In the Game of Thrones that is conference alignment, John Swofford is “Littlefinger” whose ruthless and cunning ways have positioned the Atlantic Coast Conference among the collegiate titans.
“Chaos isn’t a pit; chaos is a ladder,” Petyr Baelish told fellow schemer Varys in season three of the popular HBO fantasy series adapted from George R.R. Martin’s books. “Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but refuse. They cling to the realm, or love, or the gods … illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is. But they’ll never know this. Not until it’s too late.”
Swofford recognized the opportunity in the chaotic collegiate landscape quicker than most conference commissioners.
For 13 years, Swofford has aggressively schemed to keep the ACC at the forefront of athletic relevance. He raided the Big East twice, leaving the peer a shattered ruin of its former glory. When Maryland defected, he brought in Louisville to more than offset the damage. He was willing to negotiate and compromise to lure the biggest independent free agent on the market, Notre Dame, into the fold.
Now with a dedicated ACC television network set to launch in 2019 and a digital component coming in August, Swofford has the ACC in close company with the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference behemoths. Meanwhile, the Big 12 is still chasing its tail by pursuing less desirable programs in a desperate effort to keep pace.
Considering how the game of musical thrones has played out, you have to give Swofford credit for locking up a permanent seat at the grown-up table.
“We’re very, very well-positioned for the future,” Swofford said this week when announcing the new media agreement with ESPN that extends the ACC’s ensured stability through 2035-36.
While Swofford has been the man pulling the strings, a huge amount of credit should go to Clemson. Dabo Swinney’s rebuilt football program, along with the renaissance of Florida State, has propelled the ACC’s elite into the top tier with the football heavyweights who have been driving this realignment ship all along. Without those two benchmark programs – along with Notre Dame’s limited football inclusion – there’s no way ESPN ponies up to launch the ACC Network in an era of cable cord-cutting. The ACC might be the last athletic entity to climb aboard the network revenue boat before it picks up oars.
The ACC Network will annually feature 450 live events, including 40 football games and more than 150 men’s and women’s basketball games. It’s digital “ACC Extra” offerings will include 600 live games this season and 900 events by the time the linear network launches in 2019.
Ultimately, the two combined options will mean 1,350 ACC events will be televised per year. That’s certainly good news for the baseball, tennis or lacrosse junkies.
But it’s also good for the folks who only care about the high-end revenue sports – football and basketball.
Swofford already announced that the conference basketball schedule will be expanded from 18 games to 20 when the network comes on line in 2019, creating a larger inventory of marketable matchups for ESPN to get its money’s worth. That will me two extra home-and-home series each year, meaning only eight conference foes instead of 10 will get faced only once per season.
You can rest assured that it won’t be long before the ACC decides to increase the number of regular season football conference games from eight to nine for the same reason. That may prove challenging for programs like Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Louisville who have traditional rivals in the SEC they play annually, but the money that comes from TV revenues will eventually force them to figure it out.
“I probably lean a little toward nine, simply because if you’re in this chair, you’d like to see your teams playing each other more rather than less,” Swofford told the Daily Press of Newport News, Va. “I think that’s how you build the brand. And it’s always been a fairly close vote, and you just never know when a school or two or three are going to change their minds.”
Swofford could retire tomorrow content that he’s done all he can. Logically, he has one more arrow in his quiver he’d like to unleash – bringing the Irish to full football membership and adding a Connecticut (in ESPN’s backyard) to balance the scales of a mega-conference at 16 teams. That’ll be Notre Dame’s call to make or not.
And while the ACC will never quite be up to par with the fanatical passion of the SEC or the core brand of the Big Ten, they have climbed the ladder to firmly become the next biggest rung.
Whatever winter is coming in collegiate sports, Lord Swofford has keenly positioned his realm to withstand anything for the long haul.
At first blush, introducing yourself to links golf on the most punitive course in the Open Championship rota doesn’t seem like the most prudent plan. You wouldn’t step into your first batter’s box against Nolan Ryan or climb your first mountain at Everest.
Scott Parel, however, isn’t the first novice to take his first swing at a links championship at the infamous Carnoustie, hailed by many as the “ultimate golfing challenge.” In fact, the precedent is pretty positive.
Ben Hogan made his one and only trip to the British Open in 1953, winning the claret jug at Carnoustie in his triple crown season.
Tom Watson made his first trip to Scotland in 1975, winning the first of his five Opens in a playoff at Carnoustie.
Parel waited 51 years to follow the well-worn path to the game’s ancestral home in Scotland, and he loves what he’s found.
“As soon as I got on that golf course I really liked it,” said Parel, who Monday qualified his way in this week’s Senior Open Championship at nearby Monifieth – the same course where Watson got his first taste of links golf before winning the claret jug next door. “It’s so much different than home. It’s where golf was invented, so it’s pretty cool.”
This was not a low-risk buddy trip to Scotland for Parel. The Augusta professional journeyman made the commitment to enter one of four 18-hole qualifiers on Monday. He flew over with his friend Keith Nolan, who caddies regularly for Lee Janzen, and finished fourth with an even-par 71 to grab one of the 10 spots available at Monifieth.
“Just to be able to play Carnoustie in a tournament setting, this would probably be my only chance to make that happen,” said Parel. “I’ve had a decent enough season to where I figured it was worth the expense even though I could get over here, play 18 holes and be done. But how many chances am I going to have to do that?”
Parel will be among 144 players teeing it up today at Carnoustie, going off in the next-to-last group late in the afternoon. Watson, 66, is one of seven former British Open champions in the marquee field that also includes the likes of Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Jean van de Velde.
“I try not to think about it,” Parel said of his notable peers this week. “Obviously I’m at a huge disadvantage against guys that have played in British Opens here. At the end of the day it’s still golf. And fortunately for me we’re all sort of the same age, but the advantages they have is experience.”
“Carnasty,” as it was dubbed during the 1999 British Open when van de Velde famously drowned his hopes in the Barry Burn on the 18th hole, is a relentless opponent. Stand on any tee box and the perils are everywhere, with the ubiquitous burn snaking around on one side, out of bounds lurking on another and penal pot bunkers peppering everywhere in between. It’s not a course for the faint of heart, with or without wind that’s forecasted to be relatively mild this week.
“There’s plenty of shots that get your attention right away,” Parel said. “All you can do is try to trust the line you pick and trust your golf swing. I don’t think you can have a do-or-die attitude on every shot because I think you’ll be so mentally worn out that by the end of the day you’ll be lucky to have any idea where it’s going. Hit your shot and accept where it goes and hopefully hit it in play enough where you can get around in decent shape. All 18 of these holes are good holes and they all demand something of you.”
Parel has taken quickly to the unique challenges links golf presents.
“I think this kind of golf suits me,” he said. “I have a pretty low ball flight, which obviously with the way the wind can be here is an advantage. I’m a fairly straight driver.”
The Senior Open is Parel’s third Champions Tour major in the 10 events he’s qualified to play in this season. His defining performance came in the first major at the Senior PGA Championship in May, where he posted the lowest weekend score in the field (67-66) to vault into a tie for seventh.
His $145,815 ranks 59th on the Champions Tour money list. The top 36 at the end of the season earn fully exempt status for 2017, while the top 50 get some conditional status. The top 72 players qualify for the first of three events in the inaugural Charles Schwab Cup Playoffs, so a strong result this week would go along way to help Parel’s chances.
“I’m still getting comfortable out here,” he said. “It’s different from where I’ve been playing in the past and taken some getting used to. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. For me at my age and the state of my game, it’s probably the best place for me. I just hope I can play well enough before this year’s over that I can have some status out there.”
In the meantime, Parel is enjoying a rare opportunity in his first pilgrimage to Scotland. His most harrowing challenge has been driving on the opposite side of the narrow streets.
“That’s been the hardest thing for me,” he said. “There’s some skinny roads over here. The whole experience of it has been cool. It’s been neat to see how different the golf is here and people have been super friendly.”
Parel might not find Carnoustie to be as friendly the next four days, but with any luck he’ll find the path forged by Hogan and Watson might just lead to bigger dreams for himself.
“I just want to enjoy a chance to play a course that hard with that much history,” Parel said.
Let’s not waste any time deliberating and get right to it.
The Shootout at High Troon was the greatest major championship showdown in the history of golf. If that wasn’t clear to you watching the weekend’s epic two-man match between Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson at the Open Championship, then just know it was obvious to one of the character’s from the previous ranking “duel.”
Jack Nicklaus, golf’s greatest major winner who lost the “Duel in the Sun” to Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977, took to Facebook after watching Stenson top Mickelson to set the record straight.
“Our final round was really good,” said Nicklaus, “but theirs was even better.”
Golf’s gold standard was trumped by pure platinum.
What made it more dramatic was that the final 18 holes came on the heels of a Saturday set-up that was already as riveting as golf gets. Mickelson and Stenson separated themselves with a head-to-head third round that had all the tension of a Sunday, with clutch scrambling and two-shot swings that upped the stakes at every hole.
How could they possibly top that? A letdown seemed inevitable, with Stenson’s shaky history and Mickelson’s 46-year-old body that had to be running on fumes.
All Mickelson did was shoot a flawless 65 – “best I’ve played and not won” – that tied Stenson (second round) for the third lowest score of the week. Stenson topped it with 63, matching Mickelson’s first-round mark and joining Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot that record score in the final round to win a major.
It’s not often that a golf match can leave you breathless watching it from the first hole to the last, It’s hard to imagine anything ever topping it.
In other Open Championship footnotes:
BIRDIE: Andrew “Beef” Johnston. Sadly, the exceptionally bearded Englishman failed to finish high enough to qualify for the Masters, but his relentless smile, infectious enthusiasm and deft game have won him hearts worldwide.
BOGEY: Rory McIlroy. Another no-contention top-five was overshadowed by the bad optics from his dismissive Olympics comments and his abused 3-wood. Even his kevlar-esque jacket couldn’t protect him from the flak.
BIRDIE: Steve Stricker. The 49-year-old part-time golfer showed up to finish fourth and earn a return to Augusta. He’s going to shred the senior circuit next year if he cares to.
BOGEY: Jordan Spieth. He finally snapped his major streak of not breaking par at 10 rounds after snapping at critics who question why he’s not hitting last year’s absurd standard. An Olympic medal might have done him some good.
PAR: Danny Willett: Clutch 20-footer for par let the Masters champ slip into the weekend for another major.
