The Players moves to three-hole aggregate playoff

first_imgThis year’s Players Championship will have the potential for even more spills and thrills. In a move designed to take advantage of one of the game’s most exciting arenas, the PGA Tour announced Wednesday that it is abandoning the sudden-death playoff at The Players in favor of a three-hole aggregate playoff. The playoff holes will be the par-5 16th, par-3 17th and par-4 18th at TPC Sawgrass – the easiest hole (16), the signature hole (17) and the most difficult (18). If the players are still tied after the aggregate playoff, they will compete in sudden death beginning on No. 17, followed by 18, 16, 17 and 18 until a winner is determined. “Holes 16, 17 and 18 of The Players Stadium Course are perhaps the most dramatic closing holes in professional golf from a risk-reward standpoint, as they test all facets of a player’s physical and mental game while under the pressure of trying to win such a significant championship,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a release.  “Given the fact that winning The Players means you have defeated the strongest field in golf, we felt an aggregate playoff that incorporated these three holes was a more appropriate way to determine the champion.” The Players now joins the PGA Championship as the only tournaments to use a three-hole aggregate playoff. The Masters uses a sudden-death format, the U.S. Open has an 18-hole playoff and the Open Championship features a four-hole aggregate playoff.last_img read more

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Nice guy Merritt finishes first at Quicken Loans

first_imgGAINESVILLE, Va. – We’ve seen this before, a salt-of-the-earth Iowan wielding a lethal putter on his way to a career defining victory. The only thing missing was the modest monologue: “I’m Troy Merritt and I’m from Osage, Iowa.” But even that wouldn’t be Merritt’s style. If Zach Johnson is the most understated two-time major champion, then Merritt is nothing short of the most unassuming Tour winner in recent memory. A wisp of a player who is generously listed at 6 feet, 160 pounds, Merritt has never played in a major, never finished better than 100th on the FedEx Cup point list and would never be confused for one of his high-profile PGA Tour frat brothers. Someone like, say Rickie Fowler, who seemed to be the consensus and crowd favorite on Sunday at the Quicken Loans National. But Merritt never gave Fowler or anyone else much of a chance on his way to a three-stroke victory and maiden Tour title. “It’s been a long journey the last five, six years,” said Merritt, who closed with a 67 that included a winding 34-footer for birdie at the last that prompted an almost apologetic shrug from the 29-year-old. “Several life changes, couple moves, two boys but I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I separate my life pretty well and, as a result, it really hasn’t paid off in success on the golf course but it’s the way I’m doing it. I’m a family man first and foremost.” The timing couldn’t have been better for Merritt, who began this week on the inward loop of a grueling run that has included five events in six weeks. During that stretch he missed five consecutive cuts, broke par just once in his last 10 Tour rounds and watched hopelessly as he tumbled down the FedEx Cup point list all the way to 123rd. Quicken Loans National: Articles, photos and videos It was a familiar feeling for Merritt, who has struggled since joining the Tour in 2010 after a stellar college career. Not that anyone around him could see the pressure building. “Troy is one of the nicest guys to be around, period,” said his caddie Scott Sajtinac. “If you don’t get along with Troy, it’s probably you.”  The only thing that seemed different on Sunday at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club was the outcome, a victory that earned him a spot next week in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship and secured his Tour card for the next two seasons. From the pavement to the penthouse just like that thanks in large part to a swing tip from Sajtinac during Tuesday’s practice round. After struggling with his driver the last few months Sajtinac suggested he square his shoulders more to his target and move away from the golf ball at address. “Off the tee it has been tough,” Sajtinac said. “We’ve been playing out of the rough for two months and that’s hard to do.” Just ask Tiger Woods how hard that can be. The technical term for it is “transference,” that’s swing speak for having the ability to take what a player is doing on the range and in practice and apply it during a round of tournament golf. Throughout Woods’ steady competitive swoon the last few months he referred to the phenomenon as “old patterns,” but in the simplest terms it has been an inability to carry what he has on the range to the first tee. What else would explain his third-round 74 after playing his first 36 holes in 8 under? The tournament host would rebound on Sunday, playing his opening nine in 4 under on his way to a closing 68; and while his tie for 18th did little for his FedEx Cup fortunes, he moved up just 12 spots to 185th, the psychological impact was evident. “This is much better, much, much, much better to have a round like today,” smiled Woods, who moved to within five strokes of the lead with a birdie at the 10th hole before playing his final eight holes in even par. Woods’ optimism seems to go well beyond his best Tour finish since the spring when he tied for 17th at the Masters. While the short term – the PGA Championship could be his final event of the 2015-16 season – remains shrouded in uncertainty, after a few trying months he is starting to see well beyond the light at the end of the tunnel. “I’ve got years ahead of me, that’s how I look at it, not just this season,” he said. “I’ve got years and if you would have asked me that back when I had my back surgery I would have probably . . . I didn’t really know. That was a rough period in my career and my life. But now I’m on the good side of it.” The same could be said for Merritt, who began the day tied with Kevin Chappell and quickly separated himself from the field with a birdie at the first. The event quickly descended into a two-player race, with Bill Haas moving into a share of the lead at 17 under with six birdies through his first 10 holes but he unraveled just as quickly, playing Nos. 12 through 16in 4 over par and tying for fourth. Fowler made a late run with birdies at three of his last five holes, but Merritt nearly made a hole-in-one at the 16th hole for a tap-in birdie and he added his walk-off at No. 18 to complete his breakthrough. In fact, Merritt’s biggest obstacle as he made his way down the 18th hole was the emotion of the moment. As Merritt – who set up his Sunday charge with a tournament-record 61 on Day 3 – approached the 18th green, the crowd broke into a large cheer. When the fans quieted he told Sajtinac, “That was nice.” It was another nice finish for another nice guy from Iowa.last_img read more

