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Michaux: Ex-Richmond Academy golfer Greyson Sigg thinks Georgia can go run at NCAA Championships

Sat, 05/23/2015 - 8:28pm

Greyson Sigg is only a sophomore at Georgia, but he’s already eying a little redemption at his second NCAA Championship.

The former Richmond Academy golfer is talking a big game before his Bulldogs team heads down to The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., to compete for a national title May 29-June 3. A year ago, Georgia reached this stage only to fall five shots shy of the match-play phase that decides the NCAA champion.

“I have no doubt from our end we’ll make the top eight and then go from there,” Sigg said of the elimination matches that pit the best eight of the 35 teams after 54 holes of stroke play.

That the Bulldogs are heading to the championship at all this week is impressive considering how things started at last weekend’s regional in San Diego. Seeded sixth among the 13 teams, Georgia opened with a 19-over 307 that left them sitting in 12th place – 23 shots off Oklahoma’s lead and 10 shots out of the top five required to advance.

Georgia had to count two scores in the 80s, including Sigg’s season-worst 9-over-par 81.

“The golf course played completely different than what it did in the practice rounds,” Sigg said of the opening-round struggles at The Farms. “The course was really tight off the tee and the wind was a lot different in the practice round. It changed a lot of tee shots and once you kind of feel uncomfortable with one tee shot and the wind is blowing, it kind of gets you off your game and out of your rhythm.”

Coaches Chris Haack and Jim Douglas did what they do best – kept things loose and encouraged the players that anything might happen over the last 36 holes.

“Everyone was obviously down that we didn’t have a great first day and weren’t in the hunt, but we didn’t get down on ourselves and knew we had two more days left and a lot can happen,” Sigg said. “We didn’t really change much and just went out and played another round of golf the next day in good spirits and applied great attitudes and it paid off.”

The Bulldogs bounced back with a 10-under total in the second round and 3-under in the last to finish fourth and advance to the championship for the 17th time in Haack’s 19 years at the helm.

Under the circumstances, Sigg said it was the most clutch performance the Bulldogs have produced.

“You know how far we were behind and we just pulled together as a team and never gave up and never lost sight of our goal for the entire year which is winning a national championship,” said Sigg, who shot counting scores of 73-71 in the last two rounds. “We did what we had to do.”

In a way, the pressure performance sends Georgia into the championship with similar confidence it had after winning the regional last year.

“We’ve got more momentum than probably any other team there right now,” Sigg said. “We just went out and played our best and knew that our season was on the line.”

Sigg is one of only two Georgia golfers – along with top player Lee McCoy – who has NCAA Championship experience. Sigg traveled as a freshman to Prairie Dunes last year in Kansas, where the Bulldogs finished 11th and missed the eight-team match-play portion by five strokes.

“Last year we learned a lot,” Sigg said. “We didn’t play our best and you start to realize when you miss some stuff just a little that every single shot counts. We just have to reduce the errors and control your pill as much as you can. Haacker always says every shot counts and don’t give up.”

Georgia won two of eight tournaments as a team in the spring season – the Puerto Rico Classic in February and the one-day, 36-hole Southern Intercollegiate at Athens Country Club in March. The Bulldogs tied for seventh in the Southeastern Conference Tournament with fellow NCAA finalist Florida but behind the other four SEC teams to reach the championship – Louisiana State, South Carolina, Auburn and Vanderbilt.

The Puerto Rico victory topped a field that included NCAA finalists Georgia Tech, Oklahoma and Clemson.

“We’ve had a decent up-and-down year and hopefully we’ll get off to a little better start down there,” Sigg said. “I think it will help that a lot of our rivals are there and we’ve seen a lot of these teams all year and we’ve beaten a lot of these teams all year, too. So there’s no reason why we can’t beat them all next week.”

While its roster is younger and less experienced than last year, Georgia’s greatest weapon is McCoy – a junior who set a school record with three consecutive victories this spring and boasts a stellar 69.55 scoring average.

“It’s a huge help for us when you know you have somebody on the team who’s going to shoot under par and he’s been a great help to us all year,” Sigg said of his star teammate.

Sigg, however, had more expected of him this season to step up as a leader on a relatively young squad. He posted the most competition rounds on the roster this season (38) by qualifying for every event. His 72.43 stroke average is 1.17 lower than his freshman season.

“I feel like my game’s good now and I’ve got everything worked out and we’re ready to head down to NCAAs,” he said. “We’re maybe not as good as last year but we still have a shot to win the national championship so that can make it the best year ever.”

Michaux: Who to pull for, Atlanta or Cleveland?

Tue, 05/19/2015 - 1:45pm

These are confusing times for an NBA playoffs bandwagon jumper.

Repeated confession: the NBA rarely grabs my attention. While there’s no denying the talent level, the sheer volume and scale of it has never attracted me. For all of its flaws, I prefer the college basketball game and always will. Once players drop their alma mater allegiance for cash, they become as relevant as senior-tour golfers in my book.

But as a sports fan in general, there comes a time when you can pick sides in anything from Premier League soccer to cricket to Aussie rules football. The NBA semifinals are about the time to start choosing favorites or backing an underdog.

Here’s the problem – do you go provincial and back the Atlanta Hawks or do you roll with karma and take the Cleveland Cavaliers? Two of the most cursed professional sports cities on the planet are colliding in the Eastern Conference finals and there are compelling reasons for adopting each one.

There’s the whole LeBron James vibe in Cleveland. Five years ago James was reviled in his hometown for callously ditching the Cavs and taking his talents to South Beach. Like so many others, my annual postseason pickup became rooting for any team that was playing the Heat.

In four consecutive years, James and the Heat reached the NBA Finals, winning two back-to-back in 2012-13. It was the death of karma as Cleveland fans had to watch Miami win with “their” stolen star just as they’ve twice had to watch the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowls with “their” stolen franchise.

Then in July, James made an about-face “decision” that transformed him from hometown villain to hero again. He decided to return home to bring a title to a town that has been starving for one for half a century.

“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James said in a first-person essay announcing his return to the Cavaliers. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

James’ only real roots are in Ohio, where he was “Mr. Basketball” three times in Akron and became “King James” to his fans. Kismet let the Cavaliers be the team that drafted him No. 1 right out of high school in 2003, and he led them to the NBA Finals in 2007 and Eastern Conference finals in 2010 before he left.

Abandoning that base in 2010 shattered his royal myth and left the Cavs languishing to four consecutive losing seasons while James carried the Heat to four consecutive title shots. He rebooted his regal legend with a decision to return, and it’s hard not to root for him in this context.

“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked,” James said in that SI.com essay. “It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can.”

On the other side of this semifinal are the Hawks – as equally a compelling story. This is a franchise that has never amounted to much, last winning an NBA championship in 1958 when the team was located in St. Louis. Since moving to Atlanta in 1968, the Hawks had never advanced past the second round of the playoffs until rallying to beat Washington last week.

About a month after LeBron announced his feel-good return to Cleveland, the Hawks were nothing to feel good about. Co-owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry were the center of a firestorm after racist remarks made in scouting reports and emails surfaced. Levenson and his co-owners sold the team and Ferry took an indefinite leave of absence.

Then a funny thing happened. The Hawks caught fire after Christmas, sweeping all 17 games in January (an NBA first) and winning 19 games in a row to seize control in the Eastern Conference, eventually clinching the top seed. They gutted out two series wins against Boston and Washington to reach this rare stage with the Cavs.

So whose bandwagon do you jump aboard? The two fan bases have suffered aplenty over the last 50 years. Cleveland’s last pro title came in the waning days of 1964, when the Browns beat the Colts for an NFL championship two years before the merger led to the Super Bowl era.

It’s not like Atlanta has had it much better in the last 50 years. The Atlanta Braves own the only championship in that span – a 1995 World Series victory that came at the expense of Cleveland’s Indians.

They’ve each endured their share of misery. Atlantans can tick off the championship regrets from getting run over in a Super Bowl, blowing home-field advantage in the recent NFL playoffs, Game 7 against the Twins and a litany of bullpen breakdowns from Jeff Reardon to Charlie Leibrandt to Mark Wohlers to Craig Kimbrel. But at least they reached a Super Bowl and won 14 consecutive NL division titles to hang their hats on at the bar.

The only “titles” Cleveland has over the last 50 years are the names they have given their brutal heartbreaks – Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Move, The Shot, The Shot II, The Mesa Meltdown and The Decision.

Frankly, Cleveland probably needs this more. James could turn The Decision II into something positive. So I’m leaning more to the karma side of the aisle rather than the local angle.

But truth be told, both teams (and cities) are probably just setting themselves up for another painful dagger in the end at the hands of Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

Michaux: Kevin Kisner is close to breaking through

Wed, 05/13/2015 - 7:12pm

How would you recover from being in the center of one of the most epic playoff finishes in golf history?

If you’re Kevin Kisner, you dial up a little redneck relaxation therapy.

The Aiken golfer found just the tonic to getting over any lingering disappointment from losing to Rickie Fowler on the fourth playoff hole at the Players Championship on Sunday. Along with fellow PGA Tour pro Boo Weekley and two like-minded caddie buddies, Kisner retreated to his brother-in-law’s hunting plantation outside Camden, S.C., on Monday.

“I feel so much better today than yesterday,” Kisner said Tuesday as he drove up the road to Charlotte, N.C., for this week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. “I was so worn out and didn’t get much sleep the night before. Had a great day. We shot sporting clays and fished and hog hunted. Hung out with no cell phones and nobody talking to us.”

The preceding three weeks have been a relative blur for Kisner – a coming-out party that pushed his name to the forefront of golf fans’ minds after gritty playoff performances against equally red-hot world-class players at Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass. Kisner’s fearlessness under pressure and array of clutch putts have made a name for himself despite getting edged out twice in sudden death, playing six total playoff holes in 2-under par.

He had two putts on the 18th green to win on Sunday, and he’s still not sure how his first attempt in regulation from 10 feet stayed barely out of the hole.

“Two feet out I said center cut, game over,” he said. “I could not believe it hung out there on that right edge.”

Despite leaving the so-called “fifth major” Sunday without an extra $1 million, five-year tour exemption and guaranteed three years of invitations to the Masters Tournament, Kisner is riding high right now.

“It’s been a good month stretch of golf for me,” he said. “I’m super excited the way I’ve performed coming down the stretch, making clutch birdies to get in the playoffs and having chances to win. Just excited about the direction where my game is going.”

Kisner’s sudden ascension after struggling to find his footing after a few years on the PGA Tour has been both blessed and cursed. At both the Heritage and Players, his good play coincided with two of his best friends and former 2005 NCAA championship teammates at Georgia – Brendon Todd and Chris Kirk – giving him comfortable Sunday pairings with each in the final groups at both events.

The playoffs were different stories. His opponents were three players currently ranked Nos. 5 (Jim Furyk), 7 (Sergio Garcia) and 9 (Fowler) in the world. Worse, it ultimately came down to head-to-head sudden death against two of the most motivated players in peak form. Furyk, seeking to end a frustrating five-year victory drought, birdied 11 of 20 holes on Sunday at Harbour Town, including both in the playoff. Fowler, recently minted one of golf’s “most overrated” players by an anonymous peer poll, played his final 10 holes in 8-under par including three birdies on the island par-3 17th hole.

“Golf is a hard and cruel game, but hats off,” he said of his two vanquishers. “I mean, shoot, these guys are good, I’m telling you. Don’t give up on anybody. Everybody can play out here.”

Despite the caliber of competition and the fan sentiment in their favor, Kisner never flinched.

“Absolutely not,” he said when asked if hearing the chants of “Rickie! Rickie!” intimidated him. “If I got scared I’d go to church. Shoot, he’s six years younger than me. I’m not intimidated at all by anybody out there. I know what I can do and it’s just a game, man. I was out there to try to make birdies. I didn’t care if it was Rickie Fowler or somebody I don’t even know.”

KISNER’S CLUTCH PLAY comes as no surprise to those who know him best. In college at Georgia, he is one of only three players in coach Chris Haack’s star-laden tenure who never missed a tournament because they failed to qualify in four years – joining fellow pros Brian Harman and Russell Henley who each also took brief turns atop the Players leaderboard last week.

