With best college teams retooling, 2014-15 wide open

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 9, 2014, 12:20 pm

Buried behind the dark sunglasses, the constant chatter and the relentless energy, Jay Seawell experienced a foreign emotion this summer.


Odd, because he is the coach of the two-time defending NCAA champion Alabama Crimson Tide, a title that seemed like a pipe dream in the mid-’90s when he was making $7,500 at a JUCO school in Anderson, S.C., living in a dorm room with his pregnant wife. But can you really blame the guy for feeling a bit glum? The most glorious period of his professional career had come to an end.

Gone is the trio of senior leaders who returned to school just to spend more time together and win another national title.

Gone is Seawell’s third assistant in as many years, an annoying byproduct of a thriving program.

Gone (or least no longer recognizable) is the team that reached three consecutive NCAA finals, that had 16 wins and four runners-up in the last three semesters, that didn’t finish outside the top 4 in an event in two years.

“You obviously understand it’s a four-year thing and then it’s over,” Seawell said recently, “but you get in the dirt and you grind it out and you live life every day with each other, and then all of a sudden it’s gone. It’s over. There’s a little bit of a void and a sadness.”

It wasn’t until Aug. 20 that Seawell snapped out of his summer swoon. The day marked the arrival of the team’s golf shirts, bags, shoes, balls and gloves, a college kid’s Christmas. It was time to get back to work.

Diminished, sure, but the Crimson Tide, No. 4 in Golf Channel’s preseason rankings, aren’t exactly starting from scratch. They still have one of college golf’s best players, sophomore Robby Shelton. They’ll finally get a chance to see 2013 GB&I Walker Cupper Gavin Moynihan, who played only sparingly a year ago because of a crowded lineup. This Alabama team is just “quieter and grittier,” one that can toil without the outsized expectations.

“Nobody knows if we’re gonna be any good or not,” Seawell said, “and I love that. It’s been a while. It’s re-energizing.”

Besides, he can take solace in knowing that he’s far from the only coach adjusting to his new reality this fall.

Nine of the top 10 teams in last year’s Golfstat rankings – nearly all of the powerhouse programs – lost at least two starters to graduation or the pros.

Cal tearfully said farewell to a group that captured the first two Pac-12 titles in school history, won 24 of its last 40 tournaments and finished outside the top 5 only twice.

Georgia Tech watched three top-120 starters accept their diplomas and join the play-for-pay ranks.

College Central: Complete preview of 2014-15 season

Rankings: Top 10 men's teams

Top 10 men's players to watch

Rankings: Top 5 women's teams

Stanford is missing not just its team leaders but also the top two players in the game last season, Patrick Rodgers and Cameron Wilson.

In all, five of Golfstat’s top-10 players have left campus, and half of the top 20. Indeed, when the NCAA Championship returns to the airwaves next spring, more than a few introductions will be in order.

“Just a huge amount of turnover,” said Seawell, which makes this season easily the most wide open of the match-play era.

Since 2009, the landscape has been flooded with star-studded teams – Oklahoma State (Rickie Fowler, Peter Uihlein, Morgan Hoffmann, Kevin Tway), Georgia (Russell Henley, Harris English, Brian Harman, Hudson Swafford), Alabama (Bud Cauley, Justin Thomas, Bobby Wyatt, Cory Whitsett) and Cal (Max Homa, Brandon Hagy, Michael Weaver).

This year, though, presents a new opportunity – and a new platform – for under-the-radar players, coaches and teams.

“There are newer, shinier parts,” Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler said. “Starting this year there’s going to be a lot of people enthused about their chance.

“Last year a lot of people were just accusing us of being van drivers, and the reality is there wasn’t a lot more work than that. The work was done in Years 1, 2 and 3, getting them to that point. Now, starting over, you better coach and teach these guys and get them back up to speed.”

No team is newer or shinier than Texas.

Ranked No. 2 on Golf Channel’s preseason list – behind only Oklahoma State, which returns three from last year’s NCAA finalist squad – the Longhorns could start as many as three freshmen this season. Granted, these aren’t your average 18-year-old newcomers: Scottie Scheffler won the 2013 U.S. Junior and made the cut at the Byron Nelson, Doug Ghim finished runner-up at this year’s U.S. Publinx, and Taylor Funk is the accomplished son of the nine-time Champions Tour winner.

Managing all of those young, ambitious talents is a delicate act, and coach John Fields’ biggest challenge will be getting all of those studs enough playing time. Keep in mind, too, that there is often a massive adjustment period in Year 1, from a freshman’s increased responsibilities to the temptation of a Friday night downtown. Each kid responds differently.

Just look at the development of Ollie Schniederjans.

He was a top-5 junior prospect when he arrived at Georgia Tech in fall 2011, but he struggled to keep pace with the fellow stars in his class. Schniederjans recorded only two top 10s (and posted the team’s sixth-best scoring average) while Jordan Spieth, Thomas and Rodgers collected titles and battled for Player of the Year honors. Three years later, Schniederjans is the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, with exemptions into a pair of 2015 majors.

