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Drama was hard to find in the final round of the 2014 Masters

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 8:30pm

The 2014 Masters Tournament was not a keeper. Clearly the audience agreed.

While Bubba Watson was obviously the most dominant player in the field and earned his second green jacket, the drama that defines the Masters was conspicuously absent. With firm and unreceptive greens, the final nine was a complete dud. If that’s what comes with perfect weather, bring on the rain.

The 7.8 overnight rating on CBS for the final round was the lowest since 2004 (7.3), when Phil Mickelson got his breakthrough win on Easter Sunday. It was a 24 percent drop from last year’s 10.2 and lower than Watson’s playoff win in 2012 (8.1).

Saturday’s broadcast enthusiasm was even worse, with a 4.4 rating that hasn’t been that low since 1995.

The lack of drama or anyone pushing Watson down the stretch was obviously a factor, but clearly Tiger Woods was missed. When he’s not in the mix (T22 in 2004, T40 in 2012), the numbers are lower than all the other years when he’s at least featured among the top 10.

But the results still count, and Watson’s burgeoning legacy was the biggest winner. Here are a few more Birdies & Bogeys from the 2014 Masters:

BIRDIE: Jordan Spieth. Full credit to the 20-year-old for hanging in there admirably under pressure and very nearly winning as a rookie. There is zero doubt that he will become a regular force to contend with at Augusta National. A star is born.

BOGEY: Spieth. While his passion and emotion are no doubt what make him the player that he is, he needs to learn how to harness them better on the course. Even G-rated outbursts (and a club slam on 10) can come across as petulant to the viewers at home.

PAR: Adam Scott. Defending champ got rave reviews for his Australian-themed Champions Dinner menu, especially the Penfolds Grange Shiraz. After solid start, however, his repeat bid fizzled with a Saturday 76.

BIRDIE: Miguel Angel Jimenez. Spanish senior was the only guy to make any noise on the back nine Sunday with 33 en route to solo fourth. “I’m not going to get bored of myself,” he said. Neither will we of him.

BOGEY: Matt Muchar. Poised to seal his legacy with major win, he dropped from tie for lead with double on 4th Sunday and never threatened thereafter. Needs work on his closing skills.

BIRDIE: Jonas Blixt. Most of the attention was paid to Spieth, but the other rookie runner-up impressed with four consecutive under-par rounds. The Swede was T4 in last year’s PGA, so perhaps we should pay more attention.

BOGEY: Patrick Reed. The former Augusta State star garnered a lot of press attention for his talent and ego, but when things went sour on the course he blew everybody off and stormed home after cut. Top 5 players are expected to stand up to scrutiny.

BIRDIE: Rory McIlroy. Despite a few bad breaks, losing to a marker and another blowup round (77), the Northern Irishman rallied with a 4-under weekend to post his first top-10 at Augusta.

BOGEY: Dustin Johnson. First Masters missed cut also deprived patrons of two more days mingling with Paulina Gretzky.

BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. Tie for fifth was “a big step forward” for the 25-year-old who’s never missed a cut in four Masters starts.

BOGEY: Pinehurst. Tiger missed Masters for the first time in his career after undergoing back surgery on March 31. Now his good friend Notah Begay says Woods is likely to remain sidelined for 90 days, which “would push him past the U.S. Open.”

BIRDIE: Kevin Stadler. Rookie earned a return trip with T8. Would have been nicer if he’d more warmly acknowledged the presence of his father (1982 champion Craig) behind 18th green Sunday.

BOGEY: Past champs. Bubba’s repeat couldn’t mask hugely disappointing efforts from recent winners Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera and Trevor Immelman.

BIRDIE: Old guys. A record six players 50 years or older made the Masters cut, three of them finishing in the top 20, including a T8 by 56-year-old Bernhard Langer.

BIRDIE: Jeff Knox. The 51-year-old local amateur outdid himself as a marker, beating both McIlroy (70-71) and Larry Mize (77-79) in consecutive days.

BOGEY: Marc Leishman. In 15 long holes on Friday, the Aussie went from solo leader at 5-under to missing the cut at 5-over. But he deserves major credit for standing there to talk all about it (see Reed above).

BIRDIE: Drive, Chip and Putt. This well-run and compelling skills competition was a massive hit and probably did more to grow game among juniors than all of the club’s other initiatives combined. A welcome new Masters Week tradition.

BOGEY: Ben Crenshaw. After rounds of 83-85, he announced the 2015 Masters will be his last. He’ll go around one more time with legendary Augusta caddie Carl Jackson on 20th anniversary or their second green jacket.

PAR: Fred Ridley. A welcome uneventful week for the Chairman of the Competition Committee after a tumultuous 2013.

BOGEY: Rule of 17. Spieth’s fade ended the symmetry of the historical 17-year arc of youngest Master winners from Jack Nicklaus (1963) to Seve Ballesteros (1980) to Tiger Woods (1997).

BIRDIE: 17th hole. Without the Eisenhower Tree blocking half the fairway, the scoring average on Nandina actually went up from 4.220 to 4.239.

BOGEY: Back-nine roars. Whether it was a set-up too tough or weather too nice, the back-nine lacked drama all week and it was noticeably quiet. Nobody could hold the 15th green and overall eagles (20) were fewest since tedious 2008.

BIRDIE: Waffle House. Bubba picked iconic brand for post-victory late-night snack. Krispy Kreme will have to hope Phil wins again to regain the limelight.

BIRDIE: Pace of play. In a season defined by glacial players and a year after Tianlang Guan earned a stroke penalty for delay of game, the final pairing Sunday finished in under 4 hours and the average time was 3 hours, 57 minutes.

'The King' remains as relevant as ever in the modern world

Sat, 04/05/2014 - 3:15pm

It’s a vintage Arnold Palmer quote among all the vintage footage that seems to capture the spirit of the man called the King.

“Why do I want to win the Masters?” a young Arnie asks. “Why would I want to breathe? I want to stay alive. I want to stay alive in golf.”

Palmer’s enduring legacy has been immortalized in a three-night documentary film by the Golf Channel simply called Arnie. Part 1 will debut at 10 p.m. on Sunday after the 2014 Masters Tournament.

The niche network that Palmer co-founded two decades ago didn’t have to look very far for the perfect subject to launch its most ambitious project. This is the kind of work the Golf Channel should be investing in – historical features that can compare to the 30 for 30 series on ESPN.

“What we set out to do was really tell the definitive story on the life and legacy of Mr. Palmer,” said Mike McCarley, president of the network.

It’s been 50 years since Palmer won his last major at the 1964 Masters, yet the King remains as relevant as ever in the modern world. He was the right man at the right time when sports began showing up on television. His charisma and style were magnetic and launched golf into the modern era and himself as a popular icon.

But his life story is much more than a string of birdies and bogeys. From his humble beginnings in Latrobe, Pa., to his lingering status as golf’s most beloved elder statesman, Palmer is a riveting subject that can elevate your pulse rate in one moment and move you to tears in others.

“I had to get the Kleenex out when I was watching it,” Palmer admitted of the brief screenings he’s seen. “It brought me back to my world of so many years ago. I really can’t even think about it. It made me think and get pretty emotional.”

It’s impossible not to choke up when Palmer tearfully leaves the press room after his last U.S. Open appearance at Oakmont in 1994 to a standing ovation from a press corps that wanted to give something back to him after his years of giving them everything he had. Or his heartbreaking loss in college of best friend Bud Worsham, who died in a car accident and sent a mourning Palmer to the Coast Guard. Or his whirlwind relationship and elopement with the former Winnie Walzer, who stood beside him for 40 years before succumbing to ovarian cancer in 1998.

Of course the films are filled with footage of Palmer’s greatest successes and failures – the combination of which made him such a compelling figure. You can never get enough of seeing Palmer hitch his pants up and make his inimitable slashing swing as he charged his way into golfing lore.

It’s a myth that there was no running at Augusta, as you see the crowds scrambling helter skelter all over the fairways, swarming around Palmer as he made his charge to beat Ken Venturi for his second green jacket in 1960. He cuts a unique image, puffing a cigarette on live television as he made his birdie-birdie finish.

You’ll wince at his epic double bogey collapse in 1961 to hand the green jacket to Gary Player – a series of gruesome shots from a perfect position in the fairway that even Player could barely stand to watch. Palmer recovered in 1962 with unlikely birdies at 16 and 17 to rally from two behind Player and Dow Finsterwald – eventually winning a three-way playoff the next day.

“One time in my life I’d like to win the Masters with a little cushion,” Palmer said.

In 1964 he did just that, walking triumphantly among the scrambling patrons up the 18th fairway for a six-shot win that nobody could have fathomed would be his last major victory at age 34.

“Of course you never think you’re going to be at your last stop, but it was great,” Palmer said 50 years later.

For each of his seven major triumphs, Palmer was equally engaging in defeat. In the second episode entitled Arnie & His Majors, you see his agonizing U.S. Open losses at Oakmont (in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus), Brookline (missed a 2-footer on 18) and Olympic (blows a seven-shot lead on back nine to Billy Casper).

“It was sickening,” his sister, Peg Palmer, said of the last meltdown.

Part one of the series is called Arnie & His Army while part three is titled Arnie & His Legacy. He was the man who made a handshake agreement with a former Fort Gordon-stationed soldier from Cleveland named Mark McCormick and changed the endorsement landscape for athletes. He was the guy he launched the concept of the Grand Slam and the driving force behind the Big Three with rivals Nicklaus and Player who still stand today as the Masters’ honorary starters.

Palmer’s name is on hospitals and airports and scholarships and car dealerships and iced tea. He has posed with starlets from Esther Williams to Kate Hudson and been friends with presidents, most notably Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Who in the hell would have ever thought that a greenkeeper’s, and I said greenkeeper’s son, from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, would ever play golf with the President of the United States?” he said.

Yet it’s Palmer’s genial charm and genuine respect for everyone he comes in contact with that make him the most beloved golfer in history. The films show his personal warehouse that contains countless treasures including every letter he’s ever received. He personally responds to each one, spending a six-figure sum in return postage annually.

“There’s this wonderful history of him writing letters to PGA Tour players who may win an event or fans who ask him for something,” McCarley said. “There’s just a very genuine, you treat people the way that you would like to be treated sort of aspect to the way he’s lived his entire life, and that’s really where (this project) started.”

Arnie will start the Masters on Thursday with the first honorary tee shot. And after the tournament ends Sunday, “Arnie” will be a perfect way to extend to Masters feeling with the man who has stayed alive in golf.

 

British Amateur champion Garrick Porteous wins the Georgia Cup

Wed, 04/02/2014 - 10:35pm

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — For 17 years, the Golf Club of Georgia has provided a competitive calm before the storm for the reigning premier amateur champions before they’re thrust into the emotional mayhem of the Masters Tournament.

On a perfect spring Wednesday with temperatures climbing well above par, British Amateur champion Garrick Porteous rallied from an early two-hole deficit to beat U.S. Amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick 3 and 2. It marked the first time in the history of the event that two Englishman played each other, but the sixth time the match included no Americans.

