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With game trending longer, Donald could be last of his kind

By Rex HoggardFebruary 7, 2018, 7:31 pm

Although he doesn’t look the part of an athletic anomaly, Luke Donald may end up being his generation’s unicorn.

At 5-foot-9, 165-pounds, the Englishman could generously be considered a mid-length player on the PGA Tour. Some may even say a short hitter.

“Average [hitter],” he smiled when asked his status among the play-for-pay set.

Either way, what Donald accomplished is nothing short of astounding. On May 29, 2011, he ascended to No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking. All total, he spent 56 weeks atop the world heap, which is well short of Tiger Woods’ 683 weeks as No. 1.

What makes Donald’s accomplishment unique is that he ranked 165th on Tour in driving distance at that moment. It should come as no surprise that when he was unseated atop the ranking for good on May 27, 2012, it was Rory McIlroy who claimed the crown and ranked 15th on Tour in driving distance.

Donald may well be the last of his kind, a short/mid-length hitter who consistently found a way to beat the best.

“No,” Russell Knox shrugged when asked if it could happen again. “I think I’m really good at golf and I hate to limit myself and say I couldn’t be No. 1 in the world, but the ball and the clubs just go so straight now I feel like everyone has gained from it but the guys who hit it further and the courses are so long now and the greens are firmer and faster, it’s such a massive advantage to be 320 [yards] plus off the tee.”

Defining exactly what qualifies a player as a short/mid-length hitter may be up for debate, but there’s no uncertainty as to where these outliers now stand on the world scale.

Consider Knox, who won twice on Tour in 2016 including a signature victory over a world-class field at the WGC-HSBC Champions, as the voice of reason. His victory at the ’16 Travelers Championship moved him to 18th in the world rankings. He’s never been any higher despite one of the most consistent games on Tour.

It’s not as though the likes of Donald and Knox don’t aspire to such lofty positions ... they’re just realistic.

 “You look at the guys in the top 10, there’s not too many of them [mid-length],” Donald said. “It makes me proud of what I did. I did it at a time when not too many thought I could have done it.”

To prove the point, look no further than the current Official World Golf Ranking which is a new age Murderer’s Row, with Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose rounding out the top 5. Only Spieth (75th) ranks outside the top 35 in driving distance.

It’s become a popular notion that Speith is a mid-length hitter on Tour, but the statistics show he’s more upper-middle class off the tee. The average drive on Tour last year was 292 yards, which would technically make Spieth (295-yard average) above average.

“I’d say 180th [in driving distance] is on the shorter end and 100th is mid-length,” estimated Zach Johnson, who like Donald has defied convention his entire career.

The more intriguing numbers, at least for Donald, come down to simple math. When he moved to world No. 1 in 2011, he was picking up 2.27 strokes per round on the field, which is a combination of the various strokes-gained statistics. It’s the secret sauce, at least that’s what Donald and Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia Business School who helped the Tour create the strokes-gained concept, concluded.

“The magic formula is you have to gain two strokes on the field per round,” Donald explained. “I’m losing 1 1/2 [strokes] off the tee if I’m not hitting it 300 [yards] all the time or hitting it straight, so I have to find 3 1/2 [strokes] in the rest of my game, which is almost impossible. That’s what it was when I was No. 1.”

Simply put, without the benefit of 320-yard drives, every other aspect of a player’s game must be nearly flawless for a sustained period of time.

This reality is compounded by golf course set-up that caters to the long-driving set, particularly at major championships where players generally make up the most ground in the world rankings.

That doesn’t necessarily mean long golf courses as much as it means layouts that reward length disproportionate to other aspects of a player’s game.

“The shorter hitters need courses with more rough, even a course like Torrey Pines, it’s not a bad course for a medium or shorter hitter. You have to be in the fairway even if it’s 7,500 yards,” Knox said. “But if you get a 7,500-yard course with little rough, a short hitter has no chance.”

At venues like Waialae Country Club, site of last month’s Sony Open, and Harbour Town Golf Links, which hosts the RBC Heritage in April, the short/mid-length players can compete, but those types of ballparks are becoming increasingly rare at the highest level.

Instead, the Tour offers a steady diet of courses like the 7,452-yard Plantation Course at Kapalua, where Dustin Johnson lapped the field by eight strokes last month. In fairness, the current world No. 1 also ranks eighth this season in strokes gained around-the-green, but averaging 296 yards off the tee certainly doesn’t hurt.

