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'Spieth era' begins in golf after Masters Tournament victory

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 7:37pm

Pump the brakes, some suggest. Slow down.

There is an underlying sense that everyone is getting a little carried away with the hype following Jordan Spieth’s record-setting roll to the green jacket. Speculation about what the 21-year-old’s Masters victory means in the long term is moving faster than his receding hair line.

“Jordan Rules: The Spieth Era Begins Now” was the proclamation splayed across the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated. It hasn’t been four years yet since SI’s cover space announced “Golf’s New Era” in the wake of Rory McIlroy’s record romp in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional just two months after blowing the Masters.

Of course, the same magazine touted Chad Campbell as the “Next Big Thing” on the cover of its 2003 U.S. Open preview. When you whiff that hard, people might look at you like you’re Melvin Upton Jr.

Of course, the confluence of youth and accomplishment has always sparked a little hyperventilating. SI wasn’t around in 1931, when a youngster only six months past his 20th birthday knocked off Gene Sarazen and Denny Shute to claim the PGA Championship. But a United News report heralded Tom Creavy, who “does not depend upon ‘power game’ for his scoring.”

“The passing on the Professional Golfers’ Association championship from the overlords of swat who have held sway since 1922, into the hands of youthful Tom Creavy, was seen today as presaging a new style of play.”

William D. Richardson in The New York Times hailed Creavy as “a cool, level-headed youngster, unafraid of hard work, undaunted by any breaks that happen to go against him, modest and unassuming. With those qualities and his game, he is deserving of the honor that has come to him so early in life.”

Sound familiar?

Well, Creavy’s “era” began and ended with that lone major title. His experience, however, is more the exception than the norm when it comes to launching superstardom at such an unripened age. The Spieth conjecture of a new “era” coinciding with McIlroy as one of the game’s great rivalries is hardly a stretch based on precedence.

Even the old greats who’ve experienced the games evolutionary ebb and flow see the sense in it.

“I am someone who likes the new generations,” said Jack Nicklaus, the greatest champion of them all. “I always have. I think it energizes the game of golf. We had Arnold’s generation; then it came to my generation; then Tom Watson came along; and right on down the line to Tiger and Rory. And now we have Jordan Spieth. There are some older players who have been terrific for a long time, but actually this might be time for the young guys to take over.”

What Spieth did in dominating the Masters wire-to-wire and tying Tiger Woods’ scoring record gives every reason to believe it’s the beginning of something truly great. He’s only five months older than Woods was when “Tigermania” erupted with his 1997 Masters triumph.

“Spieth-frenzy” is a perfectly rational reaction to what he’s done already. He’s only 16 days older than Walter Hagen was when he won the first of his 11 majors at the 1914 U.S. Open.

Let’s put it this way, of the nine guys not named Spieth since World War I who won their first major before the age of 25, Creavy is the only one to not win at least four career majors. The other guys are Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Woods and McIlroy.

Spieth was also the youngest player post-Depression to win a PGA Tour event when he claimed the 2013 John Deere Classic in a playoff over former Masters champion Zach Johnson at 19 years, 11 months and 17 days.

There have been 14 players since 1900 who have won PGA Tour events prior to their 21st birthdays – 11 of them older than the age of eligibility for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Only two haven’t been inducted – John McDermott and Creavy. Woods and McIlroy just need to turn 40.

Spieth is on that same trajectory. To this stage, he certainly compares favorably to Woods and McIlroy.

Before he turned 22, McIlroy had won twice worldwide, including at Quail Hollow as his lone PGA Tour victory. He was 19 years, 8 months, 29 days when he broke his maiden at the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic.

Before he turned 22, Woods had six PGA Tour victories, including the Masters among his four wins in 1997. He was 20 years, 9 months and 6 days when he won his first tour title at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational – 14 days before winning his second at Disney.

Spieth has five worldwide wins, three of them official PGA Tour titles. Before turning pro at age 19, he led Texas to an NCAA championship, claimed low amateur in a U.S. Open and was the only golfer other than Woods to win multiple U.S. Junior Amateur titles.

So he has the pedigree along with the pro results to back up the hype. He also has the desire, with his goal to become the No. 1 golfer in the world. He’s already No. 2 behind McIlroy.

“There’s still a guy to chase,” Spieth said this week before competing in the RBC Heritage, where he shot 74 on Thursday. “Rory is No.1 in the world.

“He’s got four majors, something I can only dream about. I look forward to getting in the heat of the moment with him a few more times in the near future.”

Even Woods seems a little resigned to the fact that it’s McIlroy’s and Spieth’s world now.

“It’s just generations,” Woods said. “When I first came out here it was Phil (Mickelson) and I trying to take over from (Greg) Norman and (Nick) Price and those guys. ... Phil and I were part of the younger crowd. Now he’s in his mid 40s and I’m about ready to turn 40. So the roles are reversed. But it’s neat to still be a part of it.”

There’s still room for the old guard on the bus, but there’s no sign that the new young front-runners will lay off the gas in their accelerated rise.

Michaux: Tiger Woods' solid play was biggest surprise of Masters

Tue, 04/14/2015 - 7:20pm

It was a Masters Tournament performance few saw coming – wildly spectacular beyond anyone’s expectations.

Not Jordan Spieth. You could sense his green jacket moment hurtling toward us from a year away.

I’m talking Tiger Woods. As T17s go, his was both wild and spectacular.

Woods arrived at Augusta National as a massive question mark after injuries, swing changes and a crisis of confidence left him seemingly under-prepared and overextended. He left with just a little bit of his old swagger back.

This was a Tiger Woods we’d never really seen before at Augusta. He was acknowledging fans with smiles and fist bumps in practice rounds. He displayed a human side with his children and girlfriend in a rare showing at the Par-3 Contest. And he was eager to publicly show off the work he’d done on rebuilding his short game.

Sure, there were bumps along the way. He was as errant as ever off the tees. He never really adjusted to the pace of the greens. He hit the “big ball” twice before the little ball, letting his club fly both times and once claiming he’d “popped a bone” back in after wincing in obvious pain.

In spite of it all, Woods went out Sunday in one of the last three groups. He lashed at shots with a healthy abandon. He turned potential homeward-bound 77s into week-saving 73s. And he had moments of his unmistakable brilliance.

His presence – especially playing with Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy on the weekend – enhanced the Masters as much as Spieth’s inspiring performance.

Let’s not get carried away and say Tiger’s “back.” He’s got a lot of work to do refining his swing and needs to play more consistently. But if you’re investing in futures, there’s only a handful of guys like McIlroy, Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed who I’d buy more stock in over the next five or six years.

Overall, there were more relative winners than usual and a few losers at the 79th Masters:

BIRDIE: Jordan Spieth. You can’t say enough about this 21-year-old’s record-setting performance and the grace in which he accomplished it. He grabbed the tournament with a Thursday 64 and never let go. Even his post-tournament scorecard recitation was a work of art. Ink him among the Masters favorites for the next 20 years.

BIRDIE: Rory McIlroy. Despite a somber demeanor and ultimately postponing completion of his career slam, there was more positive than negative in his fourth-place finish. Four consecutive rounds under par show he’s solving the Augusta riddle, especially his 15-under over the last 45 holes. Clean up that front-nine 40 on Friday and he’ll get that jacket eventually.

BOGEY: Jim Furyk. The only top-10 player in the world who didn’t make the cut.

BIRDIE: Phil Mickelson. He might be closing in on 45, but Lefty still finds that fountain of youth when he turns onto Magnolia Lane. He could break Jack Nicklaus’ age record for a winner as soon as 2017. For now, he completed his career runner-up slam.

BIRDIE: Hideki Matsuyama. His 66 tied McIlroy for the Sunday low and his solo fifth has his sights set higher. “I would really like to become a Masters champion one day,” he said. He’s still only 23.

BIRDIE: Bubba Watson. His four rounds in the 70s and T38 weren’t memorable, but he set a class standard for reigning champs by simply showing up in his jacket for the Drive, Chip and Putt, honorary tee shots and Ben Crenshaw’s farewell all the way through Spieth’s finishing putt and jacket presentation. Bravo.

BOGEY: Aussies. Jason Day (T28) and Adam Scott (T38) were disappointing non-contenders and Marc Leishman had to sadly withdraw to tend to his wife’s health.

BIRDIE: Justin Rose. Made a serious weekend charge to claim co-runner-up and earned his first place in the final pairing of a major. Only five previous times has the Masters winner had a lower score than his 14-under total.

BOGEY: J.B. Holmes. As hot as he was coming in with a pair of seconds and a win the week before in Houston, missing the cut was a huge letdown for a power hitter like him.

BIRDIE: Ben Crenshaw. Forget the 91 on Thursday and the 32-over par total. Gentle Ben might have bowed out too late, but he did it with his inimitable grace and his magic rubbed off on a Texas icon for a new generation.

BIRDIE: Carl Jackson. Even though he wasn’t able to caddie for the 54th time, he was rarely more present at the Masters. It didn’t end with getting the key to the city or his curtain call and hug with Crenshaw. Spieth and his caddie, Michael Greller, leaned on Jackson’s advice until the end.

BIRDIE: Brits. Five of the six Englishman in the field (not Luke Donald) made the cut, including three in the top six with Paul Casey and Ian Poulter joining Rose up high. All three Northern Irish entries made the weekend including Darren Clarke. Scotland went 0-3 and Wales 1-1 in the cut market.

BIRDIE: Dustin Johnson. Career-best T6 at Augusta included a record three eagles in Friday’s round. Still too many unforced errors, including three double bogeys, but he’s trending the right way.

BOGEY: Amateurs. Seven of them were in the field and none of them made the cut to earn the silver medal at a combined 67-over par. The only highlight was Corey Conners’ second-round 69. Unfortunately he shot 80 in the first round.

BIRDIE: Hunter Mahan. He quietly went 11-under over the last three rounds to finish T9. Only Mickelson (-12) and McIlroy (-11) did as well or better.

PAR: UGA. Four of the six Georgia boys made the cut, with Russell Henley leading the way at 21st. It was awfully cool that double heart transplant recipient Erik Compton made the weekend and finished 51st.

BIRDIE: Ernie Els. The 45-year-old faded on the weekend, but he’s made his peace with his fate and is relishing whatever time he has left at Augusta (at least two more starts pending).

BIRDIE: Charley Hoffman. It was only his second Masters, and he acquitted himself well until hitting a wall Sunday. First top-10 in a major guarantees his return next year.

BOGEY: Brandt Snedeker. He worked so hard to make the field and didn’t break par in an event he’s twice before been in the final Sunday pairing. He might want to win the Masters too much for his own good.

PAR: First-timers. Eight of 14 professional rookies made the cut, led by the tournament’s first Austrian entry, Bernd Wiesberger at T22.

BIRDIE: Fred Ridley. Former USGA chief has come a long way from his protecting par days. Despite tools at his disposal to manipulate conditions, the Competition Committee chairman let a softer course and attack pins ride so that players could dictate scores and not the course. It made for the most eagles and more fun.

BIRDIE: CBS. A year after drawing the fewest weekend viewers since 1957, ratings improved 23 percent on Sunday and 48 percent on Saturday thanks to Spieth’s historic effort and a popular cast of leaders including Mickelson, Woods and McIlroy. Nearly 18 million watched the last half hour.

BIRDIE: Ike’s Tree. It made a comeback in the form of a striking cross section for the Eisenhower Presidential Library and its genetic revival for future generations to possibly contend with on the 17th hole or elsewhere.

Michaux: Woods now ponders decision whether to play in the Masters

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 7:43pm

Tiger Woods came to town Tuesday on an exploratory mission. Now we’ll see if the rehearsal was good enough to warrant an official return engagement next week.

Woods’ Gulfstream G5 was parked in front of the terminal for private aircraft at Augusta Regional Airport on Tuesday morning and left in the afternoon. Sources, including Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg, say he played 18 holes at Augusta National Golf Club as he prepares to make a decision on whether or not his game is tournament-ready in time to play the Masters.

Just the news that his plane was spotted in town sparked a worldwide conversation on Twitter and was seen as an encouraging sign that Woods might end his self-imposed exile next week on the same stage where he first invoked Tigermania at the 1997 Masters.

