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Jon Rahm has big finish for 65 and the lead at Bay Hill

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Jon Rahm started his round strong and ended it even better Thursday, closing eagle-birdie-birdie for a 7-under 65 and a two-shot lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Not even the brute test of Bay Hill was a match for golf’s hottest player.

“Amazing round of golf,” he said. “I wish all of them were as enjoyable as this one.”

That doesn’t mean it was perfection by any means. Rahm, playing in the afternoon when the greens became a bit more crusty, opened with three straight birdies. He held steady the rest of the way until his big burst at the end allowed him to zoom past Honda Classic winner Chris Kirk and Cameron Young.

He hit only eight fairways. He twice was blocked by trees, one time escaping with par with a 30-foot putt on the 15th hole.

But oh, that finish.

Rahm hit 5-iron to 25 feet on the fringe at the par-5 16th and holed it for eagle. On the par-3 17th, he hammered a 7-iron that cleared the bunker and landed in just the right spot to roll out to 2 feet. And on the closing hole, he hit a soft 9-iron to a front pin that settled about 6 feet away.

Rahm had said earlier in the week he doesn’t think he can be beat when he is firing on all cylinders, a belief by most top players. He also said he couldn’t think of a tournament where he played his absolute best.

“Go through the round and you’ll see plenty of mistakes,” Rahm said. “I just took advantage of minimizing mistakes and converted a couple of situations into really good scores. But it can always be better.

“But it’s the first day,” he added. “Ask me that on Sunday if I keep playing like this, and I’ll probably change my answer.”

Bay Hill is bracing for the worst over the next few days, with the wind expected to be strong on a course that already is fast and firm.

Kirk is coming off an emotional win nearly eight years in the making. He carried that momentum to seven birdies for a 67 during the morning round. Young also had a 67 in morning conditions that might be as easy as Bay Hill gets all week.

They were joined by Kurt Kitayama, who had a chance to challenge Rahm until dropping his lone shot on his final hole at No. 9.

The group at 68 included defending champion Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, all among the top 20 in the world.

But it starts at the top, and Rahm looks as tough as ever. He already has three PGA Tour wins this year, and he has won five of his last nine tournaments worldwide.

Rory McIlroy, who has a mathematical chance to return to No. 1 in the world with a win, was over par from his opening hole and scratched out a 73, including a double bogey on the par-5 sixth hole when he drove into the water.

Kirk won the Honda Classic in a playoff just four days ago, a monumental win for the 37-year-old from Georgia who stepped away from the PGA Tour to seek help for alcoholism and depression.

It has been nonstop ever since — the Seminole Pro-Member on Monday, the drive north to Orlando and golf at Isleworth with longtime friend Charlie Culberson of the Tampa Bay Rays, the pro-am Wednesday and then one of the toughest tests on the Florida swing.

He was up to the task with a round that started and ended with a bogey and featured seven birdies in between.

“I’ve definitely been busy, and so 5:30 came early this morning and felt strange a little bit, like, ‘OK, we’re really doing this all over again.’ So felt a little bit out of in the very beginning, but then settled in and played some solid golf,” Kirk said.

It helped to hole a pair of 30-foot birdie putts, but otherwise he looked as though he didn’t want to wait another eight years for his next win.

Young is waiting for his first, and it’s hard to imagine this kind of talent waiting much longer. He had two close calls in the majors last year, including a 31 on the back nine of St. Andrews to finish one back at the British Open.

Young has a connection to Bay Hill. His father, David, recently retired as the longtime head pro at Sleepy Hollow in New York, and they occasionally spent weeks during the winter in Orlando at nearby Orange Tree. Young played Bay Hill every so often as a teenager.

“The golf course in tournament shape is a different animal when the rough gets like this and the green gets firms,” Young said.

That’s not to suggest he had his way with Bay Hill when it wasn’t set up for the PGA Tour.

“It’s not easy as it is,” he said. “And I wasn’t quite as good then.”

Bay Hill figures could be tough as ever if a strong wind arrives. Players were having a tough time finding pitch marks on the green during the Wednesday pro-am.

“We’ll see what happens on these greens,” Scheffler said. “It better not blow too hard or they may need to slow them down or something. I really don’t know what they’re going to do.”

For now, the bigger concern might be how to stop Rahm.


