Ecstasy and agony at NCAA Women's Championship

By Ryan LavnerMay 28, 2015, 2:42 am

BRADENTON, Fla. – Listen closely, and for a second you could hear absolutely nothing. Not a roar. Not a gasp. Not a sniffle. Silence.  

No one knew what to do or say – applaud an improbable comeback by Stanford, or mourn a loss so devastating that it left the entire Baylor team in tears?

“We all paused for a second,” Stanford’s Mariah Stackhouse said, “like, Do we celebrate? What happens now?”

Eventually, of course, Stanford’s players, coaches and supporters flooded onto the green to revel in the school’s first women’s national title, a 3-2 victory over Baylor Wednesday at Concession Golf Club.

Stunning results such as these are always awkward. As Stackhouse was mobbed by her teammates, Baylor’s Hayley Davis, who missed a 5-foot par putt that would have sent their match to the 20th hole, booted her ball across the green and retreated to the woods. She veered left behind the trees, plopped down into the pine straw, buried her face in her lime-green polo, and sobbed so hard that her body shook.

One by one, Davis’ teammates drifted over to console her, their cries barely audible over the whooping and cheering some 30 yards away.

Whoa, it was over so fast – her lead, her match, her championship and, most of all, her career. Davis will go down, statistically, as the best player in program history.

Stanford women top Baylor for national championship | Scores

“That was the hard thing,” she said later Wednesday night. “My teammates gave me the chance to do it for them, and I wasn’t able to make it happen.”

Any lingering apprehension about whether match play was the right move for the women’s game was blown away Wednesday during an instant classic that, for the first time since 1996, spilled into overtime.

With the overall match knotted up at two points apiece, both teams’ title hopes rested on the anchor match between Stackhouse, the prolific winner and future LPGA star, and Davis, the do-everything senior who has almost single-handedly lifted the Bears into the sport’s upper echelon.

Clinging to a 1-up lead on the 16th tee, Davis took an aggressive line over the water but didn’t completely carry the hazard. Her ball ended up on a muddy patch, but she had a shot at the green. With the ball well above her feet, and her feet sinking, she choked down on a 9-iron, splashed out and hit the shot of the championship. The 7-footer gave Davis what seemed like a secure lead, 2 up with two to play.

“Under the conditions,” Baylor coach Jay Goble said, “that might have been the best shot I’ve ever seen.”

And the drama only got better from there, thanks to Stackhouse.

First came her 3-iron hybrid on the par-5 17th, which flew about 180 yards and scooted 25 feet past the cup. “As soon as it came off the clubface,” she said, “I was like, ‘This is money.’”

The two-putt birdie pushed the match to the 18th, where she hit an 8-iron from 145 yards to 15 feet for another huge birdie to square the match.

Even crazier was Stackhouse’s admission afterward that the entire scene had played out just as she had dreamt on Saturday night.

“It felt kind of silly,” she said, “but I envisioned some kind of crazy finish with me having to hit huge shots. I knew I was going to be down and I was going to have to do something crazy to come back.”

And sure enough, the dream was realized on the first extra hole.

At the par-4 10th, Stackhouse played her second shot safely to the back of the green, about 20 feet away. Davis pulled her second shot onto the shaved collar left of the green, almost an identical spot to where she was in regulation. But after coaxing her putt to within 5 feet – a distance that seemed so automatic that several officials turned and walked toward the 11th – she shoved her par putt. Just like that, it was over.

“I’ve made probably thousands of 5-foot putts in my life,” Davis said, “and that one didn’t go in. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it completely.”

Stanford’s players screamed and danced and donned championship T-shirts and hats. Baylor’s stood to the left of the green, stunned, unsure what to say or what to do.

Eventually, their next move became clear, because their team leader was hurting. They formed a circle around Davis in the woods, and for two minutes they cried together.

They tried to put the moment in the proper context – Hey, we still reached the championship final! – but all Davis could muster through tears was, “I know, but it doesn’t matter right now.”

It was the first time in four years that her teammates could recall seeing Davis cry.

“I don’t know if there’s a right way to console her,” assistant coach Mary Michael Maggio said. “You just have to be there. Right now it hurts, but you just have to remind her that there’s nothing to hang her head about.

“You tell her that tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day, and for the next 60 days if you have to. Because we couldn’t have gotten here without her.”

Added Goble: “My heart aches for her. It’s a punch in the gut, but we’ll recover. We all will. It just stings being so close to the pinnacle of college golf.”

Stanford has reached that spot now, for the first time in program history.

That the Cardinal’s moment somehow arrived this year was even more remarkable.

Coach Anne Walker and her husband welcomed their first child in December, but she cut short her maternity leave when her team was on the cusp of collapsing, with four players battling injuries in the spring.

“We went through too much,” junior Lauren Kim said, “for this not to be ours.”

At breakfast Wednesday morning, Walker looked around at her players and had never seen them more exhausted. This new match-play format is a test of endurance as much as it is skill, so much so, Walker joked, “that this event should probably be sponsored by Red Bull.”

Adrenaline eventually takes over, and Stackhouse looked anything but drained over the frenetic final hour.

Kim had blisters on her feet all week after playing eight rounds in seven days, but as she watched her teammate’s star-making performance, “I didn’t even feel a thing.”

Make no mistake, though: Everyone felt something at the end, with the awkward juxtaposition of a celebration and a collapse.

Ten minutes after her final putt missed, Davis finally collected herself. She brushed away tears and walked in a daze toward the green, where she congratulated each and every member of Stanford’s victorious team.

No one knew what to do or say. So in that moment, they simply hugged.

Getty Images

Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm each can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He would return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finishing worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish of worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

Getty Images

Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

@kharms27 on Instagram

Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

Getty Images

McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.