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Illinois' Pieters claims NCAA individual title

PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIF.--Illinois coach Mike Small likes to describe Thomas Pieters as a "modern golfer." With an athletic, 6-foot-3 frame, the native of Belgium--Small's first recruit outside of North America--compresses the ball like a tour pro, a skill that allows him to navigating courses with force more than finesse.

TPieters2.jpgYet in the final round of stroke-play competition at the 115th NCAA Championship, Pieters demonstrated he has become familiar with the finer points of the game too. Lessons learned since arriving stateside in the fall of 2010, working with Small to round out his game, helped the 20-year-old sophomore cap off a career-defining tournament. Driver wasn't the club that allowed Pieters to claim NCAA individual title Thursday afternoon. It was his wedge, which he used to save par on several occasions at Riviera CC and even make a birdie when it looked like his confidence was slipping away.

An even-par 71 gave Pieters a five-under 208 total, three strokes better than TCU's Julien Brun, who shot a closing 67 in the morning and hoped to see the leaders stumble, and Florida's Tyler McCumber. In the process, he joined Scott Langley (2010) as the school's second NCAA medalist in three years.

"I tried to think of this as just another tournament, but this is a big win," Pieters said. "It's pretty cool."

Unfortunately, Pieters' play couldn't help get the Fighting Illini into the match-play portion of the tournament. While Illinois was among a group of 11 schools within five strokes of the eighth and final berth into match play at the start of the day, the team shot a collective 19-over 303 in the third round to finish in 21st place, 12 strokes back of the cut.

Alabama held on to first place in the team standings, closing with a three-over 287 to outpace UCLA by two strokes. However, the identity of the Crimson Tide's first-round opponent was still unknown as the sun set in Southern California. With matching 23-over 875 scores, Kent State and Florida State will return to the course Friday morning in a playoff to decide who moves on as the No. 8 seed and who goes home.

Also advancing to match play, in order of finish, were top-ranked Texas, San Diego State, California, Washington and Oregon.

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News & Tours

An exhausted Mickelson, with an eye on the "big picture," withdraws from Memorial

DUBLIN, Ohio -- For the first time in his professional career, Phil Mickelson withdrew from a tournament without suffering a physical injury or ailment, fatigued by travel and a barrage of electronic shutter snaps. The four-time major champion quit the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance after an opening round of 79, saying he was hoping to find his game in time for the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco. Mickelson and playing partners, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson, suffered a withering onslaught of cell phone pictures during their round but afterward the five-time National Open runner-up said his withdrawal was simply about the need to "think big picture" and prepare for golf's next major championship, just two weeks away.

Mickelson cited fatigue when withdrawing. Photo by Getty Images.

"I played Charlotte, the Players and the Nelson, I went straight to Europe to celebrate Amy's 40th. I came back and had a Tuesday outing in Long Island and I think I'm mentally...I'm a bit fatigued," said Mickelson after a back nine of 42. "Certainly I'm disappointed with how I played today but I think I need -- I've got to be more big picture oriented and think about the Open and what's best to get my best golf out there. I need the next few days to rest up a bit."

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News & Tours

Woods salvages opening round to finish under par

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The last time Muirfield Village GC played as firm and fast as it did Thursday in the opening round of the Memorial Tournament, Jim Furyk remembers playing exceptionally but finishing second.

That was in 2009. The winner was Tiger Woods.

"It was scary fast that year," Furyk said. "These aren't quite there, but they're quick. A good score is out there, but you have to play some good golf to get it."

Woods did just that. The only four-time winner of the Memorial bounced back from a sloppy double-bogey to post a 2-under-par 70 on a sunny and cool morning in central Ohio. It was his lowest opening round of the year since he shot 69 in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, which he won.

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Gear & Equipment

Some fitting advice on shafts coming up in Golf Digest--and right now, too

I often seek input on equipment questions from those working in the trenches, the passionate fitters who are trying to put their customers in the best position to optimize their potential on the golf course. Our list of America's 100 Best Clubfitters includes a collection of folks with strong ideas on how to make fitting easier to understand, and ideally as a result, more likely that more golfers will consider its benefits.

I just came across a note from one of the more thoughtful fitters in the country, Russ Ryden. Ryden is the owner at Fit2score, which operates in two locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. He offers some wisdom on the complexities of shafts, and I include it here as some meaningful advice, along with some incentive to pay attention to the July issue of Golf Digest, where we try to answer some of basic questions about shaft-fitting. Look for it soon.