BIRDIE: J.B. Holmes. So what if he was 11 shots out of second place? His solo third on heels of T4 at Masters portend
bigger things for this bomber.
PBMU: Louis Ace-huizen. Oosthuizen aced the 16th hole at Augusta this year and added a 1 on the 14th at Royal Troon. Routine stuff for the guy with a Masters albatross. However, the 9 he made on No. 11 en route to 83 on Friday stung.
PAR: 62. Unbelievably it has survived 29 threats to lower the low mark in major history. How Mickelson’s challenge swerved out of the cup is a mystery. “Must have been a goalkeeper in there,” said Lee Westwood.
BIRDIE: Postage Stamp. A great example of how the shortest of holes can still provide a devil of a challenge.
BOGEY: Railway. I don’t want any part of the railway-adjacent 11th hole. Pure menace. Averaged 4.56 strokes, giving up more others (26, including five 8s and five 9s) than birdies (24).
PAR: Patrick Reed. Opening 66 seemed pretty strong until Phil came along and cleared it by three strokes. His T12 was solid, but getting into the Olympics was bigger.
BIRDIE: R&A. Sensibly maintained a reasonable pace on the greens to offset wind conditions and avoided any kind of rules fiascoes sullying the drama. That’s all we ask.
BOGEY: Starters. The R&A had to go plural to replace the lyrical Ivor Robson as the first tee announcer. It took David Lancaster and Matt Corker to fill one man’s 40-year-tenured shoes, and there was nothing distinctive about them.
PAR: Sergio Garcia. His 12th top five and 22nd top 10 in 72 career major starts. He’s still only 36. One of these days.
BIRDIE: Johnson & Johnson. U.S. Open champ, Dustin, posted his third major top-10 of the year while Zach’s T12 was a solid showing from the outgoing champion golfer of the year.
BOGEY: Billy Horschel. Clever guy. So many trolls complained about him turning his cap around to keep rain from dripping off his bill that they barely noticed his 18-point differential (67-85).
BIRDIE: NBC. It was refreshing having so much experience back on the major airwaves, with David Feherty and Mike Tirico joining the familiar voices of Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller. Even better was how well they adapted to the unusual two-horse Sunday scenario and went all-in on the duel, letting the drama build between key shots without cluttering it with too many irrelevant moments from elsewhere.
BOGEY: Amateurs. A year after so many unpaid golfers littered the weekend leaderboard (including Paul Dunne in the final pairing) at St. Andrews, only two amateurs made the field this year and neither sniffed the cut.
Like any other golf fan in Augusta, Charles Howell has been watching the British Open this week on television at his parents’ house.
“Is there anything better than waking up to live golf,” Howell said.
The only thing better might have been contending for the claret jug at Royal Troon. But Howell withdrew as first alternate from the Open to come home to have surgery to remove a non-cancerous mass in his neck.
“There was no question I was going to Augusta to have it done,” said Howell, whose father is the chairman of the Department of Surgery at Augusta University Hospital.
After months of treating the problem, a CT scan after playing at Congressional three weeks ago convinced his doctors that the only alternative was surgery to remove it. Dr. David Terris and associate, Dr. Kenneth Byrd, spent 2.5 hours on Tuesday carefully removing Howell’s submandibular and sublingual salivary glands, making sure not to damage the nerve than controls his lower lip function in the process. The pathology report that will reveal exactly what the mass is won’t come in until Monday, but Howell expects to be fully recovered and back on the PGA Tour in four weeks.
“There’s no human that hates needles and white-cost syndrome more than me,” Howell said. “I would sign up for anything but surgery. But they made it as easy as possible.”
The timing might seem unfortunate, considering Howell had to miss both the British Open and PGA Championship in a three-week span. This will mark the first season since the Augusta native turned professional in 2000 that he will not play in at least one major championship.
But Howell had to calculate what was best for his career in the longer run. He’s been cruising along all season inside the top-30 on the season-long points race to qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake, which would qualify him for every major in 2017 including his hometown Masters Tournament. The last time he played in all four majors was 2012 by qualifying for East Lake in 2011.
Howell has climbed back inside the top 100 in the world after falling as far as 149th late in 2015. He’s missed only three cuts in 22 PGA Tour starts this season while posting 13 top-25 and five top-10 finishes including a tie for fourth at the Byron Nelson in May.
Since shutting down after consecutive 75s on the weekend at Congressional three weeks ago, Howell has slipped just outside the bubble to 31st on the season-long points list and should slip outside the top 40 during his extended leave. He expects to hit the ground at full speed after his recovery to make up ground in the playoffs.
“I still should be able to go into the playoffs and maybe an event or two before them with still a good chance to get in the top 30,” he said. “That’s the main goal.”
In a weird way, the timing of his recovery could be a blessing. With the Olympics wedged in to compress the golf calendar into a gruelling late-season stretch, Howell has his eye on returning to play in Greensboro, N.C., on Aug. 18 after seven weeks away from the weekly grind. It’s the longest mid-season sabbatical of his career. He’ll get to spend the next few weeks at his home Orlando hanging out with his kids – Ansley, 6, and Chase, 4 – before they start school in August.
“Some guys might get a little tired and I should be refreshed going into the playoffs,” he said.
After 10 full days of complete rest, Howell will be allowed to chip and putt only before he can resume hitting range balls after three weeks.
“This also might be nature’s way of making me chip and putt more,” he said. “I’ll have a couple weeks where that’s all I can do and it may do me some good.”
Howell considers himself blessed that his surgery didn’t effect any elements of his golf swing. He’s seen plenty of peers having to recover from back, wrist, knee and shoulder injuries, often causing bad habits in compensating that take months or years to correct.
“It’s a complete non-golf injury,” he said. “If this is the only one I have, knock on wood. In three or four weeks I should be back to normal.”
He already feels the peace of mind of having the surgery behind him after months of tests to figure out how to treat it.
“When you have a health issue or something hanging over your head, knowing that it’s behind me I’m actually excited to go out and play golf again as opposed to worrying about it in the back of your mind,” he said.
There are moments in golf that will make anyone a true believer in fate. The cruel turn his putt at history made on the final green a Royal Troon on Thursday converted Phil Mickelson.
“Do you believe in the golf gods?” Mickelson was asked after signing for the 28th 63 in major championship history.
“I didn’t, but I do now,” Mickelson said.
“It was obvious right there – there’s a curse because that ball should have been in. If there wasn’t a curse, that ball would have been in and I would have had that 62.”
If you haven’t seen the highlight of Mickelson’s lip-out birdie putt on the 18th hole, Google it. His ball traced a center-cut line until it was just inches from the cup, where it suddenly wobbled and turned back right and caught the edge of the hole. It made the slowest of rim rides before stopping directly behind the hole.
“Oh my god!” Mickelson said as he ran the full palm of his hand across his face in disbelief.
“It was one of the best rounds I’ve ever played and I was able to take advantage of these conditions, and yet I want to shed a tear right now,” Mickelson said later.
“I don’t know how that putt didn’t go in on 18,” said Ernie Els, who actually putted out first like it was a Sunday and not Thursday to set the stage for Mickelson’s historic attempt. “That would have been something.”
Mickelson may be the most crestfallen person to ever shatter a course record and lead a major championship by three strokes.
“With a foot to go I thought I had done it,” he said. “I saw that ball rolling right in the center. I went to go get it, I had that surge of adrenaline that I had just shot 62, and then I had the heartbreak that I didn’t and watched that ball lip out. It was – wow – that stings.”
Mickelson joins a long list of greats left shaking their heads and fists at the golfing gods for their wicked vigilance. With all the technological advances in golf equipment over the last couple decades, it’s amazing that nobody has been able to break the 63 threshold in a major. The “59 Watch” has become a fairly regular happening in pro tournaments, but 62 remains elusive.
Twenty-six different players have done it, including 14 Hall of Famers (counting the inevitable enshrinements of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy).
The greatest major champion of all time, Jack Nicklaus, needed only a 3-footer for birdie on the par-5 18th hole at Baltusrol in the 1980 U.S. Open to set the standard. Twenty-five years later, when he attended the 2005 PGA at Baltusrol, Nicklaus addressed his bygone miss.
“I’m still mad about it,” he said.
Later that same day, Tom Wesikopf shot a 63 of his own, also failing to birdie the 18th.
Greg Norman three-putted the last hole at Turnberry in 1986 for a 63 in the second round. A decade later he became the first player to hit the mark twice with a 63 in the first round of a fateful Masters. Vijay Singh is the only other player with two major 63s (1993 PGA and 2003 U.S. Open).
McIlroy was the last person to do it in the British Open. In the first round at St. Andrews in 2010, he missed a 5-footer for birdie at the 17th, rendering his subsequent birdie at 18 into the 63 case files. He thought about the history on the Road Hole.
“That’s probably why I missed,” he said.
Mickelson, however, joins a very elite subset of 63 holders who suffered the lip-out on the last.
Johnny Miller was the first, when he set the 63 standard in the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. He actually lipped out for birdie on the last two holes, his 20-footer on 18 catching a hard left edge to sling the ball out of the hole.
“It easily could have been 60,” said his final-round playing partner Miller Barber.
Tiger Woods called his second-round 63 in the 2007 PGA at Southern Hills a “62-and-a-half” after his 15-footer went halfway down on the last hole before horseshoeing back at him.
“That would’ve been a nice little record to have,” Woods said.
Perhaps the most comparable near-miss to Mickelson’s was Nick Price’s in the third round at the 1986 Masters. His 30-footer on Augusta’s 18th green all but disappeared into the hole, circling the entire lip before exiting where it started. It became the second most famous thing that happened that week.
“There does seem to be some kind of mental barrier at 63,” Price said years later. “It’s amazing that all four majors have 63 as the low score. That defies logic.”
At 46, Mickelson is realistic about how rare that opportunity to create history is. This moment stung more than the similar lip-out on the last green in Phoenix a few years ago that cost him joining the official 59 club.
“This one’s going to stay with me for a while because of the historical element of the major championships,” Mickelson said. “There’s a lot of guys that have shot 63, but nobody has shot that 62. That would have been really something special. ...
“I haven’t shot 59 in a tour event, but I have shot 58s and 59s before at other rounds. That 59 in Hawaii for the Grand Slam of Golf back in like ’05, I’ve done that, and I’ll have opportunities under the right conditions. But the opportunity to shoot 62 and be the first one to do it, I just don’t think that’s going to come around again. And that’s why I walk away so disappointed.”
