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Palace Malice keeps Cot Campbell on his game

2 hours 4 min ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michaux: NFL sends wrong message with Ray Rice punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to Vanderbilt and Arkansas for quiet off-seasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clemson counts days to South Carolina game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

McIlroy finds what once was lost at British Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michaux: Gamecocks must take advantage of open SEC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michaux: Woods' play encouraging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL's Redskins ninckname has to go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scalp’um, swamp’um

We will take’um big score.

Read’um, Weep’um, touchdown

We want heap more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fail to the Redskins.

Fail history.

Braves on the warpath,

Fighting bigotry.

Heathly Tiger Woods happy with his play in his return to action

Thu, 06/26/2014 - 5:45pm

We live in a very confusing time.

The U.S. national soccer team blows a late lead to tie Portugal then loses four days later to Germany. Tiger Woods shoots 3-over-par 74 in the tournament he hosts.

And everyone is relatively happy about all that.

The Americans advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup in spite of its 1-0 loss on Thursday and Woods was just happy to knock off the rust of a more than three-month layoff due to back surgery.

“It’s nice to be back out here playing again,” Woods said after making seven bogeys and four birdies in his first competitive round since March 9 at Doral. “Unfortunately in my career I’ve been sidelined enough, so it’s always fun to come back out here and play against these guys, the best players in the world, and to get out here and see what I can do.”

“Nice” and “fun” are hardly the kind of words Woods uses after 74s. But what he could do Thursday was hardly up to his usual standards.

He putted poorly, chipped worse, missed greens frequently and through 12 holes was 6-over par and all alone in dead last place of the 60 players out in the morning wave at Congressional Country Club.

“The score is not really indicative of how I played,” Woods said after three birdies in his last six holes made his standing fairly respectable. “I played a lot better than the score indicates, which is good.”

What is great is that Woods got off the course in one piece. Not once did he grimace and reach for his back – a sight that had become commonplace before his March 31 microdiscectomy to repair a pinched nerve that was making it impossible for him to function regularly much less play golf as the No. 1 player in the world.

The worry was that Woods might have been pushing his return to the course too soon just to appease his new sponsor (Quicken Loans) of the PGA Tour event that benefits his foundation. But after a pro-am round on Wednesday and the first round Thursday, Woods seemed no worse for wear.

“The back’s great,” he said. “I had no issues at all. No twinges. No nothing. It felt fantastic, which is one of the reasons I let it go on those tee shots. I hit it pretty hard today.”

Woods averaged 18 inches shy of 300 yards per drive on Thursday, which is pretty good for a guy who wasn’t allowed to hit full shots on the driving range until a couple weeks ago.

“I’ve been off for awhile and held back to where I just haven’t been able to let it go,” he said. “The hard part was getting into the rhythm of playing again competitively. You play with your buddies all day for cash and stuff but it’s just not the same. It’s not the same as tournament golf. It’s a different level. Adrenaline is rushing and I hit the ball further out here than I do at home.”

During the course of his extended rehabilitation, Woods missed both the Masters Tournament and the U.S. Open. For a workout junkie, the R&R was pretty unwelcome.

“This has been quite a tedious little process,” Woods admitted.

The time he spent sitting around wasn’t checking out his peers on the Golf Channel

“I watched more World Cup than I did golf,” he said.

He wasn’t alone, as golf’s television ratings took the inevitable swan dive in his absence. Woods is the guy who moves the needle. While women’s golf got a huge boost from it-girl Michelle Wie claiming her first major at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst, Martin Kaymer’s Tiger-like romp on the same course the week before was greeted with relative snores.

Love him or hate him, golf desperately misses Woods when he’s gone and needs him healthy for the long haul.

His results Thursday at Congressional were irrelevant. Even missing the cut today wouldn’t be the worst thing. No need to risk too much strain after such a long layoff with the British Open looming as his next stop in a few weeks. Instead of retiring from the course to the range to work on all the elements of his game that were lacking on Thursday, Woods went home instead to “treat and ice and do all the different protocols.”

Patience is something Woods needs to have now more than ever.

And we need to have patience with him. Measuring him by a golf score is meaningless for the time being. For once, moral victories are enough when it comes to Tiger. Like we’ve said for a few decades about Arnold Palmer, just seeing him out there swinging is good enough.

For the U.S. soccer team, draws and losses aren’t acceptable outcomes anymore. Now all that matters is winning.

Woods, however, hasn’t reached that knockout stage yet. For now, he can be content with a little group play.

In time, a healthy Woods can resume all his quests in earnest and we’ll measure him accordingly.

Until then, the “healthy” part is the most important element for both Woods and for the game.

Michaux: Heartbreak proves Americans finally love soccer

Tue, 06/24/2014 - 5:55pm

“No-no-no-no-No-No-No-No-NO-NO-NO-NO-NOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Chances are that this sounded like your living room or local bar Sunday night. The communal refrain of anguish spanned the frantic moments between Michael Bradley turning the ball over in the forward zone to that same ball rocketing into the net off Silvestre Varela’s head from a perfect cross by Cristiano Ronaldo.

This was the moment when soccer finally melted the stubborn hearts of Americans. Nationalistic curiosity has swelled before with thrilling goals that beat the likes of Algeria (2010) and Ghana (June 16) to advance the cause of domestic interest in the quadrennial World Cup. But you can never truly appreciate – dare we say, love – the beautiful game until it breaks your heart.

Sunday’s wrenching draw against Portugal in the waning seconds of stoppage time Sunday was a seminal moment in a series of such instances in American soccer history. An estimated 26 million Americans held their collective breath as the U.S. Men’s National Team tried to bleed out the clock on a thrilling comeback against Portugal to secure a 2-1 victory that would have vaulted the Americans into the round of 16.

That 26 million is about the same number of Americans who watched our version of football crown a collegiate BCS champion in January. That’s a big number crowding onto a big bandwagon.

Soccer, of all sports, has become our biggest source of national pride. More than anything else, Americans love an underdog. And soccer is the last frontier of underdog stature that hasn’t been conquered by American Exceptionalism.

Those brilliant ex-patriot Brits who produce the “Men In Blazers” bits on ESPN expressed it perfectly: “Soccer used to be an un-American sport, but now it’s the sport in which express our patriotism the most.”

So true. The jingoistic fervor that those of a certain age can wistfully remember from the 1980 Miracle on Ice has taken root on a soccer pitch. Beating the hated Russian Olympic hockey team in upstate New York would pale to beating the Brazilians in their own game on their home turf.

Can you imagine it? This team that our German coach insisted “cannot win” the World Cup has already shocked doubters by being so relevant. If it can beat or tie vaunted Germany on Thursday (or get the proper set of results with the Ghana-Portugal game), the U.S. can advance from its so-called “Group of Death” and have a sporting chance to utterly shock the world.

These small victories and ties are the baby steps into the American sporting consciousness. The harder and more unrealistic it is, the more it draws us in.

Not everybody gets it, of course. The low scores are a turnoff to some who don’t understand the rhythm of the game and the beauty in the “almosts” that make up the majority of the minutes. Not everybody appreciates the drama of a 1-0 pitchers’ duel in baseball, either.

My wife couldn’t understand my unbridled screaming in our Napa Valley B&B four years ago when Landon Donovan finished a desperate final charge against Algeria with the lone goal of the game that delivered the Americans through to the knockout stage. She was equally perplexed when I was screaming that lead quote at the top and throwing my cell phone across the room when Portugal delivered that dispiriting dagger on Sunday.

“When did you become such a soccer fan?” she asked.

