Late-blooming Piller an LPGA throwback

By Randall MellMay 6, 2016, 7:39 pm

Gerina Piller is the exception to the rule in women’s golf these days, and it’s what makes her climb in the American ranks compelling.

She’s the kind of athlete who thrived in the LPGA in a bygone era.

And by bygone era, that’s meant as turn of the century ... the 21st century.

Piller is old school in the way Beth Daniel, Betsy King and Juli Inkster were, as all-around athletes who thrived in more than one sport before finding their way to golf and success as collegiate players and then the LPGA.

You don’t see that at the top of the women’s game anymore with some of the best players winning professional events before they can even drive a car.

Lydia Ko won her first LPGA title as an amateur when she was 15.

Lexi Thompson turned pro when she was 15 and won her first LPGA title a little over a year later.

Brooke Henderson won her first professional title as an amateur when she was 14.

Stacy Lewis is the only player among the top 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings today who played in college.

Every single winner in the 11 LPGA events staged this year turned pro as a teenager.

Piller? She didn’t begin playing golf until she was 15, and yet she is beginning to blossom now as a 31-year-old veteran who made her way to the LPGA the old-fashioned way.

Piller grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, playing a lot of sports. She played softball and basketball and ran track. She was an all-state volleyball player in high school and played golf at the University of Texas El-Paso. She honed her craft playing the Futures Tour (now the Symetra Tour) before earning fully exempt LPGA status at age 24.

“Gerina is definitely an old-school throwback,” Inkster said. “She will tell you she grew up a tomboy, playing baseball with the boys. She has an old-school mind, too. She loves golf, and it’s important to her, but it’s not her No. 1 thing. Her No. 1 thing is her family and her husband, Martin.”

Inkster has become a friend and mentor to Piller, and you can see why. They share so many interests and a common pathway to the game they now love most.

“If there’s anyone I would like to be like when I grow up, it’s Juli Inkster,” Piller said. “I get nothing but amazing advice from her.”

Like Piller, Inkster was also 15 when she took up golf. Inkster, 55 now, played softball, basketball and tennis in school. She was in swimming and ran track, and she played golf at San Jose State before joining the LPGA. Daniel played basketball, softball and tennis and ran track before going to Furman. King’s multisport background before heading to Furman included field hockey.

Today, if you don’t commit full time to golf before you’ve reached your teenage years, you’re in an uphill battle trying to get where Piller’s trying to get. She’s trying to win her first LPGA title and crack the top 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings to become eligible for the U.S. Olympic team.

Piller has her game right there. She tied for second at the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout last week and tied for third at the Swinging Skirts Classic the week before. She has recorded six top-10 finishes in her last seven starts, and she’s right back in the hunt this week at the Yokohama Tire Classic. With a 4-under-par 68 Friday, Piller was tied for fourth when she signed her scorecard, four shots off the lead.

Back when Piller buried that clutch putt pivotal to the American Solheim Cup victory in Germany last fall, she was No. 40 in the world. She’s No. 17 today.

Piller kissed the Solheim Cup in 2015 after making a crucial putt in singles. (Getty)

“Gerina is really good,” said Inkster, who captained Piller on that Solheim Cup team. “Growing up, she didn’t play in all the USGA girls events or the U.S. Amateurs. She didn’t play the amateur circuit, and she didn’t realize just how good she could be, how good she is.

“I’ve played with her pretty much every week in a practice round for a year and a half, maybe more, and I just keep telling her, `You’re really good.’ It takes people a little longer to believe it sometimes. I think not competing at a high level as an amateur, she didn’t really know how she stacked up, professionally, but she is just learning that now. Really, she’s still learning the game, but I think the sky’s the limit for her.”

Piller concedes her confidence has long lagged behind her skills, but she’s gaining more with every run into contention.

At the Texas Shootout last week, Piller took her first 54-hole lead into the final round of an LPGA event but refused to beat herself up about failing to close the deal with Jenny Shin passing her to win.

“Jenny just outplayed me,” Piller said. “The conditions were tough, and she was really impressive.