The Augusta visit was considered the last piece of the rebuilding puzzle Woods needed to see if his game was up to the standards of one of the most demanding short-game venues in the world. A balky wedge is not a tool you’d recommend carrying to the Masters, and Woods’ competitive short-game of late bears little resemblance to his historical excellence.

“I read where people said it wasn’t the yips,” said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, a former tour pro. “Well, you can call it whatever you want, but it’s catastrophically bad what we saw. So to get past that ... (Augusta’s) the most difficult place in the world to hit pitch shots.”

Woods hasn’t played on the PGA Tour since withdrawing after 11 holes at Torrey Pines on Feb. 5 citing “deactivated glutes.” He announced an indefinite leave of absence on Feb. 11 to work on the flaws that emerged in his short game since he returned in December after letting his back fully recover from surgery last March.

Recent reports out of South Florida claim that Woods’ game has been improving out of the public eye and he’s been firing in the low- to mid-60s in rounds at the Medalist.

Skeptics, however, wonder whether it’s possible for his game to recover from so far down in two months of non-competitive golf. Woods shot a career-worst 82 in February in Phoenix.

“Given what we’ve seen, it’s unimaginable to me that in this short period of time, he would have been able to come to any sort of manageable level of short game,” Chamblee said Tuesday in a teleconference.

Chris DiMarco lost in a playoff to Woods at the 2005 Masters – an event remembered most for Woods’ boomerang chip-in in the final round on the 16th hole that tumbled into the cup. Now a Golf Channel analyst as well, DiMarco expressed concern about what a high-profile failure at Augusta could mean to Woods in the long-term.

“If he does play Augusta, this is a make‑or‑break week for him, I think,” DiMarco said. “Now you’re going to all these comfortable places that he’s used to, and if he goes out and stinks it up – I never thought I’d ever say it because I thought when I played with him he had the greatest mind ever, he was the strongest mind I’ve ever seen – but it’s getting mental. And if it doesn’t get fixed, I don’t know if he can overcome it.”

Even after skipping events at PGA National and Bay Hill in the last two months, Woods still said “I hope to be ready for the Masters, and I will continue to work hard preparing for Augusta.”

Word has it that his Augusta trip was a scouting mission to determine whether his current game meets his own high standard for competition in the season’s first major.

Tuesday’s surgical appearance at the course offers hope that he might return for the Masters. However, should he decide not to play now after testing himself at Augusta National it would send a clear message that his game isn’t ready.

If Woods decides to play Augusta next week, it will be his first competitive round in two months.

It would be his longest layoff before a major since 2010, when he finished tied for fourth at the Masters after returning from a five-month leave trying to repair his marriage after scandalous revelations of infidelity.

Woods missed the Masters for the first time in 20 years in 2014 after undergoing microdisectomy surgery on his back the week before the tournament. While he hasn’t won the Masters in a decade, he also has finished outside of the top six at Augusta only once in his last nine starts.

So it takes a lot for Woods to skip the Masters.

“Going to Augusta for Tiger is like going home,” said Peter Jacobsen. “I think he’s as comfortable around there as he is around his home course.”

Jacobsen interprets Woods’ Tuesday practice session with optimism.

“Clearly Tiger is a positive thinker, and I think anybody that’s a positive thinker is going to be able to shake that off,” Jacobsen said of Woods recent short-game woes. “If you’re a negative thinker, if you think everything is doomsday, then yeah, he’s probably not going to play well – he’s going to chunk chips, he’s going to do what we saw last fall. But I think the mere fact that he’s there or he’s thinking about playing or the fact that if he does, in fact, play, I think it goes to show you that he’s figured it out. I think that he’s good enough, and I think he’s going.”

Woods’ pending decision after Tuesday’s rehearsal will tell a lot about the state of game.

Michaux: Gamecock fans should savor Final Four run

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 7:09pm

Forget Notre Dame. Forget the specter of Connecticut. Forget what might happen if everything goes right Sunday and next Tuesday.

For the next week until tipoff in Tampa, Fla., South Carolina fans need to heed the words of their heroine Tiffany Mitchell – savor the accomplishment of having arrived at the pinnacle of women’s college basketball.

“It’s just great to finally take this program to a Final Four,” Mitchell said after scoring seven points in the clutch to deliver the Gamecocks to the NCAA semifinals. “It’s really fun to be able to enjoy this moment with our team.”

This moment is HUGE. That’s not to say it’s the end of the line, because the biggest goal remains in front of a 34-2 team that has every reason to believe it’s capable of winning it all. But just getting this far is the culmination of an incredible journey this program has taken under coach Dawn Staley.

Reaching the Final Four is a major achievement than can be appreciated on its own merits.

“This is a monumental win for us,” Staley said of Sunday’s 80-74 victory over Florida State in Greensboro, N.C., that made the Gamecocks the first Palmetto State team of any gender to reach a basketball Final Four.

“It puts South Carolina on the map,” Staley said. “Now I think of the regular season that we had, the success that we’ve had in our conference. But when you hurdle over being a regional champion and going to the Final Four, it puts your name in history. So it’s a history‑making game for us.”

This is a key point – Staley and the Gamecocks are “making” history. They are forging a place for themselves in a very selective sorority. The teams they’re up against have already “made” history.

Notre Dame, the next hurdle in South Carolina’s way in Sunday’s semifinal, is making its fifth consecutive Final Four appearance. The Irish have played in three of the past four championship games. The program won an NCAA title in 2001.

The teams vying to reach the other side of the title game have all been there. UConn owns nine titles, including the past two. Tennessee has won it eight times, including 2007-08. Maryland won it once in 2006.

So South Carolina represents the nouveau riche in this environment.

“I think that’s going to play into our advantage being that we are the new kids on the block in the Final Four,” Mitchell said. “I think that puts more pressure on them. We are just going out there and we are playing, so I think that puts more pressure to say you’ve been there already.”

That’s a lovely thought, but we all know that’s not how it works. Experience is a factor that can’t be easily dismissed. There’s a reason these programs become so familiar on this stage.

The Gamecocks learned that lesson in February when they took their undefeated record and No. 1 ranking to Storrs, Conn., to face the reigning champions. UConn didn’t take it easy on the new kids, delivering a 25-point-margin message.

There’s another gear that the elite programs have. Like the amplifier in Spinal Tap, they go to 11.

“I think the Connecticut game did help us because there’s another level of basketball out there and we are starting to realize that,” Mitchell said.

South Carolina is finding that hidden gear. Staley – who went to three Final Fours in a row as a player at Virginia from 1990-92 but never won a title – took over a program in 2008 that hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since an Elite Eight trip in 2002. She’s taken them to four consecutive postseasons. They earned a No. 1 seed and Sweet 16 appearance last year. They returned with more talent and more experience to reach the Final Four this year.

It’s massive progress that indeed has South Carolina on the map.

“I think with each year, you gain a little confidence because we play in the best conference in the country, and our conference prepares us for games like (the regionals) where they go down to the wire, where they are physical and where you’re able to maneuver and try to out‑fox whatever our opponents will give us,” Staley said. “But it’s always been in mind. It’s just we’ve got some pieces that will allow us to compete at this level and go into the Final Four and have a legitimate shot at winning.”

Along with the pieces on the court, Staley and the Gamecocks are building a culture. With success, they’ve created a following – which is a major component of programs with sustained excellence like UConn and Tennessee. Nine busloads of Gamecocks fans made the trek up to Greensboro to see Friday’s 67-65 win over North Carolina. The same number went back Sunday to see them rally from a 10-point deficit to beat Florida State.

“They definitely created home‑court advantage for us and it seemed like a regular home game,” Mitchell said. “It was really loud. It was probably louder than it usually is as Colonial. I think it played a huge part on our comeback when we were losing and us getting over that hump and finally taking that lead.”

That’s the culture Staley hoped to create when she came to Columbia. That’s what she hopes they can take to Tampa and many future Final Fours.

“Any national championship team – any champion in any sport – they have fans,” Staley said. “They have people who come watch them play and cheer them on and they find a way to create a home‑court advantage no matter where they are. And our fans have done that for us all season long. It does my heart good to know that when you walk out there, all the chants you hear is ‘Gamecocks!’ It’s a beautiful thing. Really, I couldn’t write a better script for our season, for the community, and how they embraced our basketball team.”

What comes next is a tall order. Notre Dame and perhaps UConn are established giants. The Gamecocks likely won’t be favored.

So what?

“We are not just going to show up and just be happy to be there,” Staley said. “This particular regional final game isn’t the destination game for what we set out to do this season. I think this was a statement game because ... we punched our ticket into the Final Four, and now it’s time to maybe check off some things that we’ve wanted to do, which is win the national championship.”

Win or lose against Notre Dame or in the title game, however, it’s not an end. For South Carolina women’s basketball, it is only a beginning.

Tiger Woods Watch is on again

Sat, 03/28/2015 - 6:21pm

Tiger Watch has become another Masters Tournament tradition unlike any other.

What used to be a exercise in following HOW Tiger Woods played, however, has devolved into monitoring IF he’ll play.

For the second consecutive year, April approaches with no word on whether or not Woods will compete in the major that first defined his greatness in 1997.

In 2014, it was back surgery that kept the four-time Augusta National winner from playing the Masters for the first time in 20 years. Woods announced on April 1 – the Tuesday before tournament week – that he’d undergone microdisectomy surgery on his lower back to repair damage that had sidelined him since competing at Doral.

In 2015, it is something far more mysterious that has derailed Woods’ career since he withdrew after 11 holes at Torrey Pines on Feb. 5 – his inability to play golf up to PGA Tour standards. Woods has twice already extended his self-imposed benching by skipping events at PGA National and Bay Hill.

“My play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf,” Woods said in February when he announced his indefinite leave of absence to “work” on his game. “Like I’ve said, I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level, and when I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.”

Woods obviously isn’t ready yet. He did not enter the upcoming Shell Houston Open as a tune-up event. His close friend Notah Begay labeled his chances of playing Augusta “50/50” this week, which he elevated from “maybe 1-in-10” a few weeks earlier.

“I hope to be ready for the Masters, and I will continue to work hard preparing for Augusta,” Woods said after announcing he would not play at Bay Hill.

If Woods plays Augusta it will be his first competitive round since Feb. 5. It would be his longest layoff before a major since 2010, when he finished tied for fourth at the Masters after returning from a five-month scandal-induced sabbatical.

That was a very different Woods at age 34, however, having won seven times in 2009 including his last start at the Australian Masters in November. He was still ranked No. 1 in the world.

This 39-year-old version of Woods is a mess physically and mentally. He’s only played 47 holes in 2015, and none of them were very good as he was 15-over par. That included a career-worst 82 in the second round in Phoenix, where he missed 18 greens in two days and got up-and-down only three times with a shockingly bad short-game display that first drew horrified gasps in his comeback event at the Hero World Challenge in December.

Woods will fall out of the top 100 on Monday for the first time since before he won the first of his 79 PGA Tour victories in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. He has only played in 10 tournaments since the start of 2014, completing only three of them and finishing better than 69th only once.

So will he play in Augusta or be a healthy scratch? Well, Nike thinks enough of his chances to release a preview of the scripted clothes Woods would be wearing – optimistically presenting four days of attire including red shoes to match his “university red” shirt on Sunday.

There is no shortage of opinion on what Woods should do.

“If he’s not injured, how would he miss this?” Masters champion Bubba Watson said this week on CBS This Morning.

The concern is that leaping headfirst into a Masters return might be foolish and further erode his sagging confidence if he chunks it around a course on which he’s finished outside the top six only once in the previous 10 years.

Golf Magazine polled its top 100 golf instructors asking if they would advise Woods to play the Masters, and 45 percent said “No” compared to 35 percent saying “Yes.”

“Could be the end of his career if he yips at the Masters,” said one. “You can’t win if you don’t enter,” chimed in another.

While several players desperately seek to earn late invitations to Augusta – potentially pushing the qualifying field size to 100 for the first time in 49 years – Woods is one of five players already qualified whose status remains uncertain just a week before the practice rounds start.

Kevin Stadler – the son of 1982 Masters champion Craig Stadler – hasn’t played since withdrawing at Kapalua with a broken bone in his left wrist. Stadler tied for eighth in his Augusta debut last year. A representative at his management agency said Friday that Stadler hasn’t made a decision about playing the Masters yet.