Porteous’ win over his 2013 Walker Cup teammate gave the British Amateur champions a 9-8 lead in the series that dates back to 1998 when former Georgia Tech star Matt Kuchar beat England’s Craig Watson in the inaugural cup.

The club in Atlanta’s posh suburbs has had no trouble getting every U.S. and British amateur champion since its inception to make the stopover to the Lakeside and Creekside courses. Sergio Garcia won it in 1999. Ryan Moore in 2005. Matteo Manassero in 2010. Peter Uihlein in 2011.

Heck, Colt Knost even showed up to beat Drew Weaver in 2008 despite having already turned professional and thus forfeiting his spot in the Masters field. Knost still hasn’t qualified to play at Augusta, but at least he has a Georgia Cup trophy and the memory of his helicopter ride to the airport so he could make is flight to California to play a Nationwide Tour pro-am that week.

“All the names you see who have played in this event are impressive,” Porteous said.

Both Porteous and Fitzpatrick will have been staying as the club’s guests for at least five days before heading to Augusta on Friday to start preparing in earnest for the Masters. They’ve both already made reconnaissance missions to Augusta National to know what to expect.

“The course is set up pretty similar to next week with the speed of the greens,” Porteous said of the Lakeside course. “Everyone here is great and they look after you fantastically. It’s a great week and to have a little bit of competitive golf against Matt is a bonus as well.”

“It is good fun,” Fitz­patrick said of the low-key nature of the event. “It’s sort of on the way. The fairways aren’t the same grasses as Augusta … but the greens are great. They’re fast and slopey. You couldn’t get more similar to Augusta, really. It’s ideal prep.”

As enjoyable as the Georgia Cup has been during its 17-year run, it’s perhaps time to add a little more juice to the event. Despite ideal weather Wednesday, fewer than 50 fans walked the fairways to watch two potential future stars play a head-to-head match. In 2007, an estimated 1,200 fans flocked the course to see Englishman Richie Ramsay defeat Frenchman Julien Guerrier.

With the implementation of the Latin America Amateur Championship in 2015, the club might consider inviting that winner along with the Asia-Pacific Amateur winner to turn it into a truly global event that represents the amateur champions of five continents.

But for now they’re content with their boutique affair when anyone can walk side-by-side and even chat with the players and caddies as they play.

Fitzpatrick didn’t even get offended when he was introduced on the first tee as Matt Fitzgerald. He birdied the first hole and won the third with a par to jump to a 2-up lead.

But the 6-foot-1 Porteous consistently outdrove the 5-8, 135-pound Fitzpatrick by 20 to 40 yards and rattled off three consecutive birdies in winning four consecutive holes to flip the match. Fitzpatrick never caught back up, falling four down with four holes to play before hitting his highlight shot of the day. From 116 yards with a 64-degree wedge, his approach spun from 11 feet past the pin and it rolled back into the cup for eagle.

“Lot of birdies thrown out there and his eagle 2 at 15, so it was pretty good,” Porteous said.

Porteous is enjoying the final fruits of his amateur status. After a few seasons playing for Tennessee, he will turn professional immediately following the Masters and fly to Malaysia for his first professional start the next week. He’s taken advantage of his Masters eligibility by playing a few rounds already at Augusta National in February. In fact, he can claim a unique milestone as being the first player in history to play the 17th hole without the Eisenhower Tree the first day the club reopened after the ice storm.

“And I made birdie as well,” he said.

So barring an epic performance at Augusta, the Georgia Cup will serve as his last amateur triumph.

Fitzpatrick, who only spent a few months at Northwestern before withdrawing from school, will play the Masters and the Heritage to assess how his game stacks up with the game’s elite. He will use his exemptions into both the U.S. and British Opens before deciding whether or not to turn pro or play the amateurs another season.

For now he’s in no hurry.

“A couple of days off and it’s up the road to Augusta,” he said. “So it’s exciting.”

Michaux: Ex-Laney star Rod Hall helps light fire under Clemson basketball team

Mon, 03/31/2014 - 7:43pm

It was the Duke game that triggered Clemson basketball on its upward trajectory to a potential NIT title.

No, not the 72-59 win over Duke on Jan. 11 that prompted the crowd at Littlejohn Coliseum to storm the floor.

It was the 63-62 loss to Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals in Greensboro, N.C., when the referees swallowed their whistles on Rod Hall’s drive to the basket in the closing seconds. It was a different interpretation of contact than the same officials made three seconds earlier that let the Blue Devils make the winning free throws.

“It seemed like it gave everybody a spark,” said Hall, whose runner in the lane with 7.4 seconds left could have been the deciding bucket if the refs hadn’t intervened.

That’s at least the interpretation of events that galvanized the Tigers and their fans like they rarely have before regarding the school’s basketball program. Despite getting left out of the NCAA Tournament, Clemson fans have embraced the gritty Tigers with consecutive postseason sellouts to help lift Brad Brownell’s team into tonight’s NIT semifinals.

“A lot of people see Clemson as a football school,” said Hall, a junior point guard from Laney High School. “Coach talked about wanting to kind of change that and make the fans believe in the basketball team, as well. I figured if we worked at it and played hard that they would get behind us. All fans want to see is giving your all and playing hard and they’ll have your back. We’ve got that happening now.”

Hall is one of the big reasons that Clemson is one of only two ACC teams still playing this postseason (Florida State is in the other NIT semifinal). While his roommate K.J. McDaniels is the undisputed star for the Tigers, it’s Hall’s leadership and instincts that have been one of the primary catalysts on what has turned into a foundational season.

Laney fans are more inclined to recognize this Hall than the one who had to transition into being a point guard his first two seasons at Clemson. Instead of simply feeding others, Hall has been allowed to use his rough-hewn talent to get to the basket to make things happen for the Tigers.

When he’s attacking the rim, Clemson is a better team.

“It’s really something I always used to do,” said Hall, who has never missed a game and started all but one in his three seasons. “I had to switch over to being a point guard and couldn’t just be a scorer like I was in high school. So I kind of had to readjust and play my role. My role grew every year. I’m kind of getting to do more of what I feel now and whenever I get ready try to get the basket whenever I want. Even if I’m going to the basket and not going to score I can get the ball to someone else for them to make a play. So (Brownell) believes in me a lot to make stuff happen.”

That’s especially been the case in tight games such as Duke. In the second-round NIT game against Illinois, Hall’s driving layup with 9.3 seconds left ended a three-minute scoring drought and gave Clemson a 50-49 win. It was also Hall’s presence of mind to hustle to save a long inbounds pass with 1.3 seconds left to keep Illinois from getting another opportunity from under Clemson’s basket.

“He does a good job of rising to the occasion of the moment and trying to make a big play or rallying the troops a little bit – by not letting a lot of the atmosphere affect his play,” Brownell said earlier this season of Hall. “When things all around you are going crazy, you’ve got to have some peace and calm, especially if you’re a point guard, and he does that pretty well. And it settles other guys down and lets them be successful.”

Playing like they have a chip on their shoulder didn’t start with the Duke loss in the ACC Tournament. That dates back to the preseason when the media picked the Tigers to finish 14th in the 15-team ACC.

“We’re not that team that everybody picked to finish 14th,” Hall said. “It just motivated us. We decided we weren’t going to be that. Nobody wants to be picked last or be picked the team that everybody’s going to walk over and look at you like this is a team we’re going to get this win automatically. Nobody wants to be that way.”

The Tigers finished sixth in the ACC and are 23-12 heading into tonight’s game against the NIT’s top seed, SMU. Playing in Madison Square Garden is a dream for a kid from Dogwood Terrace.

“This is the first postseason I’ve been in since I’ve been at Clemson and we didn’t want to just make it to the tournament and just lose,” he said. “I think it’s a big opportunity for my career that we’ve got a chance and we’re in the final four playing at Madison Square Garden.”

Despite not having any seniors, Hall said this team has bonded better than past squads. It portends for even better things next year, provided McDaniels opts to stick around instead of leave early for the NBA Draft where he’s been projected as a possible late first-round pick.

Hall says he hasn’t added to the noise around his roommate’s choice.

“Yeah, I would like to see him come back,” Hall said. “We haven’t really talked about if he’s going to leave or not. I know he’s got a lot of pressure on him and a lot of people in his ear so I don’t bother him. We’re just focusing on what we’ve got in front of us.”

A potential NBA pick and an NIT championship are more than anyone thought Clemson would have this season.

Hall believes they can deliver.

“I don’t think just going there would be good enough,” Hall said. “We’re focused on trying to win. Our goal was to play in March with a chance to advance and we’re in April so we’re trying to take it as far as we can. I think we’ve got a good shot at winning this.”

Societal shifts bring women to golf clubs

Sun, 03/30/2014 - 12:08am

In one week the eyes of the golf world will train its full focus on Augusta. Truthfully, the golf world’s attention is always on Augusta.

On Wednesday, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews announced that it will vote in September on whether it will accept female members. A day later, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield announced it was exploring the same.

The game might have started in those two places – the St. Andrews’ Old Course is the 600-year-old home of golf and the Honourable Company codified the game’s original rules – but those gender equality dominoes started right here.

R&A chief executive Peter Dawson humorously claims that Augusta National Golf Club’s admittance of two women members in 2012 had nothing to do with this potential seismic shift in tradition overseas, but who is he kidding?

“We have been considering this, and it’s been on our radar for quite some time,” said Dawson, who also serves as secretary of the club. “As society changes, as sport changes, as golf changes, it’s something the R&A needs to do, and we’re trying to be as forward-looking as we can today.”

I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence that little more than a year after Augusta National accepted Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as members, the two oldest golf clubs in the world just happened to reconsider single-sex membership policies that have stood for 270 and 260 years, respectively.

Just like it was a coincidence that in 2004, the R&A chose the club’s sestercentennial to officially split its governing entity from its single-sex club a year after all of the Martha Burk hullabaloo at Augusta National attracted an international spotlight on the issue.

Whatever makes them feel better.

Regardless of the timing, these are welcome advancements in the perception of the game. Golf has an exclusive enough reputation without its most prominent private clubs leaving the impression that 50 percent of the world isn’t welcome (even if that’s not an entirely accurate portrayal of some of the clubs). The discussion and debate that inevitably comes up every time a male-only club plays host to a major championship is a blemish on the sport.

“We do, I assure you, understand that this is divisive,” Dawson said on the eve of the 2013 British Open at Muirfield.

“It’s a subject that we’re finding increasingly difficult, to be honest.”

Augusta National’s chairman Billy Payne fixed that and the Masters Tournament is better for it. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club voting to approve female membership in September would spare us the kind of damaging rhetoric that Dawson himself uttered at Muirfield.

“I don’t really think, to be honest, that a golf club which has a policy of being a place where like-minded men, or indeed, like-minded women, go and want to play golf together and do their thing ranks up against some of these other forms of discrimination,” Dawson said. “I really don’t think they’re comparable and I don’t think they’re damaging. It’s just kind of, for some people, a way of life that they rather like.”