Now the big test for Mickelson is to not let the disappointment of not making history keep him from hanging on to win his sixth career major. Only five players who have shot major 63s have also won the tournament. Typically nasty British weather is expected to roll in today, so any more chances at 62 will likely have to wait for the next major.
Even if he hoists another claret jug this week, Mickelson will look back years from now like Nicklaus at Baltusrol and still be mad about it. Even talking about happier end results like the putt that curled into the cup for his first major win at Augusta wasn’t a tonic Thursday.
“If you’re trying to make me feel better after the heartbreak of having missed that ... that’s nice of you, thank you. But that’s not working.”
Nearly 2,000 words – 1,934 to be exact. That’s how long Kirby Smart’s preamble to his first Southeastern Conference Media Days lasted.
It was a strong opening statement from the first-year head coach at Georgia, ripped right out of the manual from the SEC’s most successful current coaches like Les Miles and Smart’s mentor, Nick Saban.
The more you say, the less you have to say. Given the strict time constraints of the 31st annual media circus in Hoover, Ala., it leaves little room for having to answer too many probing questions.
For comparisons sake, Smart’s opening comments were 1,650 words longer than Mark Richt’s last trip to SEC Media Days. It was more than a full Dan Mullen (714 words) longer than the second longest monologue so far this week from Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason (1,155).
It was a mastercraft performance in being courteous while revealing little. In taking about his “opportunity of a lifetime” and praising everything from his conference to the media to his sports information director, Claude Felton, Smart eased into the routine without ever giving too much away like who will be his starting quarterback or whether his thoroughbred running backs would be ready to play in six weeks.
“This is my first Media Days, but I am no stranger to the SEC,” Smart said. “This starts my 18th season as part of the SEC. Had five as a player, one as administrative assistant, three as position coach, and eight as coordinator. In that time, I had the great benefit of being to every venue in the SEC. And the passion and energy that this conference exudes is incredible.”
Smart’s full transcript avoids any verbal land mines that could doom a coach’s season before it ever starts. He deftly maneuvered through the off-season arrest reports and focused on the things they are trying to build. His program’s new mantra is “Attack Today,” and that doesn’t involve dwelling on the past.
When asked about the success and popularity of his predecessor with fans and players, Smart effusively praised Richt and their friendship and then pivoted the conversation back toward the horizon.
“Our team has moved forward,” he said. “Our team is focused on this season and not looking in the rearview mirror.”
The most inflammatory and revealing comment he made came away from the main-stage podium in a smaller gathering with local media – thereby rendering it outside the realm of the soundbites that can get any coach in trouble.
But it was the kind of comment that will play well to the Bulldog base that felt a change was essential for Georgia to reach a higher level.
“That’s the part we got to change at the University of Georgia – to excel on the field with what we bring in and not just excel at recruiting and just have a top-10 class,” Smart told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t think that does anything for you until you produce on the field.”
And on that front, Smart was smart not to make too many promises. If anything, Tuesday’s media message was to downplay any expectations for a program that received preseason accolades more as a matter of habit than anything else.
Take this sampling of qualifying statements:
“Sixty-three percent of our team is going to be sophomores or less,” Smart said. “So we’ve got a young team. And we also only have 12 scholarship seniors on this team.”
“The trademark for us is going to be big, physical, fast football team. We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly moving that direction. That’s the stamp I would like to put on it.”
“We’re going to play the best player that gives us the best opportunity to win football games,” he said of his pending quarterback decision. “And I don’t know who that is. If I knew, I promise you, I would tell you.”
“Obviously we have some questions and injuries at running back.”
Of all the things Smart has dealt with since taking the reins of the Georgia program back in December, managing expectations may be the smartest move he’s made.
He set a high bar when he encouraged more than 93,000 fans to show up for a spring football game. His hiring alone quickened the pulse of hungry Georgia fans as they watched their new leader guide the Alabama defense to one more national title.
The stakes were understood before Smart ever returned to his alma mater. Ten-win seasons aren’t enough anymore without championships. Georgia wants SEC East dominance, SEC championship regularity, playoff inclusion and national titles.
Smart wants that, too. He is working an a plan to deliver all that in due time. He said there is a difference between a team and a program, and it’s a program like the one he was involved in for nine seasons at Alabama that he’d like to establish.
In the meantime, all Smart has to give are words. With a little patience and eventual production, he can show up at future Media Days and let his program do the talking for him.
Women’s tennis has always been a personal favorite.
From Margaret Court, Billy Jean King and Evonne Goolagong Cawley to Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, the greatest women’s champions have always been the most captivating to watch.
I never thought there would be any ladies champions greater than Navratilova or Graf until the Williams sisters came along.
Washington Post writer Chuck Culpepper called Serena and Venus Williams “arguably the greatest American sports story,” and it’s hard to argue with that. Twenty-nine grand slam singles titles from siblings is an astonishing achievement. Imagine Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods having a brother sharing the major stages with them and collecting family hardware. It’s incomprehensible.
At ages 36 and 34, well past what can be considered tennis prime, the Williams sisters both reached the semifinals at Wimbledon. Venus became oldest Wimbledon semifinalist since a 37-year-old Navratilova in 1994. One of the sisters has won 12 of the Wimbledon singles titles since 2000.
Serena stormed to her 22nd grand slam singles win Saturday, tying Graf as the most in the open era that began in 1968. She’s two shy of Court’s all-time mark.
Later Saturday, Venus and Serena partnered for their sixth ladies doubles title at Wimbledon and 14th overall – tying for second on the all-time list behind only the incomparable team of Navratilova and Pam Shriver (20).
“I was talking to Venus about this the other day how we’ve just been out here for so long and we’re still doing really well and still having so much fun,” Serena said. “I’m just really fortunate. ... When you’re older you get used to winning. It’s like when you taste something that tastes so good you want it again and again and again. It’s a little addicting.”
It’s been addicting to anyone who appreciates true athletic greatness. The Williams era will have to come to a close eventually, but we should relish it while it’s still going strong.
OLYMPICS JAG: U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson became the latest player to withdraw from the Olympics, but the first American golfer to do so.
That opened the door for former Augusta State star Patrick Reed to make the American maximum four-man squad since his top-10 spot on the leaderboard at the Scottish Open should keep him safely inside the top 15 of the world rankings when the Olympics qualifying deadline comes Monday.
Reed won’t let Zika or security fears keep him from joining (as of now) U.S. teammates Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler in Rio. Spieth and Fowler are still mulling their options.
“If one of them happened to pull out, then I will definitely be playing,” Reed said earlier this week before Johnson’s surprise withdrawal. “Any time I can wear stars and stripes, I do it. I get the call tomorrow, I’ll be on the flight. It doesn’t matter to me on where it is, when it is. If I can play for my country, I’m going to go play.”
Not many top golfers shared his passion for representing their home nations in Rio. The list of players who have said they wouldn’t play includes other top-10 stars Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Branden Grace.
On the bright side, Reed is one of six top-15 players who has already committed to going, joining Watson, Henrik Stenson, Masters champion Danny Willett, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.
“I’m not afraid of mosquitos,” said Stenson. “I’m more afraid of bears.”
OPEN FORECAST: Adjacent to the fabulously quirky Prestwick Golf Club where the first 12 Open Championships were staged, the next major will commence this week on perhaps the dullest links course in the British rota.
The first to hoist the claret jug at Royal Troon was Arthur Havers in 1923, while the last two champions there were Justin Leonard and Todd Hamilton.
The last six Open champions at Troon have all been Americans dating back to Arnold Palmer in 1962. But that streak will end this week. My money would be on one of three South Africans – Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen or Ernie Els – joining countryman and 1950 winner Bobby Locke on Troon’s gallery or champions.
UNBEATABLE? The rich got richer with the Golden State Warriors adding former MVP Kevin Durant to a roster already stacked enough to win a record 73 games last season.
So with Durant joining Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, is the 2017 NBA title already decided? And would that be considered good enough?
Extreme expectations have a funny way of bringing teams down a peg – especially teams that blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals. If the Super Warriors don’t threaten to win 74 games this time and sweep every playoff series, people will wonder if Durant threw off the delicate team chemistry.
The San Antonio Spurs shouldn’t feel too hopeless.
NORTH AUGUSTA — There are plenty of veteran basketball coaches who have been coming annually to the Peach Jam since it started two decades ago. But the list of coaches who can say they were on the bench at the very first one can be boiled down to Josh Pastner.
The new Georgia Tech head coach was only 18 years old when he coached for Houston Hoops in the 1996 Peach Jam at Riverview Park.
“I’ve seen it from the start-up stage to where it is now,” said Pastner, now 38 and already approaching his eighth season as a Division I head coach. “I coached the first two years of the event when it started and have been coming ever since.”
Those two years Pastner stalked the bench coaching players nearly his own age. It was a learning experience that still proves valuable from the other side of the floor.
“It was a delicate balance of understanding I was their coach but I was also similar to their age,” he said. “I made sure I kept that separation. I was able to coach both boys and girls in summer basketball and that experience helped me so much because I made many, many mistakes. I can look back at certain examples of the mistakes I made during my summertime period coaching that I would not make the same mistake as a head coach either at Memphis or now at Georgia Tech.”
Pastner’s teenage Peach Jam coaching experience – wrapped around his 1997 NCAA championship as a player at Arizona – illustrates how driven he was to get into the business.
“I wanted to be a coach since I was in fifth grade,” Pastner said Thursday in between evaluating players and two different summer tournaments. “I was watching a Celtics-Lakers series on a national network and remember telling my father if I can’t play in the NBA I want to stay in the game of basketball somehow. The next best thing to playing was coaching. That allowed me to put my energies and focus towards that.”
There is no doubting Pastner’s energy and focus. He wrote every head coach in America seeking a walk-on spot where he could help serve as an extra coach from the bench. Lute Olson brought him to Arizona.
Pastner was so driven, he earned his bachelor’s degree in only two and a half years without the benefit of summer school or advance placement credits. He took another year to earn a master’s degree.
“I’m a big believer in energy,” said the man who has never had a sip of alcohol, coffee or carbonated soda in his life. “All about energy and being a positive energy giver. I believe in guys who are self-motivated and driven and want it as bad as I do.”