Truth is, it’s always been buried inside waiting to be awakened like the rest of the world.

Like most Americans, I’ve never seen a MLS game. I’m fairly certain I’ve never even paused on one accidentally trying to stifle a sneeze while flipping through the channels. I assumed that the Seattle Sounders were perennial champions because so many boastful claims were made about their passionate fan base in the run-up to last year’s Super Bowl win by the Seahawks that it came as a shock when Wikipedia revealed the Sounders have never participated in a single MLS title game.

That said, I’ve always enjoyed soccer. Played it as a kid. Coached it. Refereed it. Shrewdly exited an escalating argument with high school teammates about who would get to wear Pelé’s number (10) by quietly picking up the No. 9 jersey of Giorgio Chinaglia sitting right there on the table before anyone realized that the second most popular choice was gone and leaving the rest to literally wrestle over the third-rate 6 of Franz Beckenbauer.

But the World Cup interest was rooted from my collegiate experience and covering future U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena as he built Virginia into an NCAA power. Players like John Harkes, Tony Meola, Claudio Reyna and Jeff Agoos filed through Charlottesville, Va., on their way to national team acclaim when the U.S. ended its 40-year World Cup lapse in 1990 and then played host in 1994.

Now it’s Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones who carry the flag. We gather in bars and restaurants, triggered to gleefully erupt in unison when substitute John Brooks heads in the game-winner against Ghana that breathed life into our 2014 hopes. We fret over Altidore’s health and argue over whose fault it was that Portugal scored the equalizer. We use words like “nil,” marvel at the efforts of Costa Rica and Iran, and calculate all the goal differential permutations that might mean the difference to playing through or ruing that heart-crushing Portugal draw for years to come.

One way or another, more Americans than we ever imagined will tune in during lunch breaks Thursday afternoon, believing it’s possible to play as equals to Germany.

Whether a long-time soccer enthusiast or neophyte bandwagon jumper, Americans have finally come together for one common “Goooooooaaaaaal!”

Lucy Li just wants to have some fun in Women's U.S. Open

Wed, 06/18/2014 - 10:03pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – The first impressions from Lucy Li’s U.S. Women’s Open “peers” was pretty much summed up by two-time champion Meg Mallon when she saw the youngest qualifier in championship history on the practice range.

“I expected an 11-year-old and found a 9-year-old,” Mallon said.

It’s a natural reaction when you catch a glimpse of the diminutive Li. Barely more than 5-feet tall with a golf bag her caddie says is “way, way heavier” than she is, Li looks every bit her age with braces, three braided pigtails, a zebra shirt with sequins on the shoulder and a pleated green skirt with white polka dots. She seems to have sprung right out of the Gymboree catalog.

“She looks so darn cute,” Michelle Wie said. “The first thought that came into my mind was, oh, I wish I looked that cute when I was 11. ... I was actually talking to a couple of older players about this. She’s so cute and tiny and I was like, ‘Was I that cute?’ And they’re like, ‘No, you were ginormous.’ ”

When Wie played as a 12-year-old in the 2002 LPGA event at Mount Vintage Plantation in Edgefield County, S.C., she was 5-foot-11 and towered over many of the pros. As a self-described “bit of a porker,” Wie hit the ball further than most, as well, which is why she was drawn to test herself against the men as a teenager.

Li, however, plays a very different game. She looked right at home two months ago at Augusta National Golf Club, dominating her age group in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. But on a brawny and rugged course like Pinehurst No. 2 that humbled most of the grown-up male professionals who played it last week, Li looks like she took a wrong turn on her way to a junior clinic.

“She is shorter than everybody else,” said LPGA Tour pro Beatriz Recari, who consistently outdrove Li by 30 to 40 yards in a practice round Tuesday. “That’s obvious. And it’s a long course.”

Li, however, earned her way into the U.S. Women’s Open like everyone else. She won her 36-hole qualifier at Half Moon Bay – near her native south San Francisco suburbs – by seven strokes. That’s right, seven.

“It was mine,” she said of the idea to qualify despite being only in sixth grade. “Because I wanted to go out there and get the experience. Because it’s 36 holes and I didn’t care if I qualified or not, I didn’t think about it, I just wanted to go for the experience.”

Her experiences keep lowering the bar for how shockingly young a girl can compete. At age 10, Li became the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the youngest to reach the match-play portion of the Women’s Amateur Public Links, where she lost in the first round to a college player.

She was the most celebrated winner at the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt, beating her peers in the 10-11 girls’ division with the longest drive and closest chip.

But reaching the U.S. Women’s Open on such a grueling venue is a step beyond. She broke the record of Lexi Thompson, who was 12 when she played in 2007 at Pine Needles. Before that was Morgan Pressel, who was 13 in 2001, also at Pine Needles. Neither Thompson nor Pressel – both now established LPGA stars and major winners – made the cut in their debuts.

“It’s exciting,” LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan told Li’s hometown San Francisco paper. “She’s the Lexi Thompson of 2014, or Morgan Pressel before her. I hope she takes her time. No rush.”

Like Wie and Pressel, Thompson can certainly relate to Li’s position in the spotlight. Thompson remembers practicing signing autographs on the drive up to Pine Needles and being a little overwhelmed. But she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

“I was not long enough for that golf course,” she remembers. “I just had to grow. I had to get longer. I had to improve on my game. But that experience, I told my parents after that week, it was like, I know I can compete out there, just give me a few more years.”

Thompson and Wie would advise Li to just “have fun this week.” Li seems to be doing just that. Her “coolest moment” was meeting her favorite men’s player, Webb Simpson, last weekend. She’s also met LPGA legends Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, among others.

Her pre-tournament news conference was priceless, with countless giggles and an effervescence that only an 11-year-old could bring. She likes reading Rick Riordan and Sherlock Holmes books; studying math, science and history; going to Dave & Buster’s; and dabbling in dance, table tennis, swimming, diving and badminton.

Anything about being on this stage scare her?

“Not really.”

Can her dad beat her?

“No,” she said bluntly between long squeals of laughter.

What are her goals?

“The perfect week, I just want to go out there and have fun and play the best I can and I really don’t care about the outcome,” she said. “It’s just I want to have fun and learn. I want to learn a lot from these great players.”

It might be a very tough lesson. She’ll be hitting long irons or woods on most of her approaches, and Donald Ross’ most famous crowned greens can make fools of anyone. But she understands the risks and plans to accept the consequences.

“The key phrase we always remember is, she goes, ‘Ross built these greens to repel golf balls, not receive them,’” said Bryan Bush, her veteran Pinehurst caddie this week who is “blown away” by Li’s golf knowledge. “She took a lot from Martin Kaymer in hitting to the center of the green ... she knows if she misses it just a little bit, it will roll off. But her short game is so ridiculous. It’s just fun to watch.”

Said Recari: “She hit solid shots all day. It’s obviously playing a little bit longer, but I think she’s going to do well. We’ll see.”

Her presence in the field incites mixed emotions.

“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough – or young enough, whichever way you look at it,” Laura Davies said. “If you can play the golf and you can qualify, then have a go. What’s the worst that can happen? She shoots a million this week and everyone says, ‘Wasn’t it great she was here?’ So I don’t think anything bad can come out of it, because she’s too young to worry about the pressure.”

Others, however, worry that it’s too much too soon and that the experience could set her back. World No. 1 Stacy Lewis candidly said she’s “not a big fan” of an 11-year-old competing in the world’s most demanding women’s major.

“I just like to see kids learn how to win before they come get beat up out here,” Lewis said. “When I found out she qualified, I said, ‘Well, where does she go from here? What do you do next?’ You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next?”