A probable starter is Steve Stricker, who is semi-retired from tour golf and hasn’t played since Woods’ tournament at Isleworth in early December. Stricker underwent back surgery shortly before Christmas, and like Woods has been working himself back into playing shape out of the public eye. Asked about his return plans, Stricker tweeted on March 15 “Not quite sure yet. Might be The Masters,” although he mentioned “great prep for @TheMasters” on Friday.

Brooks Koepka (rib) and Graham McDowell (ankle) withdrew from Bay Hill and Texas, respectively, hoping to stay healthy enough to tee it up at Augusta.

Unlike other tournaments with alternate lists, there is no deadline protocol for players to commit to playing the Masters. Formal invitations request an RSVP, but all players have to do is show up and register before Thursday’s first-round tee time.

Courtesy, however, dictates giving the club an advance heads-up so it can prepare. So word is likely to come out of Jupiter, Fla., in the next few days indicating whether or not Woods will try to end a 10-year victory drought at the Masters.

Odds are that even if he halts his absentee run at one, his Masters winless streak will extend to 11.

Frank Booker has helped Sooners make it to the Sweet 16

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 7:37pm

In the NCAA Tournament pool of improbable outcomes, former Westside star Frank Booker owns his share of high-seed Cinderella plots.

For instance, which road to the present was less likely?

A) A kid born in Iceland and raised in Augusta growing up to become a critical bench cog in Norman, Okla.

B) A 12-7 team in late January – 3-4 in its power conference – reaching the Sweet 16 as the highest remaining seed in the East Region just two wins away from the Final Four.

Booker would pick “B” after hitting four 3-pointers in Oklahoma’s comeback round-of-32 victory over Dayton in Columbus, Ohio.

“When we won that game on Sunday, I’m not going to lie, I was in shock,” said the Sooners’ sophomore shooting guard. “First time being there I was amazed and proud of my teammates. It’s definitely a goal that can be attained and it’s amazing how close we are. If we do the right things from this point on, we have a huge chance.”

Oklahoma (24-10) ended up with a No. 3 seed in the East Region with a strong February surge helped in large part by Booker’s emergence off the bench.

“We fought through all the adversities and through all the outside drama and focused on what we needed to do to get further into the season,” Booker said. “Obviously we got far because we’re one of only 16 teams left.”

Overcoming a broken wrist in the offseason and hampered by a herniated disc in his back early in the season, Booker was well off his 44-percent 3-point shooting pace of the last 10 games his freshman year.

In one rough eight-game stretch that sent the Sooners to 12-7, Booker made only two 3-pointers and scored 13 points. That left a desperately thin bench lacking the offensive production it most needed, leaving them entirely too dependent on its five starters.

“A lot of it is his confidence,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said in January of Booker. “I think his back contributed early to not making shots. That gets in your head a little bit. The back kind of affects everything.”

Booker – and the Sooners – found relief in the form of two cortisone shots to his back.

“I feel a lot better now,” Booker said. “It was tough for that month that it was bothering me. I was trying to fight through it for my teammates and trying to produce. It was just tough on me and I finally told my coach and trainer that we needed to do something about it. We finally did and now look where we’re at.”

Booker has stepped up his game in the NCAA Tournament, hitting 6 of 12 3-pointers in two games averaging 10.0 points.

“I feel like I bring a spark off the bench,” said Booker, who averaged 28 points as a starter his senior season at Westside. “(The reserves) have a responsibility. If we do those responsibilities then we have a better chance to win. Not only hitting shots but a steal or a big rebound – anything that can get us going, that is my job and I pride myself in doing that.”

Booker fulfilled those obligations in a big way against Dayton. Facing its largest deficit of the game, 49-40, with 13 minutes left, Booker buried a 3-pointer to ignite the Sooners. Six minutes later, his steal set up a Ryan Spangler dunk that got Oklahoma within one point in the middle of a decisive 13-0 run.

“There was no doubt we could get back in this game and once I hit that 3 I felt like our spirit lifted back up and we sparked a run,” Booker said. “Once the run started and we started locking up at that point, they didn’t score for about 10 minutes. It was unstoppable.”

The Sooners took notice of Big 12 rivals and fellow No. 3 seeds Baylor and Iowa State suffering opening-game upsets. It was a lesson they knew too well after getting bounced out immediately by North Dakota State last season.

“It’s called March Madness for a reason,” Booker said. “Anybody can get upset. You saw that most of the 3 seeds got upset and knew that if we didn’t take care of business we could be going home. We knew from last year losing and did not want to have that same feeling.”

Now with East region top seeds Villanova and Virginia knocked out, Oklahoma has a chance to make some real noise if it can get past a tough Michigan State team tonight in Syracuse. Booker expects a “dogfight” with the scrappy Spartans.

“It’s win or go home and we don’t want to be the ones going home,” he said.

It’s heady territory for Booker, who first moved to Augusta at age 6 speaking only Icelandic and developed into an honor student. His father, Frank Sr., says his son “learned how to compete in class” at Westminister in middle school. That’s where he first showed his hoops potential as well when he poured in 43 points including 19 in the fourth quarter of an eighth-grade game.

Both Frank Sr. (1983) and Frank Jr. (2013) starred at Westside.

The elder Booker played collegiately at Bowling Green. The younger passed up Georgia State, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas A&M because after one visit to Oklahoma it felt like the “perfect fit.”

Now the Sooners are past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 when Blake Griffin led them to the Elite Eight.

To reach this point, however, is a pretty big accomplishment considering where they were when February started.

“This is a memory we’re going to live with the rest of our lives,” Booker said after the Dayton win.

But now, the 3-point shooter from Westside who was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, doesn’t want the run to end here.

“We feel like it’s a great opportunity to put OU on the map,” he said. “With only 16 teams left, we still have a job to do.”

Michaux: Masters on verge of topping century mark

Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:55pm

The Masters Tournament is approaching a milestone its stewards have carefully tried to keep at bay for a half century.

When the deadline for inviting top-50 players hits at the conclusion of this week’s events, the tournament field will be on the brink – if not there – of triple figures for only the fourth time in its history and the first time in 49 years.

Currently 95 players are already qualified for the season’s first major, but four players not already invited are stationed inside the top 50 this week and two others are loitering just a top-10 finish outside the magic number with one week remaining to secure a spot.

The Masters will also automatically invite the tournament winners of this week’s Valero Texas Open and next week’s Shell Houston Open. If those PGA Tour winners are not already qualified, the 100-man mark will be breached.

“We’re wild and crazy about field size and we watch it like a hawk,” Masters chairman Billy Payne said in 2014 announcing the creation of the Latin American Amateur Championship, which added a seventh amateur to this year’s field. “You want exactly the right number. We’re going to figure out how to make it work no matter how many qualify.”

The last time the Masters field eclipsed 100 was in 1966, when 103 players teed it up. The record was 109 in 1962. The first time the field at Augusta National topped the century mark was in 1957, the year the tournament implemented the 36-hole cut with 101 invited participants.

It’s not a figure Augusta National prefers to accommodate.

“I would say that we are, of course, happy to have all hundred of them here,” Payne said the last time the field threatened to tip the scales in 2011 with 99 entries. “At the same time, looking at the number – freestanding, independent of the individuals who comprise it – it is difficult. It is borderline to be able to present the kind of competition that we want to. It is more than we normally have – the most we have had in some 40-something years.

“We say every year in response to that question, that we look and we study the qualifications, which we do. ... There is a maximum number of competitors for which we can give the experience that we want them to have and do it in a way that’s manageable. The hundred pushes that limit quite significantly.”

Since those three supersized fields in the era when the Masters was first entering the television broadcast era, the club has continually manipulated its qualifications criteria to, as Payne said two years ago, “maintain Bobby Jones’s desire to keep the Masters an intimate gathering of the world’s best competitors and to afford all players a reasonable expectation of completion in the reduced hours of sunlight in early spring.”

There have been some incremental contractions and expansions as the tournament gradually worked to draw the best possible field from around the world. After the 1966 Masters, when a record 64 players made the cut, the tournament started be more restrictive with its invitations. The next year’s field was only 83 players.

The field size averaged 77.9 during the 1970s and 84.4 during the 1980s. By the 1990s, fields ranged from 83 in 1992 to 96 in 1999 – averaging almost 88 players.

The 1999 Masters, however, was the start of watershed uptick in the field size when chairman Hootie Johnson began inviting players based on top-50 world ranking and expanded PGA Tour money leaders instead of tournament winners in 2000.

“Well, candidly, I think that the changes we’ve made have strengthened our field,” Johnson said in 1999. “It was a combination of those things that helped strengthen the field and kept it at an acceptable field for us number-wise.”

Only once since – when 89 players teed it up in 2002 – has the field dipped below 90 players. The average field size in the 16 years since the world rankings were included is 94.4.

At that number, the club was forced to start using threesomes instead of twosomes, flipping the morning and afternoon groupings the first two rounds.

“We think that in twos, you’re right on the margin at about 90 and it was better as far as the tournament is concerned to go to threes,” said Will Nicholson, the former chairman of the competition committee.

Payne made further tweaks to the qualification criteria, restoring automatic invitations to certain PGA Tour winners in 2008 and expanding that in 2014 to include fall events in the wrap-around schedule. He’s also added two new amateur champions from Asia-Pacific and Latin America. The U.S. Public Links was played for the last time in 2014, so that invitation will go away next year.

To accommodate the increased pool of potential winners, the Masters tightened its return offerings to top finishers in the previous Masters and other majors and eliminated the money list category. But it’s still pushing the limit for the tournament to continue sending every player off the first tee instead of splitting them off both the front and back nines.

It looked like the Masters might luck out with the first five PGA Tour events of 2015 being won by players already qualified. But four of the last six qualifying events have added winners to the field, with Matt Every becoming the 95th player with his second consecutive victory at Bay Hill on Sunday.

Three international players are guaranteed to still be in the top 50 at the end of the week – India’s Anirban Lahiri (No. 35), Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger (41) and South Africa’s Branden Grace (43), pushing the field to 98. England’s Paul Casey is currently No. 49 and will sit out the Texas Open hoping two players don’t pass him and knock him out of the top 50.

Two more players are loitering within striking distance with perhaps top-15 finishes in Texas – No. 52 Marc Warren and No. 53 Harris English. Six top-70 players are in the European Tour field in Morocco and could reach the top 50 with a victory.

Assuming four-time champion Tiger Woods doesn’t extend his current leave of absence and withdraw, the worst-case scenario for Augusta is that the field reaches 102 with five players making it in off the top 50 list and two new PGA Tour winners qualify in San Antonio and Houston.

The excessive field could prompt the Masters to take another look at its future qualifications, though the retirement of Ben Crenshaw after this Masters and Tom Watson in the near future along with the loss of the Public Links exemption will ease some of the strain on the tee sheet.

But 100 is a breaking point the Masters won’t let become a habit.

Michaux: Father, son made lasting memories during Georgia State's NCAA Tournament run

Sat, 03/21/2015 - 10:28pm

Georgia State not only hijacked the opening week of the NCAA Tournament, it stole Mercer’s crown as the most identifiable Peach State darling.

A year after the Bears from Macon dispatched No. 3 seed Duke in an opening-round upset, the Panthers from Atlanta reprised the role by knocking off third-seeded Baylor on Thursday.

While the name Baylor might not resonate the same way Duke does in the collegiate hoops realm, the style with which Georgia State did it will fill a good portion of One Shining Moment and live on long after this installment of March Madness is over. Even a second-round dismissal by Xavier on Saturday won’t diminish what the Panthers accomplished.

Junior shooter R.J. Hunter and his head coach father, Ron, delivered the tournament’s defining moment in the first hours of the first full day just four days after providing the highlight drama of championship week just to get there.

They were a father-son Vaudeville act – Shock and Ow! – a combination of talent and comedy that has made everybody stop talking about Kentucky for a few days. R.J. hit the shots and pops hit the floor in all manner of self-sacrificing prat falls.

First came the torn Achilles tendon during the celebration of Georgia State’s victory in the Sun Belt Conference championship after R.J. sank the game-winning free throws in a 38-36 victory over Georgia Southern.

