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Michaux: Rio Games will evoke great performances, not Ugly American act by Ryan Lochte

Tue, 08/23/2016 - 8:31pm

For the past two weeks, Team USA and host city Rio de Janeiro put on a pretty dazzling Olympics show.

And it might have been just about perfect for both had it not been for that meddling pest, Ryan Lochte.

The silver bleach job that the American swimmer got before the Games apparently seeped through his thick skull and plunged him to new depths of idiocy. His ugly American act besmirched the most sensitive fears of Brazilians and hijacked the last week of the Olympics. He dragged down three American teammates with his unnecessary lies and left them holding the bag while he jetted home ahead of the posse.

There’s no telling why he made up a story about being robbed, cast himself as the hero and felt compelled to share it with the world. All he had to do was never say anything and nobody would have ever known about their drunken gas station vandalism escapade and he’d still have his lucrative sponsorships with Speedo and Ralph Lauren and could drift into oblivion with a nice income that he’ll never be able to accumulate with his intellect.

But for all Lochte’s foolishness, his stupidity shouldn’t overshadow all of the tremendous performances we were treated to from Rio. It’s the images of Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Usain Bolt and Katie Ledecky and so many more that will resonate long after Lochte is forgotten.

His last relevance is providing the negative measure for a special Olympics-themed edition of Birdies & Bogeys:

GOLD: SI cover. Michael Phelps with his arms draped around Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles – all donning 12 of the 16 medals (13 gold) they collected in Rio – and simply headlined “The Greatests.” No argument there. We were blessed to see them perform at the highest level.

GOLD: Usain Bolt. It wasn’t just his unprecedented triple-triple in winning golds in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay at Beijing, London and Rio, it’s the incomparable style in which he did it that will linger with us forever. That shot of him flashing a smile as he looks back at his vanquished rivals perfectly summed up the greatest sprinter of all time.

GOLD: Team USA. Americans won the first (Ginny Thrasher, shooting) and last (men’s basketball) gold medals of the Rio Games. In all, the 121 medals broke the American record of 110 in a non-boycotted games and it swept up the most medals of every hue for the first time by any nation in 40 years.

LOCHTE: Hope Solo. The only American who welcomed Lochte’s idiocy for taking the spotlight off her American ugliness. She called Sweden “cowards” for daring to employ a strategy to beat the unbeatable U.S. women’s soccer team. Perhaps if she’d stopped a couple more shots. Here’s hoping she disappears with Lochte.

GOLD: Simone Manuel. The look on her face when she realized she tied for gold in the 100-meter freestyle – thus earning the first individual medal by an African-American swimmer – was priceless. She added another gold and a pair of silvers, dismantling stereotypes and providing inspiration all the way.

SILVER: University of Georgia. Nine Bulldogs won a total of 10 medals (five of them gold) for three different countries. If UGA (not Uganda) was its own nation, it would have tied Cuba and Croatia in 17th place for gold and equalled the likes of South Africa and the Czech Republic in total haul. It seems Athens was meant for the Olympics.

BRONZE: Pita Taufatofua. The shirtless and oiled-up Tonga flag bearer – who competed in Taekwondo – was such an international hit he served up an encore at the closing ceremony.

LOCHTE: Egyptian judoka. One of the worst displays of sportsmanship came when Islam El Shehaby was sent home and reprimanded by the IOC for refusing to shake hands after losing to Israel’s Or Sasson. Even worse was the shameful messages he received from hard-line countrymen for even participating in the match.

GOLD: Title IX. A total of 214 Americans brought home 267 medals (141 of them gold) from Rio, Of that group, 120 of them (56.1 percent) were women accounting for 152 medals (56.9 percent), 87 golds (61.7 percent) in 21 different disciplines. “Title IX paved the way and created so many opportunities for women in sport,” said Allyson Felix, the most decorated female track and field Olympian.

GOLD: Kristin Armstrong. Five years after a headline to my story about her at the USA Cycling National Championship time trials at Clarks Hill Lake read “Ex-Olympian’s dream likely over,” Armstrong won her third consecutive Olympics gold medal a day before turning 43. What do I know?

LOCHTE: Green pools. After everything written about Rio’s befouled waterways, it didn’t help that the diving pool suddenly turned the color of the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day, forcing a temporary halt until things cleared up.

GOLD: Ashton Eaton. The first U.S. decathlete to repeat as Olympic champion since Bob Mathias (1948/1952). Bravo.

BRONZE: Penalty kicks. Of course a shootout is not a perfect way to decide soccer matches, but you have to admit it makes for great drama. The dominant U.S. women were eliminated that way by Sweden and the Brazilian men ignited a national party by winning on hero Neymar’s final kick.

LOCHTE: NBC. Nothing can ever be done to change the shameless manner in which the network packages its broadcast to maximize profit. That ship has sailed. But tape-delay when knowing the outcome is inescapable in today’s world still stinks.

GOLD: Rowdy Gaines. Would that we all could have the most eventful moments of our lives announced with Gaines’ fever-pitched enthusiasm.

LOCHTE: Elliotte Friedman. One of Canada’s most accomplished broadcasters blew the international call of Phelps’ last individual gold medal, mistaking his lane for Lochte’s. He was gutted by his error, which in hindsight was the best thing that never happened to Lochte all week.

BRONZE: Phillip Dutton. The 52-year-old Aussie-turned-American who winters in Aiken got his first individual medal in six Olympics participating in three-day eventing on his horse Mighty Nice.

LOCHTE: Under Armour. It’s bad enough that its top athletes Steph Curry and Jordan Spieth didn’t even show up to Rio, but its marquee Olympian, Phelps, is displaying a Swoosh prominently on the collector’s cover of SI.

SILVER: Golf. It wasn’t perfect with too many stars staying away, but the top men and women who showed up delivered on what looked like a terrific course and made golf feel like it belonged in the Olympics after a 112-year hiatus. With genuine enthusiasm and emotion – epitomized by American Gerina Piller’s uncontrolled tears after failing to medal – the golfers made a strong case for sticking around beyond 2020 in Tokyo.

BRONZE: Matt Kuchar. Before the golf event even started, folks on Twitter had taken to dubbing Kooch with the hashtag #BackdoorBronze. He lived up to it with a final-round 63 to vault onto the podium and left the Yellow Jacket with “an amazing sense of pride.”

LOCHTE: No shows. Seeing gold medalist Justin Rose, silver medalist Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler and Martin Kaymer take part in the Opening Ceremony; Bubba Watson and friends soaking up every sport they could fit in; and all the male and female golfers embrace the full Olympic experience had to elicit at least some pang of regret in the guys who elected to stay home.

GOLD: Fiji. The small island nation finally got two sports into the Olympics that it could fare well in. While Vijay Singh chose not to compete in golf, the men’s rugby sevens team stole the show in winning gold to account for Fiji’s first Olympic medal.

GOLD: Team handball. Why is this most awesome sport not an American staple? Along with water polo and now rugby sevens, handball ranks as the coolest thing we only get to see every four years.

BRONZE: Kerri Walsh Jennings. It wasn’t a fourth gold this time with Misty May-Treanor, but her rally for beach volleyball bronze against Brazil with new partner April Ross was just as dramatic.

LOCHTE: Zika. The only headlines this generated the last fortnight came out of Miami.

GOLD: Rio. For all its many faults, there has never been a more beautiful backdrop to an Olympics. It certainly delivered a great show in spite of everything.

SILVER: Jordan Burroughs. Perhaps the greatest American wrestler illustrated the raw agony of defeat when he left the arena sobbing after losing twice on the same day and not even taking bronze. “I missed a lot of important milestones in my children’s lives to pursue this sport,” he said through tears. The sacrifices of being an Olympian takes a toll that we should all respect regardless of how they finish.

Michaux: Georgia Tech's Gray receives high praise from coach, teammates

Sat, 08/20/2016 - 8:22pm

Paul Johnson is an offensive-minded coach not prone to being effusive. His triple-option system is what defines him – as does his generally brusque demeanor. So when the Georgia Tech head coach starts spitting roses about a defensive player who generally works the furthest away from the line of scrimmage, well, you take notice.

“A.J. Gray probably had as good a spring as anybody on our football team,” Johnson told the full contingent of media that showed up in Charlotte for the annual Atlantic Coast Conference football kickoff. “I think he’s got the opportunity to be one of the all-time great players at Georgia Tech.”

He said all-time greats at Georgia Tech, a list that would include the likes of Pat Swilling, Keith Brooking, Eddie Lee Ivery, Calvin Johnson, Marco Coleman and Demaryius Thomas. All this praise for a sophomore safety from Washington County who played in 10 games as a freshman backup who admittedly “didn’t quite know what I was doing out there.”

Johnson expanded on his assessment of Gray when the Yellow Jackets opened preseason camp with the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder already entrenched as the starting free safety.

“A.J.’s a really well-rounded kid,” Johnson said. “He’s got his feet on the ground. He’s got really good athletic ability. He’s got good football awareness and sense. He had to play last year as a freshman before he was ready and he was out there and at times he would get lost but he still made some plays. He had a couple interceptions and seemed to find his way around the ball. This spring he was almost impossible to block. I mean, you’d like to say you teach that but I think some of that is just innate ability that you just have.”

Fair enough, but all-time great?

“Certainly nobody is gonna crown him as all-pro now in his sophomore year of college,” Johnson said. “But I think if he continues to progress and work – which he will because he’s that type of person – then I think he could be really good.”

It’s not just his head coach saying these things about Gray. Asked point blank who would be the breakout star on the 2016 team, defensive back Lawrence Austin didn’t hesitate.

“I think A.J. Gray is going to have a big year,” Austin said. “A.J. is just a natural baller. He finds the ball or the ball finds him. He might do something wrong but still catch an interception or knock the ball out. He does have potential to be one of the greats.”

Senior lineman Patrick Gamble quickly concurred.

“I would say the same thing,” Gamble said of Gray. “Every time I see him he’s making plays on the ball. Every time. No matter where’s he’s at he’s making plays on the ball whether it’s a fumble or interception. He’s just always around the ball and that’s one thing we need.”

How does quarterback Justin Thomas feel about the guy who picks him off in practice?

“Just watching him play last season I think he can be a big contributor,” Thomas said. “Especially being in the system for a year, he’s not just running around looking for the ball. He’s going to know his assignments and I think he’ll put himself in a lot better position and I think he’ll be a great player.”

You won’t hear anything like that coming out of the shy Gray’s mouth. He’s not in the mold of the trash-talking defensive backs that proliferate football. High praise from his coaches and teammates only fuels him to work harder.

“It means a lot to me and just makes me more humble to get better every day,” he said. “Get better on the little things like the details.”

Gray admits the details were largely lost on him a year ago. Even a principal’s son from Sandersville, Ga., can get overwhelmed by the volume of things he had to learn immediately playing football and taking classes at Georgia Tech. It was a lot to process, and mostly Gray survived on instinct that made him the prep player of the year as a senior.

“I was just going off athleticism,” Gray said. “But now I know the plays and know where to line up and it just makes me play faster.”

His coaches have noticed the maturation.

“I think last year it was fast for him – it was just ‘See ball, try and hit ball; see receiver, try and cover receiver,’” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “Whereas now he’s trying to play within the framework of what we’re doing.”

Gray’s teammates already marveled at what he could do at half speed. In 10 games last year – he missed two after an injury late against Florida State – Gray posted 21 tackles plus an interception and fumble recovery.

“It’s just God’s gift,” Austin said of Gray’s innate football instinct. “If I mess up on a play I’ll be nowhere near the ball. If A.J. messes up, he’ll catch an interception. I’ve never seen anything like it. When he first came in as a freshman he’d call the wrong play and run the wrong way but he would catch an interception. You can’t get mad at him. Now coming into his second year and he’s learning more of the defense, so he’s been in the right position and also making plays on the ball. He’s going to be a great player for us this year.”