Dawson sang a different tune Wednesday when he announced the pending vote.

“This has to do with our perceived governance role in the game and the right thing to do,” Dawson said.

“I’m not going to say this is overdue, but it is something that perhaps has been expected. It’s something we’re pleased to be able to announce and now we have this period of consultation to go through before the vote.”

If he won’t say it, I will – it is long overdue. And so is Muirfield taking up the issue. Arguably the world’s best links course is not served well by the contentious dialogue every time it plays host to the British Open.

But the club said Thursday that it will explore the option of allowing women to join. It will likely be at least a decade before the Open might return to the East Lothian links.

“There are no current plans to change the membership criteria, but these will be reviewed,” the club said in a statement. “Most importantly, we intend to take the time to ensure that plans we adopt will stand us in good stand, not only for the immediate future but for the next 270 years of our great club.”

There are two other male-only clubs in the British Open rotation. Royal Troon will play host to the Open in 2016 and Royal St. George’s last held it in 2011. St. George’s said it continues to review its policies while the secretary at Troon told The Telegraph “we have no plans to change the membership structure at this time,” yet pointedly adding that “although we are a single-gender club, some 370 members of the Ladies Golf Club Troon do, in fact, share our on-course facilities.”

All the dominoes will eventually fall as the 21st century rolls on.

A week from today, in the place where it started, 88 boys and girls ages 7 to 15 will compete in the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship at Augusta National.

That will provide a vivid snapshot of gender equality in a world moving inexorably in the right direction.

Michaux: NCAA tournament is something every fan should experience

Tue, 03/25/2014 - 5:48pm

The accelerated heart rate. The butterflies in the stomach. The hoarse screams. The postgame euphoria.

After 25 years of covering sports as a dispassionate professional, you tend to forget what it feels like to just be an unbridled fan at a game.

One weekend at the NCAA Tournament can fix that. And one weekend at the NCAA Tournament is something every fan of any school deserves to experience every now and then.

For a few days, the day job was left behind for a road trip with college mates to the NCAA’s opening rounds in Raleigh, N.C. It requires overpaying for tickets for seats that don’t compare to the mid-court floor level view from press row, but it’s so worth it.

Ask any of the Mercer fans who shared PNC Arena and a kinship for two days on Tobacco Road. It doesn’t get any better.

Being a sports writer tends to change the way you look at games. You watch all sides waiting for the story to emerge. You draft things in your head even as the game keeps changing in front of your eyes. You try to check any biases at the door.

Being a fan requires none of that. There’s only one side and one result that matters. Every missed shot or official judgment gets processed through a warped lens.

Why craft a thousand words about a bad call when you can just scream at the refs instead?

The unpredictability of the NCAA tournament’s round of 64 is what makes it the ultimate fan experience. Even the longest shot might pull through and make history. Thirty-point underdogs Coppin State fans can still crow about a 1997 result South Carolina fans would rather forget.

Growing up an avid Richmond fan, we still take pride in being the first No. 15 seed in NCAA history to defeat a No. 2 seed in 1991 against Syracuse. The Spiders’ reputation as a “giant killer” boasts five victories as a double-digit seed over teams seeded fifth or better and two Sweet 16 appearances.

For some programs, one tournament win is enough. It’s not realistic for a Mercer team to expect a win a national championship, but leaving a national impression is a worthy goal. Claim a blue-blood pelt and it lasts forever in the public consciousness. After that it’s fair to dream about the caliber of banner you can hang from the rafters of your home gym – Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four.

Seedings and conference pedigree aside, Mercer and Virginia were not too far apart last weekend. The Bears hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 1985 and were 0-2 in previous appearances. Virginia hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1984 and was 1-4 in tournament games the last 20 years.

It’s safe to say that neither fan base has been spoiled by success.

Both came into Friday’s opening games with similar worries – don’t get embarrassed. Mercer didn’t want to be first-round fodder for Duke. Virginia didn’t want to be the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 in tournament history.

Mercer’s senior-laden squad buried any concern by simply outplaying one of the nation’s most storied programs. No. 3 seed Duke with all its All-America talent couldn’t handle the Bears down the stretch and suffered an early ouster that busted many brackets in search of a billion dollars from Warren Buffett.

For Mercer fans, that was their NCAA championship. Anything else was gravy. On Sunday night the Bears fell behind early to Tennessee and never could make a run at the Volunteers. Yet all the Mercer fans in the arena stayed on their feet throughout and never stopped supporting. When it was over, they smiled and laughed and cheered as if they’d just advanced to the Sweet 16. They’d made their big splash and there was no shame in going home.

In its opener, Virginia played scared and we felt it as fans. The Cavaliers fell 10 points behind Coastal Carolina in the first half, and it looked like former Clemson coach Cliff Ellis might paste a massive coat of shame on the Atlantic Coast Conference as both ACC Tournament finalists could get bounced in the same building down the road from league headquarters.

It was a sick feeling as a fan to think a transcendent season might be ruined by a permanent stigma. Fear turned to relief when Virginia turned it around and won to dodge history.

Then came the greatest fan gift of all in the next round – a no-sweat blowout over Memphis. There is no nicer feeling than high-fiving fellow fans and linking arms to sing the alma mater as your team advances another week in the do-or-die bracket.

Mercer fans have returned to Macon, Ga., content in what their team accomplished. Virginia fans will move to Madison Square Garden to face whatever heartbreak or elation awaits at the East Regional.

This sports writer returns to work to get ready for the Masters. But it was nice to put down the pen, wear the colors and be reminded of what it’s like on the other side of the laptop.

No. 1 seed an unexpected surprise for Gamecocks coach

Sat, 03/22/2014 - 5:02pm

Dawn Staley admits she didn’t even see the No. 1 next to South Carolina’s name when the women’s NCAA Tournament seedings were revealed on the televised selection show.

It was an “unexpected surprise” for the Gamecocks head coach.

“I didn’t think we ended our season on a great note,” Staley said. “But obviously some people felt that our body of work spoke for itself throughout the season.”

The 27-4 Gamecocks won the Southeastern Conference regular season and rose as high as No. 4 in the country before losing to Tennessee in the regular season finale and Kentucky in the SEC Tournament semifinals. They open the NCAA Tournament against Cal State-Northridge on Sunday in Seattle.

That South Carolina has done it all with its young roster that includes only one reserve senior is all the more impressive.

“We have players who have on the job training because they’re so young,” Staley said.

It’s Staley who deserves credit as the architect of the Gamecocks’ revival. She led Temple to six NCAA Tournament appearances in eight years before accepting the Gamecocks job in 2008. It was not like she was walking into a program with a wealth of history. South Carolina had reached only one Final Four in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women era in 1980. In 27 years from 1991 until she took the reigns, the Gamecocks had reached the NCAA Tournament only twice in 2002-03.

Staley’s first two teams would follow suit with losing records on 10-18 and 14-15. But she’d done enough homework before arriving to have faith this would turn around – stealing a page from the Steve Spurrier recruiting pagebook by locking up the best local recruits. Seven Gamecocks are South Carolina bred including SEC Freshman of the Year Alaina Coates and starters Aleighsa Welch, Khadijah Sessions and Asia Dozier. SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell hails from 90 minutes up the road in Charlotte.

“From a recruiting standpoint, we did research and found out there was a cluster of young, talented player here in South Carolina,” Staley said. “We just had to be patient and wait until they grew up and at the same time kind of keep them away from the vultures that lurk outside of South Carolina. Fortunately for us we’ve been able to keep the best of the kids at home and built this program on homegrown talent and then be able to recruit outside this area the best kids nationally to come in and mesh with what we already have.”

It was another Spurrier who counseled Staley through the growing pains – Jeri. The football coach’s wife was a shoulder to lean on through two losing seasons.

“I sat back and watched and talked to Jeri Spurrier a lot,” Staley said. “She’s invested just as much as coach Spurrier is on his success and the success of South Carolina football. She kept telling me to be patient. We’ve been exactly where you are.”

In 2011, the Gamecocks were 18-15 and reached the second round of the WNIT. The next year they were 25-10 and made it to the NCAA Sweet 16. Last they went 25-8 and lost in the NCAA second round.

This year’s No. 1 seed is validation for all the hard work. The future, however, looks even brighter with a young squad that will be augmented by the No. 7 overall recruit in center Jatarie White from Charlotte and the possibility of landing the top-ranked prep senior – 6-foot-5 A’Ja Wilson – from nearby Hopkins, S.C.

“It just means that when you do things the right way success will come,” Staley said. “You do have to have some patience about it but certainly it will come.”

Patience has never been Staley’s strong suit. She was an instant collegiate success when she arrived at Virginia, leading the Cavaliers to three Final Fours and one national championship game from 1990-92. She went on to win three gold medals in the Olympics and led the Charlotte Sting to one WNBA Finals.

None of her current players were born before Staley graduated college and the oldest was 11 when she retired from playing.

“I don’t think they have a clue as to the type of player I was,” Staley said. “It’s a little stretch for them to remember or even go on the Internet to find some footage. But I think they believe in our process and our vision and I do believe they have an inclination to some of the success I had as a player.”

Her success is what makes Staley a good coach.

“I’m still very much a player at heart and I coach from being a player,” she said. “Players like to stay in rhythm and don’t like to come out if they make one mistake or look over their shoulders to see if someone is coming in for them. So I coach from that mentality.”

Her Gamecocks can full the missing item on Staley’s resume.

“I’ve had so many successes in my career as a player and as a coach, but this is the one,” she said of the NCAA title that eluded her as a player. “This is the big void that I’ve been trying to fill for a very long time. It feels great to be a little bit closer to it. For me it would be a tremendous mountain to have climbed. But I know it’s going to take a whole lot of hard work and some luck and our kids being able to stay mentally strong and tough throughout what hopefully will become a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.”

Despite its top seed, South Carolina has no easy road to the Final Four. They start in Seattle and hope to advance to Stanford next week, where the No. 2 seed Cardinal get to play host. It hardly seems like a reward.

Beyond that is a Final Four that is likely to include undefeated women’s Goliaths Connecticut and Notre Dame. Staley has the Gamecocks inching towards inclusion into that elite sorority.

“You have to take steps to get there,” she said. “I think us getting a No. 1 seed we took a huge step. At this time of season though, I think all the pressure is on UConn and Notre Dame and the high tradition teams who’ve always been there. For us we’re like the new kids on the block. I hope we’re able to play loose and play the type of basketball that got us here and you never know.”

Staley – who signed a lucrative contract extension through 2019 – believes that the embrace from Gamecocks fans will grow as strong as it has become for baseball when Ray Tanner brought home consecutive College World Series titles.

