JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Gunn Yang and Corey Conners meet today at Atlanta Athletic Club for the U.S. Amateur championship – and the biggest thing at stake is just a trophy.
The real pressure of the U.S. Amateur came in Saturday’s semifinals, when lifelong dreams get realized or dashed.
With their 1-up semifinal victories, Yang and Conners won the right to play in the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National and U.S. Open at Chambers Bay regardless of what happens in today’s 36-hole match. Their vanquished opponents – Fred Wedel and Denny McCarthy – leave Georgia with bronze consolation medals and regret.
“It stings,” said Wedel, a 19-year-old junior at Pepperdine ranked the 619th amateur in the world. “I was one hole away from playing in the Masters and U.S. Open. Obviously those are things you dream about from a young age. Just that it was so close ... if I’d lost in the round of 16 or the quarters, it wouldn’t sting as much. It hurts.”
Yang, conversely, was walking on air after blowing a 1-up lead with a water ball on the 18th hole only to sink a 5-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole to win and unleash a Tiger-like roar.
“It’s just a dream come true right here,” the 776th-ranked amateur from South Korea said. “It was always my dream to play with all the top players in the world in any type of PGA event. But the Masters ... this is amazing.”
This is the power and the cruelty of a match-play semifinal with more at stake than any other non-championship sports event in the world. These young men can’t just go through an open qualifier to get to Augusta. So the strain is considerable and the thought of the available rewards never strays too far from their minds the deeper they get into the match play bracket.
“Yeah, it adds a lot more pressure,” Wedel said. “Definitely I think that while you’re out there, it’s in the back of your mind. ... I was aware of what was going on, but at the end of the day, I mean, it’s golf, and if I’m not going to be able to live up to that pressure, then I don’t belong.”
Yang felt it as well, especially when he had to wait for just a few seconds on the 11th tee a hole down in the match to Wedel.
“Into my round it popped up all of the sudden a couple of times,” Yang said. “I wasn’t trying to play mind games, it’s just human nature I guess.”
McCarthy said those outside demons are for the moments off the course and not on it.
“When you’re playing your match, you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, if I win this hole I can probably get one step closer to playing at Augusta,’” he said. “I mean, obviously it’s crossed my mind at some point previously to the round, but no, not during the round today.”
Perhaps nobody understood the stakes Saturday more than Conners. A semifinalist last year at Brookline, he lost to eventual winner Matthew Fitzpatrick and had to watch the happenings at Augusta and Pinehurst from home.
“Definitely being so close last year, it did sting quite a bit,” Conners said. “I still tried to keep my head up and be proud of making it to the semis. Quite an accomplishment in itself. But it did sting a little bit, so there was a little more motivation this year, I guess. I knew what it felt like. Just tried to bear down and do my thing out there.”
The pressure was on display down the stretch Saturday in both semifinal matches. Wedel missed a 3-footer for par on the 17th after making a spectacular chip from atop a rock wall with half his feet suspended over the water.
Then Yang thinned a 5-iron out of a fairway bunker into the water fronting the 18th green, letting Wedel square the match with a 5-iron from the same bunker to 8 feet for a conceded eagle and extra holes.
In the match behind, Conners’ steady driver escaped him with a pull into the water, but he salvaged par to retain his 1-up lead.
For Saturday’s losers, it was a disappointment they’ll have to force down as they reset their goals.
“I can’t control anything about it now,” McCarthy said. “It’s done and over with so I’m just going to move on and hopefully be at one of those events in the near future.”
For the winners, it was already a dream realized. Both Conners and Yang want to win Sunday’s final and put their name on the trophy won by the likes of Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. But for the rest of Saturday, they could exhale a little bit and start thinking ahead to practice rounds at Augusta National in the coming months and a guaranteed spot in April in the Crow’s Nest and place in the Masters.
For Conners, his dreams include a round with Mike Weir, his inspiration when he got into golf as an 11-year-old while Weir was winning the 2003 Masters.
“I was telling somebody yesterday I remember watching it on TV,” he said of Weir’s victory. “He had a 6-foot putt to get into a playoff on the 18th hole, and I had to leave the living room and go into another room I was so nervous and excited for him. I heard some fans cheering on the TV or my dad clapping and I came back and saw that he made it, and I was pretty excited. Yeah, that was kind of when I was getting into some competitive golf, and I really looked up to Mike. Yeah, it would be cool to maybe play a game with him.”
Yang can’t wait to see the 13th hole that captured his attention as a 12-year-old watching it for the first time. Now only eight years later and against odds he’ll be invited to play Azalea himself when it’s in full bloom.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I thought I could come to this match play, but I never thought I could come to this far. I’m just really looking forward to getting an invitation to the Masters and other great events.
“I’m already dreaming just imaging how it’s going to be like.”
Patrick Reed returns to Greensboro, N.C., this week, where a shot out of the weeds last August launched a meteoric career trajectory.
As 12-month windows go, few in golf other than Rory McIlroy could match Reed’s for overall value. It would be fair to say his last year ranks “top five.”
There were three victories – including a World Golf Championship event – starting in Greensboro. There was the birth of his first daughter in May. There was his first spin in all four major championships.
Then, to crown it all off, there was confirmation of his qualification onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“It’s amazing,” Reed said of all the things that have come his way since making a birdie from a bed of ivy vines at the Wyndham Championship to beat Jordan Spieth in a playoff. “A lot has happened in a year – really two years ago from Monday qualifying to winning my first tournament here last year. It’s happened pretty fast.”
It has certainly been an eventful ride to the top tier in golf – where Reed famously stated he belongs among the top five in the world after his wire-to-wire victory over an elite WGC field at Doral. He currently ranks 26th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Reed is among the top Americans, as his inclusion on the Ryder Cup team verified. He hung onto the ninth and final automatic spot by a narrow margin over Zach Johnson – though the 2007 Masters Tournament winner gets in because Dustin Johnson is taking a leave of absence from golf and will not participate.
“I just found out right after the PGA that I made the team, so I haven’t had a lot of time to process it and think that far ahead,” he said of the marquee international team matches Sept. 26-28 at Gleneagles in Scotland. “I’m just excited to be a part of it and get a chance to represent my country.”
Reed is the third former Augusta State golfer to qualify to play in the past five Ryder Cups, following Vaughn Taylor for the American side in 2006 and Oliver Wilson for the European team in 2008. It’s a remarkable streak for a relatively small college, tied with perennial power Oklahoma State for placing the most different players in that same span.
“That’s pretty cool, I didn’t know about that,” Reed said. “It just shows that if you work hard it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
Before his victory at Sedgefield Country Club last year, the Ryder Cup wasn’t even a remote possibility for the guy who turned 24 before last week’s PGA Championship.
“When you get out here there are two things you dream about – playing in the major championships and playing for the Ryder Cup,” Reed said. “I can’t believe in only two years on the PGA Tour I’ve already managed to achieve both. It’s very exciting.”
He’ll join 21-year-old Spieth and fellow three-time tour winner this season, Jimmy Walker, as rookies on the U.S. team. Tom Watson has three captain’s picks to hand out and could consider another rookie, but it’s fair to say the Americans will be decided underdogs in Scotland regardless.
That’s fine with Reed, who relished that role in compiling a perfect 6-0 match-play record in back-to-back NCAA title runs for the Jaguars in 2010-11.
“I was an underdog two years in a row in the NCAA championships and handled that,” Reed said. “I like being the underdog. There really are no underdogs at this level. Everybody on both teams are great players.”
Reed certainly brings a dogged tenacity to the American side. He has a flair for getting under his peers’ skins, as the reaction to his “top five” remarks illustrated. But he also has a knack for winning head-to-head matches as his NCAA record and a semifinal run in the 2008 U.S. Amateur attests.
What does he hope to offer the U.S. side?
“Really, just points,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about is getting points for the team and hopefully I can bring that and help fire our team up.”
Reed doesn’t believe the pressure of the partisan atmosphere will be anything he can’t handle. He believes he’s dealt with enough pressure to be ready for the unique environment.
“I know there will be some nerves – that’s going to happen,” he said. “But more than nerves it’s going to be excitement. I’m excited to get out there and play for my country and see what it’s like.
“One of the most stressful things I’ve ever played was our first Monday qualifier, and the second most stressful thing I’ve ever played was Q School. So playing in both of those, once I got to the PGA Tour event … to me that almost seemed like a breeze compared to 100 something golfers, four spots, 18 holes and a golf course you really haven’t ever seen before and you have to go out and play.”
He admits that the stress of trying to cling to a Ryder Cup berth got to him at the PGA, where he shot 73 on Sunday and tied for 59th as he kept an eye on Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Ryan Palmer on the scoreboards.
“I was so focused on what Zach was doing and what all these other guys were doing on that final round that I wasn’t able to play golf,” he said. “You know, it’s definitely a learning experience, and I’ll definitely learn from that.”
For now, Reed returns to his tour comfort zone in a place where he held off Spieth in a playoff.
“It really jump-started my career, that’s for sure,” he said of his maiden victory. “Playing really well here, and actually being able to cap it off and win, it led to me being able to play very well for almost a full year in a row and hopefully that will continue.”
Finally, a show worthy of a major.
After a string of relative duds this season, an all-star cast conspired to make the PGA Championship a classic until the very last shot in the dark.
Rory McIlroy confirmed his standing as golf’s new “it” guy, joining Young Tom Morris, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones as the only golfers in history to win four majors before they turned 26. Yeah, that classifies as “Hall of Fame” even without the constant reminders by The Script in those Omega watch commercials.
McIlroy’s third consecutive win in three starts was his most brilliant yet, rallying against some heavyweight challengers after a slow start with an eagle on 10 and a couple of fist-pumping birdies on 13 and 17 to ice it.
The ending was surreal – if a little unbecoming of a major. Despite desperately needing eagles on the reachable par-5 18th to catch McIlroy, both Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler agreed to let the leader tee off immediately after they did to allow the chance to finish before complete darkness. It was a classy show of sportsmanship under tense circumstances.
But while Mickelson and Fowler wanted to finish while there was still barely enough light to read the green, the PGA usurped their etiquette rights and made them wait for McIlroy to hit his approach to the green as well. It clearly rattled both players, whose best hope was to make eagle or hope McIlroy made a mistake trying to hurry to beat the darkness.
Mickelson barely missed his eagle chip, Fowler three-putted and McIlroy saved par out of the bunker to win by one. It might have ended up that way anyway, but it wasn’t the PGA’s right to intervene (especially after creating the issue anyway by stubbornly adhering to a late start for TV despite forecasted bad weather that led to a delay).
No arguing the results. The prime-time showdown drove ratings up 36 percent from last year and confirmed golf’s newest megastar.
For those not fortunate enough to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy, a subjective recap:
BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. An absolutely brilliant major season brought a T3 to go with his T5 at the Masters Tournament and runner-ups at the U.S. and British Opens. He said this one “hurt the most” as he couldn’t muster another birdie after being tied for the lead through 10 holes. But safe to say Fowler is a rivalry force in golf’s new hierarchy.
BIRDIE: Phil Mickelson. After a season mostly to forget, Lefty provided an unforgettable bid for a sixth career major. Only a bit of bad luck on 16 – when his pitch hit the hole but rolled 10 feet by – prevented him from beating the new king.
BOGEY: Bubba Watson. It was a rough week for the green-jacketed one. He staged a petty protest of the non-invasive long drive competition, he grumbled about rain on his clubface in the second round and dropped Tiger Woods’ favorite profanity into microphones and ended up having to apologize to his fans on Twitter. Distraction seems to be his enemy of late.
BIRDIE: This is 44. It’s not all about the kids. Not only was 44-year-old Phil a welcome threat, age mates Ernie Els and Jim Furyk represented the old guard well. Els charged into contention with six birdies in 11 holes Sunday before leveling off while Furyk posted his second consecutive top-5 major finish to go with his 14th at Masters, 12th at U.S. Open and runner-up at Players.