Then sporting a cast and relegated to coaching from a rolling chair in the Jacksonville, Fla., sub-regional, the emotive coach fell off and onto the floor after his son drilled a game-winning 3-pointer to knock off Baylor in an improbable rally from 12 points down in the final three minutes.

The toll it’s taking on his body doesn’t bother the elder Hunter.

“I will be in a body cast from head to toe if we can get to Indianapolis and play in the Final Four,” Ron Hunter gleefully told CBS.

Father and son in the same frame of the decisive play with 2.7 seconds left has been played all over the Internet.

“I’m going to be honest,” R.J. said of repeatedly watching the bang-bang moment of their lives on YouTube, “I’d say roughly around 100 times.”

Only the intensity of the NCAA Tournament can deliver such unlikely moments. Thursday’s opening day was inarguably the best in the long history of the event with comebacks and chokes and controversy mingling in one of sport’s greatest shows. Five one-point games plus four others that came down to the final possession left basketball junkies breathless.

It was glorious.

But even with all the craziness going on, the quality of the teams advancing hasn’t been compromised. Only five lower seeds won on the way to whittling the field to 32 teams, and only two of those five could justifiably be called “Cinderellas.” Alabama-Birmingham was one, ousting trendy Final Four pick Iowa State from the South Region before bowing out to 11 seed UCLA on Saturday. No. 10 seed Ohio State, like UCLA, doesn’t fit the criteria while No. 11 seed Dayton playing essentially home games to reach another round of 32 isn’t a true bracket buster.

Georgia State, however is everything underdog lovers want to see playing the role of the wrench in the works. And the Hunters made the most of their 15 minutes of fame for as long as it lasted.

“I’m still trying to get fame in my own house,” Coach Hunter said in his one-man show that was his off-day media session. “My daughter is here. She’s getting married in a few weeks and we had breakfast this morning, and all she asked was for another check to write out for this wedding thing. .… My son is not listening to me. My wife is doing interviews. I tried to talk to her this morning – she said her people would get with my people. I don’t know what fame you’re talking about. I have no fame.”

Hunter got more attention than he bargained for in busting on President Obama for not picking the Panthers in his bracket.

“I was just playing with the President thing, man,” he said. “I didn’t mean that. The guy has done a great job, man. He’s made one mistake since he’s been a President, and that’s choosing against Georgia State. But man, stop the emails and all the political stuff. I’m not a political guy. I could care less. I exercise my right to vote. But quit sending me emails about that – that I’m disrespecting the office. The office of what? I’m not causing anything. We’re talking about a basketball game. Please stop with the emails. I’m nervous. I’m thinking my taxes are going to get something. I’m not getting money back anyway, but I think I’m going to owe more money, and I’m looking for Secret Service guys coming to get me. So please stop.”

Hunter swore his team would hop a bus and travel cross-country from Jacksonville to Los Angeles – “like the Brady Bunch or the Partridge Family” – if it reached the Sweet 16.

Alas, Xavier played the party pooper and sent the Georgia State bus back to Atlanta with a 75-67 defeat.

“We don’t worry about the nation’s feel-good story,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “They can find another story after Saturday.”

It didn’t last long enough, but the Hunters will have a father-son story of a lifetime.

“Next year or two years from now, you can win a National Championship, I can hit the lottery, there’s a lot of good things that can happen to me, but there’s nothing that’s going to happen better than the experience I’m having with R.J. right now,” Hunter said. “We’re having a ball as father and son. This is like an early Father’s Day present for me. We’re laughing and joking. This is something that we’ll be able to tell your kids and my grandchild about this 20 years from now.”

The rest of us will have the GIFs, memes and memories of Georgia State’s moment in the spotlight for as long as the tournament and Internet keep on going.

James Webb III has is making a name for himself at Boise State

Tue, 03/17/2015 - 10:38pm

Augusta fans tuning into tonight’s NCAA Tournament might recognize the name of a Boise State player – but they won’t recognize his game.

James Webb III played two seasons at Curtis Baptist in Augusta and another at Adelphi Christian in Aiken before following his coach to a prep school in Hilton Head Island, S.C., his senior year. But his old teammates in the area won’t believe what they see from Boise State’s 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore.

“I couldn’t even dunk before going into senior year,” Webb admits of his late-developing game.

Not only could Webb not dunk before leaving to play his senior year at The Oaks Virtual Academy, he was never much of a 3-point shooter in high school.

That’s all changed. As a rookie in Mountain West play this season, half of Webb’s field goal attempts were 3-pointers – ranking third in the conference hitting 44.9 percent. Equally impressive is his play around the rim, where he led Boise State in rebounds (9.0 per conference game) and dunks (15 in 18 games), shooting 65.4 percent from inside the arc and averaging a total of 12.9 points per game. He posted eight double-doubles this season.

“Now I can do pretty much whatever they need me to do,” Webb said.

If that caliber of play surprises people back home, well, it came as somewhat of a surprise in Idaho, too. After transferring from North Idaho College and sitting out last season, Webb didn’t score in only 13 total minutes in the Broncos first five games this year. Then senior all-conference center Anthony Drmic was lost to a back injury early in December and Webb stepped into the starting forward role.

“His injury was a big blow to the team,” Webb said. “We just had to find something that could replace that and fill that void. I went in and talked to the coaches and they worked with me and gave me little stuff to do. From then on I’ve been doing those little steps each game.”

Webb first flashed his potential in only the last 14 minutes off the bench at N.C. State in late November, leading the team scoring with 12. He posted a double-double in his first start on Dec. 9 against Adams State.

Once conference play began, however, he emerged as a star. In January he made his presence known in a huge road win at New Mexico that triggered a turnaround to the regular season conference title after opening Mountain West play 0-3. Webb went 7-for-7 on 3-pointers against the Lobos.

“You’re hearing a lot of that out there like, ‘Who is he and where did you get him?’ ” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “No question you’re hearing that because he just continues to improve and he’s become a big weapon.”

Webb was named the Mountain West Newcomer of the Year, made the all-defensive team and was second-team all-conference. In conference play, Boise State outscored its opponents by 211 points with Webb on the floor – the largest margin of any Bronco at a rate of 71.7 to 56.9 per 40 minutes.

“Yeah, I think I surprised some people,” Webb said. “I think if you really didn’t know me you’d be surprised, but I kind of knew what I could do all along. I didn’t shoot the 3 that much growing up, but here they worked on my shot.”

Webb’s all-around athleticism (he also lettered in tennis, soccer, baseball, track and cross country in high school) has excited the Bronco fan base. He opened eyes with a Jordan-esque game-clinching breakaway dunk at UNLV where he took off from a step inside the foul line and slammed it home on the same night the lights on the Las Vegas strip dimmed in honor of late coach Jerry Tarkanian.

“I didn’t think it was mathematically possible,” Rice said of Webb’s high-flying act.

Webb’s biggest asset, however, is rebounding. He filled the need after Drmic’s injury and the graduation loss of its best rebounder. He led team in rebounding 23 of 30 games he played, reaching double digits 10 times, including highs of 15 against UNLV and Air Force. It was his follow tip-in that sent Boise State into overtime of the conference semifinals before losing to eventual champion Wyoming.

“I know I can’t play if I can’t get boards,” Webb said. “It’s just a knack for the ball. I see the ball go up and try to read how it will come off and just and get it.”

Boise State basketball doesn’t exactly have the same national profile as its football program. Last week’s brief No. 25 ranking in the AP poll was the first in school history. The Broncos have reached the NCAA Tournament six previous times since 1976 representing the Big Sky, Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences. They’ve earned at-large berths in 2013 and this year. They’re 0-6 in March Madness.

That kind of history didn’t exactly earn them a lot of respect from the selection committee. Not only did they get relegated to one of the 11th-seed “play-in” games in Dayton, Ohio, but they got matched up with the hometown Dayton Flyers. Conference rivals San Diego State, which the Broncos beat out for the regular-season title by sweeping two meetings by 15 and 10 points, received a No. 8 seed. Tournament champion Wyoming got a 12 seed but a pass into the so-called “second round.”

Is everyone underestimating Boise State?

“I think so, but that’s just me being biased,” Webb said. “We’re not really a basketball school and San Diego State has always been a basketball school. That’s fine. We know what we can do. I think we have the team to do it, too. Not many people know about us and how we play. I just think we’re going to shock a couple of people.”

That confidence comes from an 8-5 road record this season including wins in tough places like San Diego State, UNLV, Utah State and New Mexico. Four of those five road losses came to tournament teams, including No. 1 seed Wisconsin and No. 1 NIT seed Colorado State.

“I feel like we can handle it,” Webb said of the Dayton hurdle. “I mean, they have the advantage but that’s neither here nor there. We don’t really care about that. We’re just glad that we get a chance to play. This season we’ve been a great road team so we’re just going to treat it as a road game.”

Webb is certainly comfortable on the road. Growing up in a military family, he’s lived in Germany, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and now Idaho. His parents – James and Robin – still live in Augusta after his father retired from the Army.

“I’m pretty used to it,” Webb said of his nomadic life that led him to Boise. “It’s pretty quiet here, but it’s a lot better than what people think or imagine. It’s beautiful.”

As he develops into a go-to player, he hopes to raised Boise State’s profile along with his own starting tonight in the East Region.

“It’s a big a great opportunity for us,” Webb said. “Not many teams know about Boise for basketball and we’re gonna try and turn things around.”

Masters champ Watson staying mum on Champions Dinner menu

Mon, 03/16/2015 - 5:24pm

Bubba Watson finally revealed his Champions Dinner menu for his green-jacketed peers.

“We are definitely going to have food,” Watson promised Monday in a teleconference with Augusta National Golf Club announcing his promotional trip to New York next week on behalf of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.

The 36-year-old Watson enjoys playing a cat-and-mouse game with anyone who inquires about what he plans to serve his fellow champions at the annual Tuesday night dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse before the Masters Tournament. He kept it a secret when he played host the first time as defending champion in 2013 and will again this year.

“It’s the one chance that I can just hold everything from everybody, so I’m doing it,” Watson said. “And I might never get that chance again.”

Two years ago, Watson served caesar salad and grilled chicken breast with sides of green beans, mashed potatoes, corn, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. Dessert was a confetti cake with vanilla ice cream. He would not say if this year’s menu would be different.

“I knew what the menu was before I even won,” Watson said. “I let them know and told them the same thing – I’m not going to tell anybody until Wednesday morning when they find out. Unless Nick Faldo tweets it again right after he leaves the dinner.”

Faldo tweaked Watson on Twitter immediately after leaving the 2013 dinner: “-@bubbawatson you had a year to decide on, grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, macaroni & cheese!!! #HappyMeal #PlayLikeaChampion”

Watson admits his tastes tip toward the simple.

“I eat plain,” he said, revealing that in both years that he won the Masters he ate one or two burritos every single night (including before attending the Champions Dinner) that consisted of only chicken, rice, black beans and cheese.

“So maybe this year I should do all burritos again,” he said.

His favorite dining spot when he went to school at Georgia was the lunch counter at Ad Drug in the Five Points district of Athens. He’d frequent it with teammate Dave Miller and coach Chris Haack, ordering a cheeseburger and milkshake every time.

He’s also partial to Mellow Mushroom and famously ate a post-Masters meal last April with his wife, Angie, and friend, Judah Smith, at the Waffle House on Wheeler Road. He ate a double grilled cheese with his hashed browns “scattered and covered.” He left a generous $148 tip for the wait staff.

He also ordered six milkshakes just before midnight at the Steak n’ Shake on South Belair Road, leaving a $24 tip on that tab.

If you’re guessing he’d get Waffle House to cater the dinner this time, you’d be wrong.

“You can’t use a name brand,” Watson said of the club’s rules that forbid commercialism.

“Augusta called and started asking what I wanted within a week after” winning, Watson said of his first go-round as host. “So they knew within two weeks but they wouldn’t tell. This year, not one call. They figure it’ll be easy to get whatever I want.”

One thing you can be sure of, the main course won’t come out of Ike’s Pond or any other body of water. Watson declined to eat the surf portion of Adam Scott’s surf-and-turf dinner – Morton Bay Bugs, a crustacean native to the waters off the Gold Coast of Australia.