Pastner’s fast track got him the head coaching job at Memphis when he was only 31. He was handed the keys of a Tiger program that had just produced the most wins (137) of any four-year run in the history of NCAA basketball under John Calipari. That run included a run to the NCAA title game in 2008 (later vacated because of NCAA violations).
“I was in the right place, right time,” Pastner said. “Nobody wanted the job because nobody wanted to follow him. I just happened to be the crazy guy who did.”
How intense was that experience?
“I was in Calipari’s house when the (TV) helicopters flew over as he mulled whether or not to take the Kentucky job,” said Pastner, who spent two years on Calipari’s staff as an assistant. “Usually they do that for hostage situations, not whether the coach is going to go to Kentucky or stay at Memphis. That’s what I was following.”
Despite losing a top recruiting class that followed Calipari to Kentucky, Pastner was able to keep the Tigers competitive, going to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 2011-14.
Now he takes over a Georgia Tech program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010 and lost players who accounted for 85 percent of its statistical leaders from last year’s 21-15 team that reached the NIT quarterfinals.
“Taking over (at Memphis), it wasn’t a rebuild – it was a straight maintain,” Pastner said. “I didn’t have a lot of scholarship guys at the time, but the expectation was still the same. ... This year is something different, where I have an opportunity to rebuild from the bottom and bring it up and move the needle in the right direction. I’ve been able to see it at two different ends of the spectrum.”
Pastner understands the Yellow Jackets will likely be picked to finish last in the ACC this year. But he also realizes that Georgia Tech has a proud basketball tradition and new facilities that bring an expectation to restore its status among the conference elite.
“I’ve had more people come up to me and say, ‘Coach, we’ve got to get Georgia Tech basketball back,’ ” he said. “I’ve tried telling them it’s not going to be easy ... you’ve got to be patient. But there’s a major thirst and major appetite for Georgia Tech basketball to get back to the vision they want to get back to.”
Pastner has been planning for this his whole life. He has a blueprint for rebuilding, starting with an experienced staff with high-end academic backgrounds and a realistic scheduling plan. But it will take athletes to make it work, and Pastner has a reputation for being an excellent evaluator of talent and recruiter.
“We’re involved with great guys and off to a good start,” he said, “but we’ve got to get it done.”
All the challenges only reaffirm his tireless focus. He certainly didn’t come to Augusta to play golf. He famously declared his staff would not be playing golf, though he admits it’s nothing against the game.
“I was trying to make a point that because it’s a rebuild, we don’t have days to give away,” he said. “This will be a 7-days-a-week, 24-hour, 365-day job until we can get it back to where everyone wants it back. I feel like my staff and I owe that to the bosses that hired me, to the alumni at Georgia Tech, to the faculty and fans and former student-athletes at Georgia Tech. We owe them that. So it’s going to be an every day deal and we don’t have five hours to give away. That’s where the work ethic and mind set has got to be.”
So 20 years since coaching in the first Peach Jam as a teenager. Pastner is living the life he mapped out long ago. He will not take it for granted.
“I’ve been goals-oriented to be able to be a head coach, but I’ve been very fortunate and grateful that some doors opened. I recognize there are far more people who deserved to be the head coach at Memphis and the head coach at Georgia Tech than Josh Pastner. I get that. I got a break and have to take advantage of an opportunity.”
It was not the storybook walk-off triumph that every athlete dreams of finishing with, but Reese Hoffa bowed out with a valiant effort in the wake of the inevitable.
“It definitely didn’t go the way I wanted, but it was kind of like a Spartan death where I went to a competition and the people who beat me threw especially far,” said Hoffa, the former Lakeside/Georgia star who came up short of qualifying Friday for his fourth consecutive Olympics in the shot put finals of the U.S. track and field trials. “It was not like you could kind of make the team by throwing a sub-par mark. You had to throw near 71 feet to make the team, which I think is awesome. We’re sending a strong team. What more could you ask for?”
There was a definite changing of the shot put guard in the second round of the finals in Eugene, Ore. After maintaining his perfect record by qualifying for his 18th consecutive finals at the outdoor nationals, the 38-year-old Hoffa sat in fourth place after his first round throw of 67 feet, 7.5 inches. It was a decent build up with five throws remaining.
Then, whatever expectations there were went off the rails before Hoffa got to step into the ring for his second throw. First, 23-year-old Ryan Crouser shattered his own personal best with a heave of 72 feet, 6.5 inches. Darrell Hill, 22, immediately followed with a throw just a quarter inch shy of 71 feet. Top-ranked U.S. thrower Joe Kovacs, 27, eventually took second with just over 72 feet.
Suddenly Hoffa knew he needed to throw further than he has in two years to have any chance of finishing among the top three who would get to go to Rio.
“If I was going to have any chance to keep this close, I really needed to respond within the second or third throw,” Hoffa said. “I built it up a little bit, but the overall speed and power that I needed just wasn’t quite there.”
Hoffa hit hardest on his second throw, but it was nullified by a foot foul. He gave it one last heave on his sixth attempt, but he over-rotated and threw slightly foul left. He waved and bowed to the appreciative crowd and exited the arena.
“I had to give it a chance, that’s what I was telling myself,” he said of his final attempt. “Foul in the second or not, you’ve got to try to hit this ball like you were making the team. I felt like I did.”
As the saying goes, age is undefeated. Crouser, who won the trials, once watched as a fourth-grader when Hoffa and long-time throwing partner Adam Nelson competed and basically owned the American shot put stage for the past 12 years. Nelson, 41, came out of four years retirement to try to make one last Olympics and finished seventh.
“Me and Adam were the elder statesmen of the shot put world and I feel like we represented ourselves well,” Hoffa said. “Both made the finals and showed even at an old age the standard could be high. If you want to make these teams, you have to do something special. These young guys have to earn their way onto these teams. There is no handing it to you. You’ve got to earn it. This is by far one of the toughest countries to make an Olympic team. I’m proud that these young guys stepped up really well and will have an opportunity to represent the USA.”
As for Hoffa, he is facing retirement – though he hasn’t ruled out competing in a meet or two before the end of the year in Europe. He won’t pull a Nelson and try to turn back time with a comeback in four years before the Tokyo Olympics.
“Now what do I want to do?” he said. “Do I want to start making preparations for the second part of my life or do I want to enjoy being a professional for just a little bit longer? It’s probably going to be tough to, in a way, close a chapter in your life that you’ve been doing for a really long time. I feel like I’ve given it 20-some straight years of throwing that 15-pound ball around and I’m pretty comfortable that when I finally do stop I will not have any real interest in coming back and doing this again.”
Hoffa had no idea how far throwing that 15-pound ball would take him when he first picked one up at Lakeside. Traveling the world and competing in the Athens, Beijing and London Olympics (bronze medalist) were beyond the modest dreams of a kid adopted from a Louisville, Ky., orphanage when he was 4.
“Honestly, I had no idea where I would go,” he said. “I had very small goals. I just wanted to be the best shot putter at my school. Then I wanted to be the best shot putter in my community. Then region. Then the state. You start reaching these goals and then you want to get larger. I wanted to be the best shot putter in the southeast and then the best shot putter in the nation. Lucky for me I hit a lot of those goals. Then you start thinking internationally, and I’d love to be a world champion. And I did that. It’s all these little goals. It wasn’t, ‘I want to be an Olympian’ when I was in high school.”
Hoffa achieved almost everything he set his mind to accomplishing, etching his name on the short list of America’s greatest shot putters. He’ll leave his competitive career behind him with no regrets.
“I’ve been all over the world and filled about two passports,” he said. “It’s a crazy journey to come from being adopted to being able to travel the world and have this incredible career. I’ve definitely had a lot of fun being a professional.”
The next step – along with trying to start a family with his wife, Renata – is to pass along his expertise to others as a professional coach.
He already works with young kids at his Hoffa Throws Academy in Watkinsville, Ga.
“I’m really excited about the possibility of getting up in the morning and just having a normal routine,” he said. “Just enjoy not having to travel anywhere all of the time. I really like the idea of staying home with the kids who I train and trying to make their dreams come true.”
Every sport goes through periodic storms that rattle the foundations and prompt a little soul searching for remedies. Golf seems to get drenched by a self-inflicted gully washer every season.
The last couple of months haven’t reflected well on golf. Prominent golf clubs at the very source of the game are still stubbornly dragging their feet about including women in their inner sanctum. The USGA botched the handling of a ruling that threatened to ruin its signature event and drew further attention to the silliness of its rulebook. The American and European tours bickered over dates, thus diminishing this week’s showcase events for each of them. And marquee players are fleeing from Olympic participation in Rio at a rate higher than the Zika virus they’re hiding behind.
It’s not a good look. And it’s all so unnecessary with the fixes for everything so easy.
Firstly, Muirfield and Portmarnock need to just proceed into the 21st Century already and open their memberships. The majority of their younger members already want this, and within a few years nobody will even remember why they were so hellbent on being exclusive anyway. Move on.
Secondly, the PGA Tour – which greedily insisted on moving this week’s WGC event at Firestone right on top of the date already reserved for the 100th playing of the French Open – needs to stop operating as if the golf world revolves around it. There were other options in reshuffling the schedule to make room for the Olympics without offending your biggest partner in the International Federation.
Instead, the WGC at Firestone has its smallest field (61) having lost eight top-50 players who showed solidarity with the European Tour by playing in France, including Rory McIlory and Masters champion Danny Willett. Plus the Europeans like Shane Lowry who did play in Akron, Ohio, got no Euro Tour credit toward their Ryder Cup standing.
Fixing the issue at the heart of last month’s Dustin Johnson penalty fiasco at the U.S. Open may be the easiest thing of all – if the USGA would just let go of its tendency to overregulate.
The problem is the vague wording of the altered rule governing movement of a ball at rest that provides room for subjective interpretation in blaming the player.
Despite no visual evidence that Johnson ever touched the ball and agreement by everyone that he never soled his putter at address, USGA officials deemed it “more likely than not” that something Johnson did in his routine caused his ball to wobble backwards a fraction of an inch on a green set up to the extreme.
Did Johnson gain any advantage by that ball moving? Was there any intent to move it? Did he ever touch it? No, no and no.
Here’s a thought. In light of today’s course set-up conditions that make balls susceptible to the faintest outside influence from wind to footsteps to the vibration or air displacement from a practice putting stroke, eliminate any infraction for an untouched ball that moves on a green. Whether a new rule stipulates to replace it or play it from its new position, the player shouldn’t be penalized for something he consciously didn’t do. While they’re at it, just convert all out-of-bounds penalties to the equivalent of lateral hazards and keep the pace moving.
