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Gurley, special teams, defense share credit for Georgia's win

Sat, 08/30/2014 - 11:31pm

ATHENS, Ga. — In an effort to avoid making too broad a judgment on Georgia’s 45-21 season-opening victory against Clemson, let’s just say a whole lot of narratives emerged that will become very familiar to both fan bases in the coming months.

First and foremost, let’s address the elephant on the field. Because that’s what it must have felt like for Clemson defenders trying to tackle Todd Gurley.

The junior tailback was planted himself firmly as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in almost a part-time role on a smoldering August evening between the hedges. There will be season-long highlight reels of other candidates that won’t look as impressive as Gurley’s 17 touches on Saturday night.

Gurley had 15 rushes for 198 yards and three touchdowns – each one more impressive than the one before it. He went 23 yards untouched around the left corner in the first quarter. He cut back and stuttered 19 yards up the middle in the fourth quarter. He broke away 51 yards up the right side later in the fourth quarter.

Oh yeah, he also went straight up the middle like a bullet train from 5 yards deep in his own end zone for a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the second quarter after Clemson had gone up 21-14.

Even his non-scoring plays were memorable, like the 19-yarder when he ran right over Clemson star lineman Vic Beasley.

His 293 all-purpose yards were, incidentally, a Bulldogs record.

“That was probably one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of,” Gurley said.

By the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs were showing up their absurd depth at tailback with newcomers Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but there is no doubt that the Bulldogs are a different team any time Gurley is on the field. His presence opens everything up on the offense.

Sometimes his big plays were too good, long runs that require a brief rest that before he can get back on the field the offense is in third and long and a promising drive would bog down.

But by the fourth quarter, the relentless pounding of Gurley and other fresh backs proved too much for the Tigers. Georgia kept speeding up the offense and catching the tired defense in misalignments that produced big play after big play as a 3-point lead entering the fourth exploded into a what could have been a 32-point blowout.

Lost behind the performance of Gurley and his stable of immpressive backups were two storylines that are most notable in their change of tone.

First is a special teams performance that was as critical to Georgia’s success on Saturday as anything else. Special teams were a massive issue a year ago in a negative way, but on Saturday that were a huge strength.

“We’ve got a bunch of new talent and the repetitive work this offseason really paid off,” said placekicker Marshall Morgan.

Freshman Sony Michel made two huge coverage plays in the first quarter on a punt and kickoff that set the field-position tone. Both punter Collin Barber and Adam Erickson pinned Clemson inside the 10 in the second half. Kicker Marshall Morgan made his 18th and 19th consecutive field goals. Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie made clean catches and showed some pop in punt returns.

And of course Gurley broke the big one in a surprise role as the deep man on kickoffs.

“I think that might have the best thing,” Gurley said. “Special teams were awesome, might have been better than the defense and offense. Without special teams we definitely wouldn’t have won this game as big as we did.”

Then there’s defense, which a season ago was largely irredeemable under former coordinator Todd Grantham. Despite making their fair share of mistakes on Saturday, you could see new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s unit molding into shape as the game wore on. With blitz calls at the right moments, sound tackling and more pass breakups, in-game adjustments and three-and-outs in one game than you could remember seeing all last season, there was enough positive to make the Erk Russell proud.

“This being my senior year I’ve played with a lot of great guys,” said corner Damian Swann. “I’ve played on a good defense here so I know that feeling when we can go out and stone some people. To get back to that tonight was an unbelievable feeling because that’s what we’re used to here. ... I think once Pruitt stepped his foot on this campus, we knew we were going to be good. We knew we’d have the opportunity to be dominant.”

Gurley, who even showed his leadership a couple of times in the defensive huddle, was raving about the defense.

“It was incredible, we wouldn’t have done it without them,” Gurley said. “They had stopped them a couple of times and we didn’t execute like we were supposed to. Luckily they kept stopping them and stopping and we finally scored and put them away.”

On the Clemson side, the narratives that were bubbling up will be more of a personnel matter . The biggest that will grow bigger is at quarterback.

The way the veteran Cole Stoudt vs. freshman Deshaun Watson dynamic plays out could have a disruptive effect on a Tiger offense trying to retool after losing so many big weapons.

Watson entered for a series in the second quarter after three consecutive three-and-outs and promptly threw two perfect deep passes that ate up 59 yards and an equalizing touchdown at 14-14. He didn’t return until late in the third quarter, when whatever momentum he might have had after his first possession had long worn off.

Stoudt isn’t a bad quarterback, but Watson has the potential to be special. He’s the kind of talent Clemson fans will be eager to see more of after his initial glimpse. How Dabo Swinney handles the QB conundrum will have a major impact on the season.

He also might want to reconsider his tailback rotation with C.J. Davidson clearly showing more burst than senior starter D.J. Howard.

Of course, the big takeaway of the night will remain Gurley and his Heisman campaign that erupted on social media with every touch he had.

Gurley was dismissive, as he clearly had a larger narrative on his mind in the new playoff era.

“It’s only week 1,” he said. “We’ve got like 15 more weeks to go.”

Michaux: Gamecocks need to forget this one

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 11:34pm

COLUMBIA – Stunning doesn’t begin to describe this.

Less than halfway through Thursday night’s season opener at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Southeastern Conference East favorites were getting booed by their home fans, the post-Johnny Manziel Texas A&M offense had run off 53 plays for 393 yards and the Aggies led 31-14 against a defense-less South Carolina.

Steve Spurrier immediate assessment was just as harsh as the Gamecocks crowd.

“They’re kicking our butts,” the head ball coach said at halftime. “They’re out-blocking, out-tackling, out-coaching us. They know what they’re doing. We’re getting beat by a much better team right now. I don’t know how we can change it, but we’ll try something different.”

Different didn’t work either. With 20 minutes still left, the Aggies had 45 points, 501 yards and a 24-point lead. When it was all said and done, the Aggies “hung 50” on Spurrier’s team in his house (52-28) and the Gamecocks hung their heads in shame.

“It was obvious the oddsmakers didn’t know what they were talking about,” Spurrier said. “That team was so much better than us it wasn’t funny. ... We’ll regroup and come back and try to fight again against East Carolina in nine days and see if we can look like we know what we’re doing.”

Before you could say goodbye to August, a season that tingled with championship aspirations fell immediately into the desperation category. The Gamecocks could very well be playing for their SEC East lives in two weeks against Georgia or face the prospects of having to run the conference table against the likes of Auburn, Missouri and Florida just to have an outside chance of staying in the division race.

The team that played Saturday didn’t look capable of running any tables.

“It was a mistmatch – coaches and players – tonight,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know what else you can say. If we played them again they’d be a three-touchdown favorite.”

This was not how the opener was supposed to go in a stadium where the home team hasn’t lost in 18 games dating back to 2011.

The Aggies defense which ranked among the nation’s worst a year ago was expected to be the one that struggled to tackle or cover. The A&M offense wasn’t anticipated to be as lethal without Manziel running and gunning all over the place. The Gamecocks rushing attack was supposed to be imposing and not impotent.

But right from the opening drive the Aggies were the Kenny Hill Show – and as you watched sophomore quarterback pick apart the open spaces in the Gamecocks defense it was impossible not to hear the Benny Hill theme song running through your head as if everything was in fast-motion except the Gamecocks defense. Hill surpassed Manziel’s single-game passing yardage record with 511 yards in his first career start. He surpassed the most ever yielded by the Gamecocks (485 by Georgia’s Eric Zeier in 1994).

Gamecocks’ semi-veteran Dylan Thompson threw four touchdown passes in the first three quarters and had a chance to alter the momentum trailing 45-28 with third-and-1 and the ball at midfield after a rare defensive stop. But Thompson threw a jump ball deep that Texas A&M’s Armani Watts intercepted to kill that brief spark of hope.

Somewhere in Cleveland, you could envision Browns rookie teammates Manziel and Connor Shaw watching the SEC Network premiere and wagering which one of them would be missed more. Manziel would have been paying off by halftime.

Better yet, they should both mail checks to Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney because it was defense that killed the Gamecocks.

“We don’t have a pass rusher right now, I guess,” Spurrier said.

In three consecutive 11-win seasons, South Carolina’s defense only allowed one team (Georgia in 2013) to gain more than 23 first downs in a game. A&M had 23 in the first half Saturday.

All told, Texas A&M ran 99 plays, gained 680 yards and 39 first downs.

It could have been worse. The Aggies ran out the last 10:05 with a 17-play drive that ended when the clock ran out with first-and-goal at the 3.

“I thought we would play a lot better,” Spurrier said. “I’ve been reading like you guys have about our new 3-4 defense. Did everybody like that 3-4 defense? I don’t know if it would have mattered if we played a 6-6 defense. We’ve got some coaching decisions to make to see if we can’t find a pass rush somehow.”

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward didn’t think scheme was the problem, but it would be shocking to see Spurrier willing to stand pat with East Carolina and Georgia on the horizon.

But the bigger job will be mentally getting the Gamecocks turned around and focused on forgetting Thursday and moving forward with the tone of the season hanging in the balance.

“We won’t get much favorable press and that’s probably going to be good for us,” Spurrier said. “We don’t have to worry about any more win streaks. It was a good one while it lasted. We can go back to trying to be a decent team and not read the paper too much, hopefully.”

They don’t ever want to read about this. For the fallen favorites, it will be hard enough just living with it.

Michaux: Predictions for the college football season

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 3:20pm

As college football finally enters the playoff era, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Same could be said for my preseason predictions.

This annual exercise is more often than not destined for failure. College football has so many variables (just ask the injury-decimated 2013 Georgia team) that it’s practically impossible to foresee all of the eventual pitfalls in August.

But usually you can at least stumble upon one or two keen judgments.

That was not the case in 2013. Granted, nobody else has come forward to claim forecasting an Auburn-Missouri matchup in the Southeastern Conference championship game. And anyone can be forgiven not seeing Jameis Winston’s sudden ascent at Florida State or Duke’s emergence as a viable threat, much less an Atlantic Coast Conference division winner.

But it’s hard to explain away my broad faith in South Carolina to sweep both the BCS title and the Heisman Trophy with Jadeveon Clowney. I didn’t suspect Clowney would coast through his final collegiate season in NFL draft-prep mode or the Gamecocks losing to Tennessee.

And there’s simply no excuse for picking Louisville to make the BCS final. Must have been drinking the same Kool-aid that prompted Cardinals officials to rehire Bobby Petrino and pay Todd Grantham $1 million a year for his expertise in building one of the worst defenses ever assembled in Athens, Ga., last season.

So, I guess I wasn’t the only college football idiot last year.

This season doesn’t have to be better, but it can’t be worse.

Without further ado, here are the things I will be apologizing for next year:

SEC: Sorry Gamecocks, but you’re my pick again in the East. This has to be your year. The schedule is aligned too well to be otherwise. Mizzou can’t do it again. Florida might be much improved, but the Gators have both Louisiana State and Alabama to deal with and that’s too much. Georgia and South Carolina both face defending champ Auburn, but the Bulldogs have to go to Columbia, where the Gamecocks are on a roll. Over in the West, the Iron Bowl winner would be the safe pick. But I have a hunch that LSU is going to have a surprise year with all that new five-star talent and Alabama coming to Death Valley. The Tigers will be the ones to win in Atlanta and geaux all the way to the playoffs.

