Paging Olivia Pope – Phil Mickelson on line one.
Once again, Mickelson’s name has surfaced in an investigation involving purported financial improprieties and a noted sports gambler. Once again, the three-time Masters Tournament champion isn’t charged with any wrongdoing.
But the repeated association with his name in these reports is the kind of thing that requires deft crisis management skills to avoid a tarnished reputation. It will require Mickelson’s best scrambling skills.
A year ago it was the FBI confronting Mickelson at the Memorial Tournament about insider trading questions involving billionaire investor Carl Icahn and renowned sports gambler Billy Walters. Mickelson was cleared of any involvement in trading involving Clorox, but he and Walters are reportedly still under scrutiny for well-timed trades of Dean Foods shares before it skyrocketed.
This time it’s an ESPN Outside the Lines report that claims Mickelson’s $2.75 million is at the heart of a guilty plea for money laundering by sports gambler Gregory Silveira, who was being investigated for an illegal offshore gambling operation. Mickelson is not under investigation, but sources told ESPN that he’s the client whose initials appeared on a since-amended plea agreement citing “money laundering funds from P.M.”
So far the only word from the Mickelson camp is “there is no statement forthcoming,” which is exactly what Olivia Pope would probably tell him to say.
“That’s the challenge in a case like this because his lawyers, I guarantee you, are saying ‘Keep your mouth shut,’ ” said Dan Hill, the president of Ervin|Hill Strategy, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
Like the fictional Pope from Scandal – “except with a little more integrity, I hope,” – Hill has been helping prominent clients from country music stars to NFL players to CEOs negotiate “reputation challenges.”
His advice, if asked, for Mickelson?
“Keep doing what you’re doing – just play golf, keep a low profile and stay out of trouble,” Hill said.
It turns out Mickelson has been building up a pretty good crisis-management shield for the last 25 years since he’s been a high-profile golf talent. It’s already reflected in the relative quiet from the noise chamber after these stories came out.
If this had been Tiger Woods linked to a couple of financial probes, there would have been an eruption of condemnation and judgment. Woods can’t get his tooth accidentally knocked out by a photographer at a skiing event in Switzerland without an avalanche of conspiracy theories.
All Mickelson has had, however, are cited recounts of the original ESPN story and a general shrug from the collective golf world. This despite the fact that it’s commonly known that the left-hander has long enjoyed a good high stakes bet from his usual Tuesday money matches with PGA Tour peers, to the Super Bowl, to whether or not Jim Furyk might hole a bunker shot.
There is a logical reason for that – Mickelson has built up layers and layers of positive armor with his generosity. He routinely gives hours of his time to fans signing autographs, pays $500 at lemonade stands and is a notoriously magnanimous tipper.
“Because Phil, for his career, has enjoyed such a great reputation, he has a lot of built-up goodwill where he can whether something like this more than someone else could,” Hill said.
“The fans aren’t necessarily going to turn. People will excuse this with him more than with a player like Tiger because he has established such goodwill over a long period of time.”
That’s not to say, however, that the cumulative effect of these stories isn’t a problem for the Mickelson brand. Even though he’s never been charged with doing anything wrong himself, the second-hand smoke is still harmful.
“What I will say is that I think it permanently takes the varnish off of him and I don’t think he ever recovers from that,” Hill said. “I don’t mean people won’t think he’s a great guy, but it does kind of take some of the luster that was on his reputation off. People will always kind of think of this in the back of their mind when they think of him.”
The good news is the modern world tends to move on pretty fast. When Hill got into the business 20 years ago, a scandal would “fester” in the slow-moving news cycle. With social media and blogs and TMZ, the environment has changed and not always to the disadvantage of the person at the center of the more frequent storms.
“Now things are hot and fast burn,” Hill said. “They take off quickly and die out quickly because our attention spans are so much shorter.”
Provided Mickelson adjusts and conducts his habits with a little more discretion, he can avoid raising any more red flags with his name cropping up in another investigation.
In the meantime, he’ll have to keep with the plan when he next surfaces in consecutive starts in Scotland – where the British tabloid press isn’t shy about piling on when they smell a bloody scandal in the water.
“You’ve got to have thick skin and be tough,” Hill suggested of Mickelson’s public strategy. “Say at the top of the press conference, ‘I’m not going to talk about it and I’m here to answer your questions about golf.’ He’s got to throw on the charm a little bit. If anyone can do it, he can. They will not stop if he gets up there and shows even an ounce of willingness to answer a question.”
Few golfers are better at diffusing an issue with charm. Not even Olivia Pope can outshine Phil Mickelson when the cameras come on.
The United Stated women’s national team reached the semifinals of its seventh consecutive World Cup – a perfect attendance record that we’ve almost come to take for granted.
We shouldn’t. Being the dominant force on the women’s stage in the “world’s game” says way more than American soccer players are better than everyone else’s. It illustrates how much farther our country is on the gender equality spectrum.
For all the issues we still have with wage gaps and reproductive rights, America is way ahead of most of the world in recognizing women’s strengths and providing opportunities to utilize them. In the sports realm, that is clearly reflected in U.S. soccer success.
The disparity between the consistent dominance of the women’s national team vs. the perennial underdog stature of the American men’s national team is telling.
Soccer is a global game, and many parts of the rest of the world have taken it way more seriously than America ever has. It is the most prominent sport for Europe, South America and Africa – continents which cultivate the best athletes into international futbol stars.
The U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world for youth soccer participation. As the kids reach middle and high school, however, most of the best American male athletes have a lot of choices that take them away from the crammed youth soccer fields and into football, basketball, baseball or other sports that might lead a lucky few of them to professional riches.
On the female side, however, soccer is the most inclusive team sport and the participation level for the best players isn’t as diluted as they grow older. In fact, participation has consistently grown since the 1970s when Title IX legislation was passed guaranteeing women equal access in education.
Thanks to Title IX, women’s soccer grew more than any other sport at the collegiate level between 1977-2012. According to the NCAA, the number of college women’s teams has increased by 115 percent since 1994.
This is why the U.S. is so far ahead of the curve of other more soccer-obsessed nations who neglected women and even denied them access to the sport.
Take Brazil, the most storied soccer nation which hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup and will play host to the 2016 Olympics. From 1941 to 1979, women in Brazil were actually banned from playing soccer for fun or in school because the sport was “incompatible with the female nature.” Even now, millions of Brazilian girls play the game despite the cultural objections and ridicule they receive. Yet despite all of the facilities built for the recent World Cup, only one poorly funded Olympic training center for the best women exists.
England, the nation that introduced and spread soccer across the world, hasn’t been much better. Women played soccer in England in the late 1800s and even replaced the men on factory and club teams during World War I. But the sport’s governing body banned women from football grounds in 1921 saying the sport was “quite unsuitable for females.”
It wasn’t until 2010 – in gearing up for London to host the 2012 Olympics – that England finally started a women’s professional league. Sexism still flourishes despite “ThisGirlCan” and “She Belongs” campaigns to combat the issue, yet women’s soccer is the fastest growing sport in the UK and Europe.
Imagine the hurdles women must go through to play in less industrialized nations or places where gender discrimination is more entrenched. The Jamaican and Trindadian women’s teams had to crowd-source for money just to get to World Cup qualifying.
FIFA conducted a survey of its 209 federations and found that only 25 percent of them had staff dedicated to the women’s game, 20 percent didn’t even have a women’s team and half had no youth development program for girls.
“If you open those doors, I think you’d find there’s a lot of women that would step through them,” Julie Foudy, the former captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team who played for two World Cup-winning sides, told ThinkProgress. “They’re just not doing that.”
Of the estimated 30 million girls who play soccer worldwide, more than half of them are in the U.S. and Canada. America leads the world in investment on women’s sports.
This explains our outsized success in women’s soccer compared to the men. The U.S. women have never failed to finish third place or better in a major tournament – seven times since the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and all five Olympics since women’s soccer was first included in 1994. All told, the U.S. women have six wins, two runner-ups and three thirds in 11 prior tournaments.
On the men’s side, the U.S. reached its only World Cup semifinal in 1930. The only Olympic medals ever won by the U.S. men were silver and bronze in the 1904 Games in St. Louis when only three teams entered.
Of course, things aren’t perfect even for the U.S. women. America is on its third attempt to sustain a women’s professional soccer league. Some people’s views toward women’s sports aren’t much more advanced than other nations.
Andy Benoit, a writer for Sports Illustrated, tweeted this week “Not women’s soccer ... women’s sports in general not worth watching.” That prompted a hilarious “Really!?!” rebuttal from Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers on his late night show.
We should embrace the success of the U.S. women on the soccer pitch while we still can. They have a huge challenge trying to get past co-favorite Germany in a semifinal showdown on Tuesday night in Montreal.
It is very much worth watching with a sense of national pride.
Because when it comes to supporting and creating opportunities in women’s sports, America is head and shoulders above the rest of the world.
The NBA and NHL champions have been feted. So has a Triple Crown horse. The collegiate athletic season is officially over. The football season openers are two months away. Baseball is approaching the middle of its 162-game slog.
Unless you’re really into the Women’s World Cup, there’s not a lot of meat on the rest of the summer sports calendar.
That makes this the “Summer of Slam,” with the only two substantive questions to be answered in the next couple months being whether Jordan Spieth and Serena Williams can finish off the elusive calendar Grand Slams in their respective sports.
Opportunities to witness history like this don’t come around very often, so we should savor the rare summer drama of a 21-year-old belying his age and a 33-year-old continuing to turn back time.
Spieth backed up his Masters Tournament romp in April and extended his slam quest last week by becoming the first player in 89 years to birdie the 72nd hole to win the U.S. Open. He’s only the sixth player in history to win both the Masters and U.S. Open in the same season.
Williams is halfway home herself by claiming the women’s singles titles in the Australian and French Opens – her 19th and 20th career Grand Slam victories. She’s the first player to pull off that season double since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.
They both head off to the UK – Wimbledon for Williams and the British Open for Spieth – to seek the third leg in their respective quests.
A fourth grass-court title at Wimbledon – which starts Monday and ends July 11 – would complete Williams’ second “Serena Slam” since she’s won the last three majors dating back to the 2014 U.S. Open. She held all four Grand Slam titles when she was Spieth’s age in 2001-02.
“I’m not thinking about it,” she told the Washington Post of the calendar Grand Slam after winning this month in Paris. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m more focused on the Serena Slam. Well, forget all that, I just want to do well at Wimbledon.”
Spieth’s next stop is the most storied venue in golf – the Old Course at St. Andrews – for the British Open on July 16-19. He’s played the course only once in a casual round on the way to the Walker Cup matches in 2011.
“It’s incredible to win a major championship,” Spieth said Sunday. “You only get a few moments in your life like this, and I recognize that. And to have two in one year and to still be early in the year, that’s hard to wrap my head around.”
The modern professional slam has never been accomplished in golf. Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930 included the U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs. Tiger Woods swept the professional majors from the 2000 U.S. Open to the 2001 Masters, but not in the same season.
Spieth isn’t letting history rule anything out – even if the number-crunchers at the FiveThirtyEight blog set his chances of pulling it off at 1 percent.
“I think it’s in the realm of possibility,” Spieth said. “I’m just focused on the claret jug now. I think that the Grand Slam is something that I never could really fathom somebody doing, considering I watched Tiger win when he was winning whatever percentage of the majors he played in and he won the Tiger Slam, but he never won the four in one year. And I figured if anybody was going to do it, it would be him.”