The Olympics are a more complicated issue (which might get simplified if the IOC chooses not to bring golf back beyond 2020). It was always going to be a tough sell on top players in the heart of a season filled with major events that already define their careers. The general chaos of Rio with a health hazard thrown in made for a convenient excuse for uncommitted players.
The IOC wanted Tiger Woods in its Games when it added golf to its platform. That sounded great in 2009. In 2016, there’s not only no Tiger but no Jason Day, McIlroy or Adam Scott among other brand names. There’s also no guarantee that will change by 2020 for Tokyo.
Ideally, the IOC will give up the lure of name glitz and accept more grit in four years by adopting an old-school amateur Olympics golf field. Throw in some team elements and maybe even some mixed gender events and there would be some novelty to the showcase every four years.
That would more fit the concept of the Olympics being a pinnacle achievement in the sport as it is for swimming, gymnastics or track and field. An Olympic medal (with a Masters invitation attached to gold) would be the biggest prize in amateur golf. If golf had taken that route for Rio, perhaps guys like Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Ryan Ruffels, Lee McCoy and Matt NeSmith might have deferred their professional ambitions for a few months to take a shot at representing their countries in pursuit of Olympic gold.
If golf’s leaders can make the common sense adjustments to avoid the bad optics, it would open up a lot of time and energy to tackle bigger issues like 145-pound pros hitting 414-yard drives while others average more than 300 yards off tees with their 3-woods.
Hopefully Randy Warrick found a little ristorante somewhere in Italy on Thursday night that could stream ESPNU for the postponed daytime finale of the College World Series.
Warrick, the longtime USC Aiken director of athletics and former baseball coach, has a foundational stake in what’s being hailed as the most improbable story in the history of collegiate baseball. It was Warrick who gave Coastal Carolina head coach Gary Gilmore entry into the coaching ranks and set off the long journey toward an NCAA title in Omaha, Neb.
Gilmore’s mid-major Chanticleers from Conway, S.C., shocked the baseball world with a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday for the school’s first NCAA championship in the College World Series.
As he vacations in Italy, Warrick can an at least expect a celebratory text drenched in tears of joy from his old friend and colleague.
“I tell you what, I am so happy and very proud of him,” Warrick said of his former assistant, who he hired to succeed him in 1990 as the Pacers’ head coach. “He’s done a great job every year at Coastal. This is the year he’s gone the furthest, but he’s had a lot of really great years there.”
Warrick gave Gilmore his first coaching break as a graduate assistant at USC Aiken in 1986, which turned out to be the Pacers’ winningest season as a 53-12 record carried them all the way to the NAIA College World Series. When Warrick decided to move into administration after 11 seasons coaching baseball, he handed Gilmore the reins to transition the program into Division II.
Gilmore spent a decade in Aiken, the last six years as head coach before Coastal Carolina called on him to return to his alma mater in 1996. He compiled a 256-102-2 record for the Pacers, leading the program to 51 wins in his first year at the helm and taking them to the 1993 College World Series in their second season in Division II.
“Gary could live on the baseball field and be there 24/7,” Warrick said. “He loves working with the players, loves recruiting and does a great job teaching baseball. You just knew he was going to do a good job wherever he ended up.”
In the 21 years since Gilmore left Aiken, he’s built the little program from the Big South into a consistent factor in Division I baseball. That the Chanticleers won it all should not come as big a surprise as it might seem on the surface. In the last nine seasons, Coastal has the ninth best record in all of Division I.
Gilmore’s 2010 team might have been his best but it lost a pair of “gut-wrenching” one-run games in the Super Regional to a South Carolina team that went on to win its first of two consecutive CWS titles.
“Just to watch them win the national championship and us not get here, you know, to be very honest with you, I’ve laid awake many a night wondering if I’d ever in my life have this opportunity to get here, much less to get to this stage right here,” Gilmore said. “I mean, we’ve been banging on that door a few times.
“It’s been 21 years of sweat and toil at a small mid-major trying to build a program and watch these (other teams) from afar. What we are is just a group of good baseball players. We don’t have a superstar on our team. We don’t have a first-round draft pick guy. We’re just a bunch of good country ball players that show up and compete.”
This year’s team led the nation in home runs and runs scored and ranked among the top seven in stolen bases, playing Gilmore’s typically aggressive style that he likens to the Kansas City Royals.
“He’s always believed in putting pressure on the defense and he’s always been successful at that,” Warrick said.
But what these Chanticleers thrived the most on was heart, escaping elimination in the regional at N.C. State when they were forced to sleep on their last strike. Then sweeping the Super Regional on hostile ground at Louisiana State. Coastal climbed out of the loser’s bracket again at the CWS, beating Florida and Texas Tech before winning two straight from TCU to reach the finals.
“They just keep believing that this is their destiny,” Gilmore said after rallying from an opening loss in the finals.
Just getting to Omaha was a huge deal for the Chanticleers. Leaving with a national championship trophy is beyond their wildest imagination.
“It’s kind of like I’m in a dream,” Gilmore said when his team qualified for the finals. “I’m scared to pinch myself, to be very honest with you. I mean, coming from where I started 21 years ago and where our university was at that point in time and where we’re at today, to know that we’re on this stage is one of the most incredible things I could have ever imagined. I don’t know if I’ve ever dreamt this far, to be honest with you. Dreamt getting to Omaha. I don’t know that I ever dreamt getting to this point.”
When he left USC Aiken, Gilmore took over a program with ramshackle facilities and turned it into a state-of-the-art small college program that has proven it can compete with anybody.
“Knowing Coastal and the enrollment they have and competing against the South Carolinas and Clemsons and now Arizona, it’s been a remarkable, remarkable story,” Warrick said.
Gilmore wasn’t the only local link for the Chanticleers. Starting second baseman Tyler Chadwick is the son of former Greenbrier football coach Scott Chadwick. Brandon Miller of Aiken High School got to join the celebration as a reserve freshman pitcher.
What this means to the small school better known for its proximity to Myrtle Beach is immeasurable. It comes fresh off the heels of Coastal’s most famous product, golfer Dustin Johnson, winning the U.S. Open. Next month, the school will officially step up in football and join the Sun Belt Conference in all sports.
“As important as it has been to our baseball program, I think honestly it’s bigger to our school,” Gilmore said. “Being a 10,000-student university, to see your name being called out and all the people who have reached out to us, our fan base. I know this may sound crazy, but we may double our fan base at our university because of this experience.
“At every mid-major university, there have to be stepping stones to being something bigger than a mid-major. And going into the Sun Belt next year and starting I-A football, this is a huge, huge stepping stone for our school.”
That first stepping stone for Gilmore came three decades ago in Aiken, and the man who gave him the leg up couldn’t be more proud.
“It’s huge,” Warrick said. “It’s very rewarding for me to know Gary and remain good friends. I’m tickled to death for him.”
Back in the day, before women’s basketball was deemed worthy enough for the NCAA to even associate with it, the game was dominated by schools like Immaculata, Delta State, West Chester and Old Dominion.
Then came Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols and the big time. That might not be the order the history reads on the sport’s official timeline, but make no mistake that Summitt forever changed women’s intercollegiate athletics by being the biggest name in it.
Summitt died Tuesday at the too-young age of 64, five years after announcing to the world that she suffered from early-onset dementia. She leaves behind a legacy of personal decency and professional dominance unmatched in basketball. The winningest basketball coach in history – with 1,098 victories, eight national titles and Olympic medals as both a player and a coach – set the leadership bar for both women and men to aspire.
“I’ve been a fan of hers and the way she so passionately and profoundly led our game,” said Dawn Staley, who went up against Summitt as a player at Virginia and a head coach at South Carolina. “I can’t think of anyone whose footsteps I would want to follow other than hers. She has passed the torch to all who coach; it’s now our turn to make her proud.”
Pat Head (she didn’t become Summitt until she married in 1980) took over the Lady Vols in 1974 when she was only 22. She played for Tennessee-Martin before Title IX came along and women didn’t receive scholarships. She was a good enough player to qualify for the first women’s Olympic team along with pioneering female stars like Nancy Lieberman, and they won a silver medal in 1976.
The very next time the U.S. women participated in the Olympics, in 1984, Summitt led them to a gold medal as head coach.
Somewhere along the way, Summitt and Tennessee became the standard for women’s basketball not only in terms of wins but enthusiasm. The Lady Vols were steadily drawing more and more fans to their games as respect for the sport grew.
Back in 1986, it was Tennessee that owned the single-game attendance record with more than 10,000. As a writer for the student newspaper at Virginia, we were asked to promote a free giveaway of tickets and hot dogs to try to break the record when the undefeated Lady Cavaliers faced rival North Carolina. A crowd of 11,174 showed up to fill the rafters of the 9,000-seat University Hall – a situation that prompted the fire marshal to later reduce the accepted capacity to 8,392.
Tennessee responded to their attendance title being taken away by shattering the record the next season with 24,563 watching the Lady Vols beat Texas. They’ve since upped the on-campus record to 25,653 in 2006 against ultimate rival Connecticut.
When Virginia revived Hot Dog Night 23 years later to establish a new school record in its new arena in 2009, it naturally invited Summitt and Tennessee to attend.
It was Summitt and her program’s sustained excellence that made women’s basketball a must-see event in certain pockets of the nation. The Lady Vols have averaged more than 10,000 fans per game every season since 1996. Only in the last two years has their program’s rabid enthusiasm been topped in the Southeastern Conference by South Carolina, which drew an average of 14,364 to Colonial Life Arena last season.
Of course, the Gamecocks could reach the Lady Vols’ record 16,565 average attendance following Summitt’s only undefeated run to a third consecutive NCAA title in 1997-98.
By the time the NCAA Women’s Tournament first began in 1982, Summitt and the Lady Vols had established themselves as the measure for women’s college basketball. Tennessee had finished runner-up in the last two Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournaments in 1980-81 and reached the very first NCAA women’s Final Four. They reached the finals in 1984 and Summitt collected her first NCAA title in 1987.
Staley came along as a player in the late 1980s when Summitt was just reaching her peak as a coach. Staley’s Virginia team dealt Summitt her most heart-breaking loss, upsetting the top-seeded Lady Vols in overtime in the East Regional final and preventing Summitt from getting to coach a Final Four on her home court at Thompson–Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.