Kisner just hadn’t had much chance to show that clutch trait off at the highest level until his game took recent forward strides under the tutelage of Athens-area pro John Tillery.

“I’ve always been good in that situation, I just never had the opportunity on the PGA Tour,” Kisner said. “I struggled my whole career up until the last year-and-a-half, two years on the PGA Tour. I’ve probably made more pressure putts to make cuts when I was dying out there than I have to win. I just love that situation. That’s kind of how I was built and born to be put in that situation. It’s not like I get nervous. I might get anxious and pumped up. But I want the ball in my hand, I don’t want to watch somebody else do it.

“For some reason, I just get it done when it needs to be done. It’s a great quality to have. I know there will be a day when I don’t perform the way I did coming down the stretch, that’s just golf. I’m glad the way I’ve done it. One of these days I’ll hit a bad shot coming down the stretch and you guys can all write about me choking.”

KISNER DOESN’T PLAN on that day being any time soon. He’s riding his confidence into rare air. He was ranked outside the top 300 when he secured his PGA Tour card after finishing 13th on the Web.com Tour money list in 2013. He was still 282nd in the world in March after a dismal West Coast swing on the poa annua greens he loathes.

Now he’s up to No. 66 in the world and 21st in FedEx Cup standings. Hideki Matsuyama is the only player without a victory ranked higher than him in the season-long points race to East Lake. Reaching there would earn Kisner the Masters invitation he covets.

“I certainly hope so,” he said. “Ultimately I’m just a lot more confident in my long game than I’ve ever been on the PGA Tour and if that continues and that trend, I think I’ll be just fine. This stretch of summer is where I normally play well and hope I continue to do it. ... Hopefully we’re just scratching the surface on where we’re going to go, and you’ll see my name up there every week.”

Charlotte is another big opportunity for Kisner, having finished tied for sixth there last year. Being his parents’ hometown, he’ll again be surrounded by support.

“I love it,” he said of Quail Hollow. “My wife said she’s had over a hundred ticket requests right now. Probably more people come to this one than Hilton Head because all my parents’ relatives still live in Charlotte.”

Kisner believes he’s on the brink of the breakthrough he’s been working for, and the attention he’s been getting only reinforces his confidence.

“Everything has been so positive,” he said. “It’s nice to gain a lot of fans and show people what I can do. Hopefully I’ll have big support here in the next six or seven months and go get us a win and move up in the world ranking and do everything you want to do in this game.”

Michaux: Brady, Patriots got what they deserved

Tue, 05/12/2015 - 6:50pm

There’s no arguing that just about every element of “DeflateGate” has been – pardon the pun – overblown.

Seriously, a 243-page independent report that required nearly four months to produce vague indictments goes well beyond the boundaries of overkill. The declarations that “cheater” is a first-sentence item in Tom Brady’s obituary are laughable.

That said, there is no question that Brady and the New England Patriots absolutely, positively deserved to face some kind of significant punishment for tampering with the most essential piece of equipment in the game – the football. You simply cannot be caught doing that and not be disciplined – especially when the organization consistently believes it’s above such reproach despite repeated breaches.

After its comically exhaustive report, the NFL announced that Brady – the eventual first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback – will be suspended the first four games of the 2015 season and that the Patriots would be fined $1 million and forfeit a first-round draft pick in 2016 and a fourth-rounder in 2017.

You can make an argument that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, but it seems pretty reasonable considering a rule was willfully broken and the principal parties involved have shown no remorse whatsoever for their actions.

Forget the fact that the report itself could only muster the level of damning Brady with faint blame. This isn’t a court of law requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt. There was plenty of reasonable doubt that Brady was not even trying to be truthful or remotely cooperative, showing a level of disdain that is troubling. “Probable” cause was enough of an indictment.

Attorney Ted Wells’ report claimed “it is more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware of inappropriate activities.” It not exactly the kind of evidence you’d want to send to the jury in a capital murder case, but it’s enough for a sports league to act on the best interests of the game.

The facts of the report are enough. All 11 footballs tested during the AFC Championship Game were deflated below the league’s mandatory standard; a security camera recorded one of two locker room attendants taking the balls into a bathroom for 1 minute, 40 seconds; Brady prefers softer footballs to grip; the locker room guys (one of whom referred to himself as “The Deflator”) knew that and liked getting swag from Brady.

It doesn’t take Matlock to figure this all out. The NFL needed to do something about it because you can’t allow teams/players to break the rules regardless of how silly you think the rules might be.

The strawman arguments that this is just frivolous are easily dismissed. It doesn’t matter whether a deflated ball had any real impact on the Patriots’ 41-7 victory over the Colts. A golfer’s ball moving an imperceptible amount or being replaced a dimple closer to the hole after marking likely have no real bearing on the ensuing shot, but those infractions incur penalties that often include disqualification. Tiny changes in measurements in NASCAR are considered grave violations and lead to all sorts of sanctions.

Also, just because the NFL has done a dreadful job in handling players who commit acts of domestic violence or crimes away from the field doesn’t mean that they should sweep away rules violations less significantly. These are apples and oranges comparisons. When you willfully disregard the rules, that’s an affront to the integrity of the game. What Ray Rice did was morally reprehensible and worse in every regard compared to the trivialities of deflating a football, but only one of those things broke the rules of the game.

“Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public’s confidence in the game is called into question,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive president, wrote in a letter to Brady.

And let’s not go down the path of “all teams do this kind of thing.” Maybe they do. The point is, however, they didn’t get caught.

The NFL obviously opened itself up for this kind of thing when it changed the rules in 2006 to allow quarterbacks to bring their own footballs with them on the road instead of using game balls provided by the home team. Brady was one of the quarterbacks who pushed for that change.

The league should stop allowing that practice and start producing uniformly sanctioned footballs for every game that are handled exclusively by league officials.

In the meantime, the Patriots are only making things worse by howling at the “unfairness” of the investigation they didn’t fully cooperate with and the punishment that was inflated in part because of that lack of cooperation.

The best way to take the air out of the argument is to let it go, live with the consequences and see if you can add a fifth Super Bowl trophy to the case without any tarnish on it.

Area golfers believe Kennesaw State has what it takes to win

Sat, 05/09/2015 - 4:47pm

They’ve been a big part of the most successful era in Kennesaw State golf, but Austin Vick and Kelby Burton hope they’ve saved the best for their final act.

Vick (Greenbrier) and Burton (Lakeside) will finish up their college careers in the NCAA Tournament, and they believe this Owls team has a chance at shocking the golf world in the next few weeks.

“It’s ephemeral right now,” Burton said. “It is a special time because it’s the last part of this chapter for me and for us seniors. We’re going to take it as far as we can and do the best we can. I think we have the capability of pulling off something really special.”

Kennesaw State’s golf program started 30 years ago but began competing in Division I in 2005. The Owls received their fifth consecutive invitation to the NCAA Tournament, earning a school-best No. 4 seed in next weekend’s Chapel Hill, N.C., regional behind top seeds Florida State, Stanford and host North Carolina. Clemson is the No. 6 seed in the same regional while the team formerly known as Augusta State is the eighth seed. Only the top five of 13 teams advance from the regional to the NCAA Championships on May 29-June 3 at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.

Kennesaw State has advanced to the NCAA Championships only twice in school history, finishing 26th both times in 2011 and 2014. But this team has a chance to be the first to reach that stage with prior experience, as four of the five players got a taste of it last year at Prairie Dunes after finishing a surprise second in the Auburn regional to advance.

“We had come off a bit of a high at the regionals and I kind of thought we were a little bit overwhelmed with all the media attention that had come from that,” Vick said. “All of us who went, it was our first time going, so to say the least we were a little bit overwhelmed. It was kind of a shock for us. Now with that experience we can go to a national championships this year with a little more confidence knowing what to expect.”

Of the six Georgia teams to qualify for the postseason, only No. 2 seed Georgia Tech got a higher draw than the 24th-ranked Owls. In 11 events this year, Kennesaw State won twice and never finished outside of the top four. But they’ve let a few tournament leads slip out of their clutch in the final rounds this spring.

“We’re just hungry now,” Vick said of the recent close calls. “We all know that we can go out there and compete with the best players in the country and contend for a national championship.”

Vick is enjoying his best season, with a 72.57 scoring average that is a stroke better than last year and 4.5 lower than his freshman season.

“Right now I feel confident in my game,” he said.

This final semester, however, has been difficult for Burton. Right before he was to return to school after the Christmas break, his father – former Augusta Lynx hockey coach Jim Burton – passed away on Jan. 5 of a heart attack at age 53. Kelby and his dad played nine holes at Jones Creek on the day he died.

“It has been tough,” Burton said of the months since. “I don’t know how to put it into words. All I’ve been trying to do is make him proud and work as hard as I can every day to get where we kind of envisioned me going. It doesn’t stop here. It’s just a step in the right direction. … It’s definitely something terrible that happened, but I’m trying to make the best of it.”

At this point in the season, there is no margin for error. The Owls believe experience is on their side. Being invited to the Chapel Hill regional was a bonus, considering they played on the Finley Course in September, tying for fourth with the Jaguars. Top players Jimmy Beck and Teremoana Beaucousin each posted top-10 finishes and Burton broke par twice there.

“So we know what to expect and know the course may be in a little different shape than it was in the fall,” said Vick, who struggled with rounds of 75-75-77 in September. “But we’ve seen the course and have that experience already and in competition.”

While the high seeding is encouraging, Kennesaw State knows that advancing is no guarantee.

“It’s nice to get a four seed and be ranked as well as we are and it’s pretty fortunate to be able to go to North Carolina,” Burton said. “But when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what you’re ranked going into the regional. It just matters what you come out as.”

With a roster built similarly to Augusta State’s when it won the 2010-11 NCAA titles – three Georgia-bred seniors plus a couple of international talents from Tahiti and Sweden – Kennesaw State believes it can pull off a similar surprise against the collegiate heavyweights if it can just reach the final eight match-play phase.

“It just shows the depth that we have on this team from one to five,” Vick said of their consistency this season. “There’s a lot of strong things we have in our lineup and we all know we’re capable of going out there and winning any golf tournament we play in.”

However the next few weeks turn out, Vick and Burton have different plans when their collegiate careers are over in June. Burton will turn pro immediately after the NCAA tournament, embarking on the mini tours as he prepares for Q-School in the fall.

Vick, however, has an internship set up with the Georgia State Golf Association and envisions putting his finance degree to use in the golf industry while remaining a career amateur competitor.

“I see keeping it fun and not having to be so stressed out about a game that should be fun,” he said.

They both don’t believe there’s any reason to put pressure on themselves in their final collegiate starts.

“I feel like taking that pressure and turning it more into excitement because this is a really exciting time of year and knowing that we have the lineup and team to compete for a national title is something really special,” Vick said. “This is something we’ve been working for this whole year and these four years in college. Just knowing you only have one more time to do it is just going to make it that much more intense. It’s going to be a thrill.”

Clemson basketball player Rod Hall is being courted as a football player now

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 8:29pm

You have to love Rod Hall’s priorities.

Three NFL teams offered the former Clemson basketball point guard an undrafted free-agent contract this week. One of them – the Tampa Bay Bucs – reportedly guaranteed him a spot on the practice squad, which would mean a signing bonus plus $1,000 a week through the summer. All he had to do was show up for a mandatory rookie minicamp this weekend.

Hall turned the Bucs’ offer down. Not because it wasn’t tempting, but because it would mean missing his graduation ceremony this afternoon.

“It’s very important,” Hall said of receiving his diploma for a B.A. in Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management. “I’m like the first person in my family to graduate from a university. A lot of people see that as a big deal for me.”

Hall will celebrate with family and friends after today’s ceremony. Walking across the stage in a cap and gown is not something he ever thought about growing up or even when starting to blossom as a star athlete at Lucy C. Laney High School.

“Early in my life I wasn’t thinking about getting a college degree,” he admitted. “Too young and fun to make that a priority. But as the years went on I did.”

