NCAA Women’s Basketball: Top storylines for the 2021-22 season

Kirby Lee USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-21 NCAA women’s basketball season was one that will certainly never be forgotten. After gaining attention for gender disparities – sparked by player outrage on social media – the women’s tournament became one of the most-watched of all time, with Stanford claiming the division I NCAA championship title.

While the 2021-22 women’s college basketball season – which tipped off on Tuesday – makes somewhat of a return to normalcy, there are still plenty of intriguing storylines to follow.

Will Stanford repeat as NCAA women’s basketball champion?

After being forced to hit the road for 10 weeks due to Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 protocols, the Stanford Cardinal overcame all sorts of adversity to go 31-2 and claim its third national title in 2021 – and first since 1992.

Tara VanDerveer’s squad is the favorite to win the Pac-12 again this season, but the question remains as to whether they can replicate last season’s magic.

While going 31-2 again is a tall task, the Cardinal has the tools to do so, returning 10 of last year’s 11 rotation players.

Junior Haley Jones is at the helm after being named Most Outstanding Player of the 2021 Final Four.

Alongside Jones, Stanford is returning sophomore forward Cameron Brink, who made an immediate impact in her freshman season going undefeated in her 20 starts, as well as senior guard Lexie Hull.

However, Kiana Williams’ departure leaves big shoes to fill, as she led the team in points and assists last season. Reigning Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year Anna Wilson and Northwestern graduate transfer Jordan Hamilton will combine to fill her role at guard.

Facing one of the toughest slates in the country with 12 AP top-25 matchups on their schedule, including six in non-conference play, Stanford has a tough battle ahead. But coming off one of the best seasons in program history, it certainly has the momentum and star power to be one of the top competitors in the nation again.

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Can any team challenge No. 1 South Carolina?

Ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll, South Carolina is expected to make a run at its second national title and first since 2017.

With one of the deepest rosters in all of college basketball, the Gamecocks should have no trouble capturing their seventh overall and third consecutive SEC title. While Kentucky and Tennessee are talented teams, they are nowhere near as deep as Dawn Staley’s squad.

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After making the Final Four last year, South Carolina didn’t lose a single player and added the best recruiting class in the country and the nation’s top transfer in Kamilla Cardoso.

The program also returns Aliyah Boston, who has been its centerpiece since she arrived two years ago. Boston averaged 13.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game last season and is expected to keep improving this year.

Under Staley – who signed a seven-year, $22.4 million contract this offseason, making her the highest-paid Black coach in women’s basketball – South Carolina certainly has the talent to win a national title. It had its first real test on Tuesday afternoon against No. 5 NC State, winning 66-57.

Louisville and NC State are poised for another tight ACC women’s basketball battle

If last year’s battle for the ACC title wasn’t close enough, this year’s competition between NC State and Louisville could be even tighter.

After going 22-3 last year, winning its second consecutive conference tournament title and earning its first-ever No. 1 seed, NC State fell short in the NCAA tournament, getting upset by Indiana in the Sweet 16.

For the 2021-22 season, NC State returns its top eight scorers from last year – nearly 94% of its total scoring production. While the Wolfpack will lean on ACC Preseason Player of the Year Elissa Cunane again this year, it will also turn to Rutgers transfer Diamond Johnson and Mississippi State transfer Madison Hayes, who only add to the team’s talent.

Louisville, on the other hand, has huge shoes to fill, as now-WNBA champion Dana Evans graduated last spring. The All-American led the Cardinals with 20.1 points and 3.9 assists per game and was their most reliable player in late-game situations. Senior Kianna Smith and sophomore Hailey Van Lith are expected to carry the bulk of the load. With the additions of Syracuse transfer Emily Engstler and Vanderbilt graduate transfer Chelsie Hall, the Cardinals could replicate last season’s success despite the loss of Evans.

Can Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark replicate last year’s success in their sophomore seasons?

Having a freshman as your best player certainly bodes well for the future, but for programs like UConn and Iowa whose freshmen were nearly flawless, it begs the question of how they can sustain that success and further improve as sophomores.