Summitt exacted her revenge the next year on Staley’s team, which led the nation in wins, by beating Virginia in overtime in the 1991 NCAA championship game.
In 1996, Tennessee trounced Georgia and Summitt’s Hall of Fame rival Andy Landers in the national title game, a defeat that so stung the Bulldogs’ coach that he and Summitt didn’t speak for more than a year. That marked Georgia’s last appearance in the Final Four while Summitt and the Lady Vols remained relative fixtures and claimed four more NCAA titles after that showdown.
Sadly, Summitt’s reign ended way too early – she retired after the 2012 season at age 60. Her cruel illness not only robbed her of her memories but didn’t allow her to exit the game on her own terms.
“She left us way too young,” said Landers, who retired in 2015 with 862 wins – but only 15 in 58 tries against Summitt.
Had she been allowed, Summitt could have won hundreds more games and eventually retired with a winning total so obscene that no basketball coach – not Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (1,043 wins), Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (980) nor UConn’s unparalleled Geno Auriemma (955) – could ever catch.
Summitt’s record will inevitably be passed one day, but never her place as the game’s most influential coach when women’s sports needed an icon to lead them into the prime time.
There’s only one Summitt in women’s basketball. As long as it’s played, coaches will always be aspiring to reach it.
One way or another, Friday will be about history for Reese Hoffa.
Either he will qualify for a record-tying fourth Olympics in shot put at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Ore., or his competitive career will be finished.
“If I make the team, I’ll continue to throw,” said the 38-year-old Hoffa, the 2012 bronze medalist in London who starred at Lakeside High and Georgia. “If I do not make the team, I will pretty much retire immediately after the trials.”
The two-time world champion has been a consistent figure among the shot put elite since qualifying for his first Olympics in 2004, held at the stadium where the original Games were conducted in Olympia, Greece. Hoffa has finished among the top five in the U.S. outdoor championships for nine consecutive years. He won back-to-back U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008 and 2012, adding the Games in Beijing and London to his accomplishments.
In London, he finally earned a place on the medal podium, taking the bronze with a throw of 21.23 meters. Unfortunately for Hoffa, his medal was stolen in 2014 out of his truck parked near the Georgia Dome when he stopped on the way home from a fund-raiser in Alabama to attend a Falcons game on Monday Night Football.
“The medal has not been returned,” Hoffa said. “It was hard to have it taken, but it does not take away from the accomplishment.”
Friday could provide Hoffa with one last chance to earn more Olympic hardware in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Finishing among the top three in the trials would let him join Hall of Fame American shot putter Parry O’Brien, who competed in four consecutive Olympics from 1952-64 – winning two golds and a silver.
“I’ve been on three teams and each time I’ve been so honored to represent the U.S.A. and try to master one of the hardest events in the world to master,” Hoffa said. “If I make this team it kind of puts me in rarefied air in terms of being a four-time Olympian. Especially in the shot put. The athletes who can make it four times are incredible. So for me it would be awesome.”
This time, however, the odds are stacked against Hoffa.
His longest throw of 2016 – 20.83 meters (68.34 feet) in May at the Tucson Invitational – ranks 16th among throwers worldwide, behind six Americans all in the top 10. That’s more than 5 feet shorter than his career best in 2007 and well shy of the 22.00 meters he threw to win the last Olympic trials in 2012.
“My days are numbered,” Hoffa said in 2014 when he won his last event in the same ring where this week’s trials will be staged. Hoffa had to adjust his technique two years ago after injuring his knee in the Kansas Relays.
But he’s not ruling himself out against a deep field of veterans, like long-time practice partner and former Olympic teammate Adam Nelson, and younger stars like 27-year-old reigning world champion Joe Kovacs.
“I’m going to the Olympic trials trying to be a little bit dangerous,” Hoffa said. “I’m the dangerous guy with nothing to lose. I’ve already been there, done that and everyone else is trying to make their first or second team. My goal is to make it as difficult on those guys as I possibly can. If I make it difficult enough, I’ll make the team.
“I give myself about a 50-percent chance. It could go either way. If I show up and do what I need to do, I think my chances are good. But it’s going to be really tough, needless to say. There are a lot of really talented athletes. If on that day I throw what I need to throw to make team, I’m there. If not, I know the team that’s going to be (in Rio) is going to be really, really good.”
Whatever happens, Hoffa has already established the direction of his future. Two years ago he started the Hoffa Throws Academy in Watkinsville, Ga., to help the next generation of shot putters learn his craft.
“It’s been fun and I feel like I’m still learning a lot,” he said about coaching the middle and high school kids that come to his academy. “There’s a difference between being an athlete competing and being a coach trying to teach others to compete. It’s been a very unique challenge.”
Hoffa hopes he can put off fully committing to teaching others until after the Rio Games in August. But whatever happens on Friday, he’s come to terms with it.
“I need to just walk away and consider myself very happy,” he said.
Rory McIlroy withdrew Wednesday. Jason Day (currently uncommitted) is expected to follow suit. At least six major winners have already said they won’t compete when golf returns to the Olympics.
There’ll be no golfing version of the Dream Team in the Olympic Games. With only three weeks to go before the 60-player fields are set based on world rankings, the list of male defectors may grow, with Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Danny Willett among the prominent players expressing some concern about traveling to Brazil as the deadline approaches.
It’s certainly reasonable that players are taking into account their health and safety regarding the Zika virus and other issues that have plagued the host nation in the run-up to Rio’s Olympics in August.
It’s also reasonable to question the health of golf’s future in the Olympics after a 112-year hiatus. When your sport is the only one with its most prominent players refusing to go, it doesn’t make the best first impression on the people who decide whether golf will remain an Olympic sport beyond 2020.
Golfers, of course, are not the only athletes expressing worries about competing in Rio. Tennis superstars Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, basketball’s Pau Gasol and soccer’s Hope Solo all have said the Zika outbreak had given them pause, but each has recently said they plan to compete anyway.
The only American athlete, so far, to withdraw himself from consideration for the Games citing Zika concerns is cyclist Tejay van Garderen.
But golf is leading the way – by far – in terms of early defectors. McIlroy (world No. 4), Adam Scott (8), Louis Oosthuizen (14), Charl Schwartzel (23), Marc Leishman (37), Graeme McDowell (73) and three-time major winner Vijay Singh have all officially said they would not play. That’s 12 percent of the potential field declining consideration.
Even though nearly a third of the 40-man U.S. rowing team that competed in Rio’s polluted waters got sick during a test event last summer, you don’t see the best rowers turning down spots on the Olympic team. Wrestlers, swimmers, runners, jumpers, gymnasts and volleyballers aren’t backing out.
This speaks to a problem that led many players to question whether golf should be included in the Olympics in the first place. When an Olympic medal isn’t the pinnacle achievement in your sport – as it is for many of the events that only get showcased every four years – does it really belong on the Olympic stage?
Golf has four annual majors that are used as the ultimate method of judging its greats. Can you possibly equate Dustin Johnson’s victory last week against all of the world’s best players on a daunting U.S. Open course with whomever wins gold in what is a diluted version of a World Golf Championship event against only a couple handfuls of elite golfers?
The answer is no. An Olympic gold medal will be a cool trinket in some golfer’s trophy case, but it will never compare to a green jacket or claret jug.
The International Golf Federation, which successfully spearheaded the campaign to get golf back into the Olympics in 2009, promised the International Olympic Committee that all of the game’s best players were fully on board.
The Zika virus and Rio’s myriad other flaws, however, aren’t the only mitigating factors that have derailed those promises. With seven years to prepare to make a big splash, golf did little to make itself more appealing.
The format (72-hole stroke play against a weaker-than-average short field) is unimaginative and provides no nationalistic sense of team. The players are really just playing for themselves, as they do every week but without the financial reward.
Then there is the scheduling component, with the Olympics wedged into an already overcrowded summer schedule that includes three majors, a WGC, the PGA Tour’s playoffs and a Ryder Cup in a condensed 17-week window. The PGA Tour was unwilling to bench any event for a year to make comfortable room for the Olympics. The burnout stretch of U.S. Open, British Open and PGA in only seven weeks is enough reason alone for the top contenders to seek a break.
It all conspired to create a perfect storm for breeding disinterest from the top golfers.
Maybe it will be different four years from now when the 2020 Olympics are held in Tokyo. Maybe the top stars will have a better appreciation for what they missed. Maybe the tours will build more cushion into the schedule. Maybe they’ll adopt a more compelling format to differentiate the Olympics from the status quo. Hopefully there won’t be a global health emergency.
An optimist would point out that tennis wasn’t universally embraced when it returned as a medal sport in the 1988 Olympics without eight of the world’s top-10 players, but most of the best players show up now.
But it’s hard to be optimistic about golf’s future in the Olympics when the only conversation about it has been whether anyone really wants to participate.
OAKMONT, Pa. — You can probably guess the conversation that transpired when USGA officials took Dustin Johnson in to watch high-resolution close-ups of the time he never grounded his club at address or touched the ball that moved ever so slightly on the fifth green in the final round of U.S. Open.
“We think there’s enough weight of evidence – even though nobody in the world can actually see it – that you did something to cause this ball to move,” Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and competitions, might have said. “Do you have magnets in your putter head that magically pull balls backwards?”
Johnson’s likely response: “Whatever? I won.”
Johnson didn’t need to put up much of a fight. He knows he did nothing wrong, but he let his clubs do the talking in creating a four-shot gap that the USGA was powerless to spoil.
USGA executive director Mike Davis needs to send DJ a birthday card today and more every Christmas thanking him for saving everyone’s skins by making their governing foolishness moot.
A check of the final 116th U.S. Open scorecard:
BIRDIE: Dustin Johnson. Not only did he beat everybody on the course and tame Oakmont, he handled all the unnecessary noise with a grace and maturity that he’s normally not associated with.
BOGEY*: USGA. Rules officials made utter fools of themselves in the way they handled and then weakly assessed a penalty to Johnson despite a fair adjudication by the on-site official and Johnson’s playing partner. Apologizing for “distraction” doesn’t cover this black eye.
BIRDIE: Shane Lowry. “Bitterly disappointed” with his 76 that lost a four-shout lead, he served notice that he’ll likely be a more prominent fixture on the big stages.