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Dunlap leads at Dick’s; Daly 4 back

first_imgENDICOTT, N.Y. – Scott Dunlap glanced at his scorecard and could only smile. ”Well, bogeying the first hole is usually my best way to start a round,” he joked. ”I did that, so I knew it was going to be a good day.” Was it ever. After that bogey on the opening hole at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open, Dunlap rallied with four birdies in a five-hole span, then reeled off five straight birdies to start the back nine en route to an 8-under 64 on Friday at En-Joie Golf Club. Glen Day, Bart Bryant and John Riegger were tied for second at 66 after the first round. Since finishing second in April at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, Dunlap’s best showing was a tie for 17th at the Principal Charity Classic a month ago. ”I guess you never know,” Dunlap said. ”In current form, today certainly wasn’t in the cards. The golf course was kind of there for the taking a little bit.” Gibby Gilbert III, Kevin Sutherland, Paul Goydos and Joe Durant were in a tie for fifth at 5 under. John Daly, Steve Lowery and Jay Haas were among nine players at 4 under. Day ranks in the top 10 in driving accuracy on the Champions Tour, a big advantage on the narrow, tree-lined En-Joie layout. ”Obviously, here it helps great, and I did hit the driver good,” Day said. ”I played well here in the past, in the old days. I’m very comfortable around the golf course. I see the golf course very well, so I’m excited about playing two more days.” Day’s round included six birdies and no bogeys as he hit the ball close to the pin all day. His closing birdie at 18 gave him a one-stroke lead until Dunlap’s back-nine burst. ”Eighteen was the longest putt I made, and it was maybe 10 feet, so I hit the ball really good,” he said. ”I’m very pleased.” Daly, making his first appearance at En-Joie since the 1995 B.C. Open, started in the final threesome and quickly climbed the leaderboard. He birdied four of the first seven holes, including a long putt at the par-5 5th that lipped the cup before dropping and a 5-footer at the par-3 7th. He then faltered with two bogeys, the first coming at the par-5 8th where a long hitter like Daly normally has an edge. ”I had my moments,” said Daly, who won the 1992 B.C. Open. ”I didn’t really get the par-5s the way I wanted to, but I don’t know, I hit it pretty good, made a couple putts, missed a couple. ”But, you know, if you hit the fairways out here and you’re putting half decent, you can really score low on it because the course is in great shape.” At the Principal Charity Classic in June, Riegger was tied for second after an opening-round 67 but faltered to finish 14 shots behind winner Scott McCarron. That he was able to complete Friday’s round and be near the top of the leaderboard again was an accomplishment in itself as he continues to suffer with a case of shingles. ”I may feel great tomorrow, I might not be able to play, I don’t know,” he said. ”I wasn’t able to even tee it up at the Players Championship this year because of it, so I’ll see. Go get worked on and see what happens.” There won’t be as much time as usual. A short but drenching rain shower soaked the course for less than 5 minutes in late afternoon on Friday. Because of the threat of storms on Saturday, the first groups will go off the 1st and 10th tees starting at 7:45 a.m. The leaders will tee off at 9:40 a.m.last_img read more

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At the Sony, trouble in paradise

