This is not about whether Augusta needs a hockey franchise.
This is not about the merits of Global Spectrum’s management of James Brown Arena.
This is not about political infighting or taxpayer apathy.
This is just about discussing what direction the greater Augusta area wants to go and what it might take to get there.
The announcement Tuesday by Augusta RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner that his franchise would take a one-year leave of absence from the Southern Professional Hockey League was just a conversation starter. Kerzner took that unfortunate step because arena officials have not yet addressed replacing the broken ice-making system, which forced the RiverHawks to play its final eight home games at the Augusta Ice Sports Center.
Since insurance won’t cover the cost of a new ice system, this seems to be the perfect time to discuss what it is Augusta really wants in an arena. Does it want to continue along maintaining a 33-year-old facility in million dollar increments, or does it want to build a modern new multi-purpose arena that can serve its citizens for decades to come?
This is what needs to be discussed as a community, just as you would with your own family.
Consider your car. It’s already paid for and is getting up there in mileage. Then the transmission goes. Do you want to spend a few thousand dollars on a rebuilt transmission to keep the car going until the next inevitable major repair? Or do you decide to take on another monthly car payment to get a new vehicle that you can reasonably rely on for the next 6-10 years under warranty?
This is where we are now with James Brown Arena. A new ice system isn’t cheap. Probably in the neighborhood of $1 million or more. A working ice system is required to sustain a hockey franchise or attract popular events like Disney On Ice.
So the folks in charge of James Brown Arena have a costly decision to make. And perhaps it’s time for the community to be part of the process instead of just leaving it in the hands of Global Spectrum and the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority.
How do you want to spend the money?
Personally, public financing of major sports arenas has never been a popular option. Too often it merely serves the vanity and wallet of the primary tenant.
For instance, it seems ridiculous that Atlanta is spending a large fortune to help build billionaire Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons a gaudy new stadium when the perfectly good Georgia Dome isn’t even old enough to legally drink.
That seems excessive and unnecessary, but Atlanta officials have decided the possibility of losing the Falcons to some other city willing to build Blank a new temple is too much to risk.
Augusta is a different animal altogether. The second largest city in Georgia has only one major-league franchise – the Masters Tournament – and Augusta National Golf Club takes care of itself just fine. There is no minor-league arena tenant with the potential of lining his or her pockets at the public’s expense.
But Augusta and the surrounding communities need a viable and appealing multi-use facility. It is a civic necessity to attract and feature the kind of events – concerts, tournaments, conventions, etc. – that make a community a great place to live.
Augusta-Richmond County voters in 2004 rejected extending a special purpose local option sales tax that could have funded a local arena project. Columbia County officials considered and tabled their own arena discussions.
Augusta also consistently shot down overtures to build a new downtown baseball stadium, ultimately sending the project to be built as part of an ambitious complex across the river in North Augusta.
James Brown Arena is almost 10 years older than it was the last time voters rejected replacing it. The world has changed a lot since 1980 when it first opened and facility requirements have advanced as well – both from the tenant and fan perspective.
I don’t presume to know the answer, only the question. Augusta needs to talk about what it wants – either build something that the community deserves or kick the can down the road until the current arena gets closer to 50 years old and deeper into retirement age. And if not Richmond County, then Columbia County or North Augusta should discuss amongst themselves.
Eventually, somebody needs to step up and make a decision that will serve the best interests of everyone.
College football has finally settled down – for the most part – into five major conferences. Those five might opt to rescue a team or two from the under-affiliated ranks, but for the near future there is relative reshuffling peace at last.
Now the expansion focus in our little corner of the football world turns inward instead of outward – namely whether or not to expand the conference football schedules to nine games to accommodate the added inventory. It is not a cut-and-dried decision by any means.
But it should be. With the pending influx of revenues from the coming playoff era, dedicated conference networks and the Southeastern Conference-BIG Ten model for unaffiliated “bowl” unions, it’s time to stop kowtowing to outdated constraints and beef up the schedules.
This should be the era of pleasing the fans and not appeasing reluctant coaches. Going to a nine-game conference schedule should be just the starting point – limiting the games that don’t matter while increasing the ones that should.
“I’m not opposed to a different scheduling model,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said recently as the debate rumbles toward the conference’s upcoming spring meetings in Destin, Fla.
For the Pac-12, Big 12 and BIG Ten, the issue has been resolved. The Pac-12 already started doing it last year. For the 10-team Big 12, it was an easy choice as every team played each other, leaving no need for a championship game. The BIG Ten has announced it will go to nine by 2016 and is considering banning all patsy games against Division I-AA opponents.
That leaves the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference as the only remaining eight-game holdouts among the major players. That’s not a coincidence considering they have the most overlapping territory in the major football landscape.
The ACC was all set to embrace nine games until it complicated the matter with it’s partial arrangement with Notre Dame. With the Irish committing to only five ACC football matchups a year, the nine-game plan was revoked in October.
The SEC, of course, has its own problems – all of it concentrated in the East Division where Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky have historic fixed non-conference rivalry games with in-state ACC opponents Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. That wrinkle prompted Alabama’s Nick Saban to call his East brethren “whiners” as he endorsed the nine-game plan. It’s easy for him to say with all the latitude in the world for scheduling.
“There’s certain in-state rivals who are within the league, there’s certain coaches whose instate rivals are out of the league,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said recently. “That’s why you get a mixture of thought as to what would be the healthiest thing to do.”
For once – don’t get used to it – I agree with Saban.
“I mean, strength of schedule is important, but also, how about the fans?” Saban said. “Don’t they want to see good games and all that?”
It’s time to think more about those fans who have been footing the bill for college athletics for too long with little say in the matter. With directors of athletics carping about the financial need for seven home games and coaches complaining about too many tough foes, fans have had to fork over money for creampuff games that nobody really wants to see. There’s generally two per season, not counting the annual conference doormats that rarely cause the better teams to trip.
With the SEC’s traditional 6-1-1 conference plan (one permanent division crossover and one rotating crossover game), Georgia and South Carolina fans will only get to face Alabama or LSU or Texas A&M once home-and-home every 12 years. Entire classes of Bulldogs and Gamecocks will go without facing some marquee West Division programs.
Nine conference games would reduce that window to six years.
“It could go to nine,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Whatever they say is fine with me.”
That should be the attitude of all coaches. Instead of griping about a schedule that’s too tough, work on legislating a more level playing field with everybody. Pass conference rules that limit nonconference games against teams outside the five major conferences to two or even one. Perhaps do as the BIG Ten is considering and ban playing Division I-AA teams, ensuring strength-of-schedule won’t be an issue when the playoff selection committee starts weighing the conference elites.
That’s a little tougher for the ACC, which will have teams rotating games against Notre Dame. If there are only three nonconference opportunities, there would be seasons when Clemson would have only one option other than the Irish and Gamecocks.
From the perspective of the fan buying the tickets and paying the cable fees that produce all that revenue, would that really be a problem? You think the players will be crying “When do we get a break? Bring on Buffalo.”
It would be even better if more schools would put aside petty squabbles and reestablish old traditional rivalries (Texas A&M-Texas, Missouri-Kansas, Oklahoma-Nebraska, Pitt-Penn State) or lock in new regional ones (Tennessee-Virginia Tech, Alabama-West Virginia, LSU-Texas Tech, Arkansas-Oklahoma State) that make the whole tapestry of college football even stronger.
Of course there will have to be some sacrifices made. Some seasons would only have six home games (Georgia-Florida would need to move to home stadiums). Ten-win seasons would be tougher to come by but more precious when accomplished. Coaches might be forced to feel a little more pressure to earn their $4 million salaries.
But with all the money the SEC and ACC will be making in this new college football era, it’s time to give something back to the fans and players who make the sport great in the first place. After all the upheaval, it’s time to settle in to our new conference homes even more than ever.
This golfing season of discontent took a tantalizing turn last week at PGA Tour headquarters, where there was enough emotion and animosity emanating from Sawgrass to generate crossover appeal for fans who like their sports a little less prim and proper.
In a week that made Freddie Couples cry (Hall of Fame induction) and Jason Dufner smile (rare eagle on No. 18), the most compelling takeway from The Players Championship was a bitter aftertaste.
First came Vijay Singh vs. PGA Tour in a made-for-courtroom drama and then Tiger Woods vs. Sergio Garcia in a two-day featured rumble that extended from the course to the podium. And even Woods salvaging the event from a David Lingmerth sentence couldn’t drown out another drop controversy involving the world’s No. 1 golfer.
Delicious stuff for a non-major week.
One thing golf has long been missing is a villain, and Singh stepped up to take on the role in the classiest fashion. Not content to just drift off quietly into senior-circuit irrelevance (and it seems a good time to note that the 50-year-old Hall of Famer from Fiji hasn’t won a PGA Tour event in five years), Singh decided to cement his legacy as unlovable by suing the tour on the eve of its flagship event.
Singh’s beef is that the PGA Tour somehow besmirched his reputation – which, it should be reiterated, began all those years ago when he was kicked off the Asian Tour for cheating and banished to Borneo. All the tour did was (without comment) follow its drug protocol policies to the letter and ultimately let Singh skate scot-free despite clearly violating the rules that every player agreed to abide by.
Doesn’t seem to matter that Singh incriminated himself in a Sports Illustrated story with his laughable comments about using the explicitly banned deer-antler spray. Then he outed everything the tour had discreetly kept secret – the details of his original suspension and subsequent appeal that prompted the tour to let him off after further review by the World Anti-Doping Agency – by filing the lawsuit despite sound advice against that tactic from his agents at IMG.
Singh, whose $67 million in tour earnings ranks third all-time, even sued for the interest on the $100,000 the tour kept in escrow for three months while he appealed.
It’s not easy to make the PGA Tour look like a sympathetic character, but Singh pulled it off before promptly missing the cut in his adopted hometown. Bravo.
Just as Singh exited for the weekend to go rehearse his testimony, Tiger and Sergio took center stage and held everyone’s attention until the thrilling conclusion.
The two have long been golf’s unrequited rivals since El Niño popped out from behind an oak tree at Medinah in the 1999 PGA and skipped onto the scene. The one-sided nature of the dynamic hasn’t diminished it in any way.
