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NCAA Men's takeaways: Four for future success

By Ryan LavnerMay 31, 2018, 3:21 pm

STILLWATER, Okla. – The lopsided NCAA final between Oklahoma State and Alabama – 5-0, in favor of the host Cowboys – didn’t properly reflect the quality of both teams at Karsten Creek.

Here are four short stories of players who, in a few years, will be playing for big checks on Sundays.

A FEW YEARS AGO, Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton was hosting a recruit for lunch when the prospect brought up the results of a recent junior event. He had finished second to a Southern California kid who had shot 61.

“I inched forward in my seat and said, ‘Oh, really? What’s his name?’” Bratton recalled.

His name was Matthew Wolff – the breakout star of this NCAA Championship.

Bratton told his then-assistant Brian Guetz to follow Wolff at an upcoming AJGA invitational. Guetz texted him a video of Wolff’s homemade, Jim Furyk-esque backswing and wrote, “Wait till you see this. You’re going to love it.”

Bratton, a former All-Everything at Oklahoma State who helped the team capture the 1995 NCAA title, approaches recruiting from a player’s perspective.

“I’m looking for things I’ve seen before, and a swing I think will repeat and that the kid owns,” Bratton said. “And Matt had that.”

Wolff might resemble a home-run hitter at the top of his backswing, but in the impact area – the only area that matters – few in college golf are better. A biomechanist from Cal State Fullerton recently found that Wolff pressures the ground (and thus creates his incredible power) better than anyone he’d ever studied, including PGA Tour players.

“He’s a really, really good ball-striker,” Bratton said.

An example: On the par-5 ninth hole during stroke play, Bratton and Wolff discussed starting a driver at a fan in an orange shirt off in the distance. Wolff blasted it 375 yards, and “as it’s coming down,” Bratton said, “I told Matt, ‘Wait for it. Wait for it.’ And it came down right on top of him. Like, do you realize how narrow a person is?”

Wolff became a first-team All-American this season, and was named the National Freshman of the Year, despite failing to win an event; he finished runner-up in four of the biggest tournaments of the season. Wolff now also has a career highlight, as he earned the clinching point for the Cowboys as they captured their first NCAA title in 12 years. 

Wolff’s unique swing, ability to shoot low scores and infectious love for the game immediately reminded Bratton of another OSU legend: Rickie Fowler.

“He’s going to be really, really special,” Bratton said.

LAST WEEKEND IN TUSCALOOSA, Alabama coach Jay Seawell set up a private meeting between his former and current stars.

Because when Justin Thomas talks, Davis Riley listens.

“I’ve always tried to bleed the two of them together,” Seawell said. “Not only is Justin No. 1 in the world, but he has an incredible golf IQ. It’s off the charts, and that’s where Davis needs to learn the most. The more I can put him around that, the better off he’ll be.”

Seawell said that Riley, a junior, is “as good as anybody who has played at our place physically.”

And that includes Thomas.

Riley was a top recruit who has high finishes in every major amateur event. He even looks the part of a future Tour pro, with the perfect build and gorgeous swing.

The coaches recently ran him through a series of ball tests using TrackMan. Riley hit 25 balls with a 6-iron – and had only a yard and a half of variance.

“I’m like, My word,” Seawell said. “You’re going to see Davis Riley a lot on TV in the future. It’s a high-quality game.”

BRATTON HAD FLOWN TO Scotland to watch another recruit at the European Boys Championship when he stumbled into a newcomer on the Norwegian national team.

It was his first introduction to Viktor Hovland.

“I know what good is when I see it,” Bratton said, “and he was good.”

Bratton had already secured the commitment of another player on that squad, Kristoffer Ventura, and he hoped that decision would influence Hovland two years later.

Ventura was the player, Bratton said, who coaches will “pick out every time.” He had a sterling record. Bombed it off the tee. Could hit every shot.

Hovland wasn’t yet established, but he made such an impression on Bratton that he didn’t have a fallback option for the class of 2020 – Hovland was the only player he wanted. Hovland visited Stillwater a week before signing day.

“We waited on him,” Bratton said, “and fortunately we were able to get him.”

Hovland and Wolff formed a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of a deep, talented roster, with both earning first-team All-American honors.

Bratton sent off Hovland first in the championship match, mostly because his sophomore doesn’t want much time to warm up. He didn’t hit any balls between the quarterfinals and semifinals on Tuesday, and he normally doesn’t last more than 20 minutes on the range.

The reason?