All four starters are gone from Georgia Tech’s secondary after the graduations of safeties Jamal Golden and Demond Smith and cornerbacks D.J. White and Chris Milton. It will be up to Gray to play “quarterback” again, recognizing opposing offensive formations and instructing his teammates where to line up.

“Major difference,” said Austin. “He’s not only doing what he’s supposed to do but he’s telling the corner what he’s supposed to do and telling the outside linebacker what he’s supposed to do.”

While a battered offense was the biggest reason for Georgia Tech’s 3-9 record last year, the defense didn’t make the necessary contributions to turn things around. After the Jackets scored 137 points off 29 turnovers in 2014, Georgia Tech only mustered 17 takeaways leading to 78 points last season. The primary focus is on changing those numbers this season.

Gray is being counted on to be a big part of that. Considering he intercepted 10 passes his senior season at Washington County and returned four for touchdowns, it’s a role he’s ready to fill.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” Gray said. “We should get a lot of turnovers because we’re really focused on that. I feel like if we’re on the same page, everybody can be an outstanding player.”

Coming from a Washington County team that reached consecutive state championship games to a program coming off an 11th win at the Orange Bowl, Gray wasn’t accustomed to the struggles the Yellow Jackets endured last season. He refuses to dwell on it.

“I wouldn’t talk about last year because that’s over with and done and we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “All I’m doing is focusing on this year. All this (outside negativity) is just building us and making us more motivated. Where’s not listening to none of that. I think everybody is working together. If we communicate like we’re doing we’ll be real good.”

If Gray keeps progressing like he has in one year, “real good” has a chance to develop into “all-time great.”

“I think you’ll be excited to watch him play this fall,” Johnson said.

Michaux: ACC faces scheduling decision

Thu, 08/18/2016 - 11:08pm

Pick a number – eight or nine. Odds are your choice is based on entirely selfish reasons.

The biggest debate in Atlantic Coast Conference football heading into the 2016 season isn’t whether Clemson or Florida State will win the title but whether the league should change to a nine-game conference schedule in the near future.

The 14 member football schools tabled the argument last Friday for a couple extra months, but a decision one way or another is imminent. As part of the fine print in creating a dedicated ACC Network with ESPN by 2019, the schools will have to pick one of two scheduling models designed to augment the football portfolio that the ACC Network will have the rights to air.

The choices are ...

8-PLUS-2: Keep the current arrangement of eight conference games but add two out-of-conference games against other Power 5 programs from the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12.

9-PLUS-1: Add an extra conference game against the opposite division every year while still playing one required game against another Power 5 school.

The league is almost evenly split on which direction to go. The last time a formal vote was held about a nine-game league schedule, the vote was 8-6 against it. If two of the four schools that don’t play traditional rivalry games against the SEC every year change their mind and flip to the 9-plus-1 side, a change will be coming by 2020.

One of those potential flippers is Miami, whose new hire, Mark Richt, is the only coach in the league in favor of nine-game conference schedule.

“If I’m at Georgia, I’d want eight conference games,” Richt said, illustrating the selfish nature of the choice. “If I’m at Florida State, I’d want eight. At Miami, I want nine league games.”

That’s big news for the 9-plus-1 crowd come voting time.

“Majority is going to rule when it’s all said and done,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.

Swinney, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher are the most vocal opponents of adding another ACC game, and the reasons are obvious. Their schools, along with Louisville, already have one non-conference date set in stone against in-state SEC rivals every year. They’d prefer to have three more options to control, allowing for another marquee Power 5 foe along with a couple of relative patsies to pad the home schedule.

Clemson will play Auburn this year along with Troy and South Carolina State.

“I like the flexibility to go play Georgia, Texas and Notre Dame,” Swinney said. “That’s one of the ways we built our program. With nine conference games, there’s not enough flexibility.”

He reiterated that stance to The Clemson Insider this week.

“We are going to play South Carolina every year and then I love to be able to go play another big boy, if you will, and kind of measure up,” Swinney said. “It has been one of the best parts about the last seven years and allowing us to grow our program. We have had a measuring stick and said let’s just see where we are. Let’s go play some of these teams. And then we have held our own.”

That’s a perfectly reasonable and logical argument. But it’s easy to make for programs with the reputation of Clemson and FSU, with one prominent non-conference already locked in and an attractive reputation to market. It’s not so easy for the programs that don’t already have one game under perpetual contract to have to go find two Power 5 opponents when three of the other major conferences (Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12) are already playing nine conference games a year.

The relative have-nots would be at a distinct disadvantage trying to “grow” their programs to Clemson’s level when they have to settle for finding dates with Vanderbilt, Purdue or Iowa State instead of league powers like the Tigers and Seminoles.

Swinney’s argument discounts his fellow ACC members. The current arrangement means teams play schools that aren’t permanent crossover rivals from the opposite division just once every six years. A nine-game schedule would cut that familiarity rate down to an average of every three years.

Longtime rivals Wake Forest and North Carolina – separated by 77 miles – even had to schedule “non-conference” games against each other just so they could play more often than once every six years.

More often than not that extra league game for Clemson would be a Virginia Tech, Miami, UNC or Pitt while Georgia Tech would more frequently face FSU and Louisville. That’s not exactly a drag on the schedule.

There are only three universal cons to the nine-game plan that every school has issues with. The first is obvious – an unbalanced home/road schedule. There’s nothing you can do about that with an odd number of games.

That leads directly to the second problem every team would have to deal with periodically – a six-game home schedule. Assuming you can’t always stack all three non-conference games at home on the years you have four in-conference home dates, that lucrative seventh game just isn’t going to happen every year. That significant amount of revenue once every four years or so, however, should be more than offset by the bump in TV money that the ACC Network will bring in. It’s a sacrifice every team will have to make for the good of the whole.

The third problem is Notre Dame, a conference member in every sport but football which is contractually obligated to play an average of five games against ACC teams each season. In the years Clemson or Georgia Tech draw the Irish, they would have 11 games already set in stone.

That’s pretty inflexible, indeed, but is it really the worst problem in the world to have? The fans will love it and if the Tigers are College Football Playoff material, they would welcome the challenge.

If the Irish eventually join the ACC in football, a nine-game schedule would be a must anyway and that problem goes away.

From the Clemson standpoint, the ninth game might not seem ideal. But from a league standpoint, the benefits outweigh the negatives. It’s hard to consider yourself brethren when your fan base only gets to see the Tigers come to town once every 12 years.

And it’s only going to get harder to find quality Power 5 opponents when every conference but the SEC plays nine games in-house.

More likely than not, the majority will outweigh the self-interests of the heavyweights at the top. When it does, the rising tide will lift all boats and make for a healthier ACC.

Michaux: Cot Campbell calls latest honor a great thrill

Tue, 08/16/2016 - 8:45pm

Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has been “sort of a second home” for Cot and Anne Campbell for nearly 50 years, so it’s only a natural that a piece of Aiken’s horsing couple will live on there forever.

On Aug. 26 – the eve of the nation’s oldest major stakes race, the Travers – W. Cothran “Cot” Campbell will be inducted in Saratoga’s Walk of Fame by the New York Racing Association. He and trainer Bill Mott will be only the ninth and tenth persons inducted for their significant contributions to the sport of thoroughbred racing and to the advancement of Saratoga Race Course.

Campbell, who founded Dogwood Stable and moved the outfit to Aiken in the mid-1980s, calls it “one of the great thrills of my life.”

“It’s very heady – there’s only eight people in it,” Campbell said. “I’ve had a great life in racing and racing has been nice to me. So I’m delighted with this.”

He will be presented the Walk of Fame’s signature red jacket at a ceremony between races that Friday by storied trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who is one of the eight previous inductees in a club that also includes Saratoga’s all-time leading jockeys John Velazquez, Jerry Bailey and Angel Cordero.

The 88-year-old Campbell says the red jacket will mean as much to him as the famous green jacket presented to Masters Tournament winners.

“Yeah, in my world it’s comparable,” Campbell said. “I’ll put that jacket on and be strutting around.”

The Campbells have been summering in Saratoga Springs since 1971, enjoying the whirlwind of the annual six-week racing meet than began more than 150 years ago and just a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. This year’s sojourn started in mid-July and will end after Labor Day.

“We’ve had some great moments up here and the Dogwood name is well entrenched,” Campbell said. “It’s just great to be here. There’s a whole lot going on – sometimes more than you want.

“Saratoga is like taking a year of your life and cramming it into six weeks – socially, business-wise and civically. It wears you out, but you love it 90 percent of the time while 10 percent of the time you wish you were somewhere else. It’s an exciting thing and I would not want to do without it.”

One of those 90-percent moments came Monday night, when Anne Campbell was the guest of honor at the Blue Spangled Gala benefitting the Saratoga WarHorse foundation. She fell in love with the organization that provides equine therapy to veterans suffering from invisible wounds such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other war traumas.

In 2014, Anne Campbell helped establish a satellite Saratoga WarHorse facility at the Equine Rescue of Aiken, providing a second place for veterans to experience bonding with retired thoroughbreds that is instrumental in helping them emotionally reconnect with themselves and their lives back home.

The Campbells have been married for 57 years and Anne was called “the wind beneath Dogwood Stable’s wings” at Monday’s gala – a distinction Cot endorses. For her service to Saratoga WarHorse, they named a foal from famed Preakness champion, Curlin, after her – Anne Dupree.

“It was a great affair attended by 8,300 people and she deserved it,” Cot said.

The Campbells have certainly left their mark in racing – which has been the center of the second half of their lives together. Cot Campbell is lauded as a raconteur and visionary, whose biggest contribution to the sport was the introduction of the concept of limited partnerships for horse owners. It was a simple idea that changed the industry, with Campbell estimating that about 60 percent of horses racing in America today are owned by some sort of partnership.

“It was just a logical idea,” Campbell said. “Racing is not quick to embrace new procedures but I thought of this and it made sense and I went ahead and did it. Somebody would have done it eventually. ... I am proud of it. I just sort of stumbled into it but I had sense enough to know I’d stumbled into something good. I was able to fan the flames and make it work. It’s created a niche and an important slot up here in this Walk of Fame. So good for me.”

The success of his system has brought Campbell plenty of accolades through the years, including Eclipse Awards for the top steeplechaser (1987, Inlander), 2-year-old filly (1996, Storm Song) and an Order of Merit for himself (2012). Dogwood Stable’s colors have also been carried by 1990 Preakness Stakes winner Summer Squall and 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice.

“It has provided us with an exciting, unconventional and bizarre sort of life,” Campbell said. “I’m a resilient, optimistic person and it has treated me well and I have thrived on it. While there’ve been a lot of lows, there’s been some highs and I’m of a temperament where I’ve been able to live with that. I’ve had a wonderful life and racing’s been fabulous and taken us all over the world and put us with some interesting people. We’ve won some of the biggest races in the world and had some of the greatest horses of the last 30 years.”

Even though Dogwood Stables merged with Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners in 2013, Campbell still personally owns four horses now in what he calls his “semi-retirement.” Two of those horses have already fared well at Saratoga this season. Money Changer won a race on July 23 and finished second on Sunday while a filly named Aikenetta, from Aikenite, finished second by a nose on July 27.

Campbell is content with his place in the racing community as he approaches his 89th birthday in September.

“I don’t think of accomplishing anything other than to enjoy the sport and keep my hand in it,” he said. “I’m going to buy some horses every year, I’m going to go to the races, I’m going to live the good life in Aiken and hope to come up with another good horse. I’ve got enough residuals to keep me busy and I would be unhappy if I were not busy.”

Michaux: Three Jaguar golfers gear up for U.S. Amateur

Sat, 08/13/2016 - 4:57pm

It’s been a nice year of golf already for Augusta University, with former players Vaughn Taylor winning at Pebble Beach and Patrick Reed competing at the Rio Olympics.