The concept of golf’s modern Grand Slam only became possible in 1958, when the PGA Championship went to stroke play and finally separated itself on the schedule from the British Open. Ben Hogan won the three majors he played in 1953, but he couldn’t play in the PGA which ended the day before he started and won his only British Open.
So only three other golfers have ever even entertained the possibility at the halfway house – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
“Those names are the greatest that have ever played the game, and I don’t consider myself there,” Spieth said. “But certainly off to, I think, the right start in order to make an impact on the history of the game.”
Palmer – who “invented” the modern Grand Slam after winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960 – lost by one stroke to Kel Nagle at St. Andrews. Nicklaus had his shot spoiled in 1972 at Muirfield when he, too, lost by a stroke to Lee Trevino, who chipped in for par on the 17th hole after Nicklaus fired a course-record 66 in the final round.
Woods’ hopes blew up in a Saturday gale at Muirfield in 2002 when he started the day two shots off the lead but posted a career-worst 81.
The pressure on Spieth playing only his third British Open will only magnify beyond what he already felt last week at Chambers Bay.
“I felt a lot of pressure (Sunday), as much as I felt at Augusta in April,” he said. “I knew that this would be the second leg and that it would be two majors in a row and I think that that added to a little bit of the pressure versus if I hadn’t won the Masters this year.”
Winning the U.S. Open on a links-style course fortified Spieth’s confidence heading into the next two majors.
“I’ve proven to myself that I can win on a British-style golf course now,” he said. “Now I take it to the truest British-style golf course of any in the world. And I’m just excited for the opportunity coming then, and I’m not going to think about what could possibly happen after.”
Williams has the benefit of experience as well as history in the tennis realm. She was the fifth woman to achieve the non-calendar slam in 2001-02 (she did not compete in the 2001 Australian Open because of injury) and is the first woman to win three straight majors since.
The calendar Grand Slam has been won by three other women – Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988). Only two men have accomplished it – Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and ’69).
Williams has tried to downplay her attempt to end a 27-year Grand Slam drought in tennis. She’s at a very different place in her career than Spieth is in his.
“I don’t really think, nor am I overly concerned, about winning a Grand Slam at this stage of my career,” she told the Washington Post. “I think five years ago — yeah. Ten years ago, yeah it might have. Now I’ve got enough. I don’t need a Grand Slam to define my career whereas maybe a few years ago if I didn’t have 20 Grand Slams then I would have needed that.”
The Grand Slams might not be at the top of either one of their must-win lists, but the Summer of Slam should be at the top of our must-see ledger.
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Championships are supposed to end with roars and applause, not gasps and groans.
Dustin Johnson’s astonishing three-putt that ended the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay was one of the most painful finishes in golf history. Even Doug Sanders at least had a chance in an 18-hole playoff with Jack Nicklaus after yipping from 3 feet in the 1970 British Open.
DJ’s painful three-putt miss was reminiscent of Davis Love III’s in the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills that handed the title to Steve Jones. This will be even tougher for Johnson to live down than his three previous blown majors, including the infamous bunker gaffe at Whistling Straits.
When the end fell almost matter-of-factly, nobody knew how to react. Jordan Spieth was braced to lose and was shocked to awkwardly celebrate the second leg of the Grand Slam with his family. Fan reaction bounced around in discomfort. Johnson remained remarkably composed.
The supremely gifted Johnson has never been easily embraced. His off-course issues that required a six-month sabbatical to reboot have made him tough to classify as hero or villain. In many ways, he’s the opposite of the preternaturally mature Spieth.
But Sunday’s heartbreak made him a universally sympathetic figure. Even if you were rooting for someone else, it was impossible not to feel sorry for Johnson’s loss. Seeing him seek solace with his infant son in his arms on his first Father’s Day, you hope he’s found peace.
And barring a Grand Slam opportunity by Spieth at this year’s PGA Championship, Johnson might finally be a crowd favorite when he returns to Whistling Straits for one of the greatest redemption chances in sports.
Here’s a scorecard from one of the craziest and most memorable U.S. Opens:
BIRDIE: Spieth. What sets the 21-year-old apart is his incredible maturity to handle the moment. He never beat himself up and played the shots he needed to when he had to under trying conditions. And he already has the clout to bend the USGA’s will with his opinions on setup. Hard to tell just how high this kid might climb.
BOGEY: Dustin Johnson. Playing the best golf of anyone, DJ missed putts of 6, 6, 7, 5, 9 and 4 feet – and that’s just on the back nine Sunday. Agonizing.
BIRDIE: Louis Oosthuizen. Won hacker-group Nassau with Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler on Thursday with a 77, then posted lowest final 54 with 66-66-67 including six birdies in last seven holes to tie second. Think he’s ready for St. Andrews return?
BOGEY: Phil Mickelson. Started hot then drifted steadily away, declining to talk on the weekend. At 45, his window for completing career slam is closing.
BIRDIE: Jason Day. Valiant effort to battle vertigo all weekend and get in the final group after collapsing late Friday, but it proved to be too tall a task on Sunday.
BIRDIE: Branden Grace. Despite his shocking OB shot toward the railroad tracks with a share of lead on 16 Sunday, South African showed mettle and keen knack for links-style golf.
BOGEY: Patrick Reed. Tied for 36-hole lead, former Augusta State golfer fell out with 76 that included three doubles and a four-putt. “It’s unacceptable the way I played,” he said.
80: Tiger Woods. Fifteen years to the day after winning U.S. Open by 15, he cold-topped a 3-wood into bunker on 18 and lost to a 15-year-old. Hard to watch.
BIRDIE: Kevin Kisner. Aiken/UGA golfer continued his hot play to tie for 12th, his best finish in a major. Breakthrough seems imminent.
BOGEY: Rickie Fowler. A pre-tournament favorite, the Players champion got sideways with a first-nine 43 and never recovered.
EAGLE: Cameron Smith. The 21-year-old Aussie delivered perhaps the biggest shot of the week with a 3-wood on last hole that stopped inches from being an albatross. Fourth-place finish earned him Masters berth and conditional PGA Tour status.
BIRDIE: Stevie Williams. Return from retirement to carry Adam Scott’s bag reaped a tournament-best 64 Sunday that set clubhouse lead and tied for fourth.
BOGEY: Henrik Stenson. First-round co-leader cleverly said greens were “like putting on broccoli.” He might have been playing with asparagus shafts going 10-over last 54 holes after 5-under start.
PAR: Ben Martin. The Clemson pro from Greenwood, S.C., was 3-under in three of his rounds and two off lead entering weekend. His Saturday 86 was a humbling lesson to learn.
BIRDIE: Sergio Garcia. Of the 15 pros given weekend passes when amateur Nick Hardy moved the cut line, Sergio made most of it by not letting his dislike of course keep him from top-20 finish.
BOGEY: Martin Kaymer. Defending champion never factored in missing his third consecutive major cut.
PAR: Rory McIlroy. The world No. 1 was comparable to Johnson tee to green and just a tad worse putting. While his skills are superior, his mental strength when conditions aren’t perfect falls well below his rival Spieth’s.
BOGEY: Billy Horschel. While he wasn’t wrong in any of his animated criticism about the greens or spectating flaws, he got a bit carried away with his “lost respect for the USGA” mantra.
BIRDIE: Georgia Tech. Three of four Yellow Jacket entries made the cut, including co-low amateur Ollie Schniederjans.
BOGEY: UGA. With the lone exception of Kisner, the Bulldogs were a disaster led by Bubba Watson who missed his third of four U.S. Open cuts since his first Masters win. Chris Kirk was the only other guy of eight in field to make cut, and he finished dead last with same scores of Tiger (80-76) on the weekend including a 10 on first hole.
PAR: Chambers Bay. Say what you want about greens or appearance, but the course clearly defined the best players. It made players think their way around. “I like the golf that it got us to play,” Geoff Ogilvy said.
BOGEY: Robert Trent Jones Jr. How can architect possibly build a golf course specifically for playing host to a championship without considering how the fans might be able to view it? Worst. Fan. Experience. Ever.
BOGEY: USGA. Mike Davis is trying the right things to promote a more sustainable game and less one-dimensional play. But flip-flopping par on holes and pushing course too close to edge were huge gaffes. Don’t overthink it at Oakmont, please.
BOGEY: Fox Sports. Despite a few well-utilized graphics, it was obvious that Fox had never covered golf before and its coverage lacked any energy. Next year it needs to step it up.
BOGEY: Holly Sonders and Curt Menefee. Of the seemingly hundred voices cluttering the broadcast, no two were worse suited for their roles than this twosome. Sonders’ post-round interviews were cringe-worthy and Menefee knows nothing about golf.
WHIFF: Gary Player. Black Knight’s unsolicited rant on Golf Channel made a few valid points, but calling setup a “tragedy” after the real tragedy in Charleston was poor form. So was saying of the obviously parched course, “the world is suffering from a shortage of water, can you imagine the amount of water this course will take?” Chambers Bay is certified as one of the most eco-friendly in the world, with revolutionary water-saving system.
BIRDIE: British Open. As if returning to the Old Course isn’t special enough, Spieth taking a Grand Slam quest to St. Andrews should make for an epic show.
What just happened out here? History just barged through the back door.
The trains were cruising by gently all day on the narrow strip between Puget Sound and Chambers Bay on Sunday. The train wrecks and derailments, however, were taking place on the course all afternoon.
In perhaps the craziest finish on the craziest golf course in U.S. Open history, Jordan Spieth “won” the U.S. Open when Dustin Johnson three-putted from 12 feet with an eagle chance to triumph on the 18th hole.
There are no words to describe what transpired on a brilliant sunny Sunday on the West Coast, much less with about 30 minutes to digest it all on East Coast newspaper deadlines. But here it goes.
The 21-year-old Spieth is the youngest golfer since Young Tom Morris to win two majors, edging Gene Sarazen out of the way. Despite spitting up a three-stroke lead with two to play, Spieth gathered himself after a double bogey on the 17th to birdie the last and become the sixth player in history to win the Masters Tournament and U.S. Open in the same year. He’ll take his living hopes for the Grand Slam when he heads to St. Andrews next month for the British Open.
“You can’t win ’em all unless you win the first two,” Spieth said. “We’re going to go to St. Andrews looking for the claret jug and I think we can get it done if we get the right prep in.”
This was a far cry from the command wire-to-wire performance Spieth produced at Augusta National in April. He seemed in shock when the U.S. Open trophy fell in his lap with the latest and perhaps most stunning major heartbreak in what is becoming a long list of them for Dustin Johnson.
The meltdown at Pebble Beach, the bunker snafu at Whistling Straits and the out-of-bounds drive at Royal St. Georges will all back a back seat to Johnson’s back-nine putting fiasco at Chambers Bay. He was not alone in the negative dramatics Sunday, just the most notable.
Johnson was leading the field with seven holes to play when his putting stroke went AWOL.
Branden Grace had honors with a share of the lead on the 16th tee when his drive left the golf course and headed for the train tracks.
Spieth seized the moment with a 27-foot birdie putt that opened a seemingly insurmountable three-shot lead with two to play then hacked up a double bogey on the ensuing 17th.
But they weren’t the only characters in Sunday’s drama.
