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Michaux: Golf's old guard needs to loosen up

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 5:58pm

It’s been a very fun month for golf – at least it seemed that way.

Jordan Spieth blew up in the Masters Tournament and recovered with an epic brocation in the Bahamas with fellow young pros Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Smylie Kaufman. Snapchat photos and videos of shirtless 20-somethings goofing around on a tropical golf course under the hashtag #SB2K16 pervaded social media for days.

Back at home in Aiken, Kevin Kisner was profiled in an entertaining Vice Sports video having a good time at Palmetto Golf Club, his home course, with friends as he prepared to make his Masters debut. It was the kind of peek behind the scenes at one of the game’s non-traditional elites that makes golf look pretty fun.

It didn’t take long before those youthful golfing endeavors started drawing disapproving looks and even disciplinary action from the game’s old guard determined to stamp out any playful insurgencies that might appeal to a younger audience that golf so desperately needs.

Kisner confirmed on social media that he and a few fellow Palmetto members had been summarily suspended by the 124-year-old club for their behavior in the video.

“You really suspended/in hot water with the club for the Vice video?” one follower asked Kisner on Twitter.

“Yes, along with everyone in video who are members as well. Pretty comical,” Kisner replied.

As for the Bahama bros, prominent blogger and Golf Channel contributor Geoff Shackelford spoke for the establishment under a judgmental post entitled “Sorry: #SB2K16 Is Not Something To Be Lauded.”

“At times, the behavior exhibited was boorish, unbecoming of pro athletes who do so much to inspire kids and reckless to their physical health,” Shackelford wrote.

You can practically feel the collective eye-roll from the kids who aren’t watching golf for the Cialis commercials.

Kisner, 32, is at the top end of a generation we call “millennials.” They are the most coveted demographic in the world – adult consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 who are at the heart of most marketing campaigns.

Golf needs millennials to buy in. The old club dynamic is losing membership and some clubs have shuttered along the way. The biggest obstacles to growing the game are time, cost and access. The last thing golf needs to do is turn off young people to the core attraction – a game that can be enjoyed in all manner of different ways by different people.

A Forbes story this week cited National Golf Foundation stats that 6.2 million millennials – 28 percent of all golfers – play about 100 million rounds per year in the United States and spend about $5 billion annually on golf.

This group matters for the game’s future health, and many of them don’t want to conform to the stereotypes of a stuffy old game.

If they want to play in cargo shorts with their hats on backwards or enjoy a beer in the clubhouse wearing a nice clean pair of jeans and a T-shirt, what harm does that really do? I don’t know who drew the original line on acceptable cotton fabrics at denim, but the guy is probably as dead as the notion that non-ripped jeans aren’t as appropriately dress casual as khakis.

You don’t have to like the way everyone else chooses to behave or dress to accept it. As long as everyone isn’t disrupting others or damaging property, it should be fine. One of the beautiful things about Palmetto is that it’s a great course and laid-back club that doesn’t make everyone feel like they’re walking on egg shells the way some private clubs do.

A simple “Hey, Kevin, let’s not do that again with the carts,” would have sufficed in the wake of the Vice video. Instead, the club went with a classic overreach in suspending its most prominent ambassador – making nobody look good in the process.

There was a personal moment last May at the famed Firestone Country Club in Ohio that fits this topic. I was there staying on property with a 16-man group as the guest of my brother, who is an out-of-town member. We played the famed South Course in the morning and then had a rather boozy team scramble on the West Course in the afternoon.

Before dinner, as the shadows grew long, four of us went back out with only 7-irons to play the first and ninth holes on the South in a little money match. It was particularly memorable for me since I drained long “putts” with my 7-iron on both holes to play them in 1-over and win all the bets. A few folks sitting in rockers on the clubhouse veranda overlooking the ninth green even applauded.

That’s when we were approached by a clubhouse manager. He was polite but he made it clear we were not to do that again.

That kind of harmless fun, however, is what golf needs to stop suppressing and start encouraging. Racing golf carts certainly deserves a polite rebuke because it can be dangerous and damaging, but it hardly warrants a club suspension by overreacting overlords. Goofing off with friends in casual rounds is pretty much the best part of the game.

There is a place for decorum without dismissing good, clean fun. Golf will be healthier when it finds the balance and the old guard and new wave are allowed to peacefully coexist.

Wesley Bryan is having a dream season

Tue, 04/26/2016 - 7:32pm

Wesley Bryan gained internet fame with his brother hitting trick golf shots, but that’s nothing compared to the trick the Augusta resident pulled off in the last six weeks.

In only six starts as a rookie on the Web.com Tour, Bryan has two victories, two more top 10s and has already locked up his PGA Tour card for next season. For a guy who had never played anything more than mini-tour events prior to 2016, he’s already climbed to 212th in the world rankings – barely behind No. 209 Ernie Els and 210 Stewart Cink.

“It’s crazy how quickly all this has happened,” said Bryan, who shot a course-record tying 63 last Friday en route to a four-stroke victory in the El Bosque Mexico Championship. “I didn’t think in a million years that the first six events I would have two wins, a couple other top-10s and lock up my PGA Tour card. I always knew that I was good enough to compete out here, I’d just never gotten the opportunity. So when I finally got out here I basically had to rely on that self belief because I really had no experience to draw on.”

The 26-year-old Bryan was hardly an unknown before becoming the runaway leader on the Web.com Tour money list in 2016. The 2012 South Carolina graduate is the son of longtime Chapin, S.C., club pro, George Bryan III. His older brother, George IV, was a three-time All-American for the Gamecocks. Wesley won the 2007 Southern Cross Junior Invitational at Palmetto Golf Club and competed with his brother on Golf Channel’s 2015 season of Big Break.

In tandem with his older brother, Bryan Bros Golf became viral sensations in 2014 making trick-shot videos. But then Wesley soared through all three stages of Q School last year, securing his Web.com Tour card with a tie for ninth in the final stage last December. Suddenly the guy who admitted suffering “yips” and threatened to hang up his clubs after shooting a 101 his junior season in college was going to compete on the world’s top developmental tour starting out in places from Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and Louisiana.

“I feel like the Bryan Bros stuff last year really helped me learn how to travel, staying on the road week after week after week,” Bryan said. “Granted we weren’t playing tournaments, but it got me used to this traveling lifestyle, sitting in the air. That’s definitely played a role in my preparation stuff for this year.”

In his first notable career start the last week of January, Bryan finished tied for seventh in Panama. With the result he debuted in the Official World Golf Rankings at 1,127th.

“The way I played all through Q school, I knew my game was better than it had ever been,” he said. “So I wasn’t shocked when I got myself into contention the first event of the year. That let me know if I play my game and play well that I can play with these guys out here on the Web.com Tour. Kind of getting over that first hump the first week kind of settled me down and realize I do have the game to compete out here.”

Two starts later, in March, he rallied and survived a back-nine duel to earn his maiden win in Louisiana with his brother as his caddie. Last week in Leon, Mexico, he rallied again from two down entering the final round and ended up cruising to his second victory. At 212th in the world, he’s ahead of former world No. 1 Vijay Singh (216).

“In Louisiana, I played the entire back nine within at least one of the lead and not once did I feel any nerves,” Bryan said. “The back nine in Mexico, I had it all the way up to a five-shot lead at one point and I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I could barely choke down water. I couldn’t get any food down. I had the cotton mouth going and the heart was beating a million miles per hour. I think that’s good. That’s why we tee it up, to feel those nerves. And I was still able to hit the shots when I needed to under that type of pressure and stress.”

While he’s already guaranteed a PGA Tour card for the 2017 season, remaining No. 1 on the final Web.com Tour money list would give him the coveted full PGA Tour exemption. Another victory this season would make him the 11th player in history to gain a battlefield promotion. The last player to achieve that three-win advancement was Carlos Ortiz in 2014.

“God it feels amazing,” Bryan said immediately after his win. “To wrap it up this early in the season is just incredible, but I know there’s still work to be done. There’s a lot riding on the tournaments upcoming. Because I know another win gets me straight out there. So I’m going to put my head down starting next week and get straight back to work.”

Speaking from the plane before flying to Indiana for this week’s Web.com Tour stop, Bryan said he is hoping to keep the roll going. He did suffer a minor setback, documented with a photo on social media, when his trophy from Mexico did not survive the trip home intact.

“You never tee it up to lose so obviously every week that I tee it up there’s one goal in mind,” he said. “I’m sure the third win is going to be the hardest one to get, but I know if I’m able to get myself in contention again I’ve been able to hit all the shots that I need to under the gun.”

Bryan moved to Augusta in May 2014 when his wife, Elizabeth, started classes in the Physicians Assistant program at Augusta University.

She graduates in May, but with her fielding job offers in Augusta and them purchasing a house, the Bryans are more likely than not to remain Augusta residents.

While he keeps traveling the Web.com Tour this season, he’s already started daydreaming about next season and finally fulfilling his career dream to compete on the PGA Tour and perhaps earn a place in a future Masters Tournament.

“I’m so excited words can’t even express it,” Bryan said.

Michaux: Woods needs to stay patient and not rush back

Sat, 04/23/2016 - 6:53pm

It was two weeks too late and at the wrong Augusta-area event, but Tiger Woods returned to the public view with his golf swing on Thursday.

Performing at the behest of his sponsor in a junior clinic in Graniteville. Woods hit a full array of shots from wedges to driver for 45 minutes. He took requests, hitting his famous “stinger” as well as calling various shaped shots to certain targets that did exactly what he commanded them to do.

The rogue videos that popped up on social media sent a stir throughout the golf world that Tiger Version 8.0 (honestly, I’ve lost track of the reboots) would be back in circulation imminently.

Golf Channel began speculating that Woods might return to play as soon as two weeks at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., citing lengthy range sessions down in Jupiter, Fla. Experts started analyzing the few available swing clips from Thursday like they were the Zapruder film.

“If that’s pretty good I’d hate to see bad,” one unidentified swing coach messaged Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck. “Worst swing I’ve seen him make other than it was smooth but that will go away under the gun. ... So upright. Club through shoulders but not the right foot – at high speeds a recipe for back problems.”

Tiger’s camp maintains the “no timetable” in regards to his return from a pair of back surgeries that have sidelined him since August. But that status might get officially updated on Monday when Woods shows up in Houston for the opening of his latest course design, Bluejack National, and talks on the record. He’s expected to play the new course, which will only ramp up the comeback frenzy.

Frankly, it’s all too familiar and a little concerning. Woods has made so many premature returns from hiatuses over the last few years that a pattern has emerged. He says he’s heeding doctors’ orders and taking his time, but too often he’s ultimately rushed himself back into the fast lane targeting major events he so desperately doesn’t want to miss. And the results have not been in his best interests.

It seemed obvious that Woods didn’t really want to let go of the possibility of playing in the Masters Tournament two weeks ago, as he waited until late on the Friday night before the season’s first major to officially announce “it’s prudent to miss this year’s Masters.” After starting to hit balls daily, the temptation to tee it up is hard to pass up when you know the window of opportunity is getting shorter.

That’s what is so worrying about the upcoming summer schedule. With majors at Oakmont, Royal Troon and Baltusrol where he’s posted top 10s in the past, the temptation to hurry up to be ready for them is undeniable. An epic story by Wright Thompson that came out on ESPN.com on Thursday detailed Woods’ decline over the past decade and illustrated his tendency to believe in his own invincibility.

The reality of his 40-year-old body has proven otherwise. And considering that his next comeback attempt will arguably be his last, it is imperative that he doesn’t make any missteps.

The problem with returning for the high-profile summer season is an inevitable clash between expectation and reality. Woods can’t escape excessive scrutiny whenever he tees it up, whether or not he has a realistic chance of contending after so much idle time dealing with serious injuries. Jumping directly into the biggest events on the toughest courses against the strongest fields runs the risk of doing more physical and mental harm than good.