His stock was seemingly at an all-time high last May, after a five-win season and a playoff loss at the NCAA Championship. But instead of bolting for the pros and jockeying for sponsor exemptions, Schniederjans decided to stay for his senior season. One of the main reasons: He’ll be the favorite every time he plays, and only in that harsh environment can he learn how his body reacts to pressure, to stress, to expectation. After all, an important part of being a successful pro is summoning the goods when it’s needed most, whether that’s in the second stage of Q-School, or in a Monday qualifier, or on the back nine Sunday.

Schniederjans’ plan was executed flawlessly in the season opener – on the strength of a second-round 64, he won by two shots (over Shelton) at the Carpet Capital Collegiate. 

“It’s a great opportunity to learn,” Heppler said. “If the goal is to eventually try and be like Rory or Tiger or Phil, to have that much pressure on you every time you play, then this is the route for him.

“If you want to be a pro, you have to treat it that way. There are very few guys who get it on easy street. The pros is a different profession, and the key is to teach them to want to go whip somebody.”

How many players Schniederjans whips this season is a major storyline to watch, and so are these:

Can Oklahoma State return to the finals without a senior starter?

Will Texas win prolifically, or will it be undone by freshman immaturity?

Can Illinois thrive when it (finally) is in the spotlight?

Will an upstart program like South Carolina or Vanderbilt crash the party?

Or what about this: Can a down-but-not-quite-rebuilding Alabama become the first team since the mid-1960s to win three national titles in a row?

At that prospect, Seawell perked up, his voice rising and more animated now, his summer sadness a distant memory.

“Oh, I wouldn’t sleep on us,” he said. “I wouldn’t bury us yet.”

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Schauffele just fine being the underdog

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 8:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following a breakthough season during which he won twice and collected the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Award, Xander Schauffele concedes his sophomore campaign has been less than stellar, but that could all change on Sunday at The Open.

Schauffele followed a second-round 66 with a 67 on Saturday to take a share of the 9-under-par lead with Jordan Spieth and Kevin Kisner.

Although he hasn’t won in 2018, he did finish runner-up at The Players and tied for sixth at the U.S. Open, two of the year’s toughest tests.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“Growing up, I always hit it well and played well in tough conditions,” Schauffele said. “I wasn't the guy to shoot 61. I was the guy to shoot like 70 when it was playing really hard.”

Sunday’s pairing could make things even more challenging when he’ll head out in the day’s final tee time with Spieth, the defending champion. But being the underdog in a pairing, like he was on Saturday alongside Rory McIlroy, is not a problem.

“All the guys I've talked to said, 'Live it up while you can, fly under the radar,'” he said. “Today I played in front of what you call Rory's crowd and guys were just yelling all the time, even while he's trying to putt, and he had to step off a few times. No one was yelling at me while I was putting. So I kind of enjoy just hanging back and relaxing.”

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Open odds: Spieth 7/1 to win; Tiger, Rory 14/1

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 21, 2018, 7:54 pm

Only 18 holes remain in the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie, and the man tied atop the leaderboard is the same man who captured the claret jug last year at Royal Birkdale.

So it’s little surprise that Jordan Spieth is the odds-on favorite (7/4) to win his fourth major entering Sunday’s final round.

Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, both tied with Spieth at 9 under par, are next in line at 5/1 and 11/2 respectively. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, both four shots behind the leaders, are listed at 14/1.

Click here for the leaderboard and take a look below at the odds, courtesy Jeff Sherman at golfodds.com.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

Jordan Spieth: 7/4

Xander Schauffele: 5/1

Kevin Kisner: 11/2

Tiger Woods: 14/1

Francesco Molinari: 14/1

Rory McIlroy: 14/1

Kevin Chappell: 20/1

Tommy Fleetwood: 20/1

Alex Noren: 25/1

Zach Johnson: 30/1

Justin Rose: 30/1

Matt Kuchar: 40/1

Webb Simpson: 50/1

Adam Scott: 80/1

Tony Finau: 80/1

Charley Hoffman: 100/1

Austin Cook: 100/1

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Spieth stands on brink of Open repeat

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 7:49 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Jordan Spieth described Monday’s “ceremony” to return the claret jug to the keepers of the game’s oldest championship as anything but enjoyable.

For the last 12 months the silver chalice has been a ready reminder of what he was able to overcome and accomplish in 2017 at Royal Birkdale, a beacon of hope during a year that’s been infinitely forgettable.

By comparison, the relative pillow fight this week at Carnoustie has been a welcome distraction, a happy-go-lucky stroll through a wispy field. Unlike last year’s edition, when Spieth traveled from the depths of defeat to the heights of victory within a 30-minute window, the defending champion has made this Open seem stress-free, easy even, by comparison.

But then those who remain at Carnoustie know it’s little more than a temporary sleight of hand.

As carefree as things appeared on Saturday when 13 players, including Spieth, posted rounds of 67 or lower, as tame as Carnoustie, which stands alone as The Open’s undisputed bully, has been through 54 holes there was a foreboding tension among the rank and file as they readied for a final trip around Royal Brown & Bouncy.