UConn guard Paige Bueckers is coming off one of the most impressive campaigns by a freshman of all time. She led the Huskies to its 13th consecutive Final Four by averaging 20 points and six assists per game. She also became the first freshman to win the Naismith Trophy, Wooden Award and AP Player of the Year. Bueckers will be joined on the court this season by Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhasz and No. 1 overall recruit Azzi Fudd.

As a freshman, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark quickly established herself as the single most valuable offensive player in the nation last season. Lisa Bluder’s up-tempo offense has proven perfect for her skill set, as she scored 20 points in all but three games last season. With the Hawkeyes returning their top seven scorers, Clark and her team are poised to dominate again offensively.

How quickly can Kim Mulkey and Kara Lawson return their programs to national powerhouses?

One of the biggest storylines in women’s basketball this offseason was Kim Mulkey announcement she would be leaving Baylor to become the head coach at LSU. In her two decades with the Bears, the program won three national titles and made the NCAA tournament every year but one.

In taking the reins at LSU, Mulkey will look to make the program competitive again. After appearing in the Final Four for five consecutive years between 2004-2008, LSU hasn’t made the tournament since 2017.

In the ACC, all eyes will be on Kara Lawson, who will coach her first full season at Duke this year. From 1998-2013, Duke made 11 Elite Eights, four Final Fours, and two national championships. It hasn’t reached the Elite Eight since.

After just four games last year, Lawson’s squad opted out due to COVID-19, but her impact on the program has already been seen. Since she took over, nine players have transferred to Duke, including six this offseason, begging the question of whether the Blue Devils will finally have their long-awaited rebirth.

Lawson also had a busy offseason of her own, coaching the U.S. women to gold in the Olympic debut of 3×3 basketball.

Can any Big 10 basketball team dethrone Maryland?

Almost every year the Maryland Terrapins are favored to win their conference, and this season is no different. The Terrapins have the Big Ten title six of their seven years in the conference.

But with five Big Ten teams in the AP preseason Top 25, Brenda Frese’s No. 4-ranked team may face more challenges in conference play this season.

  • No. 8 Indiana is poised for another strong year returning all five starters including All-Americans Mackenzie Holmes and Grace Berger. Alongside seventh-year guard Ali Patberg and senior forward Aleksa Gulbe, who both earned All-Big Ten honors last season, the veteran Hoosiers will be one of Maryland’s toughest tests in the regular season.
  • Also a threat? No. 9 Iowa, led by the sophomore Caitlin Clark. (See above.)
  • Lastly, the Michigan Wolverines are coming off their deepest postseason campaign ever and return three starters, including reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Naz Hillmon. Hillmon averaged a double-double and became the first Michigan player of any gender to score 50 points in a single game. With 11 returning players, Kim Barnes Arico’s squad is set to make another run at the conference title.

While the Big Ten is stacked, expectations are as high as ever for a Maryland team that returns all but one player from last year’s roster. The Terps don’t have an easy road to the conference title, but behind stars like All-American Ashley Owusu and All-Big Ten First Team selection Diamond Miller, it’s no shock that they’re the favorites once again.

What impact will top recruit Azzi Fudd have on UConn?

While UConn attracts the top recruits year after year, including the No. 1 recruit four out of the last five years, the chatter around freshman Azzi Fudd has reached a new level. The Virginia native went down as one of the best high school players of all time during her four years at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. and opted to join Geno Auriemma’s squad.

Fudd was just 12 years old when she received her first college scholarship offer and concluded her decorated high school career – which was interrupted by an ACL tear as a junior – as the 2021 Morgan Wootten High School Basketball Player of the Year.

While expectations are rightfully high for Fudd as she enters college, it’s uncertain how she will fit into a talented UConn squad. Not only did UConn lose no seniors, but it is also adding four new freshmen and Ohio State transfer Juhasz. For Auriemma, his greatest problem appears to be having too much talent.