With everything he’s been through regarding his back, his swing changes and his confidence hiccups after the last few years, it’s hard to fathom Woods almost out of the top 500 being ready to legitimately contend for a major title in the next three months. See last year’s disastrous forced major campaign as the model for what is likely to happen again.

The prudence that guided his decision to skip the Masters would suggest a less strenuous road back. Waiting until his own Quicken Loans National in late June to return would give him two more months to build up his strength and endurance before easing back into tournament condition in staggered starts at venues like Greenbrier, Hartford and Greensboro. Later throw in a couple of fall starts with a long-term focus of going full-speed into the 2017 season.

It’s hard for an elite athlete like Tiger Woods to be patient, but he needs to think in the long-term instead of the immediate.

“I don’t think you should get too carried away with the speculation and target the first start,” said Woods’ friend Notah Begay, who was on hand for Thursday’s range session.

As good as it was to see Woods back in our backyard, wearing his signature red shirt and mingling with the future generation of golf stars this week, it’s more important that we welcome a healthy Tiger back to the first tee at Augusta National next April.

There’s no need to rush.

South Carolina golfer Trent Phillips is ready for Junior Invitational

Wed, 04/20/2016 - 9:28pm

GRANITEVILLE — At 135 pounds, Trent Phillips didn’t cut the most imposing figure during introductions on the first tee at Sage Valley Golf Club. Then the 15-year-old left-hander from Inman, S.C., casually uncoiled a 315-yard drive high and long down the middle of the fairway.

“Wow,” said Savanna Weigand, a junior at Aiken High School representing the First Tee of Aiken in Wednesday’s Fluor Competitor/Amateur competition on the eve of the sixth annual Junior Invitational at Sage Valley.

Phillips subsequently hit his wedge to a foot from the cup for birdie on the 429-yard hole to start off a breezy under-par practice round where he was never in jeopardy of a bogey on the 7,344-yard course.

“If I had really grinded, I could have gone deep,” Phillips told his Palmetto State mates Christian Salzer and Caleb Proveaux over lunch. “I didn’t want to go low today. But I’d take that three days in a row, how I played today.”

This is the mindset of the 54 boys competing in what has become the most prestigious invitational in junior golf. They are fearless taking on a course that I can personally attest will chew up the average amateur from tees that are 600 yards shorter than the tips the field will play from over the next three days.

Phillips is one of only three 15-year-olds in the field, along with Aden Ye from China and Noah Goodwin from Texas. Yet like pretty much every other invitee, Phillips is already committed to play collegiately at Georgia once he graduates from Boiling Springs High School in 2018. He’s following his older brother, Trevor, who will enroll as a Bulldogs freshman golfer in the fall.

Trent never considered going anywhere but Georgia once his brother committed and he got to meet Bulldogs coaches Chris Haack and Jim Douglas.

“I was always going to lean toward where my brother went because I always wanted to play with him,” Phillips said. “I like those coaches. You want to go somewhere where you see success.”

Trevor Phillips tied for 44th at 13-over in the 2014 Junior Invitational, but he couldn’t make it back one more time after suffering a torn ACL snowboarding and will have to watch his little brother play this weekend. A third Phillips son – 12-year-old Zach – is a few years away from trying to qualify to compete at Sage Valley himself.

Who’s the best of the threesome?

“I don’t know,” Trent said. “It would be either me or my older brother. It’s back and forth.”

Trevor is bigger and longer, but it’s Trent who their father says has the best temperament to handle whatever challenge golf throws his way.

“Of all my boys, Trent’s the only one I never have to worry about,” Brian Phillips said. “Whatever sport he plays, and he’s good at all of them, he never gets over- excited. He just goes and does the best he can do and whatever that number is he’s OK with it. If he makes three birdies in a row or three bogeys in a row, you’d never know the difference. My other sons would let you know it.”

Whatever Phillips is doing has worked for him. He’s already won two South Carolina Class AAAA state titles as an eighth and ninth grader. He’d like to become the first player to win five in a row before he heads off to college, even though he downplays the accomplishment.

He ranks 12th in Golfweek’s boys rankings, well ahead of his older brother who ranks 35th.

Phillips is one of four players from South Carolina in this year’s Junior Invitational field – joining Salzer (Sumter), Proveaux (Lexington) and Andrew Orischak (Hilton Head Island), who is making his second consecutive appearance in the event. It’s an impressive contingent considering the rigid qualifying standards to get into the elite field that hails from 13 different countries. Only Texas, Florida and California with five each have more playing this year, and those golfing hotbeds dwarf South Carolina in size of the talent pool.

Salzer, who will play at N.C. State, won the S.C. Junior Amateur to qualify automatically. Proveaux, a South Carolina signee, was the state Class AAA champion. Orischak, a Virginia commit, is 27th in Golfweek’s boys rankings.

Despite its size, South Carolina every year has represented the home state well taking on the rest of the world. Carson Young of Pendleton, S.C., won the 2013 event. Matt NeSmith of North Augusta finished fourth in each of the first two years. Cody Proveaux, Caleb’s older brother, was a first-round leader in 2012 and finished ninth.

Phillips, who didn’t get to come watch his brother play two years ago because of a high school tournament, hopes to become a Junior Invitational regular for the next couple years.

“Ever since they told me how it was, I’ve wanted to come here and play,” Phillips said. “I’ve never gotten to play anything like this.”

Michaux: Georgia is hiding the best QB behind the red and black curtain

Tue, 04/19/2016 - 7:26pm

It’s pretty clear that Georgia is trying to hide something, but a 6-foot-5 quarterback with a cannon arm isn’t going to stay invisible for very long.

Jacob Eason spent all of spring practice sequestered from the outside world. He hasn’t talked to the media since signing day. He hasn’t (as far as anyone will say) worked with anything but the second- and third-team offenses during practices or scrimmages.

Then Saturday, in front of more than 93,000 witnesses, the five-star quarterback from Lake Stevens, Wash., went out and showed everybody what all the hype is about. To the full house of casual observers, he seemed head and shoulders the best quarterback on the field in the annual G-Day spring game over roster incumbents Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey.

First-year Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart, however, still is telling everyone to pay no attention to the guy he’s been hiding behind the curtains.

“People are going to say that by what Jacob did there today it’s going to be hard not to start him,” Smart was asked after the early-enrolled freshman completed 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown with mostly reserve weapons at his disposal.

“Really? Why would people say that?” Smart responded. “To me he ended up 60-something percent; Brice was 60-something percent; and Greyson had two drops and one bad decision. So for people to say that, maybe they should go to Coaching 101. Because I don’t see that being the case. What I see going into the fall camp is three guys who have three different traits. All three of them have got some growing to do.”

We get it. It’s the natural instinct of football coaches to downplay the readiness of heralded freshmen quarterbacks. Regardless of skill set, going from high school to college football in the Southeastern Conference is an enormous transition. There are always some growing pains.

Mark Richt once tried to convince everybody that the Bulldogs were better off with Joe Tereshinski under center rather then eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick Matthew Stafford. So Bulldogs fans are familiar with this song and dance.

Eason, Lambert and Ramsey certainly do have different traits. With a few seasons of collegiate experience already, including last year as Georgia’s starter, Lambert may be the safest play with enough talent and game management skills to avoid making the huge mistake. Ramsey hasn’t been fully trusted with the keys to the Bulldogs’ offense yet.

But only Eason has the obvious traits of being a quarterback who could elevate the offense with his arm and poise. His outsized talent and cool was obvious to anyone watching Saturday’s intrasquad game.

It wasn’t just the numbers, though Eason won that comparison as well. His 65.5 completion percentage, lone touchdown pass and total yards edged out Ramsey (16-25, 64.0 percent, for 224 yards) and easily exceeded Lambert (11-22, 140 yards, 1 INT).

But it was the quality of his throws that made the biggest impression. His 35-yard back-shoulder deep pass to Riley Ridley on his first possession drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd thirsting to see his arm in action. He later lobbed a perfect 37-yard deep strike that only Reggie Davis could catch up to in the fourth quarter.

He more than delivered with all eyes watching, even after offensive lineman Aulden Bynum greeted him to the huddle with these encouraging words: “Don’t screw it up, kid.”

Smart praised his young prodigy’s poise in front of the biggest crowd he’s ever performed before, yet he still kept qualifying everything about Eason with comments like “held the ball too long a couple times” or “needs to improve” regarding collegiate blitzes or the old coaching standby “I’ll reserve a lot of that judgment until I get a chance to watch all of the tape.”

But no amount of constructive criticism or subterfuge could hide the biggest quarterback on the field showing the most pure talent to elevate the offense into something greater.

“He throws BB’s,” Smart conceded. “Sometimes he throws them to the other team, sometimes he throws them to our team, but he throws BBs. He can spin the ball. I didn’t hide anything from you all when I said the guy has an elite arm. He’s got great arm strength and great arm talent when he makes good decisions most of the time and he’s got to communicate better.

“Again, I’m glad everybody got to come out and see Jacob Eason. I think the welcoming and the clapping in the stands when he got up, that’s all great. But the guy who starts the game against North Carolina will be the guy who gives us the best chance to win the game. And if that’s Jacob Eason he’s gonna be picked, but it may not be. Our fan base is going to support whoever our quarterback is. ... We’ll make those decisions in ample time.”

Georgia’s fans may have already made up their collective minds. Before ever playing a down, Eason has 46.6 thousand Twitter followers – half as many people who packed into Sanford Stadium for G-Day. Lambert (5,696) and Ramsey (13,700) don’t even have half Eason’s social media support combined.

For the next five months, Eason will disappear behind the red-and-black curtain again. He and his fellow quarterbacks will likely continue to be kept away from the media. Smart’s coaching mantra of “there’ll be no comfortable” will permeate off-season workouts and preseason camp until the season opener against North Carolina at the Georgia Dome.

“I’m going to say it again – the summer months for us are a chance to observe and watch those players grow,” Smart said. “All three of those guys have got to get better feet. All three of those guys have got to compete and do a better job of executing the offense.

“We’ve got a lot more offense than we showed (Saturday). From where they are now, they’ve got to improve and show dramatic improvement, in my opinion, for us to be as successful as we need to be.”

Whether it’s Game 1 against the Tar Heels, the Game 2 home tuneup against Nicholls State or Game 3 at Missouri in the SEC opener, it seems pretty apparent from the outside that Eason will be the quarterback Georgia needs to be as successful as it can be.

Michaux: Georgia fans turn out for Smart

Sat, 04/16/2016 - 8:55pm

ATHENS, Ga – If the devil came down the Georgia looking for souls to steal, he could have found about 93,000 of them in Sanford Stadium on Saturday ready to trade anything or a title.

Kirby Smart kicked off his tenure at Georgia with an audacious homecoming request. He challenged Bulldog Nation to fill Sanford Stadium on a Saturday afternoon in April to watch an intrasquad game – setting a 93K bar that was twice as high as the previous record of 46,815 last year in the 15th season of former head coach Mark Richt.

“Wow,” Smart said. “For the fan base to come out and support our program and support our kids the way they did, it touches you in the heart and makes a special moment to know that the fan base has got your back and got your program’s back. There were a lot of doubters out there who said it couldn’t be done and said they won’t come ... but they came. They came in droves. I appreciate that, more than they know.”

After a brief Ludacris concert and the usual pregame hype videos, Smart’s face filled the video scoreboard.

“Ladies an gentlemen, please rise. It’s good to be home,” he said, setting off shrieks of approval from the standing-room-only crowd.

Allen Iverson would have been incredulous seeing fans stream into a stadium five months before anything counts to watch a glorified scrimmage.

“We’re talking about practice, man,” went Iverson’s infamous rant. “What are we talking about? Practice? We’re talking about practice, man. We’re talking about practice. We’re talking about practice. We ain’t talking about the game. We’re talking about practice, man.”