For Li, next might just be qualifying again to return to Augusta for next year’s Drive, Chip and Putt.

“I really want to go, but if my schedule allows it, I probably will,” she said.

The experience didn’t seem to scar Wie or Pressel or Thompson, who are all currently ranked among the top 40 in the world.

“It’s a memory that will last her a lifetime,” Wie said. “What other 11-year-old can say that they played in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst and got to see the men play as well?”

What other female of any age can say they competed at both Augusta and Pinehurst in major weeks the same year?

“It’s awesome, right?” Li said. “I mean Pinehurst and Augusta National in like two months. I mean that’s just amazing. It’s mind-blowing for me.”

Li’s biggest takeaways from Augusta were eating ice cream, seeing Amen Corner and making new friends. She isn’t worried about her future. She’s just living in the present like any kid should do.

“The game’s going to take me wherever it’s going to take me,” she said, “so I just really don’t care that much.”

LI may be 11 looking like 9, but she’s smarter than a 20-year-old.

Martin Kaymer needs to get respect he's due

Mon, 06/16/2014 - 8:49pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – The chapel bells played “Faith of Our Fathers” on Sunday as the leaders teed off in the U.S. Open. The regular tolling hymns and periodic train whistles are part of the magic that leaks into the soul of anyone who visits the charming village in the Carolina sandhills.

As the dust settles after the third men’s championship at Pinehurst and the women take over a quieter stage for Act II of the USGA double header, it’s natural to reflect on a U.S. Open that deserves way more credit than people seemed willing to give it when Martin Kaymer choked the drama out of it by lunchtime on Friday with a pair of matching 65s.

Kaymer’s crowning achievement got lost on many of the spectators who didn’t find his dominance worthy of adoration. It was telling when the runaway leader delivered a dagger by accepting temptation and driving the green on the 308-yard par-4 third hole. It was the kind of daring and defining shot that would ignite an eruption of roars at Augusta National, but Kaymer got the kind of polite applause (and a few groans) that a routine wedge to the middle of the green elicits.

In time, people may come to respect the eight-shot triumph they grudgingly accepted on Sunday. And while Kaymer stole the show, the undercard was also littered with other accomplishments and failures worthy of due acknowledgement:

ALBATROSS: Erik Compton. The most compelling story of Sunday was whether the double heart transplant recipient could not wilt under the most intense spotlight of his career and gain the top-four finish he needed to qualify for the Masters. Decked out in Georgia red-and-black, Compton got closer to Kaymer than anyone else and hung on for a share of runner-up. “It’s a career-opening thing for me,” he said. Let’s hope so.

BOGEY: Fans. I’ve been to seven British Opens – most of them won by non-Europeans – and never once heard a fan root against a player or faintly applaud laudable shots by foreigners. U.S. Open fans from Carolina to New York still have much to learn in golf decorum.

BIRDIE: Rickie Fowler. The popular American started week wearing knickers in tribute to Payne Stewart and ended as runner-up for his best major finish. More importantly, he showed grit in the final pairing Sunday by bouncing back from making a long putt for double bogey on No. 4 to birdie No. 5 and keep fighting to the finish. Good step.

BOGEY: Phil Mickelson. Career slam expectations were unreasonable for a guy who hasn’t played his best all season. But walking away dejected and tired with a T28, he looked older than the 44 he turned on Monday.

BIRDIE: Keegan Bradley. One of three players with three rounds in the 60s. Needs to curtail those 76s to reach his major potential.

BIRDIE: Brooks Koepka. Informed in the locker room that his tie for fourth in his first made cut in a major qualified him for the 2015 Masters, the young pro said “the news just keeps on getting better.”

BOGEY: Bubba Watson. Masters champ arrived at Pinehurst a favorite before summing up the course as “unfriendly” and “weeds” in his pre-tournament interview. Not surprisingly he followed his own 2012 example as only reigning Masters winner to miss cut since 1995.

PAR: Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson. The two chasers most likely to threaten Kaymer’s waltz never really made any move on Sunday.

BIRDIE: Justin Rose. The defending champ gamely tied for 12th and finished on the right note by striking the famous Payne Stewart air-punch pose when his long birdie putt dropped.

BOGEY: Hunter Mahan. Two-shot penalty for hitting the wrong ball on 18th Friday cost him the cut. But his Sunday Tweet was priceless: “Happy Fathers Day on this great US Open Sunday! Remember to identify your ball before you play it!”

BIRDIE: Jason Day. Posted fifth top-4 major finish since 2011 despite making only third start since winning WGC Match Play in February because of injury.

BIRDIE: Henrik Norlander. Former Augusta State star was leading the tournament at 3-under on Thursday before a second-round 79 sent him home. But the lessons from his major debut were invaluable boost for his developing career.

PAR: Patrick Reed. Breakout Augusta State star expected more than just making his first major cut. The closing 5-under 30 he posted on the last nine Sunday after a brutal 42 on the front will help his development.

BIRDIE: Kevin Kisner. First career major week for Aiken/UGA product started with the birth of his daughter and ended early with his father carrying bag the last two holes. The memories will be way better than his score.

BOGEY: Brandt Snedeker. A top 10 was pretty strong considering his back hurt so badly he couldn’t bend over to pick ball out of cup or tie his shoes on Sunday. Durability remains huge concern for the 33-year-old.

BIRDIE: UGA. With a presumed record eight players in the field, the Bulldogs acquitted themselves nicely with Brendon Todd posting three rounds in the 60s, Compton grabbing runner-up and five of them making the cut.

BIRDIE: No. 2. The strategic masterpiece of a course was brilliantly set up and was the most defining element of the week. It’s earned its place in the frequent rotation for years to come and will only improve rustic beauty with age.

DOUBLE BOGEY: Donald Trump. The egotistical tycoon spent all day on Twitter ridiculing how Pinehurst looked on TV and called it “bad for golf.” As the saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

BIRDIE: NBC and ESPN. Announcers Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller got choked up talking about “great ride” the network had for 20 years covering the U.S. Open. It was a classy sign-off by both coverage networks after the USGA dumped them in favor of a big fat $1.2 billion check from inexperienced Fox Sports.

BOGEY: Japan. The sectional qualifier in Japan earned six players spots into the field. Only one, Toru Taniguchi, made the cut on the number but shot a gruesome 88-76 on the weekend. Japan’s Kiyoshi Miyazato (81-81) and Azuma Yano (77-83) finished 156th and 155th in the 156-man field.

BIRDIE: Mid Pines & Pine Needles. Two of the best and most playable courses in the sandhills got a lot of exposure to golfers in town for the Open double. Hopefully Pine Needles will play host again to future Women’s Opens.

BOGEY: Michael Campbell. With no statue like Stewart and scant mention during the week he skipped for health and personal reasons, the 2005 Pinehurst winner was even more forgotten than the still absent Tiger Woods.

BIRDIE: LPGA players. It was totally cool seeing women players hit balls on the range beside the men on Sunday and having many of them walking inside the ropes to watch how the men played the course. Great exposure for more great golfers. It’s an experiment worth trying again some day.

Michaux: Kaymer brilliant in Open

Sun, 06/15/2014 - 11:02pm

PINEHURST, N.C. — There was much point-missing going on at the U.S. Open – even more than usual.

There were the folks like Donald Trump who saw brown patches and scruffy waste areas on their HD televisions and decried Pinehurst No. 2 as ugly and unworthy of holding a major championship. Heaven help us if Trump ever buys this charming sandhills village or the town of St. Andrews.

