2015-16 College Preview: LSU enjoys view from the top

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 9, 2015, 2:00 pm

The celebration was short-lived.

When LSU coach Chuck Winstead gathered his team at the school’s practice facility for their first meeting on Aug. 24, he briefly reflected on what happened three months ago and then focused on the task ahead. 

There was no gloating. No apathy, either. 

The meeting lasted all of 30 minutes, and then they went straight out to the course. It was time to get back to work.

“The happiest I’ve been since June 3,” Winstead said. 

That was the day LSU players and coaches celebrated a long-awaited national title with hugs, cheers and beads on the 18th green at Concession, after a commanding victory over Southern Cal in the NCAA match-play final.  

It was the Tigers’ first NCAA title in 55 years, but if you wondered whether that newfound success would change this group, or Winstead, think again.

“It’s like I explained to the guys when we first got back: It’s great that we had the success last spring, but if they stacked up 100 of those trophies it wouldn’t change me,” Winstead said. “I genuinely enjoy the work. I enjoy the everyday aspect of being around the guys and trying to help them improve.”

2015-16 College Preview: Top 10 men's teams | Men's players | Women's teams

LSU is once again one of the top teams to beat this season, ranked No. 3 on Golf Channel’s preseason list. 

The Tigers welcome one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and also return three All-Americans from last year’s NCAA title-winning squad, including their most consistent player, senior Zach Wright, who bombed his way to a perfect record (3-0) in the match-play portion of the championship.

Before NCAAs, Wright had enjoyed a solid but unspectacular junior season. He finished outside the top 20 only twice, but one poor round each tournament kept him out of contention for individual titles and, thus, out of the national spotlight.   

“There’s no shot clock on how guys develop in golf,” Winstead said. “Some guys are quicker than others, but I’m happy with where things are with Zach. Now our goal is to refine his game and get him ready for life after college (on the PGA Tour).” 

Sure, another year of seasoning for Wright and junior Eric Ricard will help, but the Tigers still absorbed a few key losses during the offseason – most notably a pair of graduating seniors, Stewart Jolly and Ben Taylor, who were instrumental in helping shape LSU into a perennial top-10 program. Also out for at least a portion of this fall season is junior Brandon Pierce, who broke a vertebra in his neck when he dove into a shallow pond the day after returning home from NCAAs. Pierce underwent surgery, but he was fortunate to avoid a career-ending injury. He has resumed hitting short-game shots and could play in practice or tournaments as early as this fall.

It is yet another unfortunate setback for the snakebitten star. Two years ago, Pierce suffered a stress fracture in his back and was sidelined eight months. When he returned to the lineup last spring, he was one of the team’s top performers, finishing in the top-30 in all eight starts, tying for 11th at NCAAs and posting a 2-0-1 record in match play.

“It’s frustrating,” Winstead said, “but he’s got a smile on his face every day and he’s working hard on his game. We’re very glass-half-full on this.” 

With Pierce out of action for at least a few months, there is no shortage of suitable replacements.

Not surprisingly, the player getting the most buzz is 19-year-old freshman Sam Burns, who entered college as the country’s No. 1-ranked junior player.

Burns was an All-Everything on the AJGA circuit, but he arrives on campus now simply trying to earn a starting spot. In fact, his toughest competition might come from his own classmates – fellow freshmen Luis Gagne and Nathan Jeansonne, both of whom were ranked inside the top 15 nationally as juniors.

“The negative of not having Brandon right away is also a positive in that someone is going to need to step up and play,” Winstead said. “That’s the culture of our program, that we develop all of our players.” 

And that program has never had a higher profile. 

Now entering his 11th season at the helm, Winstead didn’t realize the magnitude of what his team had accomplished last June until he returned home to Baton Rouge and was overwhelmed by the support. With the NCAAs now on television, he said fans in town “became a part of the team” and were more invested instead of just scanning an agate page in the newspaper or clicking through another emotionless post on a website.  

“The coolest part,” he said, “was seeing how many people it genuinely made happy.”

With success comes expectation, but Winstead isn’t putting any extra pressure on himself or his players to sustain this level of excellence and live up to the lofty ranking. 

“My internal desire to improve each day is enough for me,” he said. “Nothing else could trump that.”

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Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 20, 2018, 2:30 pm

Tiger Woods shot his second consecutive 70 on Friday at Carnoustie and enters weekend play at even par for the championship, still in contention for major No. 15.

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Scott and Sunesson a one-week partnership

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 2:13 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Adam Scott has been in between caddies for the last month and went with a bold stand-in for this week’s Open Championship, coaxing veteran looper Fanny Sunesson out of retirement to work for him at Carnoustie.

Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo in his prime, as the duo won four major titles together. She also worked for Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia before a back injury forced her to retire.