Hotels in Athens were booked solid for the weekend. It was like the Masters never ended.

It speaks to the insatiable appetite Georgia fans have to win a championship. It says a lot about expectations that Georgia was willing to run off a popular head coach who did everything right, took the Bulldogs to the most SEC Championship games of any school in the past 15 years and won 10 games a season including his last.

Smart has made it crystal clear that the Richt ways are over. One of his first acts was taking Georgia in the opposite direction on transfers, restricting any departed players from going to other SEC or in-state rivals or reuniting with their former coach in Miami.

More troubling was that on the same day Smart and director of athletics Greg McGarity visited the state capitol in Atlanta, the legislature abruptly passed a new bill allowing the state’s athletics programs an unprecedented 90 days to comply with open records requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

What exactly Georgia might be trying to hide for three months is unknown, but it was troubling when Lt. Governor Casey Cagle dropped the gavel on the restrictive bill with the words “I hope it brings us a national championship is what I hope.”

If Smart brings a national title to Athens for the first time since 1980, the fans who are willing to fill Sanford Stadium for a practice game aren’t going to complain about methods.

Saturday’s G-Day was a far cry from bygone days when Vince Dooley tried to drum up interest by inviting celebrities like Lewis Grizzard and Ted Turner to coach the squads and call the plays. This was on an entirely different scale.

Fans came Saturday not only to show their support for Smart but to see what kind of team they might expect in the fall. It was hard to assess future success with a spring roster depleted of running backs and defensive linemen and a vanilla defensive scheme.

“I don’t think we necessarily put the best show on for them,” Smart said. “We had some sloppy ball at times, but they came to support us. It speaks volumes to where Georgia is headed and what Georgia can do.”

The biggest pre-game cheer came when still recovering tailback Nick Chubb was shown stretching on the video board. We’re talking about stretching, man.

The practice game lacked much enthusiasm until presumptive quarterback savior Jacob Eason started warming up in the second quarter. After a couple of short dumps to former Aquinas star Brendan Douglas, Eason prompted an eruption from the crowd when his first deep pass was completed to fellow freshman Riley Ridley for 35 yards. Later, the top QB prospect connected with fellow five-star recruit Isaac Nauta for a touchdown. He floated a perfect deep strike in the second half to Reggie Davis up the right sideline to set up another touchdown.

“I don’t think he knew there was 93,000 people there,” Smart said of Eason. “Because he sure didn’t have any care. He’s a very level-headed kid so for him do that was good.”

Nothing that took place Saturday would indicate that Eason was game-ready to jump Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey as Georgia’s starter for the season opener against North Carolina at the Georgia Dome. But he’s clearly the most gifted of the lot and a critical piece in Smart’s plan for immediate success.

Eason’s promise aside, perhaps the most encouraging thing Smart has said in his first months at the helm regarded his philosophy toward the kind of players he’d like to bring in the future beyond just wanted everyone to be bigger and stronger. The strong preference to pro-style pocket passers under Richt cost the Bulldogs chances with Georgia-grown quarterbacks who excelled in other programs such as Cam Newton, Nick Marshall and Deshaun Watson.

Having been challenged enough by each of those multi-threat stars while he was defensive coordinator at Alabama, Smart will be more aggressive in bringing that kind of versatility to Athens.

“I would love to have a pro-style system with a quarterback that can run,” Smart told a national scribe before spring practice even started.

Whatever the near future brings in the fall, the takeaway from Saturday is that this is Smart’s team now and Bulldog Nation is fully invested.

“As far as the team, we’ve got a lot of getting better to do,” Smart said. “As far as the program, thank you fans. For them to come out and honor these kids and believe in this program and buy in to what the entire organization is doing. From the time I issued the challenge at the basketball game, the marketing department and everybody was one team united. Let’s push this goal. Everybody pushed and we go what we needed.”

Michaux: Green Jacket will soften blow for Jordan Spieth

Thu, 04/14/2016 - 6:06pm

Food probably doesn’t taste as good. Sleep isn’t as restful. Waking moments are likely interrupted by a memory loop of the 12th hole.

Jordan Spieth understood what his immediate future would feel like before he ever left Augusta National. When you measure your career in major titles and historical milestones, the ones that get away are never easy to forget. The loser’s hangover is worse than any winner who goes on a celebratory bender.

“This one will hurt,” Spieth admitted. “It will take a while.”

Spieth will never forget what happened Sunday at Augusta National. He had a five-shot lead with nine to play and he was poised to become the youngest player to win three majors and tie Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros with a second green jacket before he’s even 23. That kind of opportunity doesn’t happen all the time – even for a kid who’s never known what it’s like to not hold a lead in the final pairing in three career Masters Sundays.

So the short term has to be painful. But the long term? Spieth will be fine.

Why so certain? Because he’s already got a green jacket hanging in his locker forever at Augusta.

“He won it last year, so I don’t feel too sorry for him,” Rory McIlroy said when he found out about Spieth’s Amen Corner demise.

McIlroy knows more than most about the value of such possessions. He suffered his own Masters meltdown on the same holes where Spieth spit this Masters away. McIlroy was only 21 in 2011 when he blew a three-shot lead at the turn with a gruesome run of triple-bogey-double on 10, 11 and 12 that left him bent over in anguish on the 13th tee.

The difference? McIlroy didn’t already have a green jacket of his own. Five years later, he still doesn’t. The Masters haunts him as the only jewel in the career slam that has eluded him. The scars reopen a little every year when McIlroy returns to Augusta.

He admitted as much when he left Sunday.

“I haven’t got the job done when I needed to and I don’t think that’s anything to do with my game, I think that’s more me mentally and I’m trying to deal with the pressure of it and the thrill of the achievement if it were to happen,” he said. “I think that’s the thing that’s really holding me back.

“Yeah, this is the one that I haven’t won and this is the one I want to win more than anything else. I won a claret jug; I want to win more. I won a Wanamaker (PGA trophy). I won the U.S. Open. But this is the one that I haven’t.”

There is something to be said for playing with house money. It still stings when you blow it, but they can’t take your nest egg away if it’s not on the table.

This is where Spieth’s collapse – however shocking it was to see – deviates from past Masters disasters like McIlroy, Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, Ed Sneed or Scott Hoch. Whether big or small in their stature and failure, none of them ever got a peek inside the Champions Locker Room. Their lost chances still haunt each of them in one way or another.

Davis Love III, a two-time Masters runner-up, can certainly attest. Seeing what happened to Spieth picks the scabs of his own career heartaches.

“Every time I see something like that I think back to the ’95 U.S. Open,” Love said Wednesday at Harbour Town. “I had a putt to win and then I had a putt to get in the playoff and then I made the putt to not be in the playoff. I’ll never forget. I bogeyed the last two holes and I could have won the U.S. Open. You never forget it. Just maybe you think you’re never going to have another chance. At 22 (Spieth is) going to have a lot more chances. I’m sure he’s looking at it differently. It doesn’t matter if he wins five Masters and five of every other major and breaks Jack’s record, he’s still going to look back and go, ‘I could have won that one.’ He’ll never get over it.”

I’m sure Jack Nicklaus looks back at one or two of his 19 career runner-ups in majors and thinks, “I could have won that one.” I’m sure Tiger Woods sees the names of Rich Beem, Michael Campbell, Trevor Immelman and Y.E. Yang on the trophies he’s held and thinks, “I should have beaten them.” I’m sure Arnold Palmer thinks back on his blown leads in 1959 and ’61 and believes, “I should have won four Masters in a row.”

Spieth will return next week at his home-state Texas Open and will share how his food tastes and if his sleep’s improving. In the meantime, his caddie, Michael Greller, gave a glimpse of the team mentality in a heartfelt Facebook post.

“The 2016 Masters stung. ... But don’t feel sorry or sad for us,” Greller wrote. “We won’t get stuck in this moment, nor should you. We will work harder, fight harder and be better for it. We will bounce back as we have done many times.”

What’s done is done. Spieth can’t get a mulligan at No. 12 or erase the unsightly quadruple bogey from the permanent record. But he can heed the lesson of one college basketball coach, who cited Psalm 30:5 after his team blew a commanding late lead and got eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

There will be other joys in Spieth’s career. One terrible, horrible, no good, very bad hole won’t stop that.

Spieth’s last words before he got into his car Sunday night and drove out Magnolia Lane on were fashioned in a little gallows humor.

“They just told me I can’t take my green jacket with me,” he reportedly said.

The good news is they can’t take his green jacket away. That record-setting 2015 triumph can offset a multitude of sins in the memory bank. In the long run, that will make all the difference as he moves on and leaves the 2016 Masters heartbreak in his rearview mirror.

10-year-old's journey to Augusta unique

Fri, 04/01/2016 - 9:17pm

Spring break was starting at Johnnycakes Corners Elementary School in Galena, Ohio, so the whole fourth grade was ready for a party.

Typically there isn’t a guest of honor for such occasions. Then again, typically one of the elementary school classmates isn’t heading off to compete at Augusta National Golf Club to produce a “What I did for spring break” project that trumps most fourth-grade presentations.

Mia Raines, 10, will be among the 80 finalists in Sunday’s Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National, so her school sent her off in style.

“They had a surprise party for her at school,” said Mia’s mom, Michelle. “She had friends come over and decorate her room with balloons and streamers and posters and today they had a big party for her at school with posters and handwritten cards from kids and teachers and all the fourth-grade classes. It was pretty special.”

Each of the kids who qualified for the third Drive, Chip and Putt final has his or her own unique story about reaching this destination. Mia Raines has come further than most to get here.

Born in the Jiangsu province of China, Mia was adopted when she was 13 months old by Nolan and Michelle Raines. Even though she’s the youngest, Mia is the second of three girls the Raines adopted. Leila, 14, was adopted first, from Moscow. Kara, 17, joined the family at age 11 from China.

All three girls have taken up golf and improved to the point where their parents no longer play with them. When Mia was asked about her dream foursome that would include Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Michelle Wie, it comes with an addendum – “but can my sisters play with us, too?”

When the Raines fell in “love at first sight” with a 7-month old Mia upon the adoption referral, there was no second thought about the infant girl’s two heart defects, including having a hole in it.

“We were told she might have to have open heart surgery and we wouldn’t know until we got her back here in the U.S. to see doctors,” her mother said. “But she’s never had any problems. We’ve been really blessed and we go see her cardiologist on a regular basis and it’s proved to be no problem. If you see our daughter she’s got the energy of 10 kids.”

Mia started playing golf when she was 3 and her father would take the girls to the driving range on the weekend. She started competing when she was 6 with a personal-best nine-hole score of 35.

Her career goal? “I want to be a professional golfer or basketball player who also rescues animals,” she said.

Raines will have one significant handicap to overcome when she gets to Augusta – it will be the first time all year that’s she’s played on actual grass. Living in Ohio, the offseason is literally that for six months, confining Raines to practicing in the family’s basement hitting into a net and putting on a 13-foot artificial practice green. Once a week she works with her coach at the local driving range, hitting balls off a mat out of a heated bay.

“She’s been practicing hard, but it has not included real grass,” her mom said. “It’s challenging because they compete against girls from much warmer climates. On the other hand, having a clear offseason helps them so they don’t get burned out.”

A year ago, Mia barely missed out on making it to Augusta when she was 9, finishing runner-up in the regional finals. She watched the 2015 finals on television, rooting for fellow Ohioan Alexandra Swayne, who competes regularly with her sister Leila in the 14-15 age division.

“It made me want it more,” Mia said.

She would not be denied in her regional return at Oakmont, winning by 11 points overall while beating the field in chipping.

“I might have been a little nervous but I was more confident in how I’ve improved my skills over the year,” she said.

