Alex Cejka leads Tiger Woods and company by five

By Doug FergusonMay 9, 2009, 4:00 pm
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The PlayersPONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. ' Alex Cejka could see chaos all around him at The Players Championship, or at least hear it through the groans of a scorching Saturday at the TPC Sawgrass that delivered so many meltdowns.
 
He was among the few to survive, taking on the flag with an 8-iron on the final hole that set up a 5-foot birdie for an even-par 72 and a five-shot lead, the largest after three rounds in the 36 years of this prestigious event.
 
Alex Cejka
Alex Cejka started the day with a two-shot lead and ended five up. (Getty Images)
Time to exhale? Not quite.
 
In a tournament full of surprises, the biggest of all might be his date in the final round Sunday: Tiger Woods.
 
Woods didnt look like a player who should be in contention, not after having to play one shot left-handed from the base of a pine, missing one shot by 40 feet with a wedge in his hand and looking increasing frustrated at birdie chances that slipped away.
 
But back-to-back birdies, followed by a huge break on the 18th hole, changed his fortunes.
 
His 2-under 70 turned out to be good enough to move up 20 spots into a six-way tie for second, in the final pairing Sunday with a 38-year-old who has never held a final-round lead on U.S. soil.
 
Its going to be tough, Cejka said. Hes the best player. Its going to be a good challenge for me. I know I have a lead, but its against not only Tiger but against the rest of the field. Ive got to play well tomorrow to win here.
 
Cejka was at 11-under 205 and doesnt seem to be all that intimidated.
 
He recalled beating Woods the last time they were paired in the final round of a big event ' that was the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, when Woods was a 20-year-old amateur. Cejka shot 67 to finish 11th; Woods had a 67.
 
And the Czech-born German is going with a familiar Sunday attire ' red shirt and black pants ' a tradition for Woods in the final round.
 
Hopefully, it works for me, too, Cejka said. Its nice to watch the best player in the world, but Ive got to focus again on my game tomorrow and let him work a little bit.
 
In Woods only victory this year since returning from knee surgery, he matched his PGA Tour best with a five-shot comeback against Sean OHair in the final pairing at Bay Hill.
 
Even so, Woods was not alone in his pursuit.
 
Henrik Stenson was two shots behind until he bogeyed three of the last five holes, nearly chipping into the water on the 16th. He wound up with a 73, and was in the six-way tie for second that included Woods, two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen (71), Jonathan Byrd (71), Ben Crane (72) and Ian Poulter, who didnt make a single birdie on his way to a 75.
 
Woods got into the final group because he was the first to finish among the group at 6-under 210, and what a finish it was.
 
He had been struggling all day in temperatures that climbed into the 90s. He had to hit one shot left-handed from the base of a pine, missed his target by 40 feet with a wedge, and looked increasingly frustrated as he missed birdie chances.
 
Back-to-back birdies got him in range, and a huge break that followed on the 18th kept him there.
 
He was in the trees again, a few feet from the divot he left the day before when he made a tremendous escape. This time, a 6-iron came out hot and more left than he wanted, racing through the green and tumbling down a bank toward the pond. But a tuft of Bermuda grass grabbed the ball a foot from the water, and Woods managed to save par.
 
He had no idea where it would lead him.
 
You figured some of the guys would shoot 3 or 4 under par today, but its just not happening out there, Woods said.
 
Instead, everyone went the other direction.
 
  • Poulter took bogeys on two par 5s.
     
  • David Toms was making a run until he shot 42 on the back nine for a 77.
     
  • Kevin Na managed only two pars on the back nine for a 40.
     
    The good news for most was that they still had hope.
     
    Im still in pretty good shape, Stenson said. I would have liked to have finished better. Thats just the nature of this golf course.
     
    Mother Nature didnt help.
     
    After overnight rain on the eve of the tournament, the TPC Sawgrass has been in an oven set to broil. The putting surfaces are more yellow than green. The fairways are faster than ever. The slightest miss can lead to big trouble.
     