Sport defies absolutes and perhaps there’s a short/mid-length hitter who could follow Donald’s footsteps all the way to the top of the mountain, but even those who aspire to such greatness have a hard time seeing the way.

“No, it’s hard,” Zach Johnson figured when asked if a short/mid-length hitter could ever ascend to world No. 1. “[Donald’s] short game was sickening, in a good way, one of the best sand games I’ve ever seen, putter was pure.”

No one played “small ball” better than Donald, which makes his time atop the world so impressive, and very likely makes him the last of his kind.

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NCAA DI Women's Champ.: Scoring, TV times

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 23, 2018, 11:00 am

The NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship is underway at Kartsen Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.

After three days of stroke play, eight teams advanced to the match-play portion of the championship. Quarterfinals and semifinals were contested Tuesday, with the finals being held on Wednesday. Golf Channel is airing the action live.

Wake Forest junior Jennifer Kupcho won the individual title. Click here for live finals action, beginning at 4 p.m. ET.


TV Times (all times ET):

4-8PM: Match-play finals (Click here to watch live)

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Alabama faces 'buzzsaw' Arizona for NCAA title

By Ryan LavnerMay 23, 2018, 2:00 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – There was no way Laura Ianello could sleep Monday night, not after that dramatic ending at the NCAA Women’s Championship. So at 12:15 a.m., the Arizona coach held court in the laundry room at the Holiday Inn, washing uniforms and munching on mozzarella sticks and fried chicken strips from Sonic, her heart still racing.

Ianello got only three hours of sleep, and who could blame her?

The Wildcats had plummeted down the team standings during the final round of stroke-play qualifying, and were 19 over par for the day, when junior transfer Bianca Pagdanganan arrived on the 17th hole.

“Play the best two holes of your life,” Ianello told her, and so Pagdanganan did, making a solid par on 17 and then ripping a 6-iron from 185 yards out of a divot to 30 feet. There was a massive leaderboard positioned to the right of the par-5 18th green, but Pagdanganan never peeked. The only way for Arizona to force a play-five, count-four playoff with Baylor and reach match play was to sink the putt, and when it dropped, the Wildcats lost their minds, shrieking and jumping over the ropes and hugging anyone in sight.

Watching the action atop the hill, Alabama coach Mic Potter shook his head.

“I was really glad we didn’t win the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed,” he said, “because they’re a buzzsaw with a lot of momentum.”

Given new life, Arizona dispatched Baylor by three strokes in the playoff, then turned its attention to top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals on Tuesday morning.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Scoring and TV times

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Full coverage

Facing two first-team All-Americans, the Wildcats beat them, too, continuing the curse of the medalist. In the afternoon, worried that the adrenaline would wear off, Ianello watched her squad make quick work of Stanford, 4-1.

“They’ve got a lot of great momentum, a lot of great team energy,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said. “They thought they were going home, and now they’ve got a chip on their shoulder. They’re playing with an edge.”

After a marathon doubleheader Tuesday at Karsten Creek, Arizona now has a date with Alabama in the final match of this NCAA Championship.

And the Wildcats better rest up.

Alabama looks unstoppable.

“They’re rolling off a lot of momentum right now,” Ianello said. “We know Alabama is a good team. But they’re super excited and pumped. It’s not the high of making it [Monday]; now they’ve got a chance to win. They know they have to bring it.”

Even fully rested, Arizona will be a significant underdog against top-ranked Alabama.

After failing to reach match play each of the past two years, despite being the top overall seed, the Tide wouldn’t be stopped from steamrolling their competition this time.

They roughed up Kent State, 4-1, in the quarterfinals, then frontloaded their lineup with three first-team All-Americans – Lauren Stephenson, Kristen Gillman and Cheyenne Knight – in their semifinal tilt against Southern Cal.

Potter said that he was just trying to play the matchups, but the move sent a clear signal.

“It gets pretty tedious when you never miss fairways and hole a lot of putts and your opponent knows that you’re not going to spray it,” Potter said. “That’s tough to match up against.”

They breezed to the first three points, draining any drama out of the semifinals. Of the 99 holes that Bama’s Big 3 played Tuesday, they trailed after only two.

“We’re always consistent,” Stephenson said, “and that’s exactly what you need in match play. Someone has to go really low to beat us.”

That Arizona even has that chance to dethrone the Tide seemed inconceivable a few months ago.