Leila, who led her Berkshire Middle School boys team to a 16-0 season, made it as far as the subregional and will try one last time next year to make it to Augusta. Kara, who has already verbally committed to play golf at Youngstown State, is too old to participate in the Drive, Chip and Putt.

But the whole family is excited about coming to Augusta and experiencing the Masters. Nolan Raines attended a Masters before Mia was born, but the rest of the family has never been to Augusta.

“I’m excited to be there because I get to compete with the best of the best,” Mia said. “It’s just a beautiful course to see and I think it’s just a great experience.”

“Leila loves Golf Channel and watches the app on her phone or on TV all the time,” their mother said. “She’s my diehard golf junkie 24/7 and appreciates the significance of the Masters. Kara is excited to go, too. I’m a photographer and am very visual, so to be able to see that gorgeous course and walk it and see all the players has me really excited.”

Once her competition is over, Mia wants to follow her favorites during Monday’s practice round – particularly Jason Day, who lives not far from their Galena home. During last year’s PGA Championship when Day outdueled Spieth in a final pairing of Mia’s two favorites (her lucky hat has autographs from both on it), the whole family cheered so loudly from their basement that “I think the neighbors heard.”

“Day lives close by but he’s also a great golfer and a good dad,” Mia said. “I really like Jordan Spieth, too. He’s a great golfer and a good big brother.”

Now it’s Mia’s turn to have people cheering for her. If things go well, Johnnycakes Corners might have to throw another party to welcome Raines back from spring break.

“She has quite the little fan club here in Galena, Ohio,” her mother said.

Michaux: Nature Trail Golf could find its place

Tue, 03/29/2016 - 8:01pm

GROVETOWN — Bill Boswell, an Augusta golf course architect, has been toying with the concept of a scaled-down version of golf for years and he may have hit upon the perfect rendition of it.

Granted, Boswell didn’t invent the idea of miniaturized golf. Everything from executive courses to par-3s to Putt-Putt have capitalized on the theme for a long time. Augusta National’s short course was built in 1958, and the famous Par 3 Contest began in 1960. Cayman golf, which employed reduced-flight balls on a small course on Grand Cayman Island, was designed to appeal to beginners.

What Boswell has done, however, is create a prototype course on an equestrian property in Grovetown for what he calls “nature trail golf,” and it may be an easily replicated, low-budget, low-maintenance, low-key answer to attracting new and old golfers to the game.

“I learned how to play golf in my backyard playing around the house and through the flowerbeds, designing courses as I went,” Boswell said. “My joy was in finding different holes, and that’s how I got into golf course design. A lot of people who’ve come out and seen this say the same thing – that’s how they learned the game playing through the neighborhood.”

Boswell has pretty legitimate golf design bona fides. He graduated from Clemson with a degree in architecture with extensive electives in turf management. He worked with Robert Trent Jones in Europe for eight years, helping build courses like Valderrama in Spain. He’s worked with Mike Hurdzan in Ohio and Willard Byrd in Atlanta, doing original designs and renovations. He eventually came back home to Augusta and now works out of his house doing course renovation work including North Augusta Golf Club before it closed.

But the idea of creating a scaled-down version of the game he loves has been a long-time side interest. The only thing holding him back was the golf ball.

“The problem was finding a decent ball to use,” Boswell said. “Cayman balls were always lopsided and you couldn’t putt with it. Dave Pelz came out with the “Almostgolf” ball that goes a third of the distance with good balance and a true roll. I thought, ‘this would work.’”

So Boswell started tinkering with the idea. Before TrueNorth Church in North Augusta built its permanent home, Boswell asked if he could borrow the site in a pasture off Exit 1 for three months to experiment. He mowed a fairway with his push mower and shaped a green and started hitting the reduced-flight balls around.

“I found right off the bat that the light ball sits up well on any type of grass,” he said. “I was picturing a miniature golf course with little bunkers and good conditions. What I found was you didn’t need those perfect conditions. You just needed natural obstacles like weeds and flowers and bushes and that gave enough interest to it.”

Before long he created four greens and nine holes on the temporary site and invited the mayor of North Augusta and the superintendent at Augusta Country Club and other friends to try it out.

“Everybody in golf I took out to play it loved it and thought it had a lot of potential,” Boswell said.

So he kept working on the concept. He studied disc golf and attended a couple of tournaments for the popular low-cost “Frisbee” pastime. He even tried using clubs and balls on a disc golf course,

“What I found there was you were always punching under limbs and stuff,” he said. “But it was the same kind of scale.”

Three years ago, Boswell went to a garage sale in Grovetown and spotted a site across Wrightboro Road. He called the Canterbury Equestrian Center pretending to want to board a horse and struck up a conversation with the owners about the fenced-in 50 acres adjacent to it that was undulating and relatively open with scattered trees.

The owners were intrigued enough to give him four months leading up to the 2014 Masters to give it a try. With a John Deere and a push reel mower he started carving holes through the brush.

“The owner saw and thought it was great and said to do whatever I want and they’ll help,” Boswell said.

Two years later, Boswell has 11 greens and 12 holes – ranging from 120 to 555 feet – criss-crossing the picturesque site he calls the Canterbury Golf and Equine Trail. The actual golf footprint is five acres and requires only six hours of maintenance a week in the growing season to keep the fairways and greens trimmed. It utilizes natural elements like fallen trees and marshy low spots to enhance the challenge.

“This has turned into ‘Nature Trail Golf’ because you’re playing through nature and don’t need the expense of a regular golf course,” Boswell said. “Having a bigger site allows you to meander around and have a true nature trail.”

The rules are simple. Players only need three clubs (4- and 8-iron plus a wedge) and use the Almostgolf balls. The holes are a foot in diameter but each hole has a 6-foot “gimme circle” around it. A threesome can play nine holes in about 45 minutes.

“You can take kids out and nobody is intimidated,” Boswell said. “It’s a good way to introduce people to the game or back to the game who gave it up for whatever reason.”

Boswell invited officials from Georgia’s state parks and recreation to have a look and they left impressed by the possibilities for future development, with the state parks director telling him “This could work.”

“What scared him was the word golf because state’s golf courses don’t make money,” Boswell said. “This was low maintenance and something they could do.”

For now, Boswell uses word-of-mouth for an experience he doesn’t even charge a fee to play. There is a Facebook page for “Nature Trail Golf” that includes YouTube drone footage of his course to promote the concept. All you have to do is contact Boswell to take you out there since it’s private property. More than 200 enthusiasts have joined him so far, including a small outing that generated more than $3,000 in donations for a local group that helps people with special needs.

“My dream goal would be for it to become popular in parks and recreation a lot like disc golf,” Boswell said. “That would be ideal.”

Michaux: Justin DeLoach is following in trainer's footsteps

Sat, 03/26/2016 - 6:50pm

Justin DeLoach’s television debut on Showtime left an indelible impression on more than his unfortunate opponent’s chin.

“This is just the beginning,” said DeLoach, a 22-year-old Butler graduate, after his fourth-round knockout Friday night. “I just felt like it was a due date for a star to be born.”

Friday night’s fight in Oklahoma bore a striking resemblance to a May night of DeLoach’s new trainer almost exactly a decade ago in Carson, Calif. A prolific but barely tested Paul Williams wanted to make a step up in competition in his first nationally televised fight on HBO against an undefeated Argentine champion named Walter Matthysse.

Williams shredded Matthysse under a relentless hail of punches in a performance that launched him toward being world champion.

“A welterweight star is born,” said HBO’s Max Kellerman in 2006 after the Aiken boxer pummeled the formerly undefeated Argentinian slugger into submission with a 10th-round TKO. “That was a star-making performance by Paul Williams. Anyone from 147 to 154 pounds has just been put on notice.”

Williams’ new pupil made a similar kind of statement in his own step-up opportunity against a formerly undefeated super welterweight prospect fighting on his own turf. DeLoach (14-1, eight KOs) owned the ring in the opening bout at the Buffalo Run Casino.

The sold-out arena was chanting “Dillon Cook! Dillon Cook!” as the seconds ticked down in the fourth round. The partisan crowd was trying to lift its favorite who had been backing down on his heels all night against the steady advances of the aggressive DeLoach, who threw nearly 100 more punches in the fight.

With 24 seconds left before the midpoint of the scheduled eight-rounder, DeLoach’s right hand counterpunch came circling overhand onto Cook’s chin, and the formerly undefeated prospect dropped to his knees and spit out his mouthpiece. Legs splayed underneath him as his body sagged like a rag doll, there weren’t enough seconds left for the bell to save Cook. The crowd fell silent into murmurs as their local hero reflexively attempted to get up before the count hit 10, only to collapse forward onto the canvas.

“What can you say but wow?” Showtime announcer Barry Thompkins said.

“Paul Williams teach him that?” former world champion Raul Marquez asked. “That’s a candidate for knockout of the year.”

“Nothing makes an athlete happier than quieting a crowd that’s rooting against him,” said commentator Steve Farhood. “Boy did DeLoach do that in fantastic fashion.”

Williams leaned back in his wheelchair outside the ropes with a wide smile after DeLoach made him a winner in his training debut.

“I was sweating and everything, my whole shirt was soaked,” a relieved Williams said. “He took over the show.”

That was the whole strategy.

“He disabled him and that’s what he was supposed to do,” said George Peterson, Williams’ longtime trainer who is also working with DeLoach. “We were in a hostile environment and this guy’s own fans sold the whole place out. Only one way we could win that and we knew that.”

Williams was a big reason ShowBox wanted DeLoach on its undercard. The former three-time world champion was making his return to boxing after being paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident four years ago.

“Oh my goodness they were swarming him,” Peterson said of Williams’ comeback reception. “Especially the media out there. They gave him his due.”

Once the bell rang, DeLoach stole the spotlight, taking charge of the fight with an aggressiveness reminiscent of his new coach. Despite only 10 days of sparring to get ready, the Augusta boxer looked poised and prepared.

“Been my style to be aggressive and keep a high pace and I’m just getting back to it,” DeLoach said. “I kind of shied away from that but now I’m with Paul he’s got me back to it. I knew I had to bring the fight to him.”

Now it’s DeLoach who is at a similar crossroads of his career where Williams was a decade ago. He’s got the perfect example to follow in his corner.

“I told Justin you’re hot right now and now your head is on the chopping block,” Williams said. “So you’ve got to go back to the gym and train harder. Because you’re a target now. Same way we come in is the same way we go out. Just stay humble with it. Don’t get the big head.”

DeLoach called his victory and growing relationship with Williams “a blessing.” He said he had today to celebrate his fourth consecutive victory since his lone professional setback a year ago, and that Monday he’ll be back in the Aiken gym with Williams preparing rigorously for the next challenge to come.

“This fight put me on that level I needed to be on and showed the world that I’m ready and I’m supposed to be here,” DeLoach said. “Paul’s had a great relationship with Showtime, but my performance alone is going to bring me back on.”

Michaux: NCAA Tournament has all emotions covered

Thu, 03/24/2016 - 9:31pm

There is so much to love about the NCAA Tournament … and so much to hate, too.

The NCAA Tournament may not be the best way to identify the best men’s collegiate basketball team in the nation. But it might be the most perfect way.

If that seems incongruous, it shouldn’t. A perfect fit isn’t always the best.

What makes the tournament so perfectly imperfect is the single-elimination element. It is the coolest, cruelest system possible. It’s not entirely true that any team can win it, but it is an unquestionable fact that every team can affect the final outcome – just ask Middle Tennessee State.

That’s why the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament remain the greatest spectacle in American sports. We all might gather more consistently and in larger numbers for the shared experience of watching the Super Bowl, but it’s still hard to beat four consecutive days of frenetic contests stacked one on top of the other from lunch until well past bedtime.