“South Carolina people want to be a part of winning like everybody else,” Staley said. “We’re able to draw almost 13,000 fans for our last home game, that says a lot. That say a lot for where this program has come and where it’s going to go. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to build and have people celebrate with us. If we can somehow bring a national championship to this city it would be tremendous much like what Coach Tanner did with the baseball team.”

Michaux: Former Washington County star making impact at North Carolina

Thu, 03/20/2014 - 5:45pm

After a year out of competition, former Washington County girls basketball star Allisha Gray is fired up to play for another championship.

North Carolina is ranked No. 12 in the nation and seeded fourth in the Stanford Regional of the women’s NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels open the postseason against Tennessee-Martin at 3 p.m. Sunday in Chapel Hill, N.C.

“It’s exciting just to know that you’re going to the big dance and get the chance to play for a national championship,” Gray said. “Not many teams can do it, so it’s just a great feeling.”

Gray is just happy to be picking up where she left off as a high school junior, making her inside-outside presence felt after missing a full season because of reconstructive knee surgery. She ranked 16th in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (458 points) and tied for second in three-point percentage (42.3). Gray was the leading Tar Heels scorer in seven games and leading rebounder in seven others.

“My main focus was to come in and play my role and what happens, happens,” Gray said of her freshman campaign. “Eventually I got into the starting lineup.”

There was little doubt that the 5-foot-10 Gray would be a collegiate success. She left such a big impression at Washington County that the community twice chartered a bus this season to go see her play – once to Atlanta at Georgia Tech and another two weeks ago to Chapel Hill to see the regular-season finale against Duke.

“I feel so happy that they’d take a five-hour trip to come watch me,” Gray said. “I just love the support I get from my teammates and family and friends. It’s just a great feeling.”

The folks at home in Sandersville, Ga., certainly appreciate her talents. As a sophomore, she led Washington County’s Lady Hawks to an undefeated season and Class AAA state title. As a junior, she averaged almost 30 points to lead Washington County back to the state championship game, where the Lady Hawks lost and snapped a 63-game winning streak.

Her senior season, however, was a washout after tearing up her left knee during practice in Colorado with the USA Women’s U18 National Team.

“It just increased my work ethic wanting to get back out on the court and play,” Gray said. “It hurt me because senior year is the most important year of high school and I didn’t get to play all of the games, but that just drove me to work harder to get back on court and play 100 percent with no regrets.”

Gray had already committed to North Carolina before her injury, and the Tar Heels stuck by the nation’s No. 7 overall recruit. She had already turned down offers from South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland.

She believes her Tar Heels can become one of the nation’s elite programs before her class graduates.

“Of course we do,” Gray said. “That’s why you want to come to school where Carolina already has a great tradition. You just want to come up to build on it. I think we’ll be up there.”

Part of what attracted Gray to the program was the quality of her peers. Fellow freshman Diamond DeShields, named the national rookie of the year, was a familiar friend on the Georgia all-star circuits. Gray first got to know DeShields – the daughter of former Major League Baseball player Delino DeShields – as seventh graders with the Georgia Pistols AAU team.

Both DeShields and Gray were named to the ACC All-Freshman Team. They joined a list of only 10 Tar Heels freshmen to ever score 400 points in a season – the first rookie pair to score that many points in a season since Ivory Latta and Camille Little in 2003-04.

Gray was confident their freshman class would make an immediate impression.

“I knew it from the start. That’s why I came,” she said. “I wanted to come in with a talented group. I knew they were real talented. I wanted to play with good players and good players want to play with other good players. So it was perfect for us to come in together.”

The Tar Heels roster includes zero seniors. The top four players are three freshman – including Stephanie Mavunga – and a sophomore.

Gray believes this year’s 24-9 record and No. 12 ranking is just a taste of how good this team can become.

“We definitely sent a message,” she said with a laugh.

But Gray doesn’t think the Tar Heels need to wait. Accomplishments this season include the first regular-season sweep of Duke in six years and a December tournament victory over South Carolina in Myrtle Beach. North Carolina lost a third matchup to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals, but the setback only motivated them more.

“It was very disappointing but just adds fuel to our fire,” Gray said. “Work harder and work to improve on what we didn’t do in the game. We’re definitely ready for the tournament now.”

The Tar Heels might have to face the No. 1 seed Gamecocks and No. 2 seed Stanford to win the Stanford Regional, but Gray and her young teammates aren’t intimidated.

“That’s the mindset,” Gray said of UNC’s Final Four focus. “Any region you’re in you want to be confident enough that you can make it to the Final Four. We’re confident we can make it.”

As spring football returns to Georgia, so do the player arrests

Tue, 03/18/2014 - 6:26pm

ATHENS, Ga. — Within minutes of the Athens Banner-Herald breaking the story that four Georgia football players were arrested Monday night on misdemeanor charges for a “theft by deception” scheme, the snark started its viral pattern up the social media chain.

Admittedly, I might have sarcastically cast the first stone.

“Tis the season,” I tweeted with the link the instant the story posted on OnlineAthens.com.

“As regular as daffodils in the spring … UGA players getting arrested,” chimed in Charlotte-based columnist Tommy Tomlinson a minute later.

“Death, taxes and Georgia football players getting in trouble in the off-season,” offered Boise-via-Macon columnist Brian Murphy.

This was in the first five minutes after the news first broke – the ink from the players’ booking finger prints barely dry. You can imagine the chuckle and remark that came when the news eventually reached the ears of head ball coach Steve Spurrier. Probably something like, “You know what UGAAD stands for? U Got Arrested Again, Didn’cha?”

Whether it’s fair or not, Georgia football has a perception problem. Spring football practice started Tuesday once again with a gloomy off-season cloud already hanging over the program. It’s amazing head coach Mark Richt has any hair left from all the “Are you kidding me?!” phone calls he’s had to field in 14 years since coming to Athens.

“I’m aware of the situation and it will be handled in an appropriate way,” Richt said in a statement issued Tuesday morning that failed to include all those Yosemite Sam words that were echoing in his head.

The criticism for player misdeeds tends to fall on the coach. Richt has been hearing it for years despite all of the laudable changes he’s made to deal with kids gone astray for one reason or another.

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit lobbed a Twitter grenade at Richt for being too soft: “Clearly some of the UGA players take advantage of Coach Richts forgiving heart. No fear of the consequences leads to ongoing shananagins.”

Herbstreit’s spelling aside, the criticism is unfounded. While Richt might indeed have a forgiving nature, he also is the most strict disciplinarian among his coaching brethren. His hickory switch of choice is suspended playing time. If that doesn’t get through to recidivists, he’s willing to dismiss.

Richt will certainly deal appropriately with starting safety Tray Matthews, former Jenkins County defensive linemen Jonathan Taylor and James DeLoach and wide receiver Uriah LeMay for their alleged foolish crime. How they thought they could possibly get away with double-cashing student tuition checks from the UGA Athletic Association account is hard to believe. The 11 checks – all in the amount of $71.50 – were mobile deposited into bank accounts and then quickly cashed at convenience stores.

Presumably some if not all of these checks and/or accounts had the players’ own names on them, which makes for a pretty convenient paper trail for the warrants to be issued. It’s like a Dumb and Dumber movie caper.

The scornful public reaction will once again be about Georgia recruiting bad kids. That all of these players were recruited and offered scholarships by just about every other big-time school seems to get lost on everybody. In case you hadn’t noticed, those “bad kids” that Georgia kicks off the team have quite the track record of ending up at other schools.

Louisiana State and Auburn can thank Richt’s strict code for their successful starting quarterbacks last season – Zach Mettenberger and Nick Marshall. Alabama doesn’t seem to worry that tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith gave a false crime report and was smoking pot in the dorm room with another dismissed Georgia football star, Josh Harvey-Clemens (who undoubtedly will end up at another school soon). Isaiah Crowell quickly wore out his welcome in Athens with a weapons arrest in 2012, but he woke up from his admittedly “childish” experience to do well enough at Alabama State that he should get drafted into the NFL in May.

Take a random sampling of 100 college kids at any university and you’ll be hard-pressed to have them make it through a year without some kind of blemish on their collective record – underage drinking, drug use, DUI, suspended license or various misdemeanors. You won’t find any athletics department hanging a banner that reads “365 days without any infractions.”

And this isn’t just restricted to big-time Southeastern Conference programs. The presumably smartest athletes can do the dumbest things. At Harvard last year, 60 students had to withdraw from school for involvement in a cheating scandal. Among the violators were two basketball co-captains as well as football, baseball and hockey players. Back in 2006, Harvard’s football captain was suspended after being arrested and charged with domestic assault.

Alabama had four players arrested in February 2013 for crimes ranging from violent robbery to credit card fraud. One of those players, D.J. Pettway, will return to play for Alabama for this season.

Enough former and current Tennessee football players to field an entire defense were arrested or cited by police at an off-campus party in February. Florida’s checkered arrest history yielded some very bad NFL role models in the past year.

When LSU was getting negative headlines for letting players vote Jeremy Hill back onto the roster despite a violent assault charge, the New Orleans newspaper touted the fact the Tigers “fall in lower half of SEC in player arrests during past three years.” Their unofficial research yielded these arrest numbers in that small 2010-13 window – Missouri (18), Florida (17), Georgia (15), Arkansas (12), Ole Miss (11), Auburn and Kentucky (nine), Alabama (seven), LSU (six) and Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Tennessee (five each).

Vanderbilt brought up the rear with only one at the time. A month later five Commodore football players were arrested for alleged roles in a campus rape last summer.

For what it’s worth, eight of those 15 Georgia players in that time frame eventually were dismissed or transferred.

This stuff happens and will continue to happen no matter how much lecturing and suspending coaches do.

But that doesn’t change the perception problem. Until Georgia figures out a way to cure juvenile human nature, the Bulldogs will continue to be a punch line on social media.

Michaux: Conference tournaments have lost their luster

Sat, 03/15/2014 - 10:16pm

What’s the point?

That’s a question that comes to mind annually during conference basketball tournaments – the most imperfect system ever devised to determine a league’s “champion.”

The question never seemed more pertinent than on Thursday after seeing a picture of an almost entirely vacant Georgia Dome minutes before tip-off between No. 8 and 9 seeds Missouri and Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. High school gyms have way more atmosphere.

Expansion has bloated conference tournament fields so much that the SEC and Atlantic Coast conferences now require five days to fit in all the games. Either Georgia Tech or South Carolina would have needed to win five consecutive days to earn titles. That would border on cruel and unusual punishment were it to ever happen.

The venerable ACC event – the one that inspired the conference tournament explosion – was forced to pull the curtain to cover upper level seats for opening round games in its traditional Greensboro, N.C., venue. It even brought in a former American Idol for a concert between games. This was an event that once rivaled the Masters Tournament as the toughest ticket to get in sports, and now it’s diminished by dilution.

When the ACC first created its tournament in 1954, it was a novel idea. March Madness, as we know it, didn’t exist yet. To make it unique, the ACC put the premium on winning the tournament title by declaring in 1961 its winner to be the true conference champion. The stakes in those earlier seasons were huge with only the tournament winner advancing for a chance to play for the national title.