Even with the lineup of Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Paige Bueckers, Fudd – the unanimous Preseason Big East Freshman of the Year – seems too skilled to come off the bench.

Despite making 13 straight Final Fours, the Huskies haven’t won the title since 2016. Fudd could be the difference-maker to put them over the edge to win their 12th national championship this season.

How will name, image and likeness impact women’s college hoops? 

When the NCAA implemented a new policy this summer – allowing its athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness – the college sports landscape changed. Some of the game’s stars have already taken advantage of the rules, like Aliyah Boston (who signed with Bojangles) or Fudd (who partnered with Chipotle).

While female college athletes receive less than four percent of traditional media coverage, a recent study found that the median male and female college athletes have a comparable number of social media followers. Because of this, NIL could allow some of the biggest stars to become even bigger. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bueckers is projected to make more than $1 million off NIL deals this year. Additionally, Fresno State’s Haley and Hanna Cavinder, who have over three million TikTok followers, could make more money than their coach this season thanks to NIL deals.

Will we see progress on issues of gender equity in women’s college basketball?

Sparked by a TikTok posted by Oregon’s Sedona Prince about the inequities between the men’s and women’s tournament bubbles at the start of last season’s championships, the NCAA came under fire for its unequal treatment of its women’s players.

The NCAA announced in September that it will begin using March Madness branding for both the men’s and women’s tournaments. It is also expected to decide by mid-November whether it will expand the women’s tournament to include 68 teams like the men. There have also been discussions about a combined Final Four for the men and women in the future.

While some progress has been made in women’s basketball, the second NCAA gender equity report released last week indicated that women across all sports are far from receiving equitable treatment.

Li Li Leung talks USA Gymnastics’ cultural transformation, challenges still to come and embracing her AAPI heritage

Head of USA Gymnastics Li Li Leung.
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Li Li Leung joined USA Gymnastics as president and CEO in March 2019, when the organization was reeling from the fallout of Larry Nassar’s widespread sexual abuse and the subsequent revelations of larger cultural issues within the sport. Since then, Leung has seen USAG through an ongoing transformation, one that hinges on the work of the survivors and staff around her, whom she is quick to credit. That evolution, as she calls it, has included instituting new norms and standards at all levels of the sport, particularly in matters related to athlete safety.

Among the notable USAG initiatives that Leung has brought to fruition is the Athlete Bill of Rights, established in December 2020 as a tool “to unite the full gymnastics community around a shared vision of behavioral expectations.” At the same time, USAG instituted a protest policy for national team members aimed at supporting athletes who choose to use their voice on public platforms. Both initiatives were among the first of their kind in sport.

Prior to joining USAG, Leung served as a vice president at the National Basketball Association (NBA), where she was responsible for building and managing key partner relationships around the world. She continues to use that experience in her roles as vice chair of the National Governing Bodies Council of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and a member of the International Gymnastics Federation’s Executive Committee.

Leung, who began competing in gymnastics at age 7, was a member of the U.S. junior national training team and represented the U.S. at the 1988 Junior Pan American Games. She was a four-year member of the four-time Big 10 champion University of Michigan gymnastics team and was an NCAA Championships participant.

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, On Her Turf sat down with Leung to talk about her journey with USAG, the challenges still to come and how being a member of the AAPI community has shaped the person she is today.

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This Q+A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

On Her Turf: Let’s start by talking about your journey since joining USA Gymnastics in 2019. What have the last four years been like for you?

Li Li Leung: This was just an incredible opportunity to give back to the sport that has given so much to me. And I really mean that because I started in the sport when I was 7 years old and did it for 15 years. It’s taught me all of these different skills that I apply to my daily life, both professional and personal. It feels a little bit like I’ve come full circle, and honestly, never in a million years did I think I would find myself in this role. … I joined at a time when it was a tumultuous time for the organization. It’s been just a little a little over four years now, and it has been an incredible journey — and believe it or not, I have enjoyed it. While it hasn’t been easy, I actually have enjoyed it, because I’ve been able to make it not just me. One thing that’s important to note is that — I had even said on my first interview with the board — it will take a village to accomplish what we need to accomplish. This is not a one-person job. And I was lucky enough to be able to bring on a leadership team that has been incredible, and also retain the staff that we have retained, as well as hire other new staff members. And it’s because of them and some really key volunteers that we’ve been able to accomplish what we’ve been able to do.