BOGEY: Tiger Woods. After turning up on the tournament’s eve like a rock star and declaring himself fit enough to play after withdrawing the Sunday before, Woods struggled and missed the cut like a mortal again. Fans shouldn’t see him on TV again until 2015.
BIRDIE: Jason Day. After all the health issues this summer including his thumb and vertigo, Day’s T15 was impressive. Especially his bare-footed par save from a creek bed in the lead group on Saturday.
BOGEY: Past PGA champs. Only three former PGA champions made the cut – McIlroy, Mickelson and Vijay Singh. Eleven others withdrew or missed the cut, including reigning U.S. Open champ Martin Kaymer, Keegan Bradley, Padraig Harrington and Tiger.
BIRDIE: Augusta State. Patrick Reed becomes the third former Jaguar to qualify to play in the last five Ryder Cups, following Vaughn Taylor (2006) and Oliver Wilson (2008). Only one other college (Oklahoma State) has placed as many different players in the biennial competition during that same span. Impressive.
BOGEY: Jason Dufner. It was tough to see the defending champion walk off the course with a neck injury after making triple on the 10th hole. The exit cost Dufner an automatic berth in the Ryder Cup, though he might not be healthy enough to play anyway.
BIRDIE: Steve Stricker. Accepts an assistant captain role in Ryder Cup and subsequently goes out and finishes seventh. Perhaps he should play a bigger role than driving the cart.
BOGEY: Tom Watson. Missing the cut was the least of his worries as his Ryder Cup team looks overmatched and perhaps without staples Matt Kuchar (back), Dufner (neck), Woods (bad) and Dustin Johnson (leave of absence). Good luck captain.
BIRDIE: Bernd Wiesberger. The Austrian you might not have heard of before this week earned a tee time with McIlroy in the final pairing. It didn’t work out, but it’s a good experience.
BOGEY: Bulldogs bubble boys. Brendon Todd, Chris Kirk and Harris English were all trying to impress Tom Watson for Ryder Cup consideration. Kirk and English missed the cut while Todd faded to 73rd after a fast start.
BIRDIE: Mikko Ilonen. Finn one of only three players to post four rounds in the 60s (McIlroy and Stricker the others).
BOGEY: Henrik Stenson. This may be rough on a guy who finished third, but you can’t three-putt from 20 feet on 14 while sharing lead or hit 3-wood on 18 when you need an eagle.
BIRDIE: Louisville. Fans flocked to the course in spite of heat and rain and made it a major event even before the fireworks.
BOGEY: PGA of America. Decision to play ball down all week on a saturated course was stubborn, with mud balls having a clear impact on the outcome. Even worse was not being willing to move tee times forward just a little Sunday to avoid the rush to beat darkness that ultimately ensued.
BIRDIE: Valhalla. It hardly qualifies to be in the same company as Augusta National or Pinehurst architecturally, but the Jack Nicklaus course has a knack for bringing out drama and Hall of Fame champions (Mark Brooks notwithstanding).
BIRDIE: Masters. Not only will Rory be trying to complete his career slam, he now will seek the third consecutive leg of his own major slam. Like 2001 with Tiger, people will be talking about Masters for next 240 days and the hype will be immense.
College sports as we’ve known it underwent a pretty massive upheaval this week.
To be honest, it’s hard to figure out whether this is the beginning of something extraordinary or the end of something great.
The only thing that seems certain is it’s irreversible.
As Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford put it recently, “The good ship status quo has sailed.”
Two major decisions ensured the hypocrisy of the amateur athlete-students at the biggest collegiate sports factories is over.
On Thursday, the NCAA approved “autonomy” for the five largest revenue-producing conferences to regulate their own set of rules – paving the way for potential player benefits including stipends, full cost of attendance, enhanced insurance and family postseason travel expenses.
On Friday, a federal judge ruled that athlete-students in football and basketball have a right to be compensated up to $5,000 a year beyond just scholarships for the use of their likenesses in television and video games.
So in the coming years, star football and basketball players could not only be receiving up to $5,000 per year in cost-of-living stipends but could net a $20,000 payday upon graduation from a revenue-sharing trust fund.
Now you can see where all those massive TV contracts will be applied. The cost of doing business at the major-college level just got a lot more expensive.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These athletes put in a lot of hard work so that their schools and coaches can profit handsomely on the backs of their effort. They should be entitled to some reasonable piece of the benefits.
“I think this is a great day for the student-athletes,” Georgia director of athletics Greg McGarity told a radio station after the autonomy approval. “It allows them to basically be able to take advantage of some of the wealth that we’ve been able to generate through the SEC Network and all the tremendous things the conference office has done to drive revenue to the institutions.”
How much this all fundamentally changes the collegiate sports landscape is uncertain. The haves and have-nots will still exist as always – only the haves will have a little more. The have-nots will find it even tougher to compete.
Thursday’s approval of “autonomy” for the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences makes sense, the “Big Five” aren’t like the other 27 collegiate athletic conferences in the country. It’s farcical to try to apply the same style of governance on Georgia as you would Savannah State. We’re not even talking apples vs. oranges; we’re talking Jupiter vs. its moons.
But it’s not as simple as that, of course. Within each of the big conferences the differences in institutions can be substantial. Georgia Tech doesn’t have the same financial well to draw from as Clemson or Georgia. And for all the Jupiters like Alabama, Ohio State and Texas there are plenty of dwarf-planet Plutos like Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and Purdue.
These are issues that the Big Five will have to resolve on their own, and that might mean annexing a few more satellites from the lesser conferences to help the bottom line.
The cost of all this on the fan experience is the biggest concern – and not just at the ticket counter.
The Big Five is largely a football construct. The best recruits in the nation are already almost entirely swept up by these power conferences. That won’t change.
But what about the way football schedules are constructed? According to an ESPN poll, the majority of coaches in the major conferences are in favor of scheduling only against other Big Five opponents. That would eliminate prominent non-conference opponents like Boise State, Brigham Young, Central Florida and Cincinnati who got left standing when the expansion music stopped.
Count South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier among those not in favor of a closed football shop.
“The Big Five conferences all playing each other, I don’t think that makes a lot of sense, really,” Spurrier said this week. “Out of conference, playing East Carolina is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams. ... The SEC, we have some down-the-line teams just like every conference.”
There isn’t anything wrong with having a non-conference regional foe on the calendar. In the new collegiate order, Georgia Southern will need the payday from a Georgia game more than ever to survive financially.
Of greater concern is what this might all mean to college basketball and its cash cow NCAA Tournament. What the Big Five choose to do will have immense trickle-down effects the other more than 200 Division I programs trying to stay competitive. The beauty of March Madness is the general balance between the Davids and Goliaths. But if the Goliaths get too “autonomous,” the whole system might collapse.
The Big Five leaders assure us that won’t happen.
“It largely gives the power five conferences what we have been asking for and keeps the current revenue sharing approach and the NCAA basketball tournament intact, thus keeping us all under what we call the big tent of the NCAA,” Swofford said.
If only it were that simple. These are seismic shifts that are taking place. Like climate change predictions, we’re not entirely certain how immediate or dramatic the effects might be.
But we can be certain there’s no turning back from whatever this new future holds. You can see a horizon where the Big Five’s need to make more money to cover everything results in a bigger wedge between them and the rest.
“I hope there’s not another next step of separation where those 65 schools go off on themselves,” Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said this week. “Because if they do, that would be a sad day for intercollegiate athletics.”
Partially by design and partially by circumstance, Charles Howell believes he’s never been more rested and prepared to take on his lone major opportunity of the season.
Coming off a three-week break that unfortunately included declining an invitation to the British Open, Howell heads into today’s first round of the PGA Championship excited about the possibilities ahead in both the next four days and six weeks.
“A lot of times by this time of the year I’m a little bit tired and a little bit ready for the season to wrap up,” said the 35-year-old Augusta native. “But I’ve had three weeks off, which I’ve never had in a season. I’m actually really excited to play again after plenty of time to work on my game and rest.”
Howell had to skip a late invitation to play at Hoylake citing personal reasons that he declined to elaborate.
“It was just something with the family that I needed to be home and address,” he said. “Turned out it wasn’t a big deal in the end, but I just needed to be home. I hated to miss it because it was the British Open and I’ve played quite a few of them.
“Everything worked out well and my mind is clear and I’m just excited to play again. ... Unfortunately in life some things take a little precedence over golf, but I’m excited to be back.”
Howell believes the extra week added to his planned two-week break turned out to be a blessing in disguise with the upcoming PGA Tour playoff series that doesn’t have a built-in week off this season because of the Ryder Cup. Howell plans to play at least the next five consecutive weeks and hopefully six if he’s one of the top 30 players to qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake.
Howell was 24th in the FedEx Cup standings after finishing tied for 23rd in his last start at the John Deere Classic. But the three-week break cost him in the standings as he slipped to 31st entering the PGA – sitting on a bubble.
Last year he entered the playoff series 27th in points but failed to finish better than 33rd in three playoff events and missed qualifying for the Tour Championship by five spots. The untimely rut cost him an automatic spot in all four majors this year. The PGA will be his only major for the second consecutive season.
“I’m more rested now and my game is in better shape than it was at this time last year, so hopefully I can use that to my advantage and play well enough to get inside the top 30,” Howell said. “I frankly don’t care if I’m fifth or 30th, just as long as I make it in the top 30. To make it to Atlanta would mean more to me than however I were to do in Atlanta simply because that would get me back in the Masters. And I’d obviously love nothing more than to get back into that tournament.”
Before focusing on that goal, Howell is keen to reverse a different trend in major championships. Valhalla marks his 39th career major appearance and his 14th consecutive PGA start. What limited success he’s had in those majors has typically come in the PGA, including his lone career top-10 finish when he was 10th at Oak Hill in 2003. But he’s missed his past two cuts in the PGA.
Howell believes he’s taken steps with his swing coach, Grant Waite, to address his shortcomings on major stages.
“Historically I don’t think I’ve played as well in the majors because I haven’t driven the ball well enough for four days in a row,” he said. “It’s hard to play out of the rough in majors and it’s an area of my game that Grant and I have spent a ton of time on and it’s improving statistically. So that’s one of the things I’m excited about.”
Valhalla is a big course that isn’t too tight – features that tend to suit Howell’s game. Though he’s never played there before this week, he likes what he’s seen.
“My goal is to enter play on Sunday somewhere inside the top 10 to 12 and see what happens,” he said. “If you’re in 10th or better on Sunday you’ve got a heckuva chance.”
At 35, Howell’s play is more consistent than ever as his nearly $28 million in career earnings reflect (24th all time). He’s posted six top-10 finishes this PGA Tour season and missed only one cut (the Players) since prior to the Masters.
But at an age where some of his heralded classmates such as Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia have become the game’s elite, Howell still languishes in that no-man’s realm between 50th and 100th in the world (currently 80th) where he’s resided full-time since the middle of 2011.
“I’m at that age where my peers are either – A – losing their card or – B – having a breakthrough in their career,” Howell said. “They’re kind of breaking through one way or the other – up or down. This is a funny part. We all have families now. Every decision doesn’t revolve around golf anymore. I’m really cognizant and aware of that. I’m trying to work and bust my tail because I know, hey, I’m 35 and not 21 anymore and I’m trying to get as much out of it as I can.
“I’m definitely the most consistent that I’ve ever been. With that said, I’d still like to kind of turn the corner where I win a tournament once a year or fairly consistently because ultimately that’s what you get remembered by and that’s what the most important thing is.”
This week could go a long way in changing the conversation about Howell and getting him back into that top-50 status that’s long been expected of him.
“When I ultimately get myself back inside the top 50, it really makes it a lot easier to plan a schedule and play in the bigger events and all the things you need to do to keep the world ranking up there. I still need to turn that corner.”