Once his graduation is official, Hall will have to prioritize whatever the next step is. Playing basketball overseas remains an option, but the football choice is the biggest thing on his plate at the moment.

“I haven’t made a decision on what I’m going to do yet,” he said Thursday. “I’m trying to see what’s going to be the best fit.”

Up until three weeks ago, all of this football stuff didn’t exist. Hall hadn’t touched a football since he played for Laney in 2010, opting to play basketball in college instead. His latent football talents, however, didn’t just go away with four years of neglect. NFL scouts saw his high school highlights as well as his basketball career and seem to believe that his skills can be awakened from their dormant state with a little seasoning and hard work.

After working out for a half dozen teams in Clemson before last week’s NFL Draft, no team was willing to risk a late-round pick on Hall. But the Bucs, Ravens and Saints each believe he has something to offer as a more long-term investment. When Hall turned down the Ravens’ minicamp offer as well because of the graduation conflict, he was invited to work out next week in front of its coaching staff in Baltimore. The Saints also invited him to work out in New Orleans the next week.

“They’re really up in the air,” Hall said of his plans. “It’s set in stone that they offered me to come work out, but I haven’t made a decision yet.”

None of these workouts would be binding, in order to preserve Hall’s potential eligibility to play a season of college football in the fall. The NCAA allows NFL teams to work out and pay expenses for players as long as their workout visit doesn’t exceed 48 hours.

If any of the teams offer him some security comparable to what the Bucs did, Hall might take it and relinquish his college football eligibility.

If he did opt for the college route, Clemson might not be the best place for him. Dabo Swinney gave Hall a standing offer to come play for the Tigers, but Clemson’s roster is stacked at receiver and too crowded at cornerback to guarantee Hall getting the necessary playing time in his limited window.

Georgia State and Mercer have each reportedly expressed interest, but the most intriguing option that Hall confirmed might be Southern Methodist.

Ex-Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris took over the head coaching reins for the Mustangs and is in need of some receiving help. Hall could possibly compete immediately for a starting job in Morris’ aggressive offensive system.

Hall said most people have left it up to him to decide whether he would want to play receiver – the position he accumulated more than 1,200 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior at Laney – or cornerback.

In the few weeks since Hall was first contacted by NFL scouts about playing football again, the idea has grown from initial curiosity to a viable opportunity.

“It wasn’t realistic to me at first because it had been a long time, but now it seems like it would be pretty good,” Hall said. “I think they’re attracted to how athletic I am and don’t have all those tears and things like that.”

Once he’s done pausing to honor his academic achievement, Hall will get to work figuring out his future.

Michaux: Tiger Woods trumps all storylines

Tue, 05/05/2015 - 6:04pm

Elite golf is arguably in the best place it’s ever been. There are compelling stories everywhere you turn.

Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth sit atop the world standings as the most fulfilling young talents who capitalize on their promise on almost a weekly basis.

Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson put on their freakish displays of power and shotmaking that are mesmerizing to watch.

One old guy, Jim Furyk, still wins while another, Phil Mickelson, continues to be a captivating competitor whenever he turns up, finishing runner-up in consecutive majors as he heads toward the one major that has torturously remained unchecked on his bucket list.

Even the “most interesting golfer in the world,” Miguel Angel Jimenez, turned a meaningless match last week into theater when he ended up nose-to-nose with the seemingly caffeine-infused Keegan Bradley and his caddie, Pepsi. Jimenez walked away still cool while his sparring partners lost theirs.

All these stories are in play this week as attention turns to the tournament that so desperately wants to be considered a major – the Players Championship. But there’s still one story that rises above the rest even when the subject is ranked 125th in the world – two spots behind Aiken’s Kevin Kisner.

Tiger Woods might actually be a more captivating figure now than he was at his peak, trying to pull himself up from the darkest depths of his career. His about face of contending at the Masters after being written off for dead with the yips has sparked a reboot of the prognosis for a guy who has been dealing with outlandish expectations for two decades.

Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner who has ridden Woods’ coattails for his entire term, put it best to David Feherty.

“I know this as firmly as I believe anything,” Finchem said. “If he’s playing golf in 10 years and he hasn’t won one tournament between now and then, he will still have a huge impact. People will never, ever get tired of watching Tiger Woods play golf. Ever.”

The appetite for Tiger news still trumps all others. There have never been more players in the world who you can argue are truly better than he is at golf right now, but not even McIlroy or Spieth can generate the same kind of information traffic.

While McIlroy was reminding everybody that he – not Spieth – is still the No. 1 player in the world with a riveting 7-0 performance at the WGC Match Play over the weekend, the biggest news was that Woods and his high-profile girlfriend, world-champion skier Lindsey Vonn, had broken up just a few weeks after she joined his kids in a heart-warming Par-3 Contest appearance before the Masters.

Unlike when McIlroy broke off his engagement with tennis superstar Caroline Wozniacki right before winning the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth last May, Woods wasn’t even in the field at Harding Park and stole headlines on Sunday.

Just as Woods drew an unprecedented late-evening Monday throng for his return practice round at Augusta National in April, he attracted a crowd for his Tuesday morning nine-hole rust shaker with Jason Day at Sawgrass on Tuesday.

After that he talked to the media on all manner of subjects about loss – lost standing, lost icons, lost relationships and his lost father.

Earl Woods passed away on May 3, 2006, and had his memorial service May 5. That Woods’ joint statements about the end of his relationship with Vonn came out on the anniversary date has made for a difficult start to Players week.

“It obviously does affect me,” he said of his broken romance. “It is tough. There’s no doubt. I’m not going to lie about that. On top of that, this time of year is really, really hard on me. This three-day window is really hard. I haven’t slept. These three days from May 3 to today are brutal on me. Obviously what happened Sunday just adds to it.”

It also follows a week of sad news that African-American golf icons Calvin Peete and Pete Brown died two days apart, further diminishing the heritage of players who paved the way for Woods. He was especially animated talking about Peete, who was the lone black figure Woods could remember watching play as a kid.

“For me as a person of color, it meant something to me to watch him do well,” said Woods, marveling at Peete’s legendary accuracy despite physical limitation in his arm.

“What he did was truly incredible,” Woods said. “It was ungodly how straight he hit it.”

Woods was wistful talking about his predecessors like “Uncle” Charlie Sifford (whom he named his son after). He lamented missed chances to meet and talk with Peete, Brown, Bill Spiller and Teddy Rhodes, but his knowledge and admiration for their plights breaking the color barrier in golf was apparent.

“My struggles weren’t anywhere near what they had to endure,” he said of the professional landscape that they changed before he started. “But it’s something I could relate to when I was a kid. The things that I had to endure just to play golf. I wasn’t allowed to play at certain places. That part I can understand and relate to.

“I honestly believe why we don’t have any other African-Americans playing on the tour or even the mini tours is because of the advent of the golf cart. That took away a lot of the caddie programs and their introduction to the game of golf. ... That’s all gone, so you don’t have the pool of players anymore. Consequently as competition pyramids up to the top, it obviously declines.”

As for his own game, Woods believes he’s “on the right road.” His Masters performance reset his balance – “a big step” he called it.

“I made huge strides from where I was at Torrey and Phoenix. Huge,” he said. “And to go from that to where I was at Augusta ... I worked hard. To do all that and go into a major untested I thought was pretty good for three days.”

Woods said he “found the bottom” in his short-game technique, but that might also prove a euphemism for his whole game. At No. 125 he’s looking at a long climb back into McIlroy-Spieth territory with events at stake including the tour’s playoffs and 2016 Olympics. With his health and a “regular schedule” for the rest of the year, he hopes to get started back in the right direction.

“Making my way up from where I’m at is just going to take consistency,” he said. “I need wins in there but I need to be consistent every time I tee it up. That’s something I used to do and something I’ve done when I’ve made my comebacks before. The last time was a few years ago when I was in the 50’s and got back to No. 1.”

Whether he can make it all the way back or not, Finchem and everyone else never tire of watching him try.

Michaux: Jim Dent won't forget a man like Pete Brown

Sat, 05/02/2015 - 8:42pm

Jim Dent was lucky, and he knows it.

Traveling the roads of the PGA Tour in the 1960s and 70s, the Augusta-bred golfer had friends around him he could count on. Friends who looked like him. Black friends.

“They were like brothers,” Dent said of his pioneering peers on the PGA Tour. “We came to be on the road with each other and spend time with each other. You can’t forget those guys. You live and share rooms with each other. It was a great thing to have other African-American pros on tour at that time.”

As a young pro, Dent had the chance to sit beside Teddy Rhodes to listen to him talk about the game they loved in spite of its flaws. He heard first-hand the anger of the injustices Bill Spiller endured and all of Charlie Sifford’s “wicked stories” of bigotry as the first African-American tour member after the Caucasians-only clause fell in 1961.

Mostly, Dent saw the example of Pete Brown in the cars and rooms and fairways they shared.

“Pete kind of took me around the first six weeks when I was on tour, you know,” Dent said. “That was a blessing. Here was a man already established and he can let me hang around and learn some of the ropes there. That’s where we got real close. The man was a great man.”

That great man – great friend – died on Friday at Doctors Hospital. After suffering
multiple strokes, Brown moved to Evans a few years ago with his wife, Margaret, to live in one of the houses on Dent’s property. Dent saw him for the last time when he came up for the Masters in April.

“Pete was a strong man. Pete was a fighter,” Dent said. “He had about 14 or 15 strokes and he still could talk. He fought on the last two years. He was a tough guy but he was so easy going and you couldn’t hardly make him mad I don’t care what you do.”

It was the generosity of Brown’s spirit that Dent will miss the most. Brown was the first African-American golfer to win a PGA-sanctioned event at the 1964 Waco Turner Open. He later won the 1970 Andy Williams San Diego Invitational. But it was the way he carried himself that left the biggest impression on Dent. Brown was never filled with the bitterness that often characterized the personalities of some black golfers trying to survive in a white game like it did Spiller or Sifford.

“Just to walk behind him and watch him act and what he did and how he did it,” Dent said. “He was so nice and you couldn’t help but like a guy like that. Pete was a helluva guy. Pete would give you – if he had 20 cents he’d give you 15 cents and keep 5 cents he needed. So you can’t do nothing but love a guy like that like a brother.”

Brown’s death at age 80 is a the latest in a sad series of losses suffered by the biggest African-American icons in golf. Sifford – the only black golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004 – died in February at age 92. Calvin Peete – the most prolific African-American winner with 12 PGA Tour victories before Tiger Woods came along – passed away in Atlanta on Wednesday.

Anyone who cares about golf feels their collective loss. It’s even tougher for their remaining peers who feel an added responsibility to make sure their contributions to the world are remembered.

“Sure, why not? They meant a helluva lot to golf,” Dent said. “Calvin’s done a lot more than people think he did. There was one black superstar and that was Calvin Peete. After that come Tiger Woods as the next superstar.”

Dent laments how Woods remains the lone African-American representative on the modern PGA Tour. Joseph Bramlett reached the top tour for one season in 2011, but other than that it’s been only Woods for the past two decades.

When Dent came out, there were as many as 14 black faces at tour stops. And the ones left are getting older and less visible. Dent is 75 and has been retired from the Champions Tour since 2010. Jim Thorpe is 66 and only plays occasionally on the senior circuit. Chuck Thorpe is 68. Lee Elder is 80. Charlie Owens is 85.

“They were great and when I came out they were good friends,” Dent said. “It was kind of like the European guys say they do – they’re always together so we were always together, you know. We spent time together. Each Monday we would go out and do things. There were 14 of you there and you could enjoy one another. You always had one that you really wanted to go to dinner with or hang out with or something. It was great.”

Dent thinks there’s a lack of hunger – not to mention opportunity provided by the old caddie yards – that is keeping young black kids from chasing golf as an aspiration. In a way, the very obstacles that kept his generation out of the game 50 years ago drew them deeper into it.

“When you try to keep somebody from doing something, that’s when you want to do it more,” said Dent, who couldn’t even play Augusta Municipal Golf Course as a kid. “Back then we couldn’t go to all the golf courses like the kids can do today. We had a few we could go and play. So we were really into it. Today they can do it, but they don’t want to do it.”

