he’s defended a title on the PGA Tour following his dramatic breakthrough victory last year, and it will also be his first tournament as the game’s second-best player, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking.

Rahm’s victory last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his second on Tour and fourth worldwide tilt over the last 12 months, propelled the 23-year-old to No. 2 in the world, just behind Dustin Johnson. His overtime triumph also moved him to within four rounds of unseating DJ atop the global pecking order.

It’s impressive for a player who at this point last year was embarking on his first full season as a professional, but then Rahm has a fool-proof plan to keep from getting mired in the accolades of his accomplishments.

“It's kind of hard to process it, to be honest, because I live my day-to-day life with my girlfriend and my team around me and they don't change their behavior based on what I do, right?” he said on Tuesday at Torrey Pines. “They'll never change what they think of me. So I really don't know the magnitude of what I do until I go outside of my comfort zone.”

Head down and happy has worked perfectly for Rahm, who has finished outside the top 10 in just three of his last 10 starts and began 2018 with a runner-up showing at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and last week’s victory.

According to the world ranking math, Rahm is 1.35 average ranking points behind Johnson and can overtake DJ atop the pack with a victory this week at the Farmers Insurance Open; but to hear his take on his ascension one would imagine a much wider margin.

“I've said many times, beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task,” Rahm said. “We all know what happened last time he was close to a lead in a tournament on the PGA Tour.”

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Rahm certainly remembers. It was just three weeks ago in Maui when he birdied three of his first six holes, played the weekend at Kapalua in 11 under and still finished eight strokes behind Johnson.

And last year at the WGC-Mexico Championship when Rahm closed his week with rounds of 67-68 only to finish two strokes off Johnson’s winning pace, or a few weeks later at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when he took Johnson the distance in the championship match only to drop a 1-up decision to the game’s undisputed heavyweight.

As far as Rahm has come in an incredibly short time - at this point last year he ranked 137th in the world - it is interesting that it’s been Johnson who has had an answer at every turn.

He knows there’s still so much room for improvement, both physically and mentally, and no one would ever say Rahm is wanting for confidence, but after so many high-profile run-ins with Johnson, his cautious optimism is perfectly understandable.

“I'll try to focus more on what's going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win,” he reasoned when asked about the prospect of unseating Johnson, who isn’t playing this week. “I'll try my best, that's for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

If Rahm’s take seems a tad cliché given the circumstances, consider that his aversion to looking beyond the blinders is baked into the competitive cake. For all of his physical advantages, of which there are many, it’s his keen ability to produce something special on command that may be even more impressive.

Last year at Torrey Pines was a quintessential example of this, when he began the final round three strokes off the lead only to close his day with a back-nine 30 that included a pair of eagles.

“I have the confidence that I can win here, whereas last year I knew I could but I still had to do it,” he said. “I hope I don't have to shoot 30 on the back nine to win again.”

Some will point to Rahm’s 60-footer for eagle at the 72nd hole last year as a turning point in his young career, it was even named the best putt on Tour by one publication despite the fact he won by three strokes. But Rahm will tell you that walk-off wasn’t even the best shot he hit during the final round.

Instead, he explained that the best shot of the week, the best shot of the year, came on the 13th hole when he launched a 4-iron from a bunker to 18 feet for eagle, a putt that he also made.

“If I don't put that ball on the green, which is actually a lot harder than making that putt, the back nine charge would have never happened and this year might have never happened, so that shot is the one that made everything possible,” he explained.

Rahm’s ability to embrace and execute during those moments is what makes him special and why he’s suddenly found himself as the most likely contender to Johnson’s throne even if he chooses not to spend much time thinking about it.

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Rahm focusing on play, not shot at No. 1

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 23, 2018, 9:06 pm

SAN DIEGO – Jon Rahm’s meteoric rise in the world rankings could end with him reaching No. 1 with a win this week at Torrey Pines.

After winning last week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, his fourth title in 51 weeks, Rahm has closed the gap on Dustin Johnson – less than 1.5 average points separates them.

With Johnson not playing this week, the 23-year-old Spaniard has a chance to reach the top spot for the first time, but only if he defends his title at the Farmers Insurance Open.

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“Beating Dustin Johnson is a really, really hard task. It’s no easy task,” he said Tuesday. “We still have four days of golf ahead and we’ll see what happens. But I’ll try to focus more on what’s going on this week rather than what comes with it if I win.

“I’ll try my best, that’s for sure. Hopefully it happens, but we all know how hard it is to win on Tour.”

Rahm has already become the fourth-youngest player to reach No. 2 in the world, behind Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.