Now three Jaguars from the 2016 team will be among 312 competing in this week’s U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills.

Freshly minted graduate Robin Petersson, rising senior Jake Marriott and junior Broc Everett will tee it up Monday and Tuesday with hopes of being among the 64 players to advance the match play after 36 holes. They planned to spend the weekend practicing together on both the North and South courses in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

“It will make it a comforting experience, I think,” said Marriott of having teammates present at his first U.S. Amateur.

“It’s be great to have them both here in the practice rounds,” said Everett, who qualified for last year’s U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields. “In a tournament with so many good players it’s good to have people where you know how your games stack up and you can help each other get ready for the course.”

It certainly says something about the Augusta golf program as it tries to get back among the collegiate elite after winning consecutive NCAA titles in 2010-11. The Jaguars haven’t made it past the NCAA Regionals since and missed out on a return to the championship in May by two strokes.

“It’s big,” said Petersson, a Swede who played for the winning European team in this summer’s Palmer Cup. “I was in Sweden when I found out they both qualified for it. It’s great for the program and great for the school. It shows that hard work will get you to the top. We’re a small school with limited resources, but we put a lot of effort into it.”

They’ll be cheered on in Michigan by their Jaguars coach, Jack O’Keefe, who will return to the scene of one of his most memorable competitive moments. In the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, O’Keefe made the cut and was paired on Saturday with world No. 1 Tom Lehman. While Lehman shot 65 to vault into the lead and eventually finish runner-up to Steve Jones, O’Keefe shot a pair of 76s on the weekend to finish tied for 90th.

Petersson had never tried qualifying for the U.S. Amateur before, always going home to Sweden during the summer and playing abroad. But the Jaguars’ top golfer last season is getting ready to embark on a professional career and has been enjoying a summer of elite amateur tests including the Palmer Cup, British Amateur, European Amateur team championship, Western Amateur and the upcoming Eisenhower Trophy World Amateur team championship in September.

“I had a great year
last year in school which made it possible for me
this year to play in the best tournaments in the world,” Petersson said. “Had I turned professional straight out of school I wouldn’t have had anywhere to play. Might have gotten an exemption into a couple of events. I’ve had a great schedule this summer as an amateur, which I don’t think I would have had as a professional. It’s been great preparation for Q school.”

Petersson plans to enter the qualifying school for the European Tour this fall as an amateur, leaving his options open if he doesn’t make it through all three stages to earn his card.

“I think it’s good to start over in Europe,” he said. “It is competitive but not as competitive as over here in the states.”

Everett made it back to the U.S. Amateur by qualifying at Hillcrest Golf Club in Minnesota. He believes his experience last year at Olympia Fields will help him this time around.

“I pretty excited to get back out there and give it another crack,” Everett said. “The first time I went there I was kind of starry-eyed and didn’t really know what I was getting myself into especially with how tough the courses were. It’s good to know I have a whole year of college under my belt playing against guys who are going to be in this tournament an I can kind of have a better understanding of what I need to do against these kind of people on this kind of course.”

Marriott reached Oakland Hills by being the medalist in his qualifier at Old Hickory Golf Club in Missouri.

“I’m obviously really excited about the opportunity,” Marriott said. “It’s the highest level of amateur golf and probably the biggest amateur tournament in the world.”

Marriott and Everett drove to Oakland Hills together on Thursday after missing the cut in the Canadian Amateur in Ottawa, Ontario. Petersson spent the week in Augusta honing his game after missing the cut in the Western Am.

They all have the same goal at Oakland Hills – compete for medalist in two rounds of stroke play and get into the match play.

“In match play anything can happen so it comes down to getting hot when you need to and not catching the wrong guy when he’s on fire,” Marriott said.

“I’m heading up there with the mindset of playing two great rounds of golf and then anything can happen,” Petersson said.

“If you get to match play you have the same chance of winning the tournament as the guy who is the No. 1 seed,” Everett said.

Whatever happens, the trio believes that having three Jaguars in the U.S. Amateur field – two of them returning in the fall after being the Jags’ top finishers in the NCAA Stillwater regional – bodes well for the Augusta program.

“I think there’s no better preparation for the college season than finishing the summer at the U.S. Amateur playing against the best competition,” said Marriott.

“Getting two guys coming back who played in the U.S. Am will be huge for us,” Everett said. “It kind of just sets that precedent and can be a snowball effect for the whole team to have a couple guys playing in this. And if we play good it could be good for our whole team next year.”

Michaux: Bronze medal 'personal' for Olympian with Aiken ties

Wed, 08/10/2016 - 2:07pm

Phillip Dutton has been selected to ride in every Olympics and World Equestrian Games since 1994, so he’s known his share of success including two team gold medals with Australia in the Atlanta and Sydney Games.

Dutton, however, called Tuesday’s bronze medal for three-day eventing as an American in Rio “personal,” and not just because it was his first individual medal in six Olympics.

“Every Olympics has something about it that is unique, but this is more of an emotional time for me,” Dutton said. “It’s great for American equestrian but it’s also a very personal achievement as well.”

Personal doesn’t mean in a selfish way. Dutton dearly wished he could have celebrated Tuesday’s podium honors with another person – Bruce Duchossois, the Aiken Horse Park benefactor and the owner of Mighty Nice, the 12-year-old gelding Dutton rode in Rio.

Dutton first befriended Duchossois 20 years ago when the Australian eventing team trained at Bruce’s farm in Aiken before Dutton’s debut at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Duchossois, who died in 2014, imported the horse Dutton calls “Happy” in 2010 from Ireland. It was the first of the late owner’s horses to win an Olympic medal.

“It’s pretty hard to believe and great to do it with a pretty special horse that was owned by Bruce,” Dutton said of his third place in Rio. “A lot of emotion involved with everything that’s happened. I feel so proud of the horse to have done this. We wish Bruce could have been here to see Happy win a bronze medal at the Olympics, but we know he is watching over him.”

It was certainly a mighty nice turn of events over three days in Vila Militar outside Rio during a competition that Dutton said was “probably one of the toughest Olympic three-day events ever.”

It started with Mighty Nice posting a personal best 43.6 in dressage to start out in 15th place.

Dutton and fellow Australian-turned-American teammate and friend, Boyd Martin, both made nearly flawless runs over the gruelling cross country course to climb into fifth and sixth place, respectively, heading into the show jumping phase.

Martin, who also trains in Aiken during the winter, entered the final individual jumping run in seventh and needed a clear run on Blackfoot Mystery to have any chance of sneaking onto the medal stand, but his 12 penalty points dropped him to 16th.

Dutton, however, guided Mighty Nice through two jumping runs on Tuesday with only a one-point time penalty in the morning and a four-point fault in the afternoon to rally for the bronze. Mighty Nice only knocked down one rail on the last of the three-jump sequence to take the “clubhouse” lead at 51.80 with the three leaders remaining. Christopher Burton of Australia, however, knocked down a block and a rail on the last two jumps for eight penalty points to fall to fifth and guarantee Dutton the bronze behind repeat gold medalist Michael Jung of Germany and Astier Nicholas of France.

“Obviously got a bit quick through the triple and had the one down, so that was a bit disappointing,” Dutton said. “I was kind of happy with fourth and now I’m quite ecstatic with third.”

While Dutton, who trains every winter at Red Oak Farm in Aiken, is a regular on the international stage, he deflects all credit to the horse Duchossois brought over from Ireland.

“The horse showed his guts and just worked his way up after the cross country and show jumping,” Dutton said. “It was a huge effort on his behalf and all credit to him. Fortunately for everybody it turned out and especially for everybody who’s believed in Happy because he is a special horse. He’s had a few injuries here and there and hadn’t been able to get to this international stage in a really good place. So pleased for the horse.

“I’ve had better gallopers in my time but I don’t think I’ve had a better horse with a bigger heart. He just keeps trying even if he’s beat up or tired. He’s really maturing as a horse and really loves the sport.”

The only disappointment from Dutton’s third Olympics as a member of the American team is that they got eliminated from competing for a team eventing medal after Clark Montgomery retired and Lauren Keiffer fell in the cross country.

“A lot of people in America worked hard, not just the riders, so it’s pretty gutting,” Dutton said. “Lauren had a pretty unlucky fall while having a great round with not much left to do in cross country. That would have put us in a team medal as well. That’s sport and that’s the way it goes. Hopefully we can retool and do better next time.”

Dutton and Mighty Nice will return home from Rio this week, though he doesn’t know when they’ll get back down to Aiken to celebrate with everyone who has supported them along the way.

Despite being the oldest member of Team USA at age 52, Dutton doesn’t rule out a seventh Olympics when it goes to Tokyo in 2020.

“I’ve got no plans to retire,” he said. “I’ve got a good string of horses and I’m trying to stay in shape. We’re fortunate in this sport that age is not a limiting factor. You just have to have good horses and stay current with the sport. I’m doing that. Four years is a long way away but I’ve got no plans to retire yet.”

Michaux: Wesley Bryan's wild ride leads to spot on PGA Tour

Mon, 08/08/2016 - 5:36pm

Wesley Bryan didn’t do anything trendy on Sunday like shoot 58. He didn’t even win a car with an ace like his playing partner, Grayson Murray.

All Bryan did was win. Again. For the third time this season on the Tour.

Bryan’s playoff victory in the Digital Ally Open on Sunday earned the Augusta resident an instant battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour. To celebrate, Monday morning he was driving five hours from Kansas City to Silvis, Ill., to compete in this week’s John Deere Classic.

It’s been a crazy ride for the 26-year-old former Gamecock golfer who this time last year was making a modest living playing minor tours and making trick-shot videos with his older brother, George.

“It doesn’t really make sense looking back at it,” Bryan said during his commute across the midwest Monday morning. “Nine months ago I’m just a struggling mini-tour player trying to go through Q School and doing trick shots with my brother traveling around and now I’m a three-time winner on the Tour heading to the PGA Tour. It’s crazy to see how faithful God has been over the past year and really excited to see where we’re going to be in the future.”

Bryan is the 11th golfer to earn the instant promotion to the big leagues since the three-win policy was implemented in 1997. His story may be one of the more implausible among them. Not that Bryan didn’t possess the talent to make it, it’s just that he hadn’t yet shown the inclination to take his gifts to the next level.

“If you had flashed back nine months ago and told me I was going to be in this position, there is no chance I was going to believe you,” he said. “Coming into this year that was not even in the realm of what I thought could be accomplished. I set my goals high. I thought gunning for a top 25 spot on the money list was a pretty lofty goal. With where I’m sitting right now, I guess it’s time to reassess and get a little bit of a head start on the PGA Tour.”

The trick-shot business was fruitful enough to help with his wife in graduate school to become a physician’s assistant at Augusta University. But the travel involved limited the time and attention he could devote to playing the mini tours, where he admits his golf was “mediocre.” This was not the standard route to the top tours.

“Well, for one, you’ve got to be really broke and really bored, and then you’ll start trying to figure out anything to make a dollar,” he said of how the Bryan Bros went into the trick-shot business. “We stumbled across that and found that there was a little bit of a demand for it, people wanting content. And so we just kind of ran with it, and turned it into a pretty good business on the side. But I mean, ultimately growing up as a 10-year-old, I didn’t dream of being a trick-shot artist on YouTube. I wanted to be a PGA Tour player, and so that’s kind of when I put my head down and went to work. And I really put my head down last summer and said, ‘Dude, I’m gonna make it this year. I’m done with all this dilly-dallying around.’”

Bryan got his Tour card in Q school in December and nine months later he’s earned $503,321 in 15 career starts (including $53,000 in two PGA Tour events) with three wins, one runner-up, three more top-10 finishes and only one missed cut back in February in Colombia.