Louis Oosthuizen, who opened with 77 on Thursday, birdied six of the last seven holes to set the clubhouse bar at 4-under. A young Australian named Cam Smith nearly joined him when his approach on the par-5 18th came inches from an albatross (booking a trip to the 2016 Masters).
So it came down to Spieth and Johnson on the controversial 18th hole that played as a par-5 on Sunday. In consecutive groups, each of them hit perfect drives. Then each of them piped approach irons to the green to set up eagle chances.
Spieth missed, and settled for birdie and the clubhouse lead.
“I didn’t think it was good enough but I couldn’t be more happy right now,” Spieth said.
When Johnson delivered his second shot to 12 feet, he had a putt to bury his past and establish his legacy. It slid 4 feet past the hole and he tugged the comeback putt that would have forced an 18-hole Monday playoff.
“I think he’s the most talented guy in the game,” Butch Harmon said of his pupil, Johnson, before the round he believed was Johnson’s to lose despite a four-way tie for the 54-hole lead. “He should be the No. 1 player in the game and I think by the end of the year or next year that’ll happen.”
The new DJ – who came back revitalized after a six-month sabbatical last year – proved the same as the old DJ. And it’s Spieth who is staking his own claim to the greatest in the game as he creeps up on Rory McIlroy, who won the two majors before Spieth.
“What a kid,” said Ernie Els of Spieth. “It’s just amazing how this game can really give you something. He’s worked hard and he’s probably the best player in the world right now. Unbelievable stuff. Great stuff.”
On an imperfect golf course that drew as many jeers as cheers from the players for the condition of its greens, the U.S. Open ended up providing as thrilling a finish as anyone could have imagined. Chambers Bay suffered all manner of hits from critics this week for its spectator unfriendliness to its appearance on TV to the inconsistency of its green surfaces that wreaked havoc on putts.
But it’s hard to deny the caliber of player it revealed in the end.
“Logistically it seems to have its problems, but as far as the holes and the golf it asks you to play ... whoever wins is going to be a quality player,” said 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “You have to move the ball both ways. You have to use your brain, which is a rare thing in modern golf and something we’re not very good at, I don’t think. It’s going to be a class act of a player who wins, and really that’s all you want.”
Spieth is as first class an act as golf can get. While it may take some time to make sense of how it all transpired, the historic relevance of Sunday’s finish will resonate for years to come.
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — For a little while there’s much to cheer about as the holes tick down toward the U.S. Open trophy presentation at Chambers Bay.
There was former Augusta State star Patrick Reed sharing the midway lead with his Ryder Cup partner and reigning Masters Tournament champion Jordan Spieth before his game betrayed him.
There was ex-Georgia star Kevin Kisner, from Aiken, entertaining hopes of a career-defining weekend before a late double bogey knocked him off the leaderboard.
There is Jason Day channeling Ken Venturi by bouncing back off the turf with vertigo to threaten the lead.
There are big names and no-names, young amateurs and old pros trying to solve an unexpected riddle of a golf course.
History will be made and somebody will be celebrated as the 2015 U.S. Open champion when the week is over, yet it’s hard to shake a nagging sense of sadness about what we’ve seen this week.
It has nothing to do with the uncharacteristic links-style course that Gary Player tastelessly ranted was a “tragedy” and “the most unpleasant golf tournament” he’s seen in his life.
It has nothing to do with the mottled greens that Henrik Stenson cleverly articulated are “like putting on broccoli” while Rory McIlroy argued they’re more the color of cauliflower.
The sadness comes from seeing the once incomparable Tiger Woods reduced to being compared unfavorably to relative hacks. It was seeing the greatest golfer of our generation – arguably the greatest of any generation – utterly incapable of competing and wondering if we might never see his like again.
“It’s kind of sad to be honest with you,” Butch Harmon said of his former pupil in the SkySports studio. “I am not sure any of us has the answer. He looks like a lost soul out there.”
To be sure, there are plenty of people who relish in seeing Woods suffer. He’s been a polarizing figure since his debut as a professional nearly 20 years ago. He hasn’t done much outside the ropes to foster sympathy from his many haters.
Pity those people who couldn’t simply appreciate the brilliance that Woods once was on the golf course. At his peak, he did things and set standards that even Jack Nicklaus couldn’t imagine possible. He’ll likely never catch Jack’s records, but peak Tiger was a force never seen before in the game. His fist pumps were as
electric as they were ubiquitous.
Fifteen years to the day from when Woods obliterated the U.S. Open field at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes in the greatest single performance in golf history, we watched him on Thursday fighting in vain to break 80 as he cold topped a 3-wood into the bottom of a pit on the 18th fairway at Chambers Bay.
A day later, Woods unceremoniously left Puget Sound with his worst score in tournament play – 16-over par. Many of us walked inside the ropes following the present stars Spieth, Jason Day and Justin Rose, occasionally pausing to look back at the faded star playing right behind them before trudging onward.
Former PGA Tour pro John Maginnes said on the radio that Woods “looked scared.”
It’s both scary and sad to think that a 39-year-old Woods might really never reclaim any semblance of his former skills. His body has betrayed him. His repeated swing changes have stifled him. His confidence has escaped him.
Watching Woods in his current state is like watching Michael Jordan playing baseball – the tools look foreign in the artist’s hands.
His decline is reflected by a free-fall in the world rankings. Woods – who once ruled the No. 1 ranking for 683 weeks – will tumble to No. 205 next week. If he keeps struggling and fails to gain any points in planned starts through October, his ranking is projected to plummet as low as 600 by the time he plays host to the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in December.
For the record, on the week Woods turned professional in 1996, he was 433rd in the world. Five weeks later he was top 75 and never looked back. These depths were unthinkable.
Golf will go on with or without Woods as a relevant factor. Spieth now makes all the clutch putts Woods used to routinely bury. Dustin Johnson hits the crushing drives Woods used to awe us with. McIlroy hits the laser approaches where Woods once dazzled. Reed throws the fists and wears the red shirts on Sundays that Woods used to define.
Yet there’s an inescapable sense that the one guy who did it all might never be seen again.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Wash. — Reporting 101 tip: Tread gingerly into an interview with a golfer who shot 41 on the back nine. This rule generally applies whether it’s the player’s 25th or first U.S. Open appearance.
North Augusta’s Matt NeSmith, however, could not have been more pleasant or less bothered by the turn of events in his major championship debut. The Gamecocks junior was nothing but positive about his experience so far at Chambers Bay, even if his 6-over-over 76 left him a long way from even making the cut today.
“Honestly, I played pretty solid,” NeSmith said after making the turn in even par before going 7-over on the next six holes. “Made a couple mental mistakes, got a couple bad breaks and hit a couple bad shots on 10. I still feel great after today.”
NeSmith has been on a torrid run in recent months, winning the individual title at the SEC Championship and taking medalist honors in sectional qualifying last week with rounds of 63-64 at Hawks Ridge to reach his first career major championship. He was one of only four amateurs to make it through both local and sectional qualifying to get into the field at Chambers Bay.
Despite the short notice of getting into the event on the far side of the country, he brought a sizable entourage with him to the Pacific Northwest. His parents, girlfriend, aunt, uncle and cousin all tried to follow him around an impossible spectator venue in a quarry adjacent to Puget Sound.
No 76 on the scorecard was going to dampen his spirits.
“The experience for me to get this before turning professional is unmatched,” NeSmith said. “I didn’t have a goal in mind. I just wanted to come out and play golf and see what happened.”
NeSmith did have one goal in mind before the tournament even started – play practice rounds with the best players in the world. On Monday he teed it up with Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland. On Tuesday he went out with Jason Day.
But Wednesday with the peak – nine holes with world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and perennial Ryder Cupper Hunter Mahan. When he saw their names on a tee sheet signup with a blank space in the fourth spot, NeSmith excitedly wrote himself into the foursome.
“I met (Rory) on Monday and asked him if it was OK if I joined them and he said, ‘No problem,’ ” NeSmith said. “It ended up being really cool and a fantastic experience for me. It was cool for me to kind of stack my game up against the best player in the world right now. To see what he deals with every day and how he goes about his practice rounds and how he likes to study golf courses.”
Those nine holes made stepping to the first tee on Thursday seem like just another college tournament.
“I was more nervous yesterday with Rory,” he said. “That was kind of the gameplan. When I came out here I didn’t know what the crowds would be like or the size. I just know what I see at Augusta National. So I thought if I could play with the biggest name in golf either Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, I’ll be as prepared as I can be. That was kind of the goal and I got a chance to (Wednesday). So I was nervous but that kind of settled the nerves and I felt great going out there.”
NeSmith was steady through the front nine, making all pars on the treacherous links-style course and sitting in the top 20. But his hopes of contending unraveled over the next three holes when he sandwiched a three-putt bogey between doubles on 10 and 12.
“On 10, I hit six bad shots and made 6 – worst hole of the day,” he said. “Then 11, I hit two good shots to about 15 feet. I had just made double and wanted to be aggressive and hit putt a little hard and it got away from me and went 6 feet past and I missed it. That was just a mental error.
On the drivable 12th, NeSmith tugged his drive a few yards left but into a spot that usually feeds into the middle of the green. But his low trajectory carried into a thin strip of rough, and someone stepped on his ball during a search for it making a bad lie worse.
“The only reason I found it was because he stepped on it,” NeSmith said. “I’d have had a bad lie to begin with, but I had an awful lie and was a little ticked about that. I had nothing from there, chunked it out and three-putted from 65 feet for double.”
He made his lone birdie on 17, but score is the last thing he was worried about. Whether he leaves today or rallies to play the weekend, he will take the experience of his life back home with him to a full amateur summer schedule and another year at South Carolina.
“I’ve already won by just being out here and being able to play,” he said.
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — Kevin Kisner’s major championship debut in last year’s U.S. Open was all about family. His return is all about business.
“It’s totally different,” Kisner said about Pinehurst in 2014 vs. Chambers Bay this week. “Last year I felt lucky to be playing and this year I want to compete and win. It’s amazing what your mindset changes in a year.”
Kisner’s first U.S Open coincided with the birth of his first child – Kathleen (Kate) Grace – just three days before teeing it up a few hours from his Aiken home at Pinehurst No. 2. His gallery was loaded with family and friends from Aiken and Charlotte. Before missing the cut late Friday afternoon, Kisner pulled his dad, Steve, out of the crowd on the 16th hole to carry his bag with “Steve Kisner” sewn onto it in honor of the upcoming Father’s Day.
“It was a special opportunity,” Kisner said last year. “Who knows if you’ll ever get to do it again, so it was a great time to do it.”
A year later, Kisner’s attention and game are in an entirely different place while his family remains at home. At age 31, the former Georgia golfer has become one of the breakout players of the 2015 season with dramatic playoff losses to top-10 stars Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler at Hilton Head and Sawgrass in a three-week span after the Masters Tournament. His clutch performances under pressure, especially on the PGA Tour’s biggest stage at The Players Championship, turned a lot of heads.
“It’s nice to see him playing solid and finally getting a little recognition for it,” said Chris Haack, Kisner’s college coach at Georgia who was at Chambers Bay on Tuesday watching eight of his ex-players in the field.
Kisner’s sudden hot streak – which also includes consecutive top-10 finishes at Colonial and Memorial that moved him into the top 60 to qualify for the U.S. Open – has made him eager to tee it up each week and easier to focus on bigger goals.