first_imgHONOLULU – The sun peeked over Diamond Head just after 7 a.m. on Saturday, ushering in a textbook morning in paradise. A light “trade” breeze swayed palm trees, families made their way to the beach and tourists milled around Waikiki in search of somewhere to eat breakfast. It was the kind of morning that draws people from all over the world to Hawaii. The first signs that something wasn’t right came just after 8 a.m. Matt Every sat at a street-side café in Waikiki when pedestrians began running by in search of shelter. “There’s a missile coming,” someone yelled. The message was sent at 8:07 a.m., via text from the Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency: “BALLISTIC MISSLE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Charles Howell III was at breakfast at The Kahala Hotel adjacent to Waialae Country Club when his phone began to warble. “I texted a friend of mine who is in the Navy [at Pearl Harbor] and they were scrambling as well,” Howell said. “Part of me wanted to go to the beach and have a mai tai, part of me didn’t know what to do.” The Kahala, which is a popular place for players to stay for this week’s Sony Open, announced the alert across the property and advised guests to go to the basement. Ben Martin was hesitant at first until he began to scroll through his Twitter feed and realized the threat could be real. “I went to the basement. There were a lot of players down there,” Martin said. “Everybody was freaking out.” Chez Reavie is staying in a hotel in Waikiki, where the alarm caused widespread concern among the throngs of tourists. Full-field scores from the Sony Open in Hawaii Sony Open in Hawaii: Articles, photos and videos “I was like holy s—,” Reavie said. “I looked outside and saw everybody running. I just stayed in my room.” It was a common theme on the most surreal of Saturdays as confusion and concern reigned. There’s no chapter in the PGA Tour player manual about inbound missile threats. Jordan Spieth called his parents back home in Texas to ask for updates and actually received the all clear from his brother when his cell service went down. At 8:45 a.m., 38 minutes after the original warning was issued a correction was finally sent out advising that there was no missile. The alert never impacted play at Waialae with the first tee times scheduled for 11:05 a.m., but many in the field were shaken by the experience as they prepared for the third round. Tony Finau was in his hotel with his wife and kids when he received the alert and admitted it was a difficult position, torn between wanting to be with his family during a time of crisis and having them in harm’s way. “It was a blessed day,” said Finau, whose round was highlighted by a hole-in-one at No. 17. “It puts things in perspective with what could happen. Golf was the last thing on people’s minds.” No one, however, endured the emotional rollercoaster as much as Blayne Barber. He’d gone to dinner on Friday with his caddie, Cory Gilmer, and brother, Shayne, and had just returned to his room when he received a call that Gilmer had fallen and hit his head. “He’s in the neurological ICU, a lot of bleeding and swelling in his brain,” Barber said. “I slept about three hours. That was about the hardest day of golf I’ve ever played, between that and the texts this morning.” Barber received the text alert as he was walking into the hospital to see Gilmer. He played Round 3, because that’s what Gilmer would have wanted, and he struggled, posting a 2-over 72. But none of that really mattered. “I’ve been gone from my kids and my wife for 10 days, and between that happening to Cory and then just the emotions of facing your own mortality in that moment, it’s just been a heavy day for sure,” said Barber as he fought back tears. “It’s been a good day. It’s good to face those things sometimes.” And there was golf on Saturday. Some impressive golf, actually. Tom Hoge went around Waialae in 64 shots to unseat Brian Harman, the most consistent player on the Tour this season with four top-10 finishes in four starts, atop the leaderboard; as did Patton Kizzire, who is tied with Harman at 15 under and a stroke off the lead. Harman will go into a Tour Sunday in contention for the second consecutive week, having lost to a dominant Dustin Johnson to start the year at the Sentry Tournament of Champions; while Hoge, who was bogey-free on Saturday and finished his day with back-to-back birdies, will sleep on his first 54-hole lead on Tour. That’s if he’s able to sleep at all after one of the most surreal days in recent memory. Spieth, who endured another non-Spieth-like putting round (31 putts), spent the day reminding his caddie, “at least we’re alive, which isn’t really funny.” No, it wasn’t funny, but it was eye opening. It’s rare when the outside world invades the polished confines of golf, but on Saturday those realities came in from all directions and were impossible to ignore or forget. “I kept thinking to myself, this can’t be real,” Howell said of the text alert. “But then I kept thinking maybe it’s sign of the world we live in. It could be real.” Thankfully, it wasn’t real, but for 38 tense minutes it certainly felt real enough.last_img read more

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Ryu birdies five par 5s, leads by one in Michigan

first_imgGRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – So Yeon Ryu birdied all five par-5 holes in a 5-under 67 to take the second-round lead Friday in the Meijer LPGA Classic. The sixth-ranked South Korean star played her final nine holes – the front nine at Blythefield Country Club – in 5-under 31 to top the leaderboard at 13-under 131. She rallied after making three bogeys in a five-hole stretch on her first nine. ”I really like my putting stroke right now,” Ryu said. ”No matter I made it or not, I feel like my stroke is really great and my rhythm’s really great. I really want to keep this tempo and rhythm. And I just need to keep working on some tee shots.” Sandra Gal and Sakura Yokomine each shot 64 to reach 12 under. Caroline Masson (66) was 11 under, and Lee-Anne Pace (67), Anna Nordqvist (68) and Su Oh (68) followed at 10 under. Ryu is winless this season after taking the major ANA Inspiration and Walmart NW Arkansas Championship last year. She has five LPGA Tour victories, the first in the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open. Full-field scores from the Meijer LPGA Classic ”I would say more motivated to playing well,” Ryu said. ”When you’re on the golf course you feel a little bit of everything, like anxious, happiness, sadness, angry, just everything. But the thing is, you know, is not bad to feel everything. Also, is just totally normal to feel anxious at the golf course as well. But hopefully I can just manage all my emotions on the golf course.” Gal and Yokomine each had eight birdies in bogey-free rounds. ”It’s just validation of a lot of hard work and the hours I’ve put into the last few months,” the German player said. ”It’s nice to see when you’re making the birdies, you see your name at the top. It’s fun, you’re in contention for the weekend. It’s great.” Kelly Shon, tied with Ryu for the first-round lead after a 64, was four shots back at 9 under after a 71. Michelle Wie and Lydia Ko were 8 under, each shooting 67. ”You have to hit in the fairways here,” Wie said. ”The rough can be a little penalizing.” Lexi Thompson, the 2015 winner, had a 70 to get to 6 under. Ariya Jutanugarn, making her first start since winning the U.S. Women’s Open, had a 70 to join sister Moria Jutanugarn (69) and defending champion Brooke Henderson (70) at 5 under. ”Unfortunately, I’m not playing great golf right now,” Henderson said. ”I definitely have a great game plan for this course. It worked really well last year and I just kind of have to get back to it. Just making some dumb mental mistakes.” Annie Park, the ShopRite LPGA Classic winner last week in New Jersey for her first tour title, missed the cut with rounds of 76 and 69. The forecast high Saturday was 92, going up to 96 on Sunday. ”I don’t mind the hot weather. I actually hate cold weather,” Ryu said. ”We play with a lot of hot weather. Also, it’s not going to be hotter than Thailand or Singapore, so I’m cool with it.”last_img read more