“He knows he’s ready,” Bratton said. “If you’ve got it, you’ve got it.”

SENIOR JONATHAN HARDEE LANDED in the anchor spot in Alabama’s championship lineup, and it had the feel of a career achievement award.

During his freshman season, Hardee partially dislocated his right shoulder while bow hunting. He nursed the sprain for six weeks, but he continued to play through the discomfort until he fully tore his labrum, all the way down to his biceps, during the spring semester of his sophomore season.

Seawell told Hardee that the prudent move was to undergo surgery so he could return in time for the start of the fall season. But Hardee wouldn’t listen.

“I’m playing for my team,” he said.

Held together by black athletic tape, Hardee was playing the second round of the 2016 NCAA regionals when his shoulder popped out on the 18th hole. The school trainer walked up to Seawell and said that he didn’t think Hardee would be able to continue. This happened before the substitution rule was implemented, so Seawell faced the prospect of having to count each of his four remaining players’ scores, with no wiggle room in the high-stress NCAA Championship qualifier.

The trainer later returned with a different message.

“That boy is going to play,” he said.

Two weeks later, at nationals, Hardee was in sixth place individually, and the Crimson Tide were hovering around the top-8 team cut line, when his shoulder popped out again while he tried to gouge out of deep rough. He couldn’t feel his arm the rest of the round. He came home in 44, with tears in his eyes.  

“It hurt so freakin’ bad,” Seawell said, “and he’s fighting with all that he can.”

A week later, Hardee underwent surgery to repair the torn labrum – the same injury that former Texas star Beau Hossler had suffered, in his left shoulder, that led him to bow out of the 2016 championship match – and missed the next 10 months.

Without Hardee in the lineup the following season, Alabama was relying on a walk-on, ranked 63rd in the country and in danger of missing the postseason because of the .500 rule. Hardee was a steadying presence upon his return, and he finished inside the top 20 at last year’s NCAAs in one of his first events back.

The final against Oklahoma State didn’t hinge on Hardee’s match – and in fact, he was steamrolled, 8 and 7, by a red-hot Zach Bauchou – but there was no one Seawell would rather have had in the anchor spot.

“He deserved that spotlight for what he’s done and how he’s done it,” Seawell said. “He’s tough. He’s strong. He’s bigger than his shoulders are wide.”

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CJ Cup: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalOctober 16, 2018, 9:20 pm

The PGA Tour returns to South Korea this week for the second edition of the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges. Here is the key information for the no-cut event, where Justin Thomas is defending champion.

Golf course: Located on Jeju Island, the largest island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, The Club at Nine Bridges opened in 2001 and was designed by Ronald Fream and David Dale. The par-72 layout (36-36) will measure 7,184 yards for this week's event, 12 yards shorter than last year.

Purse: The total purse is $9.5 million with the winner receiving $1.71 million. In addition, the winner will receive 500 FedExCup points, a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and invitations to the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions, Players, Masters, and PGA Championship.

Last year: Thomas defeated Marc Leishman with a birdie on the second playoff hole to earn his seventh career PGA Tour win.

TV schedule (all times Eastern): Golf Channel, Wednesday-Saturday, 10 p.m.-2 a.m.

Live streamingWednesday-Saturday, 10 p.m.-2 a.m. 

Notable tee times (all times Eastern): 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Thursday: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Sungjae Im; 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. Thursday: Marc Leishman, Si Woo Kim, Ernie Els; 8:25 p.m. Wednesday, 7:15 p.m. Thursday: Jason Day, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama

Notables in the field: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Ernie Els, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and last week's winner Marc Leishman.

Key stats:

 This is the third of 46 official events of the season and the second of three consecutive weeks of events in Asia

• 78-player field including the top 60 available from the final 2017-2018 FedExCup points list

The field also includes 12 major champions and two of the top five in the Official World Golf Ranking (highest ranked are No. 3 Koepka and No. 4 Thomas)

Thomas and Koepka both have a shot to ascend to No. 1 in the OWGR this week - they will play their first two rounds grouped together

Stats and information provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit

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Els eyeing potential Prez Cup players at CJ Cup

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 6:55 pm

Ernie Els is teeing it up this week in South Korea as a player, but he's also retaining the perspective of a captain.

While the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia is still more than a year away, Els has already begun the process of keeping tabs on potential players who could factor on his International squad that will face an American contingent captained by Tiger Woods. Els played in last week's CIMB Classic in Malaysia, and this week received one of eight sponsor exemptions into the limited-field CJ Cup on Jeju Island.