“I didn’t eat the bugs,” Watson said. “I don’t eat seafood. The steak was real good, though.”

On Monday after playing this week at Bay Hill, Watson will go to New York to promote the finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship that will take place at Augusta National the Sunday before the first practice round of Masters Week. He’ll appear with the green jacket on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Monday night.

The next day he’ll be joined by 10-year-old Kelly Xu, who last year became the first female champion at Augusta National by winning the 7-9 girls division. Xu will return as one of 80 finalists this year, this time in the 10-11 age group.

Watson and Xu will be guests on CBS This Morning, ESPN’s SportsCenter and Golf Channel before finishing the day at the New York Stock Exchange.

“As a kid, I would be honored and thrilled just to try to compete and have a chance to make it to Augusta National,” Watson said, “so this is one of the best things that I’ve seen in recent years to grow the game of golf.”

If Bubba needs any menu advice, Xu said she would serve Brunswick stew, cornmeal, cornbread, sweet corn, sweet tea, and hot peach cobbler as her Champions Dinner menu.

Michaux: Bad decade ending for Georgia hoops

Sat, 03/14/2015 - 9:29pm

It’s likely, when the bids are unveiled tonight on the prime-time selection show, that Georgians will have two teams to cheer for (or hate against) in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.

That’s not that long between multiple bids if you’re a sparse outlier state like the Dakotas, Maine, Alaska or Hawaii, but it’s a pretty brutal lapse for an athlete-producing hotbed in the heart of the sports-enriched South.

Either Georgia State or Georgia Southern is guaranteed access as the winner of today’s Sun Belt Conference championship showdown – a rematch of the 1992 Trans America Athletic Conference title game won by the Eagles. The Sun Belt’s top two seeds have a budding rivalry brewing in their new neighborhood, and the winner of today’s rubber match could be a dangerous foe for some unsuspecting power-conference opponent. The last time Georgia State made it in 2001, the Panthers shocked Wisconsin as an 11 seed.

Meanwhile – despite its 0-6 record against top-50 teams and inexplicable loss to ACC bottom feeder Georgia Tech – the Georgia Bulldogs should get their first at-large invitation to the tournament since 2011. It escaped the unwritten rule (if it’s not written, it should be) that any team that loses to South Carolina three times in the same season is automatically eliminated. The Bulldogs avoided that ignominy Friday night to advance as far as the semifinals of the SEC Tournament.

It should be only Georgia’s second NCAA appearance in 12 years since Jim Harrick left the program in shame, except for the fluke of 2008 when a tornado ripped through the roof of the Georgia Dome and the last-place Bulldogs won three games in 30 hours, including an upset of Kentucky, in an empty Georgia Tech coliseum. Some have called that SEC title run a miracle, but it was more a sign of the apocalypse with the Bulldogs saddled another season with unpopular coach Dennis Felton before Mark Fox could start rebuilding.

But I digress. It’s been a very bad decade for basketball fans in the Peach State. The lone highlight since the diminutive Will Bynum twisted through the lane for a layup to lift Georgia Tech into the 2004 national championship game was Mercer taking down mighty Duke in the first round last year.

In four of the previous nine seasons, no teams from Georgia qualified for the 65- or 68-team fields. In the five other seasons when only one team did, it was never ranked higher than a No. 10 seed. Only that 2004 Georgia Tech team ever made it past the second round this century, and the Yellow Jackets are a long way (and at least a new coach) from ever getting back to relevance.

So this qualifies as a bellwether season for Georgia hoops, with even the Atlanta Hawks becoming the most dominant team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Georgia Regents returned to the NCAA Division II tournament for the 10th time, joining West Georgia and Columbus State in the 32-team field. Paine College had a legitimate beef for being excluded over arguably inferior teams.

Of course, arguing is one of the traditions of college sports. Come tonight, bubbles will burst and teams will go kicking and screaming into the consolation NIT. One of those teams might be Boise State, with former Augusta Christian player James Webb III. Despite Webb’s putback to force overtime Friday, the Broncos lost to Wyoming in the Mountain West semifinals and are at the mercy of the NCAA selection committee.

The committee has an unenviable job. It can be said without hesitation that it’s never left out a team that had any real chance of winning six games and a national title. But the NCAA Tournament is a unique event where even the chance to win one game can be considered a career-validating accomplishment. See Mercer 2014. A Sweet 16, Elite Eight or Final Four appearance are banner-raising triumphs.

Which is why an idea recently proffered by former Duke player Jay Bilas is worth considering. Bilas, this generation’s leading analyst for ESPN, suggested that the selection committee submit its at-large choices seeded 1-68 before conference tournament play. Evaluations would be based entirely upon the regular-season body of work, preventing lesser power-conference teams an unfair opportunity to pad résumés with a win or two in tournament play while the best mid-major or smaller teams don’t have the
same chance.

It’s an intriguing concept, letting every team know exactly what it has to accomplish to get automatic bids while watching conference champs eliminate the bottom bubble teams one by one. It would also give the committee a full week to work on completing the best possible bracket rather than hastily piecing it together on deadline as tournament results trickle in over the course of the last week.

This seems like a better solution than further expanding the field to 72 or 96, thus cheapening the accomplishment of just getting there. A larger tournament merely diminishes the regular season even more.

It’s nice to have regional teams to pull for (or against) when we join the office pools next week. But it’s better to know that those teams earned a place and believe they have a sporting chance to do more than respond “Present” at the tournament roll call.

Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson are top American golfers now

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 3:51pm

Before we all become inflicted with that madness of March that fills the last remaining month until the Masters Tournament, here are a few takeaways gleaned from the recent fortnight spent covering the PGA Tour down in sunny South Florida.

1. There are two kings of the hill in American golf, and their names aren’t Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson are head and shoulders the two best American golfers in the world, and that’s not just a reflection of their world ranking of No. 2 and 7, respectively. In terms of power and athleticism, they are the model of the modern golfer even if they might not have the golf sense of their predecessors Woods and Mickelson or potential successors like Jordan Spieth or Brooks Koepka.

Johnson came back from a six-month leave where he “worked on my game and worked on me” and might just be in position to finally fulfill the massive potential his talent has long promised. A victory at Doral, playoff loss at Riviera and T4 at his personal playground Pebble Beach forecasts a massive season.

Watson, meanwhile, keeps becoming more consistently good with his uninhibited swing. He hasn’t finished worse than 30th in 12 starts – with five top-10s including a World Golf Championship win in China – since his PGA Championship tantrum. He’ll be a significant threat to become the fourth repeat winner at Augusta National Golf Club.

2. Golf is undergoing another youth revolution. The undisputed No. 1 player in the world, Rory McIlroy, is only 25. His oldest peer rivals are Jason Day (27) and Rickie Fowler (26). His pending top-20 challengers are Spieth (21), Hideki Matsuyama (23), Patrick Reed (25) and Koepka (24). On the top 100 horizon are rookies Justin Thomas (21) and Daniel Berger (21) in addition to established talents like Russell Henley (25) and Harris English (25).

This is the generation of fearless golfers that Tiger Woods inspired. Get used to them, because over the next decade many of them are likely to inscribe their names on major trophies.

3. Mickelson may be past his prime as a golfer, but he has overtaken Woods as the most influential player in golf.

It was Mickelson who prompted the overhaul of the American Ryder Cup program with his vocal criticism in the aftermath of the latest debacle last fall, and it was Mickelson who steered the “task force” into adopting a new points system and captain protocols.

Mickelson’s influence is so absolute, he doesn’t care what anybody thinks, including new captain Davis Love III or PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. He endorsed a points system that excludes the season-opening fall events that includes Love’s tournament at Sea Island, saying “if you count money for those last three or four months, you’re giving the bottom half of the tour a three‑month head start over ultimately the top guys.” While the tour’s “bottom half” might be offended, Finchem admitted the tour “whiffed” on allowing that crediting oversight and would try to address it. Mickelson only doubled down, calling the wrap-around schedule confusing and suggesting “maybe we should start it in January like we used to.”

4. There are degrees of misbehavior, some classier than others. McIlroy is so good, he even made club throwing look cool.

Purists wailed when the world No. 1 heaved his 3-iron into the lake on Doral’s eighth hole. But the way he handled it after the round with part humor and part chagrin made it more forgivable than other professional tantrums. Golf is a hard game and sometimes it’s intolerable.

“It felt good at the time,” McIlroy confessed of his heave into the drink. But he added, “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it, especially if there’s kids watching at home.”

5. Donald Trump is the most ubiquitous distraction I’ve ever seen. He turns a World Golf Championship with an all-star cast into something all about him.

When J.B. Holmes shot an other-worldly 62 that was 11 strokes lower than the field average, Trump complained to the PGA Tour’s course setup crew. When McIlroy throws a club in the pond, Trump waits until broadcast hours to send in a frogman to retrieve the club and then returns it personally to McIlroy and holds a press scrum afterwards. When he sends his helicopter to retrieve Arnold Palmer for one of four ribbon-cutting ceremonies during the week, he orders the 85-year-old and visibly injured Palmer to “get up Arnie” at the presentation.

Trump is eagerly investing in golf, which is great. He’s bought and slapped his name on a major venue in Turnberry, coaxed the PGA of America to move its Grand Slam event to his course in Los Angeles and is erecting plush resorts in Scotland, Ireland and New York City. Everywhere you turned last week (even at the opposite event in Puerto Rico), Trump’s name was in a headline. Sadly, Trump’s making the game less rather than more accessible, with green fees to play the brutally tough Blue Monster at $325. Who wants to spend that much money to have a miserable time?

6. Based on the way this season is going, here are many favorites (in order) to win the Masters Tournament: McIlroy, Watson, Adam Scott (with a short putter that was surprisingly deft), Day and Johnson. It should be a lot of fun next month and for the rest of the season.

Michaux: Scott Brown in familiar position

Sat, 03/07/2015 - 7:25pm

DORAL, Fla. — On a different Donald Trump golf course in different tropical locale, Scott Brown is rebooting his slumping season in the same place he got it started two years ago.

Brown – a star at North Augusta High and USC Aiken – finds himself in a familiar place atop the Puerto Rico Open leaderboard entering today’s final round at the Trump International Golf Club. It doesn’t matter to him that golf’s heavyweights are gathered at Trump National Doral for a WGC event. The stakes are as high even if the purse is 60 percent less.

“It doesn’t get easier at all,” Brown said of trying to win for a second time on the PGA Tour. “It’s just as nerve-wracking because winning does so much for you out here and everybody knows it at this level. It gives you two years and gets you in some good tournaments like the PGA and Kapalua. If anybody tells you it gets easier winning, they’d be lying to you. Tiger (Woods) made it look easy in his career, but for the most part look at everybody else. It’s hard to win out here.”

Brown won the 2013 Puerto Rico open, making a birdie on the 18th hole to edge Jordan Spieth and Fabian Gomez by a stroke. Just like two years ago, he’ll enter the final round tied for the 54-hole lead, tied with Chris Smith. Eighteen other players are within three shots.

Unlike two years ago, however, Brown didn’t expect to be in this position after starting the third round 90 minutes ahead of the leaders tied for 21st and six strokes behind the leaders. He shot a bogey-free 5-under-par 67 to vault higher up the leaderboard than he imagined possible. Birdies on the 17th and 18th holes proved crucial.

“It’s definitely like a bonus,” Brown said of his standing in the last group. “I said before teeing off this morning if I could shoot 5 (under) I could get myself in contention or at least reaching distance. Obviously I thought it would be a little bit better at the top. I thought I might be two or three back going into (Sunday).”

The 7,500-yard course obviously suits his game.

“It sets my eye pretty well, and I think it’s got a great mix of holes,” Brown said. “It’s not our typical tour course now where it’s so long. It keeps a lot of us in the game a little bit here.”

It’s a welcome opportunity for Brown, who has struggled mightily since October. Brown missed the cut in seven of his past nine starts, finishing 62nd in the two weekends he reached.

“Obviously I was struggling on the West Coast and I got some good work in with my coach at Honda,” Brown said. “I’ve been kind of fighting the left shot for the last six or seven weeks and we’ve got it kind of dialed in and figured out where it was coming from. So I’m hitting it pretty good this week and just need to make some putts.”