    No one had quite a wild day as Na. He was two strokes behind at the turn, then bogeyed the next two holes and put a tee shot in the water on the par-3 13th and took triple bogey. He got back in the mix with a birdie on the 15th and an eagle on the 16th, only to bogey the last two holes for a 74.
     
    He was in the group at 5-under 211.
     
    This course, its crazy, Na said. Youve got the greatest players in the world having trouble shooting par on this golf course. Theres a reason were shooting over par.
     
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    Arizona grabs last spot with eagle putt, playoff win

    By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2018, 3:18 am

    STILLWATER, Okla. – With her team freefalling in the standings, Arizona coach Laura Ianello was down to her last stroke.

    The Wildcats began the final round of the NCAA Championship in third place, but they were 19 over par for the day, and outside the top-8 cut line, with only one player left on the course.

    Bianca Pagdaganan had transferred from Gonzaga to compete for NCAA titles, and on the 17th hole Ianello told her that she needed to play “the best two holes of your life” to keep the dream alive.

    She made par on 17, then hit a 185-yard 6-iron out of a divot to 30 feet. Not knowing where she stood on the final green, Pagdaganan felt an eerie calm over the ball. Sure enough, she buried the eagle putt, setting off a raucous celebration and sending the Wildcats into a play-five, count-four team playoff with Baylor at 33 over par.

    Their match-play spot wasn’t yet secure, but Ianello still broke down in tears.


    NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

    NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring


    “Bianca is such an inspiration for all of us,” she said. “She’s the kind of kid that you want to root for, to have good things happen to.”

    Arizona prevailed on the second playoff hole. As the 8 seed, the Wildcats will play top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals Tuesday at Karsten Creek.

    Though the finish had plenty of drama, no teams played their way into the coveted top 8 on the final day of stroke-play qualifying.

    Baylor came closest. The Bears barely advanced past regionals after a mysterious stomach virus affected several players and coaches. They competed in the final round with just four healthy players.

    On Monday, Gurleen Kaur put Baylor in position to advance, shooting 68, but the Bears lost by three strokes on the second extra hole.

    Arkansas finished one shot shy of the team playoff. The second-ranked Razorbacks, who entered NCAAs as one of the pre-tournament favorites, having won seven times, including their first SEC title, couldn’t overcome a 308-300 start and finished 10th. Player of the Year favorite Maria Fassi finished her week at 19 over par and counted only two rounds toward the team total.

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    Kupcho gets redemption with NCAA title

    By Ryan LavnerMay 22, 2018, 2:54 am

    STILLWATER, Okla. – Driving from Chicago to Denver the night of the 2017 NCAA Women’s Championship, Mike Kupcho was worried about what the next two days might bring.

    A few hours earlier, he’d watched his 20-year-old daughter, Jennifer, take a two-shot lead into the 71st hole at Rich Harvest Farms. With just 127 yards left for her approach, she hit her pitching wedge the one place she couldn’t afford to miss – short, in the pond – and then compounded the error with a three-putt. The triple bogey dropped her one shot behind Arizona State’s Monica Vaughn.

    Kupcho conducted a series of teary interviews afterward, but she had no time to dwell on the heartbreaking finish. She hopped on a plane back home and competed in a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier two days later.

    “We were worried about how she’d react – I didn’t know what to expect,” Mike said. “I would have been a wreck.”

    But Jennifer fired a 66 in the opening round, then a 72 in the afternoon to earn medalist honors.


    NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Team scoring

    NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Individual scoring


    “Well,” Mike said, “I guess she’s over it.”

    Kupcho made it official Monday at Karsten Creek, claiming the NCAA title that should have been hers last May.

    The Wake Forest junior won by two shots – the same margin she blew a year ago – for her fourth victory of the season, vaulting her into contention for the Annika Award.

    “It’s just exciting to get here after everything I’ve been through,” she said.