In short, it was a very big deal.

In its modern form, the big deal is gone. The best conference teams are merely playing for NCAA Tournament seeding. The major conference tournaments have become much more about middling teams trying to get themselves off the “bubble” or outliers hoping to ride a hot streak into the 68-team NCAA Tournament field where they don’t really belong based on their season-long body of work.

In the lesser conferences, league tournaments can actually backfire. Mount St. Mary’s at 16-16 will represent the Northeast Conference in the NCAA field instead of 21-win Robert Morris because it got hot at the right time and the other had a bad day. Great story for the Mount, but not such good news for the Northeast not sending its best representative.

Georgia State went 17-1 in the Sun Belt Conference regular season, but if it gets bounced in the tournament championship game today in New Orleans there is no guarantee that the 25-win Panthers will go “dancing.”

Is it exciting? Sometimes. And perhaps that’s all that matters. There is a certain beauty in the democratic fairness of it all.

It was fun while it lasted seeing Clemson and Georgia make last-ditch runs to prove themselves NCAA Tournament worthy.

But perhaps there is a better way that rewards the full body of work more than a week of results. One option would be eliminating the conference tournaments and expanding the NCAA Tournament field instead. Take all those bubble teams – the Georgias, Clemsons, Florida States – and match them up with the Mercers, Coastal Carolinas and Robert Morrises in a 96-team bracket and spend this weekend paring the field down to 64 teams rather than trying to build up to it.

The best 32 teams – the first eight seeds in each division of the bracket – would get byes into the second week while the ones with weaker résumés can earn their way up against comparable competition. The smaller conference giants could stand a chance of making some noise for a week against relative equals and perhaps be more than opening game fodder for the top seeds.

It’s a bold concept, but one that’s not likely to sit well with conferences like the ACC which consider the conference tournament an essential money-maker in its TV marketing. With plans to take its tournament to Brooklyn in a few years (where more empty seats will await), the ACC isn’t giving up its cash cow.

So what to do? How about not guarantee conference tournament entry to every team. If you’re the 15th seed in the ACC, you don’t deserve to play for the championship. And if imbalanced schedules are worrisome, balance them up with more conference games.

England’s Premier League doesn’t even guarantee teams can even stay in the league if they perform badly, relegating the worse soccer franchises to a lower division while promoting others. The ACC and SEC and other large conferences should borrow a page and only allow its best eight teams into the conference tournament. It would return to a more manageable size and provide better matchups in every game.

At some point, it would be nice to see some creative thinking for college basketball’s future – the kind that came up with conference tournaments before they eventually became obsolete.

Michaux: Tiger Woods needs to listen to his body and rest up for Masters

Thu, 03/13/2014 - 4:32pm

Shut it down until the Masters Tournament, Tiger. Please.

Tiger Woods is planning to play at Bay Hill next week and there’s probably nothing you or I or even his doctor can say at this point to stop him.

We all should wish he wouldn’t. His back needs a bigger break than 10 days off since he was last seen wincing his way to a 78 at Doral and letting caddies pick his ball up out of the hole.

“Tiger is continuing to get treatment and get himself in a good place for next week,” his agent, Mark Steinberg, told ESPN.com on Tuesday. “He intends to be at Bay Hill.”

Bay Hill is just an unnecessary means to an end. Woods has his sights set on the Masters in a month and his game obviously isn’t in the best form to end a major-less drought that is approaching six years. He feels he needs another competitive start to be ready when he gets to Augusta National Golf Club. There’s no arguing that.

But getting back on the course too soon for 72 holes might hurt him more than help. The long haul is vastly more important than the short term right now, and a month of rest, treatment and careful preparation would do him a lot more good than trying to win for the ninth time at Arnold Palmer’s place.

What we know about the specifics of Woods’ back problems can be fit into a thimble. He has “spasms” that “flare up” during some swings. Back spasms dropped him to his knees last August at the Barclays Championship and forced him to withdraw 13 holes into the final round at the Honda Classic two weeks ago.

Then on Sunday at Doral – after he moved himself in position to contend with a Saturday 66 – Woods winced in pain and reached for his back after a bunker shot from an awkward stance on the sixth hole. He wasn’t the same the rest of the day, playing in obvious discomfort even though he could still deliver a few 300-yard-plus drives along the way.

“The deeper the flexion, the worse it felt,” he said. “The driver felt line. As I said, the more flexion I had, the worse it felt.”

Woods shot 78, which marked the worst final round of his career, and failed to make a birdie as he fell from third to 25th. He left with more questions than answers.

Has he undergone an MRI? What kind of treatment is he getting? Is this something that could get worse?

“Well, it is back spasms, so we’ve done all the protocols and it’s just a matter of keeping everything aligned so I don’t go into that,” said Woods, declining to explain what those “protocols” are.

A doctor once told Woods in 2008 that his torn knee ligaments contributed to two stress fractures in his tibia and suggested he shut it down for six weeks. Woods refused and told the doctor he was going to play and win the U.S. Open two weeks later. He did.

So that’s where Woods’ mind is when it comes to majors.

The most telling answer Woods gave last week, however, came Saturday after posting the lowest score of anyone in the field all week. On his best day he was asked if he was able to go through the round without thinking of the back.

“No,” he said, admitting that “it’s pretty sore.”

There’s a wide range of back issues. Fred Couples has endured nearly constant pain for 20 years since tearing an outer layer of a disk in his lower back in a 1994 tournament at Doral. He was 34 at the time and won only four PGA Tour events since.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open winner and 2012 Masters runner-up, withdrew from or skipped the last three majors of 2013 dealing with back issues that come back every time he starts hitting balls again.

Where Woods stands on the injury scale, only he and his doctors know. But the reality is this has been bothering him for at least seven months. He needs his back to hold up another seven years to accomplish his career goals.

Whether you love Tiger or hate him, he’s far and away the most important figure in golf. He is the engine that kept the PGA Tour afloat and thriving through the recent economic crisis. He’s the one who drives the ratings and the page views and water cooler conversation.

Golf desperately needs Tiger Woods catching Sam Snead’s win record and chasing Jack Nicklaus’ major standard. Whether he actually catches Jack’s mark of 18 major victories is irrelevant – as long as he just keeps threatening to do it. Half of the world hopes he succeeds and the other half passionately hopes he fails.

His body, however, is the biggest problem. Continued major issues with his back, knees and Achilles tendon through the last six years have compromised his durability. At 38, he’s not a young man and time is no longer on his side.

Woods needs to listen to his body. And maybe even listen to himself.

“Normally things like this, you shut it down for a while and then get back up and get the strength and everything developed around it,” he said at Doral. “I just need to get healthy enough to where I can put the club in that position.”

One week may not be enough to cure what ails him. One bad flex and he’s right back where he was with only two weeks left before the Masters.

Perhaps taking it easy, undergoing treatment and focusing practice on his putting and short game would do him more good before Augusta than the rigors of a week at Bay Hill. He’s thrived after idle stretches before, winning that 2008 U.S. Open while injured after sitting out two months. He contended and finished fourth at the 2010 Masters after a forced leave of 21 weeks.

“If I feel good, I can actually make a pretty decent swing,” Woods said last Sunday before heading off for treatment. “You saw it (Saturday). I actually can make some good swings and shoot a good score. But if I’m feeling like this, it’s a little tough.”

Why risk feeling like that at Augusta by playing at Bay Hill. Take a break and get better.

Tiger needs it. Golf needs it.

Michaux: 'Brightest star' Patrick Reed finds confidence at Doral

Sun, 03/09/2014 - 10:08pm

DORAL, Fla. – You go wire-to-wire to become the youngest player to win a World Golf Championship against an elite field on a remade golf course with the Trump brand written all over it, perhaps it’s inevitable that a little of that brash Trump attitude rubs off.

“It’s just one of those things I believe in myself and I’m one of the top five players in the world,” Patrick Reed told a national TV audience after winning the biggest of his three PGA Tour events in 14 starts at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. “I feel like I’ve proven myself.”

Give the former Augusta State star credit. He’s even less afraid of saying something bold than he is of holding a lead against the best players in the world.

Reed never relinquished his lead on Sunday on a Blue Monster course that yielded only three under-par performances on the week. He even had the audacity to dress up just like Tiger Woods with the No. 1 player in the world falling apart with a 78 right in front of him.

“I have a lot of confidence in my game,” Reed said. “It’s one of those things that you build confidence by how hard you work. I feel like I’m one of the hardest workers out here and it definitely shows. I have three wins in 14 starts, especially in a field like this, to go wire-to-wire. It’s just one of those things that I feel like with how hard I’ve worked, I mean, I’m working my way up to become a top-five player in the world. But the thing is, I’m just going to take a little time in the fact that I haven’t been on the PGA Tour for very long.”

His not-quite-Richard Sherman-esque self-analysis didn’t exactly go over well in social media that’s quick to call out arrogance. And former tour pro Aaron Oberholser said in his analysis on the Golf Channel that it’s not likely to play well in the locker room.

But the rate Reed’s winning tournaments, perhaps his peers better get used to it.

Donald Trump – never one to shy away from an audacious boast – certainly liked what he saw and heard from the only guy who has won on his Trumped-up Doral course.

“I think he’s fantastic, I think he’s a real winner,” Trump said. “I predicted it this week. I’ve seen him a couple times before. Tough. He’s a very tough cookie and a really great golfer. He’s got the grit. That grit’s very important.”

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was duly impressed himself after drawing oohs and ahs from the gallery when he announced that the 23-year-old Reed clipped Woods by 26 days as the youngest ever winner of a WGC event.

“You’re one of the brightest stars on the future of the tour,” Finchem told Reed at the trophy presentation.

The only one not taken aback by Reed’s outspoken confidence was his former college coach at Augusta State, Josh Gregory. He’s seeing the same guy who led the Jaguars to consecutive NCAA championships in 2010-11 with a perfect 6-0 match play record.

“It sounds a little brash and bold, but that’s who he is,” Gregory said. “I’m sure he’s probably going to regret those comments and probably should have kept that to himself. Tiger Woods said the same kind of things when he was young and got beat up for it. But Patrick believes that deep down and that’s what makes him so special.”

Reed is certainly making believers in the golf world in short order. If the world didn’t see him coming, it’s only because they weren’t paying attention.

Reed was the Louisiana high school player of the year in 2007 after leading his University High team from Baton Rouge to back-to-back state titles. In 2008 he was a semifinalist in the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst, losing to eventual winner Danny Lee.

At Augusta State he was the bedrock of those back-to-back national championship teams. Then after leaving college a year early he successfully converted six of eight Monday qualifying efforts into PGA Tour starts before earning his card through Q school at the end of the 2012.

Any other questions?

“It’s just shown that with how I’ve been playing to have three wins in 14 starts, to do the Monday qualifiers the way I did that, and just all those things that we had to go through, it’s just showing that we belong out here,” he said. “As well as we belong to be in the conversation every week. That, you know, we’ll contend at every tournament we step up at.”