His newfound killer instinct was in full display Sunday, where he watched Murray make an ace and a couple of birdies to vault three shots in front of him with eight holes to play. Bryan responded with four birdies in five holes to get into a three-man playoff with Murray and JT Poston.

“I didn’t let anything rattle me, I stayed patient and stuck to my game plan,” he said. “I didn’t start pressing and hitting drivers off the tees. Even when I found myself three shots down it’s easy to get a little more aggressive and start firing at flags, but I was able to stick to my game plan and luckily came out on top and made a few birdies coming in.”

Bryan rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to stay alive then stuck a 6-iron from 193 yards to just a few feet from the pin on the par-3 17th to set up his winning birdie. He called it “the best shot I hit all week.”

“I had a little more experience to draw on than the other two guys in that group,” he said. “I knew I could perform in high-pressure situations.”

Now the stakes are raised. He’ll only get two at-bats on the PGA Tour to try to earn a victory or two really high finishes that could get him into the FedEx Cup playoffs. He can draw inspiration from Jason Gore, who went on a Nationwide Tour tear in 2005 winning three consecutive starts to get promoted Aug. 7 as well and then won again the next month in his fourth start as a Tour member.

“Odds have been stacked against me all year, really, if you look at where I came from,” said Bryan, who will retain Augusta’s William Lanier as his caddie after they paired up for the first time last week. “It’ll be a fun challenge. It’s still the same game. The only thing that’s going to change is the names of the tournaments and names on the leaderboard. If I can keep playing the way I am right now, then hopefully I’ll have a chance on the back nine Sunday to win another golf tournament.”

Bryan believes he’s prepared for what comes next, and he’ll play a couple of Finals events if he has to secure his $172,000 money-list lead over No. 2 Ollie Schniederjans and keep his game fresh for the new season that will start Oct. 13 in California.

“I’m excited just to get out there and now these last two events I have something to play for whereas I’ll be a member of the tour and eligible to essentially make the FedEx Cup playoffs if I have a good week or two,” he said. “Before I was just playing for experience and trying to learn a couple of golf courses. Now I actually have something to play for, which makes it a little more fun.”

Michaux: College football questions have no wrong answers in August

Sat, 08/06/2016 - 6:50pm

Preseason football camps have started everywhere from high schools to colleges to pros and the only thing to talk about for the rest of the month are questions. The beauty of the exercise is there are no wrong answers in August.

That is a particularly fun passion sport around here with the collegiate crowd that can be less than collegial about their favorite teams. But right now, everyone can dream of all the perfect answers.

Can Clemson live up to its loftiest preseason ranking in school history and make it back to the national championship game? Sure, why not?

Can Kirby Smart do what Mark Richt didn’t do enough of and satisfy the Georgia faithful with a title in the Southeastern Conference? Sure, why not?

Will Will Muschamp be able to reverse the deteriorating trend in talent and results at South Carolina? Sure, why not?

Is Georgia Tech better than the 3-9 ramblin’ wreckage of last year and ready to reclaim the reins in the Atlantic Coast Coastal? Sure, why not?

It’s never that simple. So many factors over the course of the next four months go into determining the narrative of a football season. Who would have thought the Bulldogs would win 10 games and fire its head coach? Who foresaw Steve Spurrier quitting halfway through the Gamecocks’ season? Who believed Paul Johnson’s team, fresh off an Orange Bowl triumph, would come within one miracle blocked kick return of losing 10 consecutive games?

So while everyone still has a clean slate, what are the biggest questions facing our Power 5 programs?

CLEMSON: After a season so close to perfection, the hardest thing to do is back it up when everybody is expecting you to.

The Tigers have already been picked No. 2 in the preseason coaches’ poll, pretty much right where they left off last year after a gut-wrenching loss to Alabama. No sweat.

“We expect to win,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “It doesn’t matter what other people think.”

Is it fair to pin such high expectations on a team that once again has to retool a defense decimated by high-end attrition?

Well, they did it last year. And with Carlos Watkins, Ben Boulware and Cordrea Tankersley back to provide experience at each level, it’s hard to doubt that the Tigers can’t fill in the gaps well enough to keep the opposition below 35 points per game that its offense should be able to comfortably overcome.

If quarterback Deshaun Watson stays healthy again, there is no question that Clemson will have as good an offense as anyone in the country.

The Tigers’ biggest tests are staggered on the road at Auburn, Georgia Tech (where they haven’t won since 2003) and Florida State.

Confidence in answering all the questions favorably: high.

GEORGIA TECH: Johnson has said repeatedly that he’s “never had a season” where everything went as wrong as it did for the Yellow Jackets last year.

Its offense lost so many players to injury that quarterback Justin Thomas felt like he had to do everything himself at less than 100 percent healthy – and that didn’t work out well at all. The Jackets couldn’t convert third downs and could avoid the tragic turnovers and the whole thing spun out of control.

Can Thomas block last year out and resume being the standout field general he was in 2014? Can all the weapons stay healthy enough to make the triple option the vexing puzzle it typically is?

The ACC experts don’t seem to think so. The Jackets were picked to finish sixth in the Coastal Division, which presents exactly the kind of chip on their shoulder that Johnson craves. Georgia Tech’s chances of winning the division are higher than of finishing ahead of only Virginia.

Confidence in a major rebound on The Flats: high.

GEORGIA: The questions surrounding the Bulldogs are seemingly boundless.

Who will settle in as the starting quarterback? Will Nick Chubb and Sony Michel be healthy enough to be as effective as they were in the past? Will the defensive line be big enough and strong enough to make Smart’s as effective as it was at Alabama?

Georgia’s path to answering all of these questions in Smart’s first season will be the most fascinating part of the 2016 season. And how quickly they all get answered will be crucial.

The early road for the Bulldogs is fraught with perils. There is the first date with ACC runner-up North Carolina at the Georgia Dome. There are road trips to Missouri and Ole Miss. There is a home trial against SEC East favorite Tennessee.

In other words, there is a very real possibility that the Bulldogs could take a losing record to Williams-Brice Stadium on Oct. 10 for their sixth game. That’s not the kind of opening statement Smart wants to make.

Confidence that Georgia will get all the right pieces into place in time to launch a conference title run: medium.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Steve Spurrier might be the best coach to ever pass through Columbia, but he didn’t exactly leave the program stocked when he slinked away in the middle of a disastrous 3-9 season.

Muschamp had to steady a ship that was sinking in the midst of the recruiting season and plug the holes while boosting the moral. He inherited a program that was in a very similar place to where Florida was when he left it the year before.

Has Muschamp learned from his experience with the Gators? Does he have the talent to restore order on defense? Who will play QB and does he have enough weapons around him to reanimate the offense?

Experts don’t exactly believe in the Gamecocks, who were picked to finish last in the East by the media. That stings.

That said, the Gamecocks have an opportunity to completely flip the script with a trio of SEC road games in September that all could be winnable – Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky. Sweep that not-exactly-murderer’s row and the mood could change completely for a five-game home stretch as the competition gets tougher. Lose a couple and it could get dark fast.

Confidence in the Gamecocks improving to potentially bowl eligible: medium high.

Until there are definitive results, none of the above answers are wrong.

Michaux: Rio will be remembered for athletic feats, not controversies

Thu, 08/04/2016 - 10:17pm

Our long international nightmare is over. We will no longer have to hear about the disastrous buildup to the Rio Olympic Games because it will all be absolved by the Games itself.

Not that tonight’s opening ceremonies – presumably equipped with all the color and pageantry you’d expect from the nation that revels in Carnival – will erase all of the problems that the host city and Brazil are suffering. The polluted waters of Guanabara Bay can’t wash away the multitude of sins that have come to characterize these Games.

But now it’s only the games that matter, and it’s always been that way. The legacy of Rio will be the achievements of the athletes and not the quality of the host venue.

It’s always been that way. The lifetime bank of memories about the Olympics has always been the imagines of the competition more than the politics that surround the global event. Even going back to Munich in 1972, which was dominated by the horrifying massacre of Israeli athletes, it’s the seven swimming golds by Mark Spitz and farcical conclusion of the gold-medal basketball game between the U.S. and Soviet Union that still persists beyond Jim McKay’s heartbreaking report that “They’re all gone.”

The Montreal Games in 1976 proved to be an economic catastrophe for the Canadian city, but we remember most that 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci stole our hearts and defined perfection while Bruce Jenner became the “world’s greatest athlete” and draped himself in the American flag and a Wheaties box.

Sure, 1980 in Moscow was an Olympics black hole with the boycott by America and 64 other nations, but the movement bounced back in 1984 in Los Angeles even if the Soviets didn’t show up out of spite. Nothing could diminish the spectacle of Carl Lewis matching Jesse Owens with four gold medals, a barefooted Zola Budd colliding with a despondent Mary Decker-Slaney or the ebullient Mary Lou Retton winning the all-around gymnastics title.

In 1988 in Seoul, Janet Evans made us swoon, Greg Louganis made us gasp, Florence Griffith Joyner made us cheer and Ben Johnson made us mad. Barcelona in 1992 had us marveling at the once-in-a-lifetime dominance of the Dream Team while a British track star named Derek Redmond had us in tears as his father leapt out of the stands to help carry him to the finish line after tearing a hamstring.

The Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996 rattled the world, but it couldn’t extinguish Muhammad Ali lighting the flame. Michael Johnson electrifying the night with his sprints or Kerri Strug landing the first U.S. gymnastics team gold on one foot.

The Sydney Games in 2000 were inspired by home-grown superstars Ian “Thorpedo” and Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal sprinter who carried the national flag and won gold. Who can forget the “Miracle on Mat” when American wrestler Rulon Gardner stunned the world by beating the unbeatable Russian legend Alexander Karelin? Or Equitorial Guinea swimmer Eric Moussambani, who had never seen an Olympic size pool, “competing” without shame in the 100-meter free?

When the Games returned to Athens, Greece, in 2004, Lakeside’s Reese Hoffa and his fellow shot putters competed in the ancient Olympia stadium where the original games were held. American NBA players failed, but Misty May and Kerri Walsh made beach volleyball a must-watch event with their first of three consecutive Olympic golds.

Beijing in 2008 featured some of the most remarkable human achievements in history. Michael Phelps won an unfathomable eight golds in the pool.

On the track, Usain Bolt became the fastest human ever winning 100 meters in 9.69 seconds – winning like Secretariat at the Belmont with such ease he let up before the tape. He later broke the 200-meter world record in a headwind.

The last Olympics in London gave us Gabby Douglas and a new team of gold-medal U.S. gymnasts, featured Andy Murray beating Roger Federer in a Wimbledon final rematch and presented Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt and Katie Ledecky as the latest American swim darlings.

Add in a host of Winter Olympics triumphs and failures – the Miracle on Ice team, Dan Jansen, Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tanya Harding, Apolo Ohno, Bonnie Blair, Eric Heiden, Alberto Tomba, Matti Nykanen, Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsled team, Picabo Street, Lindsey Vonn, the Mahre brothers, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, Brian Boitano, Torvill and Dean, Bode Miller, Shaun White – and it’s the “taking part” that has sustain.

The lasting memories from Rio shouldn’t be Zika or diseased waters or Russian doping scandals or political corruption and malfeasance. It will be whether Phelps can add to his 18 golds, Justin Gatlin can stop Bolt’s attempt at the triple-triple, Mike Krzyzewski can lead his U.S. stars to a third consecutive gold, the U.S. women can maintain dominance in the most soccer-manic nation on earth or golf and rugby can make cases for a future place in these quadrennial events.

For all its faults, Rio’s telegenic beauty from Sugarloaf Mountain to Copacabana Beach to Christ the Redeemer will provide the backdrop for something truly unforgettable.

Let the Games mercifully begin.