It’s been a far cry from a year ago, when Brown made 21 of 30 cuts including four top-five finishes including the John Deere and Heritage.

“I work really hard at it,” Brown said. “I don’t expect to play great all the time but I expect to be there at least some because I work so hard in practice. I’m super proud of the way I’ve played. I’ve had nine or 10 top-10s on tour, which is not where I’d like to be but it’s not the worst, either. I’ve had some good tournaments where I’ve had a chance to win, too. Hopefully the more you get yourself in that position and the more opportunities you get to win golf tournaments, you just do it and in the right place get the right bounce and it happens.”

Winning an “opposite” event doesn’t earn an automatic invitation to the Masters Tournament – a dream goal for Brown.

But it carries all the other benefits of tour victories, which makes the stress level equivalent if not greater than what the top 50 players are experiencing this week at Doral.

“I’m sure it will feel the same (Sunday),” Brown said, comparing it to two year ago when he had no full-time tour status. “I’m sure I’ll be just as nervous. That’s why we play though, to get nervous and all the anxiety cranks up. Obviously winning is a big deal for anybody. Doesn’t matter what level it’s on. I’ll be feeling it but hopefully I just embrace it and go out and play a good round.”

The Puerto Rico crosswinds have wreaked havoc on the scoring this week, with Brown 12 strokes higher than he was two years ago. But forecasted lighter winds on Sunday mean he’ll need to keep scoring to hold off the field.

“I’ve got to set my sight on a number and not worry about what everybody else is doing,” Brown said. “I’ve got to reach double digits or 11-, 12-under par. So another 5- or 6-under for me and I like my chances. If somebody beats it, that guy deserves it.”

Ranked 223rd in the world, Puerto Rico doesn’t offer enough world ranking points to even get Brown down to his career-best 128th. But it jump start his flagging season, get him into Bay Hill and give him an outside shot of chasing a Masters bid.

“Puerto Rico would not get me in (the Masters) world ranking or with a win, but I have to play really good to get in there and probably have to win somewhere else along the way to get in there or just go on a tear from hear until Augusta to get in to be honest,” he said. “I’ll play all of them they’ll let me play in all the way to Augusta. If I play good (Sunday), maybe I can get into Bay Hill. It’s one of my favorite tournaments out here and hopefully I can get in it.”

Michaux: Adam Scott returns to action with new life, game

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 6:58pm

DORAL, Fla. — Adam Scott returns to work from his Australian summer vacation a fully changed man – new daughter, new caddie, new putter.

“Yeah, everything was getting a little boring so I thought just change everything completely,” said the 2013 Masters Tournament champion.

Winning his first major two years ago at Augusta hardly compares in terms of upheaval to the past 12 months of Scott’s life. He married his longtime girlfriend, Marie Kojzar, in the Bahamas a week after the 2014 Masters.

After the Tour Championship at East Lake, his veteran caddie, Steve Williams, retired to New Zealand. Scott spent the final events on the Australian swing auditioning new caddies and settled on Thorbjorn Olesen’s looper Mike Kerr.

Then during a two-month break before his daughter, Bo Vera, was born Feb. 15 in Queensland, Australia, he got to work experimenting with new grips and conventional short putters as the ban on anchored clubs approaches at the end of 2015.

He plans to employ a claw grip with one of two short putters this week in his season debut in the WGC event at Doral – though he was spotted walking around the resort with the broomstick putter he’s used since 2011 and won the Masters with in 2013.

“I’ve kind of enjoyed experimenting at home the last couple months because I’ve had so much time up my sleeve,” Scott said. “Thinking a little more objectively about it at the back end of last year, I thought because I do have to make an adjustment by the end of this year, if I’m going to spend some time doing it, I should try and start now and maybe find the best solution. I’ve putted lots of different ways at home, and you know, probably going to putt with a shorter putter this week. It’s been feeling good. I’ve enjoyed doing it. It’s not that big a deal. I did it for a long time, too, that way.”

Scott doesn’t want to get too stressed with the transition. He first used the long putter at Doral in 2011 and six weeks later finished runner-up at the Masters, so he believes he has enough time to get up to speed. He won’t feel the immediate need to break his broomstick in half the way Webb Simpson did to avoid the temptation of returning to it as a crutch.

“I think the important thing for me will be to just stay patient with it for a little bit,” he said. “Obviously it’s slightly different than what I’ve been doing, but it’s not completely foreign to me. You know, just give it a chance. I don’t think I need to snap my other putter. It treated me pretty well, so I don’t think it deserves a snapping.

“It’s going to be demanding, certainly if the wind is blowing. But I’m thinking, you know, my stroke and everything feels as good as it ever has.”

The biggest change, of course, is his family. The once desirable bachelor finally settled down and 10 months later became a parent.

He got to spend nine days with mother and daughter changing plenty of diapers and waking up at odd hours before leaving them to return to work and prepare for the Masters next month.

“I thought if I change a lot early, I’ll make up for my six week absence at the moment,” he said. “I think if you can kind of write up a whole dream scenario of how it should all happen, I think we had a pretty good run of things. It’s been a great couple weeks in my life, for sure.

“You know, throwing a baby in the mix is certainly going to make for an interesting year this year. It’s fantastic, and you know, it’s really exciting times for my wife and myself, and going to deal with lots of different things upcoming for sure. I feel like I’m in a really good place with everything.”

Scott shut his game down after playing five tournaments in Asia and Australia at the end of 2014. But friendly games at home with his mates wasn’t going to get him ready for Augusta.

“Certainly the last few weeks at home, seeing a bit of the guys play, I’ve got that kind of itchy feeling to play,” he said. “But I was home for good reason and everything is going well, so good time to kick it off here.”

He’ll try to shake the rust off and get his putter working in four starts at Doral, Tampa, Bay Hill and Texas before coming to Augusta early to prepare for his favorite event.

“I’m kind of starting a little late,” he admitted. “I’ve got to get playing and try and find that nice rhythm on the golf course. I think that’s my goal the next three or four weeks out here – find that rhythm again on the golf course.”

His partner in that quest now is Kerr, who has caddied for the likes of Ernie Els, Lee Westwood and Miguel Angel Jimenez. Scott received hundred of applications from all over the world, including one from a member of the Japanese royal family who admitted one of his qualifications was being “extremely lazy.”

Kerr was one of three caddies Scott auditioned in five starts. In two events together, Scott tied for fifth in the Australian Open and was runner-up in the Aussie PGA and determined Kerr was the proper fit.

“I’ve known Mike a long time, too,” Scott said. “So I know his personality quite well, and it was along the lines of what I thought I needed. You’ve just got to pick someone. I could keep having different guys try all the time but I don’t think I was going to get anything more, so I felt confident with Mike and my decision, and hopefully we’re going to start a good run right here.”

For Scott, the best run would be settling back in a routine with no more changes.

Michaux: Woods won't catch Nicklaus

Sat, 02/28/2015 - 3:23pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Jack Nicklaus will be invited into the NBC booth later this afternoon. He’s the unofficial host of the Honda Classic played on a PGA National Champions course he redesigned near his home in North Palm Beach.

Among the things announcers Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller will talk about with Nicklaus is “The Bear Trap” – the hazard-infested three-hole stretch of 15, 16 and 17 that will go a long way to determining who holds the trophy.

The real Bear trap, however, will undoubtedly be sprung at some point inside that TV tower. It involves Tiger Woods, who isn’t even playing his hometown event this week because his game isn’t PGA Tour quality at the moment.

Nicklaus will invariably be asked if he thinks Woods can still chase down his record of 18 major championship wins. The always diplomatic Jack will answer the same way he did last year, and the year before and the year before that and every year since about 2000. It will be roughly the same answer he gave the Golf Channel 10 days ago, the last time the Bear trap was triggered.

“I still do,” Nicklaus said. “Why would I not think that? ... He’s got a lot of golf in front of him. But it’s going to be up to him, he’s still got to do it. He may. He may not. Obviously chances are harder for him now than five years ago, but I still think he has time on his side.”

There may come a day – perhaps when Woods is 50 and still stuck on 14, 15 or (if he’s really lucky) 16 major wins – when an 80-something Nicklaus admits Tiger doesn’t have a chance. But for now there’s still no other acceptable answer for the legend to give. To answer any other way would be undignified.

Deep down, however, we all know that Nicklaus doesn’t really believe Woods can catch him. Nobody who has seen Woods chip and putt like a 20-handicap golfer when he’s not wincing and withdrawing with another back twinge or deactivated glute can possibly believe that that person is capable of winning, starting at age 39, as many majors as Phil Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros have in their whole careers.

Frankly, it’s time we all accept it and stop forcing Nicklaus to be disingenuous by asking him the same question over and over again almost seven years after the parameters last changed.

Tiger Woods is not going to catch Jack Nicklaus on the major scorecard. At this point, it will be a great accomplishment if Woods covers the three-victory gap on Sam Snead in the all-time PGA Tour wins list. That’s an attainable goal. So would winning another major or two, particularly the Masters where Woods has a lifetime exemption against a shorter field. It’s been 10 years since Woods last won at Augusta National. It’s been seven years since he last won any major.

It’s preposterous to believe that the Woods whose chipping proximity in Phoenix last month was 200 percent worse (30 feet) to the second worst player in the field (10 feet) is capable of winning four or five more majors. To quote the late great Leonard Nimoy’s iconic character Mr. Spock, it’s illogical.

Granted, that logic was borne from the simple premise that the worst thing we can do is count Woods out. I’ve fallen into that rabbit hole of thinking myself. When Woods came back to reclaim his No. 1 ranking with a five-win campaign in 2013, it was easy to see that he still possessed an internal genius that could do great things. He was only 37. Time seemed on his side.

That genius might not have dimmed, but his body has gravely diminished. Since withdrawing after 13 holes on Sunday at last year’s Honda Classic complaining of a bad back, Woods has been on a startling downward trajectory. His world ranking has plummeted to from No. 1 to No. 70 – its lowest since 1996.

He’s taken three leaves of absence from tournament golf in the last 12 months– the first to undergo microdisectomy surgery on his back last March, the second after the PGA to give his back more rehab time to get healthy and now a third to attempt to restore his game to tour standards.

“My play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf,” he said in announcing his indefinite leave on Feb. 11. “Like I’ve said, I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level, and when I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.”

Maybe that will be at Bay Hill. Maybe the Masters. Maybe later. Point is, Woods has lost the confidence that once made him the most efficiently successful player the game has ever known. In the last year, however, he’s more than twice as likely to miss the cut or withdraw with injury than he is to complete 72 holes of golf.

“I think he’s struggling more between his ears than he is anyplace else,” Nicklaus told Golf Channel last week.

“He’s sort of a mess right now,” Miller said. “I’m pulling for him but it seems hard for people to start having faith that he’s going to win regular events, let alone majors.”

“Having known him a long, long time, it’s hard to watch,” said David Duval, a former No. 1 player who never fully recovered from his own injuries and shattered confidence. “I had to live through a lot of it on my own, as well. I think that injuries have really broken him down, his physicality, and I think through that, mentally. And once you get scarred mentally, it’s a hard thing to come back from.”

If you love golf and love greatness, you want to see Tiger Woods come back and compete with Rory McIlroy and the rest of golf’s new world order. There’s still genius trapped inside his 39-year-old body yearning to come back out.

“I think Tiger will turn it around,” Nicklaus said. “He’s too dedicated, he works too hard at it, he’s got too much talent. He’ll figure it out. And personally, I think he needs to figure it out himself. Because a teacher can’t teach what’s inside your head. You’ve got to be able to put that positive thought into your head yourself.”

There may be occasions when we’ll get glimpses of the way Woods used to dominate. He may have his own 1986 Masters moment down the road. But to think that the player struggling to break par and make cuts can exhibit the consistent brilliance required to chase down Nicklaus is a massive stretch.

Age is a trap nobody can escape.

Michaux: US making right moves to change Ryder Cup fortunes

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 9:20pm

If you cut through all the self-congratulatory clutter of task forces and team-building group think, the American Ryder Cup team made a big step Tuesday toward winning the 2016 matches at Hazeltine.