ACC: Winston is certainly going to miss Kelvin Benjamin – a lot – but the Seminoles still have too many weapons (and a home date with Clemson) to give up ownership of the Atlantic Division. Assuming Winston stays out of trouble, this should be an easy repeat. As for the Coastal, any one of five teams could step up and win the weakest division of the Power 5 conferences. Miami and North Carolina are trendy picks to finally emerge, but as much as it pains me to say, Virginia Tech is likely to be the representative in Charlotte, N.C. Florida State will be the one to get a playoff bid assuming they don’t stumble non-conference against Oklahoma State or Notre Dame.

HEISMAN: If your name isn’t Archie Griffin, it’s hard to repeat as America’s collegiate darling and win consecutive Heisman trophies. So let’s assume Winston is going to sit this one out. Let’s also assume that Georgia running back Todd Gurley can get through a season healthy. That’s a big assumption. But if Gurley does, he’s the best running back in the nation. A healthy Gurley should keep Georgia relevant until the end and close enough for voters not to dismiss his candidacy. And since 12 of the last 13 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks, it’s about time a rusher got ahold of the trophy depicting a rusher once again.

PLAYOFFS: I’ve already given you my SEC and ACC reps, and I think LSU-FSU would make a fine Sugar Bowl semifinal matchup. As for the Rose Bowl semifinal, it looked like a perfect Pac-12/Big Ten pairing was possible with Oregon and Ohio State. But Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury alters the forecast for the Buckeyes. Oregon will have its hands full with UCLA (perhaps twice) and that winner should qualify. I’m not sure Michigan State will have a strong enough record for the Big Ten to submit a playoff team over an Oklahoma squad that has little in its way to a perfect mark. So my guess is Oregon-Oklahoma meet. When all is said and done, the SEC has to win the first playoff. So LSU it is.

Naturally, this pretty much guarantees that Alabama will beat UCLA for the first true national title.

Being more inclusive with their schedules would help SEC and ACC

Sat, 08/23/2014 - 5:36pm

Both the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences are stuck in the muck of conventional thinking.

For two conferences that made aggressive plays to grow their brands, they got awfully conservative last spring when it came time to applying their new competitive structure. By electing to maintain eight-game football schedules and two seven-team divisions, their expansions have weakened their unions and made them more segregated.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A simple shift in thinking could bring their larger conferences closer than ever. Lose the divisions. Retain the rivalries. Expand the schedule. Bond everybody.

If that seems radical, it’s no more extreme than when the SEC created divisions to establish a championship game in the first place.

It’s just common sense to expand the conference schedule to nine games to create more familiarity in a 14-team conference. Ask Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

“I’m all for playing as many good quality games for players, fans and the betterment of our game,” Saban said at SEC Media Days. “But I think some fundamental changes have to be made before anybody would be interested in that. I know that everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I think that, you know, every player that comes to an SEC school should play every team in the SEC. ... Well, you can’t expand the conference and not expand the number of games you play to be able to do that.”

When the SEC first adopted its divisional system in 1992, it established a model that other major conferences hustled to duplicate. With 12-team conferences, it was a relatively perfect fit.

But when a second wave of expansion pushed the SEC and ACC (and Big Ten) to 14 teams, those divisional alignments and protected crossover rivalries only made things more restrictive. Retaining an eight-game schedule allows only one rotating non-division game among six opponents.

The word “conference,” after all, is defined as “a group of sports teams that play against each other.” Playing 43 percent of affiliated teams twice every 12 years hardly fits that definition.

The ACC’s decision to keep an eight-game schedule was complicated by the Notre Dame situation, with the Irish maintaining football independence but agreeing to play five ACC teams per season as non-conference games. If Clemson played a nine-game ACC schedule, the Tigers would have only one free week to bring in a patsy in the years they play Notre Dame because of their annual rivalry with South Carolina.

The SEC’s reasoning for standing pat was mere hubris, so why change it?

“The strength of our conference without question is at the top,” said Greg McGarity, Georgia’s director of athletics. “Other (conferences) that want to schedule nine games, perhaps their strength of schedule is not that tough from top to bottom.”

Fair enough, but is that really a good reason to limit competition within the conference?

The SEC locked in a schedule rotation for the next 12 years. Georgia will play at Louisiana State in 2018 and get a return home game against LSU in 2025.

South Carolina will similarly go to Auburn this season and not play the Tigers at Williams-Brice Stadium until 2021. Every 12 years, season-ticket holders can count on seeing Alabama once – which is better than whole classes of football players who miss that chance unless luck aligns them in an SEC Championship game.

Is this really the kind of segregated conference they want? That fans want?

“I think sometimes these players don’t care when they play A&M,” McGarity said. “Their memory of history is last year. I think it’s a fans-type thing – the frequency or infrequency. So the fans’ recall is totally different than these young people.”

Since the fans will be the ones footing most of the growing bill for collegiate sports with their booster contributions, ticket sales and cable fees, perhaps their perspective should count a little bit more.

Here’s my fan-friendly solution: The best way for the SEC and ACC to become fully integrated again is to embrace a paradigm shift — a complete break away from the divisional thinking while establishing a rivalry-rich “pod” system.

Done properly, it can open up more frequent matchups with everyone in the league while still retaining essential rivalries that are the heart of college football. Every year, each school plays the same four opponents — three pod mates and a crossover rival — leaving the other nine schools to rotate for the remaining conference games. If you also expand to a nine-game conference schedule, it’s possible to never go two seasons without playing every team at least once.

At the end of the year, the two teams with the best records play for the championship. If that means a Georgia-Florida or Iron Bowl rematch, so be it. You want your best represented for playoff consideration.

It is a rare day when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany – a longtime roadblock in the quest to establish a legitimate college football postseason playoff – is the progressive voice of reason. But Delany has the most sensible take on why his expanded 14-team league elected to switch to a nine-game conference schedule (albeit with the same divisional system).

“We’re going to get larger, we’re going to play each other more,” Delany told USA Today. “We want to be a conference.”

That alone is reason enough, but the changing college football landscape makes it even more essential to build up from within.

“We want our fans to come to games,” Delany said. “We’ve got to give them good games. We also have a (TV) network. We also have season-ticket holders. ... What I really like is that every athlete in the Big Ten who plays football will play every opponent inside the four-year period. That’s what I like.”

Asked if the coaches were on board with the plan, Delany spoke like a boss and not an enabler.

“No, they weren’t on board. We agree to disagree,” he said. “There are certainly things where it’s great if you can get everybody on the same page, but there are certain things you have to do because you have to do them.”

Saban agrees: “People should make those decisions beyond us. They should do it based on what is in the best interest of our league and college football in general.”

For now, the SEC and ACC chose not to deal with the complication of enhanced competition.

“With a nine-game schedule you rotate around quicker, but what it would do for schools that have a 10th game – like for us against Georgia Tech?” McGarity said. “Then it would not have been practical to play a Clemson or have 11 out of your 12 games be against Power 5 opponents. I don’t think there was anybody for that at all.”

If they’d just unwrap their heads from typical thinking and look at it from a new perspective, the leagues we love might be surprised how good a more inclusive future can be.

Creative thinking would solve SEC and ACC schedule issues

Sat, 08/23/2014 - 5:19pm

If the 14-team Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences would scrap the two-division system, they could maintain essential rivalries while establishing more frequent competition within the conferences.

With a little creative thinking, teams could be arranged to each play a group of the same four teams each year. This would include three regional rivalries annually, plus one permanent, traditional rival.

If they expand the conference schedule to nine games, each school would have five games annually to rotate among the nine other teams. They could either play home-and-home in consecutive years or stagger the seasons so that each program would play every school at least every other year.

Establishing each school’s group of opponents is simple. In the SEC, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky stick together, while you pair up Alabama and Auburn with Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

In the ACC, the southern wing of Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami are a perfect union. On the northern end, group conference newcomers Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville and Boston College.

That leaves six teams in each conference. The trick is to divide them regionally into groups of three, each team playing the other two plus one from the opposite trio.

In the SEC, Louisiana State, Ole Miss and Mississippi State would be aligned together in one base. Arkansas, Missouri and Texas A&M form the other base. The cross-pairings would be LSU-Texas A&M, Ole Miss-Missouri and Mississippi State-Arkansas.

The ACC is even more simple with the four North Carolina and two Virginia teams that preserve long-standing unions on Tobacco Road and the essential rivalries that trace back to the beginning of college football in the South.

North Carolina, Duke and Virginia make up one, and N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest the other. The cross-over pairings are UNC-N.C. State, Duke-Wake Forest and Virginia-Virginia Tech.

At the end of the year, the two teams with the best records play for the championship. This would require a tweak of the current NCAA bylaws covering divisions and championship games, but the new autonomy for the “Power 5” conferences makes that a simple matter to legislate.

Michaux: U.S. Amateur finalists will realize dreams of playing in Masters, U.S. Open

Sat, 08/16/2014 - 9:19pm

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Gunn Yang and Corey Conners meet today at Atlanta Athletic Club for the U.S. Amateur championship – and the biggest thing at stake is just a trophy.

The real pressure of the U.S. Amateur came in Saturday’s semifinals, when lifelong dreams get realized or dashed.

With their 1-up semifinal victories, Yang and Conners won the right to play in the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National and U.S. Open at Chambers Bay regardless of what happens in today’s 36-hole match. Their vanquished opponents – Fred Wedel and Denny McCarthy – leave Georgia with bronze consolation medals and regret.

“It stings,” said Wedel, a 19-year-old junior at Pepperdine ranked the 619th amateur in the world. “I was one hole away from playing in the Masters and U.S. Open. Obviously those are things you dream about from a young age. Just that it was so close ... if I’d lost in the round of 16 or the quarters, it wouldn’t sting as much. It hurts.”

Yang, conversely, was walking on air after blowing a 1-up lead with a water ball on the 18th hole only to sink a 5-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole to win and unleash a Tiger-like roar.

“It’s just a dream come true right here,” the 776th-ranked amateur from South Korea said. “It was always my dream to play with all the top players in the world in any type of PGA event. But the Masters ... this is amazing.”

This is the power and the cruelty of a match-play semifinal with more at stake than any other non-championship sports event in the world. These young men can’t just go through an open qualifier to get to Augusta. So the strain is considerable and the thought of the available rewards never strays too far from their minds the deeper they get into the match play bracket.

“Yeah, it adds a lot more pressure,” Wedel said. “Definitely I think that while you’re out there, it’s in the back of your mind. ... I was aware of what was going on, but at the end of the day, I mean, it’s golf, and if I’m not going to be able to live up to that pressure, then I don’t belong.”

Yang felt it as well, especially when he had to wait for just a few seconds on the 11th tee a hole down in the match to Wedel.

“Into my round it popped up all of the sudden a couple of times,” Yang said. “I wasn’t trying to play mind games, it’s just human nature I guess.”

McCarthy said those outside demons are for the moments off the course and not on it.

“When you’re playing your match, you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, if I win this hole I can probably get one step closer to playing at Augusta,’” he said. “I mean, obviously it’s crossed my mind at some point previously to the round, but no, not during the round today.”

Perhaps nobody understood the stakes Saturday more than Conners. A semifinalist last year at Brookline, he lost to eventual winner Matthew Fitzpatrick and had to watch the happenings at Augusta and Pinehurst from home.