And there were other folks who saw a 29-year-old German shatter a field in America’s national championship with a wire-to-wire romp, and yawned.

Greatness and class are apparently lost on some of the huddled masses.

What Martin Kaymer did over the last four days on a restored Donald Ross gem was nothing short of brilliant. If Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson or Jordan Spieth had blown away the field by eight strokes with a 9-under-par score, everyone would be hyperventilating and genuflecting.

If Tiger had just dusted everyone wire-to-wire to become the first person to win both the Players and U.S. Open in the same season, ratings would be off the charts.

All Kaymer seemed to do is inspire polite acknowledgment at best and boorish disdain at worst.

At times on Sunday, some of the gallery was actually openly rooting against him as if it were a Ryder Cup match.

“Ya think?” he said.

It’s crass enough in that charged international team environment. It’s disgusting on a major stage.

On the first tee Sunday, fans chanted “USA! USA!” when Rickie Fowler stepped to the box in the final pairing. Kaymer and his five-shot lead received a lukewarm reception.

On the fifth green, when Kaymer’s 8-foot birdie putt slid past the cup, one fan in the bleachers behind the green shouted “Yes!”

On the seventh hole, when Kaymer’s putt from off the green caught a slope, more bleacher bums started chanting “Go! Go! Go!” as it drifted further from the hole.

Where was that state trooper who arrested Roger Maltbie’s cart driver on Saturday when you needed him?

Kaymer was way more gracious in triumph than some in the galleries were when asked about the pressure he’s dealt with the past month battling popular young Yanks Fowler and Spieth – much less a Georgia Bulldog on his third heart.

“It’s a lot, especially if you play on a different continent,” Kaymer said. “But, again, at the Players, the fans are very fair, and the same here this week. So I’m playing with Rickie today, I knew it was going to be very difficult. He’s a very aggressive player, and he can make a lot of birdies if he wants to. But overall it was a very nice week. Very nice day. And again, a lot of credit to the fans and spectators because it was very fair to play.”

I get it. American fans crave drama and home cooking. A second consecutive major devoid of a nail-biting plot down the back nine on Sunday doesn’t move the needle for everyone.

But history should. This week saw the coronation of a new Hall of Fame golf superstar. What more do you want from this guy?

He’s the first continental European to win the U.S. Open, joining McIlroy as the only current player under 30 with multiple major titles. Those two and Bubba Watson are the only players younger than Tiger to win two.

He won the so-called “fifth major” last month in clutch fashion at Sawgrass.

He won a World Golf Championship event and finished runner-up in a WGC Match Play.

He drained the clinching putt in the 2012 Ryder Cup Matches that capped the greatest comeback on foreign soil.

He is one of 17 players to ever ascend to the No. 1 ranking in the world.

He shot 59 in a pro event at age 21. He’s won 13 events on four continents.

Any questions?

Kaymer is the seventh player in history to lead a U.S. Open wire-to-wire, matching the feat last achieved by McIlroy in his 2011 rout at soggy Congressional. On a course with margins as thin as Pinehurst, his three under-par rounds impressed McIlroy.

“To do what he’s doing is – I think it’s nearly more impressive than what I did at Congressional,” he said.

If fans believe Kaymer fits some dour German stereotype, they’re wrong. He is pleasant and funny in his own way. Asked if he would pay to come back and play a course as tough as Pinehurst, he shot back, “I hope I can play for free now.”

He’s also thoughtful and respectful. On Saturday, when he couldn’t understand a ruling explanation from USGA president Tom O’Toole, he shrugged it off, accepted a penalty and made an all-world bogey that illustrated how in control he was under the gun.

Asked what he didn’t understand about O’Toole’s explanation, Kaymer said he didn’t understand the word “erosion.”

You try plying your trade in Germany and see if you can sprechen all sie Deutsch.

Most of all, Kaymer is gifted. Winning his first major at 25 and dealing with the attention of rising to No. 1 overwhelmed him. He made swings changes and lost his confidence and fell as low as 63rd in the world before this year’s Masters.

Now he’s back up to No. 11 and a staple in the conversation of next-generation superstars as the Woods-Mickelson era grows older.

“Some people, especially when I went through that low, called me the one-hit wonder and those things,” he said. “So it’s quite nice proof, even though I don’t feel like I need to prove a lot of people, but somehow it’s quite satisfying to have two under your belt. And I’m only 29 years old, so I hope I have another few years ahead of me.”

Get used to Kaymer, because he’s a big part of the big picture in golf.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219

or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

Heart of a champion beats in Erik Compton

Sat, 06/14/2014 - 11:12pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – It takes a lot of heart to win a U.S. Open. In Erik Compton’s case, it could take three of them.

In only his second career major appearance, Compton’s heart raced as he walked up to the 18th green on Saturday at Pinehurst No. 2 with a chance to shoot the lowest score on a day when only he and Rickie Fowler could break par with 3-under 67s that put them in second place.

The heart in question was the gift of a 26-year-old volleyball player from Ohio in 2008.

For 16 years before that, it was the heart of a 15-year-old girl from Florida that replaced Compton’s cardiomyopathy-ravaged original in 1992 and inspired the 12-year-old to take up golf as part of his rehab. It carried him through an All-American career at Georgia and then six seasons on the developmental Nationwide Tour.

Compton believes each one – his, Jannine’s and Isaac’s – have one thing in common: “I always say the first heart I got the heart of a champion and the second heart I have the heart of a champion as well.”

That’s a phrase he took, literally, to heart as a child and made it the guiding principle in his life.

“We promised him with a new heart he would have a new life,” said his mother, Eli Compton. “He was so young he didn’t understand the complication and the tragedy of the whole thing. We told him once you get a new heart, you’re going to be a champion. You’re going to get the heart of a champion. He took that up and started up with golf and baseball.”

Compton’s story is a familiar one to anyone who follows golf. Every time his name appears on a leaderboard, the story of the golfer with three hearts gets retold.

The Comptons believe it should always be that way.

“I don’t think it should change,” his mother said. “I think it’s part of his makeup and part of his history that he is a golfer who had a transplant not a transplant recipient who is a golfer. He is a golfer, foremost.”

That golfer almost never made it to a major stage. In October of 2007, Compton suffered a heart attack and believed his only chance was to drive himself 20 minutes to a hospital. En route, he called his mother instead of 911. His instinct was the say goodbye.

“Mom, I’m not going to make it,” he told her.

His mother and father, Peter, made it to the hospital to say goodbye before the doctors closed the curtain.

But another miracle was born out of another tragedy. Six months after his heart attack, a young man named Isaac Klosterman was killed in a motorcycle on vacation in West Palm Beach, Fla. His obituary included this line: “He kept his body fit and healthy, and in his giving spirit, he chose to be an organ donor.”

Klosterman’s heart let Compton live to see the birth of his daughter, Petra, in 2009. Then it helped him qualify for his first U.S. Open in 2010 at Pebble Beach, win his first pro event in 2011 at the Nationwide Tour’s Mexico Open and earn his first PGA Tour card in 2012 through Q School.

He cherishes the gift he was given a second time.

“Even if I didn’t play golf and I had two heart transplants and survived a heart attack, I would be a book story, anyways,” he said in 2009 when he returned to the game he loved. “That is a bigger achievement than if I ever win a U.S. Open or the Masters. It’s just, you know, the shots I hit on the golf course are nowhere near as the physical trauma I have gone through. The greatest shots I ever hit were in the hospital.”

That perspective is what helped get him through a Saturday round at Pinehurst with five birdies and an eagle when most of the best golfers in the world doubted an under-par round was even possible.