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Kaymer in six-way tie at BMW International

first_imgPULHEIM, Germany – Danish golfer Lucas Bjerregaard shot a 5-under 67 to equal the week’s lowest round for a six-way share of the lead after the third round of the BMW International Open on Saturday. Bjerregaard had eight birdies, a double bogey and a bogey to finish on 5-under 211 – jumping 23 places and joining local favorites Martin Kaymer and Maximilian Kieffer, England’s Chris Paisley and Aaron Rai, and Australia’s Scott Hend at the top of the leaderboard. Bjerregaard was fortunate to play before the wind picked up again later in the afternoon. Full-field scores from the BMW International Open Kaymer, the 2008 champion, delighted the home supporters with two birdies in his last three holes for a 71. Finland’s Mikko Korhonen and Chile’s Nico Geyger were one shot off the lead after rounds of 69 and 73, respectively. Defending champion Andres Romero equaled the week’s best round (67) to be among a large group two shots off the lead going into Sunday, including three-time European Tour winner Andy Sullivan. Romero is bidding to be the first player to retain the title.last_img read more

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Kirk leads after 62 at Thornberry Creek

first_imgONEIDA, Wis. – Defending champion Katherine Kirk shot a 10-under-par 62 to take the first-round lead at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic on Thursday. Kirk wasted no time in picking up from where she left off last year, when she snapped a seven-year, 152-tournament victory drought in the inaugural edition of the Classic. Starting on the back nine, Kirk opened with three consecutive birdies and ended her day with a perfect wedge into the par-5 ninth for a tap-in birdie. ”Obviously, I know you can go low out there, so stepping onto the first tee, I said, ‘Let’s play aggressively and make as many birdies as possible,”’ she said. ”Thankfully, it worked out. Having shot 9-under last year and I knew the conditions were going to be perfect this morning. … I got off to a hot start and tried to keep the pedal down on the (final) nine.” Kirk needed to keep her foot on the gas because 21 players shot 6-under or better. Sei Young Kim was a stroke behind at 63, and Brittany Marchand and Megan Khang were tied at 64. Emma Talley made a run at Kirk late in the afternoon. After an opening bogey, she made nine birdies in a stretch of 10 holes to get to 8 under through 11 before cooling off. She finished with a bogey and was one of seven players at 7 under. Full-field scores from the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic ”I was already counting in my head at one point, ‘What do I have to do to shoot 59?’ But it kind of went downhill from there,” Talley said. Sung Hyun Park, who won her second career major in a three-person playoff at last week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, started with a bogey and never got rolling with a 2-over 74. Nasa Hataoka, who lost to Park in the playoff after winning in Arkansas the week before, shot 3-under 69. For Kirk, returning to the Green Bay area was perfect after missing the cut last week. Her second-round score of 11-over 83 was the worst of her career; Thursday’s round was her best, she said. After missing the cut five times in her last six events and going without a top-10 finish since February, she’s put herself back in contention. ”It is kind of generous off the tee (and) I’ve never been a very straight driver of the golf ball,” she said with a laugh. ”There’s kind of a human element in there. Golf is funny. When you’ve played it as long as I have professionally, you realize that some days are going to be good and some days are going to be bad.”last_img read more

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Woods making noise at East Lake