OHT: Can you talk a little more about this cultural transformation that the organization has experienced and your approach to tackling this all-encompassing change?

Leung: When I was interviewing for the position, I actually met every single board member. It was really critical to both sides that they felt that I matched the role and their needs and also I had to be confident in the board believing in the ultimate mission of the organization and what we wanted to achieve. So that the culture really does stem from the well – from the top down and everything in between as well. And when I was looking for leadership team, … one of the characteristics I was really looking for was they couldn’t have an ego. The job couldn’t be about themselves or about what they would personally get out of the role. It had to be about them believing in the bigger picture and believing in what we collectively wanted to achieve. I knew that we would only be able to accomplish what we need to accomplish if people were willing to roll up their sleeves and just do whatever needed to be done, so that was one of the key things in terms of having no ego.

Since 2018, we’ve turned over more than 70 percent of our staff. We’ve been able to retain the really key members of our staff, who have been critical to our success, but also have been able to really bring in new thinking, new blood, new perspectives. Because the other thing I was looking for when I was hiring for the leadership team was diversity in perspectives. That was critical because I did not want to be surrounded by “yes people.” I wanted to be surrounded by people who would be willing to have really robust conversations and engage in difficult conversations, because ultimately, you end up in a better place because of that.

In 2020, we reset our mission to be about building a community and culture of health, safety and excellence, with athletes who thrive in sport and in life. So we were no longer about developing technically superior gymnasts who perform well in gym. We reset our focus to be about helping set our athletes up for success with the skill sets that you learn in gymnastics, and when we come to the office each day, that’s what we’re thinking about. …

The other piece is we also know from a community standpoint that our national team coaches are the most visible representation (of USAG), and a lot of coaches model them. So we’ve been working really hard in terms of working on educating our national team coaches. We work with Positive Coaching Alliance to do educational training with them as well. And we also have introduced training specifically for young coaches coming in, because we know when they come in and they’re new, that they’re eager to learn, and that’s when you can start training and moving them in a way. So our thinking is with this top-down and bottom-up strategy, eventually the middle will meet.

OHT: You noted how the coaches can be some of the most visible representatives of USAG. Regarding the addition of 2008 Olympic silver medalists Chellsie Memmel (USAG technical lead) and Alicia Sacramone Quinn (USAG strategic lead), how have those women impacted the program?

Leung: The addition of Chellsie and Alicia has been fantastic. They have been phenomenal to work with, and the fact that they have firsthand experience of having gone through it themselves – that also gives them a very good idea of what they would change and what they wouldn’t change, at the same time. It has been a phenomenal addition to be able to have this perspective of firsthand, high-level, high-performing athletes to be able to lead our high-performance team. And the athletes are saying it as well. They’re saying, “We trust them; we feel confident in their decisions; we can relate to them” — all of those things that historically haven’t really happened before.

Then in terms of the athletes who are going to college and coming back to compete with USA Gymnastics – there are so many aspects that I think are great about this. One: It’s showing a lengthened career in a sport that historically has not been very long because it’s so demanding on the body. So that means that our athletes are physically healthier, as well, that they can train and compete at a high level for a longer period of time. It also means that they’re enjoying it more because they’re staying in the sport. From an emotional standpoint, they’re finding a lot more joy in the sport, and they’re talking about it, too. And we love the fact that they’re talking about it. We want them to talk about it, and we want them to have voices and feel open and free about sharing what they’re thinking about. I have to say I’ve been really enjoying seeing almost like — I’m not sure if I can go as far as a new era in the sport maybe — but just this evolution of the sport and the athletes changing in front of my eyes.

OHT: What do you consider now to still be the biggest challenge or obstacle for USAG?