This week’s Sweet 16 may look a little overly chalky with all the No. 1 seeds still alive for the first time in four years and only two well-pedigreed double-digit seeds (Syracuse and Gonzaga) remaining, but that didn’t mean the opening rounds weren’t as eventful as always. A little chalk – or even a record six Atlantic Coast Conference teams – doesn’t make March any less mad.

Some have even argued that the events of last weekend were better than ever – a refrain that gets repeated every season just as every Christmas tree seems to be more perfect than the year before.

It doesn’t get cooler than seeing a collegiate blueblood like Michigan State never lead against a relative unknown like Middle Tennessee State. Or an Ivy League program (Yale) that hasn’t seen the postseason in 54 years take out a Baylor team hailing from the presumed top collegiate conference (Big 12). Or Stephen F. Austin drubbing highly regarded West Virginia.

On the flip side, it doesn’t get crueler than having your season end on a half-court heave at the buzzer, as Texas did against another underdog in Northern Iowa. UNI’s elation after that game, however, morphed into a cold-hearted nightmare two night’s later when it inexplicably lost a 12-point lead in the final 35 seconds of regulation before eventually succumbing to Texas A&M in double overtime. You couldn’t watch the family, fans and players of the Panthers agonizing in stunned disbelief without feeling sympathy for the lasting scars that kind of collapse induced.

Heck, it was easy to even feel sorry for comedian Bill Murray looking shocked in his “X” cap after No. 2 seed Xavier went down on a pair of late 3-pointers by Wisconsin or the crying Kentucky saxophone girl who replaced the crying Villanova piccolo girl as this year’s agony of defeat meme.

As much fun as the tournament is for people whose rooting interest goes no deeper than who they chose in the office bracket pool, it is a stressful experience for fans with a vested stake in the participants – or even those left out.

It was certainly tough for a team like South Carolina, worried about sitting on the bubble and then having its résumé diminished by some arbitrary judgments from the selection committee. That demoralizing experience can often lead to the letdown the Gamecocks displayed in a gruesome NIT defeat at home to a Georgia Tech team just happy to still be playing anywhere.

But getting into the big tournament comes with its own anxieties. Even the No. 1 seeds aren’t immune, experiencing the threat of becoming the first to lose to a 16 seed. That stress could have been alleviated if Princeton had beaten Georgetown way back in 1990 – a thriller that left scars on my knuckles from scraping them across a stuccoed ceiling when I jumped up in the bed of my hotel room. But a record of dominance now stretching to 130-0 exerts a little more pressure every season on the favorites. No program wants to become the first to fall – just ask Billy Owens and Syracuse who fell historically as a two seed to my beloved childhood favorite Richmond Spiders back in 1991.

It was Michigan State – who some considered the best team in the field of 68 – that felt the upset sting this year. But the Spartans weren’t alone in their regret with eight other favorites losing to double-digit seeds in the opening round.

Yet the longshots can leave the tournament feeling a little unfulfilled as well. The worst fear is being overwhelmed and getting unceremoniously dismissed by one of the behemoths.

But even a few who experienced the thrill of victory left with a bitter taste. Northern Iowa, Stephen F. Austin and Saint Joe’s each had their second-round games seemingly in hand only to let them slip. UNI panicked when it mattered and lost the ability to get the ball in-bounded. SFA had a five-point lead and the ball in the hands of its best player with 1:35 left when he fumbled it away to give Notre Dame new life. The Irish ultimately got a last-second tip in from a guy with no previous points to win by one.

All the excitement of “one shining moment” can be washed away by the what-ifs.

Yet that’s the beauty of it. Sure, an NBA-style playoff series would more clearly identify the best teams and probably determine the most worthy champion.

But then it would cease to be March Madness.

Michaux: Masters Tournament field could be smallest since 2002

Tue, 03/22/2016 - 9:36pm

Nearly three full months into 2016 with the deadline for gaining entry into the Masters Tournament fast approaching, only one professional in the world has booked a late spot at Augusta National Golf Club.

Vaughn Taylor.

That’s right. The lone 2016 field addition from the best pros across the globe is the Hephzibah/Augusta State grad who had no full status on any tour in January. With his stunning victory at Pebble Beach in February, Taylor earned the right to drive about seven miles from his home in Evans to Magnolia Lane in two weeks.

Michigan State losing to a No. 15 seed was more predictable than that. And the odds are pretty good that Taylor might stay the only one. An 11th-hour winner in next week’s Shell Houston Open might be the last best hope for some lucky unqualified player to join Taylor in Augusta.

This week’s WGC Match Play marks the last chance for players to gain entry into the Masters via the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings. Since the new year started, that magic threshold has been as impenetrable as an encrypted iPhone.

Seven players loitering outside the top-50 bubble are among the 64 set to compete in round-robin pool play beginning Wednesday at Austin Country Club. The only real chance any of them will have of climbing into the top 50 is at least winning one of the 16 pools to reach the knockout rounds. For most of them, a deep run is essential to gain the world ranking points necessary. Short of that, the only hope for anyone else is winning in Houston on the eve of Masters Week.

The lucky seven contenders queued up for last call are South Africa’s Jaco Van Zyl (No. 52), Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello (54), Belgium’s Thomas Pieters (57), Australians Marcus Fraser (62) and Matt Jones (63), American Patton Kizzire (65) and Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen (66).

As the lowest seeds in their respective pools, the odds are stacked against each of them. Van Zyl has the most realistic chance, simply needing to win his pool against the rugged trio of Danny Willett, Brooks Koepka and Billy Horschel to reach the top 50.

Cabrera-Bello and Pieters need to reach at least the quarterfinals. The other four will have to make it at least to the semifinals to have a chance of crashing the Masters.

Since the world rankings were implemented as a qualifying criteria in 1999 and the automatic winners were reinstated in 2008, there has never been such a scarcity of qualifiers in the early months leading up to the Masters. Taylor and 16-year-old Latin America Amateur winner Paul Chaplet of Costa Rica are the only two players to qualify since 15 top-50 players locked in at the end of 2015.

In fact, there’s been a presumed net loss of one in the expected number of starters since the year began – a figure that could reach minus-three if qualifiers Willett and Kevin Streelman have to withdraw late for paternity leave. Tiger Woods (back), Jim Furyk (wrist) and Jose Maria Olazabal (undisclosed) are all sidelined while they recover from injuries. Sangmoon Bae was already out because of a two-year military service requirement in his native South Korea.

Unless someone makes a surprise run this week or grabs the last golden ticket in Houston, the Masters field could dip below 90 for the first time since 89 teed it up in 2002.

It has been a remarkable set of circumstances that led to this dearth of latecomers. In NCAA Tournament parlance, they’d call 2016 “straight chalk.”

In 10 punch-your-ticket PGA Tour events since January, only Taylor played the role of Cinderella by beating favorite Phil Mickelson at Pebble Beach. Winners in the other nine include past Masters champions Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott (twice), Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel; major winners Jason Day and Jason Dufner; and already qualified past tour winners Brandt Snedeker, Hideki Matsuyama and Fabian Gomez.

For whatever reason, few outsiders have been able to close and clinch like Taylor. North Augusta/USC Aiken’s Scott Brown got blown away in the wind at Torrey Pines. Native Augustan Charles Howell couldn’t summon a Sunday charge in Tampa.

Habitual groomsman Kevin Chappell let go of the latest opportunity, heading to the final hole at Bay Hill with a one-shot lead before playing the hole so cautiously he settled for a bogey. Day simultaneously birdied the 17th to inherit the lead at the 18th tee and won with a sand-save par on the last to deny Chappell.

The rest of the world hasn’t offered too many openings for top-50 climbers either, with most of the marquee victories on the global European Tour being gobbled up by already established qualifiers like Rickie Fowler, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen, Schwartzel and Willett.

Only Van Zyl even temporarily penetrated the border, reaching No. 49 three weeks ago after a victory in the Sunshine Tour’s Eye of Africa PGA Championship.

That earned him a coveted spot in the WGC event at Doral the next week, where precious no-cut points were available for just showing up.

Van Zyl, however, chose not to make the trip from South Africa to south Florida due to the distance. Anything in the top half at Doral would have kept him inside the Official World Golf Ranking top 50 and a high finish might have secured his first trip to the Masters. Instead he slipped two spots to 51st while watching at home and put pressure on himself to make something happen in the Match Play.

Match play is unpredictable, but getting out of their respective round-robin pools is going to require an upset.

Cabrera-Bello must deal with top-20 PGA Tour winners Matsuyama and Kevin Kisner. Pieters drew a group with the red-hot Scott.

The rest have at least one top-20 major winner to contend with atop their pools: Olesen (Rory McIlroy), Kizzire (Watson), Fraser (Zach Johnson) and Jones (Oosthuizen).

Straight chalk might leave Vaughn Taylor standing alone in the pro Class of ’16 photo.

Paralyzed ex-boxer Paul Williams won't let accident keep him down

Sun, 03/20/2016 - 2:36am

 

Paul Williams was called many things in his welterweight boxing career – unconventional, relentless, three-time world champion.

Scared, however, was never associated with the Aiken fighter known as “The Punisher.”

Until now.

“I’m scared, like this is my first fight,” said Williams, who will make his debut as a trainer this week. “It’ll be different now, me giving instructions instead of me going out there getting instructions.”

On Friday night at a casino in Miami, Okla., Justin DeLoach (13-1, 7 KOs) of Augusta will face undefeated super welterweight Dillon Cook (16-0, 6 KOs). It will be the first featured appearance on Showtime for DeLoach, a 22-year-old who went to Butler High School.

While the cameras will be focused on DeLoach and Cook stepping up in competition, it’s Williams who is responsible for the limelight. It’s his comeback to boxing four years after a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down that made this bout ready for prime time.

“I know my presence is going to inspire a lot of people,” said Williams, 34. “My fans still want to come see me. When I was fighting, I laid it all out there. I had a good run, man. Now come see a good fight and enjoy this dude I’m training and see if I can make it in the training world.”

Preparing for another fight is the last place Williams expected to be again.

“I guess I was being selfish,” he said. “I didn’t want to deal with the fight game.”

He’d already grown frustrated with the boxing game in 2012, with the biggest headliners in the welterweight class consistently ducking his overtures. Even as Williams prepared for the biggest payday of his career – his first pay-per-view fight with Mexican Saul “Canelo” Alvarez that would have paid him upwards of $20 million – his passion for the sport’s politics had waned.

“He had got to that point just before his career ended where he no longer had that burning sensation for boxing,” said George Peterson, the Aiken-based trainer who was a father figure in nurturing Williams’ career.

 

WHATEVER FUTURE in the ring Williams had came to a frightening end May 27, 2012. In the pre-dawn light on an Atlanta highway, Williams was on his motorcycle heading out to prepare for his brother’s wedding day. He was the best man.

A distracted driver to his right drifted his car in Williams’ lane, forcing his bike across the center line to avoid getting hit. Then an oncoming car forced Williams to veer off the road toward a steep embankment at 75 mph. He was thrown 60 feet off the bike, landing on his back. The impact left him paralyzed from the waist down.

The accident broke his carefully sculpted body, but it didn’t break Williams’ spirit.

“He never lost a step other than his walking ability,” Peterson said. “Mind-wise he’s still the strongest man alive.”

Williams possessed a fighter’s will to get back up and keep going. In his brief stay at Atlanta’s renowned Shep­herd Center for spinal cord injuries, Williams didn’t succumb to despair.

“It’s just another challenge for me – another test,” he said. “I was not worried about all that depressed stuff. That’s one thing I would not do. That was going to make one problem two problems. Why would you
want to deal with two problems when you’ve already got one?”

Williams didn’t dwell on any regrets or second-guess ever being drawn to the thrill of riding motorcycles.

“People say I shouldn’t have got on that bike,” he said. “I look at it as like destiny. It was already written, your destiny, the day you were born. God had already put that in your life. On May 27, no matter if you was walking, driving, flying, you were going to have an accident and he was going to put you in a wheelchair. How would you deal with it? I looked at it like that and this is how I’m dealing with it. Take it in stride, you know what I’m saying?”