Perhaps the PGA will provide the fresh restart he’s been waiting for.
There’s a new narrative that Rory McIlroy has overtaken Tiger Woods as golf’s most dominant player – and the facts support it.
Declarations of the “McIlroy Era” began after he breezed to a British Open victory three weeks ago to capture his third leg of the career slam. The changing-of-the-guard theme got an even larger boost of momentum on the eve of the season’s final major championship.
McIlroy, 25, backed up his wire-to-wire performance at Hoylake with a comeback victory over Sergio Garcia at the WGC-Bridgestone event at Firestone. The consecutive wins vaulted McIlroy back to the No. 1 ranking in the world leading into this week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla.
“I’m not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era, but I’m just really happy with where my golf game is at the minute, and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible,” McIlroy said Tuesday during a news conference.
Meanwhile, Woods withdrew during Sunday’s final round in Akron, Ohio, with yet another back injury that is proving epidemic in his diminishing quest to establish himself in the official record books as the greatest golfer of all time.
Woods is 38 with a body seemingly going on 60. It’s not a reach to draw the conclusion that he will never again be the same player he once was – or even close to it with another injury seemingly looming with every awkward lie.
Woods hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to even attempt to tee it up this week at Valhalla, where he won a memorable duel with Bob May in 2000 to capture the third leg of his Tiger Slam. Considering the way he was chopping the ball around Firestone on Sunday before walking off the course after nine holes, why should he even bother? He’s shown no sign that his game is good enough to beat McIlroy and Co. this week or qualify for the PGA Tour’s playoffs or be worthy of captain’s pick consideration for the Ryder Cup.
The best thing for Woods and golf might be to shut it down and try to get healthy and ready before next year’s Masters Tournament in April.
Sunday’s scene at Firestone was eerily similar to March when he pulled out of the Honda Classic halfway through the final round. Woods played the next week at Doral, but then ended up undergoing back surgery that kept him sidelined until June.
Whether he came back too soon and reinjured himself or suffered some new ailment isn’t yet known. One way or another, this might be the new normal for him and he’ll either have to suck it up and play through pain the way Fred Couples did, or be prepared to be a part-time golfer in between the bad days.
The void Woods leaves has been filled by McIlroy.
He’s certainly on a Tiger-like roll, with three significant wins since the end of May when he rallied to claim the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth.
He’s the first player since Woods in 2006 to follow a major championship win with a victory. If he wins a third consecutive PGA Tour start this week at Valhalla, he’d be the first to do so since Woods won five in a row bridging the 2007-08 seasons.
“I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it’s just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be – which is near the top of the world rankings and competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.”
It’s perhaps time to accept that golf has indeed entered a new era. Woods is playing older than the date on his driver’s license and Phil Mickelson is dealing with the inevitabilities of aging as well. There are plenty of worthy characters in their prime such as Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Garcia and a new order of 20-somethings led by McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and aspiring major artists Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Jordan Spieth. If he gets his act together and gets out of the doghouse, Dustin Johnson could still figure prominently in this new era.
Tiger might not be done winning tournaments or even majors. But he’s not THE person to beat anymore. That role firmly belongs to McIlroy now, even if he isn’t buying into it.
“People can say what they want to say, that’s fine,” McIlroy said. “But I can’t read too much into it. … Because if you read everything that was being written, I’d turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament.”
Perhaps golf isn’t ready to concede him that yet, but he’s getting closer than anyone since Woods to that pedestal. And when the Masters rolls around next spring, McIlroy – not Woods – will be THE story as he tries to complete his career slam quest.
LINCOLNTON, Ga. — Larry Campbell first found out about Friday’s “surprise” from an innocent source.
“What are they doing at the field?” asked his 9-year-old grandson, Campbell.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the retired football coach said.
“They’ve got a ‘Larry Campbell Stadium’ across it,” the boy said.
So it wasn’t the grand unveiling in front of Georgia’s governor, other dignitaries and a packed bleacher that the officials of Lincoln County planned as a surprise honor for the winningest football coach in state history. But it was perfect nonetheless.
“His grandmother could’ve killed him,” Campbell said of his grandson who sweetly spoiled a surprise that was never going to happen anyway. Keeping a secret in a small town like Lincolnton is harder than it was beating Campbell’s Red Devils for most of the past 44 years.
But it’s not the surprise that matters. It’s the effort, thought and heart that was behind the honor that Lincoln County bestowed upon a man who has meant so much to their community for several generations. Football is the most uniting element in this small town and been a part of so many of their lives.
“I just thought there’d be maybe a hundred people here,” Campbell admitted. “It blew my mind, it really did. Whoever put it together did a fantastic job.”
The most touching part of a ceremony that included speeches from Gov. Nathan Deal, former Georgia coach Ray Goff, Red Devils legend Garrison Hearst and others was when all of the coaches and players who have ever worked with or played for Campbell filed from the stands onto the field to stand behind their “Coach.”
The stadium bears Campbell’s name now, but it’s all those other people who share the legacy that’s remembered. That’s why putting that named who linked so many people together atop the home stands is so important.
“I know this may sound like I don’t appreciate it, but naming the stadium for me was not my top priority,” Campbell said. “Working with kids and getting them to college and trying to make them better people was my goal.”
Mission accomplished. Lincoln County should be commended for remembering the people who helped raise their kids. The field where Friday night’s ceremony took place is named for Buddy Bufford, the coach who brought Lincolnton its first state championship in 1960. The fieldhouse where the players dress and hear devotional and listen to coaches is named after Thomas Bunch, who won two more state titles. These were the men who preceded Campbell and led generations of Red Devils going back to 1957.
Lincoln County wasted no time in doing the right thing barely more than three months after Campbell announced his retirement. We’re still waiting for neighboring Thomson to do right by one of its own.
Luther Welsh won 323 games in a coaching career that spanned 55 years – a figure that ranked fifth all-time when he retired. Of those wins, 183 of them came in 19 seasons during two stints at Thomson – more than 30 percent of the schools’ 606 documented victories. In sickness and in health – including cancer treatments – Welsh never missed a day of work devoting his life to those Bulldogs, who collected three of the schools five state championships and 11 region titles under his watch.
Welsh died just seven months after coaching his final game for the Bulldogs in the 2010 playoffs. Four years later, Thomson is past due honoring the man who mentored generations of Bulldogs.
“Amen,” said Campbell of one of his dearest coaching friends. “I think it will come. I think this will put the pressure on them, I hope. Because Luther Welsh was every bit the football coach I was – 10 times better. He did a lot for Thomson two different times. What would it hurt?”
Most of the right folks in Thomson agree. Longtime Bulldogs assistant coach John Barnett has been lobbying for years to get officials in McDuffie County to name it Luther Welsh Field at the Brickyard. Barnett says Welsh’s successor, Milan Turner, was all for it and that the newest Bulldogs head coach, Rob Ridings, endorses it as well.
“To me it’s a no-brainer,” Barnett said. “I know there are a lot people for it. It’s past time for that to have been done.”
In a way, Welsh’s death – as well as his wife’s just days before his passing – so soon after retiring complicated the process. There was no living legend there to honor with a ceremony like the one for Campbell. Officials perhaps didn’t want it to seem like an emotional decision.
But as the events in Lincolnton showed, the honor is for more than just one man. It’s a legacy that’s being remembered – a legacy shared by every player who ever wore the uniform and learned valuable life lessons from being part of a team under a skillful coach.
Thomson is supposedly considering a wall of honor at the Brickyard, which is a terrific idea.
Local legend Ray Guy’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame illustrates the value of a shared history.
Barnett, who just completed a 340-page book on the history of Thomson football entitled Ghosts of the Brickyard, knows how much it means to the community and how Welsh needs to be more than just another bust on a brick wall. His name on the field will be a permanent connection for future generations to share with the past.
“How many schools have named a field or stadium after a coach who can’t come close to what Luther Welsh did here at Thomson?” Barnett asked. “Anything less than naming the field after coach Welsh is inadequate.”
Thomson should name it’s field for Welsh and it’s fieldhouse in the multi-million dollar renovation for L.C. “Flash” Gordon, who won 100 games at Thomson coach from 1941-56. As Lincoln County proves, there is room to share honor for those who deserve it.
Barnett is certain Welsh would be like Campbell and never lobby for his name to be on a stadium.
That’s not why he devoted all those years raising other people’s kids as a coach and director of athletics.
“He was the last person in the world who thought the field should have been named after him,” Barnett said.
But that’s what makes the recognition so worthy. It’s not too late for Thomson to do the right thing even if Welsh isn’t there to share the celebration.
“It won’t mean as much to him because he’s dead,” Campbell said. “I’m really happy they did it while I was still kicking and able to enjoy it.”
Naming a piece of the Brickyard won’t bring Welsh back, but it will keep his legacy alive. In communities like Thomson and Lincolnton, the importance of those legacies can’t be overstated.
The old Hollywood western cliche of galloping into the sunset would seem a most apt description of Aiken horseman Cot Campbell.
At 86 years old, with more than half his life in the horse business, Campbell is on quite a ride with a thoroughbred that’s proving to be once-in-a-lifetime.
“It is wonderful,” Campbell said. “Most guys my age are sitting around taking it easy and I’m managing the campaign of the No. 1 horse in America at the moment and it is terribly exciting and stimulating. And that’s precisely why I do it.”
Palace Malice, the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner for Aiken’s Dogwood Stable, will put his perfect four-for-four 4-year-old record on the line Saturday in the Whitney Handicap. The $1.5 million race for older horses is the richest purse in the history of Saratoga Race Course and features a quality nine-horse field, including last year’s 3-year-old champion, Will Take Charge.
Palace Malice, however, is the even-odds favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race. He’s also the perceived front-runner – along with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome – in the race for Horse of the Year. A Las Vegas line has Palace Malice and California Chrome as 5-to-2 co-favorites for the top Eclipse Award. The two are expected to meet head-to-head in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1.
Campbell believes his horse has the chance to live up to the bloodlines of his two-time Horse of the Year sire, Curlin.
“I think he is the prime candidate at the moment,” Campbell said. “If California Chrome comes back to win a couple of races including the Breeders’ Cup and beats us, he’d be hell to beat. But otherwise, I think right now we’re in the catbird seat.”
All Palace Malice needs to do is keep on winning. That’s no sure thing at Saratoga, where he’s won twice in three starts but lost last year’s Travers Stakes after an awkward break from the post.
But the horse is itching to run for the first time since his charging win down the stretch in the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park on the one-year anniversary of his breakout win in the third leg of the Triple Crown series.
“The horse is doing great; everyone is talking about him,” Campbell said. “He’s like a fighter ready to fight. He’s bit two people and one person had to have a tetanus shot. He’s edgy and on his game and ready to run.”
He’ll need to be in a strong field that includes Departing, Itsmyluckyday, Romansh, Last Gunfighter and the speedy Moreno. Palace Malice drew the No. 5 post right in the middle while Will Take Charge got the undesirable rail.
“It’s a huge race,” said Todd Pletcher, Palace Malice’s trainer. “The horse is doing fantastic. He’s off to a great start this year, and we’re just hoping for more of the same from him. He’s been super consistent and impressive.”
Palace Malice has answered the call every time this season in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, New Orleans Handicap, Westchester Stakes and the Met Mile. After the Whitney, Campbell plans to run him again at Saratoga in the Woodward Stakes on Aug. 30, the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. All of them are in the horse’s ideal distance range of 1 1/8- to 1 1/4-mile.
“He does well everywhere and seems to adapt wherever he is,” Campbell said. “He’s been to seven racetracks and wherever he is suits him fine.”
That last venue, however, also is well suited for California Chrome, who has three wins in four starts on his home track including the Santa Anita Derby to start the year.
Campbell, as always, likes the challenge. The man who gave up alcohol 57 years ago and never graduated from grammar, high school or college got an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from USC Aiken in May to kick off what’s turned into a banner year.