Leung: There are a couple of big initiatives on the list. One is we want to build a training and wellness center where all of our disciplines will train under one roof. This is a long-term project, obviously, but my vision around it is that it will be the heart and hub of gymnastics in America. And while this is where national team athletes will ultimately train to some extent, it is going to be a welcoming place for athletes of all different disciplines and all different levels. We want it to be a place where young athletes can come through and see their role models training. We want this to be a place of education for our community and judges. We want to be able to run clinics there for all different levels. We just want this to be a gathering place of gymnastics and to be able to celebrate the sport there at the same time.

We’re also going to reset our foundation. There’s been the National Gymnastics Foundation, but we are going to reset it and basically be much more proactive on fundraising and development to grow the sport and also to raise more money for athletes in their training.

OHT: Turning to AAPI Heritage Month and being named to the 2023 Gold House A100 List (the A100 is named each May honoring 100 Asian Pacific leaders who made the greatest impact on culture and society over the past year). What did that honor mean to you?

Leung: It was such an incredible honor to be recognized by them, and my fellow honorees — when I read the list, I thought to myself, “I don’t belong.” There are some incredible names on that list. But again, I go back to what I said earlier: I owe this honor to a lot of the other people who work [at USAG]. I think the really important thing to recognize is that this was not done by just me. It was done by a lot of other people who are on staff and who aren’t getting the accolades or the recognition. But it was an incredible experience to be, and I’m very, very touched and honored to be on that list.

OHT: How do you identify within the Asian American Pacific Islander community? Did you embrace your heritage growing up and how has that shaped who you are today?

Leung: So I’ll tell you a story that I’ve mentioned to other people recently. I grew up in a town called Ridgewood in Bergen County, New Jersey, and most of my friends had blond hair and blue eyes. When I was growing up, I wanted the name “Nancy Smith,” and I wanted blue eyes. I wanted to fit in. As a kid, you always want to fit in. Then when you get older and wizen up a little bit, you realize that it’s okay and it’s good to be different, that you can use that to your advantage. And so upon growing up, I realized that it’s pretty special to be Asian American and there are benefits to being Asian American, and you should embrace the fact that you are different. In fact, I recently lectured to a women-in-sports-business class, and one of the questions they asked me was about impostor syndrome. I said the same thing that I’m saying to you now, which is absolutely embrace who you are. Absolutely embrace your differences, because those ultimately are embedded advantages to who you are and make you stand out from the rest of the crowd. So that’s my philosophy now.

OHT: Do you or your family have any traditions that are especially important to you?

Leung: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a tradition, but in the Chinese culture, food is really important. Food is what brings people together. It’s a sign of respect, and that is the ultimate unifying language in a way. So when we do get together as a family, it’s really important for us to get together around a meal, because that’s when we share our stories. That’s when we connect with one another.

OHT: You might have just answered my next question, but I want to ask: What brings you joy about your heritage and culture?

Leung: It’s funny, I was actually at a conference last week and you were supposed to find someone you didn’t know in the conference and share a secret talent that you have. I shared that I can eat a lot more than most people think. Food is a really important part of our culture and in my upbringing and family.

OHT: Lastly, I wanted to ask, as we’ve seen an increase in hate-filled actions toward the AAPI community, what does supporting the AAPI community look like for you?

Leung: Well, I think kind of going back to my other answer, it’s just about embracing who you are and embracing your differences. I think part of it is being unafraid of it at the same time, which I know is really difficult. But if you’re going to truly embrace it, and then you can’t be afraid about embracing it at the same time.

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2023 Mizuho Americas Open: How to watch, who’s playing in inaugural LPGA event at Liberty National GC

Pajaree Anannarukarn of Thailand tees off on the eleventh hole during Day One of the HSBC Women's World Championship.
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The Statue of Liberty is the backdrop for this week’s inaugural Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey. The tournament boasts a theme of mentorship and education, and includes a girls’ 72-hole, modified Stableford tournament featuring 24 juniors to go along with the 72-hole stroke-play event for 120 LPGA professionals.