 

IT WAS PETERSON who coaxed his former star pupil back into his private gym off East Pine Log Road. The 75-year-old trainer never gave up on Williams after the accident, and he never gave up on boxing either. Retirement never stuck as he kept working with a small stable of young fighters.

“I’ve tried to get away several times, but it got a hold of me,” Peterson said.

For several years, Peter­son continually prodded Williams to give him a hand. Williams always said no thanks.

In travels to speak with other young boxers as part of his outreach foundation, Williams had been approached by a number of peers asking for training help, but he consistently declined until he connected with DeLoach on a fight night in San Antonio.

“When I saw him, I got so excited,” said DeLoach, who trained as an amateur with Ray Whitfield at the Augusta Boxing Club. “We started to talk and I said something like, ‘Hey, Paul, wouldn’t it be cool if we got together?’

“Once I came home, we started working together and he’s been training me since (De­cem­ber). It’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to work with one of my favorite fighters.”

Williams admits he was reluctant to get back into the game.

“I didn’t want to mess with him, but we came home and he just stayed persistent,” Williams said. “I talked to God and asked if this was a sign he gave me in my life to get into training to try to help someone like Mr. Peterson helped me. My career’s over and I can’t get in there no more, but I can teach somebody how to do it like I did.”

Peterson encouraged the partnership.

“It would be great for you and great for (DeLoach) and get something else on your mind instead of staying in house and playing video games all the time,” Peterson told Williams.

 

WILLIAMS WAS KNOWN for his tireless work ethic that was drilled into him by Peterson. His conditioning and long southpaw reach on a 6-foot-1 frame made him a dangerous figure in the marquee 147-pound class. He punished opponents with a high volume of punches. In his defining 2007 victory over Antonio Margarito for the WBO welterweight title, he threw more punches in the 12th round (125) than any other.

The regimen it took to get there is what he hopes to instill in DeLoach.

“All I know is what I know and I became a three-time world champion off it,” Williams said. “So you better believe he’s going through the same thing. That’s all I know. He doesn’t have to go out there and be like me in the ring, but I can give him some tools and offer him some stuff he can work on to help him out.”

Peterson remains Wil­liams’ wingman, and he cautions his star pupil not to expect what they accomplished in 12 years together – 41-2 with 27 knockouts – to materialize in three months with DeLoach.

“He wants to do well in this thing so bad,” Peterson said. “You have to remember this guy is not Paul Williams. It took a while to evolve into that monster he became.”

DeLoach is soaking it all in.

“I think he was scared at first, his reputation was at stake and so was mine,” De­Loach said of his trainer. “But he’s been so helpful, just in the mental side of things. I was already a good boxer, but he’s taken me to another level mentally. He’s been pushing me, criticizing me, giving me instructions and picking my brain.”

 

WILLIAMS’ FEARS COME from seeing the fight game from a new perspective. In the ring he was willing to give and receive whatever came his way. He could accept the shocking one-punch knockout blow from Sergio Martinez that “put me to sleep” as just another challenge to overcome.

From his chair now outside the ropes, it’s what he can’t control that worries him.

“I don’t want the kid to go out and get hurt or nothing,” Williams said. “I don’t want to see nobody get hurt. That’s the kind of scared I am. I’ve got somebody’s life in my hand. In boxing, one punch can change a life. I know because I got caught with one. As long as you’re in the best shape you can possibly be in and you go out and do your best, it shouldn’t be a problem to put anybody in front of him.”

Whatever happens Fri­day night is just a start. For De­Loach, it’s a chance to start making a name for himself.

“I’m really looking forward to fighting for the first time for (Williams),” he said in a news release from Showtime. “I’ve gone crazy waiting for my break and an opportunity like this to fight on Showtime.”

For Williams, it’s a first step back into a world he thought he left behind when his legs no longer worked.

“It’s exciting for me to get back in the boxing world,” he said. “I’m a new era of this sport. What I accomplished from ground zero and what Mr. Peterson gave me – we were made out the mud. Mr. Peterson and I did a lot. He made me a three-time world champion. Before that, no one knew who he or I was. We were just a couple of guys from Aiken, South Carolina. We gave fans fights to remember. But that’s over for me now. I’m jumping into a whole new thing. It’s been an adjustment, but I’m glad I’m doing it.”

Michaux: Restricting transfers is a bad idea for Georgia

Sat, 03/19/2016 - 9:08pm

The era when the student-athletes’ best interests came first is apparently over at Georgia.

New head football coach Kirby Smart is establishing his territory and in the process he has scrapped one of the most respected fundamental standards that made Georgia’s athletics programs unique.

Tailback A.J. Turman, who never played a down in three years with the Bulldogs, requested a release so he could transfer and play the last two years of his eligibility at a school nearer to his home in Orlando, Fla.

Under former head coach Mark Richt, Turman would have been granted his unconditional release and been given well wishes for his future happiness. Smart, however, did not want to let Turman transfer. But once he relented, he applied restrictions to his release that will not allow Turman to transfer to Miami, where Richt now coaches, or Southeastern Conference East rival Florida.

“We’re just not used to it like the kids that didn’t get recruited by him,” Turman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Because we always were told if we don’t feel at home at the University of Georgia we could leave. And I thought it was still like that.”

Turman apparently had no interest in going to either Miami or Florida, but Smart applied those restrictions anyway to send a message to any kids who play for him that the old rules no longer apply.

His stipulation that Turman could not transfer to Miami – a program Georgia hasn’t played in football since 1966 – was to dissuade any players from thinking they’d be free to rejoin Richt.

“I wanted to set the precedent for the future that kids would not be able to go to Miami right away,” Smart said Saturday. “It’s very important that we understand that and that’s pretty much standard operating procedure when a coach leaves one place that a kid can’t go there with the coach.”

In only three months since taking over, Smart has gotten Georgia to make a fundamental policy shift in that department at the expense of all the athletes at Georgia. Richt’s “life’s too short” policy had become “the Georgia way” of doing business that put the best interests of the kids first.

Director of athletics Greg McGarity certainly made it sound like an institutional mindset and not simply a Richt thing.

“The University of Georgia doesn’t restrict a student-athlete from any school that is seeking a transfer,” McGarity said two years ago in a statement that left no room for ambiguity. “The student-athlete’s best interest is at the forefront of our program. If they’re not happy here we’re not going to dictate where they can and can’t go.”

In firing Richt and giving the keys to the highest revenue generating program to Smart, McGarity has obviously abandoned that guiding principle and gotten “on the same page” with his new coach. Georgia is now like every other school that puts its program’s self interests ahead of the kids in it.

“We are not totally restricting transfer opportunities for our student-athletes,” McGarity told the AJC this week regarding his “stance adjustment.” “We will take each request on its own merit to determine if any restrictions should be placed on the release due to any extenuating circumstances. Student-athletes are afforded the opportunity to appeal the decision through the institution.”

Smart – who obviously had no restrictions keeping him from leaving one SEC school to work for another – made it clear Saturday that he will not allow anyone to transfer to another SEC school, nor is he likely to allow a player to leave for in-state rival Georgia Tech.

“I don’t believe in allowing kids to transfer within conference,” he said.

“Moving forward, we will not release kids to SEC schools unless it’s a special situation and we will handle those situations on a case-by-case basis. There’s very few situations where you want a kid going to somebody on your schedule or somebody in your league. That’s pretty much standard operating procedure.”

That was never SOP under Richt, however. A year ago, tailback J.J. Green was released and transferred directly to Georgia Tech, where he will play A-back this season after sitting out the required year under NCAA transfer rules. In the past, the Bulldogs have ended up facing former teammates Zach Mettenberger at Louisiana State as well as Nick Marshall and Tray Matthews at Auburn. All three of those players were dismissed (without restrictions) from Georgia before eventually landing at SEC schools (Mettenberger and Marshall detoured through junior college).

The point is, Richt wanted the kids he originally signed to do whatever was best for themselves, abiding by the principles he promised when he recruited them.

Not everybody, of course, will condemn Smart’s position. The faction of Georgia fans who complained that Richt was too nice for his own good will applaud Smart’s hardcore attitude imported from Alabama. Nick Saban’s program is not afraid to use tactics like gray-shirting and oversigning to try to stockpile the most high-end recruits.

It remains to be seen how else Smart may change the culture. Richt had created a zero tolerance standard that cleaned up the program’s reputation even if it occasionally hurt the team with suspensions and/or dismissals that might have been swept under the rug at other schools. Smart may or may not extend that philosophy.

What is clear is that Georgia wants its football team to win more championships, which is Smart’s primary mission. One of the costs to achieve that will be a system that puts itself first.

Life (like collegiate eligibility) is indeed short, but the Bulldogs’ leash is now shorter.

Michaux: Palmer will be missed in honorary starter role

Tue, 03/15/2016 - 4:27pm

It was the least surprising news to come out of Bay Hill this week, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Arnold Palmer will not hit the opening honorary tee shot at the Masters Tournament this year. The King called up Augusta National Golf Club and Masters chairman Billy Payne on Monday and made it official. His Big Three mates Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will have their annual long-drive competition without him, though Palmer will hopefully be present on the tee box monitoring his old friends.

At 86 years old, Palmer still plans to attend the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, but his body just won’t allow him to take his familiar lashing swing on Thursday morning. A shoulder injury that kept him from participating in the Par-3 Contest last year has never fully recovered. His health has kept him in a more limited role this week at Bay Hill, where he won’t conduct his usual pre-tournament news conference and used a golf cart to get around the driving range Monday to greet players.

“I would love to go on doing it forever but I don’t have the physical capability to hit the shot the way I would want to hit it,” Palmer said. “So I’ll have to be content to watch.”

In a statement released by Augusta National, Payne said he understood Palmer’s decision.

“It makes no difference whether he actually hits a drive,” Payne said. “He is a true legend in golf and will be welcomed as usual on the first tee with the other Masters honorary starters. It will be a great day.”

Nicklaus spoke with Palmer earlier in February to confirm their plans to play together in Augusta National’s Jamboree this week – conflicting with the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

“I’ll be there,” Arnie told him, saying Bay Hill could do without him for one day. “I want to play. You can count on me.”

The next morning, Palmer called Nicklaus back.

“I’ve got to apologize,” Palmer said. “They won’t let me go.”

Age is undefeated, even in a ceremonial role. Exactly 15 years ago, Byron Nelson told me over the phone that 2001 would be his last turn as honorary starter. He said the strain of it was too much on him and had weighed on his mind for years before he finally decided to retire from the task.

“There’s not much to say excepting the fact that I’m 89 and will be 90 by the next time, God willing,” Nelson said. “I do not play golf, very seldom, and the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in golf is tee off there in front of all those people and hit the ball after I never hit the ball (all year).”

Nelson still returned to Augusta National through 2005, presiding as host over the Champions Dinner. Unable to make the trip from Texas to Georgia in 2006 for the first time since his first Masters start in 1935, Nelson turned the dinner duties over to Ben Crenshaw. Nelson died in September 2006 at age 94.

The honorary starters have been a Masters tradition most years since 1963, when Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod officially kicked things off in recognition of their past victories at Augusta National in the Senior PGA Championship. Informally, the pair started teeing off in the first group together in 1954 and would withdraw after nine or 18 holes.

Hutchison retired from the honorary role in 1973 and McLeod in 1976.

It was in 1981 when Nelson and Gene Sarazen first accepted the role that the tradition became beloved. Ken Venturi was a one-time replacement for Nelson on the tee in 1983 before Sam Snead stopped competing and made it a trio in 1984.

Sarazen and Snead are the only ones to never retire from the honorary starter duty. Sarazen took part in it through the 1999 Masters. The Squire died a month later on May 13, 1999 at age 97.