In a month, Reed will step up for the first time in a major championship at the Masters Tournament on an Augusta National course he played three times in college. Is it ridiculous to think he can win actually win in his major debut?

Considering Francis Ouimet, Ben Curtis and Keegan Bradley have done just that, perhaps not.

“With what I’ve done this week and what I’ve done in my career, I know that any event I tee it up at I have a chance to win,” Reed said. “Before this event, my goal was to compete and be in contention coming down Sunday at Augusta. All these guys are going to be at Augusta, basically, so to go and go wire-to-wire, that definitely just gives me more confidence come Sunday that if I play how I’m supposed to at Augusta, that we’ll be in the running.”

If Reed is really a top-five player – and he really will be top 20 – then why not?

“It wouldn’t shock me,” said Gregory. “It would be one hell of a story.”

Michaux: Ex-Jaguar Reed isn't one to shy away from big stage

Sat, 03/08/2014 - 8:44pm

DORAL, Fla. — The fact that Patrick Reed will be seeing red on the Blue Monster is a testament to just how far he’s come so fast.

Tiger Woods will be wearing his traditional Sunday red in the twosome directly in front of the former Augusta State standout in the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral. But it’s the world No. 1 who will be chasing one of the few people on Earth with a better career closing record.

Reed is already 2-0 in holding 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour since August, but the stakes have never been higher for the 23-year-old ex-Jaguar.

He looks and sounds as calm as any veteran.

“To me it’s another golf tournament,” Reed said after a Saturday 69 left him with a two-shot lead over Jason Dufner and Hunter Mahan and three clear of Woods. “Of course, it’s a World Golf Championship event and there’s a lot more on the line. But at the same time, I have to treat every round and every event like it’s just a normal event and another round of golf. Stick to the game plan I’ve had all week, and that’s what’s gotten me to this point.”

Perhaps the only one who doesn’t consider it remarkable what Reed is doing is himself. Two years ago, he was Monday qualifying his way into tour events after foregoing his senior season at Augusta State. At the end of 2012, he secured his PGA Tour card with zero strokes to spare at Q school.

Two years later, he’s still never competed in a single major championship or even a Players Championship. Yet he’s leading a field of golfers that includes the top 50 players in the world – a fraternity in which he’s already a member at No. 44 despite starting 2013 ranked 584th in the world.

A victory today could move him as high as 21st in the world.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely come very fast but at the same time … it’s one of those things that when you work as hard as we have at home, when you come out here, you’re going to produce numbers,” Reed said. “You’re going to play well. The main thing for me is just stay more consistent and continue shooting low numbers and keep getting these kind of positions where I have leads going into Sunday.”

Reed made a move to the top Saturday when he rolled in a 41-footer for eagle on the par-5 8th hole and added birdies at 10 and 11. Having already beaten Jordan Spieth in a playoff at Greensboro and held off charges by the likes of Zach Johnson and Justin Leonard at Humana, he now has all of golf’s elite looking up at him.

What do they know about him?

“Not much. I don’t know him that well,” Mahan said. “Doesn’t communicate that much. I played with him one time and I don’t know that much about him.”

His collegiate rivals can attest to just how tough he is to beat when it counts. He was 6-0 in the match-play portion of the two NCAA Championships he won at Augusta State.

“If you have a 54-hole lead, that means you’re playing the best golf of the group through three rounds,” said Reed, whose 54-hole lead in his wire-to-wire win at the Humana Challenge in January came courtesy of three consecutive 63s. “Of course, anyone would love to win the event, but at the same time, you have to go in with the kind of mindset that if you happen to not get it done, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve won twice since August. I mean, we’ve played great, and if I continue doing what I’m supposed to be doing, I mean, come Sunday afternoon, hopefully we’re holding the trophy.”

Reed’s PGA Tour bio lists his dream foursome partners as Tiger Woods, Ian Poulter and Stephen Ames – implying a taste for poking the bear. But after prevailing in the final group Saturday with Dustin Johnson, he doesn’t seem afraid of anything.

“Never had the opportunity to play with (Tiger) and I still haven’t been able to play with him,” he said. “But you know, whenever he’s close to the lead, he’s a guy you have to watch out for. But at the same time, I have to go and just play my own game.

“I was playing with Dustin Johnson today and I could have gotten into a situation where I started to play ‘Who Could Hit the Ball the Farthest?’ and I would have lost that battle every time. But I stayed in my rhythm, stayed in my golf game and my game plan, and that’s why I’m sitting here with the lead.”

Nobody in history has ever won three PGA Tour events before competing in his first major championship. Reed will return to Augusta for his Masters Tournament debut next month, and he won’t back down at the chance to make a little history today.

“I’ve always had that aggressive, kind of go for everything (attitude),” he said. “Probably five, six years ago, I probably couldn’t pull off half the shots, even though I would try. Now I feel like 80-, 90-percent of the time, I can pull off any shot I’m trying to do. That just gives me more confidence to the fact that coming down the 71st, 72nd hole, if I have to be really aggressive to have a chance to win, I can do that.”

With the focus on Tiger, as always, as he brought back the swagger with 66, it’s Reed who might steal the Sunday show.

“I get pretty fiery and I’m not scared to throw a fist-pump either,” he said. “Like Tiger.”

Michaux: Masters champ Scott closing in on golf's top spot

Wed, 03/05/2014 - 2:55pm

DORAL, Fla. — If Tiger Woods’ back feels well enough to look over his shoulder, he’ll see Adam Scott a lot closer on his tail than he first appeared.

The reigning Masters Tournament champion could take over the No. 1 ranking in the world from Woods this week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at the Trumped-up Doral. All it would take is a victory by Scott coupled with a finish worse than sixth by Woods.

“I’ve said the whole time, I wouldn’t really think about it until it came to this and it’s impossible not to think about it,” Scott said. “It would be a dream come true to make it to that point, but it’s not necessarily probable, either. If you look at stats and numbers, there’s no reason why I’m just going to roll out and win this week, but there’s great motivation for me to do that.”

It was certainly not something Scott could think about as recently as last summer before the PGA Tour playoffs. Woods had won five times already last season to build up a comfortable lead in the complicated world rankings points system.

Before the Barclays Championship last August, Woods had a lead of 237.49 points over then-No. 4 Scott. His average

points that establish the ranking was almost double Scott’s average (13.87 to 7.93).

Then then Scott prevailed by a stroke to beat Woods in the Barclays, when Woods’ back spasms sent him to his knees on the 13th hole in the final round, Scott jumped to No. 2 for the first time in his career.

That proved to be the turning point in the No. 1 world ranking chase for Scott, who before going on a string of successes in Australia still believed he was a long way from catching Woods on that bucket-list pursuit. The only Australian golfer to hold the No. 1 ranking was Greg Norman, who owned it for a record 331 weeks before Woods came along to shatter his record.

“Well, I think it’s a dream more then a goal,” Scott said in November. “It’s something I told myself when I was playing up at Twin Waters (Golf Club) as a kid, or even younger in the street with a plastic ball and stuff, that I wanted to be world No. 1. And for a long time it really wasn’t attainable. I am getting close so I would like to get there, but I don’t make it a goal, because the process of getting there is winning tournaments so if I can keep winning tournaments, I can get close so you know there is no better time then now. I’ve never been closer so I have to keep pushing on.”

Scott won twice in Australia and finished second and third in two other starts to ignite a dogged pursuit of Woods. Starting with his Barclays win, Scott has gained 169.30 world rankings points while Woods has struggled to collect only 80.67. Coupled with Woods losing points from various past successes, such as his 2012 victory at Torrey Pines, the gap between No. 1 and 2 has closed to a scant 42.68 points.

The winner this week will probably earn 76 points.

“It is certainly a little bit sooner than I expected,” Scott said of the opportunity. “But, so far, it seems guys at the top of the rankings have played a fairly light schedule so no one has been really able to run away and Tiger has only played a couple of events. So he has not run away with a lot of points so far this year.

“So here we are, and it’s an incredible opportunity for me. I mean, it’s taken me a long time to get to this point. I’d love to go out and play great this week and have you guys thinking of writing stories and me thinking of being the No. 1 player in the world when I wake up next Monday. That would be amazing. So for me, it’s all upside this week.”

While Scott has been preparing at his home in the Bahamas before coming back for the Florida Swing, Woods hasn’t been able to get into any rhythm. He withdrew after 13 holes in the final round on Sunday at the Honda Classic and will not play a practice round on the completely rebuilt Blue Monster.

But Scott doesn’t believe even a wounded Woods will be a pushover regarding the top ranking he’s held for 673 weeks in his career. The top three players in the world – Woods, Scott and Henrik Stenson – will be grouped together the first two rounds.

“I think it is absolutely a good pairing with the No. 1 up for grabs,” Scott said. “I don’t know how Tiger feels about it but it’s obviously a position he’s pretty comfortable with for a long time throughout his career, and I can assure you from knowing him just a little bit, it’s a position he probably wouldn’t want to give up. So I don’t know that we’re going to be trying to play each other head-to-head because we know this field is a lot bigger than the two of us.”

Woods confirmed that the No. 1 ranking still means something to him – especially after he regained it last year after sliding as low as 58th in the world in 2011.

“It feels good, because you have to earn it,” Woods said of the ranking. “You have to win golf tournaments to get there. And you have to be pretty consistent. I have won, what, eight times in the last couple years to get back there? And that wasn’t an easy task, especially coming from outside the top 50. To be able to come back from that and get to where I’m at is something I’m very proud of. A lot of you in here have wrote me off, that I would never come back – but here I am.”

Woods, McIlroy suffer painful Sundays

Sun, 03/02/2014 - 7:53pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Florida seems to have become the walk-off capital of the golf world, as for the second consecutive year the No. 1 golfer in the world failed to finish the Honda Classic.

Tiger Woods yielded to back spasms Sunday and walked off the back nine at PGA National. Rory McIlroy’s wisdom teeth held on long enough to finish this year, but it proved unpalatable anyway.

Neither of them got the healing result they wanted – or needed – as the Masters Tournament approaches.

“It’s very disappointing,” McIlroy said after blowing a two-shot lead on the course where two years ago he first reached No. 1 in the world with a victory over Woods. “It was a perfect opportunity to win.”

A year after McIlroy walked off in a pique of frustration during a miserable second round at PGA National, he got beaten by former University of Georgia golfer Russell Henley on the first hole of a four-way playoff after a frenetic Sunday when nobody appeared eager to win.

McIlroy seemed almost as chagrined as he was a year ago. Then, he had to apologize a few days later after letting his emotions get the better of him when he bolted in the midst of an even more appalling back nine on Fri­day and his former management team tried to play it off as a dental instead of mental problem.

“A 74 today wasn’t good enough to get the job done,” said McIlroy, who had a chance to win in regulation but missed an 11-foot eagle putt on the 18th. “Even if I would have won today, it would have felt a little bit undeserved in a way.”