first_imgATLANTA – Midway through Rickie Fowler’s post-round media obligations he was interrupted by a thunderous roar that echoed across East Lake. “I don’t know who it was. I just heard the roar,” Fowler said. Pressed on who might have caused such a distinct reaction, he shrugged, “no.” There was a time when only one player prompted that kind of raucous response from the masses, but in Fowler’s defense it’s been a while. Tiger Woods always cast an easily recognizable shadow over the game. The signature red and black wardrobe combination on Sundays, the savage fist pumps and emotional outburst, even the steely glare. It was all so unmistakable. But for PGA Tour players of a certain age those moments are from another era, folklore stuff that veterans talk about, which at least partially explains Fowler’s confusion. The current generation has repeatedly said that they would cherish the chance to compete against Tiger at his best, to hear those roars and feel those moments. The 14-time major champion isn’t there yet, but as his 28-footer for eagle at the last hole on Thursday at the Tour Championship trundled to the hole and ignited the gallery it was something of an “aha moment.” So that’s what greatness sounds like. Woods finished his day at the finale with a closing nine of 31 after a slow start and was tied with Fowler atop the season-ending leaderboard at 5 under par. He’s been in this position before from Tampa to St. Louis and was equally impressive two weeks ago at the BMW Championship when he opened with a first-round 62 for a share of the lead. But Thursday at East Lake felt different. It felt better. Projected FedExCup standings Full-field scores from the Tour Championship Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos “This was by far better than the 62 at [the BMW Championship],” said Woods, who is playing at East Lake for the first time since 2013. “Conditions were soft there. It’s hard to get the ball close here. There’s so much chase in it. If you drive the ball in the rough, you know you can’t get the ball close.” A better comparison might be his closing 64 at the PGA Championship, it was certainly louder, yet there was something complete and clinical about his 65 at East Lake. On Wednesday Tiger talked of getting all of the parts of his game to fall into place at one time. When he’s driven the ball well, his putting has been off. When he putted well, his driving has let him down. You know, golf. On Thursday he had the look of a complete golfer, a five-tool player whose only limitation was running out of holes. Statistically he finished inside the top 10 in strokes gained: off the tee (eighth), tee to green (third), fairways hit (fourth), driving distance (eighth), greens in regulation (fifth), proximity to the hole (sixth), scrambling (first) and strokes gained: putting (eighth). “I felt in control today,” Woods said without even trying to hide the knowing smile that inched across his face. “I had a lot of control over my shots.” Woods has said all season that as long as he’s healthy he was confident he’d figure out a way to be competitive. Although he said his plan starting the year was to put himself in contention and win, he also acknowledged that starting out the year he wasn’t sure how he was going to do that. “The objective is to always win, but how am I going to do it when I had no game at the beginning of the year? Somehow I’ve got to find a way to piece it together and give myself a chance with what little game I had,” he said. Woods’ march back to competitive relevance has seemed meteoric at times, particularly when you consider that at this juncture last year he still wasn’t sure if his surgically repaired back could withstand the rigors of Tour life. He’s pieced together a game, swapping putters and drivers at regular clips this season in an attempt to match a new swing with a newly healthy body, and he’s put himself in contention. Getting that elusive victory would be the last piece of the puzzle, but he knows he’s on the clock with 54 holes remaining in his season. There was a time when Tiger’s name atop the leaderboard was a reason for the field to take notice even on Day 1. That piece of his aura has also been elusive, but much like that 80th Tour victory that part of his mystique could also be within sight. Fowler won’t have any problem deciphering roars on Friday when he’ll be paired with Woods in the day’s final group, it’s what he and the other members of the current generation have pined for and one of the final pieces of Tiger’s comeback. “I’ve had the opportunity before, and I definitely am in a lot better position now than I was in the early part of my career,” said Fowler, who has been paired with Woods a dozen times in his Tour career. “There is a little bit of a comfort level that you have to get used to playing alongside him, especially in a big situation, in a final group. No, I look forward to it now.” This is what everyone looked forward to, for those roars to be as distinctive as the man who has produced so many in his career.last_img read more

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Georgia vs. Oklahoma State, 2009: The greatest title match that never was