“Totally different outlook,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to have more fun and laugh off the bad breaks when you’ve played well. I told Duane (Bock, his caddie) on Tuesday, it’s a lot easier when you’ve made two million bucks to say, ‘Oh well, that didn’t work out,’ than if I was 150th on the FedEx (Cup list) trying to work my way up.”
Kisner – currently ranked 17th on the PGA Tour’s season-long points list and 55th in the world – came to the Pacific Northwest alone this week to concentrate on competing against the best players in only his third career major start. He’s spent three days trying to get himself acquainted with the extreme links-style course built inside a former rock quarry on the edge of Puget Sound.
“There’s so many adjectives to describe this place, I don’t even know where to begin,” Kisner said of Chambers Bay. “Tough. Cool. Beautiful. Interesting. Lots of options around the greens. Who knows? I think it’s just a mystery on how they set it up. They change their setup so much overnight and there’s so many tee options and hole placements. I have no idea how they’ll set it up.”
Much like the restored Pinehurst No. 2 last year, Chambers Bay is not a traditional USGA setup. With rock-hard fairways, fescue grasses and extreme bunkering, it resembles a British Open more than a U.S. Open.
“The last two have been a lot different than what you typically see in a U.S. Open with chip-out rough, long and hard,” he said. “It doesn’t play long because the fairways run. Not like distance is a huge problem. I haven’t played the Winged Foots and Oakmonts of the world where you’re hitting 4-irons all day and chipping out of rough. Next year (at Oakmont), I’ll be in for it.”
Kisner likes the challenge Chambers Bay presents.
“Yeah, I think it’s cool. It’s different,” he said. “I think it’s one of those deals where you just hit your shots and if you hit it good or bad just accept it and move on. If it ends up dead, just make your bogey and go on. They give you a lot more birdie chances, I feel like, than a lot of U.S. Opens. You can hit wedges to a couple holes and drive a par-4 and get to a couple of par-5s. So you have chances for birdies but also have chances for big numbers.”
Chambers Bay is likely to reward a player who is confident, resilient and fearless – all qualities that Kisner possesses in abundance.
“You’ve got to have some confidence out here and pick your spots and hit it at ’em,” Haack said. “It’s going to take somebody who’s not afraid, and that’s him. He’s not afraid. This golf course is going to test your resolve.”
UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — For the second consecutive major the career grand slam is on the line. The stakes, however, seem very different.
Rory McIlroy missed his first shot at joining five golfing immortals on the list at the Masters Tournament in April. Phil Mickelson is taking his second crack at bagging his white whale – the U.S. Open – this week at Chambers Bay.
Even at age 45, he feels he’s in better shape than he was a year ago when he finished tied for 28th at Pinehurst.
“I think that I’ve gone through kind of a period these last couple of years where I haven’t played my best golf, and I feel like I’m back on the upswing,” Mickelson said Tuesday, three days after a final-round 65 earned him a third-place finish in Memphis. “I don’t know if I’m quite there yet or not. This week will be a good test to see just how far along I’ve come.”
Rebuilding a game isn’t exactly the model for someone as close to the senior tour as Masters champion Jordan Spieth is to a senior in high school. He concedes he lost his swing speed the past couple of years and was forced to reduce his practice time. But he’s worked even harder to regain his strength so he can resume his former practice regimen and produce even faster swing speed than at his peak.
Unlike the 25-year-old McIlroy at the Masters, however, time is not on Mickelson’s side. Tuesday was his 45th birthday. On Sunday, he’ll be 10 days younger than Hale Irwin was in 1990 when he became the oldest player to win the U.S. Open at Medinah.
So you could argue that Mickelson has moved into the now-or-never range. His rousing British Open win at Muirfield in 2013 and runner-up finishes in the past two majors suggest that Mickelson still has plenty of game in his arthritic body, but age has a merciless closing kick.
FATHER TIME IS still undefeated, but Mickelson doesn’t believe he has him on the ropes yet in his historic quest.
“I don’t feel that sense of urgency that you’re talking about,” he said. “It’s something I really would love to do is complete the career grand slam. I feel like ... I’m in the best shape I’ve been in. I’ve always felt a long golf swing – a long, smooth, flowing swing – leads to a long career, and a short, violent swing leads to a short career. And I haven’t had any really long-term or debilitating injuries to speak of. So if I continue to do what I’ve done the last eight months or so, there’s no reason why I couldn’t play at a high level for a while.”
Rickie Fowler, 26, played his usual pre-major practice round with Mickelson on Tuesday and didn’t see a player who is over the hill.
“This is a great opportunity for him, but I don’t look at it as his career, by any means, coming to an end anytime soon,” Fowler said. “He’s still got plenty of power. He’s still got all the shots in the bag. You come up with a short game shot and you’re not really going to ask anyone else other than him to hit it if there was a must make up-and-down. He still impresses me with his game. Yeah, he did turn 45 today, but I’m not looking to see him go away anytime soon.”
Of course, only four players in history have won majors at an age older than Mickelson. So if he is to join the fraternity of Career Slammers, he’s going to have to stick to the script. Obtaining the feat is not something that’s lingered on the plates of those who achieved it. This is Mickelson’s second attempt at completion and history says you don’t get more than three strikes.
Tiger Woods was only 24 when he completed his career slam on his first attempt in the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews, just one month after notching his first U.S. Open victory. Jack Nicklaus was 26 when he completed his set on his third attempt in the 1966 British Open at Muirfield. Gary Player was 29 when he closed the deal on his third attempt in the 1965 U.S. Open at Bellerive.
THE OLDER SLAMMERS had their own unique circumstances in an era before the modern Grand Slam was even defined. Sarazen was 33 when his famous double eagle at 15 helped win the first Masters he played in 1935. He’d won each of the other three majors by age 30. Hogan was 34 before he won his first major at the PGA in 1946 and 40 when he won his last to complete his slam in his only British Open appearance in 1953 at Carnoustie.
Time and opportunities were of no help to the champions who came up one leg short. Arnold Palmer went 0 for 34 in PGA Championships after getting his third leg at age 31 in the 1961 British Open. Tom Watson was 32 when he notched his third leg at the 1982 U.S. Open and went 0 for 24 in PGAs thereafter. Lee Trevino was 35 when he won the PGA in 1964, but he never finished better than 10th in 16 more tries in a sour relationship with the Masters. Sam Snead, who remained competitive into his 50s, went 0 for 22 in the U.S. Open after getting his third leg in the 1949 Masters at age 36.
Ray Floyd may be the most comparable case study to Mickelson. He was almost 44 when he earned his third leg at the 1986 U.S. Open, but he never seriously threatened in nine more attempts at the British Open after that. Other three-legged greats – Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Tommy Armour and Jim Barnes – had limited or no opportunities to ever complete the slam.
SO HERE’S MICKELSON on a course that’s younger than all of his children trying to correct the one blemish on his résumé. Two years ago he suffered his toughest of six runner-up finishes at Merion, and the sting still fuels him.
“It was a tournament I feel I should have won, that I was playing well enough to win,” he said. “And a couple of mistakes late in the tournament ended up costing me.”
He came back a month later to win the British Open and set up his slam opportunity. Now after runner-ups in the latest PGA and Masters, he’s primed to fulfil his destiny on a links-style course.
“I’ve always been somebody, ever since I was a kid, that got motivated by failure, that worked harder because of failure,” he said. “Some people get discouraged by that, and it almost pushes them away. But for me it’s been a motivator to continue to work harder and get over that hump, whether it was trying to win my first major championship that took significantly longer than I thought it would. Whether it’s trying to win an Open Championship or whether it’s trying to win a U.S. Open championship. The fact that I’ve come so close is actually a motivator for me to work harder. And it’s encouraging that I’ve done well in this tournament.”
The words “America” and “favorites” are not usually paired together in a soccer context.
The Women’s World Cup began Saturday, and the United States and Germany are the teams to beat over the next month.
Team USA is a fixture on the women’s stage, winning two of the previous six and never finishing outside the top three.
But the United States is currently being appreciated on the broader soccer stage for a very different reason. While the world’s greatest superpower has always seemed a little too disinterested in the game, it took the U.S. Department of Justice Department to overturn the football apple cart with arrest warrants for high-ranking FIFA executives on widespread corruption charges.
Suddenly the rest of the world is applauding a U.S. intervention that toppled unpopular FIFA chief Sepp Blatter and provoked his resignation just two days after being re-elected to a fifth term as president of the sport’s global governing body.
NOW WHAT? It’s one thing to punish the brass who corrupted the system. It’s another to change the culture of systemic corruption.
Blatter still holds the reins until a new president is eventually elected in the coming months, but his promise to work on reform hardly can be taken seriously. FIFA’s fat cats have gone unchecked for so long, it seems unlikely that they’ll all suddenly clean up their lucrative act.
But something big needs to be done, and it requires a grand gesture of fixing what even Blatter has admitted was a “mistake” – playing the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The awarding of that event to a frying-pan nation with no significant soccer heritage was so transparently fixed that it has to be addressed by whomever takes control as FIFA’s next president if he ever hopes to be taken seriously as a reformer.
The most important reform FIFA could make is revamping the entire structure of its World Cup presentation. The single-nation hosting concept is largely untenable and overwhelmingly wasteful (note to the IOC – this applies to the Olympic Games as well).
Brazil spent nearly $7 billion in building new stadiums and infrastructure in 12 cities – displacing residents, bankrupting communities and leaving hulking shells behind as monuments to World Cup excess. One of the primary venues in the capital city of Brasilia is now being used as a bus depot to recoup a fraction of the continuing operating expenses. Others sit largely idle as local clubs can’t afford the substantial rental costs and fans can’t afford the ticket prices.
NOW CONSIDER THE controversial selection of Qatar to play host to the 2022 World Cup. Forget the fact that the Middle Eastern nation has a shallow soccer history that includes zero appearances in the World Cup. Forget its deplorable human rights record – with claims that more than 1,000 migrant construction workers have already died at the World Cup’s expense. Forget even its average daytime summer temperatures exceed 110 degrees, forcing a shift to play in a short November-December window that will interfere with regular league schedules.
Just consider the infrastructure dynamics. The area of Qatar is 4,467 square miles. To put that into perspective, that’s almost exactly the same size as the combined area (4,454 square miles) of Richmond, Columbia, Burke, Lincoln, McDuffie, Aiken, Edgefield, McCormick and Barnwell counties.
Now imagine constructing 12 state-of-the-art, 40,000-seat minimum stadiums in our little nine-county area.
The idea is absurd, even if the Savannah River bisected fertile oil deposits that made us all as rich as Qatari sheiks. It was just as absurd on a larger scale for a nation the vast size of Brazil to build new facilities in far-flung places like the Amazon rain forest that were obsolete the second the last World Cup game was played there.
THERE NEEDS TO BE a greater consciousness about the true costs of playing host to a World Cup and not just the bottom line take for FIFA. That can be attained by every four years holding a truly global event.
There are basically five significant continental confederations that comprise the global FIFA realm (Australia is a member of the Asian confederation). The best way to minimize corruption in the host selection process is to rotate the event among the five confederations. The primary host nation would hold the knockout rounds while the pool play could be spread around the confederation and include up to three other nations in addition to the host country.
Under that format, no host nation would require more than two stadiums. This could allow smaller soccer-rich countries like Costa Rica, Denmark or Cameroon to conceivably play host to some stage of the World Cup up to the finals.