BOGEY: Lee Westwood. Another chance melted away with a Sunday 80 he declined to comment about, but he did later quip that he’s halfway to the single-season “played-final-round-with-the-major-winner grand slam.”
BIRDIE: Jim Furyk. Despite his recent long injury layoff, the 46-year-old rallied to stake early clubhouse lead and earn a second runner-up finish at Oakmont.
BOGEY: Danny Willett. After missing short par-save putts late Saturday on 7 and 8, the fuming champion smashed the putter he won the Masters with repeatedly on the concrete wall and deck as he walked across the turnpike bridge. “We’ll have to get it refurbed, and then I won’t be using it again,” he said.
PAR: Kevin Kisner. Credit the Aiken pro for making the cut then hanging in there Saturday when he countered two bogeys, two doubles and a triple with six birdies and an eagle.
BIRDIE: Sergio Garcia. A major title still eludes him, but the Spaniard threatened again and even tended to a wounded bird after holing out of a bunker for birdie late Sunday. One of these days maybe it will go his way.
BOGEY: Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler. Sad showing for the only top-50 players to miss the cut in the Masters, Players and U.S. Open this year. Mickelson is aging out on his career slam hopes and Fowler has posted six miserable first-round major starts since his top-5 slam in 2014.
BIRDIE: Jason Day. Credit the world No. 1 for making a run after a dreadful start. At least one of the Big Three was relevant.
BOGEY: Rory McIlroy. Poised to recover from a 77, McIlroy came back to complete his second round Saturday morning and folded. He left the course without comment after his closing double bogey. Tiger Woods would get torched for doing something like that.
BOGEY: Jordan Spieth. Defending champion just hung right underneath the surface all week and never challenged.
BOGEY: Henrik Stenson. After an opening 69, the Swede didn’t even bother to return to finish his suspended second round when it was apparent he was going to miss the cut. Poor form.
BIRDIE: Andrew Landry. During a rookie season aptly described in the official player guide as “has struggled,” the former Palmetto Amateur champion flirted with a first-round 63 and stuck around to earn a spot in the final Sunday pairing.
BOGEY: Patrick Reed. Despite coming in with good form, former Augusta State star missed the cut.
BIRDIE: Chase Parker. Forget Sunday, the Augusta resident played a superlative 36 holes Saturday to not only make the cut in his major debut but beat the Masters champ in the third round.
PAR: Bryson DeChambeau. Once again, the next big thing climbed atop a major leaderboard only to have an acute sideways encounter derail his hopes. But his T15 still bodes well for the future.
BIRDIE: Jon Rahm. Low amateur (T23) is going to soon be a major force on tour. Big, strong and ready for his close-up.
BIRDIE: Twitter. Social media stream provided the perfect venting forum for the top players to vent their frustrations at the USGA and support Dustin Johnson during the drawn-out ruling process. It’s better than the interview room.
PAR: Johnny Miller. The 1973 Oakmont champ survived an all-out assault on his defining 63 as Landry, Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka threatened to tie or even beat the standard of major excellence. Don’t expect Oakmont to be so easy in 2025.
BIRDIE: Arnie and Jack. Watching from his home at nearby Latrobe Country Club, Arnold Palmer’s absentee presence was palpable. But Jack Nicklaus, who vanquished Arnie in 1962 playoff at Oakmont, showed up to greet DJ at 18. Never gets old.
BOGEY: Fox. There were some dramatic staffing improvements from the Chambers Bay debut (granted the bar was low), some of the graphics are cool and the limited commercial aspects at the end were welcome, but they still have too many voices and much room to improve.
BIRDIE: Oakmont grounds crew. Despite monsoon rains that drowned the perfectly conditioned course and washed out bunker on Thursday, they got it back in shape to play the next morning.
BIRDIE: Shinnecock. Already going back in 2018 to the place where the course was pushed to silly extremes in 2004. The Long Island “links” will also get the 2026 U.S. Open. Talk about long-range planning.
BOGEY: Diana Murphy. USGA president seemed a little off in her trophy ceremony speech. In her defense, her organization’s handling of things could have driven anyone off the rails.
*ONE-SHOT PENALTY: USGA. Upon further review, we need to add another stroke for sticking by their silly ruling despite “weight of evidence” and overwhelming opinion against them.
Only Dustin Johnson could finally end his long-suffering major championship history on America’s meanest golf course in the middle of a Twitter riot with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head.
Despite the United States Golf Association’s best efforts to clutter up the game’s most uncluttered mind with the unnecessary threat of a retroactive penalty, Johnson buried any uncertainty and his tortured past with a decisive three-shot* victory in the 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont.
(* – The USGA isn’t fooling anybody; we all know it was really four shots.)
On the toughest hole on the golf course, Johnson dismissed his demons and any doubts with a dart of a 6-iron from 190 yards to 5 feet for an exclamation-point birdie. For old times’ sake he could have three-putted from there like he did last year at Chambers Bay and accepted a penalty like he did from the PGA of America at Whistling Straits and still had his name engraved on the trophy.
The only thing that could have stopped DJ was pulling a Roberto de Vicenzo with his scorecard. It would have fit the Dustin Johnson brand that he carried with him at all previous major championships, but that story doesn’t suit him any more. Golf’s most athletically gifted player finally fulfilled what has always been meant to be his destiny provided he could get out of his own way.
“After last year, to come back this year and perform like this, you know, I think it shows what kind of golfer I am,” he said.
Sunday’s triumph doesn’t erase Johnson’s past major transgressions, but it ends the misery generated by the annual rehashing of them. The meltdown at Pebble Beach, bunker-gate at Whistling Straits, the OB stumble at Royal St. George’s and the three-putt on the cauliflower greens at Chambers Bay are all just footnotes now that he’s broken through the glass ceiling. With talent like his, there are few limits to his potential to collect many more.
“It couldn’t be any better,” he said. “I think it’s well deserved. After everything that I’ve been through in the majors – I’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times – to finally get that major win, it’s huge. It gives me a lot more confidence going into every major to know that I can win. It’s a big monkey off my back for sure. I feel a lot lighter.”
En route to his rally from four shots behind Shane Lowry at the start of the round, Johnson had to endure the latest case in a long list of buffoonery from the USGA. Cleared by the on-site rules official when his ball moved slightly toward his putter as he was getting ready to address it on the fifth green, Johnson was informed by another official on the 12th tee that he might face a one-stroke penalty after a post-round review.
The impending threat basically hijacked the final hours of the U.S. Open. The game’s top players staged a social media rebellion against the “amateurs” running the national championship. There was no mincing of words on Twitter or confusion as to who was the villain and who was the sympathetic figure.
“This is ridiculous... No penalty whatsoever for DJ,” said Rory McIlroy. “Let the guy play without this crap in his head. Amateur hour from @USGA.”
“Lemme get this straight,” said Jordan Spieth. “DJ doesn’t address it. It’s ruled that he didn’t cause it to move. Now you tell him he may have? Now? This a joke?”
“Laughable!” said Rickie Fowler.
“@USGA treatment of @DJohnsonPGA absolutely shocking,” chimed in Ernie Els.
After Johnson was indeed assessed what the masses agree was a bogus penalty stroke after his round, the crowd around the 18th green erupted in boos when it was brought up during the trophy presentation. Johnson didn’t seem to care that the governing body that failed to restrain him from hitting drivers that carry 329 yards in the air would look like fools over a ball that wobbled a millimeter on absurdly fast greens despite him never touching or soling his putter behind the ball.
Johnson didn’t need to put up much of a fight in the clubhouse. He rendered it all moot by his impervious performance and handled it better than most golfers probably would have, shrugging it off in his usual manner then taking care of what he could control while everyone with a chance to benefit from his misfortune faltered all around him.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to be penalized,” he said. “So I just went about my business – just focused on the drive on 12 and from there on out, that we’d deal with when we got done. It doesn’t matter now. I’m glad it didn’t matter because that would have been bad. But, you know, it worked out.”
Amidst his own dejection for letting his four-shot lead slip, Lowry tipped his hat to Johnson for not letting the situation get to him.
“It didn’t affect the way I played,” Lowry said. “If anything, I credit Dustin for playing the way he played on the way in, having that hanging over him, because I probably would have wanted to know straightaway if it was me.”
When history reflects on the 116th U.S. Open, the egg all over the USGA’s face won’t matter as much as the name etched permanently onto its trophy and the scene of him celebrating Father’s Day with his 18-month-old son, Tatum, in his arms a year after hugging the infant as consolation.
For all his faults, Dustin Johnson deserves to be counted among the major winners. Of course there had to be more adversity along the way. It only makes the outcome that much sweeter.
“Just one more thing to add to the list, right?” he said of the weirdness he’s endured. “It definitely makes it sweet. It’s nothing new at this point. It’s happened so many times you kind of expect it now. To not have it effect the outcome is fantastic. It shows how well I played.”
OAKMONT, Pa. — The middle of the longest day in Chase Parker’s young career was summed up by his father’s best Nick Faldo impression.
“It’s a bit of a blur, guv,” Charlie Parker said.
After a stop-and-start first round that took two days to complete, the 25-year-old Parker played 36 holes on Saturday – a 12-hour marathon that finished 15 minutes after sunset with Parker draining the final putt of the day to save par in near darkness.
But there were no complaints from the Parker clan. They were all giddy to still be at Oakmont watching the former Westside golfer competing alongside the reigning Masters champion in the U.S. Open.
“Today was just unreal,” said Kay Parker, Chase’s mother. “We couldn’t believe he even made the cut. It’s just wonderful. We’re just so proud of him. So proud of him.”
Making the cut was the day’s top priority with Parker beginning his second round already 5-over par with the cut line projected to be 6-over. The margin for error was slim.
“The first 18 was just a huge grind,” Parker said. “I was working so hard trying to stay in it and trying to make the cut. I really emotionally spent myself on that first 18.”
A bogey on the 6th hole – his 15th of the day – had him pushing the projected cut limit with the three hardest holes on the golf course to play. But he gutted a par out on No. 7 and hit a 57-yard bunker shot to 8 inches to save par on the long par-3 8th.
“That was definitely the shot of the day for me,” he said.
A perfect drive and approach to 20 feet on the difficult 9th left him two putts from an even-par 70. But when his downhill putt trickled 5 feet past, the nerves were obvious. Parker’s hands were shaking when he handed his brother, Davis, the ball after marking and asked, “Do I need this?”
“I said the cut was 6 (over), but yes we need this,” said Davis, his hands shaking even more.