The field is led by seven of the top 10 players on the Rolex Rankings including world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, No. 3 Lydia Ko, No. 4 Lilia Vu and No. 5 Minjee Lee. Also teeing it up this week are the finalists from Sunday’s Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play, where Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn captured her second LPGA title with a 3-and-1 victory over Japan’s Ayaka Furue.

Michelle Wie West is serving as the tournament host, and she’ll be on hand to welcome fellow Stanford alum Rose Zhang, who’s fresh off her second straight NCAA individual title and turned professional just last week. Zhang will have her first go at an LPGA prize purse, which tops out at $2.75 million this week with the winner taking home $412,500.

How to watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open

You can watch the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, June 1: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Friday, June 2: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Saturday, June 3: 5-8 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock
  • Sunday, June 4: 4:30-5 p.m. ET (streaming only on Peacock); 5-7:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel and Peacock

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Who’s playing in the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open?

The 120-player field features seven of the top 10 players (and 16 of the top 25 player) on the Rolex Rankings:

  • No. 1 Jin Young Ko
  • No. 3 Lydia Ko
  • No. 4 Lilia Vu
  • No. 5 Minjee Lee
  • No. 6 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 8 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 9 Georgia Hall

Also in the field are 2023 winners Celine Boutier (LPGA Drive On Championship), Ruoning Yin (DIO Implant LA Open) and Grace Kim (LOTTE Championship), plus several sponsor exemptions including reigning NCAA individual champion Rose Zhang and her Stanford teammate Megha Ganne. Ganne, a native of Holmdel, N.J., finished T-21 at the recent NCAAs and is playing as an amateur. Joining them as an exemption is fellow Cardinal Mariah Stackhouse, who has conditional status on tour in 2023. Monday qualifiers include tour rookie Alexa Pano and Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith.

Among the notable juniors expected to play are 2022 Augusta National Women’s Amateur winner Anna Davis, 2022 U.S. Girls’ Junior winner Yana Wilson and 2022 U.S. Junior Girls’ runnerup Gianna Clemente. The 24 junior players were invited through their standings in the Rolex AJGA Rankings.

What’s the format for the Mizuho Americas Open?

The professionals will play a 72-hole stroke-play competition, with a cut to the top 50 and ties after 36 holes. The 24 juniors will play a 72-hole, no-cut competition using the modified Stableford scoring format and a different yardage than the pros.

During the first two rounds, the AJGA players will all be paired together. During the final two rounds, one junior player will play with two LPGA pros with groupings based on scores. This unique format marks the first time the AJGA and LPGA have partnered to showcase junior and professional competitors playing together.

Stableford scoring refresher: “Stableford” is a scoring system that awards points for the number of strokes taken on each hole in relation to par, rather than simply counting strokes like in stroke play. Unlike in stroke play, where players want the lowest score, the goal in Stableford scoring is to have the highest score. Standard Stableford points values are:

  • 0 Points – Double bogey or worse (two strokes or more over par)
  • 1 Point – Bogey (one stroke over par)
  • 2 Points – Par
  • 3 Points – Birdie (one stroke under par)
  • 4 Points – Eagle (two strokes under par)
  • 5 Points – Albatross or double eagle (three strokes under par)
  • 6 Points – Condor (four strokes under par)

More about Liberty National Golf Club

Located on the shore of the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, Liberty National Golf Club was designed by Bob Cupp and Tom Kite and officially opened on July 4, 2006. After the course received mixed reviews following the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust in 2009, the course underwent a renovation led by Steve Wenzloff of PGA Tour Design Services. Of note, the course hosted an event during the PGA Tour Playoffs four times (2009, 2013, 2019 and 2021) as well as the 2017 Presidents Cup, where the U.S. defeated the Internationals 19-11 for the Americans’ seventh consecutive victory in the competition and its 10th straight win overall. For this week’s event, the course will play to a par of 72 with an unofficial scorecard yardage of 6,671 yards.

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