Russ Ryden, Fit 2 Score, on the power of shaft-fitting:

"There is no substitute for spending time with a fitter in front of a launch monitor. If you have never been through a good fitting, there is a great deal to be learned from the fitter in the process. 

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Gear & Equipment

Finally! Nike to introduce Tiger-inspired golf shoe

Nike Free-Inspired TW'13 Soldier white.jpg

For nearly a year now, Tiger Woods has been wearing Nike prototype golf shoes that he requested, based on Nike's FREE technology, and the company is finally introducing it to the marketplace on June 8.

It's called the Nike TW '13 and will be available in white or black with red accents. It will sell for $180.

The genesis of the Nike TW '13 was Woods' interest in a golf shoe that had the same technology contained in the Nike shoes in which he ran and worked out. The idea behind the FREE technology is to allow the outsoles to replicate the natural motion of the foot

"I train with Nike FREE technology all the time," he said in a Nike news release. "I love training in it, running in it, lifting in it. So I asked, why can't I play golf in it?"

Following is a clever 30-second video of the evolution of the TW '13.

-- John Strege

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News & Tours

How about a separate individual championship?

PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIF.--Having just finished his second round, officially the individual clubhouse leader after 36 holes at the 115th NCAA Championship, Illinois' Thomas Pieters talked to reporters in early evening chill yesterday outside the clubhouse at Riviera CC.

He was asked the usual questions about his round, what went into shooting the 68 that left him at five under for two days, two strokes ahead of UCLA's Anton Arboleda and Florida's Tyler McCumber. He was also asked about his team's chances in the third round, the Fighting Illni among a group of five schools tied for eighth, the cut line for qualifying for the match-play bracket that will decide the team champion this weekend.

And then the sophomore from Belgium addressed the most vexing query he would face: With the individual championship on the line Thursday as well as the chance for the team to advance to match play, how do you approach the third and final round?

"If the team gets in the top eight tomorrow, I will be happy," Pieters said. "If I win or not, it doesn't matter."

It's an admirable answer, selfless and if not a tad bit surprising.

It's also one that Pieters shouldn't have to make.

In this week's issue of Golf World, I wrote a column in our Voices section about the need for the NCAA to explore and, hopefully implement, a separate individual championship (click here to read the story). My logic was because of the exact scenario that Pieters faces.
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News & Tours

Shootout awaits to get into NCAA Elite Eight

PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIF.--If the first two days of the 115th NCAA Championship are any indication, the final 18 holes of stroke-play qualifying Thursday at Riveria CC aren't likely to resemble some ordinary round of golf.

Try bumper cars instead.

While only two teams within eight strokes of first-place Alabama after 36 holes, 11 schools within five strokes of the cut line for qualifying for match play. (For complete team leader board, click here.) The sheer number of teams still in the mix should leave the final round on George Thomas' historic little ball park is going to be nothing if not a crazy 12 hours.

The Crimson Tide maintained its spot atop the leader board with three-over 287 in the second round giving them a four-over 572 total. Sophomore Cory Whitsett paced the second ranked squad in the final Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll with a three-under 68 while freshman Justin Thomas posted his second straight 70.

"I didn't realize the golf course was playing that hard until I looked at a scoreboard on 14 and I was like 'OK,' " said Alabama coach Jay Seawell. "So I'm really proud of the guys. They really grinded out a good round today when it was easy not to. … This golf course will beat you up if you allow it to. You have to stay tough."

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News & Tours

No. 1 Texas has some work left

PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIF.--Coaches and teams fight all year to perform well so that if they should qualify for the NCAA Championship they can get into the wave that tees off the first round in the afternoon and the second round in the morning. The theory goes that that positioning gives you the best chance to be near the top of the leader board after 36 holes.

Except, of course, when it doesn't.

Texas, the top-ranked team in the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll, had flashes of  brilliance during Wednesday's second round at Riviera CC. Toni Hakula made a hole in one on the sixth hole en route to a 71 while Dylan Frittelli finished birdie-eagle on the 17th and 18th holes for a 72. But with player-of-the-year candidate Jordan Spieth and Cody Gribble shooting 79s, the Longhorns posted an 11-over 295 to leave them 17 over, 13 strokes behind Alabama, the clubhouse leader among schools that have finished 36 holes.

"I don' t feel like we played ridiculously poorly," Fields said afterward. "It was a tough day today because we had to take a big score."

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News & Tours

McIlroy: 'These two-day weeks aren't...that good for me'

Rory McIlroy.jpg
(Getty Images photo)

DUBLIN, Ohio - Rory McIlroy hasn't lost his sense of humor, even if he has momentarily lost his golf game.