Paired together in the last group Saturday, it took only two holes for their animosity to go viral. During a rain delay, Garcia semi-accused Woods of gamesmanship by stirring up the crowd and causing him to hit a bad shot from a perfect lie in the fairway that led to bogey. Woods’ view of Garcia from the trees was blocked by fans, and when he pulled out a fairway wood just as Garcia was hitting it caused the gallery to murmur at his aggressive club choice.
Garcia pointed it out, prompting Woods (who rarely says a discouraging word) to say “not real surprising that he’s complaining about something.”
On Sunday, when they were tied for the 54-hole lead but paired separately, Garcia didn’t mince words.
“He’s not my favorite guy to play with. He’s not the nicest guy on tour,” Garcia said of Woods, adding later, “We don’t enjoy each other’s company. You don’t have to be a rocket engineer to figure that out.”
While Sergio’s honesty often comes out as petulant, you have to admire his willingness to speak his mind – especially about a dominant player so many others are afraid to talk negatively about. It’s too bad the gifted Spaniard had to add another meltdown to his ledger with Woods, rinsing three balls at Nos. 17 and 18 on Sunday when he was tied with Tiger through 70 holes.
How might it have played out if Woods and Garcia had been paired? You can bet Sergio wouldn’t have been timid to offer his two cents about where Woods’ ball last crossed the hazard on the 14th hole. Woods consulted playing partner Casey Wittenberg, and they agreed on a very generous drop considering TV replays seemed to indicate Woods’ ball never crossed land near where he wound up playing from.
Despite how it looks after two high-profile mistaken drops this season (Abu Dhabi and Augusta), Woods followed proper protocol and there’s no recourse to overrule it. Chances are he would have made the same double bogey from anywhere, but a confrontation with Sergio could have made things very interesting.
The Tiger-Sergio relationship is the most colorful thing in the game – a welcome departure from the homogenized comments and competition that passes for rivalry in golf these days. Certainly more intriguing than the Woods-Rory McIlroy “bromance.” A little bad blood is what makes sports entertaining, and put that on a stage like the Stadium Course where fans revel in seeing crashes like it’s Daytona and you get a very compelling show.
While golf can do without the anchored-putter users filing their own ambush litigation, here’s hoping Woods and Garcia can continue to spice things up when the remaining majors roll around at Merion, Murifield and Oak Hill.
Rayonta Whitfield is going back to the National Golden Gloves, and this time he hopes to bring back another belt with an Augusta Boxing Club protégé.
Nicholas Torrance, a senior at Lakeside High School, is the first Augusta Boxing Club fighter to qualify for the nationals since Whitfield won the 106-pound division in 2002. The two-time Georgia Golden Gloves champion at 141 pounds is going in with high hopes.
“I’m expecting Nick to win the tournament,” said Whitfield, now the director of the renowned boxing club on Walton Way.
Torrance has been working with Whitfield at Augusta Boxing Club since he was 10 years old. He started boxing as a way to supplement the mixed martial arts and kick boxing he was already invested in since he was 5 at Gruebel’s MMA off River Watch Parkway.
“I wanted to improve my MMA and kick boxing game and thought it would be a good experience for me,” Torrance said.
“He came in to get his hands together with the other sports and he just stayed in the program,” said Whitfield. “It helps for both because it keeps you in the gym. Days he’s not in here with us he’s at another gym. So he constantly works out whereas some other kids only come in the gym a couple days. Nick stays fit and stays working at his craft.”
It didn’t take long for Whitfield to realize he had another winner in Torrance. While only 5-foot-8 in a “welterweight” class that often produces much taller fighters with longer reaches, Torrance distinguishes himself with power, speed and stamina.
“I kind of always saw the potential,” said Whitfield. “He hardly ever loses a fight. ... He’s a short, stocky kid and loves to draw you in. He’s a good counter puncher. He draws guys in and hits them with a big shot once they fall into his trap. He makes the fight very easy. It comes from that MMA background. He’s a rough fighter. He likes to mix it up with you.”
That style quickly gained notice around the region. When he was only 15, one state boxing writer declared Torrance “the next fight star from Georgia.”
“This kid was born to punch,” John Parks wrote for GeorgiaFighters.com. “He has a ferocity in his fight game that makes his fights exciting and entertaining to watch, very reminiscent of a Mike Tyson fight. That quality alone is what sets him apart from other fighters.”
Torrance set himself apart in decisively defending at the Georgia Golden Gloves to advance to the Southern regionals two weeks ago in Knoxville, Tenn. There, he was part of an unprecedented Georgia sweep of every weight class to advance to the National Golden Gloves this week in Utah.
His victory over Michael Santos, of Alabama, was recognized as the “Best Bout” of the regionals, and Torrance was named the “Best Conditioned Boxer” of the tournament.
Those results have Torrance brimming with confidence as he gets set to leave today for his first open national tournament. The week-long National Golden Gloves wraps up Saturday, and it will take winning five bouts to claim the 141-pound title.
“I’m very excited. I’m ready for it,” Torrance said. “I’m hoping to come back with a belt.”
Having Whitfield’s experience in his corner in Utah should benefit Torrance.
A National Golden Gloves title could be just the start for Torrance’s long-term goals.
While both coach and fighter say they are just taking things day to day, Torrance opted to stay close to home and attend Georgia Regents University Augusta so he can continue working regularly with Whitfield at the Augusta Boxing Club.
“I’d definitely like to win a few national titles and in the long run possibly go pro,” Torrance said. “Taking it fight-by-fight for now until I get college out of the way.”
Within that amateur window, the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, looms as an inviting possibility. Whitfield hoped to be the first Augusta boxer since Vernon Forrest in 1992 to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, but his quest fell short in 2004.
Torrance will be 21 in three years and at the perfect stage to make an Olympic bid.
“Win this nationals first and then (Olympics) would be a goal,” he said.
Adam Scott doesn’t deny that there has been an unprecedented degree of basking in his three weeks of “floating around on the clouds” since his dramatic Masters Tournament triumph.
“I don’t wake up and think I’ve won the Masters,” he said, “but when I walk in the closet and I put the green jacket on every morning, I do. I’ve enjoyed that. … That’s been a lot of fun just wearing it around the house.”
It is perfectly understandable and acceptable for a 32-year-old man who finally fulfilled not only his own, but his native Australia’s, long-awaited expectations to enjoy a little extra relish. Scott was “blown away” by the reaction he’s received from all over the world – especially Australia – since his Augusta moment.
But basking is the last thing that Scott intends to do. Starting this morning in the first round of the Players Championship at Sawgrass, Scott is back to work on what he still considers unfinished business.
“Hopefully come (Thursday) morning I’ll be able to plant my feet on the ground and keep this going because it could be the start of a great year for me out here on the tour,” Scott said Wednesday in his first news conference since his “life-changing” victory at Augusta.
“Maybe in the history books it is (life-changing) because you’re written into that history book of winning a major and it will never be taken out of there. But I don’t believe so other than that. For me, it’s probably going to be the pinnacle of my career because of also the whole of Australia as first Australian to win the Masters, but it’s also not the end for me. Hopefully it’s the start of me achieving my goals and trying to become the player that I’ve always dreamed of being.”
During his three-week break, Scott specifically avoided the temptation of making the long trip home to Queensland, Australia, to partake in any homecoming celebrations. The three weeks off was already planned, but any side trips might only sidetrack his post-Masters plan.
“I was very tempted to go home,” he admitted. “I wanted to see my mom and my sister and my friends and also share in the celebrations with all the golf fans in Australia. It was an incredible response to winning. The Prime Minister of Australia called me. Like I said, I was overwhelmed.
“It’s cause for celebration but we have a plan in place, and it’s hopefully not going to stop with the Masters at the moment. I want to keep focused while I can and try to make this my biggest year yet, and I think we can rustle up some celebration when I get home at the end of the year.”
Scott’s goals remain even more ambitious than ever. He’s been one of those gifted players predicted to exceed all others on the major stages ever since he won the Players in 2004 as a bright 23-year-old. That it took nine more years to join the major champion fraternity seemed excruciating at times – especially after runner-up bids at Augusta in 2011 and in last year’s British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes where he lost a four-shot lead with four to play.
“I think it definitely put the expectations up,” Scott said of becoming the youngest player to win the Players nearly a decade ago. “But at that age and where I was at, it just all happened kind of easily, and you just expect it to keep happening.”
Now that he broke through at Augusta, he hopes it can lead to the kind of career explosion that followed 34-year-old Phil Mickelson’s breakout major win on the same Masters stage in 2004.
“I don’t know how you put a number on how many majors you want to win,” he said. “To win more than five would be a dream career, obviously. There aren’t too many guys lately that have been able to do that. It’s a good goal to have. I should set my goals high like I always have. If I can find the balance of using this as a motivator and take the confidence out of what I was able to do at Augusta, then hopefully the floodgates can open. It happened a little bit for Phil Mickelson – well, a lot for him when he finally won his first major.”
No reason the same can’t happen for Scott, whose major success and failures the last few years have been “balancing on a knife’s edge, really.”
“I felt last year like I could have won three of the majors with pivotal moments going my way or not, and I didn’t win any of them,” he said.
But at Augusta, Scott flourished under the most intense pressure applied by an unrelenting Angel Cabrera.
The victory has him once again being compared to his idol and countryman Greg Norman, whose famous heartbreaks at the Masters only made Scott’s victory that much sweeter for all Australians. Scott has already had a private celebration with Norman in his three-week break, but he doesn’t think owning a green jacket automatically puts him anywhere near the Great White Shark in the all-time conversation.
“Greg was revered around the world,” Scott said. “He was the best in the world. He wasn’t just the best Aussie golfer at the time, he was No. 1 in the world for the better part of 10 years as I grew up. That’s a different level than where I’m at. But you don’t know. If I go on to win more tournaments and hopefully get to No. 1 someday, then maybe. I hope that will be as positive an impact as he had on the game.”
Now he just has to resume that focus, leaving the jacket in the closest as he picks up his clubs instead.
“There is so much elation with winning the Masters that I couldn’t really get focused on golf, and that’s why I kept waking up and thinking I shouldn’t play yet because I felt like I don’t want to go out there and mess around and not be focused and achieving something if I’m going to go out and practice,” he said.
The time for basking is over. Now Scott’s goal shifts from becoming a major winner to a major icon.
Judging from the reaction he received Monday at the Aiken Rotary Club, Cot Campbell might have thought his horse had actually won the Kentucky Derby.