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Hawks star Young ejected after hard ball toss to referee

ATLANTA (AP) — Hawks star Trae Young was ejected after heaving the ball hard to referee Scott Wall in the third quarter of Atlanta’s 143-130 win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

After Hawks coach Quin Snyder called a timeout in the third quarter with the game tied at 84, Young first bounced the ball and then threw a hard, two-handed pass at Wall, who caught the ball. Young was immediately called for a technical foul and ejected.

Only seconds earlier, Young had an apparent 3-pointer disallowed when he was called for a technical foul for sticking out his leg and tripping Aaron Nesmith.

“It’s just a play he can’t make,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “I told him that. He knows it.”

Snyder said Young acknowledged his mistake.

“There wasn’t a single part of him that tried to rationalize what happened,” Snyder said.

The technical foul was Young’s 15th of the season. A 16th technical foul results in an automatic one-game suspension.

Young, who leads Atlanta with his averages of 26.8 points and 10 assists, had 14 points and five assists when he was ejected.

The game was tied at 84 when Young was ejected.

“We didn’t allow it to turn into a negative,” Hawks guard Dejounte Murray said. “We turned it into a positive and got the win.”


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Scheffler, McIlroy at their best to reach Match Play semis

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The golf was as good as it gets. Rory McIlroy made 17 birdies in the 36 holes he played Saturday. Defending champion Scottie Scheffler rallied with six birdies in his last nine holes to reach the semifinals for the third straight year.

A little luck never hurts in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. And as great as McIlroy played, he needed some of that, too.

McIlroy never led in his quarterfinals match against Xander Schauffele. They came to the 18th hole all square, and McIlroy slumped slightly when he saw his drive headed left toward the trees. Schauffele hit his shot and quickly picked up his tee.

Imagine their surprise. McIlroy came upon a golf ball behind a tree and figured it was his. Schauffele was walking behind him and was stunned when McIlroy kept going.

“He hit a worse drive than I did and he ended up fine,” Schauffele said.

He got no argument from McIlroy.

“I expected my ball to be Xander’s ball on 18 behind that tree, and I got fortunate that mine trundled down the hill and obviously made the chip shot a lot easier,” McIlroy said. “Look, you need a little bit of fortune in these things, and that was a bit of luck for me today.”

McIlroy won with a 12-foot birdie putt, the proper ending to a match that both said was a testament to the quality of golf required. Schauffele applauded all the pivotal putts McIlroy made to stay in the fight.

It was like that all over Austin Country Club. The final version of Match Play lived up to its edge-of-the-seat reputation, with wild turns of momentum until four players remained.

Sam Burns advanced by beating Patrick Cantlay in 17 holes and then overcoming an early deficit to beat Mackenzie Hughes of Canada, 3 and 2, to reach the semifinals.

Burns advances to meet Scheffler, his best friend on tour with whom he often shares a house when they’re on the road. Their last encounter was at Colonial last year, when Burns made a 45-foot birdie putt to beat Scheffler in a playoff.

Cameron Young looked as if he had an easy time, until it wasn’t. He was 3 up at the turn, missed a chance to go 4 up on the 12th and then had to go to the 18th hole before he could dispatch of Bay Hill winner Kurt Kitayama.

Scheffler, who lost in the final in his Match Play debut in 2021, now has won 10 straight matches. He was 2 down against J.T. Poston in the morning with five holes left when he birdied the 17th to square the match and won the 18th with a par.

He was 3 down against former Match Play champion Jason Day through seven holes in the quarterfinals when he battled back, taking his first lead with a birdie on the 13th and then pulling away. He closed it out with a wedge to 2 inches on the 17th.

Scheffler said he and caddie Ted Scott had a chat when Day went birdie-birdie-eagle on the front nine to go 3 up. The eagle came on a 5-wood from 282 yards to 5 feet on the par-5 sixth hole at Austin Country Club.

“Just ride out the heater,” Scheffler said. “I had to stay patient.”

Day began to struggle with allergies on the eighth hole, and then Scheffler had a heater of his own by making six birdies over their final nine holes.

McIlroy reached the quarterfinals by making nine birdies against Lucas Herbert, and it still wasn’t decided until the 18th hole.

“I got to beaten by the best player in the world probably playing the best golf of anyone in the world would today,” Herbert said. “Pushed him all the way to the end. I just didn’t feel like there was a hell of a lot more I could have done.”

Schauffele made seven birdies against McIlroy and it wasn’t enough.

