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Simpson makes it a memorable Mother's Day

By Ryan LavnerMay 14, 2018, 1:48 am

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Nine days ago, at a French restaurant in Charlotte, Debbie and Webb Simpson sat down for a much-needed dinner date.

A mother of six, it’s rare for Debbie to get some quality 1-on-1 time with her children, but especially Webb. He’s always on the road, and he’s busy with his own family, with a wife and four kids all under the age of 7. But that night, they talked for hours, laughing and crying and grieving together.

It’d been nearly six months since Sam Simpson passed away after a long, cruel, heartbreaking battle with Lewy Body Dementia.

“It’s been absolutely, devastatingly sad,” Debbie said by phone Sunday night, her voice still hoarse from an afternoon spent screaming and cheering.

“We just miss him so much. No one ever prepared me to watch my children grieve, but particularly Webb. He has struggled more than I thought he would. Just sharing that night together last week was so cathartic. It was a night for me to remember.”

And perhaps it was a turning point for Webb.

He has been in touch even more than usual, wanting to make sure that she’s OK, that she’s taken care of. He called each morning this week, and she texted him a Bible verse after each of his low rounds. Simpson juggled so many thoughts Sunday at The Players – his revamped putting stroke, his winless drought, his massive lead, his challengers that included both Tiger Woods and Jason Day – and yet throughout he couldn’t stop thinking about Debbie.

“I wanted to do this for my mom,” he said after his four-shot victory. “This is for her.”

Watching the telecast, Debbie's jaw dropped.

“I’ll never stop replaying it in my head,” she said. “This is for my mom. That’s a mother’s dream to hear.”

Here at TPC Sawgrass, Simpson completed the rare parental double: He won his 2012 U.S. Open title on Father’s Day, before Sam’s health began to significantly deteriorate, and then he won this Players the last time it’ll be played on Mother’s Day.

“This one is extra emotional and special for the family,” said Simpson’s wife, Dowd.

The victory might be felt even more resoundingly seven hours away, in Raleigh.

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Ted Kiegiel has been a constant presence in Simpson’s life ever since he began working with him nearly 25 years ago. Webb was just 8 then, but after their first lesson Kiegiel wrote Debbie and Sam a handwritten letter: Your son is incredible. I’ve never seen another talent like him.

“I just wanted them to know that he’s an extremely special talent,” Kiegiel said. “I wanted them to know how gifted he was.”

For years, Sam tried to downplay Webb’s ability – not because he didn’t believe in him, but because he didn’t want to place unrealistic expectations on his son. Even as Webb won 20 to 30 tournaments a year, Sam always told Kiegiel that he just wanted him to be a solid amateur.

“That’s not happening,” Kiegiel would tell him. “He’s headed to the PGA Tour.”

Sam might not have understood the mechanics of the swing, but he tried to impart invaluable life lessons – how to lose graciously, how to dig deep. Simpson didn’t need to do much soul-searching during his near-flawless week here, but on Friday, after rinsing his tee shot on 17 to squander a course-record round, his father’s words still rang in his ear. Keep fighting. Do your best. So he scrambled for par on 18 and polished off a 63.

“He was still helping me through it and mentoring me,” Simpson said.

There was no easy way to say goodbye last fall. With Sam’s health declining in November, Webb withdrew after two rounds at Sea Island to be by his side in hospice care. For more than a week, 20 to 30 friends filled his room, sharing their favorite funny tales about Sam and how he enriched their lives.

Dowd might have the best story to tell.

She had met Sam as a freshman at Wake Forest. Sam spotted a beautiful blonde from across the room, and he said that if she took out his son, an incoming freshman, he’d give her $100.

“If he’s half as cute as you,” she said, “I’ll go for free.”

But Sam kept his word, forking over the $100, which they used to pay for dinner at Ryan’s Steakhouse. They’ve been together ever since.

“His dad was his best friend, so it was like losing your best friend and your father and your mentor,” Dowd said. “They had such a good relationship I feel like there weren’t any words left unspoken. There was just a longing for more time with him.”

But from his grief Simpson has found comfort. He tied for fourth in his first start of the year. Then he had other chances to win in Palm Beach and Tampa and Hilton Head, all top-10s. Recently, caddie Paul Tesori noticed a change in his boss’ demeanor.

“He was a great golfer at a young age. He got the pretty girl when he was 19. He got married at 23. He’d never really gone through any struggles in his life,” Tesori said. “The putting ban was the first one, and losing his dad was the next one. I see a different Webb walking around the golf course now. He’s walking taller. He’s wiser. I see a different man right now.”

Kiegiel pointed to the impact of losing Sam.

“If anything, it’s been a greater motivating factor for Webb,” he said. “He finds strength in it.”

They talk often about how Simpson is 32 years old, squarely in the prime of his career, and that it’s time to capitalize. That conversation would have seemed forced a year ago, with Simpson’s world ranking plummeting and his putting so shaky that Tesori thought Simpson would never putt well again.

But a year ago, Simpson found a spark here at TPC Sawgrass. On the eve of the tournament, he stumbled into Tim Clark, another anchorer forced to change his methods, and began messing around with the claw grip. He put it in play, without any practice, and tied for 16th. Over the rest of the season, he climbed more than 100 spots in the ranking.

“I’m very thankful that he gave me that lesson,” Simpson said.

Through countless hours on the practice putting green, he has honed his new method – the “Kuchar-claw,” with the putter shaft pinned against his left forearm and his right hand in a claw grip – and resurrected his career. He’s now a top-10 putter on Tour, and he figures to rise considerably after his sublime week on the greens here.

Over the first two rounds he had his 10th- and fifth-best putting rounds of his career. By Saturday night he had already holed 356 feet worth of putts, gaining more than nine shots on the field. He was far from perfect on Sunday, but he also didn’t need to be, never leading by fewer than four shots.

It was his fifth Tour victory, and first since 2013.

“Today is meant to be for him,” Kiegiel said. “Winning on Mother’s Day, with what a family man he is, the recent loss of Pop – so many things have come together today for it to be this day, this week, this year, at this place.”

Back in Raleigh, Debbie’s throat was raspy, and she was passing around Kleenex, and she was still chuckling that her 10-month-old grandson clapped after each of Webb’s good shots on TV. Her heart was as full as it’s been in months.

“It’s just incredible,” she said, readying to leave for a family celebration. “God’s timing has been so sweet.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 22, 2018, 11:30 pm

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)