But for this week’s championship, Scott convinced the Swede to return to the caddie corps. The results have been impressive, with the Australian following an opening 71 with a second-round 70 for a tie for 16th place.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It's been going great. Fanny is, obviously, a fantastic caddie, and to be able to have that experience out there with me is certainly comforting,” Scott said. “We've gotten along really well. She's picked up on my game quickly, and I think we think about things in a very similar way.”

Scott was also asked about a potential long-term partnership between the duo, but he didn’t sound hopeful.

“It's just for this week,” he said. “It would be up to her, but I don't think she's making plans of a comeback. I was being a bit opportunistic in contacting her and coaxing her out of retirement, I guess. But I think she's having a good week. We'll just take it one week at the moment.”

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After tense Augusta Sunday, Rory ready to be aggressive

By Ryan LavnerJuly 20, 2018, 1:51 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy temporarily lost his superpowers during the Masters.  

In one of the most surprising rounds of the year, he played tentatively and carefully during the final day. Squaring off against the major-less Patrick Reed, on the brink of history, with the backing of nearly the entire crowd, it was McIlroy who shrank in the moment, who looked like the one searching for validation. He shot a joyless 74 and wound up six shots behind Reed.

No, the final round was nowhere near as dispiriting as the finale in 2011, but McIlroy still sulked the following week. He binge-watched TV shows. Devoured a few books. Guzzled a couple of bottles of wine. His pity party lasted a few days, until his wife, Erica, finally dragged him out of the house for a walk.

Some deeper introspection was required, and McIlroy revealed a healthier self-analysis Friday at Carnoustie. He diagnosed what went wrong at Augusta, and then again two months later at the U.S. Open, where he blew himself out of the tournament with an opening 80.

“I was worrying too much about the result, not focusing on the process,” he said. “Sunday at Augusta was a big learning curve for me because, even if I hadn’t won that tournament, but I went down swinging and aggressive and committing to every shot, I would have walked away a lot happier.”

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

And so McIlroy has a new mantra this week at The Open.

Let it go.

Don’t hold back. Don’t worry about the repercussions. Don’t play scared.

“I’m committed to making sure, even if I don’t play my best golf and don’t shoot the scores I want, I’m going to go down swinging, and I’m going to go down giving my best,” he said. “The result is the byproduct of all the little things you do to lead up to that. Sometimes I’ve forgotten that, and I just need to get back in that mindset.”

It’s worked through two rounds, even after the cool, damp conditions led McIlroy to abandon his ultra-aggressive strategy. He offset a few mistakes with four birdies, shooting a second consecutive 69 to sit just a couple of shots off the lead.

During a sun-splashed first round, McIlroy gleefully banged driver on almost every hole, flying or skirting the bunkers that dot these baked-out, undulating fairways. He wasn’t particularly accurate, but he also didn’t need to be, as the thin, wispy rough enabled every player to at least advance their approach shots near the green.

Friday’s weather presented a different challenge. A steady morning rain took some of the fire out of parched fairways, but the cooler temperatures also reduced much of the bombers’ hang time. Suddenly, all of the bunkers were in play, and McIlroy needed to adjust his driver-heavy approach (he hit only six) on the fly.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” he said.

McIlroy hit a few “skanky” shots, in his words, but even his bigger misses – on the sixth and 17th holes – were on the proper side, allowing him to scramble for par and keep the round going.

It’s the fifth time in his career that he’s opened a major with back-to-back rounds in the 60s. He’s gone on to win three of the previous four – the lone exception that disastrous final round (80) at Augusta in 2011.

“I don’t want to say easy,” he said, “but it’s felt comfortable.”

The weekend gets uncomfortable for everyone, apparently even four-time major winners who, when in form, ooze confidence and swagger.

Once again McIlroy has that look at a major.

The only thing left to do?

Let it go.

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Z. Johnson may have to pay for the jet home

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2018, 1:23 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Zach Johnson will have some bragging rights when he gets back to the ultimate golf frat house on Friday after a second-round 67 moved him into the lead at The Open.

Johnson is rooming with Jordan Spieth, Jason Dufner, Kevin Kisner, Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler this week at Carnoustie. It’s a tradition that began two years ago at Royal Troon.

Kisner joked on Thursday after he took the first-round lead that the perks for the house/tournament front-runner were limited: “I probably get to eat first,” he said.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

There is, however, one running wager.

“Two years ago we, I don't know if you call it bet, but agreement that, if you win, you get the jet and you buy it, so we go home,” said Johnson, who added that because of varying travel arrangements, the wager might not be needed this year. “I didn't pay last year. Somebody else did.”

Spieth won last year’s championship at Royal Birkdale.

Despite the expense, Johnson said he didn’t know how much it costs to charter a private flight back to the United States, but it’s a good problem to have.

“I’d be happy to fork it over,” he smiled.