“I have been through a lot in my life,” Compton said Saturday, “a lot more adrenaline pressure situations than hitting a tee shot on 18. Putting things in perspective may help me.”

He had a hard time putting this experience into words.

“I think it’s very special,” he said. “When I’m out there, at times it’s hard to ... when you look around and I realize where I have been, and then ... but it shouldn’t matter. I’m just happy to be able to play golf. But to play at this high level and in such a big tournament, it is something that I carry with me. And it gives me a lot of strength when I do have moments where I feel like I get emotional for a second.”

Knowing his story, it was emotional just watching Compton make a move up the leaderboard with in a seven-hole stretch from the 5th through 11th holes.

“I made that nice eagle on the 5th hole,” he said. “And kind of a momentum killer, I missed a short one on 6 that horseshoed back at me. I just kind of laughed it off and made a great birdie on 7. And then to birdie 10, make a bomb on 11, I knew something special was happening.”

Six years ago when the curtain was drawn on Compton in the hospital, his mother would have laughed off someone suggesting an opportunity like the one that awaits Sunday.

“I would have said they were dreaming along with me,” she said. “Now I wouldn’t.

“I have always thought that he would win a major. Why shouldn’t he? With all of the work that he has done, he should have a chance to.”

Chances are all Compton has ever wanted. It might take a miracle for him to make up five strokes on Martin Kaymer. But when you’re a living miracle already, it’s not that far a reach.

“I never quit,” Compton said.

Kaymer, Mickelson have gone in different directions at U.S. Open

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 10:51pm

PINEHURST, N.C. — Martin Kaymer might not have already won this U.S. Open, but Phil Mickelson’s definitely lost it.

While the former world No. 1 from Germany continued compiling record low scores and opening a six-shot cushion on the field, everybody’s sentimental favorite faded into the background on the stage he hoped to complete his career slam.

“The hole looks like a thimble to me right now,” Mickelson said after a second-round 3-over-par 73 left him 13 shots behind runaway leader Kaymer. “I’m having a hard time finding it.”

Some might suggest that Mickelson puts the mental in sentimental with his willingness to make radical changes on the fly in the biggest tournaments. He admitted as much Tuesday.

“Right now the game plan is X, but it can certainly become Y in a matter of minutes,” he said.

That sudden shift to “Plan Why” happened Friday. Mickelson changed his putting before the tournament to a claw grip he felt would work better on the slick and slopey greens. But he switched back Friday to a conventional grip and adjusted his head alignment trying to find a stroke that could conjure up a run at the man who was 10 shots in front of him when Mickelson started his round.

After a pair of birdies on the second and third holes, it looked like Mickelson might have hit on the right formula. Then it all went south.

“I thought I was going to have a good putting day,” he said. “I made the putt on 2 and 3 and I hit a really good putt on 5 that didn’t go and I thought I was going to have a good day. The 3-putt on 6 shook me a little bit. Then 8. After that I was really fighting it.”

By the end of the day, his fight seemed over. His willingness to concede that Kaymer might not win only went so far as to think somebody else might do it.

“We have always had crazy things happen,” Mickelson said of U.S. Open weekends. “So you just never know. There’s a lot of guys right there ready to pounce if he slips up.”

Kaymer will have to slip as he seems to have everybody chasing for second place – a position Mickelson is uninterested in achieving for the seventh time in 15 years. The 2010 PGA champion took full advantage of the two most benign days possible on Pinehurst No. 2 and rattled off a pair of 65s – each of them two shots better than the next best score in the field. The combination adds up to the lowest 36-hole score (130) in U.S. Open history and tied the largest margin (six) in 114 installments of America’s oldest championship.

“It gets boring the words that I use, but I mean there’s not much to say,” Kaymer confessed of his nearly flawless form. “It’s just good right now the way I play golf.”

That’s the understatement of the year. Only a month ago Kaymer was running away with The Players Championship until a late-afternoon rain delay disrupted his roll. He still held on at the end for the second biggest victory of his career.

Those staring up at his score at Pinehurst were struggling to figure out how he lapped them all.

“I heard he played the No. 3 course,” Kevin Na said of the 5,800-yard Donald Ross sister track adjacent to No. 2. “Is that true?”

Brendon Todd, the former Georgia golfer with the closest look at Kaymer in solo second at 4-under, was impressed.

“Kaymer’s performance has been incredible,” Todd said. “He’s playing a brand of golf that we haven’t seen probably in a long time – since maybe Tiger.”

Close. Kaymer’s 36-hole lead ties the absurd margin that Woods owned in his record-shattering 15-stroke victory at Pebble Beach in 2000.

Rory McIlroy matched it as well at Congressional in 2011 when he went on to win by eight.

“Obviously, I played Congressional and I thought, ‘How can you shoot that low?’” Kaymer recalled of McIlroy’s performance in 2011 that came a 36th-hole bogey from matching his pair of 65s this week. “And that’s probably what a lot of other people think about me right now.”

On Wednesday when the Pinehurst greens were approaching unplayable, Kaymer believed 8-over might be a winning score. But overnight watering before Thursday and an inch of overnight rain before Friday allowed Kaymer to get 18 strokes ahead of his target score.

“I wouldn’t take it anymore, obviously,” he said.

Stranger things have happened. Dr. Gil Morgan was the first player to reach double digit figures under par in a U.S. Open, getting to 12-under in 1992 at Pebble Beach. He played the rest of the way in 17-over and wound up tied for 13th.

More recently at Pinehurst, Retief Goosen held a three-shot 54-hole lead over the likes of Jason Gore and Olin Browne in 2005 and looked unbeatable.

Goosen’s coronation, however, was derailed by a Sunday 81 that left him staggering away in 11th place.

Can Kaymer hold off the bunched-up masses in his wake?

“If he does it for two more days, then we’re all playing for second spot,” said Adam Scott, whose Friday 67 got him to even par. “But we all know that U.S. Opens get very difficult. ... I don’t know why he would change anything of what he’s doing. Potentially, he goes out (Saturday) and plays better than everyone again and this thing’s over.”

Kaymer doesn’t plan on changing anything but won’t think about it being over until it’s over.

“I don’t want to put more pressure on myself,” he said. “There’s enough pressure playing the U.S. Open and trying to finish as high as possible.”

Kevin Kisner surprises dad with caddie job

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 10:38pm

PINEHURST, N.C. — It’s been Father’s Week for Aiken’s Kevin Kisner.

Four days after his first daughter was born Monday, Kisner got a chance to share his major championship debut with his own father on Friday at the U.S. Open, pulling his dad out of the gallery after the 16th hole to caddie the last two holes for him carrying a bag with his “Steven Kisner” sewn onto it.

“I told my caddie early in the week if I made the cut I was going to get (my dad) to do 18 on Sunday – unless I had a chance to win,” Kisner said. “When I doubled 16, my caddie said ‘Why don’t you get him to do it now?’”

Steve Kisner was reluctant at first, not because he had a couple of beers but fearful he’d disrupt his playing partners trying to rally to make the cut. But Kisner (and his mother) convinced his father to put on the bib and walk the last two holes with him.

“I had no idea about Sunday, but that would have been a real treat,” Steve Kisner said. “At first I said no, but Kevin insisted so I had to do it. I realized the reason he wanted me to do it and I couldn’t turn that down.”

“It was a special opportunity,” Kevin said. “Who knows if you’ll ever get to do it again, so it was a great time to do it.”

The only family member in on the plan was Kisner’s sister, Stephanie, who kept an eye on their father to make sure he stuck close by in case he got the inside-the-ropes call.