Els played a Tuesday practice round with Presidents Cup veteran and Branden Grace and India's Shubankhar Sharma, who held a share of the 54-hole lead last week in Malaysia.

"It's going to be a very diverse team the way things are shaping up already," Els told reporters. "We've got another year to go, so we're going to have an interesting new group of players that's going to probably make the team."

In addition to keeping tabs on Grace and Sharma, Els will play the first two rounds with Australia's Marc Leishman and South Korea's Si Woo Kim. Then there's Sungjae Im, a native of Jeju Island who led the Tour money list wire-to-wire last season.

"There's so many Korean youngsters here this week, so I'm going to really see how they perform," Els said. "Still a long way to go, but these guys, the young guys are going to be really the core of our team."

Els, who will turn 49 on Wednesday, made only five cuts in 15 PGA Tour starts last season, with his best result a T-30 finish at the Valero Texas Open. While it's increasingly likely that his unexpected triumph at the 2012 Open will end up being his final worldwide victory, he's eager to tackle a new challenge in the coming months by putting together the squad that he hopes can end the International losing skid in the biennial matches.

"The U.S. team is a well-oiled team. They play Ryder Cups together, they obviously play very well in the Presidents Cups against us, so they're a very mature team," Els said. "We are going to be a young team, inexperienced. But that doesn't scare me because I know the course very well down in Melbourne, I've played it many, many times. I feel I have a very good game plan to play the golf course strategy-wise and I'm going to share that with my players."

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CIMB champ Leishman hopes to improve on CJ runner-up

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 6:29 pm

Marc Leishman is back in Korea with momentum on his side, hoping to fare a little better than a year ago.

Leishman nearly took home the trophy in the inaugural CJ Cup, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Justin Thomas. But the Aussie put his approach into the water on the second extra hole, allowing Thomas to wrap up the win a few minutes later.

"Excited to be back in Korea. I have a lot of good memories here at this golf course," Leishman told reporters. "Hopefully I can play well again and go one better than last year."

Leishman's playoff loss kick-started a strong opening stretch to his wraparound season, but he closed it without a victory. That drought ended in emphatic fashion last week, as he cruised to a five-shot win at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia for his fourth career PGA Tour win and his third since March 2017.

CJ Cup: Articles, photos and videos

Leishman told reporters last week in Malaysia that before the week started, his driving was so crooked that he feared his equipment reps might need to add a few golf balls to his locker. Instead, he found his groove en route to shooting 26 under par at TPC Kuala Lumpur and leaving the field in his wake.

"Golf's a funny game. It can change very quickly from bad to good or from good to bad," Leishman said. "It was certainly a goal of mine to win this season, and to win my first event of the season is great. Also to be going back to Maui puts me in a different frame of mind for the whole year. For a lot of reasons, I'm really happy with what last week brought."

Leishman played on the Korean PGA Tour in 2006 while getting his pro career off the ground, but even with that experience he expects a learning curve while going from the steamy conditions of Malaysia to the cool and wet climate that has greeted players this week on Jeju Island.

"It's a big adjustment going from so hot and humid last week to fairly cold and hopefully not wet, but it was wet this morning," Leishman said. "The ball goes different distances, your body's not quite as loose as what it is when it's hot. Just little things like that that you have to adjust to."

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Bowditch eyes same fusion surgery as Tiger

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 6:03 pm

After struggling through a couple lean years on the course, Steven Bowditch is ready to go under the knife.

Bowditch has won twice on the PGA Tour, and the Aussie was a member of the International Team at the 2015 Presidents Cup in South Korea. But his game fell apart shortly thereafter, as Bowditch has made just two cuts in his last 40 starts dating back to July 2016 while putting up some eye-popping scores.

Bowditch's exemption for his win at the 2015 AT&T Byron Nelson expired in August 2017, and he spent last season without full-time status on Tour for the first time since 2010. He made eight starts, notably finding a caddie via Twitter search before missing the cut at the John Deere Classic in July.

But the 35-year-old revealed Tuesday that his on-course struggles have been tied to some health concerns that have been difficult to pinpoint. Having finally received the appropriate diagnosis, he is preparing for a spinal fusion surgery next month between the L5 and S1 vertebrae - the same two that Tiger Woods successfully fused last year:

Bowditch's estimate of a "late 2019" return likely means he'll miss the entire 2018-19 season. When he returns he would do so with past champion status based on his wins, which also included the 2014 Valero Texas Open.