“I don’t look back saying shoulda, woulda, coulda. What stands out to me is that I was close to the lead in the first round, took the lead in the second round and held on to the lead in the third round having never done that before. And I was comfortable doing it. In the final round, I was never out of it. I was still pushing the gas pedal. I just focused on what I did well.”

Piller has star quality as a big hitter with cover-girl looks, an All-American persona and a sneaky good sense of humor. She can hold her own in good-natured ribbing with Inkster.

As part of a husband-wife team striving to reach their golf dreams together, Piller’s story has gained added appeal. While Gerina was in contention to win in the final round of the Swinging Skirts Classic two weeks ago, Martin was in the hunt trying to win the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open. They both finished among the top four.

Martin provided his own shade while following Gerina in the Texas Shootout. (Getty)

As Gerina warmed up on the range in San Francisco to start the final round, Martin was already on the course in Texas. She sneaked peeks between practice shots to see how he was doing and got updates while on the course.

“It was actually kind of cool, because it kind of took my mind off my game and what I had to do,” Gerina said. “I was more worried about him than I was my own game.”

Martin is proud to say his wife’s the more accomplished player in the family. He doesn’t mind seeing her higher on LPGA leaderboards than he is on PGA Tour leaderboards.

“I don't care if she beats me,” Martin said. “I only care if guys out [on the PGA Tour] beat me. That's my main concern. If I'm getting whipped up every week out here, OK, now I'm concerned.

“Her being in contention wasn't anything new because she does that a lot. The only thing that was new was me being in contention. My game has been pretty good all year but as far as being in the mix to win it, it hasn't really happened until now.”

Pure Silk and Barbasol have taken the Pillers’ story into the living rooms of audiences outside of golf with their new commercial. In it, Martin and Gerina have some fun with how their competitive natures affect life at home. They’re shown competing at checkers, pingpong, cooking and even doing rock, paper and scissors to see who takes out the trash.

Gerina says it isn’t that much of an exaggeration.

“We compete a lot, but not necessarily at golf,” she said. “It’s things like seeing who can get cell phone service first after our plane lands, or who has more cell phone battery life left at the end of the day. One time after church, we were both finishing cups of coffee, and all of a sudden we’re running to see who can get their empty Starbucks’ cup in the trash can first. We look at each other sometimes like, `What’s wrong with us?’”

Piller is laughing when she says this, because there were scenes during the filming of their commercial where Martin had her giggling so much they had to do multiple takes to get scenes right. Martin’s sense of humor helped him win her heart, and so did his Christian faith. When they first met playing golf in a NASCAR outing in Texas in 2009, they didn’t know they were both attending the same Dallas/Fort Worth area church.

“I didn’t have a very good first impression of him,” Gerina said. “At the time, I was putting my relationship with guys on the back burner. I wanted to focus on rededicating myself to the Lord and to focus on my golf.”

Gerina thought Martin was a little cocky in their first round of golf together, but Martin’s humor and his faith worked their way into her heart.

“We played golf again the next week,” Gerina said. “I thought I could learn something from him, and he was a little more tolerable the next time we played. I thought he was funny and laid back and dorky in a fun way. He wasn’t afraid to be different, and I liked that.”

And she liked his devotion to his faith.

In fact, as they were starting to date, Martin suggested they listen to a podcast together about Christian romance based on a study of the Bible’s Song of Solomon. Gerina was leaving for LPGA Q-School, and Martin for PGA Tour Q-School. When they called each other while on the road, they talked about what they were learning in the Song of Solomon.

“To see him set self aside for the Lord, to submit himself to Christ, it was humbling to see,” Gerina said. “I found it very attractive.”

When the Pillers are home, they don’t talk a lot of golf. There is their faith, but there are also the teams they love. They’re both big sports fans. Martin is a huge Cowboys fan, Gerina loves the Texas Rangers. They also root for the Dallas Mavericks and the Stars.

“Our neighbors think all we do is eat pizza and watch sports on TV,” Gerina said. “We do spend a lot of time with our families.”

They spend a lot of time with Martin’s family in Dallas, and they take a lot of trips to see Gerina’s family in New Mexico.