Dent will grieve for his dear friend Pete Brown and miss the time they shared together.

“It’s a big loss,” he said. “When I was playing the senior tour I used to go up to Dayton (Ohio) all the time and play the golf course he used to have and hang around with him. You lose a friend like that you can’t replace a guy like that.”

Dent will also mourn the significant pieces of heritage that the game has lost in such short order in recent days and months.

“All of them were helluva guys to be around,” he said of Sifford, Peete and Brown. “It was nice to learn, and like all of the rest of us, you had somebody you could look up to. I was watching the football draft (Thursday) night and they were talking about how they looked up to such and such a player. That’s the way I was to those guys. I looked up to all of them. What a dream to be out there while they was there.”

Michaux: The wrong sporting event has fans

Thu, 04/30/2015 - 9:04pm

A Major League Baseball game set a record Wednesday by playing in front of zero fans. It’s a shame it came to that.

A major boxing event will take place Saturday night in front of what is expected to be the largest pay-per-view audience in history. In my book, that’s a much bigger shame.

With Baltimore torn apart by riots, the Orioles had already been forced to postpone two games scheduled for Camden Yards and move this weekend’s home series to Tampa, Fla. Wednesday afternoon – five hours earlier than scheduled because of a 10 p.m. city-wide curfew – the Orioles and Chicago White Sox played in front of 47,000 empty seats.

Baltimore won 8-2.

It’s certainly understandable why the Orioles both elected to play the game and to lock out the fans. Baltimore is hurting right now in the aftermath of protests and riots that boiled over after the funeral of a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, who died of injuries (including his spinal cord) while in police custody.

The National Guard was summoned to help restore order in a major city still smoldering from fires and frustration. With the wounds still fresh, assembling a large mass of people in one place to celebrate a baseball game seemed an audacious and unnecessary risk to take. It would have required police attention, which is badly needed elsewhere at the moment.

But restoring a little normalcy is just as essential. It was a business decision, even if there was no commerce involved at the turnstiles or concessions. MLB manages a carefully choreographed 162-game schedule across 30 cities, and there’s only so much room for compromise.

The decision to play might be myopic, but it’s reasonable. Sports have often served as a communal healing source, but Wednesday was not yet the time for that in Baltimore.

“It makes you realize how unimportant really in a lot of ways this is compared to some things that are going on,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “You try to keep that mind and look at things realistically, where this fits in the scheme of things. You prioritize what’s important and we tried to do that.”

Saturday night’s long-awaited welterweight title bout between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., however, illustrates just how poorly we are at prioritizing things. The public demand for this shows zero concern for the fact that Mayweather is well-chronicled to be a serial abuser of women.

The so-called “fight of the century” is charging the highest pay-per-view fee in history. It will cost you $99.95 to watch it at home – $25 more than the previous largest pay-per-view event and $40 above the average. If you want to go to Hooters on Washington Road to see the fight with about 250 others, it will cost you and your friends $30 each to get a table on Saturday night (if you book in advance that $30 will get you $20 in coupons redeemable in the future).

At least it’s cheaper than the $10,000 ticket for floor seats in Las Vegas.

The vast majority of what could exceed $300 million goes back to the fighters, with Mayweather getting 60 percent of it that could approach $200 million for this one fight.

If that doesn’t stick in you craw, then you haven’t been paying attention to the media outlets that have been willing to report on Mayweather’s long history of domestic violence. The undefeated fighter has been accused and cited at least seven times by five women for domestic abuse allegations. In 2010, he pled guilty and was jailed for two months for attacking the mother of three of his children – the longest sentence of his multiple guilty plea bargains. The prison term, of course, was delayed so that Mayweather could get paid to fight Miguel Cotto.

Since he keeps getting away with it, Mayweather consistently acts like none of it ever happened.

“Like I’ve said in the past, no bumps, no bruises, no nothing,” Mayweather said last year, acting as if official medical reports citing concussions, bruises and lacerations aren’t proof enough. “With O.J. and Nicole, you seen pictures. With Chris Brown and Rihanna, you seen pictures. With Ochocinco and Evelyn, you seen pictures. You guys have yet to see any pictures of a battered woman, a woman who says she was kicked and beaten (by me). So I just live my life and try to stay positive, and try to become a better person each and every day.”

By pleading guilty and avoiding a trial conviction that could have landed him in jail for 34 years, Mayweather kept those powerful pictures away from a jury. We didn’t get to see the security video from his gated neighborhood showing his three kids running inside for safety and their mother being wheeled off on a stretcher clutching her concussed head that, his kids wrote in sworn statements, that he hit repeatedly while clutching her hair.

This is a man who beats other well-trained men for a living – knocking out 26 in his 41 victories. He expects all the sycophants lining up with cash to see him fight to feel sorry for him that he can’t see those three kids who watched his power up close against their mother.

“That’s been bothering me a lot,” he said of his denied access. “You know how women are sometimes.”

That’s the richest man in sports who record numbers are queuing to make richer.

Sports obviously can’t resolve the societal issues and racial unrest smoldering in Baltimore and other cities across the nation. And it can’t stop the domestic abuse that kills on average three women in America every day at the hands of someone who allegedly loved them.

But what a great message it could have been if the one sporting event that nobody watched this week was the fight involving a serial abuser, and not a baseball game.

Palace Malice eager to make 2015 debut this weekend

Tue, 04/28/2015 - 6:24pm

While most of the racing world will train its eyes on Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, a local favorite will quietly kick off his comeback campaign earlier in the afternoon at the scene of his greatest triumphs.

Palace Malice will return to Belmont Park for the Grade 3 Westchester Stakes on Saturday, the one-mile race he won a year ago by nearly 10 lengths. It will be the first race in nine months for the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner, kicking off a planned five-race farewell campaign for the seasoned 5-year-old co-owned by Aiken’s Dogwood Stable and Kentucky’s Three Chimneys Farm.

“He’s bound to have a trifle of rust on him,” said Cot Campbell, Dogwood’s president. “This race is traditionally a prep race for the Metropolitan Mile on June 6. So it’s designed to put the finishing touches on him. We would think at 95 percent he’d have a good chance of winning the race, but the main thing is to get him ready for June 6 which is a gigantic race.”

Palace Malice was having a horse-of-the-year caliber season in 2014, winning his first four races before finishing a disappointing sixth on Aug. 2 in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Park. An examination after the race revealed a deep bruise in the cannon bone of Palace Malice’s left hind leg. On Sept. 5, Campbell announced he was retiring his prized horse from racing to sell him for stud.

The most appealing bid, however, came from Three Chimneys Farm, which offered to buy half of the horse and continue racing him in Dogwood’s colors in 2015.

“I think they thought the nature of his injury was such that he would be perfectly fine and he might enhance his value,” Campbell said of the Three Chimneys purchase. “If he hadn’t been injured he could have been horse of the year. You think at age 5 he could have a great year and win most of these five races we’ve got in mind for him. They would have a more valuable animal on their hands and could charge a larger stud fee.”

So Palace Malice returned to Aiken to winter one last time, gradually training for a spring return. He moved to Florida in February to work out with trainer Todd Pletcher to get in race condition.

Campbell said it was a very different horse fans watched go through the paces in Aiken than it was the year before coming off its Triple Crown campaign season.

“I would say his first winter, in 2013-14, he was like a college athlete, 18 or 19 years old, anxious to get some coaching and receptive,” Campbell said. “When he came back this year he was like a pro of 27 years old and is full of himself and at times could be impatient about this gradual training regimen he was on. He wanted to get on with it and resented not being able to do more than he was doing.”

Campbell said Palace Malice seems eager to let it loose on the track this weekend. Veteran hall of fame jockey Edgar Prado will mount him for this one race at Belmont since usual rider John Velazquez will be at Churchill Downs riding Carpe Diem in the Derby.

“It’s the best possible choice we could make,” Campbell said of Prado, who rode Palace Malice to a seventh-place finish in the 2013 Louisiana Derby.

Campbell will be watching Saturday’s racing from his home in Aiken. He’s also keen to keep an eye on the Derby and its 20-horse field that Campbell calls “the best crop of 3-year-olds in modern times.”

“Seems to me there’s about six or seven good horses in there that look like they could be the real stuff,” Campbell said of the stacked Derby field. “There’s always good horses in there but the crème de la crème is there this year. I think the two horses that Bob Baffert has – Dortmund and American Pharoah – look sensational. I don’t know how you would choose between them. Pletcher has a couple of good horses. In the Derby with 20 horses, you’ve got to be a good horse and you’ve got to be a lucky horse.”

With Dogwood Stable’s reduced roster of horses, Campbell hasn’t had a Kentucky Derby entry since Palace Malice two years ago. But the 87-year-old is hopeful to get another run for the roses some day.

“You always think so,” he said. “We’ve got some 2-year-olds – less horses than in the past by design – but you’ve got some you think might do the trick. But I’m not dumb enough make plans around it. I haven’t made reservations in Louisville for 2016 yet.”

What he is counting on is being at Belmont Park on June 6 with Palace Malice at the Metropolitan Handicap. Last year, Palace Malice won the Westchester and Met Mile by nearly 10 lengths and one length respectively.

If all goes well, Palace Malice will close out with the same planned schedule as a year ago with the Whitney, Jockey Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic before retiring to stud.

Campbell likes his chances of picking up right where he left off before the injury and building upon the $2.6 million in career winnings in competitive style.

“There’s no reason why this couldn’t be his best year,” Campbell said. “He’s 5 and seasoned. He’s not had a lot of racing (17 races). This will be his fourth year campaigning and it’s not like he’s been put through a ringer. He’s fresh and understands the game and if he stays strong as we expect him to he ought to have a helluva year.

“If he has the kind of year he’s capable of having he could be one of the great horses of this era.”

Rory McIlroy reflects on recent Masters performance

Fri, 04/24/2015 - 10:36pm

GRANITEVILLE — Rory McIlroy was back in the Augusta area on Friday, more relaxed with a clearer head and fresher perspective on the events two weeks ago that left him still searching for the culmination of his career slam at the Masters Tournament.

Fifteen miles from Augusta National Golf Club, the world No. 1 was a surprise guest to the 54 competitors in the fifth annual Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. McIlroy hit drives with Nike clients and provided a clinic and dinner Q&A for the top juniors from around the world competing in what has been dubbed the “Junior Masters.”

It was the real Masters, however, that McIlroy has had time to deconstruct. Precisely two weeks earlier, McIlroy stepped to the first tee in the afternoon to start his second round at 1-under par yet already 15 strokes behind runaway leader Jordan Spieth. After a front-nine 40, McIlroy was 19 shots behind.

He rallied to shoot 15-under the last 45 holes to post a career-best fourth-place finish at Augusta – six shots behind Spieth’s record-tying 18-under winning score.

The simple assessment is obvious.

“Jordan played great,” McIlroy said. “He was too good for the rest of us.”

Breaking it down, however, reveals that Spieth’s dominance made a direct impact on McIlroy’s performance – scuttling his carefully considered game-plan and forcing his hand to try to make up significant ground.

“It was tough,” McIlroy admitted. “I look back to Thursday. I play in the morning and shoot 71. It’s a solid start thinking anything under par is good. Then Jordan goes out and shoots 64 that first day. I knew from the majors that I’ve been able to win, if you get off to a good start and just take the tournament by the scruff of the neck ... being seven shots back and trying to overcome that even over 54 holes it’s a tough position to be in especially after feeling like you’ve done OK on the first day.

“So second day in the afternoon I just tried to push too much. From there, things could have been different if I had of shot a 34 or 33 that front side on Friday, but who knows?”

With time to digest, McIlroy’s takeaways from Augusta are more optimistic than they seemed in the immediate aftermath of failing to win his third consecutive major and become the sixth player in history to complete the career Grand Slam.