“Definitely being so close last year, it did sting quite a bit,” Conners said. “I still tried to keep my head up and be proud of making it to the semis. Quite an accomplishment in itself. But it did sting a little bit, so there was a little more motivation this year, I guess. I knew what it felt like. Just tried to bear down and do my thing out there.”

The pressure was on display down the stretch Saturday in both semifinal matches. Wedel missed a 3-footer for par on the 17th after making a spectacular chip from atop a rock wall with half his feet suspended over the water.

Then Yang thinned a 5-iron out of a fairway bunker into the water fronting the 18th green, letting Wedel square the match with a 5-iron from the same bunker to 8 feet for a conceded eagle and extra holes.

In the match behind, Conners’ steady driver escaped him with a pull into the water, but he salvaged par to retain his 1-up lead.

For Saturday’s losers, it was a disappointment they’ll have to force down as they reset their goals.

“I can’t control anything about it now,” McCarthy said. “It’s done and over with so I’m just going to move on and hopefully be at one of those events in the near future.”

For the winners, it was already a dream realized. Both Conners and Yang want to win Sunday’s final and put their name on the trophy won by the likes of Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. But for the rest of Saturday, they could exhale a little bit and start thinking ahead to practice rounds at Augusta National in the coming months and a guaranteed spot in April in the Crow’s Nest and place in the Masters.

For Conners, his dreams include a round with Mike Weir, his inspiration when he got into golf as an 11-year-old while Weir was winning the 2003 Masters.

“I was telling somebody yesterday I remember watching it on TV,” he said of Weir’s victory. “He had a 6-foot putt to get into a playoff on the 18th hole, and I had to leave the living room and go into another room I was so nervous and excited for him. I heard some fans cheering on the TV or my dad clapping and I came back and saw that he made it, and I was pretty excited. Yeah, that was kind of when I was getting into some competitive golf, and I really looked up to Mike. Yeah, it would be cool to maybe play a game with him.”

Yang can’t wait to see the 13th hole that captured his attention as a 12-year-old watching it for the first time. Now only eight years later and against odds he’ll be invited to play Azalea himself when it’s in full bloom.

“This is amazing,” he said. “I thought I could come to this match play, but I never thought I could come to this far. I’m just really looking forward to getting an invitation to the Masters and other great events.

“I’m already dreaming just imaging how it’s going to be like.”

Qualifying for the Ryder Cup will cap off former Jag Patrick Reed's strong season

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 8:47pm

Patrick Reed returns to Greensboro, N.C., this week, where a shot out of the weeds last August launched a meteoric career trajectory.

As 12-month windows go, few in golf other than Rory McIlroy could match Reed’s for overall value. It would be fair to say his last year ranks “top five.”

There were three victories – including a World Golf Championship event – starting in Greensboro. There was the birth of his first daughter in May. There was his first spin in all four major championships.

Then, to crown it all off, there was confirmation of his qualification onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

“It’s amazing,” Reed said of all the things that have come his way since making a birdie from a bed of ivy vines at the Wyndham Championship to beat Jordan Spieth in a playoff. “A lot has happened in a year – really two years ago from Monday qualifying to winning my first tournament here last year. It’s happened pretty fast.”

It has certainly been an eventful ride to the top tier in golf – where Reed famously stated he belongs among the top five in the world after his wire-to-wire victory over an elite WGC field at Doral. He currently ranks 26th in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Reed is among the top Americans, as his inclusion on the Ryder Cup team verified. He hung onto the ninth and final automatic spot by a narrow margin over Zach Johnson – though the 2007 Masters Tournament winner gets in because Dustin Johnson is taking a leave of absence from golf and will not participate.

“I just found out right after the PGA that I made the team, so I haven’t had a lot of time to process it and think that far ahead,” he said of the marquee international team matches Sept. 26-28 at Gleneagles in Scotland. “I’m just excited to be a part of it and get a chance to represent my country.”

Reed is the third former Augusta State golfer to qualify to play in the past five Ryder Cups, following Vaughn Taylor for the American side in 2006 and Oliver Wilson for the European team in 2008. It’s a remarkable streak for a relatively small college, tied with perennial power Oklahoma State for placing the most different players in that same span.

“That’s pretty cool, I didn’t know about that,” Reed said. “It just shows that if you work hard it doesn’t matter where you come from.”

Before his victory at Sedgefield Country Club last year, the Ryder Cup wasn’t even a remote possibility for the guy who turned 24 before last week’s PGA Championship.

“When you get out here there are two things you dream about – playing in the major championships and playing for the Ryder Cup,” Reed said. “I can’t believe in only two years on the PGA Tour I’ve already managed to achieve both. It’s very exciting.”

He’ll join 21-year-old Spieth and fellow three-time tour winner this season, Jimmy Walker, as rookies on the U.S. team. Tom Watson has three captain’s picks to hand out and could consider another rookie, but it’s fair to say the Americans will be decided underdogs in Scotland regardless.

That’s fine with Reed, who relished that role in compiling a perfect 6-0 match-play record in back-to-back NCAA title runs for the Jaguars in 2010-11.

“I was an underdog two years in a row in the NCAA championships and handled that,” Reed said. “I like being the underdog. There really are no underdogs at this level. Everybody on both teams are great players.”

Reed certainly brings a dogged tenacity to the American side. He has a flair for getting under his peers’ skins, as the reaction to his “top five” remarks illustrated. But he also has a knack for winning head-to-head matches as his NCAA record and a semifinal run in the 2008 U.S. Amateur attests.

What does he hope to offer the U.S. side?

“Really, just points,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about is getting points for the team and hopefully I can bring that and help fire our team up.”

Reed doesn’t believe the pressure of the partisan atmosphere will be anything he can’t handle. He believes he’s dealt with enough pressure to be ready for the unique environment.

“I know there will be some nerves – that’s going to happen,” he said. “But more than nerves it’s going to be excitement. I’m excited to get out there and play for my country and see what it’s like.

“One of the most stressful things I’ve ever played was our first Monday qualifier, and the second most stressful thing I’ve ever played was Q School. So playing in both of those, once I got to the PGA Tour event … to me that almost seemed like a breeze compared to 100 something golfers, four spots, 18 holes and a golf course you really haven’t ever seen before and you have to go out and play.”

He admits that the stress of trying to cling to a Ryder Cup berth got to him at the PGA, where he shot 73 on Sunday and tied for 59th as he kept an eye on Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Ryan Palmer on the scoreboards.

“I was so focused on what Zach was doing and what all these other guys were doing on that final round that I wasn’t able to play golf,” he said. “You know, it’s definitely a learning experience, and I’ll definitely learn from that.”

For now, Reed returns to his tour comfort zone in a place where he held off Spieth in a playoff.

“It really jump-started my career, that’s for sure,” he said of his maiden victory. “Playing really well here, and actually being able to cap it off and win, it led to me being able to play very well for almost a full year in a row and hopefully that will continue.”

Michaux: Rory McIlroy's star shone brightest at dark PGA Championship

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 10:03pm

Finally, a show worthy of a major.

After a string of relative duds this season, an all-star cast conspired to make the PGA Championship a classic until the very last shot in the dark.

Rory McIlroy confirmed his standing as golf’s new “it” guy, joining Young Tom Morris, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones as the only golfers in history to win four majors before they turned 26. Yeah, that classifies as “Hall of Fame” even without the constant reminders by The Script in those Omega watch commercials.

McIlroy’s third consecutive win in three starts was his most brilliant yet, rallying against some heavyweight challengers after a slow start with an eagle on 10 and a couple of fist-pumping birdies on 13 and 17 to ice it.

The ending was surreal – if a little unbecoming of a major. Despite desperately needing eagles on the reachable par-5 18th to catch McIlroy, both Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler agreed to let the leader tee off immediately after they did to allow the chance to finish before complete darkness. It was a classy show of sportsmanship under tense circumstances.

But while Mickelson and Fowler wanted to finish while there was still barely enough light to read the green, the PGA usurped their etiquette rights and made them wait for McIlroy to hit his approach to the green as well. It clearly rattled both players, whose best hope was to make eagle or hope McIlroy made a mistake trying to hurry to beat the darkness.

Mickelson barely missed his eagle chip, Fowler three-putted and McIlroy saved par out of the bunker to win by one. It might have ended up that way anyway, but it wasn’t the PGA’s right to intervene (especially after creating the issue anyway by stubbornly adhering to a late start for TV despite forecasted bad weather that led to a delay).

No arguing the results. The prime-time showdown drove ratings up 36 percent from last year and confirmed golf’s newest megastar.

For those not fortunate enough to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy, a subjective recap:

BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. An absolutely brilliant major season brought a T3 to go with his T5 at the Masters Tournament and runner-ups at the U.S. and British Opens. He said this one “hurt the most” as he couldn’t muster another birdie after being tied for the lead through 10 holes. But safe to say Fowler is a rivalry force in golf’s new hierarchy.

BIRDIE: Phil Mickelson. After a season mostly to forget, Lefty provided an unforgettable bid for a sixth career major. Only a bit of bad luck on 16 – when his pitch hit the hole but rolled 10 feet by – prevented him from beating the new king.

BOGEY: Bubba Watson. It was a rough week for the green-jacketed one. He staged a petty protest of the non-invasive long drive competition, he grumbled about rain on his clubface in the second round and dropped Tiger Woods’ favorite profanity into microphones and ended up having to apologize to his fans on Twitter. Distraction seems to be his enemy of late.

BIRDIE: This is 44. It’s not all about the kids. Not only was 44-year-old Phil a welcome threat, age mates Ernie Els and Jim Furyk represented the old guard well. Els charged into contention with six birdies in 11 holes Sunday before leveling off while Furyk posted his second consecutive top-5 major finish to go with his 14th at Masters, 12th at U.S. Open and runner-up at Players.

BOGEY: Tiger Woods. After turning up on the tournament’s eve like a rock star and declaring himself fit enough to play after withdrawing the Sunday before, Woods struggled and missed the cut like a mortal again. Fans shouldn’t see him on TV again until 2015.

BIRDIE: Jason Day. After all the health issues this summer including his thumb and vertigo, Day’s T15 was impressive. Especially his bare-footed par save from a creek bed in the lead group on Saturday.

BOGEY: Past PGA champs. Only three former PGA champions made the cut – McIlroy, Mickelson and Vijay Singh. Eleven others withdrew or missed the cut, including reigning U.S. Open champ Martin Kaymer, Keegan Bradley, Padraig Harrington and Tiger.

BIRDIE: Augusta State. Patrick Reed becomes the third former Jaguar to qualify to play in the last five Ryder Cups, following Vaughn Taylor (2006) and Oliver Wilson (2008). Only one other college (Oklahoma State) has placed as many different players in the biennial competition during that same span. Impressive.

BOGEY: Jason Dufner. It was tough to see the defending champion walk off the course with a neck injury after making triple on the 10th hole. The exit cost Dufner an automatic berth in the Ryder Cup, though he might not be healthy enough to play anyway.

BIRDIE: Steve Stricker. Accepts an assistant captain role in Ryder Cup and subsequently goes out and finishes seventh. Perhaps he should play a bigger role than driving the cart.

BOGEY: Tom Watson. Missing the cut was the least of his worries as his Ryder Cup team looks overmatched and perhaps without staples Matt Kuchar (back), Dufner (neck), Woods (bad) and Dustin Johnson (leave of absence). Good luck captain.