“It was fun and a nice Father’s Day present,” said his mother, Christy. “He did get emotional, especially because we didn’t know that his name was on Kevin’s bag. When he saw that he got teary-eyed.”

Steve admitted the gesture got to him.

“Actually walking down the 18th fairway I got a little choked up,” he said. “It means a lot. Kevin’s a good person and that’s what’s most important to me.”

The family packed up to head to Aiken on Friday night and will extend the paternal theme at home.

“We’ll still have a good Father’s Day,” said Kisner, who will skip next week to have 11 days off in Aiken with his wife, Brittany, and newborn daughter, Kathleen (Kate) Grace. “We’ll go to church with the family and do lunch and that will be just as special. I’m about as excited as I’ve ever been to go home and see my family and spend some time with them. I’ll forget about this tournament as soon as I walk in that front door.”

Steve Kisner wasn’t giving up on the idea of caddying 18 holes on Sunday at the U.S. Open for his son.

“How about next Father’s Day we’ll do it?” he said.

Despite a brief exposure in his major debut that included only 12 practice holes and scores of 75-77, Kisner was thrilled with the experience.

“This was a great week,” Kisner said. “I would never have it any other way. Obviously I wish I’d played a little better but it was a week I’ll never forget.

“The score doesn’t show how I played. I played the last four holes in 6-over par or something like that. Could have been a little wanting to go home in that. But I played well and in the U.S. Open you’ve got to get some bounces your way and I didn’t do that today. I birdied 14 and still had a chance and then three-putted 15 and 16 and it was over.”

Augusta’s Henrik Norlander also left Pinehurst early after a Friday 79 but with a valuable lesson in how to handle a major.

“A great experience; I’ll be remembering this for a long time,” Norlander said. “I learned a lot. I knew it, but you can’t force it.”

The comfort Norlander felt in a first-round 70 never materialized on Friday afternoon. He hit his first approach of the day to 3 feet and missed it. He shot 40 on the front and 39 on the back.

“I never got the speed of the greens,” he said. “I got a little too aggressive and tried to force it. Two bad shots and then it was bogey after bogey and that was that. I never got into a rhythm.”

Norlander’s former Augusta State national championship teammate Patrick Reed fared better in his own U.S. Open debut. He backed up a first-round 71 with a 72 Friday to make the cut tied for 33rd and 3-over par.

“I made the cut, that’s about it,” Reed said. “I hit the ball OK. Yesterday I made my 4-, 5- and 6-footers, and today if I had 4- to 6-foot putt, the hole was about the size of a pencil. The ball didn’t go in the hole.”

Reed birdied the first hole to start the day and get to even par, but couldn’t muster any more. While he’s 13 shots behind runaway leader Martin Kaymer, he’s only four shots out of the top 10.

“I made the cut in my second-ever major, so I really can’t complain about that,” he said. “We’re still looking for top 10. It’s still there, easily.”

Henrik Norlander has fun day in first U.S. Open start

Thu, 06/12/2014 - 9:57pm

PINEHURST, N.C. — Henrik Norlander’s first round in a major championship ended with him having to pee in a cup for the drug testing enforcers.

“It’s random,” Norlander said with a smirk. “The only other time I had to do it was after shooting 65 in New Orleans. They must think, ‘He can’t make a cut on the Web.com Tour and he’s 3-under in the U.S. Open? Must be steroids.’ ”

For 15 minutes Thursday, the former Augusta State star was tied for the lead through 14 holes in his major debut at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. That he followed his three birdies in five holes after the turn that put him up there with a trio of consecutive bogeys on 6, 7 and 8 did not dim Norlander’s enthusiasm for the experience and his even-par 70.

“I just had a lot of fun all day,” he said.

“Fun” is a word not often associated with the U.S. Open. Norlander – a 27-year-old Swede who chose to live in Augusta even after graduating in 2011 – woke up at 3:45 a.m. on Thursday “like a kid on Christmas day” and struck the first tee shot of the tournament off the deserted 10th tee into the faint morning mist. It was not the intensity he expected on what he believed would be “the toughest conditions I would ever see.”

“I showed up here this morning and I was walking out to the range about 5:25 and it was dark,” he said. “There was not a light. I didn’t know what to do. I hit a few putts and a few dropped in, a few didn’t, I didn’t even know if they were going in. And then it got light and I came out and I guess my eyesight is not very good, I thought it was almost dark on the first tee. I was way more comfortable than I thought I was going to be.”

Part of that comfort may have had to do with the man standing next to him carrying his golf bag. The first person Norlander thought of when he qualified for his first major was the man who coached him to a pair of NCAA team titles at Augusta State – Josh Gregory.

Gregory, now coaching at Southern Methodist, last caddied for Norlander through all stages of Q School in 2012 when he earned his PGA Tour card. The coach was floored when he got the call again and took about two seconds to say yes.

“I thought I retired as a caddie after the last stage of Q School,” he said. “But it’s his first major championship. You try not to pick favorites, but I feel like he’s my second son.”

Norlander, who used former Jaguar teammate Carter Newman as his caddie in winning the sectional qualifier last week, thought Gregory would be the perfect partner to keep him from getting ahead of himself.

“He knows how to kind of keep me calm and say the right things and he knows when to be quiet,” Norlander said. “My problem always is when I play well or when I don’t play well, I walk too fast and I do everything too fast. He just keeps telling me to slow down, slow down.”

Said Gregory: “He just gets too excited and wants to play golf like it’s a NASCAR race.”

Norlander claims that wasn’t the case when he found himself tied with Matt Kuchar at 3-under for the lead. But he certainly felt the energy of a day that started in relative peace turn into a pressure cooker. The sun got hotter, the galleries thicker and the photographers started pointing their long lenses at him.

He confessed to Gregory that he “felt it.” Instead of going too fast, however, he started slowing down too much over the ball.

“Obviously I could tell it was a little bit more people coming and I wasn’t really comfortable, but it wasn’t too bad,” Norlander said. “I didn’t make bogeys because I was nervous or anything. I was right in between clubs on all of those holes. That was not the case the first 14 holes. I felt like I had perfect numbers every time. It’s nice to hit it full and high and hard into these greens.”

Despite hitting too much club over the green on his closing par-3 ninth, Norlander saved par to end his bogey run and finish even par.

“The par on the last hole was huge,” Gregory said. “He didn’t deserve to shoot over par today.”

“Even if I made bogey I think I still would have been somewhat happy with the round, but it doesn’t feel good to finish with four bogeys,” Norlander said. “So I was happy with that.”

It will feel different teeing off the first hole Friday afternoon only a few shots off the lead of the U.S. Open. But Norlander – two groups and a shot ahead of his more heralded Augusta State teammate Patrick Reed – is approaching it with the attitude of doing his thing and enjoying the moment.

“I had three goals this week: have fun, keep to my gameplan and be patient,” he said. “As long as I can do that it will be OK.”

Gregory is enjoying the moment as well and was pinching himself Thursday. He led the Jaguars to consecutive NCAA championships in 2010-11 and took his Mustangs to the final eight last month, but nothing compared to helping one of his former players get to the top of a major leaderboard.

“This is one of the coolest days of my professional life,” Gregory said. “To have that experience today and see him leading the U.S. Open ... and it wasn’t a fluke.”

Even though Norlander has struggled with his confidence and pressing too hard after losing his card and falling onto the Web.com Tour, his potential is immense. He’s missed six cuts in 10 starts this season, but tied for third in Chile.