“I take a lot of positives from it,” McIlroy said. “I played great golf for the last 45 holes. I had a great weekend. It’s the first Masters Tournament that I shot every round under par. My best finish. Hit the ball great. It was one of the easiest 66s I’ve ever shot on Sunday. There’s so many positives to take from it. I keep on improving there each and every year, so I’m getting a lot more comfortable on the golf course. Maybe another year it could have been my time when maybe 12-under could’ve won the tournament.

“Fourth-place at Augusta isn’t anything to be disappointed about. I take the positives from it. I played as well as I could. I had a bad nine holes. But apart from that I’m excited where my game is and I’m excited how that sets me up for the rest of the season.”

McIlroy isn’t second-guessing his Masters game-plan – which was essentially rendered moot by Spieth’s blazing start. The normally effervescent 25-year-old appeared more subdued than usual as he tried to suppress the hype surrounding his slam quest. He knows the spotlight won’t get any dimmer as he annually returns to the Masters seeking his first green jacket.

“I think you have to underplay when something’s that big and that important to you,” he said. “There’s no point in making it a bigger deal than it already is because it’s already big. I was trying to go in there thinking it would be great if I did it and if not I’ll have plenty more chances. I’ll come back next year and try it all over again. It would’ve been nice to do, just not to have to go into Augusta with the same thing. I sort of know how Phil (Mickelson) feels every time he goes to the U.S. Open. I haven’t finished second six times. I didn’t undervalue it in any way. I just tried to approach it how I thought I could best handle it and that was the way I thought I could.”

When McIlroy returns to action at next week’s WGC Match Play at Harding Park, golf fans will be hoping that he might eventually square off with world No. 2 Spieth. The 21-yar-old Masters champ made it clear that he’s seeking the No. 1 ranking, setting the stage for a potential rivalry for years to come between two of the game’s brightest young stars.

McIlroy welcomes the competitive possibilities.

“Yeah I do,” he said. “I think it’s so hard in golf to maybe have a rivalry. You don’t go up against each other that much. Tiger (Woods) and Phil might have played a handful of times against each other down the stretch in tournaments over the last few years. Even Jack (Nicklaus) and Arnie (Palmer), for example, didn’t do it that much. Jack and Tom Watson had the duel at Turnberry all those years back.

“We’ll see how it develops. Jordan’s young and got his first major at a young age where I think’s really important to get that first one out of the way so you can go to try and achieve more. But we’ll see how it develops. I’m going to try my hardest to stay in the position I’m in and I’m sure he’s practicing his butt off to try and take it off me. It’s always nice to be a part of the conversation whether it’s Jordan or whoever it is. It’s just nice to be up there.”

McIlroy has a busy stretch coming up, with four consecutive high-profile weeks before taking a two-week break before the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. After the Match Play and Players Championship, he heads back to the United Kingdom to defend his title in the European Tour’s flagship BMW Championship at Wentworth before competing in the Irish Open at Royal County Down in his native Northern Ireland.

“I’ve got a few tournaments before I play the U.S. Open, but I feel I’ve got a two-week break before Chambers Bay so I’ve got a bit of time to recover from it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Michaux: Former Laney star Rod Hall might have future in NFL

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 4:16pm

Of all the post-graduate career options Clemson point guard Rod Hall Jr. was considering applying his basketball skills or degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, one possibility never came up until last week.

The NFL.

Among all the phone calls from agents campaigning to extend his basketball career, Hall suddenly started getting rung up by NFL scouts.

“Man, it’s pretty crazy,” Hall said with a chuckle. “A couple of teams started calling me Friday morning. Ever since they’ve been calling and wanting to see me work out. A few teams invited me to minicamp. I haven’t even done nothing with football in four years.

“I haven’t thought about. I have agents calling me about basketball and going overseas. I hadn’t thought about football because I haven’t done it for four years. I didn’t know it was even possible.”

Hall, the starting point guard for the Tigers the past three seasons, was a pretty good receiver as well in Augusta for Laney High School. His senior year for the Wildcats in 2010, he accumulated more than 1,200 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns en route to being named the Region 3-AA player of the year.

But after a second consecutive all-state season in basketball, Hall stopped entertaining football recruiters when he signed a letter of intent to play basketball for Clemson. His decision was made. He hadn’t touched a football since.

Then came a phone call last Friday from the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens. Before long, more than 10 NFL teams had contacted Hall or Clemson assistant coach Steve Smith about working out for them ahead of next week’s NFL Draft. They arranged a workout Thursday in Clemson to evaluate his potential to play receiver or cornerback.

“I guess they want to see what I can do,” said Hall, whose 6-foot-1, 205-pound dimensions happen to match those of former Tigers star receiver Sammy Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick last year by the Buffalo Bills. “They know I’m not going to be pretty good at everything football-wise because I haven’t done it in a long time.”

Six teams showed up for Thursday’s workout – Buffalo, Baltimore, Carolina, New Orleans, Kansas City and Cleveland. After about an hour of 40s, two-cone shuttles, receiver routes and back-pedaling drills, Hall’s hamstring tightened and they shut it down. He unofficially was hand timed in the 40 around 4.55 or 4.58, according to several people there.

“He caught all but one pass the entire time, looked quite natural catching the ball quite honestly,” said Philip Sikes, Clemson’s associate communications director.

Hall’s first question to the NFL scouts was a natural one – why me?

“I was really asking how did they know that I played football,” Hall said. “I guess my coach kind of showed a few people my high school highlights. They’ve seen my high school stuff and know that I started (at point guard) three out of my four years here at Clemson. I’ve played with the best players in the country in basketball and drawing the toughest player every night and locking them up playing good defense. I guess they kind of took notice of those things and just put all those things together. They’ve seen that I can maybe do that in football.”

This is not as unusual as it sounds. NFL scouts have gone down this path before. San Diego Chargers all-pro tight end Antonio Gates was signed in 2003 as an undrafted free agent after playing college basketball exclusively. He’d originally enrolled at Michigan State to play both basketball and football, but when then-Spartans head coach Nick Saban wanted him to play football exclusively Gates chose basketball and transferred to Eastern Michigan, a couple of junior colleges and ultimately Kent State. Told by scouts that his future was unlikely in the NBA, Gates worked out for NFL scouts. The Chargers saw his potential and signed him, and halfway through his rookie season he was entrenched as starter.

Former New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham had a similar experience. After playing four seasons of basketball at Miami, he stayed an extra graduate semester to play football for the Hurricanes in 2009. The Saints drafted him in the third round in 2010 and last year made him the highest paid tight end in the NFL.

That supplemental football route may turn another basketball player into an NFL star. Miami (Ohio) point guard Quinten Rollins finished four seasons with the RedHawks and decided to take advantage of the NCAA rule allowing a waiver to play another season in a different sport. Rollins ended up becoming Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year at cornerback in 2014 and is considered a potential late first-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Hall might have that option as well, to return to Clemson for one season of football. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has been talking to him about it ever since he came to campus.

“They want me to play for my fifth year, but I don’t know yet,” Hall said. “I can play a different sport for a year. I don’t know. Dabo, he was always messing with me about football and trying to get me to come out and play.”

Hall only spent one day preparing for Thursday’s workout, doing a few small football drills on Tuesday with a friend who played at Florida State. Catching the ball came back naturally, but the breakdown drills felt a little foreign after four years away from the gridiron.

“The biggest thing is it came easy to him,” said Hall’s former Laney football coach, Lemuel Lackey, of his athletic instincts. “One thing I can say about him, when he was with us, he was 100 percent committed to doing the things he needed to do to be a good football player. The film doesn’t lie.”

Hall is torn about the sudden choices on his plate.

“I’ll see which one is going to be best for me and my family,” Hall said of football or basketball. “I’m not going to drop anything just yet – see how it plays out and take it one day at a time. ... It’s a tough decision. It’s kind of like picking a school all over again. Basketball is pretty much already lined up, I’ve just got to get this football thing figured out now.”

His basketball future seems more concrete. Hall compiled 926 points, 393 assists and 86 steals at Clemson, starting 97 of 98 games through his final three seasons.

The agent he’s narrowed down his choices to has already talked to NBA teams about tryouts as well as several overseas teams already interested in having Hall play for them.

“I’ve thought about if NBA doesn’t work for me I would definitely (play overseas),” he said. “Basketball is something I’m passionate about and it can help me go a lot of places. If that can be my job and career, I definitely would do it. Get to see different parts of the world. Had a fun trip to Italy (in 2013) with the team and playing over there. Seeing different lifestyles, it was interesting and pretty cool.”

North Auguta's Matt NeSmith, a junior at South Carolina, picked the right time to get hot

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 6:51pm

Matt NeSmith picked the right time to get hot.

Deep into his junior season at South Carolina, the North Augusta golfer finally broke into the collegiate winner’s circle with back-to-back medalist honors in his past two tournaments. The second win earned him the individual title at the Southeastern Conference Championship at Sea Island on Sunday.

“It the best one I’ve ever won,” NeSmith said of the title that eclipses his 2012 Azalea Amateur crown as a junior golfer.

NeSmith extended his streak with his fifth, sixth and seventh consecutive rounds in the 60s to go wire-to-wire for the SEC title. After bogey-free rounds of 65-64, NeSmith started the final round one shot ahead of Alabama’s Robby Shelton, the 15th-ranked amateur in the world.

Assuming Shelton would make a run at him, NeSmith shot a closing 67 that included his lone bogey of the week on the 14th hole.

He ended up cruising to a six-shot victory with a 14-under-par total of 196 that is the lowest 54-hole total in school history.

“I didn’t know until I finished,” NeSmith said. “Because I had a one-shot lead starting the day and I didn’t want to know anything ’til I got done. (Shelton) is capable of anything. I played with him last year in the last round and he shot 66 bogey-free, so you never know. I really had no idea. When I got done and putted out, coach told me I had a five-shot lead at that point. That was a huge relief. He had five holes left.

“It was really cool for it to be pretty much finished when I was done. It would have been interesting if I had two-shot lead and he had five holes left. I would have been a nervous wreck.”

South Carolina coach Bill McDonald walked with NeSmith from start to finish each of the last two events, which NeSmith said “has been a big help.”

“As far as Matt NeSmith goes, that’s some of the best golf I’ve ever seen,” McDonald said. “He made one bogey in three rounds, and I had the pleasure of being able to walk and watch all of it. Congratulations to him on being our second SEC champion (joining Eric Ecker in 1998). It’s wonderful how he played.”

NeSmith’s confidence was surging after winning his previous start in the Hootie at Bulls Bay, where South Carolina collected its school-record fifth team victory of the season. NeSmith shot a final-round 68 at Bulls Bay to finish in a three-way tie for first at 11-under par. He won the three-way playoff with a par on the third extra hole to “get the monkey off my back.”

“It started last week,” NeSmith said of the form that carried him through the SECs. “I’d been playing some good golf in the spring but never really put three good rounds together. I’d have two good rounds and one kind of (bad) round, which just put me in a bad spot. So I put three good rounds together a couple of weeks ago at the Hootie and won in a playoff. It was a little bit easier this time.”

The Gamecocks finished runner-up for the fourth time in the SECs, tied with Vanderbilt three shots behind LSU. The team is ranked among the top eight in the country as it awaits placement in the NCAA Regionals which begin at six venues on May 14-16.

Last year, the Gamecocks were ranked 20th when they reached the NCAA Championships and fell one stroke short of being one of the eight teams to advance to the match-play bracket. NeSmith shot rounds of 77-74-77 to finish tied for 141st.

“Last year was extremely disappointing, right after,” he said. “When you look back on it we were ranked 20th in the country. We knew we were good but we didn’t know quite what we were capable of. We didn’t know how we stacked up in that regard and we went out and we played some good golf. Well, I played terrible, which didn’t help. But it was fun to see what we were capable of. This season we’re a year wiser and everybody who’s playing has a year’s experience in the postseason. I think everyone is excited to get to regionals and show everybody what we can do there.”

NeSmith said last year’s difficult experience helped turn things in the right direction this season as he made some swing changes to get the curve out of his golf ball.

“Last year I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and what kind of player I wanted to be and how I would go about making those changes,” he said. “I kind of went about it the wrong way and kind of got stuck doing a couple of things that weren’t quite right for my game and I didn’t really realize that until about midway through the fall of this season. I kind of rethought how I wanted to play and that’s how it started and kind of snowballed from there.”