Henley’s Masters-clinching victory and McIlroy’s late collapse were eclipsed by more injury drama involving Woods. It’s become an almost annual tradition for the world’s best golfer in his home state. He’s looking more like the embodiment of the expression “age is undefeated.”

“It’s my lower back with spasms,” Woods said in a statement through spokesman Glenn Greenspan as he left the course with his son, Charlie, after calling it quits at the 13th green. “It started this morning warming up.”

Woods said “it’s too early to tell” whether he’ll be able to play this week in the WGC event at Doral. “I need treatment every day until Thursday to try to calm it down. We’ll see how it is.”

The lower back spasms were the same as the ones that hindered him in August’s Bar­clays event in New Jersey, when he fought through the pain to finish second to Adam Scott by a shot.

This time, Woods walked over to playing partner Luke Guthrie and said “I can’t go anymore” after finishing the 13th hole. Guthrie said he noticed Woods “gingerly” teeing up and retrieving his ball as the round progressed. Woods wasn’t right from the start, as he was 5-over par through his first six holes Sunday.

Turns out 3-under 67 could have gotten Woods into the playoff, but he was never close to threatening after his poor start.

“If you’re hurting, you’re hurting,” said Guthrie, who played the last 31 holes with Woods, including his Satur­day 65. “You don’t need to risk injuring yourself even more. He’s had his share of problems with injuries. There’s no reason for him to chance it if he’s really hurting.”

Sunday’s withdrawal is the latest in a troubling trend for the 38-year-old Woods. He has withdrawn seven times in his career with injuries, four of them in the past five years in Florida since returning from major knee surgery after winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines limping on a left leg with a torn ACL and stress fracture.

In 2012, he abruptly withdrew from Doral on Sunday after teeing off the 12th hole, citing a leg injury.

“I felt tightness in my left Achilles warming up this morning, and it continued to get progressively worse,” Woods said then. “In the past, I may have tried to continue to play, but this time, I decided to do what I thought was necessary.”

In the 2011 Players Cham­pion­ship at Sawgrass, Woods shot 42 on his opening nine and withdrew, citing pain in his left knee and Achilles that he later said began when he tried to hit from an awkward stance in the pine straw under the Eisenhower Tree in the final round of the Masters.

In 2010, Woods withdrew from the Players after only seven holes in the final round, complaining of neck pain he feared might be a bulging disk.

“I’ve been playing through it,” Woods said then. “I can’t play through it anymore.”

If Woods doesn’t play at Doral this week, he still is committed to play in Bay Hill two weeks later in a final tune-up before what would be his 20th Masters. Through all of his career aches, pains and personal setbacks, Woods has never missed a start at Augusta since debuting as an amateur in 1995.

But Sunday’s situation casts doubt on whether there is enough time for Woods to recover from his worst career start and reignite his major mission by ending a nine-year victory drought at Augusta.

Time isn’t necessarily on his side in healing all wounds.

A 65 and signs of life from Tiger in Florida

Sat, 03/01/2014 - 8:44pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — The first Saturday morning in March is the last place you expect to assess the Masters readiness of the world’s best golfer. Then again, it’s fortunate there was anything to assess at all.

Tiger Woods barely snuck into the weekend at the Honda Classic – his new hometown tournament. In the first two-some off in the morning with Luke Guthrie, he wasn’t just chasing leader Rory McIlroy from 11 shots behind but also his first Sunday appearance of the year on the PGA Tour in what has been the slowest start of his 18-year career.

A 5-under 65 – his best round of the season – was a positive sign that the 38-year-old Woods has more than what he’s shown so far as the weeks counting down to the Masters.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Woods said. “Today was a positive day, hit the ball well and made some putts and got myself back in the hunt.”

The scrutiny that constantly envelops Woods has grown denser in 2014 as he returned showing little of the form that won him five events last year. His body looks bigger, his swing tighter and his results poorer.

He started with a tie for 80th at Torrey Pines – a place where he’s won eight times including his last career major at the U.S. Open in 2008. A Saturday 79 sent him packing after the 54-hole secondary cut.

The next week in Dubai he failed to follow up an opening 68 and finished tied for 41st, 10 strokes behind winner Stephen Gallacher.

Sitting 66th when he arrived at PGA National in darkness on Saturday morning, Woods was flirting with finishing 40th or worse in three consecutive starts for only the second time in his career. In 2012 he went T40 at the Masters, missed the cut in Charlotte and another T40 at the Players during a rare triple dip. But he bracketed that stretch on both sides with wins at Bay Hill and Memorial.

“I’ve had a long enough career where I’ve gone through periods like that, yeah, where it’s tough,” Woods said. “I’ve had situations where it just seems like no matter what you do, you play, nothing really goes your way. You can’t get the feel of your swing, can’t get the putter going, short game, just it’s one thing after another. And it’s like we can week after week after week, round after round after round like that, and next thing you know, couple months and half the season has gone by. I’ve been through sessions like that, you look at my career, it’s gone in waves like that.”

With only six weeks to the Masters that Woods hasn’t won since 2005, the search was on for a spark. Despite hitting only six fairways (including just one of the front nine), Woods was making putts like he used to. Through the first 15 holes he had taken only 17 putts – with 11 one-putts and a chip-in. He missed birdie chances inside 15 feet on the last three holes or he could have posted something low enough for McIlroy to think about before he teed off.

“I just felt like I had good feel today,” Woods said of his putting. “I missed my share of putts, too. The last couple holes it would have been nice to get one of those, too. But I played the par-3s in 3-under today, which was pretty nice.”

It was a big turnaround from Friday afternoon when Woods “grinded it out” to make the cut on the number – something Phil Mickelson failed to do. With not enough daylight to practice, Woods made the short 20-minute commute to his home in Jupiter and slept on it. It clicked as soon as he showed up on dawn patrol.

“I had a good range session this morning, it was good,” he said. “Came out today and very first hole I hit it to 3 feet but it spun back to about 15 feet and I made that.”

In the end a 65 probably isn’t enough to reel in McIlroy or the other leaders. “Rory could run and hide,” he admitted.

But Saturday’s round was more of a big-picture boost. It was a sign of life. It’s something to take to the rebuilt Doral and Bay Hill for what are expected to be his last tune-ups before Augusta.

Woods seems less concerned than everyone else about the state of his game that hasn’t won a major in five years or a Masters in nine.

“It’s going to turn around,” he said before heading off holding hands with his 6-year-old daughter, Sam, and girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn. “We are all going to have hot spells and we’re going to have cold spells, especially the longer we stay out here. You try and get those hot spells and ride them as long as you can and get those cold spells as short as they can.”

It’s high time for his game to heat up.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219

or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com

Howell still chasing Masters invite, but not obsessing over the cause

Thu, 02/27/2014 - 7:09pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – For some golfers the Florida Swing means the Masters Tournament is just around the corner. For Augusta native Charles Howell it means his hometown major is just out of reach.

For the fifth time in six years, Howell enters spring chasing his dream major with a sense of desperation. With six weeks to go before the Masters, it’s pretty much win something or stay home for Howell.

“Of course always in the back of my mind is the Masters, so I think that’s always a little bit of incentive,” Howell said of the early season marathon that’s become an almost annual ritual for him.

Howell played in seven consecutive Masters from 2002-08 before hitting the proverbial treadmill of the rank and file players outside the top 50 in the world. Only once since that time has Howell returned to play Augusta, earning a spot in 2012 after qualifying for the previous season’s Tour Championship. He finished 19th, making three birdies in the last four holes to finish two shots out of a guaranteed return invitation as a top-16 finisher.

So he was back to the treadmill in 2013 and made a furious early-season run. Starting the year outside the top 100, Howell posted six top-17 finishes from January through March to climb as high as 54th in the world at the deadline for 11th-hour top-50 qualifiers. His most frustrating missed opportunity was a playoff loss to Brian Gay at the Humana Challenge, where Howell three-putted the 72nd hole with a chance to win.

Now he’s on another top-10 tear that has him hovering in the 70s of the world rankings since last October. He entered this week’s Honda Classic ranked 73rd after snapping a streak of 12 consecutive made cuts two weeks ago at Riviera.

In 11 starts already of the wrap-around 2013-14 PGA Tour season, Howell has five top-10 finishes.

“I enjoy my practice time in the offseason and preparing and getting ready,” Howell said of his penchant for fast starts. “So I’m ready to play when I come out and really enjoy the courses on the West Coast and the Florida Swing.”

At age 34, Howell remains one of the PGA Tour’s most consistent players annually. He ranks 25th all-time on the career money list with nearly $27 million in earnings in 14 years as a professional. He’s registered 14 runner-ups and eight more third-place finishes, but only two victories.

It’s been seven years since Howell won his last tournament at Riviera in 2007, beating Phil Mickelson in a playoff.

Howell averages 29 starts per season and has no plans to cut back anytime soon.

“I enjoy playing. I’m a golfer. I play golf for a living and it’s just what I do,” he said. “If I stay home I’m gonna play golf, so ... Some guys are comfortable doing that but if you look across the whole tour most guys don’t. We’re golfers.”

Cutting back on scheduling has become any increasingly popular trend with top-tier stars such as Adam Scott, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson doing it with great success. Despite evidence that Howell usually plays better coming out of breaks when he’s devoted time to working on his game instead of chasing checks each week, Howell isn’t inclined to experiment with something new until his children – ages 3 and 2 – get older.

“I’m young, still ... ish,” he said with a chuckle. “No issues with the body, knock on wood. So I can still play. But there’s going to come a day when the kids are not traveling with me and they’re in school so that will determine my schedule. If I didn’t think I was ready I would stay home and practice more. But in this game, how do you ever know when you’re ready? It’s a hard game to say I’m going to peak on X amount of weeks.”

So Howell hopes to peak at least once before April – if not this week at PGA National then in two weeks in Tampa or the week after at Bay Hill.

Last year, Honda provided a great opportunity when Howell sat in second place early in the final round. Had he maintained a top-five finish he would have slipped into the top 50, but he blew up in the winds to shoot 9-over on his final 13 holes to fall to 29th.

In the breezy afternoon Thursday, two late bogeys left Howell 2-over and tied for 101st. He’ll need a big morning round to have a chance to chase more world ranking points on the weekend.

Howell tries not to obsess about the Masters and stay in the moment.

“I’d love to play in the golf tournament, but so would every other person breathing on this planet,” Howell said. “So I think about it and then it’s out of my mind and I’m more worried about the golf tournament I’m playing.”

The annual Augusta race only gets more desperate with each passing week.

Michaux: Florida signals start of golf season

Wed, 02/26/2014 - 5:16pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The PGA Tour will tell you that the current golf season officially began Oct. 10 at the Frys.com Open in California.

Traditionalists will argue that the year started, as always, after New Year’s in Hawaii at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

The world’s best golfers, however, have redrawn the calendar once more and declared the Florida Swing as the true launching point of the substantive season.