BIRDIE: Bernd Wiesberger. The Austrian you might not have heard of before this week earned a tee time with McIlroy in the final pairing. It didn’t work out, but it’s a good experience.

BOGEY: Bulldogs bubble boys. Brendon Todd, Chris Kirk and Harris English were all trying to impress Tom Watson for Ryder Cup consideration. Kirk and English missed the cut while Todd faded to 73rd after a fast start.

BIRDIE: Mikko Ilonen. Finn one of only three players to post four rounds in the 60s (McIlroy and Stricker the others).

BOGEY: Henrik Stenson. This may be rough on a guy who finished third, but you can’t three-putt from 20 feet on 14 while sharing lead or hit 3-wood on 18 when you need an eagle.

BIRDIE: Louisville. Fans flocked to the course in spite of heat and rain and made it a major event even before the fireworks.

BOGEY: PGA of America. Decision to play ball down all week on a saturated course was stubborn, with mud balls having a clear impact on the outcome. Even worse was not being willing to move tee times forward just a little Sunday to avoid the rush to beat darkness that ultimately ensued.

BIRDIE: Valhalla. It hardly qualifies to be in the same company as Augusta National or Pinehurst architecturally, but the Jack Nicklaus course has a knack for bringing out drama and Hall of Fame champions (Mark Brooks notwithstanding).

BIRDIE: Masters. Not only will Rory be trying to complete his career slam, he now will seek the third consecutive leg of his own major slam. Like 2001 with Tiger, people will be talking about Masters for next 240 days and the hype will be immense.

Autonomy for Big Five spells end to status quo

Sat, 08/09/2014 - 7:10pm

College sports as we’ve known it underwent a pretty massive upheaval this week.

To be honest, it’s hard to figure out whether this is the beginning of something extraordinary or the end of something great.

The only thing that seems certain is it’s irreversible.

As Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford put it recently, “The good ship status quo has sailed.”

Two major decisions ensured the hypocrisy of the amateur athlete-students at the biggest collegiate sports factories is over.

On Thursday, the NCAA approved “autonomy” for the five largest revenue-producing conferences to regulate their own set of rules – paving the way for potential player benefits including stipends, full cost of attendance, enhanced insurance and family postseason travel expenses.

On Friday, a federal judge ruled that athlete-students in football and basketball have a right to be compensated up to $5,000 a year beyond just scholarships for the use of their likenesses in television and video games.

So in the coming years, star football and basketball players could not only be receiving up to $5,000 per year in cost-of-living stipends but could net a $20,000 payday upon graduation from a revenue-sharing trust fund.

Now you can see where all those massive TV contracts will be applied. The cost of doing business at the major-college level just got a lot more expensive.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These athletes put in a lot of hard work so that their schools and coaches can profit handsomely on the backs of their effort. They should be entitled to some reasonable piece of the benefits.

“I think this is a great day for the student-athletes,” Georgia director of athletics Greg McGarity told a radio station after the autonomy approval. “It allows them to basically be able to take advantage of some of the wealth that we’ve been able to generate through the SEC Network and all the tremendous things the conference office has done to drive revenue to the institutions.”

How much this all fundamentally changes the collegiate sports landscape is uncertain. The haves and have-nots will still exist as always – only the haves will have a little more. The have-nots will find it even tougher to compete.

Thursday’s approval of “autonomy” for the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences makes sense, the “Big Five” aren’t like the other 27 collegiate athletic conferences in the country. It’s farcical to try to apply the same style of governance on Georgia as you would Savannah State. We’re not even talking apples vs. oranges; we’re talking Jupiter vs. its moons.

But it’s not as simple as that, of course. Within each of the big conferences the differences in institutions can be substantial. Georgia Tech doesn’t have the same financial well to draw from as Clemson or Georgia. And for all the Jupiters like Alabama, Ohio State and Texas there are plenty of dwarf-planet Plutos like Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and Purdue.

These are issues that the Big Five will have to resolve on their own, and that might mean annexing a few more satellites from the lesser conferences to help the bottom line.

The cost of all this on the fan experience is the biggest concern – and not just at the ticket counter.

The Big Five is largely a football construct. The best recruits in the nation are already almost entirely swept up by these power conferences. That won’t change.

But what about the way football schedules are constructed? According to an ESPN poll, the majority of coaches in the major conferences are in favor of scheduling only against other Big Five opponents. That would eliminate prominent non-conference opponents like Boise State, Brigham Young, Central Florida and Cincinnati who got left standing when the expansion music stopped.

Count South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier among those not in favor of a closed football shop.

“The Big Five conferences all playing each other, I don’t think that makes a lot of sense, really,” Spurrier said this week. “Out of conference, playing East Carolina is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams. ... The SEC, we have some down-the-line teams just like every conference.”

There isn’t anything wrong with having a non-conference regional foe on the calendar. In the new collegiate order, Georgia Southern will need the payday from a Georgia game more than ever to survive financially.

Of greater concern is what this might all mean to college basketball and its cash cow NCAA Tournament. What the Big Five choose to do will have immense trickle-down effects the other more than 200 Division I programs trying to stay competitive. The beauty of March Madness is the general balance between the Davids and Goliaths. But if the Goliaths get too “autonomous,” the whole system might collapse.

The Big Five leaders assure us that won’t happen.

“It largely gives the power five conferences what we have been asking for and keeps the current revenue sharing approach and the NCAA basketball tournament intact, thus keeping us all under what we call the big tent of the NCAA,” Swofford said.

If only it were that simple. These are seismic shifts that are taking place. Like climate change predictions, we’re not entirely certain how immediate or dramatic the effects might be.

But we can be certain there’s no turning back from whatever this new future holds. You can see a horizon where the Big Five’s need to make more money to cover everything results in a bigger wedge between them and the rest.

“I hope there’s not another next step of separation where those 65 schools go off on themselves,” Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said this week. “Because if they do, that would be a sad day for intercollegiate athletics.”

Charles Howell makes his return at the PGA Championship

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 10:25pm

Partially by design and partially by circumstance, Charles Howell believes he’s never been more rested and prepared to take on his lone major opportunity of the season.

Coming off a three-week break that unfortunately included declining an invitation to the British Open, Howell heads into today’s first round of the PGA Championship excited about the possibilities ahead in both the next four days and six weeks.

“A lot of times by this time of the year I’m a little bit tired and a little bit ready for the season to wrap up,” said the 35-year-old Augusta native. “But I’ve had three weeks off, which I’ve never had in a season. I’m actually really excited to play again after plenty of time to work on my game and rest.”

Howell had to skip a late invitation to play at Hoylake citing personal reasons that he declined to elaborate.

“It was just something with the family that I needed to be home and address,” he said. “Turned out it wasn’t a big deal in the end, but I just needed to be home. I hated to miss it because it was the British Open and I’ve played quite a few of them.

“Everything worked out well and my mind is clear and I’m just excited to play again. ... Unfortunately in life some things take a little precedence over golf, but I’m excited to be back.”

Howell believes the extra week added to his planned two-week break turned out to be a blessing in disguise with the upcoming PGA Tour playoff series that doesn’t have a built-in week off this season because of the Ryder Cup. Howell plans to play at least the next five consecutive weeks and hopefully six if he’s one of the top 30 players to qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake.

Howell was 24th in the FedEx Cup standings after finishing tied for 23rd in his last start at the John Deere Classic. But the three-week break cost him in the standings as he slipped to 31st entering the PGA – sitting on a bubble.

Last year he entered the playoff series 27th in points but failed to finish better than 33rd in three playoff events and missed qualifying for the Tour Championship by five spots. The untimely rut cost him an automatic spot in all four majors this year. The PGA will be his only major for the second consecutive season.

“I’m more rested now and my game is in better shape than it was at this time last year, so hopefully I can use that to my advantage and play well enough to get inside the top 30,” Howell said. “I frankly don’t care if I’m fifth or 30th, just as long as I make it in the top 30. To make it to Atlanta would mean more to me than however I were to do in Atlanta simply because that would get me back in the Masters. And I’d obviously love nothing more than to get back into that tournament.”

Before focusing on that goal, Howell is keen to reverse a different trend in major championships. Valhalla marks his 39th career major appearance and his 14th consecutive PGA start. What limited success he’s had in those majors has typically come in the PGA, including his lone career top-10 finish when he was 10th at Oak Hill in 2003. But he’s missed his past two cuts in the PGA.

Howell believes he’s taken steps with his swing coach, Grant Waite, to address his shortcomings on major stages.

“Historically I don’t think I’ve played as well in the majors because I haven’t driven the ball well enough for four days in a row,” he said. “It’s hard to play out of the rough in majors and it’s an area of my game that Grant and I have spent a ton of time on and it’s improving statistically. So that’s one of the things I’m excited about.”

Valhalla is a big course that isn’t too tight – features that tend to suit Howell’s game. Though he’s never played there before this week, he likes what he’s seen.

“My goal is to enter play on Sunday somewhere inside the top 10 to 12 and see what happens,” he said. “If you’re in 10th or better on Sunday you’ve got a heckuva chance.”

At 35, Howell’s play is more consistent than ever as his nearly $28 million in career earnings reflect (24th all time). He’s posted six top-10 finishes this PGA Tour season and missed only one cut (the Players) since prior to the Masters.

But at an age where some of his heralded classmates such as Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia have become the game’s elite, Howell still languishes in that no-man’s realm between 50th and 100th in the world (currently 80th) where he’s resided full-time since the middle of 2011.

“I’m at that age where my peers are either – A – losing their card or – B – having a breakthrough in their career,” Howell said. “They’re kind of breaking through one way or the other – up or down. This is a funny part. We all have families now. Every decision doesn’t revolve around golf anymore. I’m really cognizant and aware of that. I’m trying to work and bust my tail because I know, hey, I’m 35 and not 21 anymore and I’m trying to get as much out of it as I can.

“I’m definitely the most consistent that I’ve ever been. With that said, I’d still like to kind of turn the corner where I win a tournament once a year or fairly consistently because ultimately that’s what you get remembered by and that’s what the most important thing is.”

This week could go a long way in changing the conversation about Howell and getting him back into that top-50 status that’s long been expected of him.

“When I ultimately get myself back inside the top 50, it really makes it a lot easier to plan a schedule and play in the bigger events and all the things you need to do to keep the world ranking up there. I still need to turn that corner.”

Perhaps the PGA will provide the fresh restart he’s been waiting for.

Michaux: McIlroy, not Woods, is now man to beat in majors

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 10:21pm

There’s a new narrative that Rory McIlroy has overtaken Tiger Woods as golf’s most dominant player – and the facts support it.

Declarations of the “McIlroy Era” began after he breezed to a British Open victory three weeks ago to capture his third leg of the career slam. The changing-of-the-guard theme got an even larger boost of momentum on the eve of the season’s final major championship.

McIlroy, 25, backed up his wire-to-wire performance at Hoylake with a comeback victory over Sergio Garcia at the WGC-Bridgestone event at Firestone. The consecutive wins vaulted McIlroy back to the No. 1 ranking in the world leading into this week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla.

“I’m not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era, but I’m just really happy with where my golf game is at the minute, and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible,” McIlroy said Tuesday during a news conference.

Meanwhile, Woods withdrew during Sunday’s final round in Akron, Ohio, with yet another back injury that is proving epidemic in his diminishing quest to establish himself in the official record books as the greatest golfer of all time.