After the shocking development of consecutive missed cuts, the reigning U.S. Open champion has slipped behind Luke Donald to No. 2 in the world. As a result of his recent poor play, he not only is entered in this week's Memorial Tournament, but also has added next week's FedEx St. Jude Classic before embarking for San Francisco and defense of his Open title at Olympic Club.

McIlroy, 23, of Northern Ireland, is among seven of the top 10 players in the world competing in the 37th Memorial that begins Thursday at Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village GC. The field also includes Donald, four-time winner Tiger Woods and 2011 winner Steve Stricker.

"I just feel like I need some rounds. These two-day weeks aren't really that good for me, so I just want to get some competitive rounds in," McIlroy, drawing laughs, said Wednesday when asked about his detour to Memphis next week. "I'm working on a few things, and I feel trying to put them into competition will be the best way for me to prepare going into the U.S. Open."

Asked when he will arrive at Olympic Club, McIlroy replied, with a sheepish grin, "I'm planning on getting there on Sunday night. Do you know what I mean?"

McIlroy, who finished fifth at last year's Memorial, picked an untimely stretch for poor play, missing the cut in consecutive big events -- at The Players in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and the BMW Championship at Wentworth in England.

Earlier this year, McIlroy's game looked as good as ever as he opened his U.S. schedule with three straight top-3 finishes, including a victory in the Honda Classic. But his game hasn't been the same since then, including a disappointing Masters where he ended up T-40.

"Everyone goes through this, where they just don't feel that comfortable with their game," he conceded, noting that he also is trying to find some equilibrium between his professional and personal life. Both keep him busy and traveling; McIlroy is dating one of the world's top women tennis players, Caroline Wozniacki.

To regain some measure of comfort and familiarity with his vaunted swing, one of golf's most impeccable, McIlroy has been getting reacquainted with the practice tee. He and swing coach Michael Bannon stormed the range at Wentworth, mining the dirt there for six hours, and Bannon has accompanied McIlroy to Muirfield Village.

"We've done some good work, identified a few things in my swing that we just need to look at," McIlroy said. "You know, when you've went on a run where you've hardly finished outside the top five and then all of a sudden two missed cuts, it's more of a shock than anything else, just a little bit surprising, and it's something I haven't really had to deal with in a while, and I just have to knuckle down and figure it out and get back to the way I was at the start of the year."

Donald, who has risen to No. 1 in the world for a fourth time, said he can understand how a player as talented as McIlroy can hit a rut. It happens. It's golf.

"I think Rory talked about it, that he maybe took his eye off the ball," said Donald, who regained the No. 1 slot by defending his title at Wentworth. "I remember when I was 23 and had an attractive girlfriend, I would take my eye off the ball sometimes, as well. You can't blame the kid. But he's obviously realized that, and it looks like he's trying to focus on practicing a little bit harder and getting back to what he does.

"It's a tough game, this game. ... It's a fickle game, and it's tough. You've just got to work through it."

-- Dave Shedloski

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Mid-week Lesson: Jack's universal principle

As the Memorial Tournament gets underway tomorrow, let's turn our attention to the man who conceived of the event, the winner of 20 major championships (I also count his two U.S. Amateurs). One of Jack Nicklaus' major full-swing keys--swinging around a steady head--has gained more prominence recently as Stack & Tilt became popular and more teachers and top players talk of "staying on top of the ball" throughout the swing.

Make no mistake, Nicklaus' original tenet, as taught to him by Jack Grout, who used to hold his hair while he swung, was often criticized by such teachers as Jimmy Ballard for being too restrictive and even causing a reverse pivot.

But swinging around a steady head can really help a golfer who has trouble making solid contact or is lacking consistency. Here's what Jack (through Ken Bowden) wrote in Golf Digest some 30 years ago, and it might help you today:

"To me, a very steady, if not rigidly immobile, head is the supreme golfing fundamental, mandatory on every shot from a drive to a tap-in. I even have gone so far as to call this the game's 'one unarguable, universal fundamental.' Here's why I believe it is so critical:

"--The head is the hub of the swing, the axis of the club's rotation around the body. Move the axis and you move the arc along with it. This may not make consistent clubhead delivery impossible, but it sure adds to the challenge.

"-- To me, power in the golf swing comes principally from leverage, which is largely the product of torque--to oversimplify a little, winding yourself up like a coil spring. Try winding a coil spring that has play at its anchored end--the head in the golf swing--and see how much torque is lost. In other words, the more you sway or bob your head, the less leverage you can develop.

"-- Head movement changes the line of vision, and sometimes the sense both of target and swing path that promotes proper downswing form. Also, moving the
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