Michaux: All the major golf winners this year showed their resolve

Tue, 08/02/2016 - 9:35pm

Was there any doubt that 37-year-old Jimmy Walker would cap a flawless final round with a confident 3-footer to win his first major title after a long career of chasing? Had the first three majors of the year not proven anything on the trend?

It’s not that four new faces joined the major champions fraternity this year that makes 2016 so distinctive. It’s that four first-time winners did it with such impressive resolve.

Jimmy Walker went wire-to-wire at Baltusrol, playing his last 28 holes without a bogey to hold off a late charge by world No. 1 Jason Day at the PGA Championship.

This on the heels of Henrik Stenson firing 63 to outplay Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson at the peak of his game in the British Open.

And that followed Dustin Johnson defying official efforts to enhance his long-suffering major reputation for bizarre demises with focused precision down the stretch of the U.S. Open.

It all started with Danny Willett inheriting a lead from Jordan Spieth in the critical stage of the Masters and never flinching once the pressure was on him.

None of these players are fluky champions. All of them have earned top-10 status in their careers and each currently reside in the top 15.

They will always be remembered for their major breakthroughs, but it is how they each handled themselves when it counted that history should never forget.

The highs and lows to cap off another major season:

BIRDIE: Jimmy Walker’s caddie. Andy Sanders had the better golf pedigree before multiple sclerosis derailed his career. He hooked up with a rookie Walker in 2008 and helped carry his old friend to glory.

BIRDIE: Jason Day. Beware any time the world No. 1 spends any part of a week in the hospital for some malady. Despite little practice, he posted his fourth career runner-up in a major and added some drama with his eagle finish to apply a little pressure to Walker. Noble defense.

BOGEY: Chalk. This was supposed to be the year of the Big Three, but the best the group could produce was bookend runner-ups as all four majors were won by first-timers for the first time since 2011. Tiger Woods’ legacy of dominance is still intact.

BIRDIE: Sportsmanship. Not only did Day head out to the green with his son, Dash, to congratulate Walker, but Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth both stuck around to give the final contenders a hug when they came off. Class.

BOGEY: Dustin Johnson. After top-10s in the first three majors (including his epic Oakmont victory), he came into Baltusrol a big favorite and left early having beaten only three guys who aren’t club professionals.

BIRDIE: Daniel Summerhays. Not sure I could pick him out of a tour lineup, but we have months to figure out who the 32-year-old from Utah is before he plays in his first Masters thanks to his solo third.

BOGEY: U.S. Olympians. The four guys playing on the U.S. “team” in Rio – Bubba Watson, Fowler, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar – are not ranked among the top eight who will automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup. Good thing for them the deadline was extended.

BIRDIE: Brooks Koepka. Despite a numb ankle from a recent sprain that kept him out of the British and WGC, Koepka played 36 on Sunday and finished fourth – getting him back to the Masters as well as jumping him to fifth on the points list to make his first Ryder Cup team. Huge week for a guy with seven top-20 finishes in his last 10 major starts.

BOGEY: Rory McIlroy. His second final-hole trainwreck to miss a major cut this year might have been his worst. He chopped it around the 18th green like a 20-handicapper to cost himself the weekend. His putting remains a shambles and too often squanders his immense talent.

BIRDIE: Butch Harmon. The famous swing coach didn’t know who Walker was before he started working with him. Now he can break out the Chateau Margaux that Walker gave him after their first lesson, which Harmon pledged to never open until Walker won a major. Harmon, who also coaches Johnson, matched Pete Cowen (Willett, Stenson) with two majors this season.

BIRDIE: Kevin Kisner. One of only 14 players to make the cut in all four majors this year, the Aiken/UGA rep had his best showing with a T18 sparked by a third-round 65 that left him the overnight clubhouse leader in the rain-delayed weekend. Three former Bulldogs made every major cut (Watson and Harris English).

BIRDIE: Vaughn Taylor. It’s been a rough run since winning at Pebble Beach, but T33 shows the Hephzibah/Augusta State/Evans golfer is trending upward as season tapers off.

DQ: Babba-booey! I share Graeme McDowell’s blunt distaste for the childish exclamation that polluted the audio of the PGA. Any idiot who shouts this, “mashed potatoes” or “get in the hole” should be promptly escorted for being the least cool thing at any golf course (which is saying something).

BIRDIE: Emiliano Grillo. The young Argentine who we were introduced to as a junior at Sage Valley made his first full run through the majors without missing a cut while adding a T13 to his T17 at the Masters and T12 at British. He’s my gold-medal favorite.

BIRDIE: Stenson. The gas might have finally run out during a long Sunday finish, but his three straight 67s fresh on the heels of his crazy British Open triumph keeps him on the player-of-the-year short list.

BOGEY: PGA of America. Whether it’s Kerry Haigh or some other ranking official who makes the call on how to deal with threatening weather, the PGA makes a habit of playing Russian roulette with the forecast. Like the rushed finish in the dark at Valhalla, finishing on Sunday didn’t need to come down to luck (and unsequenced pairings) if they’d completed third round Saturday by pushing tee times earlier and off both sides. We can blame TV for this. Serves CBS right that it had to show a 2015 replay of Whistling Straits on Saturday.

BIRDIE: Glass ceiling. Or should we call it the soggy bottom. The band-aid has finally been ripped off the lift-clean-and-cheat moratorium in majors. It was a necessary evil Sunday that now has precedent.

Michaux: Spurrier's exit from South Carolina is well-timed

Sat, 07/30/2016 - 6:27pm

It seems like only yesterday that the face of Gamecocks football loomed 11 stories over Williams-Brice Stadium.

Until December, an 80-foot tall banner of Steve Spurrier dominated the stadium facade facing Bluff Road. There’s been talk of naming the field inside after the head ball coach who ranks as the winningest coach in South Carolina history.

Spurrier resigned in the middle of a disastrous 2015 season and the banner came down before the Gamecocks hired Will Muschamp to replace a legend. Now just as the first camp in 12 seasons without Spurrier at the helm gets ready to open, the HBC has fully removed himself from the South Carolina program.

This week, Spurrier resigned his $100,000 post as an ambassador for South Carolina and accepted a similar position at his alma mater, Florida. In June, the Gators already named the Florida Field in “The Swamp” after the man who won a Heisman Trophy as player and later led the program to national championship prominence.

For all of his more recent successes in Columbia, you can’t compete with home. Spurrier’s wife of 50 years, Jerri, called it “the right thing to do and you know it.”

“It’s really special to have a team,” Spurrier said in a release by Florida. “I am certainly looking forward to being on the big Gator team now and contributing any way I can. I think we all need a team to be on.”

Frankly, Spurrier hasn’t been fully engaged on his team at South Carolina for a couple of years. Since an unprecedented run of three consecutive 11-win seasons after the lone Southeastern Conference East title in 2010, Spurrier’s efforts took a precipitous decline. Rivals targeted Spurrier’s age in recruiting battles, which seemed to coincide with lower caliber classes coming in. Spurrier lashed out against “enemies” before the start of what turned out to be his final half season at the helm.

But it seems there was more than age and his uncertain future at play in South Carolina’s recruiting decline. That certainly came to light in some disturbing comments from an Ohio State star linebacker this week.

Raekwon McMillan, a former five-star recruit from Savannah, wGa., on the Butkus Award as the nation’s best high school linebacker in 2013. On his official visit to South Carolina, Spurrier and other members of his staff didn’t know who McMillan was and ignored him.

“I just got an offer from Alabama and was the No. 1 linebacker in the nation,” McMillan told reporters at the Big Ten’s media days this week. “So I go visit South Carolina. I walk up to Coach Spurrier and say, ‘What’s up coach? How you doing?’ He said, ‘What’s your name again?’ I was like, whoa, he doesn’t even know my name. He said, ‘Are you that kid from Texas’ and I said no, so he just walked away. Didn’t even ask me my name or anything like that. After he walked away I went to another coach, same thing happened. They didn’t even know I was on campus, so I just left. ... I was supposed to stay with Jadeveon Clowney, but I ended up not staying at all.”

Sounds like Spurrier might have checked out sooner than when he walked away from a 2-4 team last fall.

For all the great things he accomplished putting South Carolina football on the map as a legitimate SEC contender, Spurrier didn’t leave much for his successor. Several seasons of recruiting misfires leave a hole that takes time to refill. Muschamp has his work cut out for him rebuilding the talent pipeline in a state where rival Clemson looms as one of the nation’s premiere programs.

The last thing Muschamp needed was a living legend looming in the background as a constant reminder of the brief glory days of Gamecocks football. The new coach has youth, energy and focus on his side. Granted a little patience, he has the potential to be the long-term fix that South Carolina has long been looking for. One day, it might be Muschamp’s name that Gamecocks fans want to attach to their field instead of a man who will always be more associated with an SEC East rival.

Spurrier says he will remain a Gamecocks fan from afar, rooting for his second school in all but one game every season. His youngest son, Scott, remains with the Gamecocks as one of Muschamp’s analysts. His name is on the school’s new indoor practice facility that he helped build. His legacy is secure.

South Carolina, however, didn’t need an ambassador whose true heart would always be at Florida. The Gamecocks need to be all in behind Muschamp – the new face of South Carolina football now.

Spurrier will always be fondly remembered for the life he breathed into the Gamecocks. But the future is more important than the past and the coaches in charge of that future are better off not having the architect of old glories hanging over them.

As tough as it may be to admit, a clean break from the Spurrier era is ultimately in South Carolina’s best interests.


Michaux: Falcons' Quinn, Dimitroff must deliver this season

Thu, 07/28/2016 - 9:13pm

It happened in Amen Corner.

Walking down to the bottom of the 11th hole during the first round of the Masters with veteran Atlanta sportswriter Steve Hummer, two men I’d never met before walked straight up to us and greeted Hummer like old friends. It took a second to register who it was reaching his hand out before he introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Dan Quinn,” said the Atlanta Falcons head football coach.

There is something about seeing someone out of their usual context that actually expands that context. Quinn and his general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, were just two guys out watching the Masters. Dimitroff was pleasant enough but relatively quiet, while Quinn was as animated as you would expect anyone making his first trip to Augusta National. He was surprisingly normal – like a kid on a sugar rush, soaking in a scene that had him hooked.

He talked at his typical breakneck pace for a few minutes about everything he’d seen and how he couldn’t believe he’d never been here before and how eager he was to keep coming back.

In maybe five minutes of conversation before going our separate ways, the subject of the Falcons never came up. You can bet that’s not the case most of the time Quinn and Dimitroff hang out. It was no accident that the two of them were together even on an off-day buddy trip to watch some golf.

“We spent a lot of time together the last year and a half,” Quinn said as the two men faced the media before launching Thursday’s opening of training camp.

That time together has raised the level of expectation in year two of Quinn’s tenure. His systems were installed last year to mixed results in a regular season that fizzled after a 6-1 start. With another draft and another year of free agency under their belts, Dimitroff has hopefully put together a roster that “reflects the competitiveness and drive” of his intense head coach.

“The central theme of the program is competition,” Quinn said. “Guys are going to have to earn their spots. That’s how I like it.”

Quinn lauded his team for what he called a “player-led accountability” to one another that they’ve dubbed the “Falcons standard.” Creating that involved rearranging the locker room to break up the traditional position cliques and conducting a Navy SEAL-type training seminar to build bonds.

That peer accountability pushed them through off-season workouts that had them hitting on all cylinders on the first day of preseason practice. The only player held out on the first day was franchise receiver Julio Jones with a minor “tweak” that Quinn brushed off as inconsequential. Nobody takes chances in July that might hinder Julio.

The one word Quinn used to describe his second-year team was “relentless.” That is certainly what Atlanta needs after relenting too often in late-game situations last year. They frequently lost the turnover battle, particularly with miscues from veteran quarterback Matt Ryan who should have been better at this stage regardless of any system changes under new coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Now Ryan will work behind a rebuilt offensive line and with a running corps that’s elevated from promising to proven and enough receiving weapons to have no excuses.