first_imgThe greatest NCAA Championship that never was streamed live on the nascent NCAA.com, for a couple hundred diehard fans. This was 10 years ago, before primetime coverage and regional selection shows, before college golf became a TV spectacle that elevated the sport and made social-media stars of the game’s most tantalizing prospects. Texas A&M may be credited with the 2009 NCAA title, but a decade later, there’s a sense the championship was actually decided in the quarterfinals, in an instant classic between Georgia and Oklahoma State, two powerhouse programs that eventually graduated eight of those 10 starters to the PGA Tour. Their duel at Inverness remains one of college golf’s signature moments, a historic match witnessed by few but immortalized by the participants. That quarterfinal showdown, on May 29, 2009, featured a blockbuster anchor match between American amateur stars, ushered in the unpredictable match-play era and prompted a brief NCAA scheduling change – but it also left those who were there unsatisfied by the ending. “Having that match decided in the quarterfinals,” said one NCAA title-winning coach, “that’s the crime of the decade in college golf.” Why the perceived injustice? Because Oklahoma State and Georgia were – easily – the top two teams in the country that season. Entering nationals, the Cowboys’ roster boasted Rickie Fowler, Kevin Tway and Morgan Hoffmann and had led wire to wire across their last three tournaments, with five wins overall. The Bulldogs also came in streaking, with an entire starting lineup full of All-Americans (including Brian Harman, Russell Henley and Hudson Swafford) and five tournament titles. “We were always Nos. 1 and 2, going back and forth all year,” Fowler said. “We played a lot of similar tournaments. We were all good friends. We knew, even at the time, the quality of players on both sides.” Getty Images OSU teammates Rickie Fowler, Morgan Hoffman, Peter Uihlein at the ’09 Walker Cup (Getty) But the season-ending NCAAs that year promised a unique challenge. Hoping to inject some excitement into its national championship – with an eye on landing a future TV deal – the NCAA committee abandoned 72 holes of stroke play for a new format: a 54-hole stroke-play qualifier, leading into an eight-team, single-elimination match-play bracket to crown the national champion. “There were a lot of mumblings and grumblings,” Georgia coach Chris Haack said. “A lot of people would have rather just stuck with the four-round event, but I was for match play – I thought it’d create some excitement and it wouldn’t be so anticlimactic.” The movement was spearheaded by legendary former Oklahoma State coach Mike Holder, and – ironically – it likely cost the Cowboys a couple of NCAA titles, including in 2009. At Inverness, OSU played beautifully and won the stroke-play portion by 13 shots, with Fowler and Hoffmann both finishing inside the top 7 individually. All that performance guaranteed: that the Cowboys would be the No. 1 seed for match play. Georgia, meanwhile, coasted through qualifying. “I probably harped on it too much with our guys that, OK, we don’t have to win this thing – just finish somewhere in the top 8,” Haack said. “In hindsight, I should have said, ‘Let’s try and win this thing, and it’ll take care of itself.’” Instead, the Bulldogs placed seventh, 19 strokes behind Oklahoma State. Then they received some unwelcome news in the scoring tent afterward: Hudson Swafford had been taking muscle relaxers to combat back spasms, and he apparently was so hazy that he signed for a final-round 75 instead of the 74 that he’d actually shot. Having to count the higher score, the mistake dropped the Bulldogs from the seventh to the eighth seed – meaning they’d have to face off against Oklahoma State, not Arizona State, in the quarterfinals. “I wasn’t real happy that the rules official didn’t catch it, and I wasn’t real thrilled with Hudson, either,” Haack said. “But we figured that we’re going to have to play those boys at some point, either now or in the finals, so let’s go ahead and play them.” In no other sport can the top two teams play in any round other than the finals, but the NCAA committee treats the stroke-play portion as a qualifier and does not re-seed based on national ranking. And so it was No. 1 Oklahoma State vs. No. 2 Georgia – in the quarterfinals. UGA athletics UGA teammates Hudson Swafford, Harris English and Russell Henley (UGA athletics) “You’d rather have 1 and 2 playing in the final match than the first match, but it’s not set up for that to happen,” said Mike McGraw, who coached Oklahoma State from 2006-13. “But it was fine. My guys were competitive. They liked seeing that. We felt confident we could beat them if we played well.” At the time, the match-play pairings were based on rankings – the team’s No. 1 faced off against the opponent’s No. 1, etc. – which led to some juicy subplots, none more intriguing than Fowler vs. Harman: The long-haired darling of American amateur golf against the cocky country boy whose diminutive stature belied his inner rage. “I wanted to beat him just as bad as he wanted to beat me,” Harman said. “I didn’t need any extra juice for that one.” In the best-of-5 match-play format, Georgia’s Adam Mitchell earned the first point, cruising to a 5-and-3 victory over Tway, despite being assessed a penalty for having too many clubs in his bag. Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein and Hoffmann both claimed 4-and-3 victories, while Georgia’s Henley knotted up the match at two points apiece with a 2-up win. Fowler took control of the anchor match early and held a narrow advantage as they played Inverness’ back nine. “Each guy was hitting shot after shot as good as could be on a major-caliber course,” McGraw said. “Both of the guys are slightly built, but they’re titanic competitors. There was no doubt in your mind that these two guys were going to play the PGA Tour.” The match flipped on the 15th green, where Harman sank an 8-foot par putt to remain 1 down. When he plucked the ball out of the cup, Harman realized that both Fowler and McGraw had already bolted for the next tee, leaving him to fetch the flagstick on the far side of the green. Harman fumed. “He jammed the flag in the hole,” Haack recalled, “and said, ‘This really pisses me off.’” Even now, Harman was