As of now, even a prestigious win in the SECs hasn’t altered his future plans. He still wants to return to Columbia for his senior season.

“I went to all this trouble to get through three years; I only have two semesters left, We’ll see where we’re at in a month and a half, but not right now. I would love to come back and see our football team be kind of terrible again for one more time,” NeSmith, who is a huge Gamecock football fan, said with a laugh. “That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done is to be able to go to a big school like Carolina and have two 11-win (football) seasons. I love it. ... The whole college deal I absolutely love. It’s been a wonderful experience. I just want to live it out as long as I can. There’s no reason to rush into things.”

NeSmith is motivated seeing peers he played against for years – like Masters champion Jordan Spieth and PGA Tour rookies Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger – already having success at the game’s highest level.

“It’s kind of weird that people who I’ve played a ton of golf with, they’re making millions of bucks already,” NeSmith said. “But it’s cool. I want to see those guys do well. It’s great motivation and hopefully in a couple of years I’ll be out there chasing them down.”

Spring is about college football as well as the Masters

Sat, 04/18/2015 - 6:53pm

While many of us had our eyes trained on the lush grounds of Augusta National and Jordan Spieth’s record-setting green jacket campaign, other diehards gathered for that most useless of seasonal sporting traditions – spring football games.

These glorified practice sessions five months before anything matters draw thousands of football-starved fans. Nearly 47,000 showed up on a glorious Saturday afternoon to watch Georgia audition quarterbacks. A record 37,000 entered Death Valley to NOT see Deshaun Watson.

Failing to capitalize on the sunny weather last weekend, Georgia Tech claims 4,000 hearty souls sat in a cold rain Friday night to watch the White shut out the Gold.

Drawing concrete conclusions from offseason intrasquad games is impossible, but here are a few observations to tide us over until preseason camp:

GEORGIA: The search for the quarterback who will keep the seat warm until Jacob Eason arrives in 2016 is far from over. The competition between incumbent backup Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta will extend through preseason camp.

“I think it’s still a race,” Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. “I don’t think there is any question it’s going to go through the summer and fall before we make a decision on who that guy is that starts the first ball game.”

Ramsey displayed the stronger down-field strength with a couple of deep strikes but he still has a tendency to overshoot targets. Bauta didn’t get the chance to show off his mobility, but he showed some consistent touch including a touchdown pass to former Thomson tight end Jordan Davis.

All in all, the offense didn’t miss much of a beat under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Malcolm Mitchell didn’t get injured. Nick Chubb made it look easy in his limited role, ripping off a 17-yard touchdown in his three carries. Neither Keith Marshall nor Sony Michel played at tailback, leaving most of the work to depth-chart backs A.J. Turman (26 carries, 106 yards) and Aquinas’ Brendan Douglas (12-21).

We can expect to see Isaiah McKenzie (72-yard catch-and-run TD) as a big-play threat at receiver as well as returner in the fall.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Gamecocks fans are accustomed to seeing a Connor at quarterback and Jasper on defense making plays. Whether Connor Mitch and Jasper Sasser can come remotely close to the long-gone Shaw and Brinkley remains to be seen.

Mitch is likely to take over behind center over Michael Scarnecchia unless incoming freshman Lorenzo Nunez shows up in the summer and dazzles. It’s hard to tell after what coach Steve Spurrier called “not a super duper offensive game.”

Mitch’s primary touchdown target in the Garnet & Black game, singer Darius Rucker, won’t be available. However, the Gamecocks have a couple of big-play receiving threats in Pharoh Cooper and the guy they hope will take pressure off of him, Deebo Samuel, who caught three passes for 94 yards.

The bigger story is the new defense under new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke. The Gamecocks only ran two defensive coverages in the spring game, but there was room for optimism.

Defensive end Marquavius Lewis was named defensive player of the spring providing a passing rushing knack to a unit that made an SEC-low 14 sacks last year. And Sasser, the spring’s leading takeaway threat, had two interceptions.

CLEMSON: Despite star quarterback Watson being inactive and offensive coordinator Chad Morris departed, Clemson’s offense erupted for 35 first-half points against the mostly first-string defense. The Tigers have depth to burn in the skill positions – except quarterback.

Coach Dabo Swinney named Nick Schuessler – who combined for 201 yards and two touchdowns for both the White and Orange offenses – as Watson’s backup.

Of course, the flip side to all that offensive success is a defense that doesn’t possess the same depth of talent as last season on defense. Vic Beasley is gone to the NFL and Shaq Lawson can’t do it all by himself.

For the Tigers to win 10 games for an unprecedented fifth consecutive season, defensive coordinator Brent Venables is going to have to cobble together a decent unit that didn’t display a lot of depth in the spring game.

GEORGIA TECH: The Yellow Jackets received their Orange Bowl rings this spring and intend to build on an 11-win season and final No. 7 ranking.

“We probably won’t get picked to finish fifth in the Coastal,” coach Paul Johnson said of the annual lack of respect in the ACC.

The best news for Georgia Tech is that there are no questions at quarterback. Justin Thomas is so entrenched after a team-leading 1,086 rushing yards (the most ever by a GT quarterback) and 1,719 passing yards with 18 touchdowns that for the first time in his coaching career Johnson had a QB wear a non-contact jersey in spring practices. What that says about backup Tim Byerly, I’m not sure.

The big question is who will carry the B-back load in the triple option that set a school record with 342 yards per game last year. The top three backs are gone including Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days, as are the top two receivers DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller.

The spring game revealed little positive on the B-back front without injured players C.J. Leggett (torn ACL) and Quaide Weimerskirch (foot surgery). Junior Marcus Allen, converted from linebacker and receiver, led all rushers with 77 yards while walk-on Brad Swilling had 20.

The most positive news for the Jackets is the potential to snag a graduate transfer B-back (Stanford fullback Patrick Skov) who could be eligible immediately. Skov was reportedly visiting the Atlanta campus last week.

'Spieth era' begins in golf after Masters Tournament victory

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 7:37pm

Pump the brakes, some suggest. Slow down.

There is an underlying sense that everyone is getting a little carried away with the hype following Jordan Spieth’s record-setting roll to the green jacket. Speculation about what the 21-year-old’s Masters victory means in the long term is moving faster than his receding hair line.

“Jordan Rules: The Spieth Era Begins Now” was the proclamation splayed across the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated. It hasn’t been four years yet since SI’s cover space announced “Golf’s New Era” in the wake of Rory McIlroy’s record romp in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional just two months after blowing the Masters.

Of course, the same magazine touted Chad Campbell as the “Next Big Thing” on the cover of its 2003 U.S. Open preview. When you whiff that hard, people might look at you like you’re Melvin Upton Jr.

Of course, the confluence of youth and accomplishment has always sparked a little hyperventilating. SI wasn’t around in 1931, when a youngster only six months past his 20th birthday knocked off Gene Sarazen and Denny Shute to claim the PGA Championship. But a United News report heralded Tom Creavy, who “does not depend upon ‘power game’ for his scoring.”

“The passing on the Professional Golfers’ Association championship from the overlords of swat who have held sway since 1922, into the hands of youthful Tom Creavy, was seen today as presaging a new style of play.”

William D. Richardson in The New York Times hailed Creavy as “a cool, level-headed youngster, unafraid of hard work, undaunted by any breaks that happen to go against him, modest and unassuming. With those qualities and his game, he is deserving of the honor that has come to him so early in life.”

Sound familiar?

Well, Creavy’s “era” began and ended with that lone major title. His experience, however, is more the exception than the norm when it comes to launching superstardom at such an unripened age. The Spieth conjecture of a new “era” coinciding with McIlroy as one of the game’s great rivalries is hardly a stretch based on precedence.

Even the old greats who’ve experienced the games evolutionary ebb and flow see the sense in it.

“I am someone who likes the new generations,” said Jack Nicklaus, the greatest champion of them all. “I always have. I think it energizes the game of golf. We had Arnold’s generation; then it came to my generation; then Tom Watson came along; and right on down the line to Tiger and Rory. And now we have Jordan Spieth. There are some older players who have been terrific for a long time, but actually this might be time for the young guys to take over.”

What Spieth did in dominating the Masters wire-to-wire and tying Tiger Woods’ scoring record gives every reason to believe it’s the beginning of something truly great. He’s only five months older than Woods was when “Tigermania” erupted with his 1997 Masters triumph.

“Spieth-frenzy” is a perfectly rational reaction to what he’s done already. He’s only 16 days older than Walter Hagen was when he won the first of his 11 majors at the 1914 U.S. Open.

Let’s put it this way, of the nine guys not named Spieth since World War I who won their first major before the age of 25, Creavy is the only one to not win at least four career majors. The other guys are Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Woods and McIlroy.

Spieth was also the youngest player post-Depression to win a PGA Tour event when he claimed the 2013 John Deere Classic in a playoff over former Masters champion Zach Johnson at 19 years, 11 months and 17 days.

There have been 14 players since 1900 who have won PGA Tour events prior to their 21st birthdays – 11 of them older than the age of eligibility for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Only two haven’t been inducted – John McDermott and Creavy. Woods and McIlroy just need to turn 40.

Spieth is on that same trajectory. To this stage, he certainly compares favorably to Woods and McIlroy.

Before he turned 22, McIlroy had won twice worldwide, including at Quail Hollow as his lone PGA Tour victory. He was 19 years, 8 months, 29 days when he broke his maiden at the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic.

Before he turned 22, Woods had six PGA Tour victories, including the Masters among his four wins in 1997. He was 20 years, 9 months and 6 days when he won his first tour title at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational – 14 days before winning his second at Disney.

Spieth has five worldwide wins, three of them official PGA Tour titles. Before turning pro at age 19, he led Texas to an NCAA championship, claimed low amateur in a U.S. Open and was the only golfer other than Woods to win multiple U.S. Junior Amateur titles.

So he has the pedigree along with the pro results to back up the hype. He also has the desire, with his goal to become the No. 1 golfer in the world. He’s already No. 2 behind McIlroy.

“There’s still a guy to chase,” Spieth said this week before competing in the RBC Heritage, where he shot 74 on Thursday. “Rory is No.1 in the world.

“He’s got four majors, something I can only dream about. I look forward to getting in the heat of the moment with him a few more times in the near future.”

Even Woods seems a little resigned to the fact that it’s McIlroy’s and Spieth’s world now.

“It’s just generations,” Woods said. “When I first came out here it was Phil (Mickelson) and I trying to take over from (Greg) Norman and (Nick) Price and those guys. ... Phil and I were part of the younger crowd. Now he’s in his mid 40s and I’m about ready to turn 40. So the roles are reversed. But it’s neat to still be a part of it.”

There’s still room for the old guard on the bus, but there’s no sign that the new young front-runners will lay off the gas in their accelerated rise.

Michaux: Tiger Woods' solid play was biggest surprise of Masters

Tue, 04/14/2015 - 7:20pm

It was a Masters Tournament performance few saw coming – wildly spectacular beyond anyone’s expectations.

Not Jordan Spieth. You could sense his green jacket moment hurtling toward us from a year away.

I’m talking Tiger Woods. As T17s go, his was both wild and spectacular.

Woods arrived at Augusta National as a massive question mark after injuries, swing changes and a crisis of confidence left him seemingly under-prepared and overextended. He left with just a little bit of his old swagger back.

This was a Tiger Woods we’d never really seen before at Augusta. He was acknowledging fans with smiles and fist bumps in practice rounds. He displayed a human side with his children and girlfriend in a rare showing at the Par-3 Contest. And he was eager to publicly show off the work he’d done on rebuilding his short game.

Sure, there were bumps along the way. He was as errant as ever off the tees. He never really adjusted to the pace of the greens. He hit the “big ball” twice before the little ball, letting his club fly both times and once claiming he’d “popped a bone” back in after wincing in obvious pain.

In spite of it all, Woods went out Sunday in one of the last three groups. He lashed at shots with a healthy abandon. He turned potential homeward-bound 77s into week-saving 73s. And he had moments of his unmistakable brilliance.