Woods is 38 with a body seemingly going on 60. It’s not a reach to draw the conclusion that he will never again be the same player he once was – or even close to it with another injury seemingly looming with every awkward lie.

Woods hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to even attempt to tee it up this week at Valhalla, where he won a memorable duel with Bob May in 2000 to capture the third leg of his Tiger Slam. Considering the way he was chopping the ball around Firestone on Sunday before walking off the course after nine holes, why should he even bother? He’s shown no sign that his game is good enough to beat McIlroy and Co. this week or qualify for the PGA Tour’s playoffs or be worthy of captain’s pick consideration for the Ryder Cup.

The best thing for Woods and golf might be to shut it down and try to get healthy and ready before next year’s Masters Tournament in April.

Sunday’s scene at Firestone was eerily similar to March when he pulled out of the Honda Classic halfway through the final round. Woods played the next week at Doral, but then ended up undergoing back surgery that kept him sidelined until June.

Whether he came back too soon and reinjured himself or suffered some new ailment isn’t yet known. One way or another, this might be the new normal for him and he’ll either have to suck it up and play through pain the way Fred Couples did, or be prepared to be a part-time golfer in between the bad days.

The void Woods leaves has been filled by McIlroy.

He’s certainly on a Tiger-like roll, with three significant wins since the end of May when he rallied to claim the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth.

He’s the first player since Woods in 2006 to follow a major championship win with a victory. If he wins a third consecutive PGA Tour start this week at Valhalla, he’d be the first to do so since Woods won five in a row bridging the 2007-08 seasons.

“I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I had the ability to do that, and it’s just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel like I should be – which is near the top of the world rankings and competing in majors and winning golf tournaments.”

It’s perhaps time to accept that golf has indeed entered a new era. Woods is playing older than the date on his driver’s license and Phil Mickelson is dealing with the inevitabilities of aging as well. There are plenty of worthy characters in their prime such as Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Garcia and a new order of 20-somethings led by McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and aspiring major artists Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Jordan Spieth. If he gets his act together and gets out of the doghouse, Dustin Johnson could still figure prominently in this new era.

Tiger might not be done winning tournaments or even majors. But he’s not THE person to beat anymore. That role firmly belongs to McIlroy now, even if he isn’t buying into it.

“People can say what they want to say, that’s fine,” McIlroy said. “But I can’t read too much into it. … Because if you read everything that was being written, I’d turn up at the first tee on Thursday thinking I’d already won the tournament.”

Perhaps golf isn’t ready to concede him that yet, but he’s getting closer than anyone since Woods to that pedestal. And when the Masters rolls around next spring, McIlroy – not Woods – will be THE story as he tries to complete his career slam quest.

Thomson should follow Lincoln County's lead and honor Luther Welsh

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 11:07pm

LINCOLNTON, Ga. — Larry Campbell first found out about Friday’s “surprise” from an innocent source.

“What are they doing at the field?” asked his 9-year-old grandson, Campbell.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the retired football coach said.

“They’ve got a ‘Larry Campbell Stadium’ across it,” the boy said.

So it wasn’t the grand unveiling in front of Georgia’s governor, other dignitaries and a packed bleacher that the officials of Lincoln County planned as a surprise honor for the winningest football coach in state history. But it was perfect nonetheless.

“His grandmother could’ve killed him,” Campbell said of his grandson who sweetly spoiled a surprise that was never going to happen anyway. Keeping a secret in a small town like Lincolnton is harder than it was beating Campbell’s Red Devils for most of the past 44 years.

But it’s not the surprise that matters. It’s the effort, thought and heart that was behind the honor that Lincoln County bestowed upon a man who has meant so much to their community for several generations. Football is the most uniting element in this small town and been a part of so many of their lives.

“I just thought there’d be maybe a hundred people here,” Campbell admitted. “It blew my mind, it really did. Whoever put it together did a fantastic job.”

The most touching part of a ceremony that included speeches from Gov. Nathan Deal, former Georgia coach Ray Goff, Red Devils legend Garrison Hearst and others was when all of the coaches and players who have ever worked with or played for Campbell filed from the stands onto the field to stand behind their “Coach.”

The stadium bears Campbell’s name now, but it’s all those other people who share the legacy that’s remembered. That’s why putting that named who linked so many people together atop the home stands is so important.

“I know this may sound like I don’t appreciate it, but naming the stadium for me was not my top priority,” Campbell said. “Working with kids and getting them to college and trying to make them better people was my goal.”

Mission accomplished. Lincoln County should be commended for remembering the people who helped raise their kids. The field where Friday night’s ceremony took place is named for Buddy Bufford, the coach who brought Lincolnton its first state championship in 1960. The fieldhouse where the players dress and hear devotional and listen to coaches is named after Thomas Bunch, who won two more state titles. These were the men who preceded Campbell and led generations of Red Devils going back to 1957.

Lincoln County wasted no time in doing the right thing barely more than three months after Campbell announced his retirement. We’re still waiting for neighboring Thomson to do right by one of its own.

Luther Welsh won 323 games in a coaching career that spanned 55 years – a figure that ranked fifth all-time when he retired. Of those wins, 183 of them came in 19 seasons during two stints at Thomson – more than 30 percent of the schools’ 606 documented victories. In sickness and in health – including cancer treatments – Welsh never missed a day of work devoting his life to those Bulldogs, who collected three of the schools five state championships and 11 region titles under his watch.

Welsh died just seven months after coaching his final game for the Bulldogs in the 2010 playoffs. Four years later, Thomson is past due honoring the man who mentored generations of Bulldogs.

“Amen,” said Campbell of one of his dearest coaching friends. “I think it will come. I think this will put the pressure on them, I hope. Because Luther Welsh was every bit the football coach I was – 10 times better. He did a lot for Thomson two different times. What would it hurt?”

Most of the right folks in Thomson agree. Longtime Bulldogs assistant coach John Barnett has been lobbying for years to get officials in McDuffie County to name it Luther Welsh Field at the Brickyard. Barnett says Welsh’s successor, Milan Turner, was all for it and that the newest Bulldogs head coach, Rob Ridings, endorses it as well.

“To me it’s a no-brainer,” Barnett said. “I know there are a lot people for it. It’s past time for that to have been done.”

In a way, Welsh’s death – as well as his wife’s just days before his passing – so soon after retiring complicated the process. There was no living legend there to honor with a ceremony like the one for Campbell. Officials perhaps didn’t want it to seem like an emotional decision.

But as the events in Lincolnton showed, the honor is for more than just one man. It’s a legacy that’s being remembered – a legacy shared by every player who ever wore the uniform and learned valuable life lessons from being part of a team under a skillful coach.

Thomson is supposedly considering a wall of honor at the Brickyard, which is a terrific idea.

Local legend Ray Guy’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame illustrates the value of a shared history.

Barnett, who just completed a 340-page book on the history of Thomson football entitled Ghosts of the Brickyard, knows how much it means to the community and how Welsh needs to be more than just another bust on a brick wall. His name on the field will be a permanent connection for future generations to share with the past.

“How many schools have named a field or stadium after a coach who can’t come close to what Luther Welsh did here at Thomson?” Barnett asked. “Anything less than naming the field after coach Welsh is inadequate.”

Thomson should name it’s field for Welsh and it’s fieldhouse in the multi-million dollar renovation for L.C. “Flash” Gordon, who won 100 games at Thomson coach from 1941-56. As Lincoln County proves, there is room to share honor for those who deserve it.

Barnett is certain Welsh would be like Campbell and never lobby for his name to be on a stadium.

That’s not why he devoted all those years raising other people’s kids as a coach and director of athletics.

“He was the last person in the world who thought the field should have been named after him,” Barnett said.

But that’s what makes the recognition so worthy. It’s not too late for Thomson to do the right thing even if Welsh isn’t there to share the celebration.

“It won’t mean as much to him because he’s dead,” Campbell said. “I’m really happy they did it while I was still kicking and able to enjoy it.”

Naming a piece of the Brickyard won’t bring Welsh back, but it will keep his legacy alive. In communities like Thomson and Lincolnton, the importance of those legacies can’t be overstated.

Palace Malice keeps Cot Campbell on his game

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 7:35pm

The old Hollywood western cliche of galloping into the sunset would seem a most apt description of Aiken horseman Cot Campbell.

At 86 years old, with more than half his life in the horse business, Campbell is on quite a ride with a thoroughbred that’s proving to be once-in-a-lifetime.

“It is wonderful,” Campbell said. “Most guys my age are sitting around taking it easy and I’m managing the campaign of the No. 1 horse in America at the moment and it is terribly exciting and stimulating. And that’s precisely why I do it.”

Palace Malice, the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner for Aiken’s Dogwood Stable, will put his perfect four-for-four 4-year-old record on the line Saturday in the Whitney Handicap. The $1.5 million race for older horses is the richest purse in the history of Saratoga Race Course and features a quality nine-horse field, including last year’s 3-year-old champion, Will Take Charge.

Palace Malice, however, is the even-odds favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race. He’s also the perceived front-runner – along with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome – in the race for Horse of the Year. A Las Vegas line has Palace Malice and California Chrome as 5-to-2 co-favorites for the top Eclipse Award. The two are expected to meet head-to-head in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1.

Campbell believes his horse has the chance to live up to the bloodlines of his two-time Horse of the Year sire, Curlin.

“I think he is the prime candidate at the moment,” Campbell said. “If California Chrome comes back to win a couple of races including the Breeders’ Cup and beats us, he’d be hell to beat. But otherwise, I think right now we’re in the catbird seat.”

All Palace Malice needs to do is keep on winning. That’s no sure thing at Saratoga, where he’s won twice in three starts but lost last year’s Travers Stakes after an awkward break from the post.

But the horse is itching to run for the first time since his charging win down the stretch in the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park on the one-year anniversary of his breakout win in the third leg of the Triple Crown series.

“The horse is doing great; everyone is talking about him,” Campbell said. “He’s like a fighter ready to fight. He’s bit two people and one person had to have a tetanus shot. He’s edgy and on his game and ready to run.”

He’ll need to be in a strong field that includes Departing, Itsmyluckyday, Romansh, Last Gunfighter and the speedy Moreno. Palace Malice drew the No. 5 post right in the middle while Will Take Charge got the undesirable rail.

“It’s a huge race,” said Todd Pletcher, Palace Malice’s trainer. “The horse is doing fantastic. He’s off to a great start this year, and we’re just hoping for more of the same from him. He’s been super consistent and impressive.”

Palace Malice has answered the call every time this season in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, New Orleans Handicap, Westchester Stakes and the Met Mile. After the Whitney, Campbell plans to run him again at Saratoga in the Woodward Stakes on Aug. 30, the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. All of them are in the horse’s ideal distance range of 1 1/8- to 1 1/4-mile.

“He does well everywhere and seems to adapt wherever he is,” Campbell said. “He’s been to seven racetracks and wherever he is suits him fine.”

That last venue, however, also is well suited for California Chrome, who has three wins in four starts on his home track including the Santa Anita Derby to start the year.

Campbell, as always, likes the challenge. The man who gave up alcohol 57 years ago and never graduated from grammar, high school or college got an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from USC Aiken in May to kick off what’s turned into a banner year.

“It means a lot to me,” he said of the accolades that have come his way. “I’ve had an interesting life. I’ve had a colorful life. I had a tumultuous life in the early days.”