“It means a lot to me,” he said of the accolades that have come his way. “I’ve had an interesting life. I’ve had a colorful life. I had a tumultuous life in the early days.”
While Campbell and Dogwood have had some quality champions of more than 80 graded stakes through the years, including 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall, Trippi, Impeachment and Limehouse, this horse is proving to be the most accomplished. His victories over both 1 and 1 ½ miles at Belmont Park make him an attractive candidate for the breeding shed when the time comes. Campbell said he’s been contacted by 10 farms already but he’s holding off retiring Palace Malice to stud.
“I would say we are racing people, but we don’t want to be stupid either,” Campbell said this week. “Many farms have called, and I’ve said we’ll wait until this fall. He could retire or go another year. We’ll have to figure it out as we go along. It’s a tough decision. We certainly don’t want to leave money on the table, but I think the horse has achieved a level of value he will always have.”
Campbell himself has come a long way from the guy who chipped in $300 with a couple of friends in the late ’60s to purchase his first horse. But the thrill of finding a special horse has never grown tiresome.
“Every time I find one I think they’re potentially going to be a nice horse,” he said. “I don’t count on it. But this horse from the very start acted like he could be something special. ... It was pretty clear he could be one of the good ones.”
If Palace Malice proves to be Campbell’s last great horse, so be it. But he’s not going to concede to the sunset yet.
“Somebody once said nobody’s ever committed suicide with an untried yearling in the barn,” Campbell said. “That pretty much describes the mindset of a horseman. We’ve got some nice 2-year-olds that I’m excited about.”
Fortunately for Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice, he didn’t kick his dog or shoot himself in the leg or he might have really drawn the ire of the league office.
Rice received only a two-game suspension (plus a three-game salary fine) from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his aggravated assault charge for knocking his fiancée unconscious. Video showed Rice dragging Janay Palmer (now his wife) from an elevator.
Goodell isn’t exactly sending a strong message that domestic abuse will not be tolerated.
The two-game suspension equals what Michael Vick ultimately received for his dog-fighting operation. Vick, however, also served 19 months in prison, so the two games on top of that was just an added bonus.
Of course none of it compares to how the league feels about abusing other NFL players – including yourself. Plaxico Burress was once suspended four games for accidentally shooting himself in the leg at a nightclub. Saints players (and a head coach) were suspended for a full season for participating or condoning a “bounty” program encouraging hard hits.
Cleveland receiver Josh Gordon is facing a full-season suspension for testing positive for marijuana, a third-time violation of the league’s substance-abuse policies.
“We believe that discipline we issued is appropriate,” said Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy, on a radio show. “It is multiple games and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think that’s fair to say that doesn’t reflect that you condone the behavior.”
It’s disheartening, however, how the NFL typically shrugs off domestic abuse. I’ve covered teams where players were ostracized for “quitting” on teammates and many have worried that having an openly gay player on a roster would be a “distraction” in the locker room.
But coaches, players and fans never seem to hold it against athletes who would willingly strike a woman. Rice was heartily cheered by Ravens fans during open training camp practices Tuesday. Clearly all that matters is what he does on the field and not off it.
This is a dark blemish on the league that will only improve when the commissioner starts treating it more seriously than relative wrist slaps.
UGA BASHING: It’s a popular preseason drill to criticize the Bulldogs for its seemingly inevitable off-season infractions that typically cost a player or two some early-season game eligibility. A particularly rough week in July caused Georgia to dismiss a defensive lineman for domestic battery charges and suspend linebacker Davin Bellamy for a couple of games for a DUI charge.
Surely South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is having a chuckle. Of course, the Gamecocks’ offensive lineman Na’Ty Rodgers would be automatically ineligible for two games at Georgia for his March underage drinking and disorderly conduct charges. In Columbia, however, he’s still fighting for the starting job in the opener against Texas A&M because the Gamecocks don’t follow the same mandatory punishment guidelines as Georgia.
The Bulldogs certainly had a tough off-season with several prominent players transferring to other major colleges after getting in the doghouse at Georgia. Critics like to jump on Mark Richt for “recruiting bad kids,” as if the players those recruits weren’t offered scholarships at other schools.
It might surprise people to know that 12 Southeastern Conference schools had players arrested since last season with violations as severe as sexual battery, aggravated robbery and residential burglary. Texas A&M led the way in the post-Johnny Manziel era with 10 criminal player incidents.
Congratulations to Vanderbilt and Arkansas for quiet off-seasons.
SLAM DUNK?: The bandwagon of predictors that Rory McIlroy is a lock to win a future Masters Tournament and complete his career grand slam is a crowded one. Some are convinced it will happen as soon as April and others are sure no later than 2016.
When you’ve won the other three majors by age 25 and all in convincing fashion, it’s a simple narrative to write out.
Of course, we were all pretty certain that Greg Norman would win a green jacket, and that sure-thing didn’t quite play out as ordained.
McIlroy obviously has a game that’s well-suited for Augusta National and has proven capable of contending there. But he’s also developed some significant Masters scar tissue since his famous 2011 meltdown – especially on the greens – and has yet to walk away from the season’s first major with four clean rounds.
Of the five men with career slams, only Gene Sarazen completed the cycle at Augusta. That was in 1935, when the Masters Tournament wasn’t even the Masters. Sarazen’s wins at the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA all came before Augusta National even existed as a golf course, so it’s safe to say he never fielded any questions about completing the “career slam” until about 25 years after he’d already done it. That tends to take the pressure off.
McIlroy, however, knew what would be in store for him next spring even before he prevailed at Hoylake.
“It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year,” he said with a laugh on the eve of his claret jug win.
The only comparable hype to what McIlroy will face when he comes to Augusta is 2001, when Tiger Woods completed his sweep of all four majors simultaneously under intense media scrutiny. McIlroy, however, won’t have the same deadline constraints over the next two decades. We’ll see.
LEG UP ON GUY: To get in the mood for Saturday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction of Ray Guy, the NFL Network will premiere a documentary on the former Thomson legend at 9 p.m. Thursday
The hour-long show, entitled The Specialist: Ray Guy, highlights his road to the Hall of Fame from Thomson through Southern Miss to the Raiders. Producers spent two days at The Brickyard in Thomson in June interviewing friends, former coaches and teammates of Guy for the show.
The documentary will be rebroadcast Friday and Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 8 p.m. on the NFL Network.
“Inevitable” is a strong word that rarely applies well in sports – at least not in any positive sense. Death, taxes and age sapping your skills are the only sure things even the greatest athletes can count on in life.
You can’t guarantee championships. The best teams don’t always win. Atlanta Braves fans are painfully aware of those things.
But for one solid decade from 1993-2002, you were absolutely, positively, 100-percent convinced every single time you turned on the “SuperStation” or trekked down to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium or Turner Field that you were going to see five can’t-miss, sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famers wearing Braves uniforms.
Even in an era when nothing about Baseball’s Hall of Fame is a lock, you could throw around the phrase “future Hall of Famer” with relative assurance that every one of those five guys would back it up first chance they got.
So today’s Phase I induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., was quite frankly inevitable starting the moments pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and manager Bobby Cox retired. First opportunity the voters had to choose, you could buy the bronze and start casting their likenesses.
Madduz got an absurdly low 97.2 percent of the ballots cast his way, Glavine got 91.9 and Cox was a unanimous choice from the 16-member veterans committee.
Phase II should come this time next year when John Smoltz rejoins his rotation mates, likely clearing the 75 percent threshold even with fellow first-timers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez in a crowded pitching lineup. Smoltz basically combined Dennis Eckersley’s career with Curt Schilling’s postseason luster.
Phase III should be completed in 2018 when Chipper Jones adds his bat to the lot. If 468 home runs, a National League MVP and batting title spanning a decade, eight All-Star selections and a clutch diet of Mets (but not steroids) when it mattered don’t get you past the bouncers, what can?
You have a hard time finding precedents for these Braves in the modern era post-World War II. The only previous class to include three guys who spent a good chunk of their careers on the same franchise was the second installment in 1937 when Cy Young, Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie took their Cleveland ties from different eras to the Hall of Fame.
The only pitching rotation to feature three Hall of Famers at the same time (other than the 1966 Dodgers with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton) were the Cleveland Indians of the early 1950s that boasted Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn together for eight seasons (with some spot starts and long relief from Hal Newhouser during their 111-win 1954 season).
But what Braves fans were privileged to witness on the mound year after year in the midst of 14 consecutive division championships was largely unprecedented. You can quibble over the insufficient number of championships (only one World Series win in 1995) for a team that won 101 or more games six times from 1993-2003, but you can’t argue with the quality of the effort and show they provided.
Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz collected six consecutive and seven of eight Cy Young Awards from 1991-98 (Maddux’s first in 1992 came in his last season with the Cubs) and Jones backed that run up with an NL MVP in 1999.
Each pitcher was mesmerizing in their own way – Maddux confounding hitters with cerebral application of various pitches from the same delivery; Glavine painting the outside edge of the plate with left-handed precision; Smoltz overpowering with his uber-competitiveness that segued perfectly into a closer’s role for a few year’s after Tommy John surgery.
For his part, Jones provided consistent excellence at the plate and Cox the steadiest leadership over a 162-game season than anyone in history.
It was a pleasure to watch them ply their crafts together for so long, even if they came up frustratingly short in the postseason too often.
It was an even greater pleasure to get to cover them. A baseball clubhouse can be a most intimidating environment, especially for someone parachuting in periodically.
Yet the greatest players of a generation were the least intimidating guys to deal with. Nine times out of every 10 Braves games I covered, the only guys I would talk to were Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Jones or Cox.
They were the most approachable, the most thoughtful, the most accommodating with the most to say. They’d not only give you the story on the field but fill in the blanks on the reporter’s notepad in the clubhouse. (It didn’t hurt that most of them didn’t mind talking golf with a guy from Augusta every now and then.)
So today’s induction ceremony is one of the great days in Braves history. If you want to count Joe Torre, who spent the first half of his 18-year playing career with the Braves and three seasons as Atlanta manager from 1982-84 including the city’s first consecutive winning seasons, it’s an even bigger day for the ‘A.’ Torre’s induction is mostly based on his 12-year managerial reign with the Yankees, but he wore the Braves uniform for just as long and well before he donned pinstripes.
Whether you’re watching at home, in Cooperstown or joining the celebration with fellow Braves fans at Turner Field, it’s a perfect day to reflect on just how lucky we were to watch these guys be great together for so long.
That we knew this day was coming years ago only makes it more special.
If you’re counting at home, it’s 36 days until the first Saturday of college football season.
If you’re counting at Clemson, it’s 127 days until the one Saturday that seems to matter most to the Tigers.
Since the end of the 2013 season, every position meeting room at Clemson has included a clock on the wall counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Nov. 29 when the Tigers play host to state rival South Carolina at Death Valley.
The biggest digits on each clock, however, are painted directly below the LED timer – 0-5.
To say the Gamecocks’ unprecedented five-game winning streak in the Palmetto State rivalry has gotten into the Tigers’ collective head would be an understatement.
“It’s a high priority,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s annual preseason media days. “We want to get it done.”
There might be bigger rivalries in college football – Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, Ohio State-Michigan, USC-UCLA – but it’s hard to beat the growing entertainment value of the Clemson-South Carolina animosity since Swinney and Steve Spurrier became the principle mouthpieces.
Spurrier is the master of the verbal jab and uses it with surgical precision. Swinney isn’t one to hold his tongue on the receiving end. They claim a mutual respect, but that doesn’t come across in their sound bites.
“I have great respect for coach Spurrier, but we’re just from different planets,” Swinney said. “He’s from Pluto, I’m from Mars.”
Spurrier’s response on ESPN: “Dabo probably thinks there’s only, what, nine planets out there. I think I read where Pluto may not be considered one now.”