It’s not necessarily the encore selection of Davis Love III to be captain – which Phil Mickelson called “the perfect choice.” It’s not all the back-patting nonsense of collaboration and collective experience.

It’s about common sense, and the PGA of America implemented that fundamental element to putting together the best possible U.S. team in a consistent system designed to be as competitive as possible against an overwhelming tide of European success in the biennial matches.

“We took a step back and said, you know, over the last 20 years, a 2-8 record, something should be done differently,” PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua said. “Something’s broken. We can do something better.”

In Tuesday’s introductory news conference at PGA of America headquarters, Love said what’s better is “a new process for continuity and teamwork which will prepare us for many years of success.”

The most significant part of that “process” is establishing a more sensible framework for having the best 12 players competing every other September. It’s something former captain Paul Azinger tried to establish in 2008 – the last time the Americans won – but was chipped away at in three successive losses since by disparate captaincies.

The biggest new piece is giving the captain more flexibility in choosing his team at precisely the right moment. Love will get four captain’s picks again, instead of three, and will get to make those picks at later dates when a more complete picture of the hottest players is available as the Ryder Cup approaches.

The first three captain’s picks will be made right before the season-ending Tour Championship. The last wild-card bullet will be left in the chamber until after the final event at East Lake.

The significance of that one change can’t be over-stated. This year’s U.S. team was hamstrung before it ever got to Scotland because captain Tom Watson had to make educated guesses about all of his captain’s picks a month before the Ryder Cup after only half of the PGA Tour’s showcase playoff events were concluded. That meant he never had a chance to even consider the player who won both of the last two events, Billy Horschel, or the next hottest player over the last three weeks, Chris Kirk. Those two in peak form might have changed the dynamic of the U.S. team completely.

Even better is that the deadline for the eight automatic qualifiers will be delayed until the end of August after the first playoff event in 2016, the Barclays. On its face, this pushed-back deadline was made because the PGA Championship is moving to earlier in the summer for one year to accommodate golf’s return to the Olympics. The upshot is that players will be grinding for points closer to the Ryder Cup than ever before.

“I think it’s a huge change,” Love said. “Obviously … the Olympic year really made us look at everything. We can’t obviously end the points at the PGA that early. So it gave us flexibility to do it where we thought was best. … We like waiting as long as we can to take the players who are ready to go.”

They’ve also jiggered the points system to weigh it even more heavily upon the biggest events and the most current year. Points will start getting earned next week at the World Golf Championship at Doral and in all of the remaining WGCs, majors and the Players Championship in 2015. Majors will be worth one point for every $1,000 earned while the other marquee events will offer one point for every $2,000 won.

The 2016 points won’t start accruing until the start of the year and not the wrap-around season, eliminating the fall events when the best players tend to take an off-season. Players will receive one point for every $1,000 in stand-alone PGA Tour events and double that in the majors.

“If you count money for those last three or four months, you’re giving the bottom half of the tour a three-month head start over ultimately the top guys,” Phil Mickelson said.

Those are the most essential elements, but the captain system is also critical. Despite his team failing to hold a substantial lead for him on the last day of the 2012 matches at Medinah, Love commands a respect from peer players. He’s high on emotion, but low on ego.

“He’s a guy that people love and respect, and he’s a guy that already has done a great job and put us in a position to succeed, even though we didn’t do it,” Mickelson said. “There’s nobody who is as unselfish, there’s nobody who can take the hits and pass the credit, who has past experience to work off of. If those are the things you want, there’s only one guy who fits that bill. He’s the perfect guy to get us started in a 20-year journey.”

But Love biggest task will be creating the model of succession. He’ll have four vice captains comprised of two former captains and two experienced Ryder Cup players. Love already named 2006 captain Tom Lehman as an assistant in his home state of Minnesota.

Mickelson said participation in 2016 as a player or vice captain will be compulsory for consideration as the 2018 captain.

It should be noted that none of these common-sense changes might have taken place had Mickelson – at the urging of his fellow teammates – hadn’t spoken up in the aftermath of the latest defeat at Gleneagles.

“It should have happened 20 years ago, but we were such a better team talent-wise that we were able to overcome it and come out on top, so it was never a necessity,” Mickelson said. “But as Europe got better players, better organized and started winning more, now it’s a necessity. We have to play our best. We are not more talented to where we can just show up and expect to win.”

At least in 2016, the Americans have a chance of showing up with their best talent and a sensible plan to face the challenge of turning the tide against Europe.

Vaughn Taylor appears headed back on road to PGA Tour

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 7:33pm

It was a welcome sight for local golf fans, Vaughn Taylor chipping in on the 14th hole for birdie to force CBS to acknowledge his presence on the Pebble Beach leaderboard.

It’s been a long time since the Hephzibah-bred, Augusta State-honed, Evans resident has been relevant on the PGA Tour. After losing his card in 2013 and narrowly failing to regain it on the Web.com Tour last year, Taylor is struggling to regain a foothold he held for 11 seasons on the world’s most prominent tour. His tie for 10th in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was a needed boost.

“It was a lot of fun,” Taylor said of his 15-under performance on the Monterrey Peninsula. “I had a great time last week and it’s always nice to play well, too. It’s good to get back in the mix on the tour.”

When you’re on the outside looking in, it’s hard not to let the stakes be overwhelming. Taylor’s birdie on the 14th hole moved him into a tie for fourth, four shots behind cruising leader Brandt Snedeker. A steady finish would have brought him a paycheck in excess of $250,000 and guaranteed him a spot in the Northern Trust Open.

Taylor knew it and started pressing, failing to hit the greens on Nos. 15 and 16 and missing 6-footers for par on each. That left him sweating it out that he’d remain in the top-10 and join this week’s PGA Tour field at Riviera.

“Unfortunately (I was) a little too conscious of it,” Taylor said. “It was definitely something I thought about. I was trying to take it one shot at a time and stay in my routine of what I was doing. But it had been a while since I’d been in that situation. I definitely knew the top 10 was going to get me in this week. I wish I hadn’t started thinking about it as much as I was. But it was natural to think about it a little bit. I’m glad everything worked out the way it did.”

Fighting against the current to get back among the golf’s elite as Taylor has been the past couple of years, it’s easy to feel like you’re never going to get your head above water. Taylor, however, knows a little too much about that in a very literal way.

Fishing alone last August below Strom Thurmond Dam just six miles up the Savannah River from his home, Taylor’s boat was swamped after one of his aging anchor lines broke. Not wearing a life vest, he originally tried to save his boat from sinking before realizing he was in bigger danger himself. His mind quickly raced to his wife, Leot, and infant son, Locklyn, at home.

“I was panicked a little bit and could have made it a lot easier on myself,” he said. “When I was in the water I thought of my family first. It makes you realize how much people need you. It’s not about yourself.”

Taylor got lucky. Dam operators lowered the flow to ease the current and he eventually grabbed hold of a waterproof tackle box that served as a flotation device to help him swim to shore a couple of hundred yards down the river. He’s also lucky that his deteriorating anchor line gave away on a warm summer day when he was only wearing shorts instead of in winter.

“I kind of felt like someone was looking over me that day,” he said. “I was lucky to be alive. It was an unfortunate accident and one in which I made a lot of mistakes as far as boating goes. You kind of live and learn a little bit. I could have prevented it. I learned that when I’m out there by myself I’ve got to be wearing a life jacket. I just didn’t realize the scenarios that can happen out there. Wearing a life jacket is No. 1. When you’re by yourself you never know what can happen. You can drown that easily.”

The lesson was another dose of perspective for the nearly 39-year-old Taylor. Locklyn is now 15 months old, and fatherhood has softened his sometimes volatile moods on the golf course.

“It’s changed things a lot,” he said. “Being a father is different and walking off the golf course you tend to forget about all the bad things. It just gives you a bigger view. He’s 15 months old and he doesn’t know what I shot or what happened on the golf course. It’s good for me to get away from that. It’s been refreshing for me and something I need at this point in my career. I’m really happy with where my life is right now.”

His golf is in “a completely different place” as well. A year ago he was a new father who’d just been demoted from the lucrative PGA Tour. His confidence wasn’t brimming.

“I was trying to work on some things and mentally I was all over the place,” he said. “I’d lost my card and was going back down to Web.com. So I didn’t really know what was going on or what to expect.”

In four starts this season – two on each tour – Taylor hasn’t been outside the top 20 yet. He tied for 20th in the PGA Tour’s Sanderson Farms Championship in November. With his tie for 10th at Pebble Beach, he’s 141st in the FedEx Cup standings.

In the season’s first two events on the Web.com Tour, he finished 15th and 12th in Panama and Colombia to sit 14th on that money list just ahead of fellow Augusta State alumnus Henrik Norlander.

Another good result this week at Riviera – where he’s made the cut five of the past six times he’s played and finished top 25 twice – and in two weeks in Puerto Rico would give him a leg up on regaining his status. The $141,100 he made at Pebble Beach was more than he earned in 23 starts all of last season and gives him more flexibility with his schedule.

“Originally I was just planning to play on the Web.com and get a few starts out here, but last week changes things,” he said. “I’d love to maybe play my way on out here and maybe get some invites to get in the top 125 and get more starts because of that. I’ll take it week to week.

“I can relax a little more and try to free it up and play a little bit without worrying about all that kind of stuff.”

Prep star Roquan Smith might have unwittingly set new trend

Sat, 02/14/2015 - 7:10pm

The funny thing about game-changers is you don’t often see them coming.

Chinese alchemists eight centuries before Christ were experimenting trying to develop an “immortality pill.” What they discovered instead eventually became one of the deadliest compounds in the world – gunpowder.

Nearly 3,000 years later, clinical trials tested the safety of a new drug designed to treat angina caused by heart disease. A funny thing happened to the trial subjects, however, and the next thing you know all of our sporting events are interrupted by Viagra commercials.

These unintended strokes of genius and countless others changed the world, each in its own way. Now a linebacker might have down the same for college football. Without even trying, he might have become the Curt Flood of college recruiting who brings a needed level of “free agency” to the star athletes.

Unless you’re a recruiting junkie, you never heard of Roquan Smith (or even Montezuma, Ga.) until last week. The Macon County senior was listed by ESPN as the second-best linebacker in the nation, the 29th best player overall. Those numbers are meaningless except to say that Smith is very good at tackling people and colleges wanted him.

During the ridiculously over-hyped National Signing Day coverage, Smith was asked by ESPN to make his college choice known on national television. At the appointed time, Smith reached under the table and pulled on gloves with the logo of UCLA even though he was still a little torn over whether to go to school across country or at nearby Georgia.

“First off, Wednesday morning, I woke up, and I didn’t know where I was going to go,” Smith explained to UGASports.com. “Going into signing day and when I was getting ready to sign, I still didn’t know where I was going to go. My heart was with UGA, but my mind was with UCLA and wanting to experience something different. When I got up there, I just chose UCLA on TV. Then, either place I committed, I wasn’t going to sign papers then. I said I wanted to get some time back, think, and see how the decision felt within.”

While Smith was still thinking about it, word leaked out that his future position coach at UCLA was going to by hired by the Atlanta Falcons. Having not signed and sent in his paperwork, Smith was suddenly back on the block and a trending story. Had UCLA already received his signed national letter of intent (NLI), he would have been locked into the Bruins regardless.

On Friday, nine days after becoming an unintended recruiting saga, Smith signed scholarship players to go to Georgia.

“I am relieved to say that I am officially committed to the University of Georgia, 100 percent,” Smith posted on the considerably lower-wattage forum of Instagram.

Smith, however, still refuses to sign the letter of intent that would bind him without recourse to the Bulldogs. Georgia’s fine with that, because Smith is considered talented enough to move the Bulldogs’ recruiting class from eighth or ninth to as high as sixth in the various rankings.

By not signing that NLI, Smith might have unwittingly changed the game in favor of other blue-chip talent. That one little piece of paper – which Sports Illustrated recently called the “worst contract in American sports” – guarantees the player nothing. A school can revoke its scholarship offer at any time between signing day and preseason camp, leaving the player with no recourse and a lost year of eligibility. It’s a relative safeguard for more borderline recruits, but it’s entirely weighted on behalf of the schools.