While Campbell and Dogwood have had some quality champions of more than 80 graded stakes through the years, including 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall, Trippi, Impeachment and Limehouse, this horse is proving to be the most accomplished. His victories over both 1 and 1 ½ miles at Belmont Park make him an attractive candidate for the breeding shed when the time comes. Campbell said he’s been contacted by 10 farms already but he’s holding off retiring Palace Malice to stud.

“I would say we are racing people, but we don’t want to be stupid either,” Campbell said this week. “Many farms have called, and I’ve said we’ll wait until this fall. He could retire or go another year. We’ll have to figure it out as we go along. It’s a tough decision. We certainly don’t want to leave money on the table, but I think the horse has achieved a level of value he will always have.”

Campbell himself has come a long way from the guy who chipped in $300 with a couple of friends in the late ’60s to purchase his first horse. But the thrill of finding a special horse has never grown tiresome.

“Every time I find one I think they’re potentially going to be a nice horse,” he said. “I don’t count on it. But this horse from the very start acted like he could be something special. ... It was pretty clear he could be one of the good ones.”

If Palace Malice proves to be Campbell’s last great horse, so be it. But he’s not going to concede to the sunset yet.

“Somebody once said nobody’s ever committed suicide with an untried yearling in the barn,” Campbell said. “That pretty much describes the mindset of a horseman. We’ve got some nice 2-year-olds that I’m excited about.”

Michaux: NFL sends wrong message with Ray Rice punishment

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 8:11pm

Fortunately for Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice, he didn’t kick his dog or shoot himself in the leg or he might have really drawn the ire of the league office.

Rice received only a two-game suspension (plus a three-game salary fine) from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his aggravated assault charge for knocking his fiancée unconscious. Video showed Rice dragging Janay Palmer (now his wife) from an elevator.

Goodell isn’t exactly sending a strong message that domestic abuse will not be tolerated.

The two-game suspension equals what Michael Vick ultimately received for his dog-fighting operation. Vick, however, also served 19 months in prison, so the two games on top of that was just an added bonus.

Of course none of it compares to how the league feels about abusing other NFL players – including yourself. Plaxico Burress was once suspended four games for accidentally shooting himself in the leg at a nightclub. Saints players (and a head coach) were suspended for a full season for participating or condoning a “bounty” program encouraging hard hits.

Cleveland receiver Josh Gordon is facing a full-season suspension for testing positive for marijuana, a third-time violation of the league’s substance-abuse policies.

“We believe that discipline we issued is appropriate,” said Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy, on a radio show. “It is multiple games and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think that’s fair to say that doesn’t reflect that you condone the behavior.”

It’s disheartening, however, how the NFL typically shrugs off domestic abuse. I’ve covered teams where players were ostracized for “quitting” on teammates and many have worried that having an openly gay player on a roster would be a “distraction” in the locker room.

But coaches, players and fans never seem to hold it against athletes who would willingly strike a woman. Rice was heartily cheered by Ravens fans during open training camp practices Tuesday. Clearly all that matters is what he does on the field and not off it.

This is a dark blemish on the league that will only improve when the commissioner starts treating it more seriously than relative wrist slaps.

UGA BASHING: It’s a popular preseason drill to criticize the Bulldogs for its seemingly inevitable off-season infractions that typically cost a player or two some early-season game eligibility. A particularly rough week in July caused Georgia to dismiss a defensive lineman for domestic battery charges and suspend linebacker Davin Bellamy for a couple of games for a DUI charge.

Surely South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is having a chuckle. Of course, the Gamecocks’ offensive lineman Na’Ty Rodgers would be automatically ineligible for two games at Georgia for his March underage drinking and disorderly conduct charges. In Columbia, however, he’s still fighting for the starting job in the opener against Texas A&M because the Gamecocks don’t follow the same mandatory punishment guidelines as Georgia.

The Bulldogs certainly had a tough off-season with several prominent players transferring to other major colleges after getting in the doghouse at Georgia. Critics like to jump on Mark Richt for “recruiting bad kids,” as if the players those recruits weren’t offered scholarships at other schools.

It might surprise people to know that 12 Southeastern Conference schools had players arrested since last season with violations as severe as sexual battery, aggravated robbery and residential burglary. Texas A&M led the way in the post-Johnny Manziel era with 10 criminal player incidents.

Congratulations to Vanderbilt and Arkansas for quiet off-seasons.

SLAM DUNK?: The bandwagon of predictors that Rory McIlroy is a lock to win a future Masters Tournament and complete his career grand slam is a crowded one. Some are convinced it will happen as soon as April and others are sure no later than 2016.

When you’ve won the other three majors by age 25 and all in convincing fashion, it’s a simple narrative to write out.

Of course, we were all pretty certain that Greg Norman would win a green jacket, and that sure-thing didn’t quite play out as ordained.

McIlroy obviously has a game that’s well-suited for Augusta National and has proven capable of contending there. But he’s also developed some significant Masters scar tissue since his famous 2011 meltdown – especially on the greens – and has yet to walk away from the season’s first major with four clean rounds.

Of the five men with career slams, only Gene Sarazen completed the cycle at Augusta. That was in 1935, when the Masters Tournament wasn’t even the Masters. Sarazen’s wins at the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA all came before Augusta National even existed as a golf course, so it’s safe to say he never fielded any questions about completing the “career slam” until about 25 years after he’d already done it. That tends to take the pressure off.

McIlroy, however, knew what would be in store for him next spring even before he prevailed at Hoylake.

“It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year,” he said with a laugh on the eve of his claret jug win.

The only comparable hype to what McIlroy will face when he comes to Augusta is 2001, when Tiger Woods completed his sweep of all four majors simultaneously under intense media scrutiny. McIlroy, however, won’t have the same deadline constraints over the next two decades. We’ll see.

LEG UP ON GUY: To get in the mood for Saturday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction of Ray Guy, the NFL Network will premiere a documentary on the former Thomson legend at 9 p.m. Thursday

The hour-long show, entitled The Specialist: Ray Guy, highlights his road to the Hall of Fame from Thomson through Southern Miss to the Raiders. Producers spent two days at The Brickyard in Thomson in June interviewing friends, former coaches and teammates of Guy for the show.

The documentary will be rebroadcast Friday and Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 8 p.m. on the NFL Network.

It was only a matter of time before Braves trio got their due in Cooperstown

Sat, 07/26/2014 - 4:42pm

“Inevitable” is a strong word that rarely applies well in sports – at least not in any positive sense. Death, taxes and age sapping your skills are the only sure things even the greatest athletes can count on in life.

You can’t guarantee championships. The best teams don’t always win. Atlanta Braves fans are painfully aware of those things.

But for one solid decade from 1993-2002, you were absolutely, positively, 100-percent convinced every single time you turned on the “SuperStation” or trekked down to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium or Turner Field that you were going to see five can’t-miss, sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famers wearing Braves uniforms.

Even in an era when nothing about Baseball’s Hall of Fame is a lock, you could throw around the phrase “future Hall of Famer” with relative assurance that every one of those five guys would back it up first chance they got.

So today’s Phase I induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., was quite frankly inevitable starting the moments pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and manager Bobby Cox retired. First opportunity the voters had to choose, you could buy the bronze and start casting their likenesses.

Madduz got an absurdly low 97.2 percent of the ballots cast his way, Glavine got 91.9 and Cox was a unanimous choice from the 16-member veterans committee.

Phase II should come this time next year when John Smoltz rejoins his rotation mates, likely clearing the 75 percent threshold even with fellow first-timers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez in a crowded pitching lineup. Smoltz basically combined Dennis Eckersley’s career with Curt Schilling’s postseason luster.

Phase III should be completed in 2018 when Chipper Jones adds his bat to the lot. If 468 home runs, a National League MVP and batting title spanning a decade, eight All-Star selections and a clutch diet of Mets (but not steroids) when it mattered don’t get you past the bouncers, what can?

You have a hard time finding precedents for these Braves in the modern era post-World War II. The only previous class to include three guys who spent a good chunk of their careers on the same franchise was the second installment in 1937 when Cy Young, Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie took their Cleveland ties from different eras to the Hall of Fame.

The only pitching rotation to feature three Hall of Famers at the same time (other than the 1966 Dodgers with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton) were the Cleveland Indians of the early 1950s that boasted Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn together for eight seasons (with some spot starts and long relief from Hal Newhouser during their 111-win 1954 season).

But what Braves fans were privileged to witness on the mound year after year in the midst of 14 consecutive division championships was largely unprecedented. You can quibble over the insufficient number of championships (only one World Series win in 1995) for a team that won 101 or more games six times from 1993-2003, but you can’t argue with the quality of the effort and show they provided.

Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz collected six consecutive and seven of eight Cy Young Awards from 1991-98 (Maddux’s first in 1992 came in his last season with the Cubs) and Jones backed that run up with an NL MVP in 1999.

Each pitcher was mesmerizing in their own way – Maddux confounding hitters with cerebral application of various pitches from the same delivery; Glavine painting the outside edge of the plate with left-handed precision; Smoltz overpowering with his uber-competitiveness that segued perfectly into a closer’s role for a few year’s after Tommy John surgery.

For his part, Jones provided consistent excellence at the plate and Cox the steadiest leadership over a 162-game season than anyone in history.

It was a pleasure to watch them ply their crafts together for so long, even if they came up frustratingly short in the postseason too often.

It was an even greater pleasure to get to cover them. A baseball clubhouse can be a most intimidating environment, especially for someone parachuting in periodically.

Yet the greatest players of a generation were the least intimidating guys to deal with. Nine times out of every 10 Braves games I covered, the only guys I would talk to were Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Jones or Cox.

They were the most approachable, the most thoughtful, the most accommodating with the most to say. They’d not only give you the story on the field but fill in the blanks on the reporter’s notepad in the clubhouse. (It didn’t hurt that most of them didn’t mind talking golf with a guy from Augusta every now and then.)

So today’s induction ceremony is one of the great days in Braves history. If you want to count Joe Torre, who spent the first half of his 18-year playing career with the Braves and three seasons as Atlanta manager from 1982-84 including the city’s first consecutive winning seasons, it’s an even bigger day for the ‘A.’ Torre’s induction is mostly based on his 12-year managerial reign with the Yankees, but he wore the Braves uniform for just as long and well before he donned pinstripes.

Whether you’re watching at home, in Cooperstown or joining the celebration with fellow Braves fans at Turner Field, it’s a perfect day to reflect on just how lucky we were to watch these guys be great together for so long.

That we knew this day was coming years ago only makes it more special.

Clemson counts days to South Carolina game

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 8:26pm

If you’re counting at home, it’s 36 days until the first Saturday of college football season.

If you’re counting at Clemson, it’s 127 days until the one Saturday that seems to matter most to the Tigers.

Since the end of the 2013 season, every position meeting room at Clemson has included a clock on the wall counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Nov. 29 when the Tigers play host to state rival South Carolina at Death Valley.

The biggest digits on each clock, however, are painted directly below the LED timer – 0-5.

To say the Gamecocks’ unprecedented five-game winning streak in the Palmetto State rivalry has gotten into the Tigers’ collective head would be an understatement.

“It’s a high priority,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s annual preseason media days. “We want to get it done.”

There might be bigger rivalries in college football – Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, Ohio State-Michigan, USC-UCLA – but it’s hard to beat the growing entertainment value of the Clemson-South Carolina animosity since Swinney and Steve Spurrier became the principle mouthpieces.