“We go fishing, we four-wheel in the mountains, we hunt for arrowheads,” Gerina said. “My family doesn’t play golf, and I think that’s a blessing.”

Gerina and Martin married five years ago this past January. They would like to expand their families with children of their own, but they aren’t quite certain when that will be.

“When people ask me when we’re going to have kids, I tell them I have to actually see my husband to get pregnant,” Gerina joked. “Let’s start there.”

With their busy tournament schedules, the Pillers spend a lot of time away from each other. They spent 142 days away from each other in their first year of marriage.

“I would love to have kids and play golf, Lord willing,” Gerina said. “Golf’s so unpredictable, and we don’t know what’s in store for us there. I don’t ever want to say my career is more important than family, because I do have a strong desire to start a family, but I’m only 31. I don’t feel like my clock is ticking. Maybe if I’m 39, I’ll feel like I’m in the two-minute warning.”

Piller would love to follow Inkster’s footsteps as a mom on tour. Inkster raised two daughters while playing the LPGA.

“Juli’s been great,” Piller said. “She tells me, `You can do this. You can be pregnant and play golf.’ One of these days, Martin and I will just say, `OK, we’re ready.’”

If Piller becomes a mom on tour, she will really solidify herself as old school.

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Bergeron prevails in 24-for-1 playoff at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 15, 2018, 5:08 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It wasn’t just that Jacob Bergeron prevailed in an unprecedented 24-for-1 playoff Wednesday at the U.S. Amateur.

It was how he did it – with a bogey-6, on Pebble Beach’s famous 18th hole.

“Fortunate is the first word that comes to mind,” Bergeron said afterward.

There have been larger playoffs to advance to match play at the U.S. Amateur. In 1988, 31 players competed for four spots. Two decades later, 26 players battled in a two-spotter. But Wednesday was believed to be the first time that so many players duked it out for just a single spot in match play.

It was as absurd as you might imagine.

More than a dozen players were at dinner Tuesday night, at about 8 p.m., when they noticed that the cut line drifted from 3 over to 4 over.

That forced the USGA to scramble. With so many players back in the fold, they set up a playoff format for the 24 guys to compete in six foursomes in a sudden-death format, beginning on the 220-yard 17th at 7:30 a.m. The two dozen players whacked a full bucket of 4- and 5-irons on the range, then shuttled to the adjacent third green, which was used as a practice putting green for the playoff.

Fred Lacroix of France was the first to play on a 55-degree morning. He hit a towering draw with a 4-iron inside 10 feet and sauntered back to his bag.

“At least one guy is going to make birdie,” Lacroix said later, “and I wanted it to be me.”

Instead, his birdie putt raced 6 feet past, and he missed the comebacker, too. The other three players in his group made par. Lacroix went from a potentially tone-setting birdie to a bogey that dropped him out of contention.

“Very disappointing,” he said.

With nearly 36 hours to kill before his flight home to Paris, a bummed Lacroix was asked whether he’d play one of the other stellar courses in the area.

“I don’t want to play golf right now,” he sighed.

Two groups later, Lacroix watched as Bergeron hit a 4-iron to 5 feet, below the hole.

“See,” he said, “you have to make birdie.”

And Bergeron converted, sneaking his putt in the left side.  

“You just have to ball first thing in the morning,” Bergeron said. “It’s the most extreme playoff I’ve ever been in.”

Standing behind the green, he watched as player after player failed to match him. They tried to hole 50-footers. They tried to chip in. They tried to hole bunker shots.

None of them could.

Their chances dashed, they scooped up their ball and dejectedly walked off the green. Zach Bauchou even checked a USGA official’s clipboard and shook his head.

“Somebody’s gotta go get it,” Patrick Martin said after making par when he couldn’t chip in from the right fringe. “The worst thing you can do is put yourself out of position to make birdie. It sucks to not have a realistic look at it.”

For a while, it appeared as though Bergeron’s lone birdie would stand up. Then in the last foursome, Chase Johnson stuffed his tee shot to 10 feet and Peter Kuest, the last of the 24 players to tee off, matched him.