After Nelson retired in 2001, Snead went out alone in 2002 for the ceremonial tee shot and plunked a spectator in the glasses outside the ropes near the big scoreboard. Six weeks later, on May 23, Snead died at age 89.

After Snead’s passing, the tradition went dormant until Palmer took his rightful place on Augusta’s first tee in 2007. His friends Nicklaus (2010) and Player (2012) eventually joined him.

Palmer competed in his 50th and final Masters in 2004, but he needed two years off before accepting Payne’s invitation to restore the tradition.

“When I quit, I just wanted to think about not playing in the Masters and get over that, and then I would be ready,” Palmer said in 2007. “And I’m ready.

“It’s a great thrill for me, and of course, an honor.”

It’s been a bigger thrill for the fans to see these revered champions take that first tee first thing on Thursday morning. Despite the effort it takes to get through the traffic and be among the thousands who surround that first tee before 8 a.m., it is one tradition I have never missed in 20 years of covering the Masters.

To be able to see Sarazen, Nelson, Snead and now Palmer take their final swings at Augusta National were all unforgettable thrills. If we’re lucky (and live long enough), we’ll keep watching Nicklaus and Player keep up their competition for years to come. Player intends to remain fit enough to keep doing it another 20 years until he’s 100.

As much as it meant to all the Augusta champions who have filled the role, it’s meant more to the patrons than they can even comprehend.

“It’s not going to hurt the tournament if people don’t see me teeing off,” Nelson said 15 years ago.

It does hurt, however. Every one of these champions meant so much to the game and to the Masters.

None of them more than Palmer, who deserves as much credit as club founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts for making the Masters what it is today.

Palmer arrived in Augusta for the first time in 1955, playing his first Masters round with Sarazen. His charisma and style coincided with the Masters being broadcast on television and made him the tournament’s most popular champion.

Arnie’s Army emerged in 1958 when he won the first of his four green jackets under the approving support of Fort Gordon soldiers who received free admission and manned the scoreboards. You didn’t have to be enlisted to join the legion of fans who flocked to see Palmer at his peak.

His army will reconvene bright and early April 7, if only to see him cheer on his friends. I guarantee you a simple wave from the King will still draw the loudest roar of the day.

Michaux: Gamecocks must sweat out Selection Sunday

Sat, 03/12/2016 - 9:20pm

Everything may turn out fine, but the South Carolina men’s basketball team and fans should not have slept too comfortably on Selection Sunday Eve.

Despite a seemingly decent case for the 24-8 Gamecocks to be included in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 2004, the fact of the matter is it’s not nearly that simple. South Carolina is solidly among the bubble teams being bandied about in the committee room as it decides to whom it will dole out the last precious at-large spots.

Safe to say, if it was still a 64-team field and not 68, the Gamecocks would already be preparing for a top seed in the NIT next week. As it stands, the best they might hope for is settling for a First Four matchup as one of the four No. 11 seeds who represent the last at-large teams offered the back door into the dance hall.

Not surprisingly, head coach Frank Martin sternly disagrees with that general assessment. He was waiting for the question after his Gamecocks lost to Georgia for the third time this season in a quarterfinal heartbreaker at the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Martin “absolutely” believes the Gamecocks are deserving despite losing five of their last eight games.

“If the third place (SEC) team that set a school record for regular season wins, that won 11 league games, didn’t lose a single game in non-conference play, whose opponents had the seventh toughest schedule in the country is not worthy of the NCAA, then we’ve got a problem in our business,” Martin said.

Martin’s simplistic logic ignores some pretty significant flaws in a very iffy resume. It hurts that the SEC has only two teams (Kentucky and Texas A&M) that entered postseason with any at-large certainty of a spot in the field without an automatic tournament champion bid. Beating Texas A&M was the only truly impressive notch on the Gamecocks’ belt.

More importantly, South Carolina’s non-conference success is more of a liability than an enhancement. Frankly, going 13-0 against the 300th-ranked non-conference schedule in the nation is the bare minimum and is the kind of thing the committee is quick to disregard if not outright punish.

It made sense why South Carolina would schedule such a soft slate of opponents, trying to build some confidence in a program that hasn’t had much to brag about in a long time. However, the selection committee isn’t going to reward a team for padding its waistline with victories that have no nutritional value. It’s the same kind of argument that crippled some Big 12 football teams in the eyes of playoff selectors.

There is a reason Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference darling Monmouth is getting as much (if not more) consideration in that committee room as South Carolina. Monmouth played 23 games away from home and won 17 of them, including marquee out-of-conference wins over Notre Dame and Southern Cal as well as UCLA and Georgetown. The Hawks should get rewarded for the effort to schedule up.

It’s the same argument Georgia could make, even with five fewer victories.

“There’s a lot of teams who didn’t challenge themselves with a schedule, and I think our non-conference strength of schedule is in the top five in America,” Bulldogs coach Mark Fox said. “We could have easily said, okay, we want to go rack up some wins and play a bunch of cupcakes, but we didn’t do that.”

Losing three times to Georgia didn’t help South Carolina’s cause, no matter how many times Martin insists that the Bulldogs are an NCAA Tournament team. Georgia needed to at least best Kentucky on Saturday – if not win the SEC Tournament – to get in. That would have been an outcome that would have been even more counterproductive to the Gamecocks’ hopes.

Still, Martin did all he could do to upsell the Bulldogs to make his Gamecocks appear larger.

“I find it hard to believe that, if your numbers and everything you do say that you’re solidly in an NCAA Tournament, that because you lose a game against another NCAA team on a neutral site, that that knocks you out of the NCAA Tournament,” Martin said after Friday’s 65-64 loss in Nashville after leading by 11. “I struggle with that one. I’m not real intelligent, but I struggle with that one.

“You know, we played a real good basketball team that’s playing their best basketball of the year at the end of the season, and they got us. But, I mean, are we going to start judging people based on a game in a conference tournament, or are we going to judge people on what they do in a six-month period? I think what we did in a six-month period is pretty good.”

It was good. But was it good enough? Finding out will not come without some flop sweats watching the selection show unveil the brackets.

“I feel like our body of work has put us in a pretty good situation for Sunday, when selection day comes,” said Sindarius Thornwell, whose turnover and foul in the closing seconds proved decisive in the Georgia loss. “I don’t know.”

South Carolina might still get a chance to prove it belonged all along. And perhaps a First Four “play-in” matchup against another comparable lobbyist like Monmouth, Saint Mary’s, Connecticut, Michigan or Syracuse would be the best thing for the Gamecocks’ hopes of ending an NCAA victory drought that dates back to 1973.

At the very least, the late sweat and potential snub should deliver a message to Martin and the Gamecocks to better control their fate in the future.

Schedule tougher, play harder and don’t lose to Georgia three times.

Michaux: Clemson basketball coach Brad Brownell is under scrutiny

Thu, 03/10/2016 - 7:11pm

Clemson director of athletics Dan Radakovich made a simple assessment last summer when the Tigers’ baseball team made another unceremonious exit from postseason play.

“After my evaluation, it came down to this: I think we can be better,” Radakovich said when he announced the firing of coach Jack Leggett after 22 years, 955 victories and six College World Series appearances at the Clemson helm.

You get the feeling a similar assessment might be looming in the not-too-distant future for Tigers basketball coach Brad Brownell after a debacle of an elimination from the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament on Wednesday night.

The Tigers blew an 18-point lead with less than nine minutes remaining to Georgia Tech and lost 88-85 in overtime in Washington. Now 2-6 in ACC Tournament games under Brownell, Clemson fans have to believe they should be better than hoping for another consolation trip to the NIT.

“I certainly think we’re tournament-worthy,” Brownell said after Wednesday’s wrenching loss. “It would be a good thing for this team to get to continue to play more.”

In fairness, Clemson (17-14) made some pretty nice strides this season. The Tigers looked dead in the water after a humiliating 71-48 loss at Georgia in December, soon finding themselves 7-6 at the start of conference play.

Then came a succession of wins over Syracuse, Louisville, Duke and Miami that breathed life into the season. The Tigers ultimately finished ACC play 10-8, just one narrow loss at Notre Dame in February from earning a tournament bye as the No. 4 seed.

But a few blown leads and a 1-5 record in one-possession games doesn’t reflect well on the coach. Neither does grumbling about officiating after making no adjustments in losing an 18-point lead to the conference’s 10th seed.

“I really think (Wednesday’s officials) and all those guys are good,” said Brownell, calling the final six minutes a free-throw contest. “But I think sometimes you get caught up in the moment. I don’t know, I’m anxious to see if there weren’t one or two that were tough calls against us that kind of keep the momentum going.”

There are no good excuses for blowing a game like that. The Tigers still led by eight with 1:52 remaining. It kept letting Georgia Tech’s Marcus Georges-Hunt get to the rim and draw fouls. It never shifted to a zone defense or anything else that might have disrupted the Jackets’ momentum.

“I felt like we just laid back and weren’t as aggressive,” Avry Holmes said of the keys to letting an 18-point lead slip away.

With 13 seconds to draw up some kind of game-winning plan at the end of regulation, all Clemson did was have Holmes casually bring the ball upcourt before unleashing a panicked baseline jumper while falling out of bounds at the buzzer.

Brownell lamented Holmes not starting his drive “one or two seconds earlier” and not getting a call that clearly didn’t exist.

This is the time of year when coaching scrutiny reaches its zenith. College basketball is about tournament play, and not succeeding and advancing brings harsh judgments.

Mark Fox at Georgia will be heavily evaluated after a ho-hum campaign failed to build momentum after last year’s NCAA Tournament appearance.

Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech probably bought himself more time after Wednesday’s dramatic comeback extended the Jackets’ recent hot streak to six wins in seven tightly contested games.

There is certainly plenty for Radakovich to think about regarding Brownell, who got a six-year extension in 2014 and would cost $3.5 million to buy out now. Maybe some questions will get answered with some kind of NIT run like his 2014 team made.

With its best player (Jaron Blossomgame) potentially leaving early for the NBA Draft and a newly renovated Littlejohn Coliseum opening next season, it’s fair to ask the same questions about Clemson basketball that were recently asked about baseball.

Should the Tigers be better?

So far the baseball move seems promising, with former College of Charleston coach Monte Lee leading the Tigers to a 9-2 start including a 2-1 series win over ranked rival South Carolina.

With a football program restored to national prominence, patience isn’t likely to last regarding the overshadowed basketball program in Clemson.

Brownell deserves another season to lead the Tigers into their shiny new facilities. But losing commanding leads like Wednesday’s and complaining about fouls aren’t likely to get a lot of sympathy come evaluation time.

Michaux: Lefties have right touch at Augusta

Tue, 03/08/2016 - 9:41pm

Adam Scott has won two consecutive PGA Tour events and finished runner-up by a shot the week before, so the question of the 2013 winner at Augusta National seemed perfectly reasonable just a month before the season’s first major.

Are you the Masters Tournament favorite now?

“No,” Scott said without hesitation. “I think Bubba is.”

Bubba Watson draped the green jacket on Scott as the reigning 2012 Masters champion and took it back from the Australian at the 2014 ceremony. The Georgia grad also beat Scott by a shot at Riviera three weeks ago and lost to him by a shot at Doral on Sunday, so it’s fair to say that both of them are tracking at a similar pace toward Augusta.

But Scott deferring to Watson as the favorite is a bit of a left-handed compliment – literally.

“It just sets up so good there for him,” Scott said.

“Even if I won every tournament I play before the Masters, if Bubba keeps finishing second, I’d still think he’s favored.”

Scott is not alone in this assessment. There is a growing school of thought that the added yardages and tighter lanes at Augusta National have increasingly enhanced the advantage of left-handers at the Masters. Particularly big-hitting left-handers like Watson and Phil Mickelson.