The Wildcats had a miserable fall and were ranked 39th at the halfway point of the season. On Christmas Day, one of the team’s best players, Krystal Quihuis, sent a text to Ianello that she was turning pro. Once she relayed the news, the team felt abandoned, but it also had a newfound motivation.

“They wanted to prove that they’re a great team, even without her,” Ianello said.

It also was a case of addition by subtraction: Out went the individual-minded Quihuis and in came Yu-Sang Ho, an incoming freshman whom Ianello described as a “bright, shining light.”

Because incorporating a top-tier junior at the midway point can be intimidating, Ianello organized a lively team retreat at the Hilton El Conquistador in Tucson, where they made vision boards and played games blindfolded.

They laughed that weekend and all throughout the spring – or at least until Pagnanganan made that last-ditch eagle putt Monday. Then tears streamed down Ianello’s face.

Folding uniforms after midnight, she regaled Alabama assistant coach Susan Rosenstiel with stories from their emotional day on the cut line, not even considering that they might face each other two days later for a national title. She was too delirious to ponder that.

“I feel like a new mother with a newborn baby,” Ianello said. “But we’re going off of adrenaline. This team has all the momentum they need to get it done.”

Yes, somehow, the last team into the match-play field might soon be the last team standing.

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Pairings, tee times set for championship match

By Jay CoffinMay 23, 2018, 1:02 am

STILLWATER, Okla. – Alabama coach Mic Potter has three first-team All-Americans on this team. It’s little surprise that all three are going out first in the Crimson Tide’s championship match against Arizona Wednesday at Karsten Creek.

Potter tinkered with his lineup in both the quarterfinal victory over Kent State and the semifinal win over USC. But with the NCAA title on the line, this one was a no brainer.

“We don’t want to sacrifice anything,” Potter said. “We just want to give ourselves a chance to win every match.”

Arizona kept its lineup the same all day Tuesday in defeating Pac-12 foes UCLA and Stanford in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. That meant junior Bianca Pagdanganan, the Wildcats grittiest player this week, was in the last match of the day. She won twice.

Now, with all the marbles riding on the championship match, Arizona coach Laura Ianello moved Pagdanganan up to the third spot to assure that her match is key to the final outcome.

Junior Haley Moore, Arizona’s best player all year, is in the fifth spot and will face Alabama senior Lakareber Abe.

“Win or lose tomorrow, this has been a helluva ride,” Ianello said.

Alabama (2) vs. Arizona (8)

3:25PM ET: Lauren Stephenson (AL) vs. Yu-Sang Hou (AZ)

3:35PM ET: Kristen Gillman (AL) vs. Gigi Stoll (AZ)

3:45PM ET: Cheyenne Knight (AL) vs. Bianca Pagdanganan (AZ)

3:55PM ET: Angelica Moresco (AL) vs. Sandra Nordaas (AZ)

4:05PM ET: Lakareber Abe (AL) vs. Haley Moore (AZ)

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Women's NCAA finals: Arizona vs. Alabama

By Jay CoffinMay 22, 2018, 11:49 pm

STILLWATER, Okla. – It’s the SEC vs. the Pac 12 for the women’s NCAA Championship; Alabama vs. Arizona, to be more specific.

Both the Crimson Tide and Wildcats cruised in their respective semifinal matches Tuesday at Karsten Creek. Alabama easily beat USC, 3-1-1; Arizona defeated match-play juggernaut Stanford, 4-1.

Alabama’s top three players, Lauren Stephenson, Kristen Gillman and Cheyenne Knight were unstoppable forces in both matches on the marathon day. Stacked in the top three positions in the semifinals all three won their matches on the 17th hole, making the last two matches inconsequential.

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Scoring and TV times

NCAA Women’s DI Championship: Full coverage

Arizona, the eighth seed, won as decisively as second-seeded Alabama, but needed a miracle to be in this position in the first place.

Junior Bianca Pagdanganan drained a 30-footer for eagle on the last hole of stroke play on Monday to get the Wildcats into a playoff against Baylor, which they won on the second hole. Then on Tuesday, presumably running on fumes, they downed top-seeded UCLA in the morning, then crushed Pac-12 foe Stanford in the afternoon.

Pagdanganan, Gigi Stoll and Hayley Moore each won both matches for Arizona on the hot, draining day.

“I don’t want to let them down so I do my best to rise to the occasion,” Pagdanganan said.

Said Arizona coach Laura Ianello: “How many players, when you tell them under pressure that you need them, can really handle it,” Ianello said about Pagdanganan. “This kid can.”