Defensively, Quinn has focused on adding speed to reach his primary goal of being the “best attacking team” in football. Considering the Falcons haven’t ranked higher than 30th in sacks in the three seasons since they last reached the playoffs in 2012, that would be a demonstrative step up.

Now this all needs to translate in an NFC South that has been won for three consecutive seasons by the rival Carolina Panthers. The Falcons went 1-5 in the division last year – that lone victory snapping Carolina’s run at a perfect season providing small consolation as the playoffs went on again without them.

That divisional futility has to change fast. Three of Atlanta’s first four games are against NFC South foes while the other three games among the opening six are all trips out west to Oakland, Denver and Seattle. Get through that stretch at better than .500 and the playoffs become a distinct possibility. Get run over and the collar gets tight.

Of all the lessons learned in last year’s debut as a head coach, Quinn understands most that nothing can be taken for granted.

“I think there are some pages you turn and pages I like to keep as a refresher,” he said as he moves into his sophomore campaign. “Some of those scars and some of those learning incidents I keep fresh on my desk.”

This is a big year – the Falcons’ last in the Georgia Dome before moving next door into their new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Team owner Arthur Blank is going to want some momentum for a showcase 2017 or somebody in power will be held accountable.

Meeting Quinn, you can’t help but root for it to work out for him. He is an excitable coach with an intensity and passion that is infectious. Now this is his team, built to his specs by his front-office sidekick. It’s time to see if their vision works or there probably will not be a third season of both Quinn and Dimitroff palling around together at the Masters.

Michaux: Golf season hasn't had a dominant storyline so far

Tue, 07/26/2016 - 8:35pm

As we pitch up to the premature conclusion of the 2016 major golf season, the narrative has been a little hard to define.

In the first completely Tiger-less season in more than two decades, there has been no new dominant figure to emerge. Not even a dominant coalition. Three first-time major winners have been added to the fraternity, two of them long overdue.

The Big Three has had its individual moments, but not where it counts (at least positively) in the majors. Dustin Johnson is starting to emerge as the superstar we’ve long expected he should be and could seize the No. 1 ranking this week. Phil Mickelson is hitting on statistical peaks at 46, yet he has no wins to show for it since 2013. Every current top-10 player in the world has won something somewhere in 2016 (including all the majors), but nobody has clinched player of the year. Rising stars that dominated the first part of the wrap-around season have largely given ground to established names and a few resurrected rank-and-file members.

This week’s early edition PGA Championship could go a long way to defining golf’s song of the summer, with the Olympics, season-ending playoffs and Ryder Cup still on deck to perhaps bring 2016 into clearer focus before all is said and done. Here’s what’s at stake as “glory’s last shot” comes early:

THE BIG THREE: Jordan Spieth could have changed the whole tone of his follow-up slam campaign by hanging onto a five-shot lead at the last turn of the Masters Tournament. But he didn’t and he’s left to defend a season that hasn’t met lofty expectations. Jason Day is a solid No. 1 with a Tiger-esque stretch of 17 starts with seven victories, but he’s cooled off (relatively speaking) since winning the Players. Rory McIlroy seems increasingly frustrated with a constant flow of top-10 finishes just about everywhere he turns up, with some hiccup often keeping him from fulfilling his presumed destiny. And whatever brief talk of moving into a Big Four has ebbed along with Rickie Fowler’s descent. A win this week could transform good seasons into great.

DJ PLAYS THE HITS: Player of the year debate will shut down if Johnson adds the PGA to his U.S. Open and WGC-Bridgestone triumphs. The only player to post top 10s in every major this season so far, he’s fast becoming the biggest athletic force to be reckoned with in the game. If you’re picking favorites at Baltusrol, his consistency all year is hard to ignore.

PHIL STILL THE THRILL: Only two weeks removed from his heartbreaking showdown with Henrik Stenson in the British Open, Mickelson will return to the site where he won the 2005 PGA. Mickelson is having one of his greatest statistical seasons, but his results have been erratic as usual. He missed the cuts at the Masters, Players and U.S. Open before his 11th major runner-up at Royal Troon (his third runner-up finish in 2016). His star power hasn’t waned but his opportunities are dimming.

RYDER CUP STAKES: Unlike past years, automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team aren’t locked up after the PGA, but this week marks the last opportunity to earn double points before the Aug. 29 deadline. Every player in the current top eight has previous Ryder Cup experience. At No. 7, Bubba Watson might be considered on the bubble, with only two likely starts after the PGA before the deadline (though one of them is in Hartford where he’s the defending champion). Lurking outside the top eight are veterans Fowler, Patrick Reed, Bill Haas and Jason Dufner with fresh blood Brooks Koepka, Scott Piercy and Kevin Chappell hoping to move up and avoid relying on a pick by captain Davis Love III.

LOCAL SPOTLIGHT: Augusta State’s Reed and Aiken’s Kevin Kisner headline a small crop of players with Augusta-area ties in the field at Baltusrol. Reed – fresh off his best major finish (T12) at the British – could help his already strong Ryder Cup case by staying in the top 12 on the points list. He’s currently 11th. Kisner has started to snap out of his slump since leading the FedEx Cup points in January, with a T10 at Colonial and T16 at Firestone. He’s made the cut in every major this year, though his finishes aren’t much to boast about. Evans’ Vaughn Taylor has been in a funk since his shocking comeback victory in February, with no finishes inside the top 35 and only four sub-70 rounds since his closing 65 in the win at Pebble Beach. He did tie for 28th 11 years ago at Baltusrol. Charles Howell III remains sidelined recovering from recent surgery while Scott Brown – who played last week for the first time since withdrawing in Memphis with a back injury six weeks ago – did not qualify.

Michaux: Commissioner John Swofford's moves help ACC keep pace with collegiate powers

Sat, 07/23/2016 - 6:42pm

In the Game of Thrones that is conference alignment, John Swofford is “Littlefinger” whose ruthless and cunning ways have positioned the Atlantic Coast Conference among the collegiate titans.

“Chaos isn’t a pit; chaos is a ladder,” Petyr Baelish told fellow schemer Varys in season three of the popular HBO fantasy series adapted from George R.R. Martin’s books. “Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but refuse. They cling to the realm, or love, or the gods … illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is. But they’ll never know this. Not until it’s too late.”

Swofford recognized the opportunity in the chaotic collegiate landscape quicker than most conference commissioners.

For 13 years, Swofford has aggressively schemed to keep the ACC at the forefront of athletic relevance. He raided the Big East twice, leaving the peer a shattered ruin of its former glory. When Maryland defected, he brought in Louisville to more than offset the damage. He was willing to negotiate and compromise to lure the biggest independent free agent on the market, Notre Dame, into the fold.

Now with a dedicated ACC television network set to launch in 2019 and a digital component coming in August, Swofford has the ACC in close company with the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference behemoths. Meanwhile, the Big 12 is still chasing its tail by pursuing less desirable programs in a desperate effort to keep pace.

Considering how the game of musical thrones has played out, you have to give Swofford credit for locking up a permanent seat at the grown-up table.

“We’re very, very well-positioned for the future,” Swofford said this week when announcing the new media agreement with ESPN that extends the ACC’s ensured stability through 2035-36.

While Swofford has been the man pulling the strings, a huge amount of credit should go to Clemson. Dabo Swinney’s rebuilt football program, along with the renaissance of Florida State, has propelled the ACC’s elite into the top tier with the football heavyweights who have been driving this realignment ship all along. Without those two benchmark programs – along with Notre Dame’s limited football inclusion – there’s no way ESPN ponies up to launch the ACC Network in an era of cable cord-cutting. The ACC might be the last athletic entity to climb aboard the network revenue boat before it picks up oars.

The ACC Network will annually feature 450 live events, including 40 football games and more than 150 men’s and women’s basketball games. It’s digital “ACC Extra” offerings will include 600 live games this season and 900 events by the time the linear network launches in 2019.

Ultimately, the two combined options will mean 1,350 ACC events will be televised per year. That’s certainly good news for the baseball, tennis or lacrosse junkies.

But it’s also good for the folks who only care about the high-end revenue sports – football and basketball.

Swofford already announced that the conference basketball schedule will be expanded from 18 games to 20 when the network comes on line in 2019, creating a larger inventory of marketable matchups for ESPN to get its money’s worth. That will me two extra home-and-home series each year, meaning only eight conference foes instead of 10 will get faced only once per season.

You can rest assured that it won’t be long before the ACC decides to increase the number of regular season football conference games from eight to nine for the same reason. That may prove challenging for programs like Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Louisville who have traditional rivals in the SEC they play annually, but the money that comes from TV revenues will eventually force them to figure it out.

“I probably lean a little toward nine, simply because if you’re in this chair, you’d like to see your teams playing each other more rather than less,” Swofford told the Daily Press of Newport News, Va. “I think that’s how you build the brand. And it’s always been a fairly close vote, and you just never know when a school or two or three are going to change their minds.”

Swofford could retire tomorrow content that he’s done all he can. Logically, he has one more arrow in his quiver he’d like to unleash – bringing the Irish to full football membership and adding a Connecticut (in ESPN’s backyard) to balance the scales of a mega-conference at 16 teams. That’ll be Notre Dame’s call to make or not.

And while the ACC will never quite be up to par with the fanatical passion of the SEC or the core brand of the Big Ten, they have climbed the ladder to firmly become the next biggest rung.

Whatever winter is coming in collegiate sports, Lord Swofford has keenly positioned his realm to withstand anything for the long haul.

Michaux: Scott Parel welcomes challenge of Carnoustie

Wed, 07/20/2016 - 6:28pm

At first blush, introducing yourself to links golf on the most punitive course in the Open Championship rota doesn’t seem like the most prudent plan. You wouldn’t step into your first batter’s box against Nolan Ryan or climb your first mountain at Everest.

Scott Parel, however, isn’t the first novice to take his first swing at a links championship at the infamous Carnoustie, hailed by many as the “ultimate golfing challenge.” In fact, the precedent is pretty positive.

Ben Hogan made his one and only trip to the British Open in 1953, winning the claret jug at Carnoustie in his triple crown season.

Tom Watson made his first trip to Scotland in 1975, winning the first of his five Opens in a playoff at Carnoustie.

Parel waited 51 years to follow the well-worn path to the game’s ancestral home in Scotland, and he loves what he’s found.

“As soon as I got on that golf course I really liked it,” said Parel, who Monday qualified his way in this week’s Senior Open Championship at nearby Monifieth – the same course where Watson got his first taste of links golf before winning the claret jug next door. “It’s so much different than home. It’s where golf was invented, so it’s pretty cool.”

This was not a low-risk buddy trip to Scotland for Parel. The Augusta professional journeyman made the commitment to enter one of four 18-hole qualifiers on Monday. He flew over with his friend Keith Nolan, who caddies regularly for Lee Janzen, and finished fourth with an even-par 71 to grab one of the 10 spots available at Monifieth.

“Just to be able to play Carnoustie in a tournament setting, this would probably be my only chance to make that happen,” said Parel. “I’ve had a decent enough season to where I figured it was worth the expense even though I could get over here, play 18 holes and be done. But how many chances am I going to have to do that?”

Parel will be among 144 players teeing it up today at Carnoustie, going off in the next-to-last group late in the afternoon. Watson, 66, is one of seven former British Open champions in the marquee field that also includes the likes of Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Jean van de Velde.

“I try not to think about it,” Parel said of his notable peers this week. “Obviously I’m at a huge disadvantage against guys that have played in British Opens here. At the end of the day it’s still golf. And fortunately for me we’re all sort of the same age, but the advantages they have is experience.”

