The Leap: Players making career jumps in 2013

By Jason SobelJanuary 2, 2013, 1:00 pm

Anyone can pick a few professional golfers to find their way onto the leaderboard on any given week. Or as yours truly proved during last year’s fantasy golf season, anyone can repeatedly pick a few to underachieve every single week.

Short-term predictions are one thing, but long-term ones are a whole different animal, requiring a little more insight and a lot more research. Here’s hoping I’ve got some of each.

Welcome to this year’s edition of The Leap in which I’ll pick players to jump to a previously unforeseen level in their careers. Last year’s predictions were a mixed bag, with dead-on calls regarding Jason Dufner and Branden Grace, but a regretfully poor choice in taking Sergio Garcia to win a major. (Wait, that didn’t happen … right?)

This year’s predictions feature an eclectic mix of veterans and rookies, names you know and names you don’t. They’ll each be making a major leap in their careers in 2013. If not, well, I’ll just have to try again next year.

Bill HaasBill Haas

The Leap: Major championship contender

Despite four career victories and a FedEx Cup title two years ago, Haas the younger has never finished better than 12th in 13 career major starts. That changes this year. Wins at East Lake and Riviera prove he’s got the mettle to compete on big-time courses and while this may not be the year he avenges his father’s career-long winless major streak, it will be the season he shows that he’s good enough to get himself onto a late Sunday leaderboard at any of 'em.

Bo Van Pelt at the 2012 AT&T NationalBo Van Pelt

The Leap: Top 10 on Official World Golf Ranking

There are two ways to look at Van Pelt’s career: He’s either a classic overachiever based on a PGA Tour-leading 15 top-10 finishes in the past two seasons or a classic underachiever because of a wealth of success that has translated to just one official victory. With unofficial late-season wins in each of the last two years, the official ones may only be a matter of time – and with them will come a major jump in OWGR status. That said, he won’t need a huge boost, already at 22nd in the world entering the year.

Scott Piercy in the 2012 RBC Canadian Open final roundScott Piercy

The Leap: PGA Tour multiple winner

Of the 16 players who have won official tournaments in each of the last two seasons, perhaps none is more unheralded than Piercy, who followed his 2011 Reno-Tahoe Open win with a Canadian Open triumph last year. What’s to like so much? Start at the end. He finished fifth last season in final-round scoring average. Out here on the thin limb, let’s pick him to win at least two titles – and don’t be shocked if the first of those happens at this week’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Graham DeLaetGraham DeLaet

The Leap: Presidents Cup competitor

When it comes to potential International team members, the global job search usually stretches to such locales as Australia, South Africa and all of Asia. This year, though, captain Nick Price will be keeping a careful eye on this Canadian, who after myriad injuries posted three top 10s on the PGA Tour last season. A long hitter, DeLaet may be poised to break through with his first victory soon, which should firmly plant him on the radar screen for the end-of-year competition.

Kevin StreelmanKevin Streelman

The Leap: PGA Tour winner

It wasn’t so long ago that Streelman was looping at a few country clubs to help offset expenses from playing mini-tour golf. That type of background will help develop a pretty strong resolve in a player, and the Duke University product has shown a propensity for playing some of his best golf on Sunday afternoons. After a self-proclaimed “transition year” in 2012, expect it to translate into his first career title this season.

Seung-Yul Noh in the 2012 Deutsche Bank Championship second roundSeung-Yul Noh

The Leap: Tour Championship competitor

Armed with one of the sweetest swings on the PGA Tour, the 21-year-old enjoyed a breakthrough season last year, with 13 top-25 results in 28 starts. He made it all the way to the third of four FedEx Cup playoff events and had success in two of them – T-13 at the Deutsche Bank Championship and T-16 at the BMW Championship. All of which should bode well for his chances to reach the field at East Lake this year, an obvious goal for any young player, because it also comes with an invitation to the Masters.

Luke ListLuke List

The Leap: PGA Tour rookie of the year

One of List’s usual golfing buddies calls him “one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen.” That wouldn’t sound like much until you consider that his buddy is Keegan Bradley, who plays against some pretty decent talent on a weekly basis. As proof, List posted a victory and three other runner-up finishes on the circuit last year to earn his first trip to the big leagues. Tour courses should suit a guy who averages 323.5 yards per drive – yes, that’s not a misprint – and finds the fairway 57 percent of the time.

Harris English and Brian HarmanHarris English/Brian Harman

The Leap: Top 50 on PGA Tour money list

As college teammates and current housemates, the PGA Tour rookies kept their cards together last year, too, as English finished 79th on the money list with Harman not far behind at 87th. They’ll stay attached this season, as well, if not off the course then at least in the standings, as both are primed for a jump into the top 50 on the final money list in their sophomore campaigns.

Morgan HoffmanMorgan Hoffmann

The Leap: Top 100 on PGA Tour money list

A few years ago, two PGA Tour players teed it up in a friendly game with a college kid. Easy money, right? Not exactly. The kid was Hoffman, who calmly made so many eagles and birdies that one of the pros took to calling him Drago after the fictional boxer of “Rocky IV” fame. Well, he’s all grown up now. Without initial status on the Tour last year, he posted seven top 10s in just 13 starts to earn a PGA Tour promotion. Now that he’s there, expect similar consistency, which should allow him to keep his job for many years to come.

Kristoffer BrobergKristoffer Broberg

The Leap: WGC competitor

Simply competing in a World Golf Championship event may not sound like much of a stepping stone, but for a player ranked 1,401st in the world at this time last year, it’s a monumental leap. Now up to No. 79, last year’s three-time winner on the Challenge Tour is climbing by the week, thanks to a runner-up finish already at the Alfred Dunhill Championship. A few more like that and he’ll be teeing it up with the big boys pretty soon.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.