UCLA (which is hardly alone) tried to hide until after all the recruiting ink dried the fact that a coach was freely leaving to pursue a greater opportunity. That leaves anyone who trusted them and signed stuck without the chance to seek more suitable opportunities for themselves.

Smith’s holdout might set a precedent for other high-end recruits to give themselves a little cushion and an emergency exit plan. At the very least, it should force the schools and NCAA to legislate a little more leniency into the process and a better contract.

“Something’s got to happen,” said Burke County coach Eric Parker, who thinks Smith’s tactic could only effect about 1 percent of the best recruits. “You’ve got to work magic to take a pro sport (model) and run it through amateur rules.”

The NCAA is in a period of upheaval that will eventually see a lot of its arcane amateur rules rewritten to the benefit of the players. The enormous revenue generated by college football will soon not be just a one-way street into the pockets of programs, coaches and administrators at the expense of the indentured players. There will be cost-of-living stipends, improved medical coverage and four-year full-ride scholarships to protect the players who give their services to schools.

The operative word in all these evolving changes is “antitrust,” as in the court cases in which the collegiate status quo has suffered recent losses. But that anti-trust can apply to guys like Smith, who were offered deceptive sales pitches for their signatures. Parker believes a lot of it can be fixed with a later signing date – mid-April after spring practices – when coaching staffs are settled and players’ graduation goals are in sight.

In some fashion, Smith’s unprecedented move could flood the collegiate system the way Curt Flood altered the landscape of professional sports by refusing a trade by the St. Louis Cardinals. Flood ultimately won in court and provided the impetus for the modern free-agent system.

Like so many others accidental moments of genius, Smith wasn’t trying to be a trendsetter.

“It just happened how it happened,” he told UGASports.com. “I wasn’t looking forward to being anything. I was just doing what I thought was best for me.”

It turned out well for Georgia in the short term, but could be best for everyone in the long run.

Loss of four hall-of-famers in 10 days is difficult to take

Tue, 02/10/2015 - 5:06pm

If there has ever been a greater collective loss in the history of sports, please don’t remind me of it. It’s hard to imagine worse.

In a span of 10 days, the world lost four Hall of Famers – three of them golfers and one a basketball coach. In years to come, history might recall them only for their athletic achievements. At this moment, however, anyone who knew or met these four sporting giants are grieving the loss of their humanity.

Kel Nagle – one of the greatest Australian golfers who beat Arnold Palmer to win the 1960 Open Championship at St. Andrews – died on Jan. 29 at age 94. His nickname was “Mr. Modesty.” Fellow Australian great Peter Thomson said, “Of all the people I have met in the world of golf, this fellow is the finest.”

Charlie Sifford – who endured unimaginable discrimination to blaze the trail for black golfers on the PGA Tour – died Feb. 3 at age 92. Lee Trevino dubbed him the “Jackie Robinson of golf” while Tiger Woods mourned “we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man.”

Billy Casper – a three-time major champion and one of the most prolific winners in PGA Tour history – died on Feb. 7 at age 83. Overshadowed by golf’s “Big Three” even when he outplayed them, he’s been hailed as golf’s “most underrated” player. But it was his values and warm spirit that ultimately set him apart and left fellow Masters champions like Ben Crenshaw “saddened beyond belief.”

Dean Smith – who retired from North Carolina as the winningest basketball coach of all time – died on Feb. 7, as well, at age 83. A coaching visionary, he spent a career teaching some of the game’s greatest players how to compete and live right. But it was his social activism that left friends and rivals calling him a “great coach but a greater man.”

All four men were honored as Hall of Famers in their chosen profession. All four of them are respected for more than what they did on the field of play.

The only one I missed the chance to meet was Nagle. I had hoped to talk to him while traveling to Australia in 2013, but his health and my itinerary didn’t allow it. Everyone who knew him gushed about his gentlemanly nature and raved about his uncanny accuracy that accounted for more Australian Tour wins (61) than any other.

Sifford was a tough man to get to know, understandably mistrustful of the motives of strangers after enduring threats, taunts and years of injustice trying to open the doors at the highest level for black golfers. He didn’t get the chance until he was 38, almost the age Woods is now. His strength and determination were unmistakable and unshakeable.

“I think what Charlie Sifford has brought to his game has been monumental,” said Jack Nicklaus of his fellow Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient – the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Casper was a regular in Augusta every spring, usually holding court with family and friends at one of the umbrellaed tables behind the clubhouse. He was a favorite of reporters for always being both approachable and a gracious story teller. It was his generosity of spirit that made him beloved by anyone who met him.

He will be remembered for a lethal putter and 51 PGA Tour wins – seventh on the all-time list – including a pair of U.S. Opens and the 1970 Masters. During one stretch from 1962-70 at the peak of the “Big Three,” he won 33 times. Five times he won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average, a feat only surpassed by Woods. His career winning percentage trails only Woods and Nicklaus.

But these achievements aren’t what Casper considered his legacy.

“I want to be remembered for how I loved my fellow man,” he once said.

Coach Smith is the only one of these men for whom I can claim a lifelong relationship, of sorts. That doesn’t mean I knew him well – I covered his team for only the second half of the 1997 season for the Greensboro paper – but that he was an arcing presence in my life.

Coming of age in ACC territory in the 1970s, you always watched the Jefferson-Pilot Game of the Week on Saturdays. That game always included either UNC, Duke or N.C. State. It seems impossible, but I was a fan of all three. How could you not love watching David Thompson or Phil Ford or Mike Gminski and Jim Spanarkle?

But there was something different about Carolina. The color was unique. The floor of Carmichael Auditorium was distinctive, with the outline of the state at center court and the hand-operated scoreboards in the corners. The wholesale “Blue Team” substitutions and the “Four Corners.” The way they pointed at each other after made baskets and raised their hands after fouls. And there was Dean Smith directing it all. My adolescent self loved those Heels and by extension him.

Then Virginia suddenly became relevant with Ralph Sampson and the Tar Heels became the enemy. Smith’s teams stood in the way time and again, including a Final Four that should have been Virginia’s to win. My college self loathed the Heels and by extension Smith. His success was as grating as his nasally voice, his whining about physical play, his choking the life out of what should have been one of the greatest games with his stall ball tactics that left stars like Sampson, Othell Wilson, Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins standing around looking at each other for most of 40 minutes.

A decade later I moved to North Carolina and in January 1997 found myself falling into the beat writer role covering UNC. The Tar Heels immediately started off 0-3 in the ACC for the first time in Smith’s career and were 3-5 by the end of the month. His demeanor never changed. By March, the Tar Heels won another ACC Tournament and rode a 16-game winning streak to the Final Four.

Along the way, Smith surpassed Adolph Rupp’s record for all-time coaching victories. Everyone was writing profiles of Smith, but he wouldn’t talk about himself. In talking to others, the depth of Smith’s character came into focus for me. His selflessness. His social conscious that led him to stand up for desegregating his school and community and speaking out against the death penalty. His unabiding loyalty. His humility. The professional me deeply admired the man.

John Feinstein posted the perfect Dean Smith quote that summed him up: “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”

That’s the common thread here – all four of these Hall of Famers did the right things in their lives. They were not only great at their chosen crafts, they were great at leading by example. History will remember their feats, but it’s their lost presence in this world that is incalculable.

Rest in peace, gentlemen. We thank you for all for gracing our lives with your lessons.

Michaux: Top-ranked South Carolina women face toughest test yet in No. 2 UConn

Sat, 02/07/2015 - 6:42pm

“Say who dat? Who dat? We dat, we dat.

The best in the nation, trying to be dat, be dat.

Garnet and black, garnet and black; we bleed dat, bleed dat.”

– T-Roy lyrics, sung to the tune of Fancy by Iggy Azalea

ATHENS, Ga. — They have a music video going viral. They have a perfect 22-0 record. They have the No. 1 ranking in the nation.

As junior guard Tina Roy’s lyrics claim, the South Carolina women’s basketball team is all “dat.” On Monday night, they’ll get a chance to prove it under the most testing circumstances possible at the home of perennial NCAA champions Connecticut.

“First things first, we the realest.

And we ’bout to make the whole world feel it.”

Four busloads of Gamecocks fans made the trip to Athens on Thursday night to see the Gamecocks match the best start of any sports program in South Carolina history.

Even short-handed, the Gamecocks easily handled No. 22 Georgia 58-35 to remain perfect, but it’s Monday night at UConn where thoughts have been drifting since the season started in November.

Before Thursday’s tip, coach Dawn Staley asked for a show of hands how many players were already thinking about UConn.

“Of course we all raised our hands,” said freshman forward Jatarie White. “She was expecting that. She knows it’s a big game. But we knew we had to take care of this game before we could start really concentrating and putting our focus on UConn.”

“One team one goal, just so you know,

we goin’ to the top, we ’bout to blow.

O-N-E is the motto,

Get it done that’s for sure.”

This is a South Carolina team that has been thinking and talking about winning a national championship since day one. The team’s motto is “One” – one team, one force, one family, one goal, one history.

At No. 1 for 11 consecutive weeks since UConn stumbled early in overtime at Stanford, why not think big? A top seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks only got better by adding three blue-chip freshmen – A’ja Wilson, Bianca Cuevas and White – who have already proven to be valuable assets.

South Carolina is so deep that its second (Alaina Coates) and third (Wilson) leading scorers come off the bench. And the electric Cuevas is just starting to add an element that Georgia coach Andy Landers highlighted in different color on his board – to no avail as the Bronx guard put up a team-high 16 on Thursday.

“She’s no joke, this kid is real,” Landers said of Cuevas.

Under Staley’s guiding hand, the Gamecocks are no joke. Still trying to find its offensive footing, it dominates with a defense that frustrates opponents. Georgia was held to its lowest point total in seven years, snapping an 18-game home winning streak.

“Our defense has gotten better and better every time we step on the floor and I think it’s become contagious led by Khadijah Sessions,” Staley said. “She gets after it and disrupts and everybody behind her disruption is joining the party. Our offense still needs a little bit of work, but when you can defend and keep people from scoring, you give yourself a little bit of cushion.”

“We ’bout the have that ring

shining our fists.”

There is no cushion awaiting them Monday in a sold out Gampel Pavilion. To call the challenge awaiting them in Storrs, Conn., daunting would be an understatement. The Huskies just don’t lose there.

The longest home court winning streak in history was 99 games by UConn, ending in 2012 to unranked St. John’s. UConn has lost only seven times in Gampel since 1993. They’ve won 257 times there in those 22 years – a garish 97.5 winning percentage.

Of course, losing in general isn’t something the Huskies do often – evidenced by their 40-0 NCAA championship season last year. Last Tuesday, UConn coach Geno Auriemma reached his 900th victory faster than any other college basketball coach, hitting the milestone in only 1,034 games. His winning percentage of 87.04 percent in the best in the history of the women’s game. He also holds a record nine NCAA titles and appeared in the Final Four 15 times.

The Huskies have won 21 consecutive games since a November loss at Stanford and dominated American Athletic Conference foes by an average of more than 50 points.

South Carolina seems ready to knock down the UConn bar.

“We’re going to treat it like any other game,” said junior guard Tiffany Mitchell, the team’s leading scorer. “Just because they’re UConn we’re not going to treat it any different.”

But this isn’t any other game. This is the biggest game the Gamecocks have ever been involved in.

“It’s UConn,” Mitchell admitted. “It’s hard to overlook them and people are looking forward to this game. We just take each game and finally we’re ready to take them.”

Staley believes they’re up for it.

They showed resolve Thursday playing hard with Coates suspended for a game for violating team rules. They simply found new ways to achieve the same result.

“I think that’s how we’re able to perform the way we do because we don’t get too high with the highs and too low with the lows,” Staley said. “We just kind of maintain and focus on the task at hand. It’s easy when you don’t get ahead of yourself and you don’t look back. “

They don’t have to look ahead any more.

This is the game they’ve been waiting for, the chance to measure themselves against the standard of women’s basketball.

“I’m excited and the whole team’s excited, but we’re just going to go out there with a level head and just do what we do,” said Roy, who wrote the song that outlined exactly what they plan to do.

“We going to the top, because I said it.

Final Four championship, that’s where we headed.”

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