THE 2022 WORLD CUP might provide an opportunity to test such an approach. If FIFA is reluctant to strip the event from the Middle Eastern nation in light of the current controversy, it can at least minimize the damage and human cost by spreading it around.
A compromise solution might allow Qatar to remain the primary host, but shift pool play among other Asian Football Confederation nations such as neighboring UAE, India or China.
Then establish a rotation starting in 2026 – North America, Europe, Africa, South America and Asia getting a turn every 20 years. If a country with existing infrastructure like the U.S. can handle the whole 32-team affair in 2026, fine. But if a nation like Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama makes a viable bid, spread pool play to the U.S. or Canada or any other CONCACAF member nation who can fulfill the two-stadium minimum.
American justice may never be able to rid FIFA or the IOC of bribery, but it can certainly spur change to minimize the effects by building a more sustainable model that benefits the game and its fans more than its greedy executives.
We’ve reached another intersection of horse and history, and for nearly four decades history keeps winning at Belmont Park.
It’s been 37 years since racing last witnessed a Triple Crown champion. Seemingly suitable can’t-miss candidates like Smarty Jones, Big Brown and California Chrome have fallen to history’s curb in recent years.
Now comes American Pharoah, the 14th horse since Affirmed in 1978 with a chance to end the longest drought in Triple Crown history. Impressive performances from an outside post at the Kentucky Derby and the inside rail at the Preakness have him looking like the exception to the rule of the past 36 years.
Of course, Charlie Brown kept thinking he’d kick that football before Lucy pulled it away. Maybe this time it will be different than all the other letdowns. Perhaps there won’t be any spoilers.
“History is littered with Birdstones and Da’ Taras and Saravas and Lemon Drop Kids of the world, and you look at them afterwards and shake your heads and say ‘How did that happen?’ ” NBC analyst Bob Neumeier said. “But it does. It does regularly at Belmont it seems.”
The impressive bay colt – the great-great-great-grandson of the beloved Secretariat – has emerged from what Dogwood Stable’s Cot Campbell called “the best crop of 3-year-olds in modern times.” The problem is, American Pharoah has to beat some of the cream from that rich crop over a daunting mile and a half in the Belmont Stakes to place himself among 11 immortal horses in racing’s most elusive pantheon.
Eight horses are entered in the Belmont, but only American Pharoah among them has run the full gauntlet of Triple Crown events in five weeks. Tale of Verve, a distant runner-up in the Preakness, is the only other horse not coming off a rest.
Five horses in the field have sat out since running the Kentucky Derby – Frosted, Materiality, Keen Ice, Mubtaahij and Frammento. There’s also Peter Pan winner Madefromlucky, trying to take the off-menu upset route Tonalist took last year. Each of those fresh horses poses a threat to American Pharoah’s bid.
This was the situation that left California Chrome owner Steve Coburn bitter after coming up short to long shot Tonalist.
“It’s not fair to these horses that are running their guts out,” Coburn fumed about rested horses stealing Belmont thunder. “This is a cowards’ way out.”
Coburn’s insistence that only horses who competed in the first two legs should be eligible for the Belmont Stakes is a ridiculous assertion. It’s part of the challenge that any horse wanting to be branded a superhorse must face.
“It’s been one of the tests of horses throughout history of thoroughbred racing, the history of the Triple Crown, that they have to be able to go to the Belmont Stakes, take on all comers, including fresher horses,” NBC analyst Randy Moss said.
Granted, it’s a bigger challenge than previous greats had to deal with. The three superhorses who have succeeded in the past 66 years each had to do it against rivals that pushed them from beginning to end.
Secretariat (1973) dueled Sham through all three legs up until the backstretch at Belmont Park. Seattle Slew (1977) faced off three times in the stretch against Run Dusty Run, who finished second, third and second in the series. Affirmed (1978) had a long-running rivalry with serial runner-up Alydar. meeting 10 times in their careers with nine of them winding up 1-2 finishes, including each leg of the Triple Crown.
In the past 16 years since 1998, only two Belmont winners have even run in all three legs – both Preakness winners Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005). Each of the other 14 Belmont winners have skipped at least the Preakness and run the Belmont fresh.
Could American Pharoah survive what his recent predecessors couldn’t?
“As we go into this one, I can’t say that American Pharoah is a better horse than Smarty Jones, is a better horse than Big Brown, is a substantially better horse than California Chrome, and yet those horses couldn’t pull it off,” Moss said. “It is a tremendous challenge. He’s got, again, some very worthy competitors in there who ran in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and now are fresh for the Belmont – a formula that’s worked exceptionally well in the last decade. So he’s got his work cut out for him.”
Jockey Victor Espinoza will ride American Pharoah, making his third attempt at the Triple Crown after failing to get it done with War Emblem (2002) and California Chrome last year. He’s been close to perfect so far, but the Belmont is a bigger challenge with pace.
“There’s an old saying in horse racing that there’s one way to win the race and 20,000 ways to lose a race,” Neumeier said.
Horses have won the first two legs but not the Belmont 23 times – 13 of them in the past 36 years. Will the horse beat history this time? And will it be better for horse racing if he does or if he doesn’t?
“The audience no doubt will be huge for this, and so it will be a shot in the arm for racing, I think,” said NBC host Tom Hammond. “I think it would be better than just to keep waiting, keep waiting.”
Larry Collmus will be the voice attached to history when he calls the race, and he thinks it’s time after so many near misses.
“I know every year it seems like people are so fired up about the fact that a horse is finally going to win the Triple Crown and then they all leave and say I can’t believe this, it didn’t happen again,” Collmus said. “I’ve talked to some people outside of the racing industry who are almost sick of the fact that we keep throwing this Triple Crown chance at them and it doesn’t happen, and they’re like, ‘Well, when are you going to do it? When is a horse finally going to win the Triple Crown?’ So I think people are certainly ready for it, and hopefully this is the one for them.”
Ray Whitfield rebooted his quest to reclaim a world boxing title on Saturday night at Bell Auditorium, but he’s currently focused on an even longer-range goal.
Ray Whitfield Jr. – the 12-year-old son of the former flyweight titleholder who goes by RJ– will compete next week in the intermediate division at the inaugural USA Boxing Prep National Championships in Charleston, W.Va. It’s a big opportunity for the rising seventh-grader at Sego Middle School to make a name for himself.
“It’s the first year his age group can participate in the national event,” the elder Whitfield said. “It used to be only for 15- to 16-year-olds, and now the younger guys have a national championship they can go to, so it’s a very big event for him.”
The heir to the family name was gradually drawn into the sport while his father spent the past five years running the Augusta Boxing Club. There was no pressure to put on gloves and get in the ring, but after years of watching others train the younger Whitfield decided to give it a try three years ago.
“At first I didn’t want to do it,” RJ said. “It just looked fun, so I tried it and started liking it.”
His father understands boxing is a sport that you can’t be pushed into. A boxer has to be drawn in organically or it won’t take.
“He’s been around the sport all his life, but I never thought he’d want to be a boxer,” Whitfield said. “I told him he never had to do anything if he didn’t want to do it. Boxing is a sport you have to really want to be into.”
When he was 5, 6 and 7, RJ often went on the road to see his father fight as a professional. But he was never allowed to travel with the Augusta Boxing Club team to events because he wasn’t on the team. That made him want to be a part of it. He won state and regional tournaments to qualify for next week’s national event.
“I told him once he started I was not going to let him quit,” Whitfield said. “He eventually fell in love with it and now we’re at this point.”
Though he might not have pushed. having his namesake follow in his footsteps is a proud situation for a man who has devoted his life to boxing and growing the sport in the Augusta area.
“He’s just a natural at it. It’s like it’s just in the genes,” Whitfield said. “It means a lot that he’s competing now and I’m back competing. It was very inspirational for him to see me back in the ring again.”
After a five-year hiatus, Whitfield (25-1, 13 KO) earned a TKO with 1:43 left in the second round against Eric Manriquez at the Bell Auditorium on Saturday night. His son was ringside watching his father do what he’s always done better than most.
“It was good and he kind of inspires me,” RJ said.
“Stingray” hopes to keep on inspiring the Augusta boxing community with his comeback plans.
His primary goals are to win another world title
and to bring another network fight back to his hometown.
“I’m looking to come right back to Augusta,” Whitfield said. “The fans showed up and we had a pretty good turnout and everybody loves to see boxing back in Augusta again and I’m looking to give them what they wanted.”
As for his 4-foot-3, 70-pound son, Whitfield is more hands off than you’d expect. He’ll travel with him to West Virginia for the Prep National Championships, but he typically leaves the coaching to his staff at the Augusta Boxing Club.
He believes RJ shows the promise to follow his success with a similar build and frame.
“Like I said, he’s a natural,” Whitfield said. “I’m the head coach, but I really don’t train him because it’s a conflict of interest for me. So I rarely work with him and critique him every now and then but let other coaches work with him so he can have fun with the sport. I’m just letting him have fun with it and he’s having fun going to tournaments and winning most of them that he’s in.”
Whether the younger Whitfield’s boxing pursuits prove to be fruitful or just a hobby doesn’t matter in the long run. His father believes the sport can mentor his son the same way it has helped others become men.
“I feel like every kid’s not going to be a champion,” Whitfield said, “but as long as you keep them focused on something one day they’ll find themselves and what they really want to do.”
Greyson Sigg is only a sophomore at Georgia, but he’s already eying a little redemption at his second NCAA Championship.
The former Richmond Academy golfer is talking a big game before his Bulldogs team heads down to The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., to compete for a national title May 29-June 3. A year ago, Georgia reached this stage only to fall five shots shy of the match-play phase that decides the NCAA champion.
“I have no doubt from our end we’ll make the top eight and then go from there,” Sigg said of the elimination matches that pit the best eight of the 35 teams after 54 holes of stroke play.
That the Bulldogs are heading to the championship at all this week is impressive considering how things started at last weekend’s regional in San Diego. Seeded sixth among the 13 teams, Georgia opened with a 19-over 307 that left them sitting in 12th place – 23 shots off Oklahoma’s lead and 10 shots out of the top five required to advance.
Georgia had to count two scores in the 80s, including Sigg’s season-worst 9-over-par 81.
“The golf course played completely different than what it did in the practice rounds,” Sigg said of the opening-round struggles at The Farms. “The course was really tight off the tee and the wind was a lot different in the practice round. It changed a lot of tee shots and once you kind of feel uncomfortable with one tee shot and the wind is blowing, it kind of gets you off your game and out of your rhythm.”
Coaches Chris Haack and Jim Douglas did what they do best – kept things loose and encouraged the players that anything might happen over the last 36 holes.
“Everyone was obviously down that we didn’t have a great first day and weren’t in the hunt, but we didn’t get down on ourselves and knew we had two more days left and a lot can happen,” Sigg said. “We didn’t really change much and just went out and played another round of golf the next day in good spirits and applied great attitudes and it paid off.”
The Bulldogs bounced back with a 10-under total in the second round and 3-under in the last to finish fourth and advance to the championship for the 17th time in Haack’s 19 years at the helm.
Under the circumstances, Sigg said it was the most clutch performance the Bulldogs have produced.
“You know how far we were behind and we just pulled together as a team and never gave up and never lost sight of our goal for the entire year which is winning a national championship,” said Sigg, who shot counting scores of 73-71 in the last two rounds. “We did what we had to do.”