“I got a standing ovation from people for the excitement that they had a little bit on Saturday afternoon,” said Campbell, whose horse Palace Malice faded to 12th in the 19-horse field. “It’s absolutely been amazing the interest and support there’s been in this whole region. It’s very heart-warming.”
The local excitement stems from watching the familiar lime and lemon silks of Aiken’s Dogwood Stable leading the charge through the first three turns at Churchill Downs. Palace Malice broke clean out of the gate and raced to the lead at the first pass of the finish pole. The beautiful bay stayed in front as much as two lengths down the entire backstretch as he led uncontested through the first three-quarter mile – his 45.33 second fraction at the half-mile mark the fourth-fastest in Derby history, despite the sloppy track.
As the horses made the final turn toward the home stretch, Palace Malice lost its nose on the lead and faded in the stretch. But for 90 seconds it was quite the rush.
“From the standpoint of people watching it back here, many of whom thought he’s going to keep on, it was a great thrill,” Campbell said. “Then finally they gradually were resigned to the finish. But they had a lot to yell for awhile.”
For Campbell watching from his owner’s box on “Millionaires Row,” the sight of his horse bolting to the front wasn’t as pleasant. It certainly wasn’t the plan they’d asked of veteran jockey Mike Smith.
“I knew when I saw the first fractions and he’d gone a half mile in 45 seconds, there’s no way you can do that and still be around when the finish comes. Not at a mile-and-a-quarter,” Campbell said.
“He didn’t show anything he hadn’t shown before. We know he’s got the speed, it’s just that he produced it at the wrong time. We had told the rider to try to lay in the second tier. Don’t be up with the front runners and then make your move around the turn coming for home. That was the ideal scenario hoping some other horses would go out there like scalded dogs and soften things up and we’d come with our run. The blinkers tossed that plan in the trash can. Mike said he was either going to have to fight with him or let him go, hoping he would settle when he got the lead. But he didn’t even settle then.”
It was Orb who laid back and raced to the win at the finish.
“He set it up for Orb and some of those others,” Campbell said. “Those horses that were with him all faded to the back of the pack. To be him or those following him was not a good idea on that day.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher had opted to use the blinkers on his 3-year-old after a distracted run to the wire at the Blue Grass Stakes cost Palace Malice the win by a head to the late-charging Java’s War on April 13. But the tack didn’t have the desired effect the first Saturday of May.
“We thought the blinkers would focus him more and his training in the blinkers had seemed to,” Campbell said. “But I think when he got in there with 19 other horses and 150,000 people and he knew this was the real McCoy, I think he was very rank and that’s not him. He’s just been the easiest horse to ride and put him wherever you want to and ask him whenever. So I think the blinkers had to be the culprit.”
At 20-1, Palace Malice was the 10th choice among the morning-line favorites, so Campbell wasn’t going in expecting this would be the horse to finally fulfill his Derby dreams in his seventh attempt. But the sloppy track and lack of a dominant superhorse favorite certainly allowed room for dreams.
“I thought he would pull off a good race,” Campbell said. “I would never be dumb enough to say I thought he would win the Derby. To win the Derby you have to have a good horse and he’s got to be lucky that day and you have to have some others that have got to be unlucky. I thought always he’s a very genuine, consistent, hard-knocking and capable horse. In the right case scenario he could be right there. I thought he fought on bravely.”
The tough effort in Kentucky made it easy for Campbell to decide not to send his horse to Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes, where Summer Squall gave Campbell his only Triple Crown race victory in 1990.
“I think he just wouldn’t come back in two weeks off of this race; it took a lot out of him, of course,” Campbell said. “He’s had an active campaign up to now and I think to send him to Baltimore would just be very foolish. The Belmont is conceivable – probably not but conceivable. Mostly we’ll be looking at a summer campaign that would include the Travers and some of those big races at Saratoga.”
As for Campbell, he hasn’t given up on his Kentucky Derby quest just yet and wanted to make that clear after hearing NBC’s Tom Hammond’s comments during the post parade.
“He said that this horse is owned by Dogwood Stable, that’s Cot Campbell who is 84 years old and retiring after this,” Campbell said. “I just made some remarks here at the Rotary Club and said, ‘First, I’m 85 years old. And second, I ain’t even close to retiring.’ We don’t carry as many horses as we did – used to have 65 and we’ve got maybe 28 now. That’s comfortable. I enjoy doing that and it’s about the pace I want to go. But I’d be unhappy retired. I really would. I have a nice life, I enjoy leading it and love what I do and I’m going to keep on doing it until I fall off the perch.”
To that end, Campbell bought some yearlings and three 2-year-olds in April to see if one might pan out to carry Dogwood’s colors at next year’s Kentucky Derby.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “I’m moving ahead to try to get another one. We’ve got some good prospects. That’s the great thing about the horse business. You always think you’re right on the verge of coming up with some great things.”
What’s happened to the “gentlemanly” game of golf? When did it become so complex and rancorous?
The 13 original rules of golf, drafted in 1744 by what would become The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, required all of 356 total words to get the point across of playing a ball from tee to hole. The gist of everything in between boiled down to 10 words at the tail end of rule No. 10: “The Ball so stop’d must be play’d where it lyes.”
The intervening 269 years have done nothing to simplify things. It takes a law degree to figure out what is going on in the game these days and debate-club experience just to have a conversation about it. Rarely have the rules and their application ever been a greater point of contention than in 2013.
On Tuesday, the PGA Tour issued a 678-word statement on why it was letting Vijay Singh off the hook despite admitting in January that he violated the tour’s drug policy by using a banned substance found in deer-antler spray.
On Wednesday, the USGA and R&A issued a joint 1,900-word statement detailing why Tiger Woods was not disqualified despite signing an incorrect scorecard after an illegal drop at the Masters Tournament three weeks ago.
And sometime before spring is over, golf’s governing bodies will issue a final verdict on anchored putting that has divided golfers and pitted various organizations in unseemly battles against each other.
Where have you gone Bobby Jones? Golf’s legions turn their lonely eyes to you.
The least-shocking news of the week was that the PGA Tour figured out a way to wriggle out of suspending one of its few active Hall of Famers for violating its drug policy. Commissioner Tim Finchem had the solution to the awkward situation fall right into his lap – and conveniently just before Players week commences in Singh’s adopted hometown.
Singh admitted in a Sports Illustrated story in January that he used a bit of modern-day snake oil called deer-antler spray. Unfortunately for Singh, deer-antler spray contains something called IGF-1 which is on the PGA Tour’s banned substance list. The tour had specifically warned all of its players to not use deer-antler spray in August 2011, yet Singh somehow missed that memo like Dustin Johnson missed the bunker bulletins posted on every wall in the Whistling Straits locker room.
“Under our doping code, if you admit – which is what he did, he admitted in an article that he had used this substance – it is tantamount to a positive test under our rules,” said Finchem. “We felt obligated to bring the action because it is technically a violation or was at that point in time.”
The tour issued sanctions against Singh on Feb. 19, and Singh appealed. Lo and behold, near the very end of that 45-day appeal window, the World Anti-Doping Agency declared last Friday that it no longer considers IGF-1 a prohibited substance.
“The bottom line is that given the change by WADA we are dropping the case against Mr. Singh,” Finchem said.
Voila, crisis averted. Please don’t try this at home next time you get a speeding ticket for going 45 in a 30-mph zone just because the county decided to up the speed limit before your court date. Let’s see how that works for you.
Now there’s the Tiger ruling that just won’t die. The prevailing consensus seems to be that even though all parties involved screwed up, Woods ultimately got exactly what he deserved if the rules officials had done their job properly in the first place. Masters competition chairman Fred Ridley used a loophole in the now complicated rule book to cover his own mistaken judgment after reviewing Woods’ improper drop after his ball bounced in the pond off the flagstick in Friday’s second round.
It turns out the tipster to Woods’ mistake was longtime respected rules official David Eger, who immediately recognized the problem at home on his TV and got word through his connections to Ridley. But Ridley looked at the replay and decided Woods did nothing wrong and never asked him about it before signing his card. Woods’ own detailed description of his improper drop, however, led to further inquiry the next day, two strokes were added and everybody moved on.
All that’s left is a prominent precedent in which all parties looked bad even though the USGA and R&A subsequently sanctioned the clean-up efforts.
“It wasn’t a shining Friday for Fred Ridley and he has at his disposal the best rules officials in golf,” Eger told The Charlotte Observer. “I’m sure he had more resources available to him than I had sitting at home with my digital recorder playing it back. For the head guy not to use all the resources available to him is disappointing.”
That blemish will eventually fade away, but the broiling brouhaha over the pending anchoring ruling may leave some long-standing scars. The PGA Tour and PGA of America have taken strong opposing stances to the proposed ban by the USGA and R&A. That led to some harsh words and literal finger-pointing under the tree at Augusta National between PGA of America president Ted Bishop and R&A chief executive Peter Dawson.
“The PGA of America knows my views about this, and I’m disappointed at the way that campaign was conducted,” Dawson said recently. “It put rule-making onto the negotiating table. The negotiating table is no place for rule-making to take place. Obviously, the feelings are strong. We shall have to see where it goes.”
Bishop isn’t backing down and threw more fuel on the fire by questioning the R&A’s – shall we say – manhood.
“I find that to be very curious and perplexing given the fact that the R&A has not been inclusive, as evidenced by their unwillingness to accept women as members to the R&A,” Bishop told Golf World magazine. “This is a much different approach than we have taken in America.”
So much drama. All this ensures there isn’t likely to be much peace restored in golf when the all-male R&A and The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers play host to PGA members in the Open Championship at Muirfield this summer.
ATHENS, Ga. — With his 48th birthday less than two weeks away, career dreamer Scott Parel really hadn’t started feeling his age until a long flight home from South America in March.
“I think the 48 is catching up with me,” the Web.com Tour veteran from Augusta said. “When you’re that much older it takes that much longer to recover.”
Parel has been chasing his professional golf dream for 16 years and has come tantalizingly close twice in the past 16 months to reaching his ultimate goal of a PGA Tour card. But his 2013 season so far has been a struggle because of his back.
After flying home from the third tournament of the season in Chile, Parel felt some stiffness in his lower back. The next day the pain had migrated to his right hamstring. A day later it felt like somebody was stabbing him with a knife in his calf muscle every time he took a step.