    Entering the final round in a share of the lead, Kupcho birdied the first but played Nos. 5-7 in 4 over par. It seemed like another collapse was brewing.

    “I told her she’s going to have to face some adversity at some point,” said Wake Forest assistant Ryan Potter, who walked alongside her Monday. “There was a lot of golf to play, especially on a course like this.”

    A birdie on 11 sent her on her way. She added a birdie on the drivable 12th, dropped another one on the par-5 14th and then canned a 60-footer for birdie on 16.

    And so there she was again, two shots clear with two holes to go, when she stepped to the tee on the 17th. She piped a drive down the center, then flushed her approach directly over the flag, leading to a stress-free par. On 18, with water all the way down the left side, she nuked her second shot into the middle of the green for a two-putt birdie.

    If there were any lingering questions about whether Kupcho could close, she answered them emphatically Monday. She carded five back-nine birdies for a two-shot victory over Stanford’s Andrea Lee (66) and Arizona’s Bianca Pagdaganan (72).

    “Redemption,” Potter said. “She knew she could do it. It was just a matter of holding the trophy.”

    After last year’s devastating finish, Potter tacked a photo on his closet wall of a victorious Arizona State team posing with the NCAA trophy. Each day was a reminder of how close they’d come.

    “That sticks with you,” he said.

    There were areas of Kupcho's game to shore up – namely chipping and bunker play – and she worked tirelessly to turn them into strengths. She built momentum throughout the season, culminating with a dominant regional performance in which she tied a school record by shooting 15 under, holed the winning putt to send her teammates to the NCAA Championship and became just the second player in history to win a regional in consecutive years.

    “She’s interesting,” Potter said, “because the bigger the tournament, the bigger the stage, the better she plays.”

    Indeed, Kupcho became the first player in a decade to finish in the top 6 in three consecutive NCAAs.

    Here at Karsten Creek, she tied a women’s course record with a 7-under 65 in the opening round. And even though she backed up on Day 2, she played the last two rounds in 3 under to claim the title.

    The one she kicked away a year ago.

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    Kupcho wins NCAA title; final eight teams set

    By Jay CoffinMay 22, 2018, 1:55 am

    STILLWATER, Okla. – On one of the more nerve-racking days of the college golf season two important honors were up for grabs at Karsten Creek – the individual title, and the top eight teams attempting to qualify for match play.

    Here’s the lowdown of what happened Monday at the women’s NCAA Championship:

    Individual leaderboard (total scores): Jennifer Kupcho, Wake Forest (-8); Andrea Lee, Stanford (-6); Bianca Pagdanganan, Arizona (-6); Cheyenne Knight, Alabama (-5); Morgane Metraux, Florida State (-4); Jaclyn Lee, Ohio State (-3).

    Team leaderboard: UCLA (+9), Alabama (+9), USC (+16), Northwestern (+21), Stanford (+28), Duke (+30), Kent State (+32), Arizona (+33).

    What it means: Let’s start with the individual race. Wake Forest junior Jennifer Kupcho was absolutely devastated a year ago when she made triple bogey on the 17th hole of the final round and lost the individual title by a shot. She was bound not to let that happen again and this year she made five birdies on the last eight holes to shoot 71 and win by two shots. Kupcho is the first player with three consecutive top-six finishes at the NCAA Championship since Duke’s Amanda Blumenherst (2007-09).

    The team race took an unexpected turn at the end of the day when Arizona junior Bianca Pangdaganan made eagle on the last hole to vault the Wildcats into an eighth-place tie, meaning they would enter a playoff with Baylor for the final spot in the match play portion of the championship.

    The Wildcats got a reprieve because they played terribly for most of the day and dropped from third place to 10th at one point. In the playoff, Arizona ultimately defeated Baylor in an anticlimactic finish.

    Best of the rest: Stanford played horribly the first round. So bad that it almost seemed like the Cardinal shot itself out of the championship. But they played steady over the next three days and ended with the fifth seed. This is the fourth year in a row that Stanford has advanced to match play.