In a way, the pressure performance sends Georgia into the championship with similar confidence it had after winning the regional last year.
“We’ve got more momentum than probably any other team there right now,” Sigg said. “We just went out and played our best and knew that our season was on the line.”
Sigg is one of only two Georgia golfers – along with top player Lee McCoy – who has NCAA Championship experience. Sigg traveled as a freshman to Prairie Dunes last year in Kansas, where the Bulldogs finished 11th and missed the eight-team match-play portion by five strokes.
“Last year we learned a lot,” Sigg said. “We didn’t play our best and you start to realize when you miss some stuff just a little that every single shot counts. We just have to reduce the errors and control your pill as much as you can. Haacker always says every shot counts and don’t give up.”
Georgia won two of eight tournaments as a team in the spring season – the Puerto Rico Classic in February and the one-day, 36-hole Southern Intercollegiate at Athens Country Club in March. The Bulldogs tied for seventh in the Southeastern Conference Tournament with fellow NCAA finalist Florida but behind the other four SEC teams to reach the championship – Louisiana State, South Carolina, Auburn and Vanderbilt.
The Puerto Rico victory topped a field that included NCAA finalists Georgia Tech, Oklahoma and Clemson.
“We’ve had a decent up-and-down year and hopefully we’ll get off to a little better start down there,” Sigg said. “I think it will help that a lot of our rivals are there and we’ve seen a lot of these teams all year and we’ve beaten a lot of these teams all year, too. So there’s no reason why we can’t beat them all next week.”
While its roster is younger and less experienced than last year, Georgia’s greatest weapon is McCoy – a junior who set a school record with three consecutive victories this spring and boasts a stellar 69.55 scoring average.
“It’s a huge help for us when you know you have somebody on the team who’s going to shoot under par and he’s been a great help to us all year,” Sigg said of his star teammate.
Sigg, however, had more expected of him this season to step up as a leader on a relatively young squad. He posted the most competition rounds on the roster this season (38) by qualifying for every event. His 72.43 stroke average is 1.17 lower than his freshman season.
“I feel like my game’s good now and I’ve got everything worked out and we’re ready to head down to NCAAs,” he said. “We’re maybe not as good as last year but we still have a shot to win the national championship so that can make it the best year ever.”
These are confusing times for an NBA playoffs bandwagon jumper.
Repeated confession: the NBA rarely grabs my attention. While there’s no denying the talent level, the sheer volume and scale of it has never attracted me. For all of its flaws, I prefer the college basketball game and always will. Once players drop their alma mater allegiance for cash, they become as relevant as senior-tour golfers in my book.
But as a sports fan in general, there comes a time when you can pick sides in anything from Premier League soccer to cricket to Aussie rules football. The NBA semifinals are about the time to start choosing favorites or backing an underdog.
Here’s the problem – do you go provincial and back the Atlanta Hawks or do you roll with karma and take the Cleveland Cavaliers? Two of the most cursed professional sports cities on the planet are colliding in the Eastern Conference finals and there are compelling reasons for adopting each one.
There’s the whole LeBron James vibe in Cleveland. Five years ago James was reviled in his hometown for callously ditching the Cavs and taking his talents to South Beach. Like so many others, my annual postseason pickup became rooting for any team that was playing the Heat.
In four consecutive years, James and the Heat reached the NBA Finals, winning two back-to-back in 2012-13. It was the death of karma as Cleveland fans had to watch Miami win with “their” stolen star just as they’ve twice had to watch the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowls with “their” stolen franchise.
Then in July, James made an about-face “decision” that transformed him from hometown villain to hero again. He decided to return home to bring a title to a town that has been starving for one for half a century.
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James said in a first-person essay announcing his return to the Cavaliers. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
James’ only real roots are in Ohio, where he was “Mr. Basketball” three times in Akron and became “King James” to his fans. Kismet let the Cavaliers be the team that drafted him No. 1 right out of high school in 2003, and he led them to the NBA Finals in 2007 and Eastern Conference finals in 2010 before he left.
Abandoning that base in 2010 shattered his royal myth and left the Cavs languishing to four consecutive losing seasons while James carried the Heat to four consecutive title shots. He rebooted his regal legend with a decision to return, and it’s hard not to root for him in this context.
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked,” James said in that SI.com essay. “It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can.”
On the other side of this semifinal are the Hawks – as equally a compelling story. This is a franchise that has never amounted to much, last winning an NBA championship in 1958 when the team was located in St. Louis. Since moving to Atlanta in 1968, the Hawks had never advanced past the second round of the playoffs until rallying to beat Washington last week.
About a month after LeBron announced his feel-good return to Cleveland, the Hawks were nothing to feel good about. Co-owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry were the center of a firestorm after racist remarks made in scouting reports and emails surfaced. Levenson and his co-owners sold the team and Ferry took an indefinite leave of absence.
Then a funny thing happened. The Hawks caught fire after Christmas, sweeping all 17 games in January (an NBA first) and winning 19 games in a row to seize control in the Eastern Conference, eventually clinching the top seed. They gutted out two series wins against Boston and Washington to reach this rare stage with the Cavs.
So whose bandwagon do you jump aboard? The two fan bases have suffered aplenty over the last 50 years. Cleveland’s last pro title came in the waning days of 1964, when the Browns beat the Colts for an NFL championship two years before the merger led to the Super Bowl era.
It’s not like Atlanta has had it much better in the last 50 years. The Atlanta Braves own the only championship in that span – a 1995 World Series victory that came at the expense of Cleveland’s Indians.
They’ve each endured their share of misery. Atlantans can tick off the championship regrets from getting run over in a Super Bowl, blowing home-field advantage in the recent NFL playoffs, Game 7 against the Twins and a litany of bullpen breakdowns from Jeff Reardon to Charlie Leibrandt to Mark Wohlers to Craig Kimbrel. But at least they reached a Super Bowl and won 14 consecutive NL division titles to hang their hats on at the bar.
The only “titles” Cleveland has over the last 50 years are the names they have given their brutal heartbreaks – Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Move, The Shot, The Shot II, The Mesa Meltdown and The Decision.
Frankly, Cleveland probably needs this more. James could turn The Decision II into something positive. So I’m leaning more to the karma side of the aisle rather than the local angle.
But truth be told, both teams (and cities) are probably just setting themselves up for another painful dagger in the end at the hands of Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
How would you recover from being in the center of one of the most epic playoff finishes in golf history?
If you’re Kevin Kisner, you dial up a little redneck relaxation therapy.
The Aiken golfer found just the tonic to getting over any lingering disappointment from losing to Rickie Fowler on the fourth playoff hole at the Players Championship on Sunday. Along with fellow PGA Tour pro Boo Weekley and two like-minded caddie buddies, Kisner retreated to his brother-in-law’s hunting plantation outside Camden, S.C., on Monday.
“I feel so much better today than yesterday,” Kisner said Tuesday as he drove up the road to Charlotte, N.C., for this week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. “I was so worn out and didn’t get much sleep the night before. Had a great day. We shot sporting clays and fished and hog hunted. Hung out with no cell phones and nobody talking to us.”
The preceding three weeks have been a relative blur for Kisner – a coming-out party that pushed his name to the forefront of golf fans’ minds after gritty playoff performances against equally red-hot world-class players at Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass. Kisner’s fearlessness under pressure and array of clutch putts have made a name for himself despite getting edged out twice in sudden death, playing six total playoff holes in 2-under par.
He had two putts on the 18th green to win on Sunday, and he’s still not sure how his first attempt in regulation from 10 feet stayed barely out of the hole.
“Two feet out I said center cut, game over,” he said. “I could not believe it hung out there on that right edge.”
Despite leaving the so-called “fifth major” Sunday without an extra $1 million, five-year tour exemption and guaranteed three years of invitations to the Masters Tournament, Kisner is riding high right now.
“It’s been a good month stretch of golf for me,” he said. “I’m super excited the way I’ve performed coming down the stretch, making clutch birdies to get in the playoffs and having chances to win. Just excited about the direction where my game is going.”
Kisner’s sudden ascension after struggling to find his footing after a few years on the PGA Tour has been both blessed and cursed. At both the Heritage and Players, his good play coincided with two of his best friends and former 2005 NCAA championship teammates at Georgia – Brendon Todd and Chris Kirk – giving him comfortable Sunday pairings with each in the final groups at both events.
The playoffs were different stories. His opponents were three players currently ranked Nos. 5 (Jim Furyk), 7 (Sergio Garcia) and 9 (Fowler) in the world. Worse, it ultimately came down to head-to-head sudden death against two of the most motivated players in peak form. Furyk, seeking to end a frustrating five-year victory drought, birdied 11 of 20 holes on Sunday at Harbour Town, including both in the playoff. Fowler, recently minted one of golf’s “most overrated” players by an anonymous peer poll, played his final 10 holes in 8-under par including three birdies on the island par-3 17th hole.
“Golf is a hard and cruel game, but hats off,” he said of his two vanquishers. “I mean, shoot, these guys are good, I’m telling you. Don’t give up on anybody. Everybody can play out here.”
Despite the caliber of competition and the fan sentiment in their favor, Kisner never flinched.
“Absolutely not,” he said when asked if hearing the chants of “Rickie! Rickie!” intimidated him. “If I got scared I’d go to church. Shoot, he’s six years younger than me. I’m not intimidated at all by anybody out there. I know what I can do and it’s just a game, man. I was out there to try to make birdies. I didn’t care if it was Rickie Fowler or somebody I don’t even know.”
KISNER’S CLUTCH PLAY comes as no surprise to those who know him best. In college at Georgia, he is one of only three players in coach Chris Haack’s star-laden tenure who never missed a tournament because they failed to qualify in four years – joining fellow pros Brian Harman and Russell Henley who each also took brief turns atop the Players leaderboard last week.
Kisner just hadn’t had much chance to show that clutch trait off at the highest level until his game took recent forward strides under the tutelage of Athens-area pro John Tillery.
“I’ve always been good in that situation, I just never had the opportunity on the PGA Tour,” Kisner said. “I struggled my whole career up until the last year-and-a-half, two years on the PGA Tour. I’ve probably made more pressure putts to make cuts when I was dying out there than I have to win. I just love that situation. That’s kind of how I was built and born to be put in that situation. It’s not like I get nervous. I might get anxious and pumped up. But I want the ball in my hand, I don’t want to watch somebody else do it.
“For some reason, I just get it done when it needs to be done. It’s a great quality to have. I know there will be a day when I don’t perform the way I did coming down the stretch, that’s just golf. I’m glad the way I’ve done it. One of these days I’ll hit a bad shot coming down the stretch and you guys can all write about me choking.”
KISNER DOESN’T PLAN on that day being any time soon. He’s riding his confidence into rare air. He was ranked outside the top 300 when he secured his PGA Tour card after finishing 13th on the Web.com Tour money list in 2013. He was still 282nd in the world in March after a dismal West Coast swing on the poa annua greens he loathes.
Now he’s up to No. 66 in the world and 21st in FedEx Cup standings. Hideki Matsuyama is the only player without a victory ranked higher than him in the season-long points race to East Lake. Reaching there would earn Kisner the Masters invitation he covets.
“I certainly hope so,” he said. “Ultimately I’m just a lot more confident in my long game than I’ve ever been on the PGA Tour and if that continues and that trend, I think I’ll be just fine. This stretch of summer is where I normally play well and hope I continue to do it. ... Hopefully we’re just scratching the surface on where we’re going to go, and you’ll see my name up there every week.”