He limped to a tie for 62nd in Louisiana on March 24, but an MRI in Augusta a couple days later revealed a bulging L5-S1 disc pressing against his sciatic nerve. A couple of cortisone shots took care of the pain, but his swing suffered as he tried to play through it.
“I played probably more than I should have with it hurting and got into some bad habits,” Parel said. “I’m frustrated about the injury more than anything else and frustrated in not figuring out that I probably should have taken those weeks off and not tried to play. But that’s the nature of this tour. You don’t ever feel that you can take any time off because you’re getting lapped every week that you’re not trying to make money. It’s a Catch-22 – do you play when you know you’re not likely to make much money or do you try to figure it out and catch lightning in a bottle in one of those weeks?”
Coming off the best season of his career, Parel has made just two cuts in six starts this year – pocketing $4,328 that doesn’t cover the cost of travel expenses on a tour that spends most of the first two months swinging through Latin America. He’s failed to break par in six consecutive rounds since the final round in Louisiana, including 2-over-par 73 on Thursday in the first round of the Stadion Classic at UGA.
The low point was 79 last week in the second round of the South Georgia Classic in Valdosta.
“I was hitting shots that I’ve never hit in years,” he said. “My golf swing is just so far off line, especially off the tee, and my tee game has always been pretty solid. It was like an out-of-body experience.”
Fortunately, his younger brother, Rob, was watching and could actually see the problem.
“He said it looks like I’m swinging hurt – hanging back on my right side and not getting right shoulder through the ball like usual,” Parel said. “I looked at video and he was right. Did a lot of work last week and felt this week like I’m back to hitting the ball like I used to hit it.”
The results can’t turn around soon enough for Parel. Since giving up his job as a computer programmer in 1996 and embarking on his golf quest, Parel has never been closer to his ultimate goal. Despite being older than Jack Nicklaus was when he became the oldest golfer to win the Masters Tournament in 1986, Parel came within one stroke TWICE in seven-month span of getting the PGA Tour card he craves.
The first came at the final stage of Q School in December 2011, when he missed securing his card by one measly shot. He started the final round tied for 13th but slipped to 30th with 74.
Then in June at the Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh, N.C., he got into a playoff with James Hahn after his 15-foot birdie putt on the last hole lipped out. Another 15-footer to win on the first playoff hole missed and Hahn tapped in for birdie on the second extra hole to win after Parel’s 18-footer slipped past the cup.
The difference in the winning check and runner-up was $39,600. Parel finished 35th on the season-ending Web.com Tour money list – $34,700 shy of the top 25 that automatically earned PGA Tour cards for 2013.
“I don’t pine over that one that much,” Parel said of the closest he’s ever come to winning in 150 career starts on golf’s highest developmental tour. “I played well. I had a chance. I didn’t do anything that I can say, ‘If I hadn’t done that.’ I did pretty much everything I could do. He got up-and-down on the second playoff hole and I missed a putt. It is what it is.
“I would have loved to have made the putt on 18 to not have a playoff. I hit a good putt and it lipped out. That seems to be the story of my existence right now. I’m going to keep playing and keep trying and see what happens. I just hope I get well enough to get my strength back to where I was.”
Having come so close, Parel isn’t giving up. At an age where many golfers start eying the 50-year-old senior circuit, the Aquinas grad is still doggedly pursuing the PGA Tour ranks. He knows if he can climb into the top 75 on the Web.com Tour money list by the end of August, he may be a few good finishes away from that coveted card in the newly established 150-man, four-event qualifying series in September.
“It’s obviously not started like I wanted it to start,” Parel said of 2013. “I’m disappointed that I already feel like I’ve put myself behind the 8- ball. But there’s still more than half the season left, so there’s plenty of time.”
Cornelius Washington had been warned by friends that the NFL Draft experience wouldn’t be what he expected, and it wasn’t even close.
As Friday’s third round ended and Saturday’s fourth and fifth went by without his phone ringing at his home in Hephzibah, Washington’s draft plan fell well beyond his expectations.
“Kind of bewildered about it,” Washington said after the former Burke County and Georgia defensive end finally got picked 188th overall in the sixth round by the Chicago Bears. “But it’s a blessing even to be drafted considering how many players never even get the opportunity to play pro ball. So I’m blessed.”
Expectations had grown pretty high for Washington after a dominating performance in the Senior Bowl followed by some impressive workouts at the NFL scouting combine. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound pass rusher ran 4.56 in the 40 and posted the second highest vertical leap (39 inches) and most bench press reps (36) among the linebackers he tested with at the combine, sending his draft prospect up to potentially as high as the second round.
But when it came time for NFL teams to make the choice, they seemed underwhelmed by his on-field production his senior season at Georgia. The teams that had expressed the most interest in him kept passing as his name sat for several hours in the No. 1 spot on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s “best available” list.
“I was getting a little bit worried,” Washington admitted. “But I prayed a lot about it and eventually the call came. I was ecstatic from that point.”
That the call came from Chicago was another puzzler. The Bears had not been a very vocal suitor during the combine or pro day workouts.
“I was very surprised because they hadn’t show any interest at all outside of saying something to me once at pro day,” Washington said. “Speaking to some of my former teammates, they were telling me before the draft that it’s going to be a team that’s never spoken to you or showed any interest that drafts you and they were right. I guess that’s how the process goes and those organizations try to keep everything quiet and under wraps.”
At any rate, the Burke County grad will once again get to call himself a Bear and he looks forward to getting his first taste of Chicago when minicamp starts Thursday.
“I’ve been hearing that despite the cold it’s a great place to be and live. I’m excited,” he said. “I know they call it the Windy City but I’m going to call it the Freezing City. I’m just ready to experience it all and soak up as much as I can.”
The Bears scouts believe Washington never got to show his full potential at Georgia because he was moved around a lot in the Bulldogs’ 3-4 scheme depending on the situation. Chicago intends to use Washington as a down end on the left side of their 4-3 defense and sees a “great developmental upside” in their late-round pick.
“Any time you can get a player with that kind of length, that body type and that explosiveness at that level of competition – we were awful happy to see him sitting there in the sixth round, believe me,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “What we saw on tape is an explosive athlete. He’s got a lot of ceiling.”
Said new Bears head coach Marc Trestman: “We’re bringing him in here because we think he has upside and talent and we’ll see where it goes as we move forward.”
Washington is ready to show the Bears what kind of bargain they’ve got in him.
“I’ll be playing in a different system with different schemes for different coaches,” he said. “I’ll go in with the expectation of putting in hard work and let the chips fall where they may. That’s the biggest thing is to work hard and learn as much from the veterans that I can. If you just work hard everything else will come. Of course, I showed that I can play, that I have the ability and the talent to do it. I just need a chance.”
Getting selected in the sixth round only makes Washington hungrier to prove himself.
“The coach who actually recruited me to Georgia, Jon Fabris, always told me to never get complacent, stay hungry and stay humble,” Washington said. “I’ve done my best to do that. That’s been paying off. Nothing’s going to change when I get there. I know I have stuff to prove. I know I have to show that although my stats weren’t the best my senior year, I am a good player. The best is yet to come.”
GRANITEVILLE — If the juniors competing at Sage Valley this weekend leave with only one lasting memory of the Junior Invitational, please let it be Russell Henley’s example of being a decisive and not deliberate golfer.
Henley spoke to the 54-man field for 45 minutes on Friday night, and the PGA Tour rookie from Macon, Ga., touched on his own experience of not being bogged down by technique and sports psychology.
Too few golfers these days, however, are like Henley, and they are dragging the game down with them.
“I think slow play is the scourge of the game,” said Dr. John Reynolds, a longtime executive with both the Georgia and United States golf associations. “The scourge of the game. It will wreck it because it becomes a social problem.”
Reynolds tried his best to “crack the whip” on the young men to play quickly before Saturday’s round, letting them know that it was in their best interests to beat the potential weather expected later in the day.
But the larger point is that playing golf faster is in everybody’s best interests all the time. But you wouldn’t know it watching the juniors emulating collegiate and professional golfers with five-plus hour rounds that have become the “new normal.”
“It’s important how the junior players are brought along,” said Reynolds, 72, who was a practicing neurosurgeon in Augusta before getting into the golf industry. “They’re taught to be so precise, but we’re not talking about surgery out there. Their approach to problem solving is so complicated that they dilly dally with their checklist. Everything is only excellence and precision. By the time they’re 17, every step takes so much time and they’re led to believe they can mechanically influence everything and be perfect every time.”
Reynolds believes that swing coaches and sports psychologists are trying to train the emotion and reflex out of the game with excessive pre-shot routines, and that’s not something that is conducive to sports. He calls it the “misconception of perfection.”
Basketball players can be more precise if they have time to meticulously set their feet and hands before every shot (see free throw percentages), but they don’t have that luxury in a game environment. Without a clock in golf, golfers are taking too much advantage and taking the sport out of the process and subsequently the fun out of the sport.
“It’s an emotional game,” Reynolds said. “And emotions drive muscular movements. Golf is not a game of perfect, as that book (by sports psychologist Bob Rotella) says. He was dead right.”
Excessive routine is what plagued 14-year-old Tianlang Guan at the Masters Tournament and led to his ground-breaking slow-play penalty in Friday’s second round. Guan had a intricate checklist on every shot that Ben Crenshaw’s veteran caddie Carl Jackson said “has to be fixed” because it violated the 40-second limit every time.
“He was so meticulous about sticking to it,” said Reynolds of Guan.
Carl Yuan, a 16-year-old from China, has played in junior events with Guan. Unsolicited, Yuan offered this when asked about Guan’s performance at the Masters.
“To tell the truth, he does play slow,” Yuan said.
It’s the way Guan was taught to play. Yuan said Guan has followed a structured regimen of daily practice sessions up to 10 hours since he started learning the game at age 3.
“He was trained for this kind of stuff,” Yuan said.
Unlike Guan, Yuan came to America to play American Junior Golf Association events where the emphasis is now on teaching young golfers to play fast. The AJGA is trying to establish a time par of 4:19, with very structured policies and penalties in place. Groups are issued green and red cards at specific check points on the course based on pace.
And a strict policy of “ready golf” is enforced. The first player to putt out MUST immediately go to the next tee. The second player is responsible for replacing the flag after the third putts out. Once the pin is replaced, the first player already on the next tee MUST tee off regardless of his score on the previous hole. Honors takes a back seat to pace, and the couple minutes that process saves on every hole adds up to more than a half hour over the course of a round.