    Round of the day: USC shot a 5-under total on Monday, the best round of the day by six shots. They landed as the third seed and will play Duke in the quarterfinals.

    Stanford sophomore Andrea Lee shot a 7-under 65, the best score of the day by three shots. Lee made seven birdies and no bogeys and vaulted up the leaderboard 11 spots to end in a tie for sixth place.

    Biggest disappointment: Arkansas, the second-ranked team in the country, missed qualifying for match play by one shot. The Razorbacks shot a 20-over 308 in Round 1 and played only slightly better with a 300 in the second round. Consecutive 1-over-par 289 scores were a good try, but results in a huge miss for a team expected to contend for the team title.

    Here are Tuesday morning's quarterfinal matchups:

    Cut and not so dry: Shinnecock back with a new look

    By Bradley S. KleinMay 21, 2018, 9:22 pm

    SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The last time the USGA was here at Shinnecock Hills, it nearly had a train wreck on its hands. The last day of the 2004 U.S. Open was so dry and the turf so firm that play was stopped in the morning just to get some water on the greens.

    The lessons learned from that debacle are now on display three weeks before Shinnecock gets another U.S. Open. And this time, the USGA is prepared with all sorts of high-tech devices – firmness meters, moisture monitors, drone technology to measure turf temperatures - to make sure the playing surfaces remain healthy.

    Players, meanwhile, will face a golf course that is 548 yards longer than a dozen years ago, topping out now at 7,445 yards for the par-70 layout. Ten new tees have assured that the course will keep up with technology and distance. They’ll also require players to contend with the bunkering and fairway contours that designer William Flynn built when he renovated Shinnecock Hills in 1930.

    And those greens will not only have more consistent turf cover, they’ll also be a lot larger – like 30 percent bigger. What were mere circles averaging 5,500 square feet are now about 7,200 square feet. That will mean more hole locations, more variety to the setup, and more rollouts into surrounding low-mow areas. Slight misses that ended up in nearby rough will now be down in hollows many more yards away.



    The course now has an open, windswept look to it – what longtime green chairman Charles Stevenson calls “a maritime grassland.” You don’t get to be green chairman of a prominent club for 37 years without learning how to deal with politics, and he’s been a master while implementing a long-term plan to bring the course back to its original scale and angles. In some cases that required moving tees back to recapture the threat posed by cross-bunkers and steep falloffs. Two of the bigger extensions come on the layout’s two par-5s, which got longer by an average of 60 yards. The downwind, downhill par-4 14th hole got stretched 73 yards and now plays 519.

    “We want players to hit driver,” says USGA executive director Mike Davis.

    The also want to place an emphasis upon strategy and position, which is why, after the club had expanded its fairways the last few years, the USGA decided last September to bring them back in somewhat.

    The decision followed analysis of the driving statistics from the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where wide fairways proved very hospitable to play. Players who made the cut averaged hitting 77 percent of fairways and driving it 308 yards off the tee. There was little fear of the rough there. “We didn’t get the wind and the dry conditions we anticipated,” says Davis.

    Moving ahead to Shinnecock Hills, he and the setup staff wanted to balance the need for architectural variety with a traditional emphasis upon accuracy. So they narrowed the fairways at Shinnecock Hills last September by seven acres. They are still much wider than in the U.S. Opens played here in 1986, 1995 and 2004, when the average width of the landing areas was 26.6 yards. “Now they are 41.6 yards across on average,” said Davis. So they are much wider than in previous U.S. Opens and make better use of the existing contours and bring lateral bunkers into play.

    This time around, with more consistent, healthier turf cover and greens that have plenty of nutrients and moisture, the USGA should be able to avoid the disastrous drying out of the putting surfaces that threatened that final day in 2004. The players will also face a golf course that is more consistent than ever with its intended width, design, variety and challenge. That should make for a more interesting golf course and, by turn, more interesting viewing.