Whatever happens the rest of this week against the world’s elite should go a long way the rest of his emerging career.

“This will help him get back to the PGA Tour,” Gregory said. “He’ll remember this when he’s in some podunk town on the Web.com Tour and feeling a little down.”

Norlander only hopes every day can be as “fun” as his first Thursday at the U.S. Open – right down to the last urine sample.

Georgia's golf dominance on the PGA Tour is seen in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 7:39pm

PINEHURST, N.C. — The official USGA research team’s eyes all glazed over at the request – has any college in history had more than eight former players in one U.S. Open field?

Electing not to put in the enormous effort to research such a request, they offered this official response.

“As far as the USGA knows,” they said, “this very well might be a record.”

That conceded record unofficially belongs to the University of Georgia. Eight former Bulldogs – Bubba Watson, Russell Henley, Harris English, Chris Kirk, Brendon Todd, Erik Compton, Hudson Swafford and Aiken’s Kevin Kisner – qualified for this week’s 114th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Eight and one-eighth if you count the semester Patrick Reed spent playing for Georgia before transferring to Augusta State.

Every one of them was recruited and played for Bulldogs coach Chris Haack.

“It’s obviously a great point of pride for us,” said Haack, “and keeps our name out at the forefront for other recruits to see.”

It’s certainly a point of pride for the players.

“It’s neat,” Watson said. “It shows we’ve got a pretty good program and shows Haacker can recruit pretty good. It’s a cool feat whether it’s a record or close to a record.”

The USGA has long been known for its clever groupings in the first two rounds. But seldom have they had the opportunity to group three players from the same college over the first two rounds. The last time was 2009 when the Oklahoma State trio of Rickie Fowler, Casey Wittenberg and Bo Van Pelt were grouped.

Today and Friday, Bulldogs Kirk, Todd and Henley will play together, starting at 8:02 a.m., off the 10th tee today. Kirk and Todd should be pretty comfortable together since they were roommates for four years in Athens and practiced together two days last weekend in Atlanta.

“It’s pretty cool that they’ve paired three of us together,” Kirk said. “It should be a pretty fun couple of days.”

“Hopefully we can all play well,” Henley said. “If I play as good as those guys, I know I’m doing something right.”

When that threesome showed up on the pairings sheet, Haack knew Georgia had arrived.

“I kind of felt that way when I saw that,” Haack said. “Not only is it cool, but it’s the first time I can remember a school getting a group like that.”

The Bulldogs feel pretty sure that 2014 as a whole has been one big Georgia arrival party with five Bulldogs winning six PGA Tour events this season – eight victories if you grant partial credit to Reed’s pair of wins.

“It’s been kind of the talk all year having Brendon Todd winning, Chris Kirk winning, Russell winning, me winning, Bubba winning,” English said. “It’s like a big fraternity out here. We all get along and all go to dinner. You’ve got a lot of good players from pretty much all eras of Coach Haack’s tenure.”

The relationships have extended for many of them beyond Georgia into the professional ranks. All eight in this field have won at least once on the PGA or Web.com Tours. Combined, they account for 13 career PGA Tour and 12 Web.com Tour victories.

“It says so much about the Georgia golf team and what Chris Haack has meant to the program and how good his recruiting was,” English said. “I guess he had the right combination going on to coach guys and lead them to play on the PGA Tour and to get into one of the biggest tournaments in the world.”

Watson already claimed the season’s first major for the school with his second Masters victory in three years. With 5.1 percent of the 156-man field sporting the “G” logo, can one of the eight Bulldogs make it two-for-two in majors?

“I hope so,” English said. “We’ve probably got the best chance of anybody this week.”

“Obviously the odds are a little bit better than some,” Watson said.

“Probably better than any other school because we have more guys,” Kirk said.

Haack has no plans to make it to Pinehurst this week, with his annual summer golf camp going on and recruiting appointments. But that’s probably for the best since he had enough trouble trying to keep up with four former players in the Masters two months ago (won by Watson).

“It became really difficult to pick who you were going to follow,” Haack said. “It’s like trying to pick your favorite child.”

Haack conceded one scenario could possibly bring him to Pinehurst on Monday.

“The ideal dream would be that all eight end up in a playoff on Monday,” Haack said. “I’d find a way to get there.”

Michaux: Phil Mickelson can write perfect ending with win at US Open

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 10:01pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – The story of the 2013 U.S. Open – perhaps the best story of any U.S. Open – walked into the media center Tuesday wearing charcoal pin-striped trousers, a sweat-stained white shirt and a smile that showed he knew every eye is on him.

Phil Mickelson is the fairy tale everyone is talking about, but don’t ask him to call his shot and predict the perfect ending to his unrequited love story.

“When I jump ahead, that never really works out good,” he said. “At least in the past, six times.”

The poster figure for U.S. Open heartbreak returns to the scene of his first and most poignant defeat. It was at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1999 where Mickelson’s one-stroke lead disappeared in the span of three finishing holes to a collective 55 feet of three Payne Stewart putts.

The stakes then were a first career major. Now he comes back with a career grand slam within reach.

“It would really mean a lot to me … to do it right here where Payne and I had this moment where we talked about fatherhood, but he also talked about winning future U.S. Opens,” Mickelson said. “Although I haven’t won one yet, I’m still fighting hard and this would be a great place to break through and do it.”

It’s been practically a 15-year buildup that intensified in the past 12 months. Long before anybody had back surgery or another left-hander won the Masters Tournament or the FBI showed up for a post-round chat, Mickelson was THE story at Pinehurst. Ever since he walked off the course at Merion a year ago with a record sixth silver medal for runner-up, his career compass was pointed back at Pinehurst where his whole U.S. Open saga began 15 years ago on a misty Father’s Day the day before he became a parent.

The attention became even more intense a month later when Mickelson stormed home with 67 at Muirfield to win the one major we wasn’t sure he could ever claim – the British Open. He immediately set his sights on completing the career slam by getting the one major trophy that’s eluded him.

“I feel like the five players that have done that, have separated themselves from the other players throughout all time,” Mickelson said. “It shows that they have a complete game. If I’m able to do that, I feel that I would look upon my own career differently.”

And so began a countdown to Pinehurst. The very first question Mickelson fielded in Abu Dhabi to start 2014 was, “I know it’s January and everything, but is it already tempting to look forward to June and that great chance you’ll have to get the career Grand Slam?”

Not since Tiger Woods had to wait eight months between majors trying to complete his consecutive slam at the 2001 Masters has one player at one major been the primary story for so long. Throw in Mickelson’s relative struggles to find form this season, his recent association with an insider trading investigation and the ghost of Stewart punching the air in bronze behind Pinehurst’s 18th green, and you have a perfect storm of hype.

“I don’t want to get overly excited, because the pressure of a U.S. Open and having not been in contention, that’s going to be a challenge for me,” Mickelson said. “The expectations of me looking forward to this event for almost a year now and the history that I’ve had here and how much of a great story it would be and how much it would mean to me to win here with what happened with Payne Stewart and my child and all these things, that makes it more difficult as well. I tend to do something, play better, like at Muirfield last year when nobody really expects it and I just kind of come out of nowhere.”

With the possible argument from the heirs of Sam Snead, there is no more compelling tragic figure in U.S. Open history than Mickelson. He’s been an ongoing serial saga for nearly half of the last 15 installments of the national championship. His six defeats have been as epic in scale as his five major triumphs.

In his six runner-up efforts, Sunday has been his downfall. Mickelson averages 68.5 (9-under par) in the opening rounds, 70.66 (+4) on Fridays, 70.16 (+1) on Saturdays and a crippling 71.50 (9-over) on Sundays.