“They’re trying to get the players new habits,” Yuan said. “I think if (Guan) had played on the AJGA, he’d have gotten faster.”
Carson Young, who will play for Clemson next season, believes some of those habits will carry with him to the next level where play typically slows down without the rigid structure.
“Just walk faster down the fairway and don’t tinker over shots,” Young said.
But like most of his peers, Young doesn’t think the five-hour rounds at Sage Valley that’s typical of tournament golf these days are too bad.
“Once it gets close to six hours it gets irritating,” he said.
Try that on a course in the U.K. where stern stares or lectures are received if Americans can’t keep up with the 3.5-hour (or less) pace that is the accepted norm. Like Reynolds said, the slow-play dirge drives everyday golfers who can’t sacrifice a full day away from their families to fit in a hobby that with warm-up and commute can equal a full workday.
“It drives me nuts,” Reynolds said. “If I play with someone slow, it’s going to ruin my day. It’s painful. It’s gotten progressively worse in my lifetime.”
It’s not always just the golfers, but the golf courses that lead to pace of play problems. The harder the course and the closer it gets pushed to the edge, the longer it takes to play.
Reynolds said the second hole at Sage Valley is a prime example of that, where players end up stacking up on the tee of the difficult 194-yard par 3 with water in front and behind. In Friday’s first round, 15 of the 54 players (28 percent) made double or worse on the second hole, including four quadruple-bogey sevens and a nine.
“You have a nice opening hole and then everybody is standing on the tee at 2,” said Reynolds of the built-in logjam.
That’s one of the reasons players in the Junior Invitational have been given a 5 1/2-hour time par to account for various weather conditions. The first group on Friday finished in just more than 4 hours, 45 minutes, but that average time crept up over five hours as the day wore on. Saturday’s second round was more of the same despite Reynolds’ pleas to pick it up.
Beyond educating and training young golfers to be faster and more decisive players, how do you reeducate those who are already set in their slow ways and bring everyone else to a halt with them?
“It’s up to the institutions to say we’re not going to tolerate this,” Reynolds said. “You’re going to have to penalize them. It sounds like a retreating way to fix the problem, but it’s the only way. It has to be more than just an incidental occurrence.”
The USGA has made it a point of emphasis. The Masters issued a prominent shot across the bow. Perhaps if the NCAA and PGA Tour got on board the high-speed train, golf can repel its scourge.
But these kids at Sage Valley need to decide to be part of the solution and not the problem.
The 54 assembled elite junior golfers at Sage Valley ought to be glad the youngest among them was a no-show.
Tianlang Guan – the 14-year-old from China who made history two weeks ago at the Masters Tournament – bypassed his invitation to the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley to accept a sponsor’s exemption to play this week’s PGA Tour event in New Orleans.
Guan shot 3-under-par on Friday at TPC Louisiana to make his second consecutive cut among pros in America. Only one player did better than that in the first round at Sage Valley.
“I’m happy for him he’s playing in New Orleans,” said 16-year-old Sam Horsfield, who leads the Junior Invitational with 4-under 68. “Wow. Pretty impressive.”
The only 14-year-old at Sage Valley this week, Won Jun Lee, of South Korea, shot 86 on Friday. Exactly one month older than Guan, Lee says he’s nowhere near ready to test his game on a stage like the Masters. The Junior Invitational is the biggest event he’s played in.
“I need more experience,” said Lee, who called Guan’s cut-making performance at Augusta “amazing.” “This is good experience for the big tournaments.”
That has certainly proven to be the case in the brief history of the Junior Invitational. After only two years, participants at Sage Valley have done amazing things as teenagers in the immediate aftermath.
In the inaugural Invitational, Emiliano Grillo, of Argentina, finished third behind eventual Georgia No. 1 golfer Nicholas Reach. Grillo turned professional at age 19 later that year and immediately earned his playing status on the European Tour via Qualifying School, making him the second youngest holder of a full Euro card behind Matteo Manassero. He finished in the top 10 in his first event (the 2012 Africa Open) and retained his card with a top 100 season on the money list.
The runner-up that same year, Patrick Rodgers, became only the second Stanford golfer to win his first collegiate event (the first was Tiger Woods) and is a finalist for this year’s Ben Hogan Award.
Last year, a 17-year-old from California named Beau Hossler came to Sage Valley and finished tied for 10th. Less than two months later, he held the outright lead in the U.S. Open at Olympic midway through the second round and contended into Sunday.
So the kids competing at Sage Valley this week know they’re not too far away from the next level.
“Not at all,” said Horsfield, who beat Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter 1-up in a nine-hole match at Poulter’s home course Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla. “These are the 54 best juniors in the world.”
As Guan has shown, the line between junior and professional keeps getting blurrier every year. Nearly a century ago, Bobby Jones reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at age 14, signaling his coming emergence as the world’s greatest amateur.
Through the years, other prodigies have kept lowering the bar. Seve Ballesteros turned pro at age 16 and starting winning European Tour events at age 18. In 1996, fellow Spaniard Sergio Garcia became the youngest to make a cut on the European Tour at age 15.
But since 2000, the age milestones have been accelerating to younger and younger triumphs.
Ty Tryon earned a PGA Tour card at Q School at age 17 before his pro career subsequently flopped.
Ryo Ishikawa won a Japan Tour event at age 15 and had nine victories before reaching his 20th birthday.
Manassero won the British Amateur at age 15, sending him to the Masters at age 16. The Italian had two European Tour victories before his 18th birthday.
In women’s golf, the margins are trending even younger. Michelle Wie played a PGA Tour event at age 14, missing the cut by one shot. She already had top-three finishes in every LPGA major by age 16.
Lexi Thompson qualified for a U.S. Women’s Open at age 12, turned pro at 15 and won an LPGA event at 16.
Now comes Lydia Ko, who at age 14 became the youngest player regardless of gender to win a pro event. She then broke Thompson’s record by winning the LPGA’s Canadian Open at age 15.
Guan is just setting the table for the next prodigy. If it’s no longer ridiculous for a 14-year-old to make the cut at the Masters, is 13 out of the question?
“I was not really surprised that he played well,” said Carl Yuan, a 16-year-old from China who has played in some amateur events with Guan. “He was trained for that kind of stuff.”
Most kids by age 14 can barely figure out what they want for breakfast much less the rest of their lives. A fellow writer walked around Augusta National following Guan asking 13- and 14-year-olds their biggest accomplishments to date were. Said one kid: “I ate a Baconator once.”
The kids at Sage Valley admit that they aren’t yet ready for the Masters stage now, much less when they were 14.
“I wasn’t that good,” 18-year-old Clemson signee Carson Young said of his 14-year-old self.
But before long – maybe before the year is over – some of these kids will be right where Guan is.
Jakar Hamilton will spend the next few days sitting at his grandmother’s house in Johnston, S.C., playing video games to keep his mind off the life-changing phone call that may or may not come.
But just the possibility that his dreams may be fulfilled in this week’s NFL Draft buoys the former Strom Thurmond High School star.
“Right now it’s almost like a loss of words, because of just knowing what I went through and the struggles and the dedication and the sacrifice that I had to make to make this far,” Hamilton said. “Just keeping God first and keeping my head high. At this point right now it’s just a blessing for me and my family.”
Hamilton’s journey to this opportunity has taken more twists and turns than your average NFL prospect – through Georgia Military College, Georgia and finally South Carolina State. He could have easily driven off the road and never made it back on without the help of mentors along the way.
“They kept me from making the mistakes that other people from my neighborhood have made,” Hamilton said. “A lot of people around here could have been in the NFL but just didn’t have the right support behind them to go the extra mile.”
With his own father serving a 20-year jail sentence in Texas for mortgage fraud, Hamilton had father figures like Tim Johnson to steer him clear of the pitfalls. Johnson owned a barbershop in Edgefield when he and Earl Thomas first started mentoring Hamilton in high school with the program Choices, A Lifetime Development.
It was Johnson who suggested Hamilton wash cars for customers getting haircuts on a cold December Saturday in 2006 to raise enough money so his siblings could have presents on Christmas.
“Tim kept me straightforward on my mission and what I wanted to accomplish,” Hamilton said.
That relationship and the stories they heard from kids coming through the barbershop inspired Johnson and Rodney Tillman to establish a program called Sleeper Recruit to help more kids like Hamilton who were threats to get lost in the system.
“It’s put together for high school kids who we thought weren’t getting the exposure or have the proper tools to get into college, so we try to keep them on track and get them exposed to colleges and make sure they’re ready if they get accepted to college,” said Tillman of Sleeper Recruit, which operates under the mission statement of “helping the unrecognized get recognized.”
Hamilton was their first and most prominent project, and it’s taken a lot of support to get him through college and into position to be an NFL free safety.
“It’s been kind of a rough road for him,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, with programs like ours, it has helped him be encouraged and stay focused on what they can accomplish.”
There is no quibbling with Hamilton’s athletic pedigree. His father, Mike Goodson Sr., was a basketball guard at Pitt, helping the Panthers to their first Big East regular-season title in 1987. His mother, Tracy, was a track star at Strom Thurmond, whose own potential as an Olympian never got off the ground due to her unwillingness to fly. His half brother, Mike Goodson Jr., played tailback at Texas A&M before being drafted in the fourth round in 2009 by the Carolina Panthers. Another half brother, Demetri Goodson, was the starting point guard at Gonzaga before transferring to play defensive back at Baylor two years ago.
So it was no wonder Hamilton developed into a three-sport athlete at Strom Thurmond, with an unnatural vertical leap of 40 inches and coveted 4.4-caliber speed.
When he returned to Johnston, S.C., in eighth grade, the recreation football community was all abuzz about the kid who scored every time he touched the ball. But Hamilton nearly didn’t play for the Rebels in 2005 because his single mother of four couldn’t afford the $40 cost for the mandatory physical. The team voted to let him join the roster late, and he ended up scoring 20 touchdowns in helping Strom Thurmond to the Class AAA state championship.
A future in the NFL was already on Hamilton’s mind.
“At high school, it was always my No. 1 goal going pro to the NFL,” he said. “Whatever it took, that’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve always had that drive since I was a little kid. It’s always been in me and my brothers to want to be the best.”