Parker was the last player in the field to make the cut, and he couldn’t finish his post-round interview before his mother ran up and started hugging and kissing him.
“Is this your mom?” he was asked.
“This is,” he said. “She’s a little happy.”
The whole family was. Davis, who is three years younger, had already swallowed a crown on his front tooth (which was originally broken off by his older brother with a tennis racquet when he was 7), but he was all smiles after they made the weekend.
“He made (the par putt) and I’ve never been so excited,” Davis said. “I’ve won golf tournaments before and I was more excited for this.”
The day only got better when Parker found out he was going out for the third round with reigning Masters champion Danny Willett. By the time the day was done in the gloaming, Parker had beaten Willett by a stroke with a third-round 72.
“It was cool,” Parker said. “You always know if you make the cut you’re probably going to play with some big name. I didn’t feel any added pressure playing with him. We both shot the same thing the first two rounds and we were right where we’re supposed to be.”
Parker seemed calm and collected despite the fatigue of playing Oakmont from 9:12 a.m. to 9:05 p.m. He putted the perilous greens beautifully all day, draining a 25-footer for birdie on the 18th.
The only short putts he missed were birdie chances from 5 and 8 feet on Nos. 4 and 5 after his threesome was put on the clock and they were racing to complete the round before play was suspended by darkness.
“We weren’t taking as much time on the putts,” he said. “Get in that situation you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Tied for 46th at 7-over in the biggest event he’s ever competed in, Parker has settled into the experience. The blurring has stopped.
“It’s not bothering me any more like the first day,” he said. “You get used to it. I don’t even know what place I’m in but there’s nothing to lose at this point. I’d love to shoot an under-par round out here. That would mean a lot to me.”
OAKMONT, Pa. — Any U.S. Open championship is designed to be the most grueling and miserable experience in major golf. Few people understand that better than Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia.
Despite its reputation as the most notoriously vicious course in America, a rain-softened Oakmont might just put one of the aforementioned veterans out of their major misery this weekend.
The three greatest current players never to have avoided vomiting upon themselves in the clutch at a major spent Friday huddled on the leaderboard in red figures. While the modern Big Three – Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy – was busy shooting a combined 14-over par, the Bit-spitting Trio played themselves into painfully familiar position.
With all three residing in red figures among the top four, perhaps it’s finally time for one of them to bury his tortured history and be initiated into the fraternity they’ve belonged in for far too long. One of them might even shave the beard they’re each hiding behind this week.
With a combined 80 worldwide wins among them and 49 top-10s in majors, it’s hard to distinguish which one of them has suffered the most on the most defining stages. You could make a case that any one of them is the best reigning player without a major win, citing Westwood’s longevity, Garcia’s consistency and Johnson’s superior athletic gifts.
While a shrugging Johnson might not ever display any outward signs of frustration, he’s certainly had the most gruesome major derailments of the threesome. There was the Sunday meltdown at Pebble Beach, the bunker gaffe at Whistling Straits, the brain-lapsing shove out-of-bounds at Royal St. George’s and last year’s agonizing three-putt on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay.
Westwood has suffered mostly from proximity. Nine times in the last nine years the former world No. 1 finished second or third, spanning all four of the majors. He missed putts to make playoffs at Torrey Pines and Turnberry, got overtaken by Phil Mickelson at Augusta and Muirfield and couldn’t capitalize at the end in April at the Masters.
Then there’s Garcia, whose destiny has had the rug pulled out from under him so many times by guys named Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington and McIlroy that he’s often lost faith. The effervescent El Niño, who skipped to the first of four major runner-ups in the 1999 PGA at age 19, has evolved into a sometimes bitter 36-year-old.
“I’m not good enough ... I don’t have the thing I need to have,” Garcia said in 2012 after stumbling at the Masters. “In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”
Yet for all their past failures, here they are again knocking at the door. And each of them seems as confident as ever.
Johnson has seven top-five finishes already this season, including a career-best T4 at the Masters. He was on cruise control much of Friday, hitting 25 consecutive greens in regulation in a stretch of 27 bogey-free holes, settling into a share of the lead at 4-under despite failing to birdie any of the par 5s.
“I felt like I played really good all day,” Johnson said. “I just need to stick to what I’m doing. ... If I keep driving it like I am, I’ll be tough.”
Garcia collected his ninth PGA Tour win – tying Seve Ballesteros for the most by a Spaniard – in his last start at the Byron Nelson. He shook off two early bogeys at Oakmont to scramble his way to 2-under par through 36 holes – draining a 51-foot bomb to save par on his last hole in the gloaming.
“Every time you win, it gives you extra confidence,” he said. “I felt last week I had a couple of days where I couldn’t really practice that great and this week didn’t start great, but I’ve settled down a bit and hitting the ball well, and hopefully it will be similar to Byron Nelson.”
Westwood, the 43-year-old graybeard of the group, has rebounded from a nightmarish season involving a divorce to regain his top-50 stride in only eight starts in 2016. He finished his first round in the morning with a couple of birdies to sit at 3-under 67 heading into a long Saturday.
“I’m probably a little bit fresher than most people,” he said. “(The Masters) gave me a big boost, a big shot of confidence. I haven’t contended in a big tournament for a while. So it was nice to get up there and hang about and give myself a chance. ... It was nice to feel those emotions again.”
With a day to dry out in the sun, Oakmont should return to form and start showing its teeth on the weekend. With any luck, one of the tortured trio will show his own toothy smile as a major winner at long last.
OAKMONT, Pa. – Former Augusta State golfer Derek Chang is making his major golf debut on Thursday at the U.S. Open, playing in the final morning grouping with Watkinsville, Ga., amateur Kyle Mueller and Ohio financial planner Richie Schembechler.
“It sounds cliche but it’s a dream come true – surreal,” Chang said. “At the same time, I’m weirdly comfortable for some reason.”
After sharing medalist honors in the Houston sectional qualifier, Chang arrived at Oakmont on Saturday and was anything but comfortable at first blush.
“Saturday I was planning on playing nine (holes) but the greens were so fast I was rattled and I just putted for two-and-a-half hours trying to figure out the speed,” Chang said.
While Oakmont’s notorious greens have actually sped up since Saturday, Chang believes he’s ready for the challenge of what’s considered the hardest golf course in America. The Alpharetta, Ga., native played two seasons at Augusta State after transferring from Minnesota. His redshirt season coincided with the Jaguars’ second national title in 2011, so he spent a year practicing at Forest Hills under former coach Josh Gregory.
Chang spent his 2015 professional season on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, but the grind of traveling while trying to hone his game proved counter-productive to his development.
“I spent a lot of time and energy going down there last year and kind of dug myself in a hole and was not in a good place mentally,” he said of a season with only one made cut to show for it. “I learned a lot but really struggled.”
This year he decided to stay closer to his home in Dallas, working with Gregory on his game performance while playing the Adams Golf mini tour and attempting to Monday qualify into PGA and Web.com Tour events.
Getting through local and sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open is his first shot at the big leagues. He’s not setting a target number this week and will take it as it comes.
“I’m confident that if I take care of my game and play well for me it holds up pretty well out here,” Chang said.
OAKMONT, Pa. — The obligatory “grand slam” questions await every reigning Masters Tournament champion when he shows up to the U.S. Open venue. Jordan Spieth’s 2015 run only intensified the glare this week on Danny Willett.
The surprise Masters winner comes to Oakmont trying to replicate the major combo Spieth pulled off last year. All he has to do this week is beat a field that includes every one of the top 50 players in the world on arguably the hardest golf course in the world.
“Sounds easy, huh?” said the 28-year-old Englishman. “I guess it is one of them things, you know. You have got to keep breaking it down. You can’t look at it as a whole. It is quite funny, because, yeah, running up to this week, you are the only guy that can do it in the same year.
“It’s just nice that we have got that chance. What comes of that, you know, you don’t really know. But yeah, we’re going to try to get prepped, and like I said before, hopefully come Sunday we’re somewhere there or thereabouts to give you that little bit of a feeling that, yeah, this is actually possible.”
There’s not enough evidence to suggest that Willett even belongs in any slam conversation. His career résumé doesn’t measure up with the only other players who have won the first two legs since the idea of the modern professional grand slam took root – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Spieth. He’s never even played a U.S. Open on a traditional punitive venue shrouded in dense rough like Oakmont – having competed only the past two years on unconventional setups at Pinehurst and Chambers Bay.
Forget the historical context, Willett is still getting used to his present status of being mentioned in the company of current standard bearers Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Spieth. That he’ll play the first two rounds at Oakmont with far more recognizable players McIlroy and Rickie Fowler is a step up that requires acclimation.
“It’s nice to be in and around it, to kind of feel more comfortable in and around playing with them guys and being in that environment,” he said. “This is a position you want to be in. You want to be playing in majors with Rory, Rickie, Jordan, Jason and playing against them. It’s going to happen a lot more from now for the rest of my career. So it’s something we’re going to have to get used to.”
Now that he has a major title of his own, does Willett feel like an equal to his Ryder Cup compatriot McIlroy?
“No. What Rory’s done in the game is pretty massive,” Willett said. “I think he’s helped the younger generation within European golf strive for a little bit more. Just as Tiger did for worldwide golf, I think Rory’s done similar for the young lads on the European Tour to really put their foot down and try to get up there and try and chase him down and try and achieve a little bit of what he’s been able to do. It’s certainly helped me.”
Even with a green jacket in his closet and the global prestige that came with winning the Masters, Willett might have broken into the top-10 (No. 9) but he hasn’t cracked the top tier of golfing favorites. Oddsmakers in his home country only list him as a 40-to-1 chance this week, behind 11 other favorites including five players who’ve never won a major championship.
Willett’s not complaining.
“I still feel like it’s quite nice because you have got Jordan, Jason, and Rory obviously playing such good golf, and Rickie as well,” he said. “Yeah, you do get under the radar a little bit more, which is quite nice.”
In the two months since capitalizing on Spieth’s meltdown at Augusta National, Willett has gotten much of the celebrating behind him with an extended break and shaken the rust off his game. He tied for third in his last start in the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth. Despite banking his first major, history shows that the second step is rarely any easier except for a chosen few.
“Obviously, yeah, it’s nice that you’ve already got one,” Willett said, “but because you’ve already got one, you want another one and another one and another one. I think you put the pressure on yourself inside anyway.”