“Carnasty,” as it was dubbed during the 1999 British Open when van de Velde famously drowned his hopes in the Barry Burn on the 18th hole, is a relentless opponent. Stand on any tee box and the perils are everywhere, with the ubiquitous burn snaking around on one side, out of bounds lurking on another and penal pot bunkers peppering everywhere in between. It’s not a course for the faint of heart, with or without wind that’s forecasted to be relatively mild this week.

“There’s plenty of shots that get your attention right away,” Parel said. “All you can do is try to trust the line you pick and trust your golf swing. I don’t think you can have a do-or-die attitude on every shot because I think you’ll be so mentally worn out that by the end of the day you’ll be lucky to have any idea where it’s going. Hit your shot and accept where it goes and hopefully hit it in play enough where you can get around in decent shape. All 18 of these holes are good holes and they all demand something of you.”

Parel has taken quickly to the unique challenges links golf presents.

“I think this kind of golf suits me,” he said. “I have a pretty low ball flight, which obviously with the way the wind can be here is an advantage. I’m a fairly straight driver.”

The Senior Open is Parel’s third Champions Tour major in the 10 events he’s qualified to play in this season. His defining performance came in the first major at the Senior PGA Championship in May, where he posted the lowest weekend score in the field (67-66) to vault into a tie for seventh.

His $145,815 ranks 59th on the Champions Tour money list. The top 36 at the end of the season earn fully exempt status for 2017, while the top 50 get some conditional status. The top 72 players qualify for the first of three events in the inaugural Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs, so a strong result this week would go along way to help Parel’s chances.

“I’m still getting comfortable out here,” he said. “It’s different from where I’ve been playing in the past and taken some getting used to. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. For me at my age and the state of my game, it’s probably the best place for me. I just hope I can play well enough before this year’s over that I can have some status out there.”

In the meantime, Parel is enjoying a rare opportunity in his first pilgrimage to Scotland. His most harrowing challenge has been driving on the opposite side of the narrow streets.

“That’s been the hardest thing for me,” he said. “There’s some skinny roads over here. The whole experience of it has been cool. It’s been neat to see how different the golf is here and people have been super friendly.”

Parel might not find Carnoustie to be as friendly the next four days, but with any luck he’ll find the path forged by Hogan and Watson might just lead to bigger dreams for himself.

“I just want to enjoy a chance to play a course that hard with that much history,” Parel said.

Michaux: It will be hard to ever top Royal Troon's final round shootout

Tue, 07/19/2016 - 10:35pm

Let’s not waste any time deliberating and get right to it.

The Shootout at High Troon was the greatest major championship showdown in the history of golf. If that wasn’t clear to you watching the weekend’s epic two-man match between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at the Open Championship, then just know it was obvious to one of the character’s from the previous ranking “duel.”

Jack Nicklaus, golf’s greatest major winner who lost the “Duel in the Sun” to Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977, took to Facebook after watching Stenson top Mickelson to set the record straight.

“Our final round was really good,” said Nicklaus, “but theirs was even better.”

Golf’s gold standard was trumped by pure platinum.

What made it more dramatic was that the final 18 holes came on the heels of a Saturday set-up that was already as riveting as golf gets. Mickelson and Stenson separated themselves with a head-to-head third round that had all the tension of a Sunday, with clutch scrambling and two-shot swings that upped the stakes at every hole.

How could they possibly top that? A letdown seemed inevitable, with Stenson’s shaky history and Mickelson’s 46-year-old body that had to be running on fumes.

All Mickelson did was shoot a flawless 65 – “best I’ve played and not won” – that tied Stenson (second round) for the third lowest score of the week. Stenson topped it with 63, matching Mickelson’s first-round mark and joining Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot that record score in the final round to win a major.

It’s not often that a golf match can leave you breathless watching it from the first hole to the last, It’s hard to imagine anything ever topping it.

In other Open Championship footnotes:

BIRDIE: Andrew “Beef” Johnston. Sadly, the exceptionally bearded Englishman failed to finish high enough to qualify for the Masters, but his relentless smile, infectious enthusiasm and deft game have won him hearts worldwide.

BOGEY: Rory McIlroy. Another no-contention top-five was overshadowed by the bad optics from his dismissive Olympics comments and his abused 3-wood. Even his kevlar-esque jacket couldn’t protect him from the flak.

BIRDIE: Steve Stricker. The 49-year-old part-time golfer showed up to finish fourth and earn a return to Augusta. He’s going to shred the senior circuit next year if he cares to.

BOGEY: Jordan Spieth. He finally snapped his major streak of not breaking par at 10 rounds after snapping at critics who question why he’s not hitting last year’s absurd standard. An Olympic medal might have done him some good.

PAR: Danny Willett: Clutch 20-footer for par let the Masters champ slip into the weekend for another major.

BIRDIE: J.B. Holmes. So what if he was 11 shots out of second place? His solo third on heels of T4 at Masters portend
bigger things for this bomber.

PBMU: Louis Ace-huizen. Oosthuizen aced the 16th hole at Augusta this year and added a 1 on the 14th at Royal Troon. Routine stuff for the guy with a Masters albatross. However, the 9 he made on No. 11 en route to 83 on Friday stung.

PAR: 62. Unbelievably it has survived 29 threats to lower the low mark in major history. How Mickelson’s challenge swerved out of the cup is a mystery. “Must have been a goalkeeper in there,” said Lee Westwood.

BIRDIE: Postage Stamp. A great example of how the shortest of holes can still provide a devil of a challenge.

BOGEY: Railway. I don’t want any part of the railway-adjacent 11th hole. Pure menace. Averaged 4.56 strokes, giving up more others (26, including five 8s and five 9s) than birdies (24).

PAR: Patrick Reed. Opening 66 seemed pretty strong until Phil came along and cleared it by three strokes. His T12 was solid, but getting into the Olympics was bigger.

BIRDIE: R&A. Sensibly maintained a reasonable pace on the greens to offset wind conditions and avoided any kind of rules fiascoes sullying the drama. That’s all we ask.

BOGEY: Starters. The R&A had to go plural to replace the lyrical Ivor Robson as the first tee announcer. It took David Lancaster and Matt Corker to fill one man’s 40-year-tenured shoes, and there was nothing distinctive about them.

PAR: Sergio Garcia. His 12th top five and 22nd top 10 in 72 career major starts. He’s still only 36. One of these days.

BIRDIE: Johnson & Johnson. U.S. Open champ, Dustin, posted his third major top-10 of the year while Zach’s T12 was a solid showing from the outgoing champion golfer of the year.

BOGEY: Billy Horschel. Clever guy. So many trolls complained about him turning his cap around to keep rain from dripping off his bill that they barely noticed his 18-point differential (67-85).

BIRDIE: NBC. It was refreshing having so much experience back on the major airwaves, with David Feherty and Mike Tirico joining the familiar voices of Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller. Even better was how well they adapted to the unusual two-horse Sunday scenario and went all-in on the duel, letting the drama build between key shots without cluttering it with too many irrelevant moments from elsewhere.

BOGEY: Amateurs. A year after so many unpaid golfers littered the weekend leaderboard (including Paul Dunne in the final pairing) at St. Andrews, only two amateurs made the field this year and neither sniffed the cut.

Michaux: Break for surgery could refresh Charles Howell

Sat, 07/16/2016 - 10:52pm

Like any other golf fan in Augusta, Charles Howell has been watching the British Open this week on television at his parents’ house.

“Is there anything better than waking up to live golf,” Howell said.

The only thing better might have been contending for the claret jug at Royal Troon. But Howell withdrew as first alternate from the Open to come home to have surgery to remove a non-cancerous mass in his neck.

“There was no question I was going to Augusta to have it done,” said Howell, whose father is the chairman of the Department of Surgery at Augusta University Hospital.

After months of treating the problem, a CT scan after playing at Congressional three weeks ago convinced his doctors that the only alternative was surgery to remove it. Dr. David Terris and associate, Dr. Kenneth Byrd, spent 2.5 hours on Tuesday carefully removing Howell’s submandibular and sublingual salivary glands, making sure not to damage the nerve than controls his lower lip function in the process. The pathology report that will reveal exactly what the mass is won’t come in until Monday, but Howell expects to be fully recovered and back on the PGA Tour in four weeks.

“There’s no human that hates needles and white-cost syndrome more than me,” Howell said. “I would sign up for anything but surgery. But they made it as easy as possible.”

The timing might seem unfortunate, considering Howell had to miss both the British Open and PGA Championship in a three-week span. This will mark the first season since the Augusta native turned professional in 2000 that he will not play in at least one major championship.

But Howell had to calculate what was best for his career in the longer run. He’s been cruising along all season inside the top-30 on the season-long points race to qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake, which would qualify him for every major in 2017 including his hometown Masters Tournament. The last time he played in all four majors was 2012 by qualifying for East Lake in 2011.

Howell has climbed back inside the top 100 in the world after falling as far as 149th late in 2015. He’s missed only three cuts in 22 PGA Tour starts this season while posting 13 top-25 and five top-10 finishes including a tie for fourth at the Byron Nelson in May.

Since shutting down after consecutive 75s on the weekend at Congressional three weeks ago, Howell has slipped just outside the bubble to 31st on the season-long points list and should slip outside the top 40 during his extended leave. He expects to hit the ground at full speed after his recovery to make up ground in the playoffs.

“I still should be able to go into the playoffs and maybe an event or two before them with still a good chance to get in the top 30,” he said. “That’s the main goal.”

In a weird way, the timing of his recovery could be a blessing. With the Olympics wedged in to compress the golf calendar into a gruelling late-season stretch, Howell has his eye on returning to play in Greensboro, N.C., on Aug. 18 after seven weeks away from the weekly grind. It’s the longest mid-season sabbatical of his career. He’ll get to spend the next few weeks at his home Orlando hanging out with his kids – Ansley, 6, and Chase, 4 – before they start school in August.

“Some guys might get a little tired and I should be refreshed going into the playoffs,” he said.

After 10 full days of complete rest, Howell will be allowed to chip and putt only before he can resume hitting range balls after three weeks.

“This also might be nature’s way of making me chip and putt more,” he said. “I’ll have a couple weeks where that’s all I can do and it may do me some good.”

Howell considers himself blessed that his surgery didn’t effect any elements of his golf swing. He’s seen plenty of peers having to recover from back, wrist, knee and shoulder injuries, often causing bad habits in compensating that take months or years to correct.

“It’s a complete non-golf injury,” he said. “If this is the only one I have, knock on wood. In three or four weeks I should be back to normal.”

He already feels the peace of mind of having the surgery behind him after months of tests to figure out how to treat it.

“When you have a health issue or something hanging over your head, knowing that it’s behind me I’m actually excited to go out and play golf again as opposed to worrying about it in the back of your mind,” he said.

Michaux: Golf gods worked their vigilance once again at Phil Mickelson's expense

Thu, 07/14/2016 - 10:50pm

There are moments in golf that will make anyone a true believer in fate. The cruel turn his putt at history made on the final green a Royal Troon on Thursday converted Phil Mickelson.

“Do you believe in the golf gods?” Mickelson was asked after signing for the 28th 63 in major championship history.

“I didn’t, but I do now,” Mickelson said.

“It was obvious right there – there’s a curse because that ball should have been in. If there wasn’t a curse, that ball would have been in and I would have had that 62.”

If you haven’t seen the highlight of Mickelson’s lip-out birdie putt on the 18th hole, Google it. His ball traced a center-cut line until it was just inches from the cup, where it suddenly wobbled and turned back right and caught the edge of the hole. It made the slowest of rim rides before stopping directly behind the hole.

“Oh my god!” Mickelson said as he ran the full palm of his hand across his face in disbelief.

“It was one of the best rounds I’ve ever played and I was able to take advantage of these conditions, and yet I want to shed a tear right now,” Mickelson said later.