That drive sustained Hamilton on a turbulent course. Having transferred to so many different schools growing up in West Virginia, Texas and South Carolina, his prep transcripts were such a mess that he failed to qualify for graduation with the rest of his class at Strom Thurmond after his senior season in 2007. He had to fulfill his final English credit in the school’s Adult Education Program the next fall, but it wasn’t going to get him any Division I scholarships.
Through the encouragement of Johnson as well as college recruiters, he opted to go to Georgia Military.
“That had to be the toughest decision I’ve made on my own,” he said. “Either stay in Johnston working 9-to-5 or go to Georgia Military and get disciplined. That’s what it taught me was discipline – work hard and be respectful. It taught me a whole lot.”
Not that Hamilton didn’t want to quit under the strain of his cadet obligations. That’s where his mother and Johnson again stepped in to push him ahead.
“I encouraged him that he had too much talent to come back here and this is what you have to do because you didn’t do what you were supposed to do in high school,” Johnson said. “You can’t let them get under your skin. They’re trying to make you strong mentally.”
Hamilton eventually became team captain, earned the nickname “Hitman” and came out of Georgia Military in 2010 as a junior college All-American, rated the No. 2 JUCO prospect behind future Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. He chose Georgia over Alabama to stay closer to home.
Hamilton was the only member of Georgia’s 2010 signing class to start in the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, returning a fourth quarter interception 17 yards for a touchdown. He played in 13 games in 2010, starting five.
But a stress fracture in his right ankle forced Hamilton to sit out the 2011 season. Getting behind academically as well as on the depth chart to fellow draft prospects Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams forced Hamilton to make another move to S.C. State.
“It was all about making the right decision for me and my career,” Hamilton said. “Maybe if I transfer I’ll have a better chance of showing my talent. Going to Georgia was one of the greatest things that happened in my life because it taught me a lesson. Once I left and got my mind right and my ankle was feeling better, when I got to South Carolina State I was way more mature with my cause with my level of play.”
Hamilton, however, was once again so far behind academically that S.C. State didn’t include him on the depth chart until he was certified by the NCAA clearinghouse after fulfilling 18 credit hours in both the spring and summer.
“He had probably the biggest hill to climb of anybody I’ve seen come into our program,” S.C. State defensive coordinator Mike Adams told the Orangeburg, S.C., newspaper. “With the amount of hours he had actually to get through between spring and summer, that was a major test and I’ll be honest with you. It really showed me how much this season and how important it was to him.”
Hamilton said he couldn’t have done it without his support network of mentors.
“I wouldn’t say I was a troubled child, but I didn’t have my father my whole life so there were some things that I was missing out on,” he said. “Those guys took me in as their own child. Without those guys and the blessings of God and my mother’s support, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Hamilton played eight games last season for the Bulldogs, registering 26 tackles and one 96-yard kickoff return touchdown. But it was enough to get him invited to travel for pro-day auditions for six NFL teams – Dallas, San Diego, Green Bay, New York Jets, Washington and Houston. Hamilton is candid and honest about his path in team interviews.
“If you sugarcoat it, they look at you like you’re lying off the top and can’t be dependable,” he said.
He hopes his dedication and skill set made an impression on at least one team.
“There’s something there – they see something in him,” Johnson said. “You know how the draft is. Whether they take a chance on him or not, I don’t know. The NFL is every athlete’s dream who plays football. If your name gets called, it’s only icing on the cake for what you did coming up. It’s a privilege.”
A privilege Hamilton hopes he just gets a chance to have.
“At this point right now, I don’t care what round I go in,” he said. “I’m ready to work and where I go doesn’t matter. The goal at the end of the day whether I get drafted in the first round or the sixth or seventh round or free agent, it’s my job to go out and make an impression on the coaches. I’m going to go out there and show to the world and the coaches that I belong in the NFL.”
As tempting as it might be to jump on the Atlanta Braves early-season bandwagon, April enthusiasm has a way of making September fools.
Heading into Saturday night’s game at Pittsburgh, the Braves have the best record in baseball and enjoyed a rare 10-game winning streak, provoking glee from a fan base eager to rekindle the spirit of 1991-2005 when division titles were an annual expectation around here.
“We just keep going back to how early it is,” starting pitcher Kris Medlen told reporters after that 10th consecutive win on Tuesday lifted the Braves to 12-1. “We can start as strong as we want but we can stumble up in the middle of the season or whatever it is. So just try and stay consistent and take it a game at a time.”
A 10-game winning streak in the first two weeks of the season is no small thing, of course. Only five previous teams since 1900 have ever accomplished such a feat. Only one, however, went on to win the World Series (1955 Brooklyn Dodgers) and only one other even reached the postseason (1982 Braves).
That Braves team is the best cautionary comparable for anyone getting too carried away with this season’s promising start. Those Braves won a record 13 consecutive games to start the season (tied by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987) but by the end of May was sitting at 27-20. It regained enough composure after the All-Star break to win the NL West by one game only to be swept by St. Louis in the NL Division Series.
This 2013 Braves team is already somewhat of a mystery. If you’ve figured them out, please share.
They’ve given up the fewest runs (37) in baseball – 18 fewer than the next stingiest defense in the National League (Dodgers) despite playing one more game prior to Saturday.
In the process, the Braves have scored twice as many runs (74) with the most home runs (29) in the majors. That offensive success comes despite having half of their every day position starters batting under .200, including Dan Uggla (.164), B.J. Upton (.158) and Jason Heyward (.127).
The only real conclusion we can reach based on careful consideration of the facts is that the Braves are much better when they score (13-0) than when they don’t (0-3). Atlanta has homered in every single victory – often repeatedly – and been stymied in every single loss.
“It’s nice to have that type of arsenal in your club because it’s a game-changer,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said recently. “One swing of the bat and you can put some runs on the board, so that’s always nice.”
Atlanta was the first National League team to hit 29 homers in its first 15 games since Cincinnati in 2006. Left fielder Justin Upton has nine of them (the fastest Braves to reach that number) as he raises the family curve while his center field brother, B.J., struggles at the plate.
After so many recent seasons when run production has doomed the Braves when it matters most, the productivity is refreshing.
“These runs don’t come too often,” said Uggla, who got off to a similarly rancid start two years ago before going on a 33-game hitting streak that helped push the Braves to the brink of the postseason before an epic wild-card race collapse. “You’ve got to ride the wave as long as you can ride it. It’s definitely a lot of fun. We’re playing good baseball. We’re coming from behind. We’re battling. We’re still in the process of figuring it out as a collective team. But we’re off to a great start. There’s a great vibe in the clubhouse and we’re going to keep going. We’re going to keep riding it. And keep picking each other up.”
Off nights, however, have provided quite the contrast. All three losses have been by shutouts.
Kansas City snapped the 10-game streak with a 1-0 victory – the lone run, poetically, getting driven in by former hometown Atlanta headache Jeff Francoeur of all people.
Then in Pittsburgh on Friday, the Braves sent the minimum number of batters to the plate (27) in a 6-0 loss to the Pirates.
Current five-man staff ace Paul Maholm (3-0, 0.00 ERA) took the mound Saturday night to try to avoid the first consecutive losses by Atlanta this season.
As impossible as it is to pinpoint just what this Braves team is capable of over the next 146 games, a quick start is never a bad thing. Neither is sitting 4.0 games ahead (with a three-game road sweep in the pocket) of the favored Washington Nationals or being 6.5 up on recurring nemesis Philadelphia.
Perhaps if B.J. Upton and Heyward decide to finally become consistent contributors, these Braves might have more in store than just a hot start.
President Obama picked up the national refrain at Thursday’s memorial service in Boston for the victims of Monday’s bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
“We will all be with you as you learn to stand and walk and, yes, run again,” the president said. “Of that I have no doubt. You will run again. You will run again.”
There’s is no doubt that the Boston Marathon will take place for the 118th time next April. Bostonians wouldn’t have it any other way. And runners will keep running – even those who were traumatized by the blasts Monday.
But the running community – a bonded clan that covers every corner of the U.S. – was shattered in ways Monday that are hard to comprehend. And in many ways, the peace that running brings them may never be quite the same.
Monday’s events affected area runners who were there in very different ways.
Mike Rogers, a 67-year-old orthodontist from Augusta, crossed the finish line one minute before the bombs went off and was told to keep on running. He and his wife, Beth, returned safely home.
“I think I probably will run in Boston again,” said Rogers, who’s run 41 marathons in the past 10 years. “You can’t let one thing like that change your entire life. We want to not let the terrorists win.”
John Head, 51, of Aiken, finished 35 minutes ahead of the blasts and endured some difficulty reconnecting with his daughter, Rebecca, in the building chaos after the race.
“It sunk in more since I’ve gotten home,” said Head, whose four career marathons included two trips to Boston. “It was so strange to be around something like that. … It was nice to see the pride that Bostonians had in their city. They were so mad and determined to come back and make them stronger. One was concerned I might not come back. But I would go back again.”
Both men gave the expected response from someone with the strength and fortitude to run 26.2 miles.
My wife is a part of that “running community.” She had friends who were in Boston – friends who came home deeply affected by what happened to them and their extended running family.
One of those friends, Cindy Adams, tearfully revealed the complicated emotions that were dredged up by the Boston attack.
“I’m not in the mindset yet where a lot of runners are that we’re going to beat this,” said Adams, 51, of Athens, Ga. “Because for me right now it’s too raw.”
Adams, who started running in high school in Weston, Mass., had never fulfilled her desire to run the Boston Marathon until Monday. She finished in 3:38.39, just more than 40 minutes before the bombs went off.
Her daughters – Alexis, 13, and Analise, 11 – were with their father hoping to watch their mom cross the finish line. But it was too crowded so they stood a little further up Boylston Street. After Adams passed, her family tried to walk through the area where the bombs eventually went off but it was still too congested, so they made their way around the block to reach their designated family meeting area.
Adams remained the “strong mommy” until her family made it home.
“But when I dropped my kids off at school, it hit me,” she said. “The difficult thing for me, and I’m going to be emotional here, is my children were there and they had just walked through that area. Timing was everything. If my run had taken any longer ... what if, what if, what if? It’s one thing when adults take a risk. When you go off to do these types of things you sort of know the inherent risk involved. But when you have your children with you and electively choose to take your children with you as I did in this case, it’s a heavy weight that they were exposed to something such as this.”