Spurrier is the master of the verbal jab and uses it with surgical precision. Swinney isn’t one to hold his tongue on the receiving end. They claim a mutual respect, but that doesn’t come across in their sound bites.

“I have great respect for coach Spurrier, but we’re just from different planets,” Swinney said. “He’s from Pluto, I’m from Mars.”

Spurrier’s response on ESPN: “Dabo probably thinks there’s only, what, nine planets out there. I think I read where Pluto may not be considered one now.”

Spurrier insists “it’s just a bunch of talking,” but all the talking certainly has ratcheted up an already intense dislike from boosters that derisively refer to each other as “Chickens” and “Taters.”

“The only thing I remind Dabo of is his comments three years ago of the real Carolina being in Chapel Hill and the real USC being in California,” Spurrier said in his visit to ESPN headquarters earlier this week. “Sometimes he forgets he throws some stuff out there also. He wants to make people believe that I’m the only one that throws a little stuff out there.”

Both of them started the talking countdown to 2014 at the conclusion on their respective bowl victories in January. After being presented the trophy at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Spurrier grabbed the microphone and cackled with almost maniacal glee while offering an un-instigated barb at the Tigers.

“These two Capital One Bowls in a row are pretty nice,” he shouted, “but that state championship ain’t bad either.”

Two days later Swinney offered a rebuttal from the Orange Bowl podium in Miami.

“We’re the first team from South Carolina to ever win a BCS bowl,” he said.

Spurrier, of course, had an answer for that this week.

“We’ve never even been to” a BCS bowl, Spurrier said. “I’ll admit to that, although we beat them about every year. They get there and we don’t. That’s just the way it is. The SEC can only send two teams and the ACC sends two. We’ve got too many good teams going.

“That’s just the way it’s worked out. He’s correct. But would you call the Orange Bowl a BCS bowl? They won the national championship there in 1981. I asked Danny (Ford), ‘Have they completely forgotten about you and your team in ’81?’ He said, ‘I think they have.’ ”

Swinney is operating from a distinctly disadvantaged position – which is not something Clemson coaches are accustomed to in this 118-year-old rivalry. He’s lost decisively in five consecutive games after winning his first shot against the Gamecocks while he still held the interim head coach tag. Even the Tigers’ unprecedented consecutive 11-win seasons is overshadowed by South Carolina’s record three in a row.

Last season South Carolina finished fourth in the final poll, Clemson eighth. The year before the Gamecocks were eighth, Tigers 11th. The year before that it was South Carolina ninth, Clemson 22nd. So flipping the outcome of that annual nonconference game could have a major national impact as college football enters the playoff era.

“That’s certainly something that has really been a painful part of our program for the last five years from an in‑state standpoint but also nationally,” Swinney said. “We finished seventh (in coaches’ poll) this year and they finished fourth, so that game is very important from a state pride standpoint, just like it always has been. But it’s become very important for our bigger goals, as well, from a national standpoint.”

The countdown clock treatment is a stark contrast to the way Spurrier has handled the in-state obsession with the rivalry. One of the first things he did after taking the Gamecocks job before the 2005 season was remove all the “Beat Clemson” signage in the football facilities. His emphasis is on bigger Southeastern Conference goals.

“Clemson used to pretty much own South Carolina in football, no question about it,” Spurrier said last week at the SEC media days. “We have a state championship trophy. If you ask our fans at South Carolina, I can assure you a majority would say we would rather beat Clemson than win the SEC. That is how big it is to them, that one game. Personally I’d rather win the SEC. I don’t mind saying that. Personally that’s the bigger trophy.”

Clemson has plenty to prove long before it reaches that Nov. 29 date with the Gamecocks. The season opener in 36 days between the hedges in Athens, Ga., is the kind of thing that should have everyone’s attention. Two games later they travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on defending BCS champion Florida State in a game that may decide who wins the ACC Atlantic Division.

But that Gamecocks game-clock will keep ticking down throughout it all.

“We want us to be the best, and we want to win that game,” said Cole Stoudt, who takes over for Tajh Boyd at quarterback. “That’s the emphasis that we have put on, and over the past few years losing to them has kind of not sat well with us. So this year we’re hopefully going to turn that around this year.

“We don’t want to just focus on that game because we have Georgia, Florida State, we have games before that. We’re going to take it a week at a time and we’re always going to have that reminder in the back of our head, ‘Hey, we’ve got South Carolina coming up.’ ”

Rather than in the back of their heads, it’s right in front of their faces every time they walk in the meeting rooms.

Clemson fans are naturally excited about the possibilities, snapping up all 52,000 season tickets. ACC and playoff goals are certainly realistic options again, but there’s one omission on the Swinney/Tigers résumé that matters.

“When you walk in our team room every day and you look at our team goals, we’ve hit every team goal on there in the past five years with the exception of winning our state championship,” Swinney said.

Only 127 shopping days remain before the clocks come down or the timer resets to 364 days above an unfathomable “0-6.”

 

McIlroy finds what once was lost at British Open

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 6:22pm

Walking away prematurely from the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, Rory McIlroy was about a million miles away from ever hoisting a claret jug.

“Brain dead” was the term McIlroy used for the state of his game a year ago after missing the cut in the Open for the first time.

“Seriously, I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months,” he said. “I’m trying to get out of it.”

Whatever was lost was found when he returned to Hoylake last week. McIlroy was a different kind of unconscious, dominating Royal Liverpool and the field to add the 2014 British to his major catalog that includes the U.S. Open (2011) and PGA (2012).

For a guy whose previous major wins already came by eight-stroke margins, his wire-to-wire performance at Hoylake might have been his most masterful. When the comfortable lead his opening pair of 66s built was cut to a tie after 13 holes on Saturday, McIlroy converted massive drives, precise irons and perfect putts into a birdie and two eagles on the remaining even-numbered holes to open a six-shot gap. He steadied a few wobbles Sunday and coasted in down the stretch with two shots to spare.

It’s a far cry from a year ago and signals a brighter future with only the Masters Tournament standing between the 25-year-old and a career slam.

“I’ve really found my passion again for golf,” he said. “Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning. It’s what I think about when I go to bed. I just want to be the best golfer that I can be.”

As for the rest of the winners and losers from Hoylake:

BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. Tie for fifth in Masters and back-to-back runner-ups at U.S. and British Opens. Working with Butch Harmon has pushed young Rickie to new heights.

BIRDIE: Sergio Garcia. Of all the close major calls in the Spaniard’s 61 major starts, this effort was his most positive since his charging runner-up as a teenage rookie at 1999 PGA.

BOGEY: R&A. Most people differ with my thoughts here, but the decision to tee off both sides Saturday to avoid forecasted afternoon storms deprived the Open of its most essential element. It broke a 154-year precedent and deprived us of seeing how McIlroy’s beautiful game would hold up against foul weather. I understand the need for safe-guarding fans from potential thunderstorms (which never materialized). That the move avoided a deluge only makes it likely that the R&A will do it again. As the Scots say, “Nae wind; nae rain; nae golf.”

PAR: Tiger Woods. It would be easy to pile on since he failed to break par after an opening 69, but expecting more from a guy with two competitive rounds since undergoing back surgery is more unrealistic than the usual extreme Tiger standards.

BIRDIE: Tom Watson. The timeless linksmaster came within four strokes of shooting his age Sunday with a closing 68 and tying for 51st after breaking his own record as the oldest to ever make the cut.

BOGEY: Tom Watson. Ryder Cup captain didn’t get much help from Woods or Phil Mickelson, who both might need a captain’s pick to qualify but haven’t shown much to deserve it. Can he pick himself?

BIRDIE: Jim Furyk. For an older guy (44) with a weird swing, Furyk manages to keep himself relevant in all the biggest events. He finished solo fourth at Hoylake for the second time, his fifth top-five finish in the British.

BOGEY: Bubba Watson. Masters champ claimed distraction of “too many people” inside the ropes led to his unfocused freefall midway through first round and second consecutive missed major cut. Plus, he couldn’t name a single Beatle.

BIRDIE: Gerry McIlroy. Rory’s father cashed in with three friends for a $350,000 payout on a 500-to-1 wager he made a decade ago that his son would win the Open before his 26th birthday.

BOGEY: English beat. Despite high hopes for the likes of Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Paul Casey, the English drought extended. Nick Faldo remains the last English winner in 1992 and Tony Jacklin the last to win Open in England in 1969.

BIRDIE: John Singleton. The local resin factory worker not only qualified but made three birdies in his last four holes Friday as he played through tears under the cheers of friends, family and anyone who loves a great success story. His 4-over total tied or beat 10 major champions.

BOGEY: Ernie Els. Hitting a fan with his opening tee shot unraveled the two-time Open champ, who slapped around a three-putt from a foot on the first hole and never recovered.

BIRDIES: Marc Leishman and Shane Lowry. Sunday 65s by both didn’t quite get them automatic Masters invites, but the top-10s moved them to 51st and 59th respectively in the world rankings to give them a decent shot at reaching Augusta.

BOGEY: Georgia golfers. Eight Bulldogs teed it up for the second consecutive major, but only three made the cut with Chris Kirk’s T19 leading the way. Bryden Macpherson brought up the rear with rounds of 90-80.

BIRDIE: ESPN. The streaming app made it easy to follow nearly 40 hours of live coverage. And if you liked British accents and no commercials, you could even choose the BBC international feed. Splendid.

BOGEY: Charles Howell. For all of his quality play this season, the Augusta native declined his exemption to Hoylake citing “a personal family reason.” The PGA will be his only major start for second year in a row.

BIRDIE: Jimmy Walker. After a T9 at Augusta, T6 at Sawgrass and T8 at Pinehurst, we’ll excuse him for his T26 at Hoylake. He’s the new Jason Dufner.

BOGEY: Steve Stricker. For the second consecutive year, the top 20 player skipped the British. Absence of major win doesn’t seem to bother him as he drifts closer to retirement.

BIRDIE: Ivor Robson. The familiar high-pitched first tee announcer got a lot of air time and suggested when it was over that he might hang up his duties after his 40th Open at St. Andrews next summer. As fans, we don’t want to “let him go.”

BOGEY: Patrick Reed. On a course where he won the R&A Junior Open in 2006, Reed took himself out with a bogey-triple finish Thursday. At No. 10 in points he’s fallen just outside the Ryder Cup bubble.

BIRDIE: Masters. McIlroy earning the third piece of the career slam focuses even more attention on his return to Augusta seeking the last leg in the place he came painfully close to winning his first major in 2011.

BIRDIE: St. Andrews. Old Course will have a lot to celebrate next year with McIlroy’s defense, Watson’s swan song and perhaps a female member of the R&A Golf Club should the September vote break properly.

Michaux: Gamecocks must take advantage of open SEC

Sat, 07/19/2014 - 7:01pm

Steve Spurrier calls it “talking season,” and few talk the talk better than the Gamecocks’ ol’ head ball coach.

But talking won’t mean anything if South Carolina can’t walk the walk this year to the Southeastern Conference football championship game.

“We got a pretty good team we think,” Spurrier said at the SEC Media Days, and the media agreed by narrowly picking the Gamecocks to edge out Georgia for the SEC East.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt doesn’t agree with that assessment, but what else is he supposed to say during “talking season?”