His presence – especially playing with Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy on the weekend – enhanced the Masters as much as Spieth’s inspiring performance.

Let’s not get carried away and say Tiger’s “back.” He’s got a lot of work to do refining his swing and needs to play more consistently. But if you’re investing in futures, there’s only a handful of guys like McIlroy, Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed who I’d buy more stock in over the next five or six years.

Overall, there were more relative winners than usual and a few losers at the 79th Masters:

BIRDIE: Jordan Spieth. You can’t say enough about this 21-year-old’s record-setting performance and the grace in which he accomplished it. He grabbed the tournament with a Thursday 64 and never let go. Even his post-tournament scorecard recitation was a work of art. Ink him among the Masters favorites for the next 20 years.

BIRDIE: Rory McIlroy. Despite a somber demeanor and ultimately postponing completion of his career slam, there was more positive than negative in his fourth-place finish. Four consecutive rounds under par show he’s solving the Augusta riddle, especially his 15-under over the last 45 holes. Clean up that front-nine 40 on Friday and he’ll get that jacket eventually.

BOGEY: Jim Furyk. The only top-10 player in the world who didn’t make the cut.

BIRDIE: Phil Mickelson. He might be closing in on 45, but Lefty still finds that fountain of youth when he turns onto Magnolia Lane. He could break Jack Nicklaus’ age record for a winner as soon as 2017. For now, he completed his career runner-up slam.

BIRDIE: Hideki Matsuyama. His 66 tied McIlroy for the Sunday low and his solo fifth has his sights set higher. “I would really like to become a Masters champion one day,” he said. He’s still only 23.

BIRDIE: Bubba Watson. His four rounds in the 70s and T38 weren’t memorable, but he set a class standard for reigning champs by simply showing up in his jacket for the Drive, Chip and Putt, honorary tee shots and Ben Crenshaw’s farewell all the way through Spieth’s finishing putt and jacket presentation. Bravo.

BOGEY: Aussies. Jason Day (T28) and Adam Scott (T38) were disappointing non-contenders and Marc Leishman had to sadly withdraw to tend to his wife’s health.

BIRDIE: Justin Rose. Made a serious weekend charge to claim co-runner-up and earned his first place in the final pairing of a major. Only five previous times has the Masters winner had a lower score than his 14-under total.

BOGEY: J.B. Holmes. As hot as he was coming in with a pair of seconds and a win the week before in Houston, missing the cut was a huge letdown for a power hitter like him.

BIRDIE: Ben Crenshaw. Forget the 91 on Thursday and the 32-over par total. Gentle Ben might have bowed out too late, but he did it with his inimitable grace and his magic rubbed off on a Texas icon for a new generation.

BIRDIE: Carl Jackson. Even though he wasn’t able to caddie for the 54th time, he was rarely more present at the Masters. It didn’t end with getting the key to the city or his curtain call and hug with Crenshaw. Spieth and his caddie, Michael Greller, leaned on Jackson’s advice until the end.

BIRDIE: Brits. Five of the six Englishman in the field (not Luke Donald) made the cut, including three in the top six with Paul Casey and Ian Poulter joining Rose up high. All three Northern Irish entries made the weekend including Darren Clarke. Scotland went 0-3 and Wales 1-1 in the cut market.

BIRDIE: Dustin Johnson. Career-best T6 at Augusta included a record three eagles in Friday’s round. Still too many unforced errors, including three double bogeys, but he’s trending the right way.

BOGEY: Amateurs. Seven of them were in the field and none of them made the cut to earn the silver medal at a combined 67-over par. The only highlight was Corey Conners’ second-round 69. Unfortunately he shot 80 in the first round.

BIRDIE: Hunter Mahan. He quietly went 11-under over the last three rounds to finish T9. Only Mickelson (-12) and McIlroy (-11) did as well or better.

PAR: UGA. Four of the six Georgia boys made the cut, with Russell Henley leading the way at 21st. It was awfully cool that double heart transplant recipient Erik Compton made the weekend and finished 51st.

BIRDIE: Ernie Els. The 45-year-old faded on the weekend, but he’s made his peace with his fate and is relishing whatever time he has left at Augusta (at least two more starts pending).

BIRDIE: Charley Hoffman. It was only his second Masters, and he acquitted himself well until hitting a wall Sunday. First top-10 in a major guarantees his return next year.

BOGEY: Brandt Snedeker. He worked so hard to make the field and didn’t break par in an event he’s twice before been in the final Sunday pairing. He might want to win the Masters too much for his own good.

PAR: First-timers. Eight of 14 professional rookies made the cut, led by the tournament’s first Austrian entry, Bernd Wiesberger at T22.

BIRDIE: Fred Ridley. Former USGA chief has come a long way from his protecting par days. Despite tools at his disposal to manipulate conditions, the Competition Committee chairman let a softer course and attack pins ride so that players could dictate scores and not the course. It made for the most eagles and more fun.

BIRDIE: CBS. A year after drawing the fewest weekend viewers since 1957, ratings improved 23 percent on Sunday and 48 percent on Saturday thanks to Spieth’s historic effort and a popular cast of leaders including Mickelson, Woods and McIlroy. Nearly 18 million watched the last half hour.

BIRDIE: Ike’s Tree. It made a comeback in the form of a striking cross section for the Eisenhower Presidential Library and its genetic revival for future generations to possibly contend with on the 17th hole or elsewhere.

Michaux: Woods now ponders decision whether to play in the Masters

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 7:43pm

Tiger Woods came to town Tuesday on an exploratory mission. Now we’ll see if the rehearsal was good enough to warrant an official return engagement next week.

Woods’ Gulfstream G5 was parked in front of the terminal for private aircraft at Augusta Regional Airport on Tuesday morning and left in the afternoon. Sources, including Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg, say he played 18 holes at Augusta National Golf Club as he prepares to make a decision on whether or not his game is tournament-ready in time to play the Masters.

Just the news that his plane was spotted in town sparked a worldwide conversation on Twitter and was seen as an encouraging sign that Woods might end his self-imposed exile next week on the same stage where he first invoked Tigermania at the 1997 Masters.

The Augusta visit was considered the last piece of the rebuilding puzzle Woods needed to see if his game was up to the standards of one of the most demanding short-game venues in the world. A balky wedge is not a tool you’d recommend carrying to the Masters, and Woods’ competitive short-game of late bears little resemblance to his historical excellence.

“I read where people said it wasn’t the yips,” said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, a former tour pro. “Well, you can call it whatever you want, but it’s catastrophically bad what we saw. So to get past that ... (Augusta’s) the most difficult place in the world to hit pitch shots.”

Woods hasn’t played on the PGA Tour since withdrawing after 11 holes at Torrey Pines on Feb. 5 citing “deactivated glutes.” He announced an indefinite leave of absence on Feb. 11 to work on the flaws that emerged in his short game since he returned in December after letting his back fully recover from surgery last March.

Recent reports out of South Florida claim that Woods’ game has been improving out of the public eye and he’s been firing in the low- to mid-60s in rounds at the Medalist.

Skeptics, however, wonder whether it’s possible for his game to recover from so far down in two months of non-competitive golf. Woods shot a career-worst 82 in February in Phoenix.

“Given what we’ve seen, it’s unimaginable to me that in this short period of time, he would have been able to come to any sort of manageable level of short game,” Chamblee said Tuesday in a teleconference.

Chris DiMarco lost in a playoff to Woods at the 2005 Masters – an event remembered most for Woods’ boomerang chip-in in the final round on the 16th hole that tumbled into the cup. Now a Golf Channel analyst as well, DiMarco expressed concern about what a high-profile failure at Augusta could mean to Woods in the long-term.

“If he does play Augusta, this is a make‑or‑break week for him, I think,” DiMarco said. “Now you’re going to all these comfortable places that he’s used to, and if he goes out and stinks it up – I never thought I’d ever say it because I thought when I played with him he had the greatest mind ever, he was the strongest mind I’ve ever seen – but it’s getting mental. And if it doesn’t get fixed, I don’t know if he can overcome it.”

Even after skipping events at PGA National and Bay Hill in the last two months, Woods still said “I hope to be ready for the Masters, and I will continue to work hard preparing for Augusta.”

Word has it that his Augusta trip was a scouting mission to determine whether his current game meets his own high standard for competition in the season’s first major.

Tuesday’s surgical appearance at the course offers hope that he might return for the Masters. However, should he decide not to play now after testing himself at Augusta National it would send a clear message that his game isn’t ready.

If Woods decides to play Augusta next week, it will be his first competitive round in two months.

It would be his longest layoff before a major since 2010, when he finished tied for fourth at the Masters after returning from a five-month leave trying to repair his marriage after scandalous revelations of infidelity.

Woods missed the Masters for the first time in 20 years in 2014 after undergoing microdisectomy surgery on his back the week before the tournament. While he hasn’t won the Masters in a decade, he also has finished outside of the top six at Augusta only once in his last nine starts.

So it takes a lot for Woods to skip the Masters.

“Going to Augusta for Tiger is like going home,” said Peter Jacobsen. “I think he’s as comfortable around there as he is around his home course.”

Jacobsen interprets Woods’ Tuesday practice session with optimism.

“Clearly Tiger is a positive thinker, and I think anybody that’s a positive thinker is going to be able to shake that off,” Jacobsen said of Woods recent short-game woes. “If you’re a negative thinker, if you think everything is doomsday, then yeah, he’s probably not going to play well – he’s going to chunk chips, he’s going to do what we saw last fall. But I think the mere fact that he’s there or he’s thinking about playing or the fact that if he does, in fact, play, I think it goes to show you that he’s figured it out. I think that he’s good enough, and I think he’s going.”

Woods’ pending decision after Tuesday’s rehearsal will tell a lot about the state of game.

Michaux: Gamecock fans should savor Final Four run

Mon, 03/30/2015 - 7:09pm

Forget Notre Dame. Forget the specter of Connecticut. Forget what might happen if everything goes right Sunday and next Tuesday.

For the next week until tipoff in Tampa, Fla., South Carolina fans need to heed the words of their heroine Tiffany Mitchell – savor the accomplishment of having arrived at the pinnacle of women’s college basketball.

“It’s just great to finally take this program to a Final Four,” Mitchell said after scoring seven points in the clutch to deliver the Gamecocks to the NCAA semifinals. “It’s really fun to be able to enjoy this moment with our team.”

This moment is HUGE. That’s not to say it’s the end of the line, because the biggest goal remains in front of a 34-2 team that has every reason to believe it’s capable of winning it all. But just getting this far is the culmination of an incredible journey this program has taken under coach Dawn Staley.

Reaching the Final Four is a major achievement than can be appreciated on its own merits.

“This is a monumental win for us,” Staley said of Sunday’s 80-74 victory over Florida State in Greensboro, N.C., that made the Gamecocks the first Palmetto State team of any gender to reach a basketball Final Four.

“It puts South Carolina on the map,” Staley said. “Now I think of the regular season that we had, the success that we’ve had in our conference. But when you hurdle over being a regional champion and going to the Final Four, it puts your name in history. So it’s a history‑making game for us.”

This is a key point – Staley and the Gamecocks are “making” history. They are forging a place for themselves in a very selective sorority. The teams they’re up against have already “made” history.

Notre Dame, the next hurdle in South Carolina’s way in Sunday’s semifinal, is making its fifth consecutive Final Four appearance. The Irish have played in three of the past four championship games. The program won an NCAA title in 2001.

The teams vying to reach the other side of the title game have all been there. UConn owns nine titles, including the past two. Tennessee has won it eight times, including 2007-08. Maryland won it once in 2006.

So South Carolina represents the nouveau riche in this environment.

“I think that’s going to play into our advantage being that we are the new kids on the block in the Final Four,” Mitchell said. “I think that puts more pressure on them. We are just going out there and we are playing, so I think that puts more pressure to say you’ve been there already.”

That’s a lovely thought, but we all know that’s not how it works. Experience is a factor that can’t be easily dismissed. There’s a reason these programs become so familiar on this stage.