Adams isn’t surprised to see runners across the country uniting in support.
“To be in Boston in the first place, you’re obviously very passionate about your sport and it is part of who we are,” Adams said. “So part of who we are has changed today and that’s difficult. I know the running aspect of it is so minor to what happened, but in the running community we’re dealing with a grief in addition to the grief of all of this. We’re dealing with a grief that something so near and dear to us – which is our sport – a piece of it died. We will go on and we will run and there will be further races, but our sport forever changed on Monday. And that’s a big chunk of who we are as people. It is a joy in our life and a positive in our life, it’s social and friendship and all of these things. For that to be on our minds when we go to races is going to be difficult.”
People are drawn to running for all manner of reasons. Maybe they do it to get in shape or lose weight. Maybe they do it get that “runner’s high.” Whatever the reason, they all feel a connection.
“We talk about it all the time how there are no strangers among us,” Adams said. “Even if we’ve never met before ... we immediately have a connection when we pass on the road. It’s a funny little thing. It’s cool in a sport that seems like it would be very isolated and very solitary.”
Nowhere is that connection more on display than Boston.
“The Boston Marathon, of all events, it is the most supportive,” Adams said. “This was my first running of it, but I’ve always heard that you’re a rock star. The entire town supports fitness and health and accomplishment and hard work. The entire 26 miles it was five people deep with people cheering for you. It’s just like nothing you’ve ever seen before in an arena.
“So the end of that race to be such a contrast of this evil I cannot fathom. In hindsight, I see it’s a sport that you can’t have security at an outdoor event like this. I’ve run many big-city marathons, but the thought never crossed my mind before. But now in hindsight I can see this is a known target now. I attempted to run New York, then Hurricane Sandy occurred and I rolled over my entry to next year. But will I go to New York? There are 40,000 people. It’s New York. I don’t know. I can’t immediately say, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to do this again.’ My mind will get that far, I hope. I hope I can turn around and later on feel like we’re better than this and I can continue on.
“I won’t expose my children to it, I can say that sadly. I think it’s important for children to see their parents setting an example and it was a great experience for them to see Boston and such a great event, but we know that obviously there’s a danger here that we have to see as reality.”
We’ve gotten used to all the security layers in place since 9/11. We don’t flinch when strangers poke through our bags before entering a football stadium or the Masters Tournament.
But marathons stretch across 26 miles of public roads. It’s impossible to “secure.”
“I think we’ve gotten a little lax since nothing else happened for so long,” Rogers said. “In 2002 or ’03 they were checking trunks of cars and people before the Boston Marathon. They haven’t been doing that anymore. I’m sure they’ll do what they can.”
In the end, we’re not going to stop holding marathons and parades and carnivals and all the things that make up our American lives.
They will run again, as the president said. But they may run looking over their shoulders, instead of just the open road ahead.
The Masters Tournament conclusion was worth the wait in so many ways.
The season’s first major championship was plagued by too many unpopular rulings and not enough of the roars we’ve grown accustomed to for three-and-a-half days before it finally erupted to a rousing crescendo on everybody’s favorite back nine on Sunday.
Adam Scott was brilliant in the rain – reacting with equal unbridled fervor to not one but two “winning” birdie putts on the last green of regulation and the second playoff hole.
But deserving equal praise is runner-up Angel Cabrera, whose 7-iron right at the flag on the 72nd hole was one of the best climactic counter-punches you’ll ever see in a major after one guy has already delivered a supposed knockout punch right in front of you. Cabrera was so good at the end, he had three potential winning shots drift fractionally past the cup in his last four holes starting at 17 in regulation.
Both players kept up the pristine blows despite the weather conditions and tense circumstances in the playoff, giving each other thumbs up after solid shots into the 10th green where so often one player stumbles in the playoff and cedes the green jacket to par.
Golf fans in the end got the thrilling Masters they’ve come to expect and Australia got the green jacket it deserved after being so cruelly denied through the years.
Scott is, as Cabrera said, “a truthful champion” and a feel-good story with the birdies of his life at the end.
“I’ll look forward to getting that letter from the chairman that I’m too old to play,” said the beaming Scott.
But in an annual tradition like so many others, here are a few more Birdies & Bogeys from the 2013 Masters:
BIRDIE: Angel Cabrera. The 2009 champ from Argentina finished second with heroic style and a touch of class, giving Scott a thumbs up in playoff fairway and a gracious hug at the end. He left proud.
BOGEY: Rory McIlroy. Once again he had a self-immolating stretch, going 8-over on his last 11 holes Friday to fall out of the top 10. The scars keep piling up at Augusta.
PAR: Tiger Woods. If his perfect shot doesn’t hit pin on 15 Friday and lead to all kinds of trouble, there may have been no stopping him. Instead, his frustrating major-less streak is approaching the five-year mark.
BIRDIE: Tianlang Guan. Forget the slow-play penalty for a minute (that’s too long), the Chinese eighth-grader was simply remarkable in making the cut on sheer short-game determination. Bravo kid.
BOGEY: Ireland. McIlroy was the highlight as Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and amateur Alan Dunbar missed the cut and Darren Clarke (hamstring) didn’t even start.
BIRDIE: Australia. The formally cursed land Down Under led after 18 (Marc Leishman), 36 (Jason Day) and finally 72 holes, with three guys finishing in top four. Day once again showed he’ll be a consistent threat.
BOGEY: Brandt Snedeker. Sunday as the co-leader was a bad time for his putting touch to abandon him. He gets those nerves settled, he’ll eventually win at a club he says feels like home.
BIRDIE: Steve Williams. Scott credited his caddie with “unbelievable read” on the winning putt. Stevie’s fourth Masters win (three with Tiger) on the bag moves him within one of Pappy Stokes’ record (Picard, Harmon, Hogan twice and Burke).
BOGEY: Phil Mickelson. With his Frankenwood. three-time champ only broke par (barely) once and was whinier than most about course conditions.
PAR: Bubba Watson. Never a factor after serving mac & cheese and grilled chicken to fellow champs, but he rallied to sneak into weekend field.
BIRDIE: Matt Kuchar. Yellow Jacket keeps lurking around lead long enough, me might just stumble into Bobby Jones’ green jacket sometime.
BOGEY: Sergio Garcia. Nothing wrong with T8, but try not to say this while sitting next to member after shooting 66: “It’s obviously not my favorite, my most favorite place, but you know, we try to enjoy it as much as we can each time we come here.” Big of you.
BIRDIE: Brian Gay. Former Louisville (Ga.) resident made the cut this time and thrilled local family and friends by hanging on leaderboard most of the first round.
BOGEY: Dustin Johnson. He was 7-under through 31 holes then went bogey-triple-par-bogey-double to disappear on Friday. He should be better than that at Augusta.
BIRDIE: PGA Tour winners. Masters chairman Billy Payne delivered great news when he opted to maintain invitations to expanded slate of tournament winners, trimming spots elsewhere to keep field intimate.
BOGEY: Russell Henley. Despite fighting back from opening double bogey, the Macon-bred Bulldog just never looked comfortable missing cut between the Georgia pines. But he’s young.
BIRDIE: Thorbjorn Olesen. Remember the name folks. Gifted Danish rookie finished T6 despite an opening 78. He’ll be back.
BOGEY: Hunter Mahan. After 76-82, it’s time to drop this Golf Boy from the favorites list until he delivers further notice.
DOUBLE EAGLE: Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore. The former Secretary of State was ubiquitous – playing with Mickelson, greeting patrons at Berckmans Place, parading on the range – but seeing both female members roaming the grounds in green jackets seemed so normal by week’s end.
BOGEY: Slow players. As unfortunate as it was to see a 14-year-old kid have to sweat the cut for doing something pros do all the time, a message was FINALLY sent to pick up the pace or risk the consequences.
BIRDIE: Junior golf. If a 14-year-old low amateur wasn’t enough, Augusta National is now inviting 7-year-olds to Drive, Chip & Putt Championship next year. How cool is that?
BOGEY: Competition committee. The Tiger Woods drop fiasco was mishandled in many ways, but letting it marinate four hours worldwide before openly addressing questions with an explanation didn’t help matters. Quicker action means better containment.
BIRDIE: CBS and ESPN. This many eyes haven’t watched the Masters since Tiger’s grand slam finale in 2001, with 44.3 million watching on the weekend. That’s just CBS. Imagine the numbers in Australia.
BOGEY: Classic chicken. As excited as we all were to see the return of a green-wrapped favorite, the new recipe is as original as Coke Classic but with far less flavor. Please spice it up like you did the pimento cheese.
Before Bubba Watson bent his ball out of the trees on No. 10.
Before Phil Mickelson blasted out of the straw and around the pine tree on No. 13.
Before Tiger Woods’ U-turn chip tumbled into the cup on No. 16.
Before most of the iconic shots that Masters Tournament champions have made en route to the green jacket, there was Sandy Lyle’s fairway bunker shot on No. 18 that set up a birdie to win in 1988. Just a year after Larry Mize’s astonishing chip-in on the 11th hole in a playoff crushed Greg Norman’s heart, Lyle provided another climactic shot for the ages.
“That was one of the most incredible shots that I’ve ever seen over there,” said Ben Crenshaw, who played with Lyle in the final round. “He took a 7-iron and took a very aggressive swing and the ball was contacted just perfectly. He didn’t take much sand and the ball just rocketed out of there straight up in the air.”
“Every time I play the hole, I look over there and shake my head,” said Mark Calcavecchia, who finished second by a shot to the rangy Scot.
Twenty-five years later, Lyle says a day rarely goes by that he’s not asked about Sandy’s miracle sandy that won him the Masters.
“Even to this day when I play in pro-ams, they all remember this bunker shot,” Lyle said.
He never tires of talking about it – or about his roller-coaster back nine that made him the last Masters champion in history to survive a Sunday double bogey on the perilous 12th hole.
“You couldn’t really write the script on that one,” said Lyle, who also won the 1985 British Open at Royal St. George’s in his Hall of Fame career. “I always felt that if I was going to win a major overseas, Augusta was one of the courses I felt reasonably comfortable I could do well on. I’d played U.S. Opens and PGAs and just couldn’t get my head around the setup of the golf courses. The narrowness of the fairways, the heavy rough – I felt like I was handcuffed. I just didn’t play well enough in them. My record in those tournaments was appalling. But the Masters I would always tend to find a reasonably good rhythm there and managed to win it once.”