“This feels to me like the start of the year,” said Phil Mickelson, who will play the Honda Classic for the first time in 11 years as he counts down to Augusta.

“With the Masters six weeks away, this is kind of where guys like myself and others are getting geared up for that event,” Mickelson added.

Mickelson has played four events worldwide already in 2014, but he considers Florida a reboot from some inconsistent form that’s ranged from a runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi to a withdrawal with back pains at Torrey Pines.

And he’s not alone in his assessment of when things begin to matter.

Tiger Woods shrugged off the slowest season start of his career with an 80th-place incomplete at Torrey Pines followed by a tie for 41st in Dubai before taking a few weeks off to get ready for this week at PGA National in his new hometown. He officially has 1 FedEx Cup point 14 events into the wrap-around 2013-14 season, but the results before the second week in April don’t really mean anything to major-centric elite golfers.

“Once the Florida Swing starts, we’re all just building toward that one week in April,” Woods said two weeks ago. “We’re all about building toward that. Don’t finish dead last. And if you win, great.”

Reigning Masters champion Adam Scott agrees as he returns from a six-week break. Like both Woods and Mickelson, Scott skipped last week’s WGC Match Play, depriving the bracket of three of its top four seeds.

“I think this year it definitely feels like that, absolutely, just the way the schedule has panned out with this kind of overlapping season, and also the fact of how guys have scheduled themselves,” Scott said. “A few guys didn’t play last week and kind of made the importance of this event raise a lot, and it kind of has a feeling like it used to.”

The “like it used to” Scott is referring to is when the Players Championship anchored the Florida Swing two weeks before the Masters. It pulled together the deepest field of the season in what always felt like a celebratory tune-up before the season’s first major championship.

“When it was in March, it always had a feel that now all the big golf is starting,” Scott said. “Everyone shows up from all around the world to The Players, all the media from around the world come. Now this is a big deal, and this event this week kind of has that similar kind of feel certainly.”

The Honda has certainly grown from an event that most of the best players skipped to a big deal heading into another WGC event at Doral. The pre-tournament literature boasted of having the top eight players in the world at PGA National before Jason Day climbed to No. 4 with a win last week at the Match Play and Justin Rose withdrew Tuesday because of shoulder tendonitis.

“It’s going to be a true test of where my game is at at this point in time, because I think the fields are as strong as we’re going to see on the PGA Tour this year,” Scott said. “And I think with a tough test golf course like this, I think everyone is trying to measure themselves up and see where they’re at and how much work needs to be put in before the next run of big tournaments.”

Woods certainly feels his readiness for the Masters will be measured in three of the next four weeks in Florida rather than what he did or didn’t do on consecutive weeks in January.

“I think once we get to Florida I think we’re all thinking about our way to Augusta,” Woods said. “Some guys usually start at Doral, some guys start here, but once we get to Florida, now most of the guys are getting pretty serious about their prep to Augusta. This week I think it’s ... you can understand now with the field the way it is, the quality and the depth of the field has gotten so much better over the years.”

Woods, Scott and Mickelson all treated their various breaks before showing up in Florida as if it were offseason time. Woods got serious about remedying his short game and putting. Scott took some time off to relax and go surfing before dialing his preparations back up to speed. Mickelson got away with his family and went skiing, saying there are no lingering issues with the back spasms that forced his withdrawal at Torrey Pines.

“I feel good, I’m healthy, I’m able to swing it well,” Mickelson said. “I’ve had some good practice sessions, I feel strong and ready to play some good golf. And so this kind of feels like the start for me.”

Like old times, the road to Augusta officially begins now in South Florida.

Michaux: Scott has handled year as Masters champ well

Tue, 02/18/2014 - 3:40pm

 

Not a day has gone by since last April that Adam Scott hasn’t looked in his closet at the green jacket and thought about the Masters Tournament. But the urgency to repeat escalates now.

Scott returns next week from a six-week break to begin his competitive run-up to Augusta, and there is much still to get done.

“That’s really when my preparation and lead up to Augusta starts to get myself in shape to come and defend,” Scott said on his Tuesday teleconference with Augusta National Golf Club.

This last week of break will be spent not only honing his swing on his range in the Bahamas but trying to finalize his menu for the Champions Dinner.

“I’d like to serve something that everyone will really enjoy, and nothing too crazy so that they won’t,” he said. “But probably no surprise to anyone, there’s definitely going to be an Australian theme toward every part of the dinner. Whether that means they are eating kangaroo, I’m not sure yet, but we’ll see.”

Whatever he serves, Scott hopes it sets a tone for other Australians to join him now that he’s broken through at Augusta where his hero Greg Norman and others had met with nothing but heartbreak and frustration.

“So hopefully the shackles are off and we’re going to have a host of Aussies up there in the Champions Locker Room and serving dinners in the future,” he said.

The coming seven weeks before the 2014 Masters starts will include another very important element for Scott – getting over the emotions of returning to the scene of his greatest career triumph. While he traditionally makes a spring scouting trip to Augusta during the Florida swing, this year will be an entirely different experience that he’d like to share with his father, if possible.

“It’s going to be hard,” Scott said. “I’ll probably need two days. I need a day to get my head right and get over the sentimental stuff, and then a day of work. But it’s something that I’m looking forward to so much. It’s an exciting time of year as a golfer, and for me this year, heading towards April is a real buzz and going to be something I’m really looking forward to.”

When he makes that trip, Scott is curious to see how the 17th hole looks without the famous Eisenhower Tree, which was removed over the weekend after suffering extensive ice damage. Scott won’t necessarily miss seeing it.

“Whether they replace it or not, it was a pretty tight hole,” he said. “So from a golfing standpoint, I kind of think seeing a little bit more of the fairway will be a nice thing.”

Ranked No. 2 in the world and coming off of a four-win season that helped him earn Player of the Year status from the Golf Writer’s Association of America, Scott obviously built on his major breakthrough. But he still expects bigger things and more majors as he enters the prime of his career at age 33. His more limited schedule remains a focus on trying to peak at the right moments.

“I’m also keeping the big picture in mind and my priorities are the Masters and the other three majors later this year, and I think the break was necessary, even though I was playing well,” he said of the end of 2013. “Although we didn’t get another major last year, to win some other tournaments and have a good run back in Australia was really important to kind of take your confidence in anything that the Masters gave you and become a better player.”

Despite his preference for privacy, Scott has handled the added duties that come with being a Masters champion beautifully. His predecessor, Bubba Watson, struggled with some of that burden and went nearly two years before winning again on Sunday at Riviera.

“It’s been an incredible experience being the Masters champion for the last 11, 12 months, and it’s something I’ll be trying to do again, for sure,” he said. “To have that green jacket hanging in the closet is worth any bit of extra stuff you might have to deal with in your professional world.”

While the curtain is drawing closed on his year in the Masters spotlight, Scott said that he’d largely pulled it shut long before his green jacket tour made its homecoming to Australia in the fall. He has enjoyed it to the fullest extent without dwelling in the past.

“I think the interesting thing is, for me, as a competitor and someone who likes to win and desires to win and works hard to try and win tournaments, the feeling and sense of accomplishment doesn’t last very long,” he said. “You know, it basically goes through that night and you wake up the next day, and that event’s over, and everyone’s moving on.

“And you can kind of bask in the glory yourself for a little bit but as soon as you’re back out to play again, everyone’s moved on and there’s a new trophy to play for. That’s not undermining the sense of achievement of winning the Masters and the history of the event or any other major championship or any other tournament. But it’s just kind of how it works, because 150 other guys didn’t win and they are moving on to try and win the next week.

“You can’t rest on your laurels and I think that’s the interesting thing about it was that it probably lasted longer than any other tournament, but it doesn’t last as long as you think considering it’s something that you’ve kind of worked your whole life towards.”

 

Ike gets his wish thanks to Mother Nature

Sun, 02/16/2014 - 7:21pm

After nearly 60 years, the late Dwight D. Eisenhower appealed to a higher authority and finally got his wish.

Mother Nature did what original club chairman Clifford Roberts refused to do and tore down the most famous pine at Augusta National Golf Club – the Eisenhower Tree.

Masters Tournament chairman Billy Payne confirmed the news Sunday evening that the damage suffered from last week’s major ice storm was too much for the nearly 125-year-old tree to handle.

With trees damaged all over Augusta by this week’s destructive ice storm, it stood to reason that even Augusta National would not be immune to the harsh consequences.

“Like so many of our family, friends and neighbors in this community, Augusta National Golf Club has been busy cleaning up after the historic ice storm last week,” Payne said. “Everyone affected remains in our hearts and prayers, and we likewise hope for a speedy and complete recovery for all.”

Despite initial reports of minor damage, a picture surfaced over the weekend that showed significant damage to the majestic loblolly pine that guarded the left half of the 17th fairway.

It’s a picture only the former President himself – who famously hated the tree that bore his name – might smile about.

Club workers are pictured cleaning up broken and pruned limbs from the loblolly pine that is the most defining feature of the 17th hole. Standing roughly 65 feet tall and situated about 210 yards from the Masters tee, the wide pine stood sentinel on the course throughout its history.

While the top-most branch seemed to be intact, gaping sections were missing from its once broad canopy – particularly on the left side which was almost stripped of all of its branches. The aging pine has been held together for years by numerous cables, but the latest scars were stark.

The damage proved too extensive for the club to salvage and the landmark was removed over the weekend.

Sources have claimed for years that Augusta National already has a reserve loblolly pine picked out and awaiting the call at an undisclosed location in Georgia. But whether the backup tree survived the ice storm intact is unknown, as are the club’s plans for the 17th hole.

“We have begun deliberations of the best way to address the future of the 17th hole and to pay tribute to this iconic symbol of our history – rest assured, we will do both appropriately,” Payne said.

Payne said “the golf course sustained no major damage otherwise. We are now open for member play and we will be unaffected in our preparations for the 2014 Masters Tournament.”

The famous pine tree on No. 17 got its name from Eisenhower, who was a club member from 1948 until his death in 1969. Eisenhower reportedly hit into the tree so often that he campaigned to have it removed. At the club’s 1956 governors meeting, the sitting president proposed cutting it down only to have Roberts promptly rule him out of order and adjourn the meeting. The pine has been known as Eisenhower’s Tree ever since.

The tree has played a role in the outcome of many Masters through the years. Tommy Aaron, the 1973 Masters champion, once hit his drive into the top of the tree and never saw it come down, forcing him to take a lost-ball penalty. The next day, his marked Pinnacle fell out of the tree as he was walking past it.

Jose Maria Olazabal famously punched a 5-iron onto the green from under the tree to preserve his win in 1999.

The tree’s most recent impact occurred in 2011 when Tiger Woods’ drive got snagged by the tree and he injured his Achilles tendon hitting his recovery shot from an awkward stance in the pine straw underneath the low-hanging branches.

One of the first player reactions to the news regarding Ike’s Tree came from 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson after he won Sunday at Riviera: “Let’s be honest, that tree was never in my way.”

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