Charlotte is another big opportunity for Kisner, having finished tied for sixth there last year. Being his parents’ hometown, he’ll again be surrounded by support.
“I love it,” he said of Quail Hollow. “My wife said she’s had over a hundred ticket requests right now. Probably more people come to this one than Hilton Head because all my parents’ relatives still live in Charlotte.”
Kisner believes he’s on the brink of the breakthrough he’s been working for, and the attention he’s been getting only reinforces his confidence.
“Everything has been so positive,” he said. “It’s nice to gain a lot of fans and show people what I can do. Hopefully I’ll have big support here in the next six or seven months and go get us a win and move up in the world ranking and do everything you want to do in this game.”
There’s no arguing that just about every element of “DeflateGate” has been – pardon the pun – overblown.
Seriously, a 243-page independent report that required nearly four months to produce vague indictments goes well beyond the boundaries of overkill. The declarations that “cheater” is a first-sentence item in Tom Brady’s obituary are laughable.
That said, there is no question that Brady and the New England Patriots absolutely, positively deserved to face some kind of significant punishment for tampering with the most essential piece of equipment in the game – the football. You simply cannot be caught doing that and not be disciplined – especially when the organization consistently believes it’s above such reproach despite repeated breaches.
After its comically exhaustive report, the NFL announced that Brady – the eventual first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback – will be suspended the first four games of the 2015 season and that the Patriots would be fined $1 million and forfeit a first-round draft pick in 2016 and a fourth-rounder in 2017.
You can make an argument that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, but it seems pretty reasonable considering a rule was willfully broken and the principal parties involved have shown no remorse whatsoever for their actions.
Forget the fact that the report itself could only muster the level of damning Brady with faint blame. This isn’t a court of law requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt. There was plenty of reasonable doubt that Brady was not even trying to be truthful or remotely cooperative, showing a level of disdain that is troubling. “Probable” cause was enough of an indictment.
Attorney Ted Wells’ report claimed “it is more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware of inappropriate activities.” It not exactly the kind of evidence you’d want to send to the jury in a capital murder case, but it’s enough for a sports league to act on the best interests of the game.
The facts of the report are enough. All 11 footballs tested during the AFC Championship Game were deflated below the league’s mandatory standard; a security camera recorded one of two locker room attendants taking the balls into a bathroom for 1 minute, 40 seconds; Brady prefers softer footballs to grip; the locker room guys (one of whom referred to himself as “The Deflator”) knew that and liked getting swag from Brady.
It doesn’t take Matlock to figure this all out. The NFL needed to do something about it because you can’t allow teams/players to break the rules regardless of how silly you think the rules might be.
The strawman arguments that this is just frivolous are easily dismissed. It doesn’t matter whether a deflated ball had any real impact on the Patriots’ 41-7 victory over the Colts. A golfer’s ball moving an imperceptible amount or being replaced a dimple closer to the hole after marking likely have no real bearing on the ensuing shot, but those infractions incur penalties that often include disqualification. Tiny changes in measurements in NASCAR are considered grave violations and lead to all sorts of sanctions.
Also, just because the NFL has done a dreadful job in handling players who commit acts of domestic violence or crimes away from the field doesn’t mean that they should sweep away rules violations less significantly. These are apples and oranges comparisons. When you willfully disregard the rules, that’s an affront to the integrity of the game. What Ray Rice did was morally reprehensible and worse in every regard compared to the trivialities of deflating a football, but only one of those things broke the rules of the game.
“Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public’s confidence in the game is called into question,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive president, wrote in a letter to Brady.
And let’s not go down the path of “all teams do this kind of thing.” Maybe they do. The point is, however, they didn’t get caught.
The NFL obviously opened itself up for this kind of thing when it changed the rules in 2006 to allow quarterbacks to bring their own footballs with them on the road instead of using game balls provided by the home team. Brady was one of the quarterbacks who pushed for that change.
The league should stop allowing that practice and start producing uniformly sanctioned footballs for every game that are handled exclusively by league officials.
In the meantime, the Patriots are only making things worse by howling at the “unfairness” of the investigation they didn’t fully cooperate with and the punishment that was inflated in part because of that lack of cooperation.
The best way to take the air out of the argument is to let it go, live with the consequences and see if you can add a fifth Super Bowl trophy to the case without any tarnish on it.
They’ve been a big part of the most successful era in Kennesaw State golf, but Austin Vick and Kelby Burton hope they’ve saved the best for their final act.
Vick (Greenbrier) and Burton (Lakeside) will finish up their college careers in the NCAA Tournament, and they believe this Owls team has a chance at shocking the golf world in the next few weeks.
“It’s ephemeral right now,” Burton said. “It is a special time because it’s the last part of this chapter for me and for us seniors. We’re going to take it as far as we can and do the best we can. I think we have the capability of pulling off something really special.”
Kennesaw State’s golf program started 30 years ago but began competing in Division I in 2005. The Owls received their fifth consecutive invitation to the NCAA Tournament, earning a school-best No. 4 seed in next weekend’s Chapel Hill, N.C., regional behind top seeds Florida State, Stanford and host North Carolina. Clemson is the No. 6 seed in the same regional while the team formerly known as Augusta State is the eighth seed. Only the top five of 13 teams advance from the regional to the NCAA Championships on May 29-June 3 at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.
Kennesaw State has advanced to the NCAA Championships only twice in school history, finishing 26th both times in 2011 and 2014. But this team has a chance to be the first to reach that stage with prior experience, as four of the five players got a taste of it last year at Prairie Dunes after finishing a surprise second in the Auburn regional to advance.
“We had come off a bit of a high at the regionals and I kind of thought we were a little bit overwhelmed with all the media attention that had come from that,” Vick said. “All of us who went, it was our first time going, so to say the least we were a little bit overwhelmed. It was kind of a shock for us. Now with that experience we can go to a national championships this year with a little more confidence knowing what to expect.”
Of the six Georgia teams to qualify for the postseason, only No. 2 seed Georgia Tech got a higher draw than the 24th-ranked Owls. In 11 events this year, Kennesaw State won twice and never finished outside of the top four. But they’ve let a few tournament leads slip out of their clutch in the final rounds this spring.
“We’re just hungry now,” Vick said of the recent close calls. “We all know that we can go out there and compete with the best players in the country and contend for a national championship.”
Vick is enjoying his best season, with a 72.57 scoring average that is a stroke better than last year and 4.5 lower than his freshman season.
“Right now I feel confident in my game,” he said.
This final semester, however, has been difficult for Burton. Right before he was to return to school after the Christmas break, his father – former Augusta Lynx hockey coach Jim Burton – passed away on Jan. 5 of a heart attack at age 53. Kelby and his dad played nine holes at Jones Creek on the day he died.
“It has been tough,” Burton said of the months since. “I don’t know how to put it into words. All I’ve been trying to do is make him proud and work as hard as I can every day to get where we kind of envisioned me going. It doesn’t stop here. It’s just a step in the right direction. … It’s definitely something terrible that happened, but I’m trying to make the best of it.”
At this point in the season, there is no margin for error. The Owls believe experience is on their side. Being invited to the Chapel Hill regional was a bonus, considering they played on the Finley Course in September, tying for fourth with the Jaguars. Top players Jimmy Beck and Teremoana Beaucousin each posted top-10 finishes and Burton broke par twice there.
“So we know what to expect and know the course may be in a little different shape than it was in the fall,” said Vick, who struggled with rounds of 75-75-77 in September. “But we’ve seen the course and have that experience already and in competition.”
While the high seeding is encouraging, Kennesaw State knows that advancing is no guarantee.
“It’s nice to get a four seed and be ranked as well as we are and it’s pretty fortunate to be able to go to North Carolina,” Burton said. “But when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what you’re ranked going into the regional. It just matters what you come out as.”
With a roster built similarly to Augusta State’s when it won the 2010-11 NCAA titles – three Georgia-bred seniors plus a couple of international talents from Tahiti and Sweden – Kennesaw State believes it can pull off a similar surprise against the collegiate heavyweights if it can just reach the final eight match-play phase.
“It just shows the depth that we have on this team from one to five,” Vick said of their consistency this season. “There’s a lot of strong things we have in our lineup and we all know we’re capable of going out there and winning any golf tournament we play in.”
However the next few weeks turn out, Vick and Burton have different plans when their collegiate careers are over in June. Burton will turn pro immediately after the NCAA tournament, embarking on the mini tours as he prepares for Q-School in the fall.
Vick, however, has an internship set up with the Georgia State Golf Association and envisions putting his finance degree to use in the golf industry while remaining a career amateur competitor.
“I see keeping it fun and not having to be so stressed out about a game that should be fun,” he said.
They both don’t believe there’s any reason to put pressure on themselves in their final collegiate starts.
“I feel like taking that pressure and turning it more into excitement because this is a really exciting time of year and knowing that we have the lineup and team to compete for a national title is something really special,” Vick said. “This is something we’ve been working for this whole year and these four years in college. Just knowing you only have one more time to do it is just going to make it that much more intense. It’s going to be a thrill.”
You have to love Rod Hall’s priorities.
Three NFL teams offered the former Clemson basketball point guard an undrafted free-agent contract this week. One of them – the Tampa Bay Bucs – reportedly guaranteed him a spot on the practice squad, which would mean a signing bonus plus $1,000 a week through the summer. All he had to do was show up for a mandatory rookie minicamp this weekend.
Hall turned the Bucs’ offer down. Not because it wasn’t tempting, but because it would mean missing his graduation ceremony this afternoon.
“It’s very important,” Hall said of receiving his diploma for a B.A. in Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management. “I’m like the first person in my family to graduate from a university. A lot of people see that as a big deal for me.”
Hall will celebrate with family and friends after today’s ceremony. Walking across the stage in a cap and gown is not something he ever thought about growing up or even when starting to blossom as a star athlete at Lucy C. Laney High School.
“Early in my life I wasn’t thinking about getting a college degree,” he admitted. “Too young and fun to make that a priority. But as the years went on I did.”
Once his graduation is official, Hall will have to prioritize whatever the next step is. Playing basketball overseas remains an option, but the football choice is the biggest thing on his plate at the moment.
“I haven’t made a decision on what I’m going to do yet,” he said Thursday. “I’m trying to see what’s going to be the best fit.”
Up until three weeks ago, all of this football stuff didn’t exist. Hall hadn’t touched a football since he played for Laney in 2010, opting to play basketball in college instead. His latent football talents, however, didn’t just go away with four years of neglect. NFL scouts saw his high school highlights as well as his basketball career and seem to believe that his skills can be awakened from their dormant state with a little seasoning and hard work.
After working out for a half dozen teams in Clemson before last week’s NFL Draft, no team was willing to risk a late-round pick on Hall. But the Bucs, Ravens and Saints each believe he has something to offer as a more long-term investment. When Hall turned down the Ravens’ minicamp offer as well because of the graduation conflict, he was invited to work out next week in front of its coaching staff in Baltimore. The Saints also invited him to work out in New Orleans the next week.
“They’re really up in the air,” Hall said of his plans. “It’s set in stone that they offered me to come work out, but I haven’t made a decision yet.”
None of these workouts would be binding, in order to preserve Hall’s potential eligibility to play a season of college football in the fall. The NCAA allows NFL teams to work out and pay expenses for players as long as their workout visit doesn’t exceed 48 hours.