Kuest, a junior a BYU, rammed in his birdie try, while Johnson’s putt caught the left edge and stayed out.

“Good birdie, dude,” Bergeron said, extending his hand to Kuest. They were the only two players to move on to Pebble’s 18th, one of the most iconic finishing holes in golf.

After both players hammered drives down the left side, Bergeron flared his 4-iron – the same club he’d nuked about a half hour earlier – into the first cut on the right side, stymied behind the large cypress tree protecting the green.

“A love-hate relationship with that club,” he said, smiling.

With an opening, Kuest tried to play his 195-yard approach into the center of the green, but he pulled it and hit it thin.

“Just not a good shot,” he said.

His ball hit the retaining wall and ricocheted into the Pacific Ocean. A brief search ensued, as Kuest would have at least considered playing it from the rocks, but his ball wasn’t recovered until after he finished.  

He headed back to the drop zone, where his wedge shot hit the front edge and spun off the green.

No longer needing to play as aggressively, Bergeron chipped out sideways and then pitched to 10 feet. He missed his par putt, but Kuest lipped out his 5-footer, and then missed the 8-footer for double bogey, too.

“It’s OK,” Kuest said afterward. “It’s Pebble Beach, so you can’t go wrong.”

Asked if he was surprised that his bogey-6 was enough to advance, Bergeron said: “A little. But little things like this might point to this being my week.”

The 20-year-old has already informed LSU coach Chuck Winstead that he won’t return to school for his sophomore season. After qualifying for this year’s U.S. Open, he chatted with Jason Day and Jordan Spieth about their career progressions, and they advised him to choose whatever route would make him the best player in four years. Bergeron decided that was to turn pro, and so he’s attempting Tour Q-School next month.

Of course, the rest of this week could change those plans. The U.S. Amateur finalists both receive an invitation to the 2019 Masters, and Bergeron wouldn’t miss that opportunity.

“Long way to go before that, though,” he said.

But at least his path can only get easier. He beat 23 other players on Wednesday morning. To reach the final, he needs to win just five matches, beginning this afternoon against co-medalist Daniel Hillier of New Zealand.  

“The seeding just means you have a match,” Bergeron said. “And once you get in, it’s anyone’s game.”

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As Tour heads to NJ, legalized gambling comes into focus

By Rex HoggardAugust 15, 2018, 4:42 pm

It was New Jersey and then-Gov. Chris Christie who began the crusade to make sports betting legal beyond the confines of Las Vegas, so it’s no surprise that the Garden State would be the pointy end of the gaming spear.

In May, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which had made sports wagering unlawful for the last 25 years, there was no small amount of interest among states to pave the way for a market that could be worth billions in revenue. Less than a month after the court’s ruling, New Jersey approved a bill legalizing sports gambling.

About an hour’s drive south from Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., site of next week’s Northern Trust event, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., was one of the first to open a sports book – generating an eye-catching $8.1 million handle in just 17 days after opening in mid-June – and the PGA Tour’s return to New Jersey for the first playoff tournament is sure to generate interest at the newly-minted book.

But as sports, and particularly golf, wade into the betting pool, don’t expect a wholesale change just yet. Although New Jersey was among the first states to embrace sports betting, wagers are currently limited to a few casinos and racetracks.

“I wouldn’t say the gaming would be any different than what’s currently being offered in Las Vegas or elsewhere, win bets and that type of thing,” said Andy Levinson, the Tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, most professional leagues, including the Tour, came out in support of sports betting, but they did so with a few important conditions. Many professional leagues, which have been speaking to state legislators across the country for months about any potential betting legislation, wanted to safeguard the integrity of the competition.

The leagues also wanted to have a say in the types of bets that will be allowed – with the Tour looking to avoid what are called negative outcome bets, like a player missing a fairway or a green or making a specific score on a hole – and assure that sports books use official data generated by the leagues (in golf that would be ShotLink data).

And the leagues also have proposed “integrity fees,” which would likely be 1 percent of the handle from betting operators.