Spurrier insists “it’s just a bunch of talking,” but all the talking certainly has ratcheted up an already intense dislike from boosters that derisively refer to each other as “Chickens” and “Taters.”
“The only thing I remind Dabo of is his comments three years ago of the real Carolina being in Chapel Hill and the real USC being in California,” Spurrier said in his visit to ESPN headquarters earlier this week. “Sometimes he forgets he throws some stuff out there also. He wants to make people believe that I’m the only one that throws a little stuff out there.”
Both of them started the talking countdown to 2014 at the conclusion on their respective bowl victories in January. After being presented the trophy at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Spurrier grabbed the microphone and cackled with almost maniacal glee while offering an un-instigated barb at the Tigers.
“These two Capital One Bowls in a row are pretty nice,” he shouted, “but that state championship ain’t bad either.”
Two days later Swinney offered a rebuttal from the Orange Bowl podium in Miami.
“We’re the first team from South Carolina to ever win a BCS bowl,” he said.
Spurrier, of course, had an answer for that this week.
“We’ve never even been to” a BCS bowl, Spurrier said. “I’ll admit to that, although we beat them about every year. They get there and we don’t. That’s just the way it is. The SEC can only send two teams and the ACC sends two. We’ve got too many good teams going.
“That’s just the way it’s worked out. He’s correct. But would you call the Orange Bowl a BCS bowl? They won the national championship there in 1981. I asked Danny (Ford), ‘Have they completely forgotten about you and your team in ’81?’ He said, ‘I think they have.’ ”
Swinney is operating from a distinctly disadvantaged position – which is not something Clemson coaches are accustomed to in this 118-year-old rivalry. He’s lost decisively in five consecutive games after winning his first shot against the Gamecocks while he still held the interim head coach tag. Even the Tigers’ unprecedented consecutive 11-win seasons is overshadowed by South Carolina’s record three in a row.
Last season South Carolina finished fourth in the final poll, Clemson eighth. The year before the Gamecocks were eighth, Tigers 11th. The year before that it was South Carolina ninth, Clemson 22nd. So flipping the outcome of that annual nonconference game could have a major national impact as college football enters the playoff era.
“That’s certainly something that has really been a painful part of our program for the last five years from an in‑state standpoint but also nationally,” Swinney said. “We finished seventh (in coaches’ poll) this year and they finished fourth, so that game is very important from a state pride standpoint, just like it always has been. But it’s become very important for our bigger goals, as well, from a national standpoint.”
The countdown clock treatment is a stark contrast to the way Spurrier has handled the in-state obsession with the rivalry. One of the first things he did after taking the Gamecocks job before the 2005 season was remove all the “Beat Clemson” signage in the football facilities. His emphasis is on bigger Southeastern Conference goals.
“Clemson used to pretty much own South Carolina in football, no question about it,” Spurrier said last week at the SEC media days. “We have a state championship trophy. If you ask our fans at South Carolina, I can assure you a majority would say we would rather beat Clemson than win the SEC. That is how big it is to them, that one game. Personally I’d rather win the SEC. I don’t mind saying that. Personally that’s the bigger trophy.”
Clemson has plenty to prove long before it reaches that Nov. 29 date with the Gamecocks. The season opener in 36 days between the hedges in Athens, Ga., is the kind of thing that should have everyone’s attention. Two games later they travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on defending BCS champion Florida State in a game that may decide who wins the ACC Atlantic Division.
But that Gamecocks game-clock will keep ticking down throughout it all.
“We want us to be the best, and we want to win that game,” said Cole Stoudt, who takes over for Tajh Boyd at quarterback. “That’s the emphasis that we have put on, and over the past few years losing to them has kind of not sat well with us. So this year we’re hopefully going to turn that around this year.
“We don’t want to just focus on that game because we have Georgia, Florida State, we have games before that. We’re going to take it a week at a time and we’re always going to have that reminder in the back of our head, ‘Hey, we’ve got South Carolina coming up.’ ”
Rather than in the back of their heads, it’s right in front of their faces every time they walk in the meeting rooms.
Clemson fans are naturally excited about the possibilities, snapping up all 52,000 season tickets. ACC and playoff goals are certainly realistic options again, but there’s one omission on the Swinney/Tigers résumé that matters.
“When you walk in our team room every day and you look at our team goals, we’ve hit every team goal on there in the past five years with the exception of winning our state championship,” Swinney said.
Only 127 shopping days remain before the clocks come down or the timer resets to 364 days above an unfathomable “0-6.”
Walking away prematurely from the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, Rory McIlroy was about a million miles away from ever hoisting a claret jug.
“Brain dead” was the term McIlroy used for the state of his game a year ago after missing the cut in the Open for the first time.
“Seriously, I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months,” he said. “I’m trying to get out of it.”
Whatever was lost was found when he returned to Hoylake last week. McIlroy was a different kind of unconscious, dominating Royal Liverpool and the field to add the 2014 British to his major catalog that includes the U.S. Open (2011) and PGA (2012).
For a guy whose previous major wins already came by eight-stroke margins, his wire-to-wire performance at Hoylake might have been his most masterful. When the comfortable lead his opening pair of 66s built was cut to a tie after 13 holes on Saturday, McIlroy converted massive drives, precise irons and perfect putts into a birdie and two eagles on the remaining even-numbered holes to open a six-shot gap. He steadied a few wobbles Sunday and coasted in down the stretch with two shots to spare.
It’s a far cry from a year ago and signals a brighter future with only the Masters Tournament standing between the 25-year-old and a career slam.
“I’ve really found my passion again for golf,” he said. “Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning. It’s what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer that I can be.”
As for the rest of the winners and losers from Hoylake:
BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. Tie for fifth in Masters and back-to-back runner-ups at U.S. and British Opens. Working with Butch Harmon has pushed young Rickie to new heights.
BIRDIE: Sergio Garcia. Of all the close major calls in the Spaniard’s 61 major starts, this effort was his most positive since his charging runner-up as a teenage rookie at 1999 PGA.
BOGEY: R&A. Most people differ with my thoughts here, but the decision to tee off both sides Saturday to avoid forecasted afternoon storms deprived the Open of its most essential element. It broke a 154-year precedent and deprived us of seeing how McIlroy’s beautiful game would hold up against foul weather. I understand the need for safe-guarding fans from potential thunderstorms (which never materialized). That the move avoided a deluge only makes it likely that the R&A will do it again. As the Scots say, “Nae wind; nae rain; nae golf.”
PAR: Tiger Woods. It would be easy to pile on since he failed to break par after an opening 69, but expecting more from a guy with two competitive rounds since undergoing back surgery is more unrealistic than the usual extreme Tiger standards.
BIRDIE: Tom Watson. The timeless linksmaster came within four strokes of shooting his age Sunday with a closing 68 and tying for 51st after breaking his own record as the oldest to ever make the cut.
BOGEY: Tom Watson. Ryder Cup captain didn’t get much help from Woods or Phil Mickelson, who both might need a captain’s pick to qualify but haven’t shown much to deserve it. Can he pick himself?
BIRDIE: Jim Furyk. For an older guy (44) with a weird swing, Furyk manages to keep himself relevant in all the biggest events. He finished solo fourth at Hoylake for the second time, his fifth top-five finish in the British.
BOGEY: Bubba Watson. Masters champ claimed distraction of “too many people” inside the ropes led to his unfocused freefall midway through first round and second consecutive missed major cut. Plus, he couldn’t name a single Beatle.
BIRDIE: Gerry McIlroy. Rory’s father cashed in with three friends for a $350,000 payout on a 500-to-1 wager he made a decade ago that his son would win the Open before his 26th birthday.
BOGEY: English beat. Despite high hopes for the likes of Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Paul Casey, the English drought extended. Nick Faldo remains the last English winner in 1992 and Tony Jacklin the last to win Open in England in 1969.
BIRDIE: John Singleton. The local resin factory worker not only qualified but made three birdies in his last four holes Friday as he played through tears under the cheers of friends, family and anyone who loves a great success story. His 4-over total tied or beat 10 major champions.
BOGEY: Ernie Els. Hitting a fan with his opening tee shot unraveled the two-time Open champ, who slapped around a three-putt from a foot on the first hole and never recovered.
BIRDIES: Marc Leishman and Shane Lowry. Sunday 65s by both didn’t quite get them automatic Masters invites, but the top-10s moved them to 51st and 59th respectively in the world rankings to give them a decent shot at reaching Augusta.
BOGEY: Georgia golfers. Eight Bulldogs teed it up for the second consecutive major, but only three made the cut with Chris Kirk’s T19 leading the way. Bryden Macpherson brought up the rear with rounds of 90-80.
BIRDIE: ESPN. The streaming app made it easy to follow nearly 40 hours of live coverage. And if you liked British accents and no commercials, you could even choose the BBC international feed. Splendid.
BOGEY: Charles Howell. For all of his quality play this season, the Augusta native declined his exemption to Hoylake citing “a personal family reason.” The PGA will be his only major start for second year in a row.
BIRDIE: Jimmy Walker. After a T9 at Augusta, T6 at Sawgrass and T8 at Pinehurst, we’ll excuse him for his T26 at Hoylake. He’s the new Jason Dufner.
BOGEY: Steve Stricker. For the second consecutive year, the top 20 player skipped the British. Absence of major win doesn’t seem to bother him as he drifts closer to retirement.
BIRDIE: Ivor Robson. The familiar high-pitched first tee announcer got a lot of air time and suggested when it was over that he might hang up his duties after his 40th Open at St. Andrews next summer. As fans, we don’t want to “let him go.”
BOGEY: Patrick Reed. On a course where he won the R&A Junior Open in 2006, Reed took himself out with a bogey-triple finish Thursday. At No. 10 in points he’s fallen just outside the Ryder Cup bubble.
BIRDIE: Masters. McIlroy earning the third piece of the career slam focuses even more attention on his return to Augusta seeking the last leg in the place he came painfully close to winning his first major in 2011.
BIRDIE: St. Andrews. Old Course will have a lot to celebrate next year with McIlroy’s defense, Watson’s swan song and perhaps a female member of the R&A Golf Club should the September vote break properly.
Steve Spurrier calls it “talking season,” and few talk the talk better than the Gamecocks’ ol’ head ball coach.
But talking won’t mean anything if South Carolina can’t walk the walk this year to the Southeastern Conference football championship game.
“We got a pretty good team we think,” Spurrier said at the SEC Media Days, and the media agreed by narrowly picking the Gamecocks to edge out Georgia for the SEC East.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt doesn’t agree with that assessment, but what else is he supposed to say during “talking season?”
By all accounts, the SEC is pretty wide open this fall – and that’s saying something after Auburn and Missouri surprised everyone last year by reaching the Georgia Dome after 0-8 and 2-6 conference records, respectively, the year before. They overcame established strengths at Alabama, Louisiana State University, Georgia and South Carolina to get that far.
This season, the strengths aren’t so well defined. So many standout quarterbacks are gone from College Station, Texas, to Columbia and key points in between that it’s hard to tell exactly who will rise above the question marks. The principle programs are essentially the same, but there’s not the kind of sure thing you’d want to risk your mortgage on with any kind of guarantee.
Which is why South Carolina needs to take full advantage and not just talk.
All of the key indicators point in South Carolina’s favor.
The Gamecocks’ two early conference tests – Texas A&M in the opener and Georgia two weeks later – are both at home. That’s no small thing.
“Got a pretty good win streak going there, as most of you know,” Spurrier said.
South Carolina has won 18 in a row at Williams-Brice Stadium, dating to Oct. 1, 2011. It’s the second longest streak in the nation, behind Northern Illinois’ 26-game streak at Huskie Stadium.
Like fellow top-tier SEC programs* at Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M and even Mizzou, the Gamecocks have huge shoes to fill at quarterback. Connor Shaw might not have been the prototypical signal caller, but he was a tough leader with an uncanny intangible quality of being able to win whatever it took.