If any of the teams offer him some security comparable to what the Bucs did, Hall might take it and relinquish his college football eligibility.
If he did opt for the college route, Clemson might not be the best place for him. Dabo Swinney gave Hall a standing offer to come play for the Tigers, but Clemson’s roster is stacked at receiver and too crowded at cornerback to guarantee Hall getting the necessary playing time in his limited window.
Georgia State and Mercer have each reportedly expressed interest, but the most intriguing option that Hall confirmed might be Southern Methodist.
Ex-Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris took over the head coaching reins for the Mustangs and is in need of some receiving help. Hall could possibly compete immediately for a starting job in Morris’ aggressive offensive system.
Hall said most people have left it up to him to decide whether he would want to play receiver – the position he accumulated more than 1,200 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior at Laney – or cornerback.
In the few weeks since Hall was first contacted by NFL scouts about playing football again, the idea has grown from initial curiosity to a viable opportunity.
“It wasn’t realistic to me at first because it had been a long time, but now it seems like it would be pretty good,” Hall said. “I think they’re attracted to how athletic I am and don’t have all those tears and things like that.”
Once he’s done pausing to honor his academic achievement, Hall will get to work figuring out his future.
Elite golf is arguably in the best place it’s ever been. There are compelling stories everywhere you turn.
Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth sit atop the world standings as the most fulfilling young talents who capitalize on their promise on almost a weekly basis.
Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson put on their freakish displays of power and shotmaking that are mesmerizing to watch.
One old guy, Jim Furyk, still wins while another, Phil Mickelson, continues to be a captivating competitor whenever he turns up, finishing runner-up in consecutive majors as he heads toward the one major that has torturously remained unchecked on his bucket list.
Even the “most interesting golfer in the world,” Miguel Angel Jimenez, turned a meaningless match last week into theater when he ended up nose-to-nose with the seemingly caffeine-infused Keegan Bradley and his caddie, Pepsi. Jimenez walked away still cool while his sparring partners lost theirs.
All these stories are in play this week as attention turns to the tournament that so desperately wants to be considered a major – the Players Championship. But there’s still one story that rises above the rest even when the subject is ranked 125th in the world – two spots behind Aiken’s Kevin Kisner.
Tiger Woods might actually be a more captivating figure now than he was at his peak, trying to pull himself up from the darkest depths of his career. His about face of contending at the Masters after being written off for dead with the yips has sparked a reboot of the prognosis for a guy who has been dealing with outlandish expectations for two decades.
Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner who has ridden Woods’ coattails for his entire term, put it best to David Feherty.
“I know this as firmly as I believe anything,” Finchem said. “If he’s playing golf in 10 years and he hasn’t won one tournament between now and then, he will still have a huge impact. People will never, ever get tired of watching Tiger Woods play golf. Ever.”
The appetite for Tiger news still trumps all others. There have never been more players in the world who you can argue are truly better than he is at golf right now, but not even McIlroy or Spieth can generate the same kind of information traffic.
While McIlroy was reminding everybody that he – not Spieth – is still the No. 1 player in the world with a riveting 7-0 performance at the WGC Match Play over the weekend, the biggest news was that Woods and his high-profile girlfriend, world-champion skier Lindsey Vonn, had broken up just a few weeks after she joined his kids in a heart-warming Par-3 Contest appearance before the Masters.
Unlike when McIlroy broke off his engagement with tennis superstar Caroline Wozniacki right before winning the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth last May, Woods wasn’t even in the field at Harding Park and stole headlines on Sunday.
Just as Woods drew an unprecedented late-evening Monday throng for his return practice round at Augusta National in April, he attracted a crowd for his Tuesday morning nine-hole rust shaker with Jason Day at Sawgrass on Tuesday.
After that he talked to the media on all manner of subjects about loss – lost standing, lost icons, lost relationships and his lost father.
Earl Woods passed away on May 3, 2006, and had his memorial service May 5. That Woods’ joint statements about the end of his relationship with Vonn came out on the anniversary date has made for a difficult start to Players week.
“It obviously does affect me,” he said of his broken romance. “It is tough. There’s no doubt. I’m not going to lie about that. On top of that, this time of year is really, really hard on me. This three-day window is really hard. I haven’t slept. These three days from May 3 to today are brutal on me. Obviously what happened Sunday just adds to it.”
It also follows a week of sad news that African-American golf icons Calvin Peete and Pete Brown died two days apart, further diminishing the heritage of players who paved the way for Woods. He was especially animated talking about Peete, who was the lone black figure Woods could remember watching play as a kid.
“For me as a person of color, it meant something to me to watch him do well,” said Woods, marveling at Peete’s legendary accuracy despite physical limitation in his arm.
“What he did was truly incredible,” Woods said. “It was ungodly how straight he hit it.”
Woods was wistful talking about his predecessors like “Uncle” Charlie Sifford (whom he named his son after). He lamented missed chances to meet and talk with Peete, Brown, Bill Spiller and Teddy Rhodes, but his knowledge and admiration for their plights breaking the color barrier in golf was apparent.
“My struggles weren’t anywhere near what they had to endure,” he said of the professional landscape that they changed before he started. “But it’s something I could relate to when I was a kid. The things that I had to endure just to play golf. I wasn’t allowed to play at certain places. That part I can understand and relate to.
“I honestly believe why we don’t have any other African-Americans playing on the tour or even the mini tours is because of the advent of the golf cart. That took away a lot of the caddie programs and their introduction to the game of golf. ... That’s all gone, so you don’t have the pool of players anymore. Consequently as competition pyramids up to the top, it obviously declines.”
As for his own game, Woods believes he’s “on the right road.” His Masters performance reset his balance – “a big step” he called it.
“I made huge strides from where I was at Torrey and Phoenix. Huge,” he said. “And to go from that to where I was at Augusta ... I worked hard. To do all that and go into a major untested I thought was pretty good for three days.”
Woods said he “found the bottom” in his short-game technique, but that might also prove a euphemism for his whole game. At No. 125 he’s looking at a long climb back into McIlroy-Spieth territory with events at stake including the tour’s playoffs and 2016 Olympics. With his health and a “regular schedule” for the rest of the year, he hopes to get started back in the right direction.
“Making my way up from where I’m at is just going to take consistency,” he said. “I need wins in there but I need to be consistent every time I tee it up. That’s something I used to do and something I’ve done when I’ve made my comebacks before. The last time was a few years ago when I was in the 50’s and got back to No. 1.”
Whether he can make it all the way back or not, Finchem and everyone else never tire of watching him try.
Jim Dent was lucky, and he knows it.
Traveling the roads of the PGA Tour in the 1960s and 70s, the Augusta-bred golfer had friends around him he could count on. Friends who looked like him. Black friends.
“They were like brothers,” Dent said of his pioneering peers on the PGA Tour. “We came to be on the road with each other and spend time with each other. You can’t forget those guys. You live and share rooms with each other. It was a great thing to have other African-American pros on tour at that time.”
As a young pro, Dent had the chance to sit beside Teddy Rhodes to listen to him talk about the game they loved in spite of its flaws. He heard first-hand the anger of the injustices Bill Spiller endured and all of Charlie Sifford’s “wicked stories” of bigotry as the first African-American tour member after the Caucasians-only clause fell in 1961.
Mostly, Dent saw the example of Pete Brown in the cars and rooms and fairways they shared.
“Pete kind of took me around the first six weeks when I was on tour, you know,” Dent said. “That was a blessing. Here was a man already established and he can let me hang around and learn some of the ropes there. That’s where we got real close. The man was a great man.”
That great man – great friend – died on Friday at Doctors Hospital. After suffering
multiple strokes, Brown moved to Evans a few years ago with his wife, Margaret, to live in one of the houses on Dent’s property. Dent saw him for the last time when he came up for the Masters in April.
“Pete was a strong man. Pete was a fighter,” Dent said. “He had about 14 or 15 strokes and he still could talk. He fought on the last two years. He was a tough guy but he was so easy going and you couldn’t hardly make him mad I don’t care what you do.”
It was the generosity of Brown’s spirit that Dent will miss the most. Brown was the first African-American golfer to win a PGA-sanctioned event at the 1964 Waco Turner Open. He later won the 1970 Andy Williams San Diego Invitational. But it was the way he carried himself that left the biggest impression on Dent. Brown was never filled with the bitterness that often characterized the personalities of some black golfers trying to survive in a white game like it did Spiller or Sifford.
“Just to walk behind him and watch him act and what he did and how he did it,” Dent said. “He was so nice and you couldn’t help but like a guy like that. Pete was a helluva guy. Pete would give you – if he had 20 cents he’d give you 15 cents and keep 5 cents he needed. So you can’t do nothing but love a guy like that like a brother.”
Brown’s death at age 80 is a the latest in a sad series of losses suffered by the biggest African-American icons in golf. Sifford – the only black golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 – died in February at age 92. Calvin Peete – the most prolific African-American winner with 12 PGA Tour victories before Tiger Woods came along – passed away in Atlanta on Wednesday.
Anyone who cares about golf feels their collective loss. It’s even tougher for their remaining peers who feel an added responsibility to make sure their contributions to the world are remembered.
“Sure, why not? They meant a helluva lot to golf,” Dent said. “Calvin’s done a lot more than people think he did. There was one black superstar and that was Calvin Peete. After that come Tiger Woods as the next superstar.”
Dent laments how Woods remains the lone African-American representative on the modern PGA Tour. Joseph Bramlett reached the top tour for one season in 2011, but other than that it’s been only Woods for the past two decades.
When Dent came out, there were as many as 14 black faces at tour stops. And the ones left are getting older and less visible. Dent is 75 and has been retired from the Champions Tour since 2010. Jim Thorpe is 66 and only plays occasionally on the senior circuit. Chuck Thorpe is 68. Lee Elder is 80. Charlie Owens is 85.
“They were great and when I came out they were good friends,” Dent said. “It was kind of like the European guys say they do – they’re always together so we were always together, you know. We spent time together. Each Monday we would go out and do things. There were 14 of you there and you could enjoy one another. You always had one that you really wanted to go to dinner with or hang out with or something. It was great.”
Dent thinks there’s a lack of hunger – not to mention opportunity provided by the old caddie yards – that is keeping young black kids from chasing golf as an aspiration. In a way, the very obstacles that kept his generation out of the game 50 years ago drew them deeper into it.
“When you try to keep somebody from doing something, that’s when you want to do it more,” said Dent, who couldn’t even play Augusta Municipal Golf Course as a kid. “Back then we couldn’t go to all the golf courses like the kids can do today. We had a few we could go and play. So we were really into it. Today they can do it, but they don’t want to do it.”
Dent will grieve for his dear friend Pete Brown and miss the time they shared together.
“It’s a big loss,” he said. “When I was playing the senior tour I used to go up to Dayton (Ohio) all the time and play the golf course he used to have and hang around with him. You lose a friend like that you can’t replace a guy like that.”
Dent will also mourn the significant pieces of heritage that the game has lost in such short order in recent days and months.
“All of them were helluva guys to be around,” he said of Sifford, Peete and Brown. “It was nice to learn, and like all of the rest of us, you had somebody you could look up to. I was watching the football draft (Thursday) night and they were talking about how they looked up to such and such a player. That’s the way I was to those guys. I looked up to all of them. What a dream to be out there while they was there.”