Last month, the NBA announced a partnership that made MGM Resorts the league’s official non-exclusive gaming partner, a move that could become the template for the Tour as the sports betting market matures.

“With the NBA deal it’s nice to see an organization like MGM is committed to integrity and sharing specific betting information with the NBA. To see a gaming operator make that commitment is very positive,” Levinson said. “If it included those protections and had that balance between fan engagement while protecting the integrity of our competition, that’s a positive deal for the NBA.”

For the sports leagues, the NBA deal is less about what kind of betting MGM will allow at its various casinos than it is a snapshot into what many see as the ultimate endgame. Part of every league’s plan is a robust online gaming element, which is seen as the only way to end illegal or off-shore betting.

“When we are speaking with legislators across the country one of the important elements includes mobile betting in legislation. The vast majority of sports betting takes place online. The current black market in the U.S. is almost exclusively online,” Levinson said. “One of the goals in creating a legal sports betting market is to eliminate that black market. If it’s not easily accessible, people will continue to use that online service.”

Other than New Jersey and Delaware, which are already developing guidelines for online sports betting, most states are taking a more measured approach. In fact, Levinson explained that since most state legislative sessions have already ended for the year it’s likely that they won’t begin to develop guidelines for sports betting until mid-2019.

 The Tour also has a few hurdles to clear. Under the circuit’s current regulations, players, partners and the Tour itself are prohibited from partnering with casinos or betting institutions. Before the circuit could move forward with any type of deal like the NBA and MGM agreement that regulation would have to be changed.

“We are in the process of evaluating that category,” Levinson said. “We are looking at a wholesale evaluation of our endorsement policy. That’s for the Tour, players, networks, other constituents.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling may have potentially opened vast new markets for the Tour and created an entirely new way to engage with fans, just don’t expect things to change yet, even as the circuit arrives on the front lines of the sports betting transformation next week in New Jersey.

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Nadal checks phone for Tiger update after match

By Grill Room TeamAugust 15, 2018, 3:04 pm

Even the greatest athletes in the world were captivated by Tiger Woods' Sunday run at the PGA Championship.

After winning his match on Sunday to capture the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Rafa Nadal turned his attention to Woods. Cameras focused on Nadal scrolling through and surveying his phone. He then revealed that he was trying to get a Tiger update from the PGA Championship, where Woods made a spirited run to solo second place.

Woods has often been seen at tennis events, watching Nike buddies Roger Federer (no longer primarily sponsored by Nike) and Nadal. Woods and his children watched from Nadal's box during the 2017 U.S. Open and Nadal was on hand at the 2017 Hero World Challenge, when Woods made his return from back surgery.

For the record, Woods has 14 major wins and Nadal has 17 Grand Slam titles, both second all-time in their respective sports.

Check out the video below as Golf World's Anna Whiteley talks to Nadal about his love of golf in the 2016 interview.

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U.S. Amateur playoff: 24 players for 1 spot in match play

By Associated PressAugust 15, 2018, 1:21 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Cole Hammer and Daniel Hillier were tied at the top after two rounds of the U.S. Amateur, but the more compelling action on Tuesday was further down the leaderboard.

Two dozen players were tied for 64th place after two rounds of stroke play at Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill. With the top 64 advancing to match play, that means all 24 will compete in a sudden-death playoff Wednesday morning for the last spot in the knockout rounds.

U.S. Amateur: Articles, photos and videos

They'll be divided into six foursomes and start the playoff at 7:30 a.m. on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach, where Tom Watson chipped in during the 1982 U.S. Open and went on to win.

The survivor of the playoff will face the 19-year-old Hillier in match play. The New Zealander shot a 2-under 70 at Spyglass Hill to share medalist honors with the 18-year-old Hammer at 6 under. Hammer, an incoming freshman at Texas who played in the 2015 U.S. Open at age 15, shot 68 at Spyglass Hill.

Stewart Hagestad had the low round of the day, a 5-under 66 at Pebble Beach, to move into a tie for 10th after opening with a 76 at Spyglass Hill. The 27-year-old Hagestad won the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur and earned low amateur honors at the 2017 Masters.