“I don’t know how that putt didn’t go in on 18,” said Ernie Els, who actually putted out first like it was a Sunday and not Thursday to set the stage for Mickelson’s historic attempt. “That would have been something.”

Mickelson may be the most crestfallen person to ever shatter a course record and lead a major championship by three strokes.

“With a foot to go I thought I had done it,” he said. “I saw that ball rolling right in the center. I went to go get it, I had that surge of adrenaline that I had just shot 62, and then I had the heartbreak that I didn’t and watched that ball lip out. It was – wow – that stings.”

Mickelson joins a long list of greats left shaking their heads and fists at the golfing gods for their wicked vigilance. With all the technological advances in golf equipment over the last couple decades, it’s amazing that nobody has been able to break the 63 threshold in a major. The “59 Watch” has become a fairly regular happening in pro tournaments, but 62 remains elusive.

Twenty-six different players have done it, including 14 Hall of Famers (counting the inevitable enshrinements of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy).

The greatest major champion of all time, Jack Nicklaus, needed only a 3-footer for birdie on the par-5 18th hole at Baltusrol in the 1980 U.S. Open to set the standard. Twenty-five years later, when he attended the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol, Nicklaus addressed his bygone miss.

“I’m still mad about it,” he said.

Later that same day, Tom Wesikopf shot a 63 of his own, also failing to birdie the 18th.

Greg Norman three-putted the last hole at Turnberry in 1986 for a 63 in the second round. A decade later he became the first player to hit the mark twice with a 63 in the first round of a fateful Masters. Vijay Singh is the only other player with two major 63s (1993 PGA and 2003 U.S. Open).

McIlroy was the last person to do it in the British Open. In the first round at St. Andrews in 2010, he missed a 5-footer for birdie at the 17th, rendering his subsequent birdie at 18 into the 63 case files. He thought about the history on the Road Hole.

“That’s probably why I missed,” he said.

Mickelson, however, joins a very elite subset of 63 holders who suffered the lip-out on the last.

Johnny Miller was the first, when he set the 63 standard in the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. He actually lipped out for birdie on the last two holes, his 20-footer on 18 catching a hard left edge to sling the ball out of the hole.

“It easily could have been 60,” said his final-round playing partner Miller Barber.

Tiger Woods called his second-round 63 in the 2007 PGA at Southern Hills a “62-and-a-half” after his 15-footer went halfway down on the last hole before horseshoeing back at him.

“That would’ve been a nice little record to have,” Woods said.

Perhaps the most comparable near-miss to Mickelson’s was Nick Price’s in the third round at the 1986 Masters. His 30-footer on Augusta’s 18th green all but disappeared into the hole, circling the entire lip before exiting where it started. It became the second most famous thing that happened that week.

“There does seem to be some kind of mental barrier at 63,” Price said years later. “It’s amazing that all four majors have 63 as the low score. That defies logic.”

At 46, Mickelson is realistic about how rare that opportunity to create history is. This moment stung more than the similar lip-out on the last green in Phoenix a few years ago that cost him joining the official 59 club.

“This one’s going to stay with me for a while because of the historical element of the major championships,” Mickelson said. “There’s a lot of guys that have shot 63, but nobody has shot that 62. That would have been really something special. ...

“I haven’t shot 59 in a tour event, but I have shot 58s and 59s before at other rounds. That 59 in Hawaii for the Grand Slam of Golf back in like ’05, I’ve done that, and I’ll have opportunities under the right conditions. But the opportunity to shoot 62 and be the first one to do it, I just don’t think that’s going to come around again. And that’s why I walk away so disappointed.”

Now the big test for Mickelson is to not let the disappointment of not making history keep him from hanging on to win his sixth career major. Only five players who have shot major 63s have also won the tournament. Typically nasty British weather is expected to roll in today, so any more chances at 62 will likely have to wait for the next major.

Even if he hoists another claret jug this week, Mickelson will look back years from now like Nicklaus at Baltusrol and still be mad about it. Even talking about happier end results like the putt that curled into the cup for his first major win at Augusta wasn’t a tonic Thursday.

“If you’re trying to make me feel better after the heartbreak of having missed that ... that’s nice of you, thank you. But that’s not working.”

Michaux: Georgia coach Kirby Smart is managing expectations

Tue, 07/12/2016 - 10:29pm

Nearly 2,000 words – 1,934 to be exact. That’s how long Kirby Smart’s preamble to his first Southeastern Conference Media Days lasted.

It was a strong opening statement from the first-year head coach at Georgia, ripped right out of the manual from the SEC’s most successful current coaches like Les Miles and Smart’s mentor, Nick Saban.

The more you say, the less you have to say. Given the strict time constraints of the 31st annual media circus in Hoover, Ala., it leaves little room for having to answer too many probing questions.

For comparisons sake, Smart’s opening comments were 1,650 words longer than Mark Richt’s last trip to SEC Media Days. It was more than a full Dan Mullen (714 words) longer than the second longest monologue so far this week from Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason (1,155).

It was a mastercraft performance in being courteous while revealing little. In taking about his “opportunity of a lifetime” and praising everything from his conference to the media to his sports information director, Claude Felton, Smart eased into the routine without ever giving too much away like who will be his starting quarterback or whether his thoroughbred running backs would be ready to play in six weeks.

“This is my first Media Days, but I am no stranger to the SEC,” Smart said. “This starts my 18th season as part of the SEC. Had five as a player, one as administrative assistant, three as position coach, and eight as coordinator. In that time, I had the great benefit of being to every venue in the SEC. And the passion and energy that this conference exudes is incredible.”

Smart’s full transcript avoids any verbal land mines that could doom a coach’s season before it ever starts. He deftly maneuvered through the off-season arrest reports and focused on the things they are trying to build. His program’s new mantra is “Attack Today,” and that doesn’t involve dwelling on the past.

When asked about the success and popularity of his predecessor with fans and players, Smart effusively praised Richt and their friendship and then pivoted the conversation back toward the horizon.

“Our team has moved forward,” he said. “Our team is focused on this season and not looking in the rearview mirror.”

The most inflammatory and revealing comment he made came away from the main-stage podium in a smaller gathering with local media – thereby rendering it outside the realm of the soundbites that can get any coach in trouble.

But it was the kind of comment that will play well to the Bulldog base that felt a change was essential for Georgia to reach a higher level.

“That’s the part we got to change at the University of Georgia – to excel on the field with what we bring in and not just excel at recruiting and just have a top-10 class,” Smart told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t think that does anything for you until you produce on the field.”

And on that front, Smart was smart not to make too many promises. If anything, Tuesday’s media message was to downplay any expectations for a program that received preseason accolades more as a matter of habit than anything else.

Take this sampling of qualifying statements:

“Sixty-three percent of our team is going to be sophomores or less,” Smart said. “So we’ve got a young team. And we also only have 12 scholarship seniors on this team.”

“The trademark for us is going to be big, physical, fast football team. We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly moving that direction. That’s the stamp I would like to put on it.”

“We’re going to play the best player that gives us the best opportunity to win football games,” he said of his pending quarterback decision. “And I don’t know who that is. If I knew, I promise you, I would tell you.”

“Obviously we have some questions and injuries at running back.”

Of all the things Smart has dealt with since taking the reins of the Georgia program back in December, managing expectations may be the smartest move he’s made.

He set a high bar when he encouraged more than 93,000 fans to show up for a spring football game. His hiring alone quickened the pulse of hungry Georgia fans as they watched their new leader guide the Alabama defense to one more national title.

The stakes were understood before Smart ever returned to his alma mater. Ten-win seasons aren’t enough anymore without championships. Georgia wants SEC East dominance, SEC championship regularity, playoff inclusion and national titles.

Smart wants that, too. He is working an a plan to deliver all that in due time. He said there is a difference between a team and a program, and it’s a program like the one he was involved in for nine seasons at Alabama that he’d like to establish.

In the meantime, all Smart has to give are words. With a little patience and eventual production, he can show up at future Media Days and let his program do the talking for him.

Michaux: Williams sisters accomplishments are amazing in tennis

Sat, 07/09/2016 - 9:48pm

Women’s tennis has always been a personal favorite.

From Margaret Court, Billy Jean King and Evonne Goolagong Cawley to Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, the greatest women’s champions have always been the most captivating to watch.

I never thought there would be any ladies champions greater than Navratilova or Graf until the Williams sisters came along.

Washington Post writer Chuck Culpepper called Serena and Venus Williams “arguably the greatest American sports story,” and it’s hard to argue with that. Twenty-nine grand slam singles titles from siblings is an astonishing achievement. Imagine Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods having a brother sharing the major stages with them and collecting family hardware. It’s incomprehensible.

At ages 36 and 34, well past what can be considered tennis prime, the Williams sisters both reached the semifinals at Wimbledon. Venus became oldest Wimbledon semifinalist since a 37-year-old Navratilova in 1994. One of the sisters has won 12 of the Wimbledon singles titles since 2000.

Serena stormed to her 22nd grand slam singles win Saturday, tying Graf as the most in the open era that began in 1968. She’s two shy of Court’s all-time mark.

Later Saturday, Venus and Serena partnered for their sixth ladies doubles title at Wimbledon and 14th overall – tying for second on the all-time list behind only the incomparable team of Navratilova and Pam Shriver (20).

“I was talking to Venus about this the other day how we’ve just been out here for so long and we’re still doing really well and still having so much fun,” Serena said. “I’m just really fortunate. ... When you’re older you get used to winning. It’s like when you taste something that tastes so good you want it again and again and again. It’s a little addicting.”

It’s been addicting to anyone who appreciates true athletic greatness. The Williams era will have to come to a close eventually, but we should relish it while it’s still going strong.

OLYMPICS JAG: U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson became the latest player to withdraw from the Olympics, but the first American golfer to do so.

That opened the door for former Augusta State star Patrick Reed to make the American maximum four-man squad since his top-10 spot on the leaderboard at the Scottish Open should keep him safely inside the top 15 of the world rankings when the Olympics qualifying deadline comes Monday.

Reed won’t let Zika or security fears keep him from joining (as of now) U.S. teammates Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler in Rio. Spieth and Fowler are still mulling their options.

“If one of them happened to pull out, then I will definitely be playing,” Reed said earlier this week before Johnson’s surprise withdrawal. “Any time I can wear stars and stripes, I do it. I get the call tomorrow, I’ll be on the flight. It doesn’t matter to me on where it is, when it is. If I can play for my country, I’m going to go play.”

Not many top golfers shared his passion for representing their home nations in Rio. The list of players who have said they wouldn’t play includes other top-10 stars Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Branden Grace.

On the bright side, Reed is one of six top-15 players who has already committed to going, joining Watson, Henrik Stenson, Masters champion Danny Willett, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.

“I’m not afraid of mosquitos,” said Stenson. “I’m more afraid of bears.”

OPEN FORECAST: Adjacent to the fabulously quirky Prestwick Golf Club where the first 12 Open Championships were staged, the next major will commence this week on perhaps the dullest links course in the British rota.

The first to hoist the claret jug at Royal Troon was Arthur Havers in 1923, while the last two champions there were Justin Leonard and Todd Hamilton.

The last six Open champions at Troon have all been Americans dating back to Arnold Palmer in 1962. But that streak will end this week. My money would be on one of three South Africans – Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen or Ernie Els – joining countryman and 1950 winner Bobby Locke on Troon’s gallery or champions.

UNBEATABLE? The rich got richer with the Golden State Warriors adding former MVP Kevin Durant to a roster already stacked enough to win a record 73 games last season.

So with Durant joining Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, is the 2017 NBA title already decided? And would that be considered good enough?

Extreme expectations have a funny way of bringing teams down a peg – especially teams that blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals. If the Super Warriors don’t threaten to win 74 games this time and sweep every playoff series, people will wonder if Durant threw off the delicate team chemistry.

The San Antonio Spurs shouldn’t feel too hopeless.