“This kind of southeast or east/southeast wind we had is probably the easiest wind this golf course can have, but when it goes off the left side, which I think is forecasted, that's when you start getting more into the wind versus that kind of cross downwind,” said Spieth, who is tied for the lead with Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner at 9 under par after a 6-under 65. “It won't be the case tomorrow. It's going to be a meaty start, not to mention, obviously, the last few holes to finish.”

Carnoustie only gives so much and with winds predicted to gust to 25 mph there was a distinct feeling that playtime was over.

As melancholy as Spieth was about giving back the claret jug, and make no mistake, he wasn’t happy, not even his status among the leading contenders with a lap remaining was enough for him to ignore the sleeping giant.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

But then he’s come by his anxiousness honestly. Spieth has spent far too much time answering questions about an inexplicably balky putter the last few weeks and he hasn’t finished better than 21st since his “show” finish in April at the Masters.

After a refreshingly solid start to his week on Thursday imploded with a double bogey-bogey-par-bogey finish he appeared closer to an early ride home on Friday than he did another victory lap, but he slowly clawed his way back into the conversation as only he can with one clutch putt after the next.

“I'm playing golf for me now. I've kind of got a cleared mind. I've made a lot of progress over the year that's been kind of an off year, a building year,” said Spieth, who is bogey-free over his last 36 holes. “And I've got an opportunity to make it a very memorable one with a round, but it's not necessary for me to prove anything for any reason.”

But if an awakened Carnoustie has Spieth’s attention, the collection of would-be champions assembled around and behind him adds another layer of intrigue.

Kisner, Spieth’s housemate this week on Angus coast, has led or shared the lead after each round this week and hasn’t shown any signs of fading like he did at last year’s PGA Championship, when he started the final round with a one-stroke lead only to close with a 74 to tie for seventh place.

“I haven't played it in that much wind. So I think it's going to be a true test, and we'll get to see really who's hitting it the best and playing the best tomorrow,” said Kisner, who added a 68 to his total on Day 3.

There’s no shortage of potential party crashers, from Justin Rose at 4 under after a round-of-the-week 64 to 2015 champion Zach Johnson, who also made himself at home with Spieth and Kisner in the annual Open frat house and is at 5 under.

Rory McIlroy, who is four years removed from winning his last major championship, looked like a player poised to get off the Grand Slam schneid for much of the day, moving to 7 under with a birdie at the 15th hole, but he played the last three holes in 2 over par and is tied with Johnson at 5 under par. 

And then there’s Tiger Woods. For three magical hours the three-time Open champion played like he’d never drifted into the dark competitive hole that’s defined his last few years. Like he’d never been sidelined by an endless collection of injuries and eventually sought relief under the surgeon’s knife.

As quietly as Woods can do anything, he turned in 3 under par for the day and added two more birdies at Nos. 10 and 11. His birdie putt at the 14th hole lifted him temporarily into a share of the lead at 6 under par.

“We knew there were going to be 10, 12 guys with a chance to win on Sunday, and it's turning out to be that,” said Woods, who is four strokes off the lead. “I didn't want to be too far back if the guys got to 10 [under] today. Five [shots back] is certainly doable, and especially if we get the forecast tomorrow.”

Woods held his round of 66 together with a gritty par save at the 18th hole after hitting what he said was his only clunker of the day off the final tee.

Even that episode seemed like foreshadowing.

The 18th hole has rough, bunkers, out of bounds and a burn named Barry that weaves its way through the hole like a drunken soccer fan. It’s the Grand Slam of hazardous living and appears certain to play a leading role in Sunday’s outcome.

Perhaps none of the leading men will go full Jean Van de Velde, the star-crossed Frenchman who could still be standing in that burn if not for a rising tide back at the 1999 championship, but if the 499 yards of dusty turf is an uninvited guest, it’s a guest nonetheless.

It may not create the same joyless feelings that he had when he returned the claret jug, but given the hole’s history and Spieth’s penchant for late-inning histrionics (see Open Championship, 2017), the 18th hole is certain to produce more than a few uncomfortable moments.

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Wandering photographer costs McIlroy on 16

By Ryan LavnerJuly 21, 2018, 7:44 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy bogeyed two of his last four holes Saturday to fall four shots off the lead at The Open.

One of those mistakes might not have entirely been his fault.

McIlroy missed a short putt on the par-3 16th after a photographer was “in a world all his own,” wandering around near the green, taking photos of the crowd and not paying attention to the action on the green.

Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

“It’s fine,” McIlroy said after a third-round 70 put him at 5-under 208, four shots off the lead. “It’s one of those things that happens. There’s a lot of people out there, and it is what it is. It’s probably my fault, but I just didn’t regroup well after it happened.”

McIlroy also bogeyed the home hole, after driving into a fairway bunker, sending his second shot right of the green and failing to get up and down.

“I putted well,” he said. “I holed out when I needed to. I just need to make the birdies and try to limit the damage tomorrow.”