(*Yes, the Gamecocks have earned inclusion among the conference elite with three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 final rankings.)
Dylan Thompson is a fifth-year senior with enough experience to make the Gamecocks comfortable with him taking over. Georgia is in similar hands with long-time back-up Hutson Mason trying to replace the SEC’s all-time passing leader in Aaron Murray, but Thompson has more experience to bank upon and a better offensive line (even though Mason has Todd Gurley and better skill players).
Most of all, the Gamecocks have Spurrier and a mission to make history. It was serendipity that brought them together – the right coach in the right program that needed him most.
“I wanted to go out a winner, not a loser,” Spurrier said of his disappointing NFL detour between Florida and South Carolina. “Fortunately South Carolina was really the best opportunity I could ever ask for. It was a school, you could probably describe their football tradition as mediocre, they had a losing record overall, way under .500 in SEC games. Nowhere to go but up.”
Spurrier has rewritten all that and built something special in Columbia, where no one really could before. He changed the culture from thinking they could be good to actually being good and flipped the Palmetto state with an unprecedented five-game winning streak over a pretty strong Clemson program.
Spurrier even admits it tops his coaching efforts at Florida, where he won six SEC and one national title in 12 years. He’s locked down the best in-state talent, enticed more high-dollar boosters and graduates some quality stars to the NFL ranks.
But only one thing will complete his mission before he retires – a title. Despite those three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 finishes in the final AP poll, the Gamecocks have been shut out of the SEC title game since their blowout loss to Auburn in 2010. All three seasons they watched a team they beat in the regular season (Georgia in 2011-12 and Missouri last year) represent the SEC East in the Georgia Dome.
“We’ve won a lot of games, but we still have only won one division, haven’t won an SEC,” Spurrier said. “Those are goals that we have a shot at that could happen for the first time in school history. ... I can assure you, I tell those recruits, ‘If you come here, hopefully you’ll be on the first‑ever SEC championship team ever.’ That’s still our goal. We haven’t quite done it. I think we’ve been close but not close enough.”
This is the window for the Gamecocks and Spurrier – before Georgia figures out how to play defense again and Florida and Tennessee get their acts together and rise back into prominence. It starts with winning the East and earning a date against all those elite recruits stockpiled at Alabama or LSU.
The SEC media is pretty terrible at picking league champions – getting the overall winner right only four times in 22 years. Alabama, this year’s choice, is 0-5 when tapped in the preseason. That bodes well for others.
But the media is right about South Carolina being the team to beat in the East. Now the Gamecocks need to walk the walk. Another 11-win season isn’t enough anymore in Columbia – not without a championship banner and a ring and perhaps a playoff appearance.
That will be something worth talking about for seasons to come.
Typically only insomniacs turn on the television to watch golf at 4 a.m. in a desperate effort to go back to sleep.
On Thursday, golf junkies were actually waking up intentionally to do just that.
The start of ESPN’s live 11-hour coverage of the first round of the British Open at Royal Liverpool just happened to coincide with the major championship return of Tiger Woods. And the man who moves golf’s needle the way The Beatles once did rewarded the diehards with an encouraging performance.
If you were one of the multitudes doubting Woods had any reasonable chance of ending a six-year major drought based on his two over-par rounds since having back surgery March 31, Woods’ opening volley at Hoylake should give you second thoughts. Even after his 3-under 69 set him up in the top 10, there’s still a long way to go for him to replicate his emotional 2006 victory on the same links course. Established guys like Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia aren’t going to just step aside and let Woods cruise on past.
The point is, however, it’s not so unreasonable to think Woods can actually do it. His game showed all the signs of resuming normalcy – attacking shots with unconcerned force, stopping in the middle of downswings to bark at itchy photographers and executing awkward-stance bunker shots that four months ago might have sent him to the emergency room.
“I felt good about a lot of things I did out there,” Woods, who birdied five of six holes in a back-nine stretch to inject himself into the picture, told reporters after his round.
While the rest of us have tempered our expectations of Woods – most of us now doubting he can cover the four-major gap on Jack Nicklaus in his history quest – he hasn’t.
“If he goes to Hoylake saying, ‘I’m here to win and that’s the only thing,’ that would be him telling a lie to himself,” Curtis Strange said during the Open buildup. “I hope he makes the cut ... but I don’t think you could ever expect him to be on the first page of the leaderboard come the weekend.”
Naturally, Woods was asked by reporters Tuesday what would be “an acceptable finish” this week. He spat out a simple “First” so reflexively that folks in the interview room laughed.
“That’s always the case,” he insisted.
Those skeptical snickers carried over if you bothered to wake up to watch his 4 a.m. start. He blasted an impossible bunker shot over the green on No. 1 and made bogey, then followed it up with a three-putt bogey on No. 2. Despite what was described as ideal scoring conditions, Woods was still 1-over par through 10 holes while the leaders were making birdies all over the place.
Then all of the sudden, Tiger Woods showed up. The one we used to know.
Draining a 30-footer up a slope from off the green on the 11th lit a fire. He started knocking shots close and making putts and moving into contention. Any drowsiness from an early wake-up call was gone as Tiger gave a glimpse that his career goals are far from finished.
“I knew I could do it,” Woods said. “I’m only going to get better. I’m getting stronger. I’m getting faster. I’m getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again. And those are all positive things.”
The most positive signs came at the end. Woods pulled a familiar trick, pulling up on his 3-wood in mid-downswing after cameras distracted him. Not easy to do even without back issues. Then he managed a tough shot standing half out of a pot bunker from a stance that would make chiropractors cringe. Then after giving interviews, he immediately retreated to the range to work some more, “attacking balls ... with ferocity and purpose” wrote ESPN.com.
Ferocity and purpose have been hallmarks of Woods’ storied career before health and personal distractions the last six years got in the way. They would be welcome attributes for golf fans eager to see Woods resume his quest to break all of golf’s major records.
In the wee hours Thursday, fans at home woke up to a glimpse of something familiar. Whether he backs it up the next three days with his long-awaited 15th major victory doesn’t really matter. It’s just good to know that he still can.
It’s a debate I’ve long steered clear of, recusing myself from weighing in based on personal allegiances.
My childhood self that unwittingly cherishes the memories, however, is at cross odds with my adult self that knowingly can’t support bigotry.
Silence isn’t the proper response anymore. The Redskins nickname has to go.
The long-standing campaign to get Washington’s NFL franchise to change its inarguably race-based nickname is reaching crescendo as the team’s stubborn owner looks sillier by the day with his insensitive inflexibility.
With the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelling six trademarks belonging to the football team last week, saying they are offensive to Native Americans, the heat has become intense on the franchise to make a change. The amount of mocking unlicensed merchandise that will surely flood the market soon will cost more in ridicule than it will in the millions of dollars that Dan Snyder will have to spend trying to protect the familiar logo.
It would be a lot cheaper and a lot more lucrative to just rebrand the team. Call them the Redhawks, Red Devils, RedBulls (sponsorship opportunity) or Red Menace. Pretty much anything that doesn’t demean the features of Native Americans would be an acceptable and welcome alternative.
I’m not one of the people ready to jump on board the bandwagon to erase all Native-American inspired nicknames from the landscape. I believe most of them – such as Braves, Chiefs and Warriors – come from a place of respect. Teams choose those nicknames based on noble attributes that fit athletic ideals. (I don’t have the same affection for “Indians” since the word itself is a name our ancestors created because they were too ignorant to realize they had landed on the wrong continent and too lazy to change to moniker once they figured it out.)
It’s not hard to understand why Native Americans would cringe at the sight of thousands of mostly white fans chanting and “tomahawk” chopping in unison. I don’t choose to join in at Turner Field. And nobody can condone the use of demeaning caricatures like Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo or the long-gone
Atlanta feature of Chief Noc-A-Homa and his outfield teepee. We should have progressed as a society to stop using such insensitive stereotypes.
We hadn’t, however, when I was a kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s playing “Cowboys and Indians” around the neighborhood when we weren’t playing kick-the-can. The Redskins nickname seemed harmless enough. I had never once in my life heard the R-word being used as a pejorative. It certainly wasn’t in the same realm of the N-word that reached ugly heights of hate and disrespect in an era of civil rights and desegregation.
Personally, I always loved Washington’s helmet logo and would doodle it during classes while humming the team’s famous fight song. The words of that song, however (not to mention the band wearing headdresses), were indefensible.
We will take’um big score.
Read’um, Weep’um, touchdown
We want heap more.”
Even the team knew that kind of demeaning impression was offensive and changed the words in the late ’80s to scuttle the Tonto-like pidgin English.
Pig-headed team owner Snyder, who has driven away this lifelong fan with his reprehensible personality and his ineffective leadership, refuses to yield in the face of criticism from all sides including team players and President Obama.
“We will never change the name of the team,” is Snyder’s mantra.
That’s a rather shallow line on the sand to draw. Other teams have long since changed their offensive nicknames and survived. Stanford went from Indians to Cardinal in 1972. William and Mary went from Indians to Tribe in the late ’70s. St. John’s jettisoned Redmen (and arguably the most offensive of all caricature logos) in favor of Red Storm in 1994.
Most notably, Miami (Ohio) changed from Redskins to RedHawks in 1997. Washington could make a similar switch and keep its uniforms and logo almost identical, perhaps with a hawk tail feather draped off a circle with the Capitol dome inside.
Bottom line is, it’s not Snyder’s or anyone else’s place to say what is or isn’t offensive to an entire group of people. Native Americans are offended by a nickname that clearly has racial connotations. Fighting to uphold that “tradition” in the face of public scorn is absurd.
Until that name is gone (and preferably Snyder with it, in my opinion), I cannot support the team of my childhood. That famous fight song still rings in my head, but the fight has changed.
Fail to the Redskins.
Braves on the warpath,
We live in a very confusing time.
The U.S. national soccer team blows a late lead to tie Portugal then loses four days later to Germany. Tiger Woods shoots 3-over-par 74 in the tournament he hosts.
And everyone is relatively happy about all that.
The Americans advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup in spite of its 1-0 loss on Thursday and Woods was just happy to knock off the rust of a more than three-month layoff due to back surgery.
“It’s nice to be back out here playing again,” Woods said after making seven bogeys and four birdies in his first competitive round since March 9 at Doral. “Unfortunately in my career I’ve been sidelined enough, so it’s always fun to come back out here and play against these guys, the best players in the world, and to get out here and see what I can do.”
“Nice” and “fun” are hardly the kind of words Woods uses after 74s. But what he could do Thursday was hardly up to his usual standards.
He putted poorly, chipped worse, missed greens frequently and through 12 holes was 6-over par and all alone in dead last place of the 60 players out in the morning wave at Congressional Country Club.
“The score is not really indicative of how I played,” Woods said after three birdies in his last six holes made his standing fairly respectable. “I played a lot better than the score indicates, which is good.”
What is great is that Woods got off the course in one piece. Not once did he grimace and reach for his back – a sight that had become commonplace before his March 31 microdiscectomy to repair a pinched nerve that was making it impossible for him to function regularly much less play golf as the No. 1 player in the world.
The worry was that Woods might have been pushing his return to the course too soon just to appease his new sponsor (Quicken Loans) of the PGA Tour event that benefits his foundation. But after a pro-am round on Wednesday and the first round Thursday, Woods seemed no worse for wear.
“The back’s great,” he said. “I had no issues at all. No twinges. No nothing. It felt fantastic, which is one of the reasons I let it go on those tee shots. I hit it pretty hard today.”
Woods averaged 18 inches shy of 300 yards per drive on Thursday, which is pretty good for a guy who wasn’t allowed to hit full shots on the driving range until a couple weeks ago.