By all accounts, the SEC is pretty wide open this fall – and that’s saying something after Auburn and Missouri surprised everyone last year by reaching the Georgia Dome after 0-8 and 2-6 conference records, respectively, the year before. They overcame established strengths at Alabama, Louisiana State University, Georgia and South Carolina to get that far.

This season, the strengths aren’t so well defined. So many standout quarterbacks are gone from College Station, Texas, to Columbia and key points in between that it’s hard to tell exactly who will rise above the question marks. The principle programs are essentially the same, but there’s not the kind of sure thing you’d want to risk your mortgage on with any kind of guarantee.

Which is why South Carolina needs to take full advantage and not just talk.

All of the key indicators point in South Carolina’s favor.

The Gamecocks’ two early conference tests – Texas A&M in the opener and Georgia two weeks later – are both at home. That’s no small thing.

“Got a pretty good win streak going there, as most of you know,” Spurrier said.

South Carolina has won 18 in a row at Williams-Brice Stadium, dating to Oct. 1, 2011. It’s the second longest streak in the nation, behind Northern Illinois’ 26-game streak at Huskie Stadium.

Like fellow top-tier SEC programs* at Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M and even Mizzou, the Gamecocks have huge shoes to fill at quarterback. Connor Shaw might not have been the prototypical signal caller, but he was a tough leader with an uncanny intangible quality of being able to win whatever it took.

(*Yes, the Gamecocks have earned inclusion among the conference elite with three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 final rankings.)

Dylan Thompson is a fifth-year senior with enough experience to make the Gamecocks comfortable with him taking over. Georgia is in similar hands with long-time back-up Hutson Mason trying to replace the SEC’s all-time passing leader in Aaron Murray, but Thompson has more experience to bank upon and a better offensive line (even though Mason has Todd Gurley and better skill players).

Most of all, the Gamecocks have Spurrier and a mission to make history. It was serendipity that brought them together – the right coach in the right program that needed him most.

“I wanted to go out a winner, not a loser,” Spurrier said of his disappointing NFL detour between Florida and South Carolina. “Fortunately South Carolina was really the best opportunity I could ever ask for. It was a school, you could probably describe their football tradition as mediocre, they had a losing record overall, way under .500 in SEC games. Nowhere to go but up.”

Spurrier has rewritten all that and built something special in Columbia, where no one really could before. He changed the culture from thinking they could be good to actually being good and flipped the Palmetto state with an unprecedented five-game winning streak over a pretty strong Clemson program.

Spurrier even admits it tops his coaching efforts at Florida, where he won six SEC and one national title in 12 years. He’s locked down the best in-state talent, enticed more high-dollar boosters and graduates some quality stars to the NFL ranks.

But only one thing will complete his mission before he retires – a title. Despite those three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 finishes in the final AP poll, the Gamecocks have been shut out of the SEC title game since their blowout loss to Auburn in 2010. All three seasons they watched a team they beat in the regular season (Georgia in 2011-12 and Missouri last year) represent the SEC East in the Georgia Dome.

“We’ve won a lot of games, but we still have only won one division, haven’t won an SEC,” Spurrier said. “Those are goals that we have a shot at that could happen for the first time in school history. ... I can assure you, I tell those recruits, ‘If you come here, hopefully you’ll be on the first‑ever SEC championship team ever.’ That’s still our goal. We haven’t quite done it. I think we’ve been close but not close enough.”

This is the window for the Gamecocks and Spurrier – before Georgia figures out how to play defense again and Florida and Tennessee get their acts together and rise back into prominence. It starts with winning the East and earning a date against all those elite recruits stockpiled at Alabama or LSU.

The SEC media is pretty terrible at picking league champions – getting the overall winner right only four times in 22 years. Alabama, this year’s choice, is 0-5 when tapped in the preseason. That bodes well for others.

But the media is right about South Carolina being the team to beat in the East. Now the Gamecocks need to walk the walk. Another 11-win season isn’t enough anymore in Columbia – not without a championship banner and a ring and perhaps a playoff appearance.

That will be something worth talking about for seasons to come.

Michaux: Woods' play encouraging

Thu, 07/17/2014 - 4:22pm

Typically only insomniacs turn on the television to watch golf at 4 a.m. in a desperate effort to go back to sleep.

On Thursday, golf junkies were actually waking up intentionally to do just that.

The start of ESPN’s live 11-hour coverage of the first round of the British Open at Royal Liverpool just happened to coincide with the major championship return of Tiger Woods. And the man who moves golf’s needle the way The Beatles once did rewarded the diehards with an encouraging performance.

If you were one of the multitudes doubting Woods had any reasonable chance of ending a six-year major drought based on his two over-par rounds since having back surgery March 31, Woods’ opening volley at Hoylake should give you second thoughts. Even after his 3-under 69 set him up in the top 10, there’s still a long way to go for him to replicate his emotional 2006 victory on the same links course. Established guys like Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia aren’t going to just step aside and let Woods cruise on past.

The point is, however, it’s not so unreasonable to think Woods can actually do it. His game showed all the signs of resuming normalcy – attacking shots with unconcerned force, stopping in the middle of downswings to bark at itchy photographers and executing awkward-stance bunker shots that four months ago might have sent him to the emergency room.

“I felt good about a lot of things I did out there,” Woods, who birdied five of six holes in a back-nine stretch to inject himself into the picture, told reporters after his round.

While the rest of us have tempered our expectations of Woods – most of us now doubting he can cover the four-major gap on Jack Nicklaus in his history quest – he hasn’t.

“If he goes to Hoylake saying, ‘I’m here to win and that’s the only thing,’ that would be him telling a lie to himself,” Curtis Strange said during the Open buildup. “I hope he makes the cut ... but I don’t think you could ever expect him to be on the first page of the leaderboard come the weekend.”

Naturally, Woods was asked by reporters Tuesday what would be “an acceptable finish” this week. He spat out a simple “First” so reflexively that folks in the interview room laughed.

“That’s always the case,” he insisted.

Those skeptical snickers carried over if you bothered to wake up to watch his 4 a.m. start. He blasted an impossible bunker shot over the green on No. 1 and made bogey, then followed it up with a three-putt bogey on No. 2. Despite what was described as ideal scoring conditions, Woods was still 1-over par through 10 holes while the leaders were making birdies all over the place.

Then all of the sudden, Tiger Woods showed up. The one we used to know.

Draining a 30-footer up a slope from off the green on the 11th lit a fire. He started knocking shots close and making putts and moving into contention. Any drowsiness from an early wake-up call was gone as Tiger gave a glimpse that his career goals are far from finished.

“I knew I could do it,” Woods said. “I’m only going to get better. I’m getting stronger. I’m getting faster. I’m getting more explosive. The ball is starting to travel again. And those are all positive things.”

The most positive signs came at the end. Woods pulled a familiar trick, pulling up on his 3-wood in mid-downswing after cameras distracted him. Not easy to do even without back issues. Then he managed a tough shot standing half out of a pot bunker from a stance that would make chiropractors cringe. Then after giving interviews, he immediately retreated to the range to work some more, “attacking balls ... with ferocity and purpose” wrote ESPN.com.

Ferocity and purpose have been hallmarks of Woods’ storied career before health and personal distractions the last six years got in the way. They would be welcome attributes for golf fans eager to see Woods resume his quest to break all of golf’s major records.

In the wee hours Thursday, fans at home woke up to a glimpse of something familiar. Whether he backs it up the next three days with his long-awaited 15th major victory doesn’t really matter. It’s just good to know that he still can.

NFL's Redskins ninckname has to go

Sat, 06/28/2014 - 9:21pm

It’s a debate I’ve long steered clear of, recusing myself from weighing in based on personal allegiances.

My childhood self that unwittingly cherishes the memories, however, is at cross odds with my adult self that knowingly can’t support bigotry.

Silence isn’t the proper response anymore. The Redskins nickname has to go.

The long-standing campaign to get Washington’s NFL franchise to change its inarguably race-based nickname is reaching crescendo as the team’s stubborn owner looks sillier by the day with his insensitive inflexibility.

With the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelling six trademarks belonging to the football team last week, saying they are offensive to Native Americans, the heat has become intense on the franchise to make a change. The amount of mocking unlicensed merchandise that will surely flood the market soon will cost more in ridicule than it will in the millions of dollars that Dan Snyder will have to spend trying to protect the familiar logo.

It would be a lot cheaper and a lot more lucrative to just rebrand the team. Call them the Redhawks, Red Devils, RedBulls (sponsorship opportunity) or Red Menace. Pretty much anything that doesn’t demean the features of Native Americans would be an acceptable and welcome alternative.

I’m not one of the people ready to jump on board the bandwagon to erase all Native-American inspired nicknames from the landscape. I believe most of them – such as Braves, Chiefs and Warriors – come from a place of respect. Teams choose those nicknames based on noble attributes that fit athletic ideals. (I don’t have the same affection for “Indians” since the word itself is a name our ancestors created because they were too ignorant to realize they had landed on the wrong continent and too lazy to change to moniker once they figured it out.)

It’s not hard to understand why Native Americans would cringe at the sight of thousands of mostly white fans chanting and “tomahawk” chopping in unison. I don’t choose to join in at Turner Field. And nobody can condone the use of demeaning caricatures like Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo or the long-gone
Atlanta feature of Chief Noc-A-Homa and his outfield teepee. We should have progressed as a society to stop using such insensitive stereotypes.

We hadn’t, however, when I was a kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s playing “Cowboys and Indians” around the neighborhood when we weren’t playing kick-the-can. The Redskins nickname seemed harmless enough. I had never once in my life heard the R-word being used as a pejorative. It certainly wasn’t in the same realm of the N-word that reached ugly heights of hate and disrespect in an era of civil rights and desegregation.

Personally, I always loved Washington’s helmet logo and would doodle it during classes while humming the team’s famous fight song. The words of that song, however (not to mention the band wearing headdresses), were indefensible.

“Scalp’um, swamp’um

We will take’um big score.

Read’um, Weep’um, touchdown

We want heap more.”

Even the team knew that kind of demeaning impression was offensive and changed the words in the late ’80s to scuttle the Tonto-like pidgin English.

Pig-headed team owner Snyder, who has driven away this lifelong fan with his reprehensible personality and his ineffective leadership, refuses to yield in the face of criticism from all sides including team players and President Obama.

“We will never change the name of the team,” is Snyder’s mantra.

That’s a rather shallow line on the sand to draw. Other teams have long since changed their offensive nicknames and survived. Stanford went from Indians to Cardinal in 1972. William and Mary went from Indians to Tribe in the late ’70s. St. John’s jettisoned Redmen (and arguably the most offensive of all caricature logos) in favor of Red Storm in 1994.

Most notably, Miami (Ohio) changed from Redskins to RedHawks in 1997. Washington could make a similar switch and keep its uniforms and logo almost identical, perhaps with a hawk tail feather draped off a circle with the Capitol dome inside.

Bottom line is, it’s not Snyder’s or anyone else’s place to say what is or isn’t offensive to an entire group of people. Native Americans are offended by a nickname that clearly has racial connotations. Fighting to uphold that “tradition” in the face of public scorn is absurd.

Until that name is gone (and preferably Snyder with it, in my opinion), I cannot support the team of my childhood. That famous fight song still rings in my head, but the fight has changed.

Fail to the Redskins.

Fail history.

Braves on the warpath,

Fighting bigotry.

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