“I needed to dig deep,” McIlroy said. “He’s one of the best players in the world. I knew I was going to need to produce something similar to this morning. I was 16 under for two rounds of golf. That shows the caliber you need to play out there.”

Next up for McIlroy is Young, who finished ahead of him at St. Andrews last year with a 31 on the back nine. Young has made 31 birdies and two eagles in his five matches this week. He won his group on Friday with a 5-and-3 win. He made it through Saturday morning with a 5-and-4 rout of Billy Horschel. He was on his way to another romp against Kitayama.

But he missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the 12th that would have put him 4 up. Kitayama won the next two holes with birdies. Young missed from 10 feet for birdie, 15 feet for eagle and 10 feet for birdie on the next three, all three putts burning the edge.

Ultimately, he only needed two putts from 15 feet on the 18th for the win. That was about the only easy part of his back nine.

“I don’t think I made a bogey today and I was biting my nails trying to win my match,” Young said. “I think it just shows you the quality of golf that’s played out here and how hard it is to get through even just one day like today, never mind that today was our fifth match.”

Day earlier on Saturday beat Matt Kuchar, leaving the 44-year-old American one match short of the tournament record. Kuchar leaves sharing the mark of 36 wins with Tiger Woods.

Now it’s Scheffler’s turn. Woods is the only player to win Match Play back to back. One day remains, and it feels like a long way to go.


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Gonzaga’s Drew Timme ends storied career in loss to UConn

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Gonzaga was down 10 points early in the second half Saturday night in the West Region final against UConn, but Julian Strawther had just secured a defensive rebound, and perhaps the Bulldogs had a run in them.

But then came a whistle. Zags forward Drew Timme had picked up his fourth foul. Shortly thereafter, it became clear that Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament run would end.

Without him, the third-seeded Bulldogs weren’t a match for No. 4 seed UConn, which pulled away to win 82-54 and end Timme’s college career.

Timme, who gained fame for his masterful inside moves and world-class mustache, put together perhaps the finest college career in recent memory. He was a throwback for his crafty low-post game and for spending four years at the same school.

“I’m just so thankful that the program and the place took me for who I was,” Timme said. “They didn’t ask me to be anybody but myself. I’m forever in debt for Gonzaga, just the love I have for just everyone that helped me and made this journey so special and so fun. I just don’t think I could ever repay that.

“I’d do anything for Gonzaga. I always will. This isn’t a goodbye; it’s a see-you-later.”

The emotions were clear on Timme’s red face, which he covered with a towel a handful of times. He sniffled as the postgame news conference was about to begin.

But Timme held it together when the questions came, including about the fourth foul less than three minutes into the second half. That came after he was whistled for a charge just 26 seconds into the half.

“The bottom line is they were the better team tonight,” Timme said of UConn. “They made more shots. They got the 50-50 balls. Regardless of whether we want to say what-ifs, the refs didn’t control that game.”

Timme, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds against the Huskies, departs knowing he left a mark not only at Gonzaga but on college hoops.

He owns the Gonzaga record with 2,307 points and led the Zags to the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons and the national title game in 2021.

“I think he’s one of the greatest college players in this modern era,” coach Mark Few said. “He’s won at the highest level. We leaned on him as hard as we’ve ever leaned on a player, and he delivered time and time and time again.

“But that’s just a small piece of it. He’s a bigger-than-life character. It was a blast to coach him.”

Gonzaga will have a new man in the middle next season, and the Bulldogs got a taste of that experience will be like when Timme sat for about three minutes and UConn rolled to a 58-37 lead.

By the time Timme re-entered the game, the Huskies were well on their way to their fourth double-digit victory in as many games.

Had Timme never picked up that fourth foul, the Huskies likely still would have pulled away, but the call altered the tone of the game and sped up the rout.

“You try to stay positive,” Bulldogs forward Anton Watson said. “We brought the team together and tried to keep positive thoughts and try to keep chipping away at that lead, but it’s hard when Drew goes out.”

It was another disappointing end to the season for Gonzaga, which is still searching for its first national championship. Expectations were low it would happen this year, so making the Elite Eight was a win in itself.

The Zags can thank Timme, who entered the game leading the team with averages of 21.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, for helping get them there.

“I don’t think anybody thought we would make it this far this year,” Timme said. “Just the stuff we overcame as a group and how we stayed together, I think, speaks volumes to who we are as people, more than players.”


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