And if you like trends, the Tea Olive leaves certainly point left again in 2016. Since Mike Weir broke the left-handed ice at Augusta in 2003, the even years have been all but owned by southpaws.

Mickelson took the green jacket in 2004, ’06 and ’10. Watson picked it up from there in 2012 and ’14.

Only 2008 – when Trevor Immelman won with the closest lefties Mickelson and Steve Flesch tied for fifth – has escaped the even-year pattern.

Former world No. 1 and two-time major winner Martin Kaymer has openly lamented “I wish I could play the other way” at Augusta. He even tried to change the shape of his ball flight for the course to relatively disastrous effect. He’s only broken par twice in 22 rounds at Augusta, never finishing better than 31st.

Mickelson admits there might be something to the theories. Holes like 2, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 13 all favor the control of a left-handed cut. Even most of the par-3 greens tend to set up better for lefties to get to certain pins or avoid hazards with cuts or draws.

“But you’re talking about fractions of a stroke difference,” Mickelson has said, knowing full well those fractions make a huge difference at the PGA Tour level.

Both Watson and Mickelson are rounding into perfect form before the Masters, which bodes well for both being among the favorites. Watson, however, has the advantage of not being nearly 46 years old.

Watson, naturally, dismisses the favorite chatter or any omens that portend his success. That he’s won the Masters both previous times he’s finished runner-up at Doral or that he won a green jacket after winning at Riviera as well in 2014 aren’t relevant, he claims.

“Augusta is still a long way away, and again, you don’t know how you’re going to wake up or what’s going to happen the next two days or next month before we get to Augusta,” Watson said. “I mean, who knows how I’ll feel when I get there?”

But he does concede that Augusta National tends to bring out the best in his unique shotmaker’s mind.

“Being in the field at Augusta gives me good vibes,” Watson said.

Of course, the same can be said for any of the former winners in the field. Seventeen players have won multiple times at Augusta, accounting for 47 of the 79 trophies presented (nearly 60 percent).

While players like Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler or Justin Rose would be good bets to move into the champions lockerroom, odds would still be in favor of a repeat winner to come from the in-form cluster of Scott, Watson, Mickelson, Jordan Spieth or Charl Schwartzel.

Spieth, after all, does everything athletically left-handed except hit the golf ball.

Even if Scott might give the edge to Watson, the purity of the Aussie’s ball striking and the emergence of his new conventional putter make him the strongest candidate at the moment to break up the left-handed monopoly on even years.

“I’d love to just bottle up where my game’s been at the last couple weeks and move forward a month,” Scott said. “That’s going to be the hard thing for me to do is to manage my expectations and also manage my game to keep it right here.

“I can’t just keep pushing. I have to pace myself kind of so I don’t over-work it and try and get too prepared and do all that. It’s finding that balance the next month for me that’s going to be really important, but obviously the confidence is going to be high right now.”

Michaux: Mickelson rejuvenated heading into Masters

Sat, 03/05/2016 - 8:08pm

DORAL, Fla. — It was well past dusk, with the faintest remaining glow from the Florida sunset barely illuminating the grounds.

The practice range was empty. The practice green behind the Tiger Woods Villa, however, had one player left hunched over putts. With black shoes, black slacks, black jacket and black cap, Phil Mickelson was barely noticed by most people walking by oblivious to his grinding.

The oldest guy in the World Golf Championship field was the only one working overtime after shooting 5-under par in his opening round. Mickelson is working like a kid trying to beat the clock as his favorite major inches closer.

“I’m excited to play,” Mickelson said. “I’m enjoying playing. I’m loving playing right now. I’m playing really, really well.”

You can sense Mickelson’s enthusiasm building as the Masters Tournament approaches. He already counts three green jackets among his five major titles, but the 45-year-old Mickelson isn’t ready to cede the stage to the latest generation of superstars at the peak of their games.

“The ball, the scorecard, they don’t know the difference in age,” he said. “It’s a fun challenge for me to get back to competing at the highest level.”

So far, the old man is doing alright. Mickelson leads the PGA Tour in scoring average at 69.033. In 23 prior seasons on tour, Mickelson has never won the Byron Nelson Award or Vardon Trophy given to the player who leads the season in scoring average.

To say Mickelson is invigorated would be an understatement. Since officially making the switch after a disappointing 2015 season to new swing coach Andrew Getson, Mickelson’s game has been methodically rounding into shape.

“I just know that it’s the best I’ve driven the ball, the easiest I’ve driven the ball,” he said. “Misses are minuscule. Speed is back. Iron game is sharp. And I’m hitting fades, draws, high, low, everything at will without much thought. It’s becoming much more instinctive. Game’s starting to be instinctive – I think that’s probably the best way to say it, where I don’t have to think about the technique or the mechanics of anything. I just kind of look and react. And when I’m playing well, golf is an instinctive sport. I look, I see the shot I want to hit, I feel the shot I want to hit and then I just execute.”

Those instincts have Mickelson in the mix again this week at Doral, tied for fourth entering Sunday’s final round five strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy. Already this year he’s finished third, 11th and second – a runner-up to Vaughn Taylor at Pebble Beach when his 5-footer to force a playoff lipped out on the final hole.

It’s not the result Mickelson wanted, but it’s not results he’s worried about right now. That only matters when everyone gets to Augusta National and Oakmont, where he’ll try again to complete his career slam with the elusive U.S. Open in June.

“The tough thing for me right now is to not focus on results, to just be patient,” said Mickelson, who has been sitting on 42 career tour victories since his British Open triumph at Muirfield in 2013. “Because this is the best I’ve played in a long time, and the results will come if I’m patient.

“Patience for me is regarding the results, you know, trusting that the results will come if I continue to play the way I’m playing. And sometimes we kind of force the issues and we want instant results, instant feedback. I’ve had some pretty positive feedback, but I’m probably pushing the issue a little bit. I just need to settle down and let it happen, because this is the best I’ve played in a long time.”

That “best I’ve played in a long time” refrain is driving Mickelson’s enthusiasm. It’s also what is driving his work on the greens.

There is another villa at the Doral resort with Phil Mickelson’s name embossed in gold lettering across the front of it. But Mickelson requests a room every year in the one named after Tiger Woods so he can be nearer the practice green and the range.

Resort owner Donald Trump has kindly obliged to replace the Tiger pictures that adorn the walls in Phil’s room with a few of the left-hander to make him feel at home.

Now he feels at home with his new swing and keeps working on a claw grip for short putts that will ultimately determine whether a 45-year-old can beat the McIlroys and Spieths and Bubbas at Augusta and the other major stages.

“I was nervous about the first month – how the results were going to go, was I going to play at the level that I thought I was ready to play at,” Mickelson said. “And now that I am, now that I’m in contention, now that I feel much calmer and more relaxed playing and showing up on the golf course, I know it’s a matter of time. It would have been great to have gotten a victory early on the West Coast, but I just feel like each week is going to provide another opportunity, whereas in the past, I felt like I was kind of hit or miss when I would show up.”

Mickelson is emerging from the darkness of the longest winning drought of his professional career. He’s approaching 1,000 days with a victory, grinding into the night to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

Even with so many great players less than half his age making most of the golf headlines these days, only a fool would count Mickelson out as the Masters approaches.

“So win, lose or what-have-you, it’s not really affecting the confidence that I have or the direction that I feel like my game is going,” he said.

Michaux: Approach of spring means Masters is on the minds of golfers

Wed, 03/02/2016 - 6:07pm

DORAL, Fla. — Everything needs proper context, and in golf from now through the second Sunday of April the only context is the Masters Tournament.

The Florida swing will give way to a Texas two-step, but despite a pair of WGC events the biggest players in the world already have Georgia on their minds.

“Of course it’s always on your mind because it’s so huge in the game of golf,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion. “There is such a long buildup and the anticipation from everyone – the media, players, fans – everyone.”

Rarely a week goes by after New Year’s Day, that golfers don’t get asked questions about the Masters and the players are happy to talk about it. But things get more serious once the PGA Tour schedule shifts to Florida.

Players have already started making their pre-Masters scouting trips to Augusta National – something they don’t ever do at places like PGA National, Doral’s Blue Monster or the Golf Club of Houston. Defending champion Jordan Spieth spent Sunday and Monday in Augusta. Two-time champion Bubba Watson roll into town on Monday and Tuesday. Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Scott will all fly in sooner rather than later.

“The week before it’s nice to go and play at least once, maybe twice so your mind can picture it clearly,” Scott said. “Because there are severe undulations and stances on the fairway. It’s not like hitting balls on the range. You’ve got to get your head around it because it’s not like playing on a flat golf course.”

Spieth has multiple scouting trips automatically built into his schedule.

“This is a common trip we normally make before coming down here,” Spieth said at Doral. “It’s the third year in a row now. I also go in December. Like to get there a couple times, get on the grounds.”

Spieth reports that the conditions of the course are already more pristine than usual.

“It’s even in better shape this far before the event than it has been the last couple years,” he said. “The greens were very, very quick and very healthy, so I’ve got a feeling that they are not going to want 18-under to win again. I’ve got a feeling it might be playing a little more challenging this year.”

The anticipation keeps growing when the best players keep producing the best golf in the months leading into the Masters. Already this season, former champions Spieth, Watson, Scott and Charl Schwartzel have won tournaments, with Mickelson coming within a missed 5-footer at Pebble Beach from making a playoff. Recent Masters contenders Rickie Fowler and Louis Oosthuizen won in Abu Dhabi and Perth, Australia. Last year’s runner-up Justin Rose tipped his form with a victory Monday in the Seminole Pro-Member. Rory McIlroy has shown flashes, but was discouraged enough with his putting to make an in-season shift with his putting grip to get ready for the Masters.

Jason Day, the reigning PGA champion who has a second and third in his Masters career, reached out to four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods to pick his brain about getting his mental toughness in Masters-ready shape.

“Every time that I talk to him, it’s mindset, mental toughness, effort,” Day said. “It didn’t matter how bad it was. If it was a course that he did not like, he was just going to flat out-execute you. It did not matter. That’s that killer instinct that I need to get back like I had at the second half of last year, get back and take it into this year and go through with it.”

Every top-10 player that filed through interview room this week at Doral said that everything they are doing starting last week through the beginning of April is done with the Masters at the forefront of their thinking. They’d loved to pick off a win or two along the way as long as they peak at Augusta.

“When we leave the West Coast and come over to Florida and then in Texas, it’s time to get ready for the Masters,” Spieth said. “That’s just me personally. The West Coast seems like its own kind of part of the schedule. ... We came into here after playing there, you get the excitement from just being and playing a couple rounds at Augusta National. And you come into really the final stretch of a few events that you kind of want to knock out everything you can in tournament play, and hopefully grab a win or two in the process, because that’s the best way to prepare before heading over there.”

Fowler, who may refrain from taking his usual pre-Masters trip to Augusta this time, is gearing up as well.

“I probably started thinking about it as soon as the tournament finished last year,” he said of the Masters. “It’s a special place. You love going back to Augusta, everything about it. But I think swing-wise and hitting shots, really probably started the week before last, before Honda. ... You have to be able to shape it both ways. You don’t have to but it helps to be able to shape it both ways.”

This week’s WGC at Doral and the Match Play in Austin, Texas, will gather marquee fields for massive purses. But as much as anyone would like to take home those trophies, this stretch of the golf calendar remains a prelude to the pursuit of a green jacket.

“There’s some good tests along the way,” Fowler conceded, “but part of it is making sure that you’re rested up and ready to go for (Masters) week, too.”

“Realistically it starts now,” said Scott, whose ball-striking is already hitting peak form with a runner-up at Riviera followed by a victory last week at PGA National. “When I start in L.A., this is all now preparation for Augusta to get my game in place and get my mind set and to feel like doing everything I can for the next two months to leave no stone unturned to be prepared to win the Masters.”

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