hesitant to discuss the incident on 15, saying that Fowler was one of his peers on Tour and that he didn’t want to “throw those guys under the bus.” “I know what happened,” he said. “Obviously I drew some inspiration from it. But it was just a moment in time, that’s all. It was a long time ago.” Oklahoma State athletics OSU’s Rickie Fowler during the 2009 NCAA season (OSU athletics) McGraw wasn’t made aware of the kerfuffle until recently. Fowler didn’t even recall leaving the flag and said that it must have been an innocent “brain fart.” “I’ve never been one to do gamesmanship or that type of thing,” Fowler said. “That’s not how I’d want to win. It’s my bad, but it was never my intention.” Then he added, with a smirk: “I guess it worked out in his favor.” Harman’s teammates knew immediately that the slight would ignite their senior leader. “If you’re playing against him, you don’t have to give him any more fuel, because he’s already got it,” Harris English said. “He’s a tough guy. He wants to beat you and kick you when you’re down. There’s no give-up. Harman already thought that everybody didn’t give him a chance to win that match, and when Rickie did that, there was no way he was going down – he put it in sixth gear.” The quality of golf over the next hour was extraordinary: Both players birdied the 16th hole from outside 15 feet. On 17, Harman drained a short birdie putt while Fowler’s try hit the lip and spun out. They were all square, heading to 18. On the home hole, Harman hammered a drive down the center but faced a difficult approach into Inverness’ 18th green, with the pin tucked on the back-right shelf. Any shot long was almost a certain bogey, so Fowler went first and played cautiously, leaving his ball below the slope, about 30 feet away. Harman seized the opportunity, spinning his ball back within 4 feet of the cup.  When he drained the putt – his third birdie in a row – to close out the match, Harman pumped his fist and unleashed a primal scream. Teammates poured onto the green to celebrate a victory that felt bigger than just a berth in the semifinals. UGA athletics UGA’s Brian Harman after defeating OSU’s Rickie Fowler (UGA athletics) “I still get goosebumps,” Swafford said, raising his forearm. “That was the national championship – that was the match. That’s how we felt. That was it for the year.” Donnie Wagner, the NCAA’s associate director of championships, spied Haack off the 18th green. With a wide grin, Wagner woofed, “I think we’ve got something here! Match play is here to stay.” The loss crushed Oklahoma State, but especially Fowler. Knowing that it was his final NCAA appearance – he’d turn pro later that fall, after the Walker Cup – he broke down in the locker room. When he eventually emerged after the NCAA-mandated 10-minute cool-off period, he heaped praise on his opponent. “To let that match slide … it sucked,” Fowler said now, a decade later. “It’s a little bit different when you’re playing for your team and your coaches and your school. There’s a lot more pressure and emotion.” McGraw spoke optimistically in the clubhouse afterward, about how that glitzy group would have more title chances, but the 2009 NCAAs marked the beginning of a star-crossed relationship with the new championship format. For the next few years OSU would once again field the top-ranked team, only to come up short in 2010 and ’11. “It was a pretty raw feeling,” McGraw said. Though Oklahoma State had an entire offseason to process the stunning result, Georgia was granted only about an hour. At the 2009 NCAAs, the quarterfinals and semifinals were contested on the same day, so the Bulldogs had little time to regroup and prepare for Arkansas, their semifinal opponent. “I remember thinking, Man, I can’t believe we’ve got to go back out after this!” Harman said. The Bulldogs spent that precious time in the locker room, eating lunch and regaling each other with tales of their quarterfinal glory. Haack said he and English were still discussing the win during the first few holes of the afternoon semifinals. “We weren’t even thinking about the next match, and that’s partly my fault – I should have gotten those guys regrouped,” Haack said. “We just weren’t ready to play. It was just way too much of an emotional victory to play again.” Arkansas was no slouch – the Razorbacks were led by future PGA Tour winners David Lingmerth and Andrew Landry – but a gassed Georgia team also didn’t mount much of a challenge, falling, 3-1-1, and leaving Inverness with mixed emotions. Getty Images The official 2009 NCAA mens’ national champs, Texas A&M (Getty) “We were on such a high that it was hard to play after that,” English said. “It’s like playing back-to-back games during March Madness. Not that Arkansas was a letdown match, but we didn’t give it as much attention as we should have.” The NCAA, at least initially, seemed determined to avoid that buzzkill again. For the next four years, the match-play portion of the championship was spaced out over three days, to give advancing teams more time to recover. (They’ve used the condensed match-play format since 2014, after stroke play was expanded from 54 to 72 holes.) Re-seeding also remains a thorny issue for some – the Nos. 1-vs.-2 quarterfinal happened again last year, in fact – though most coaches seem indifferent. “If you’re going to win it all,” said Texas A&M coach J.T. Higgins, “you’d probably have to beat that No. 1 team, anyway, right?” Just as the NCAA’s Wagner predicted on the 18th green, the switch to match play has been a monster success for college golf – a tournament full of dramatic moments and clutch shots, even if the format introduces more volatility. “I hurt for all of those guys, because we’d had a really epic and successful season,” McGraw said. “Most people want to tell you that it wasn’t a success because you got beat, but it hasn’t been a failure. I don’t think less of myself, or my life hasn’t been diminished because we lost that championship. They’re all just small lessons in perspective.” Not even revisionist history can strip Texas A&M of its NCAA title, of course, but Haack has long held a different perspective on the final outcome that week. “We won what was inevitably going to be the final match,” he said, “and so to this day, in my own head, I think of that as my third national championship.”last_img read more