“I’ve been off for awhile and held back to where I just haven’t been able to let it go,” he said. “The hard part was getting into the rhythm of playing again competitively. You play with your buddies all day for cash and stuff but it’s just not the same. It’s not the same as tournament golf. It’s a different level. Adrenaline is rushing and I hit the ball further out here than I do at home.”
During the course of his extended rehabilitation, Woods missed both the Masters Tournament and the U.S. Open. For a workout junkie, the R&R was pretty unwelcome.
“This has been quite a tedious little process,” Woods admitted.
The time he spent sitting around wasn’t checking out his peers on the Golf Channel
“I watched more World Cup than I did golf,” he said.
He wasn’t alone, as golf’s television ratings took the inevitable swan dive in his absence. Woods is the guy who moves the needle. While women’s golf got a huge boost from it-girl Michelle Wie claiming her first major at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst, Martin Kaymer’s Tiger-like romp on the same course the week before was greeted with relative snores.
Love him or hate him, golf desperately misses Woods when he’s gone and needs him healthy for the long haul.
His results Thursday at Congressional were irrelevant. Even missing the cut today wouldn’t be the worst thing. No need to risk too much strain after such a long layoff with the British Open looming as his next stop in a few weeks. Instead of retiring from the course to the range to work on all the elements of his game that were lacking on Thursday, Woods went home instead to “treat and ice and do all the different protocols.”
Patience is something Woods needs to have now more than ever.
And we need to have patience with him. Measuring him by a golf score is meaningless for the time being. For once, moral victories are enough when it comes to Tiger. Like we’ve said for a few decades about Arnold Palmer, just seeing him out there swinging is good enough.
For the U.S. soccer team, draws and losses aren’t acceptable outcomes anymore. Now all that matters is winning.
Woods, however, hasn’t reached that knockout stage yet. For now, he can be content with a little group play.
In time, a healthy Woods can resume all his quests in earnest and we’ll measure him accordingly.
Until then, the “healthy” part is the most important element for both Woods and for the game.
Chances are that this sounded like your living room or local bar Sunday night. The communal refrain of anguish spanned the frantic moments between Michael Bradley turning the ball over in the forward zone to that same ball rocketing into the net off Silvestre Varela’s head from a perfect cross by Cristiano Ronaldo.
This was the moment when soccer finally melted the stubborn hearts of Americans. Nationalistic curiosity has swelled before with thrilling goals that beat the likes of Algeria (2010) and Ghana (June 16) to advance the cause of domestic interest in the quadrennial World Cup. But you can never truly appreciate – dare we say, love – the beautiful game until it breaks your heart.
Sunday’s wrenching draw against Portugal in the waning seconds of stoppage time Sunday was a seminal moment in a series of such instances in American soccer history. An estimated 26 million Americans held their collective breath as the U.S. Men’s National Team tried to bleed out the clock on a thrilling comeback against Portugal to secure a 2-1 victory that would have vaulted the Americans into the round of 16.
That 26 million is about the same number of Americans who watched our version of football crown a collegiate BCS champion in January. That’s a big number crowding onto a big bandwagon.
Soccer, of all sports, has become our biggest source of national pride. More than anything else, Americans love an underdog. And soccer is the last frontier of underdog stature that hasn’t been conquered by American Exceptionalism.
Those brilliant ex-patriot Brits who produce the “Men In Blazers” bits on ESPN expressed it perfectly: “Soccer used to be an un-American sport, but now it’s the sport in which express our patriotism the most.”
So true. The jingoistic fervor that those of a certain age can wistfully remember from the 1980 Miracle on Ice has taken root on a soccer pitch. Beating the hated Russian Olympic hockey team in upstate New York would pale to beating the Brazilians in their own game on their home turf.
Can you imagine it? This team that our German coach insisted “cannot win” the World Cup has already shocked doubters by being so relevant. If it can beat or tie vaunted Germany on Thursday (or get the proper set of results with the Ghana-Portugal game), the U.S. can advance from its so-called “Group of Death” and have a sporting chance to utterly shock the world.
These small victories and ties are the baby steps into the American sporting consciousness. The harder and more unrealistic it is, the more it draws us in.
Not everybody gets it, of course. The low scores are a turnoff to some who don’t understand the rhythm of the game and the beauty in the “almosts” that make up the majority of the minutes. Not everybody appreciates the drama of a 1-0 pitchers’ duel in baseball, either.
My wife couldn’t understand my unbridled screaming in our Napa Valley B&B four years ago when Landon Donovan finished a desperate final charge against Algeria with the lone goal of the game that delivered the Americans through to the knockout stage. She was equally perplexed when I was screaming that lead quote at the top and throwing my cell phone across the room when Portugal delivered that dispiriting dagger on Sunday.
“When did you become such a soccer fan?” she asked.
Truth is, it’s always been buried inside waiting to be awakened like the rest of the world.
Like most Americans, I’ve never seen a MLS game. I’m fairly certain I’ve never even paused on one accidentally trying to stifle a sneeze while flipping through the channels. I assumed that the Seattle Sounders were perennial champions because so many boastful claims were made about their passionate fan base in the run-up to last year’s Super Bowl win by the Seahawks that it came as a shock when Wikipedia revealed the Sounders have never participated in a single MLS title game.
That said, I’ve always enjoyed soccer. Played it as a kid. Coached it. Refereed it. Shrewdly exited an escalating argument with high school teammates about who would get to wear Pelé’s number (10) by quietly picking up the No. 9 jersey of Giorgio Chinaglia sitting right there on the table before anyone realized that the second most popular choice was gone and leaving the rest to literally wrestle over the third-rate 6 of Franz Beckenbauer.
But the World Cup interest was rooted from my collegiate experience and covering future U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena as he built Virginia into an NCAA power. Players like John Harkes, Tony Meola, Claudio Reyna and Jeff Agoos filed through Charlottesville, Va., on their way to national team acclaim when the U.S. ended its 40-year World Cup lapse in 1990 and then played host in 1994.
Now it’s Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones who carry the flag. We gather in bars and restaurants, triggered to gleefully erupt in unison when substitute John Brooks heads in the game-winner against Ghana that breathed life into our 2014 hopes. We fret over Altidore’s health and argue over whose fault it was that Portugal scored the equalizer. We use words like “nil,” marvel at the efforts of Costa Rica and Iran, and calculate all the goal differential permutations that might mean the difference to playing through or ruing that heart-crushing Portugal draw for years to come.
One way or another, more Americans than we ever imagined will tune in during lunch breaks Thursday afternoon, believing it’s possible to play as equals to Germany.
Whether a long-time soccer enthusiast or neophyte bandwagon jumper, Americans have finally come together for one common “Goooooooaaaaaal!”
PINEHURST, N.C. – The first impressions from Lucy Li’s U.S. Women’s Open “peers” was pretty much summed up by two-time champion Meg Mallon when she saw the youngest qualifier in championship history on the practice range.
“I expected an 11-year-old and found a 9-year-old,” Mallon said.
It’s a natural reaction when you catch a glimpse of the diminutive Li. Barely more than 5-feet tall with a golf bag her caddie says is “way, way heavier” than she is, Li looks every bit her age with braces, three braided pigtails, a zebra shirt with sequins on the shoulder and a pleated green skirt with white polka dots. She seems to have sprung right out of the Gymboree catalog.
“She looks so darn cute,” Michelle Wie said. “The first thought that came into my mind was, oh, I wish I looked that cute when I was 11. ... I was actually talking to a couple of older players about this. She’s so cute and tiny and I was like, ‘Was I that cute?’ And they’re like, ‘No, you were ginormous.’ ”
When Wie played as a 12-year-old in the 2002 LPGA event at Mount Vintage Plantation in Edgefield County, S.C., she was 5-foot-11 and towered over many of the pros. As a self-described “bit of a porker,” Wie hit the ball further than most, as well, which is why she was drawn to test herself against the men as a teenager.
Li, however, plays a very different game. She looked right at home two months ago at Augusta National Golf Club, dominating her age group in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. But on a brawny and rugged course like Pinehurst No. 2 that humbled most of the grown-up male professionals who played it last week, Li looks like she took a wrong turn on her way to a junior clinic.
“She is shorter than everybody else,” said LPGA Tour pro Beatriz Recari, who consistently outdrove Li by 30 to 40 yards in a practice round Tuesday. “That’s obvious. And it’s a long course.”
Li, however, earned her way into the U.S. Women’s Open like everyone else. She won her 36-hole qualifier at Half Moon Bay – near her native south San Francisco suburbs – by seven strokes. That’s right, seven.
“It was mine,” she said of the idea to qualify despite being only in sixth grade. “Because I wanted to go out there and get the experience. Because it’s 36 holes and I didn’t care if I qualified or not, I didn’t think about it, I just wanted to go for the experience.”
Her experiences keep lowering the bar for how shockingly young a girl can compete. At age 10, Li became the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the youngest to reach the match-play portion of the Women’s Amateur Public Links, where she lost in the first round to a college player.
She was the most celebrated winner at the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt, beating her peers in the 10-11 girls’ division with the longest drive and closest chip.
But reaching the U.S. Women’s Open on such a grueling venue is a step beyond. She broke the record of Lexi Thompson, who was 12 when she played in 2007 at Pine Needles. Before that was Morgan Pressel, who was 13 in 2001, also at Pine Needles. Neither Thompson nor Pressel – both now established LPGA stars and major winners – made the cut in their debuts.
“It’s exciting,” LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan told Li’s hometown San Francisco paper. “She’s the Lexi Thompson of 2014, or Morgan Pressel before her. I hope she takes her time. No rush.”
Like Wie and Pressel, Thompson can certainly relate to Li’s position in the spotlight. Thompson remembers practicing signing autographs on the drive up to Pine Needles and being a little overwhelmed. But she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“I was not long enough for that golf course,” she remembers. “I just had to grow. I had to get longer. I had to improve on my game. But that experience, I told my parents after that week, it was like, I know I can compete out there, just give me a few more years.”
Thompson and Wie would advise Li to just “have fun this week.” Li seems to be doing just that. Her “coolest moment” was meeting her favorite men’s player, Webb Simpson, last weekend. She’s also met LPGA legends Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, among others.
Her pre-tournament news conference was priceless, with countless giggles and an effervescence that only an 11-year-old could bring. She likes reading Rick Riordan and Sherlock Holmes books; studying math, science and history; going to Dave & Buster’s; and dabbling in dance, table tennis, swimming, diving and badminton.
Anything about being on this stage scare her?
Can her dad beat her?
“No,” she said bluntly between long squeals of laughter.
What are her goals?
“The perfect week, I just want to go out there and have fun and play the best I can and I really don’t care about the outcome,” she said. “It’s just I want to have fun and learn. I want to learn a lot from these great players.”
It might be a very tough lesson. She’ll be hitting long irons or woods on most of her approaches, and Donald Ross’ most famous crowned greens can make fools of anyone. But she understands the risks and plans to accept the consequences.
“The key phrase we always remember is, she goes, ‘Ross built these greens to repel golf balls, not receive them,’” said Bryan Bush, her veteran Pinehurst caddie this week who is “blown away” by Li’s golf knowledge. “She took a lot from Martin Kaymer in hitting to the center of the green ... she knows if she misses it just a little bit, it will roll off. But her short game is so ridiculous. It’s just fun to watch.”
Said Recari: “She hit solid shots all day. It’s obviously playing a little bit longer, but I think she’s going to do well. We’ll see.”
Her presence in the field incites mixed emotions.
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough – or young enough, whichever way you look at it,” Laura Davies said. “If you can play the golf and you can qualify, then have a go. What’s the worst that can happen? She shoots a million this week and everyone says, ‘Wasn’t it great she was here?’ So I don’t think anything bad can come out of it, because she’s too young to worry about the pressure.”
Others, however, worry that it’s too much too soon and that the experience could set her back. World No. 1 Stacy Lewis candidly said she’s “not a big fan” of an 11-year-old competing in the world’s most demanding women’s major.