Where those nine critical lost strokes on Sundays have come is even more crushing. Mickelson has played the last three holes in a collective 9-over par after playing the first 15 in a collective even.

Trying to pick out the most torturous defeat is its own challenge. Mickelson claims it was last year when he blew the 54-hole lead at Merion. His caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, believes 2004 at Shinnecock was the toughest to swallow. Many observers who remember the shock etched on Mickelson’s face in 2006 at Winged Foot when he was one hole from winning a third consecutive major would point to that.

You be the judge.

Last year’s loss at Merion followed a vaguely different script. He made two doubles in his first five holes that proved costly. However, after jumping back in the lead with an eagle on the short 10th, he bogeyed three of the last six holes including a head-scratcher on the 121-yard 13th that turned into a two-shot swing with Justin Rose making birdie.

Mickelson called it “heart breaking” and “probably the toughest for me.”

Before that, however, was Bethpage Black Vol. 2 in 2009. Poised to take a leave while his wife, Amy, and mother battled breast cancer, Mickelson had a share of the lead with four to play after an eagle on the 13th. But bogeys at 15 and 17 left him one behind Lucas Glover.

In 2006 at Winged Foot, Mickelson was leading by one on the 18th tee. He sliced a driver off a corporate tent, attempted a desperately ill-advised heroic recovery and suffered double bogey to lose by one to Geoff Ogilvy.

“I still am in shock that I did that,” he said afterward. “I just can’t believe that I did that. I am such an idiot.”

In 2004 at Shinnecock he was tied for the lead with two left before making double out of a bunker on the 17th to lose by two to Retief Goosen.

His only ho-hum second came in 2002 at Bethpage when the closest he could get to Tiger Woods was two strokes in an unlikely weekend charge.

“I look at those close calls as a positive sign for having given myself so many opportunities in our national championship and I believe that I’ll have more opportunities,” he said. “When I do, hopefully the experience that I’ve had in the past will allow me to handle it better in the future.”

The clock, of course, is ticking. Mickelson will turn 44 on Monday. The oldest player to win a U.S. Open was Hale Irwin at age 45 in 1990 at Medinah.

“It’s just amazing how much time has gone by to hear that this is my 24th U.S. Open?” Mickelson said. “I don’t feel that old. I guess I look it, but I don’t feel it.”

He says he won’t put pressure on himself to win it this year. But with no positive history at the next three venues – rookie sites Chambers Bay (2015) and Erin Hills (2017) and Oakmont (2016) – his window isn’t as wide.

“I do feel heading into this year’s U.S. Open that this golf course, this setup, and everything about Pinehurst provides me the best opportunity,” he said. “But I haven’t had the form this year to get too excited. Although I feel it coming around, I felt it last week, I saw it in the glimpses and I felt it again today.”

With all that on his shoulders and 155 potential spoilers, Mickelson will try to finish the story. Whether it’s a happy ending, or unfulfilled like Greg Norman at the Masters, remains to be seen.

Michaux: New father Patrick Reed ready to tackle U.S. Open

Mon, 06/09/2014 - 2:26pm

PINEHURST, N.C. — After a month of mostly changing diapers, Patrick Reed is ready to take on his first U.S. Open.

“The game is really close and I’m sure by Thursday all the rust will be off and we’ll be ready to go.” the former Augusta State star said Monday.

Life on the golf course hasn’t been easy for Reed since winning the World Golf Championships event at Doral in March and declaring himself a “top five” player in the world. First came all of the media scrutiny after ascending to 20th in the world rankings not much more than a year after mostly Monday qualifying into tour events and going through Q School.

“When you win three events quickly like that people are going to talk about you and you’re going to be on TV,” he said.

In six events since his Doral peak, however, he’s broken 70 only once in 16 rounds, missed four cuts (including the Masters) and finished no better than tied for 48th at Hilton Head.

Some suggested it’s karma catching up with his brashness. But the truth is, Reed has had a lot to deal with since. Not only the attention that winning three times in a span of seven months brings, but also becoming a father.

Reed’s wife, Justine, had their first child May 22. Daughter Windsor-Wells came about a week earlier than scheduled. Reed took a month off between the Players Championship and the Memphis tournament last week to spend time with his wife and child.

“She’s healthy, mom’s healthy so we’re doing great,” he said. “We’re just excited to get back out here playing and especially having our little baby girl and Justine out with us. They made it last week and this week. I don’t go to events without my wife.”

His daughter’s unique name is a nod to his wife’s family.

“Justine was going to be named Windsor-Wells and at the last minute they changed names because they felt it went better with their last name,” he said. “Everybody loves it. We love it, and that’s all that matters.”

The last couple of months have been a blur, and golf was hardly at the forefront of his thinking.

“In the month before the baby was born, I was trying to focus as much on golf but at the same time I wanted to make sure Justine was doing OK and the baby was fine,” he said. “Because, really they’re more important than golf. Now that the baby is born and everyone is healthy, I can get back and have a clear mind and focus on golf. Last week I was a little rusty on gametime situation due to the fact that I hadn’t held a club for about a month tournament-wise.”

With the rust cleared and his mind focused on his game, Reed dismisses his recent struggles as just part of the routine.

“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “That’s golf. You’re going to go through really hot streaks and not go through hot streaks. That’s just the way golf is. I feel like I’m moving in the right direction.”

While his major debut at the Masters in his collegiate hometown didn’t go as well as he hoped, Reed has plenty of good vibes to take into his first U.S. Open appearance. He has a better history at Pinehurst No. 2 than most of the field this week.

Reed lost to Danny Lee in the semifinals of the 2008 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. The course has been restored with sandy wastes and wire grasses instead of rough, but the green complexes that are the ultimate challenge of Donald Ross’ masterpiece remain almost exactly as Reed remembers.

“I love the changes,” he said. “I think it’s a really nice golf course. We played nine holes yesterday, the front nine, and it’s awesome. Mostly the layout is the same, just instead of high rough you have that sandy, fescue stuff. It brings back good memories from how I played throughout the U.S. Am.”

Those memories are something that Reed believes will serve him well when the tournament starts Thursday. Only five players in the field can say they made the cut in both previous U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2, so Reed isn’t far behind even as a rookie.

“It gives you a lot of confidence, the fact that you’ve played well somewhere,” Reed said. “The golf course is a little different and the fact that it’s a U.S. Open and not a U.S. Am, so that makes a difference as well.”

The course’s complexities suit him.

“I like to be creative and these turtle-backed greens you have to be creative on every hole,” he said.

North Carolina has been good to Reed in other ways. It’s hard to believe that it was only 10 months ago that Reed had his maiden PGA Tour victory just up the road from Pinehurst in Greensboro, N.C., at Sedgefield. His miracle shot from a gnarly lie under a tree set up a playoff birdie that beat fellow rookie sensation Jordan Spieth.

“I knew all along in the back of my mind I could win out here, it was just a matter of when,” he said of that breakthrough.

Justine was his caddie then, and gave up carrying his bag to get through the pregnancy. By the time the next domestic major rolls around with the PGA Championship at Valhalla, Reed hopes to have his wife back as his caddie instead of his brother-in-law.

“It really depends on when Justine feels like it’s the right time for her and the baby,” he said. “When that time comes she’ll be back out here.”

This week, Justine and perhaps his daughter will join the galleries at Pinehurst, where a perfect first Father’s Day would include challenging for the U.S. Open trophy.

“Having (Windsor-Wells) come to her first major in her second event means a lot to me,” Reed said.

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