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Griffin’s ‘long, hard road’ from Blacksburg to Houston ends in victory

first_imgHUMBLE, Texas – Steve Prater remembers the day well. It was 2000, and as the head pro at Blacksburg Country Club at the time, Prater was alerted by a club employee that one of Prater’s students had lost his father that morning. When Prater walked into the bag room, he saw 12-year-old Lanto Griffin with tears in his eyes, grieving. “He ran over to me, and we hugged for quite a while,” Prater told GolfChannel.com. “After that, I went straight to the general manager and told him, ‘We have to take care of this kid.’” Later that day, Prater called Griffin to extend an honorary membership to the club that Griffin said, back then, “felt like Augusta National.” Now 31, Griffin will soon get to play the real thing. Some 19 years after that day, Griffin sunk the winning putt on the final green to win the Houston Open, not only capturing his first PGA Tour victory but collecting numerous spoils, including an invitation to the Masters next April. “Just thinking about it is an absolute joke to me, that I’m going to be there,” Griffin said Sunday after his one-shot victory over Mark Hubbard and Scott Harrington. “There’s so many different things that I can’t even fathom that are going to happen after this week.” Griffin: First PGA Tour victory at Houston Open is ‘pretty surreal’ During his winner’s news conference, Griffin revealed his list of goals for the season. After reading them off, one by one, he realized that he had accomplished nearly all of them. Keep his card? Check. Play in the final group on a Sunday? Check. Win? Check. “What I do is I set realistic goals, and then I like to achieve them and then set new ones,” Griffin said. “For me, after I play well, it makes me more hungry to play better.” Prater saw that fire in Griffin immediately. It’s the reason why he let a young Griffin attend his junior clinics at Blacksburg. Only members were allowed to participate, but Prater knew Griffin had the potential go far. “We had a lot of kids,” Prater said, “but Lanto was one of the few who believed he could do it.” Griffin didn’t come from a golf family. His parents were “hippies” who named their son after a spiritual lord, and his dad, Michael, managed a health-food store in Blacksburg. “We didn’t have a whole lot, but we had everything we needed,” Griffin said. When Griffin was 8, his dad, despite no golf interest of his own, bought him a half-set of clubs for Christmas: a 3-wood, 5-iron, 7-iron, 9-iron and putter. Those sticks got put to good use most days at Blacksburg Municipal, a 2,700-yard, nine-hole public course less than a mile from Griffin’s home. As his dad became ill with brain cancer, Griffin quit other sports and focused on golf because he didn’t have to rely on his parents for rides to the course. He could walk to “The Hill” and play for less than $10 a round. Shortly before his death, Michael gave his son a lift to Blacksburg Country Club for his first lesson with Prater. That day, Prater changed Griffin’s grip. “He had a little body but these big hands,” Prater recalled. “His grip was way too strong.” Houston Open: Full-field scores | Full coverage Prater later taught Griffin more than golf; he became a second father to him. After his dad died, Griffin would spend many nights at Prater’s home and became close friends with Prater’s son, Jack, who was a few years younger than Griffin but shared an equal love for golf. “If Steve didn’t bring me in at that real vulnerable part of my life, then there’s no chance that I would be playing golf in college,” said Griffin, who lettered four years at VCU, “or obviously winning the Houston Open.” On Saturday, as Griffin slept on a one-shot lead, Prater, who now shares instructing duties with Todd Anderson, texted his pupil. “Are we having fun yet?” Prater said to Griffin. Sunday would be Griffin’s first time in the final group on the final day of a PGA Tour event. He had yet to post a top-10 in 32 career starts, though he had begun this season, his second on Tour, with four straight finishes of T-18 or better. Strangely, when Griffin stepped on the first tee at the Golf Club of Houston on Sunday, he was completely calm. “I was actually battling my own mind how calm I was and how big of a moment it was for me, but I wasn’t nervous,” Griffin said. “I was almost trying to tell myself, ‘You should be nervous.’” Added Hubbard, the other half of Griffin’s twosome: “For two guys who have never won before, I thought we handled ourselves amazing.” Griffin birdied the first hole and added three more on the front nine. Even after losing his lead with a bogey at the par-4 11th, his belief never wavered. Facing a 33-foot birdie putt at the par-3 16th, he called his shot. “He told me he was going to make it, and he did,” said Griffin’s caddie, Chris Nash. Two holes later, Griffin left himself a 60-footer for birdie at the last. After running his first putt about 6 feet by, he thought back on his last victory, earlier this year on the Korn Ferry Tour, when he holed a similar putt to win. “I felt really good over it,” Griffin said. “That’s a memory that’s going to be ingrained in my head, seeing that putt go in.” Kratzert: Griffin ‘absolutely got it done’ down the stretch When the winning putt fell, Griffin, who closed in 3-under 69 to finish at 14 under, dropped his putter and raised both hands in the air. He then crouched down just off the green and, as Hubbard putted out, broke down. He’d been through a lot. His dad died before he could become a teenager. He was rejected by his dream school, Virginia Tech, and then went winless in college. He turned pro in 2010 and spent years losing money on the mini tours, running up nearly $30,000 on credit cards at one point. Even after breaking through and winning on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica in 2015, Griffin didn’t reach the Korn Ferry Tour until 2017. In his first 10 starts, he made just $4,800. “I thought about quitting,” said Griffin, whose biggest check cashed up until then was the $17,000 he earned when he caddied for friend Willy Wilcox at the 2014 Greenbrier. It wasn’t the first time. Luckily, Griffin has always had a great support system to keep his dream alive – both financially and motivationally. Later that year, Griffin won in Nashville, a victory that propelled him to his first PGA Tour card. He lost that card after one year, but his second KFT win earned him another trip back to the big tour – and set the stage for Sunday’s winning moment. “This is going to be a week that I’ll never, never forget regardless what happens the rest of my career,” said Griffin, who spends these days as a member at TPC Sawgrass and living comfortably in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. “I feel very fortunate beyond words.” Added Rafael Campos, Griffin’s college teammate, who tied for 59th in Houston: “For him, knowing everything that has gone on in his life, he deserves it.” Few understand that better than Prater. Watching the finish on television from back in Virginia, Prater couldn’t contain his emotions. “When that putt went in, my head hit the ceiling,” Prater said. “It’s been such a long, hard road, and he’s worked so hard. “I knew it was going to happen.” Prater only wished he could’ve been there to give Griffin another hug.last_img read more

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