“I just like to see kids learn how to win before they come get beat up out here,” Lewis said. “When I found out she qualified, I said, ‘Well, where does she go from here? What do you do next?’ You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next?”
For Li, next might just be qualifying again to return to Augusta for next year’s Drive, Chip and Putt.
“I really want to go, but if my schedule allows it, I probably will,” she said.
The experience didn’t seem to scar Wie or Pressel or Thompson, who are all currently ranked among the top 40 in the world.
“It’s a memory that will last her a lifetime,” Wie said. “What other 11-year-old can say that they played in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst and got to see the men play as well?”
What other female of any age can say they competed at both Augusta and Pinehurst in major weeks the same year?
“It’s awesome, right?” Li said. “I mean Pinehurst and Augusta National in like two months. I mean that’s just amazing. It’s mind-blowing for me.”
Li’s biggest takeaways from Augusta were eating ice cream, seeing Amen Corner and making new friends. She isn’t worried about her future. She’s just living in the present like any kid should do.
“The game’s going to take me wherever it’s going to take me,” she said, “so I just really don’t care that much.”
LI may be 11 looking like 9, but she’s smarter than a 20-year-old.
PINEHURST, N.C. – The chapel bells played “Faith of Our Fathers” on Sunday as the leaders teed off in the U.S. Open. The regular tolling hymns and periodic train whistles are part of the magic that leaks into the soul of anyone who visits the charming village in the Carolina sandhills.
As the dust settles after the third men’s championship at Pinehurst and the women take over a quieter stage for Act II of the USGA double header, it’s natural to reflect on a U.S. Open that deserves way more credit than people seemed willing to give it when Martin Kaymer choked the drama out of it by lunchtime on Friday with a pair of matching 65s.
Kaymer’s crowning achievement got lost on many of the spectators who didn’t find his dominance worthy of adoration. It was telling when the runaway leader delivered a dagger by accepting temptation and driving the green on the 308-yard par-4 third hole. It was the kind of daring and defining shot that would ignite an eruption of roars at Augusta National, but Kaymer got the kind of polite applause (and a few groans) that a routine wedge to the middle of the green elicits.
In time, people may come to respect the eight-shot triumph they grudgingly accepted on Sunday. And while Kaymer stole the show, the undercard was also littered with other accomplishments and failures worthy of due acknowledgement:
ALBATROSS: Erik Compton. The most compelling story of Sunday was whether the double heart transplant recipient could not wilt under the most intense spotlight of his career and gain the top-four finish he needed to qualify for the Masters. Decked out in Georgia red-and-black, Compton got closer to Kaymer than anyone else and hung on for a share of runner-up. “It’s a career-opening thing for me,” he said. Let’s hope so.
BOGEY: Fans. I’ve been to seven British Opens – most of them won by non-Europeans – and never once heard a fan root against a player or faintly applaud laudable shots by foreigners. U.S. Open fans from Carolina to New York still have much to learn in golf decorum.
BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. The popular American started week wearing knickers in tribute to Payne Stewart and ended as runner-up for his best major finish. More importantly, he showed grit in the final pairing Sunday by bouncing back from making a long putt for double bogey on No. 4 to birdie No. 5 and keep fighting to the finish. Good step.
BOGEY: Phil Mickelson. Career slam expectations were unreasonable for a guy who hasn’t played his best all season. But walking away dejected and tired with a T28, he looked older than the 44 he turned on Monday.
BIRDIE: Keegan Bradley. One of three players with three rounds in the 60s. Needs to curtail those 76s to reach his major potential.
BIRDIE: Brooks Koepka. Informed in the locker room that his tie for fourth in his first made cut in a major qualified him for the 2015 Masters, the young pro said “the news just keeps on getting better.”
BOGEY: Bubba Watson. Masters champ arrived at Pinehurst a favorite before summing up the course as “unfriendly” and “weeds” in his pre-tournament interview. Not surprisingly he followed his own 2012 example as only reigning Masters winner to miss cut since 1995.
PAR: Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson. The two chasers most likely to threaten Kaymer’s waltz never really made any move on Sunday.
BIRDIE: Justin Rose. The defending champ gamely tied for 12th and finished on the right note by striking the famous Payne Stewart air-punch pose when his long birdie putt dropped.
BOGEY: Hunter Mahan. Two-shot penalty for hitting the wrong ball on 18th Friday cost him the cut. But his Sunday Tweet was priceless: “Happy Fathers Day on this great US Open Sunday! Remember to identify your ball before you play it!”
BIRDIE: Jason Day. Posted fifth top-4 major finish since 2011 despite making only third start since winning WGC Match Play in February because of injury.
BIRDIE: Henrik Norlander. Former Augusta State star was leading the tournament at 3-under on Thursday before a second-round 79 sent him home. But the lessons from his major debut were invaluable boost for his developing career.
PAR: Patrick Reed. Breakout Augusta State star expected more than just making his first major cut. The closing 5-under 30 he posted on the last nine Sunday after a brutal 42 on the front will help his development.
BIRDIE: Kevin Kisner. First career major week for Aiken/UGA product started with the birth of his daughter and ended early with his father carrying bag the last two holes. The memories will be way better than his score.
BOGEY: Brandt Snedeker. A top 10 was pretty strong considering his back hurt so badly he couldn’t bend over to pick ball out of cup or tie his shoes on Sunday. Durability remains huge concern for the 33-year-old.
BIRDIE: UGA. With a presumed record eight players in the field, the Bulldogs acquitted themselves nicely with Brendon Todd posting three rounds in the 60s, Compton grabbing runner-up and five of them making the cut.
BIRDIE: No. 2. The strategic masterpiece of a course was brilliantly set up and was the most defining element of the week. It’s earned its place in the frequent rotation for years to come and will only improve rustic beauty with age.
DOUBLE BOGEY: Donald Trump. The egotistical tycoon spent all day on Twitter ridiculing how Pinehurst looked on TV and called it “bad for golf.” As the saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.
BIRDIE: NBC and ESPN. Announcers Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller got choked up talking about “great ride” the network had for 20 years covering the U.S. Open. It was a classy sign-off by both coverage networks after the USGA dumped them in favor of a big fat $1.2 billion check from inexperienced Fox Sports.
BOGEY: Japan. The sectional qualifier in Japan earned six players spots into the field. Only one, Toru Taniguchi, made the cut on the number but shot a gruesome 88-76 on the weekend. Japan’s Kiyoshi Miyazato (81-81) and Azuma Yano (77-83) finished 156th and 155th in the 156-man field.
BIRDIE: Mid Pines & Pine Needles. Two of the best and most playable courses in the sandhills got a lot of exposure to golfers in town for the Open double. Hopefully Pine Needles will play host again to future Women’s Opens.
BOGEY: Michael Campbell. With no statue like Stewart and scant mention during the week he skipped for health and personal reasons, the 2005 Pinehurst winner was even more forgotten than the still absent Tiger Woods.
BIRDIE: LPGA players. It was totally cool seeing women players hit balls on the range beside the men on Sunday and having many of them walking inside the ropes to watch how the men played the course. Great exposure for more great golfers. It’s an experiment worth trying again some day.
PINEHURST, N.C. — There was much point-missing going on at the U.S. Open – even more than usual.
There were the folks like Donald Trump who saw brown patches and scruffy waste areas on their HD televisions and decried Pinehurst No. 2 as ugly and unworthy of holding a major championship. Heaven help us if Trump ever buys this charming sandhills village or the town of St. Andrews.
And there were other folks who saw a 29-year-old German shatter a field in America’s national championship with a wire-to-wire romp, and yawned.
Greatness and class are apparently lost on some of the huddled masses.
What Martin Kaymer did over the last four days on a restored Donald Ross gem was nothing short of brilliant. If Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson or Jordan Spieth had blown away the field by eight strokes with a 9-under-par score, everyone would be hyperventilating and genuflecting.
If Tiger had just dusted everyone wire-to-wire to become the first person to win both the Players and U.S. Open in the same season, ratings would be off the charts.
All Kaymer seemed to do is inspire polite acknowledgment at best and boorish disdain at worst.
At times on Sunday, some of the gallery was actually openly rooting against him as if it were a Ryder Cup match.
“Ya think?” he said.
It’s crass enough in that charged international team environment. It’s disgusting on a major stage.
On the first tee Sunday, fans chanted “USA! USA!” when Rickie Fowler stepped to the box in the final pairing. Kaymer and his five-shot lead received a lukewarm reception.
On the fifth green, when Kaymer’s 8-foot birdie putt slid past the cup, one fan in the bleachers behind the green shouted “Yes!”
On the seventh hole, when Kaymer’s putt from off the green caught a slope, more bleacher bums started chanting “Go! Go! Go!” as it drifted further from the hole.
Where was that state trooper who arrested Roger Maltbie’s cart driver on Saturday when you needed him?
Kaymer was way more gracious in triumph than some in the galleries were when asked about the pressure he’s dealt with the past month battling popular young Yanks Fowler and Spieth – much less a Georgia Bulldog on his third heart.
“It’s a lot, especially if you play on a different continent,” Kaymer said. “But, again, at the Players, the fans are very fair, and the same here this week. So I’m playing with Rickie today, I knew it was going to be very difficult. He’s a very aggressive player, and he can make a lot of birdies if he wants to. But overall it was a very nice week. Very nice day. And again, a lot of credit to the fans and spectators because it was very fair to play.”
I get it. American fans crave drama and home cooking. A second consecutive major devoid of a nail-biting plot down the back nine on Sunday doesn’t move the needle for everyone.
But history should. This week saw the coronation of a new Hall of Fame golf superstar. What more do you want from this guy?
He’s the first continental European to win the U.S. Open, joining McIlroy as the only current player under 30 with multiple major titles. Those two and Bubba Watson are the only players younger than Tiger to win two.
He won the so-called “fifth major” last month in clutch fashion at Sawgrass.
He won a World Golf Championship event and finished runner-up in a WGC Match Play.
He drained the clinching putt in the 2012 Ryder Cup Matches that capped the greatest comeback on foreign soil.
He is one of 17 players to ever ascend to the No. 1 ranking in the world.
He shot 59 in a pro event at age 21. He’s won 13 events on four continents.
Kaymer is the seventh player in history to lead a U.S. Open wire-to-wire, matching the feat last achieved by McIlroy in his 2011 rout at soggy Congressional. On a course with margins as thin as Pinehurst, his three under-par rounds impressed McIlroy.
“To do what he’s doing is – I think it’s nearly more impressive than what I did at Congressional,” he said.
If fans believe Kaymer fits some dour German stereotype, they’re wrong. He is pleasant and funny in his own way. Asked if he would pay to come back and play a course as tough as Pinehurst, he shot back, “I hope I can play for free now.”
He’s also thoughtful and respectful. On Saturday, when he couldn’t understand a ruling explanation from USGA president Tom O’Toole, he shrugged it off, accepted a penalty and made an all-world bogey that illustrated how in control he was under the gun.
Asked what he didn’t understand about O’Toole’s explanation, Kaymer said he didn’t understand the word “erosion.”
You try plying your trade in Germany and see if you can sprechen all sie Deutsch.
Most of all, Kaymer is gifted. Winning his first major at 25 and dealing with the attention of rising to No. 1 overwhelmed him. He made swings changes and lost his confidence and fell as low as 63rd in the world before this year’s Masters.
Now he’s back up to No. 11 and a staple in the conversation of next-generation superstars as the Woods-Mickelson era grows older.
“Some people, especially when I went through that low, called me the one-hit wonder and those things,” he said. “So it’s quite nice proof, even though I don’t feel like I need to prove a lot of people, but somehow it’s quite satisfying to have two under your belt. And I’m only 29 years old, so I hope I have another few years ahead of me.”
Get used to Kaymer, because he’s a big part of the big picture in golf.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219