The Gamecocks learned that lesson in February when they took their undefeated record and No. 1 ranking to Storrs, Conn., to face the reigning champions. UConn didn’t take it easy on the new kids, delivering a 25-point-margin message.

There’s another gear that the elite programs have. Like the amplifier in Spinal Tap, they go to 11.

“I think the Connecticut game did help us because there’s another level of basketball out there and we are starting to realize that,” Mitchell said.

South Carolina is finding that hidden gear. Staley – who went to three Final Fours in a row as a player at Virginia from 1990-92 but never won a title – took over a program in 2008 that hadn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since an Elite Eight trip in 2002. She’s taken them to four consecutive postseasons. They earned a No. 1 seed and Sweet 16 appearance last year. They returned with more talent and more experience to reach the Final Four this year.

It’s massive progress that indeed has South Carolina on the map.

“I think with each year, you gain a little confidence because we play in the best conference in the country, and our conference prepares us for games like (the regionals) where they go down to the wire, where they are physical and where you’re able to maneuver and try to out‑fox whatever our opponents will give us,” Staley said. “But it’s always been in mind. It’s just we’ve got some pieces that will allow us to compete at this level and go into the Final Four and have a legitimate shot at winning.”

Along with the pieces on the court, Staley and the Gamecocks are building a culture. With success, they’ve created a following – which is a major component of programs with sustained excellence like UConn and Tennessee. Nine busloads of Gamecocks fans made the trek up to Greensboro to see Friday’s 67-65 win over North Carolina. The same number went back Sunday to see them rally from a 10-point deficit to beat Florida State.

“They definitely created home‑court advantage for us and it seemed like a regular home game,” Mitchell said. “It was really loud. It was probably louder than it usually is as Colonial. I think it played a huge part on our comeback when we were losing and us getting over that hump and finally taking that lead.”

That’s the culture Staley hoped to create when she came to Columbia. That’s what she hopes they can take to Tampa and many future Final Fours.

“Any national championship team – any champion in any sport – they have fans,” Staley said. “They have people who come watch them play and cheer them on and they find a way to create a home‑court advantage no matter where they are. And our fans have done that for us all season long. It does my heart good to know that when you walk out there, all the chants you hear is ‘Gamecocks!’ It’s a beautiful thing. Really, I couldn’t write a better script for our season, for the community, and how they embraced our basketball team.”

What comes next is a tall order. Notre Dame and perhaps UConn are established giants. The Gamecocks likely won’t be favored.

So what?

“We are not just going to show up and just be happy to be there,” Staley said. “This particular regional final game isn’t the destination game for what we set out to do this season. I think this was a statement game because ... we punched our ticket into the Final Four, and now it’s time to maybe check off some things that we’ve wanted to do, which is win the national championship.”

Win or lose against Notre Dame or in the title game, however, it’s not an end. For South Carolina women’s basketball, it is only a beginning.

Tiger Woods Watch is on again

Sat, 03/28/2015 - 6:21pm

Tiger Watch has become another Masters Tournament tradition unlike any other.

What used to be a exercise in following HOW Tiger Woods played, however, has devolved into monitoring IF he’ll play.

For the second consecutive year, April approaches with no word on whether or not Woods will compete in the major that first defined his greatness in 1997.

In 2014, it was back surgery that kept the four-time Augusta National winner from playing the Masters for the first time in 20 years. Woods announced on April 1 – the Tuesday before tournament week – that he’d undergone microdisectomy surgery on his lower back to repair damage that had sidelined him since competing at Doral.

In 2015, it is something far more mysterious that has derailed Woods’ career since he withdrew after 11 holes at Torrey Pines on Feb. 5 – his inability to play golf up to PGA Tour standards. Woods has twice already extended his self-imposed benching by skipping events at PGA National and Bay Hill.

“My play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf,” Woods said in February when he announced his indefinite leave of absence to “work” on his game. “Like I’ve said, I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level, and when I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.”

Woods obviously isn’t ready yet. He did not enter the upcoming Shell Houston Open as a tune-up event. His close friend Notah Begay labeled his chances of playing Augusta “50/50” this week, which he elevated from “maybe 1-in-10” a few weeks earlier.

“I hope to be ready for the Masters, and I will continue to work hard preparing for Augusta,” Woods said after announcing he would not play at Bay Hill.

If Woods plays Augusta it will be his first competitive round since Feb. 5. It would be his longest layoff before a major since 2010, when he finished tied for fourth at the Masters after returning from a five-month scandal-induced sabbatical.

That was a very different Woods at age 34, however, having won seven times in 2009 including his last start at the Australian Masters in November. He was still ranked No. 1 in the world.

This 39-year-old version of Woods is a mess physically and mentally. He’s only played 47 holes in 2015, and none of them were very good as he was 15-over par. That included a career-worst 82 in the second round in Phoenix, where he missed 18 greens in two days and got up-and-down only three times with a shockingly bad short-game display that first drew horrified gasps in his comeback event at the Hero World Challenge in December.

Woods will fall out of the top 100 on Monday for the first time since before he won the first of his 79 PGA Tour victories in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. He has only played in 10 tournaments since the start of 2014, completing only three of them and finishing better than 69th only once.

So will he play in Augusta or be a healthy scratch? Well, Nike thinks enough of his chances to release a preview of the scripted clothes Woods would be wearing – optimistically presenting four days of attire including red shoes to match his “university red” shirt on Sunday.

There is no shortage of opinion on what Woods should do.

“If he’s not injured, how would he miss this?” Masters champion Bubba Watson said this week on CBS This Morning.

The concern is that leaping headfirst into a Masters return might be foolish and further erode his sagging confidence if he chunks it around a course on which he’s finished outside the top six only once in the previous 10 years.

Golf Magazine polled its top 100 golf instructors asking if they would advise Woods to play the Masters, and 45 percent said “No” compared to 35 percent saying “Yes.”

“Could be the end of his career if he yips at the Masters,” said one. “You can’t win if you don’t enter,” chimed in another.

While several players desperately seek to earn late invitations to Augusta – potentially pushing the qualifying field size to 100 for the first time in 49 years – Woods is one of five players already qualified whose status remains uncertain just a week before the practice rounds start.

Kevin Stadler – the son of 1982 Masters champion Craig Stadler – hasn’t played since withdrawing at Kapalua with a broken bone in his left wrist. Stadler tied for eighth in his Augusta debut last year. A representative at his management agency said Friday that Stadler hasn’t made a decision about playing the Masters yet.

A probable starter is Steve Stricker, who is semi-retired from tour golf and hasn’t played since Woods’ tournament at Isleworth in early December. Stricker underwent back surgery shortly before Christmas, and like Woods has been working himself back into playing shape out of the public eye. Asked about his return plans, Stricker tweeted on March 15 “Not quite sure yet. Might be The Masters,” although he mentioned “great prep for @TheMasters” on Friday.

Brooks Koepka (rib) and Graham McDowell (ankle) withdrew from Bay Hill and Texas, respectively, hoping to stay healthy enough to tee it up at Augusta.

Unlike other tournaments with alternate lists, there is no deadline protocol for players to commit to playing the Masters. Formal invitations request an RSVP, but all players have to do is show up and register before Thursday’s first-round tee time.

Courtesy, however, dictates giving the club an advance heads-up so it can prepare. So word is likely to come out of Jupiter, Fla., in the next few days indicating whether or not Woods will try to end a 10-year victory drought at the Masters.

Odds are that even if he halts his absentee run at one, his Masters winless streak will extend to 11.

Frank Booker has helped Sooners make it to the Sweet 16

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 7:37pm

In the NCAA Tournament pool of improbable outcomes, former Westside star Frank Booker owns his share of high-seed Cinderella plots.

For instance, which road to the present was less likely?

A) A kid born in Iceland and raised in Augusta growing up to become a critical bench cog in Norman, Okla.

B) A 12-7 team in late January – 3-4 in its power conference – reaching the Sweet 16 as the highest remaining seed in the East Region just two wins away from the Final Four.

Booker would pick “B” after hitting four 3-pointers in Oklahoma’s comeback round-of-32 victory over Dayton in Columbus, Ohio.

“When we won that game on Sunday, I’m not going to lie, I was in shock,” said the Sooners’ sophomore shooting guard. “First time being there I was amazed and proud of my teammates. It’s definitely a goal that can be attained and it’s amazing how close we are. If we do the right things from this point on, we have a huge chance.”

Oklahoma (24-10) ended up with a No. 3 seed in the East Region with a strong February surge helped in large part by Booker’s emergence off the bench.

“We fought through all the adversities and through all the outside drama and focused on what we needed to do to get further into the season,” Booker said. “Obviously we got far because we’re one of only 16 teams left.”

Overcoming a broken wrist in the offseason and hampered by a herniated disc in his back early in the season, Booker was well off his 44-percent 3-point shooting pace of the last 10 games his freshman year.

In one rough eight-game stretch that sent the Sooners to 12-7, Booker made only two 3-pointers and scored 13 points. That left a desperately thin bench lacking the offensive production it most needed, leaving them entirely too dependent on its five starters.

“A lot of it is his confidence,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said in January of Booker. “I think his back contributed early to not making shots. That gets in your head a little bit. The back kind of affects everything.”

Booker – and the Sooners – found relief in the form of two cortisone shots to his back.

“I feel a lot better now,” Booker said. “It was tough for that month that it was bothering me. I was trying to fight through it for my teammates and trying to produce. It was just tough on me and I finally told my coach and trainer that we needed to do something about it. We finally did and now look where we’re at.”

Booker has stepped up his game in the NCAA Tournament, hitting 6 of 12 3-pointers in two games averaging 10.0 points.

“I feel like I bring a spark off the bench,” said Booker, who averaged 28 points as a starter his senior season at Westside. “(The reserves) have a responsibility. If we do those responsibilities then we have a better chance to win. Not only hitting shots but a steal or a big rebound – anything that can get us going, that is my job and I pride myself in doing that.”

Booker fulfilled those obligations in a big way against Dayton. Facing its largest deficit of the game, 49-40, with 13 minutes left, Booker buried a 3-pointer to ignite the Sooners. Six minutes later, his steal set up a Ryan Spangler dunk that got Oklahoma within one point in the middle of a decisive 13-0 run.

“There was no doubt we could get back in this game and once I hit that 3 I felt like our spirit lifted back up and we sparked a run,” Booker said. “Once the run started and we started locking up at that point, they didn’t score for about 10 minutes. It was unstoppable.”

The Sooners took notice of Big 12 rivals and fellow No. 3 seeds Baylor and Iowa State suffering opening-game upsets. It was a lesson they knew too well after getting bounced out immediately by North Dakota State last season.

“It’s called March Madness for a reason,” Booker said. “Anybody can get upset. You saw that most of the 3 seeds got upset and knew that if we didn’t take care of business we could be going home. We knew from last year losing and did not want to have that same feeling.”

Now with East region top seeds Villanova and Virginia knocked out, Oklahoma has a chance to make some real noise if it can get past a tough Michigan State team tonight in Syracuse. Booker expects a “dogfight” with the scrappy Spartans.

“It’s win or go home and we don’t want to be the ones going home,” he said.

It’s heady territory for Booker, who first moved to Augusta at age 6 speaking only Icelandic and developed into an honor student. His father, Frank Sr., says his son “learned how to compete in class” at Westminister in middle school. That’s where he first showed his hoops potential as well when he poured in 43 points including 19 in the fourth quarter of an eighth-grade game.

Both Frank Sr. (1983) and Frank Jr. (2013) starred at Westside.

The elder Booker played collegiately at Bowling Green. The younger passed up Georgia State, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas A&M because after one visit to Oklahoma it felt like the “perfect fit.”

Now the Sooners are past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 when Blake Griffin led them to the Elite Eight.

To reach this point, however, is a pretty big accomplishment considering where they were when February started.

“This is a memory we’re going to live with the rest of our lives,” Booker said after the Dayton win.

But now, the 3-point shooter from Westside who was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, doesn’t want the run to end here.

“We feel like it’s a great opportunity to put OU on the map,” he said. “With only 16 teams left, we still have a job to do.”

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