Lyle became the first Masters champion from the United Kingdom, sparking a four-year British invasion, with England’s Nick Faldo winning in 1989-90 and Ian Woosnam of Wales winning in 1991. They were at the heart of a two-decade European reign at Augusta – 11 wins in 20 years – that included Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal.
“Seve was the forerunner who made us all believe in ourselves,” Lyle said. “There was a guy that we played most weeks in Europe and he’s gone over and won the Masters several times and gave of us a lot of hope that it’s not always going to be controlled by America’s golfers. There is a chance the European or British golfers could achieve it. It all sort of snowballed in that late ’80s.”
Lyle set his Masters victory in motion by winning the week before in Greensboro, N.C. – a feat not accomplished again until Phil Mickelson won in Atlanta and Augusta in 2006.
That sustained level of high play left Lyle exhausted after his remarkable sand shot to 10 feet.
“Very simply, it had been such a packed week of emotions and trying to maintain a level of golf in the afternoons,” he said. “I’d won the week before in Greensboro, and that was obviously a busy week and a lot of attention. Then the media attention the week of the Masters. It was an ongoing effort to try to keep the adrenaline going.”
After rolling in his birdie, he did a bit of a Scottish jig with his arms and putter raised high.
“I don’t think it meant to be kind of a somersault, but I had no legs left, nothing left in the tank at the end of that 72nd hole,” he said. “The dance was just happiness, emotions. I really could have just melted into a blob right there on the green and been quite happy for the next few hours. It’s something you can’t really explain unless you’ve experienced it, the sheer tension of that whole week trying to keep motivated and keep everything going forward and win the tournament. … When that final putt goes in you start to realize, ‘I’ve done it.’ I could feel everything just sort of draining away from my shoulders. It was time to enjoy it.”
Lyle held a three-shot lead standing in the middle of the 11th fairway, but a mud ball led to a bogey there. His 8-iron on No. 12 hit the crest of the bank and trundled back down into Rae’s Creek, leading to double bogey. Suddenly he was tied with Calcavecchia and in desperate need of rekindling his confidence.
“I needed another two feet in the air and it would have been perfect,” Lyle said of his shot on No. 12. “As it was, I said at least I’ve got two par-5s coming up (which he failed to birdie). I’m tied with Calcavecchia. Still some room to gather speed and stay in touch with the leader at the time. Managed to pull it off with birdie at the 16th and 18th holes.”
Despite his bogey-double combo in Amen Corner and failing to birdie either par-5 and shooting an inward 37, Lyle never buckled and managed to win anyway.
“He kept his head about him,” Crenshaw said. “Obviously he was playing well, but his mental capacities were such that he could shrug off mistakes and go on. He did a beautiful job of doing that.”
Lyle prefers being remembered for his heroic bunker shot than being the guy who won after making double at No. 12, but he appreciates what recovering from that setback means.
“It does take a bit of handling when you’ve had that lead for so long and you just see it sort of slip between the fingers," Lyle said. "It makes great theater for the television and the picture and emotions involved. Heartbreak and elation, all that rolled in a little package.”
Lyle presided over the Champions Dinner the next April wearing a Scottish kilt under his green jacket, piercing the haggis with his sword to serve his peers.
Carrying the title of Masters champion still means the most to Lyle as he returns for his 32nd Masters start this week.
“It’s been a huge, big bonus for me to win it,” he said. “I play obviously worldwide, and I’ve won a lot of titles around the world and in Europe, but the Masters seems to have that elevation – like a gold medal in the Olympics. It means so much to me.”
Perhaps you’ve heard that Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods again and assuming the role of presumptive five-time Masters Tournament champion when he arrives today to begin preparations at Augusta National.
Eighty-some other players are ignoring the press clippings and the twin covers of Sports Illustrated and believe that the green jacket hasn’t been won just yet. The most intriguing character in the counter debate is the one Woods just stole back the No. 1 crown from – Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy is competing in Texas this week – a last-minute emergency course therapy session for a player who as of a week ago seemed utterly unprepared to win the Masters this year. The young Northern Irishman had completed only two previous tournaments all season before climbing into contention at this week’s Valero Texas Open.
Some are convinced that whatever swing issues and confidence blocks McIlroy was suffering from since he made a high-profile equipment change this off-season will magically evaporate once he shows up at Augusta National.
“When Augusta rolls around, he’ll be fine,” said six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus at the very low point of McIlroy’s 2013 season, when he walked off the course mid-round at PGA National.
His performance in Texas thus far would support Nicklaus’ confidence in McIlroy’s talent trumping all. But even if McIlroy wins this week on an exacting course in San Antonio and starts breathing down Woods’ neck to regain the No. 1 position, is it that simple?
Is McIlroy back? Will it be a Rory vs. Tiger rivalry at the Masters?
McIlroy has more demons to deal with than a few months of bad swing thoughts when he shows in Augusta. For all of his gifts and his obvious ability to play well on the golf course, Augusta National hasn’t exactly been kind to him the four years he’s played there.
As a rookie in 2009, McIlroy had to get called into the principal’s office to explain a rather gruff “smoothing” of the sand with his feet after leaving a shot in the bunker on the 18th. The young player had just dropped five strokes to par on the last three holes to make the cut on the number – tripling 18.
After missing the cut in 2010, McIlroy was leading the field entering the back nine on Sunday in 2011 before famously melting down after hitting a drive on the 10th hole in between cabins that nobody other than club members previously knew existed. He was last seen bent over his driver on the 13th tee as he went through the final motions of an 80.
Then last year, McIlroy was sitting in fourth entering the weekend only to shoot a pair of 77s.
So can one good week at the TPC San Antonio erase all that from his head when he shows up at the first tee on Thursday?
McIlroy is tied for fourth entering the final round in Texas, which is obviously what he hoped to see when he cancelled a humanitarian trip to Haiti for the 11th-hour refresher.
“I just felt like I needed a bit more competitive golf heading into the Masters,” he said.
McIlroy says he’s not obsessing about his mostly poor start leading up to April. He went through a similar malaise starting at Augusta last year and running mush of the summer until he romped at the PGA Championship.
Turns out McIlroy might be a lot more like Phil Mickelson than Woods – less consistent but always capable of hitting the high notes.
“I don’t care if I miss 10 cuts in a row if I win a major a year,” he said. “I don’t care. I mean, that’s what it’s all about is winning the big tournaments. Of course, it’s not going to be great for your confidence going into those majors if you’re missing 10 cuts in a row.
“People remember the wins. They don’t remember that I shot 65 at Doral to finish eighth. I mean, people don’t remember that stuff, but they remember the wins and they remember the high points. It’s only a minority that will remember the low points and will get on you for that.”
When he gets to Augusta on Monday, it will serve McIlroy well to follow his own advice and forget the low points.
Maybe San Antonio will prove to be a turning point.
“I’d love to leave here on Sunday night with the trophy and have that before heading to Augusta next week,” he said.
It will certainly quiet any critics, but he still has a lot to prove once he gets here.
ATHENS, Ga. — There are three major sporting events taking center stage this week in Georgia.
There’s the Final Four in Atlanta, where a new NCAA men’s basketball champion will be crowned in the Georgia Dome on Monday night.
There’s the Masters Tournament, where players will start showing up this weekend at Augusta National Golf Club to prepare for golf’s ultimate major championship.
And there’s the G-Day spring football game on Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium.
You’d be surprised to know how many people rank that last intra-squad scrimmage as the most important of the three.
An estimated 44,000 fans – roughly the same number lucky enough to have badges to see a tournament round at the Masters – showed up last April to get an early glimpse at the reigning Southeastern Conference East champions.
A similar crowd (weather permitting) is expected this Saturday (1 p.m., CSS/ESPN3) to see for themselves if this team has the ingredients needed to get to the BCS title game that was so tantalizingly close last fall.
Will the talent-rich No. 1 offense overwhelm the rebuilt-from-almost-scratch defense? Who might be the new stars emerging to complement the established veterans for 2013? How will the new uniforms with the custom font and revamped Bulldog logo look in between the hedges?
“I’ve been pleased with what’s going on with spring ball to this point,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who expects a competitive scrimmage even if they’ll exclude kickoffs and punt coverage or any of the things that put players most at risk for unnecessary injuries. “When the ‘ones’ are playing, they’ll be going against the ‘ones,’ and the ‘twos’ will go against the ‘twos,’ which makes for a pretty even ball game.”
Coaches have long believed that spring camp is the most valuable time of year when coaches and players can install systems and work on whatever needs to be done without worrying about who the next opponent is. It’s time spent to focus solely on your own team – even if the newest toys from the latest recruiting class aren’t yet nestled in the fold.
While that intense off-season focus is most important for the program, it’s become an essential fix for devoted fans who can barely stand the summer months without America’s favorite game. The buildup to February’s signing day provides plenty of distraction (along with the NFL playoffs) in the weeks following the bowl conclusion. Then comes the spring game in fairly short order after that.
But once those scrimmages are done, college football generally disappears from view until the new season kicks off around Labor Day.
For that reason spring games – especially in the South, where fandom borders on religious fervor – have become increasingly embraced. Some like Alabama have even been nationally televised, with an average of more than 85,000 showing up the past three years to watch the Tide.
Ohio State drew a record 95,000 fans last year, proving football passion isn’t exclusive to the SEC.
South Carolina’s spring fever has grown as head ball coach Steve Spurrier has elevated the program – with attendance growing from 22,000 in 2010 to more than 34,000 last year. Gamecocks fans will have a chance to improve on that figure when the Garnet & Black spring game kicks off at 1 p.m. on April 13 (ESPN3).
Across the Palmetto state, Clemson will conduct its annual Orange & White scrimmage April 13 as well at 4 p.m. (ESPN3). A crowd of 28,000 showed up last year in Death Valley, but the Tigers are promising even bigger things in 2013.
What spring football does best is foster hope and renewal in fans. In games where you can’t lose, dreams run high for the upcoming season – and those dreams are justifiably large around here.
Last season for the first time in history – Georgia (12-2, No. 5), South Carolina (11-2, No. 8) and Clemson (11-2, No. 11) – all won bowl games to finish among the nation’s elite with at least 11 wins each. All three have legitimate aims at winning conference titles in 2013. All three have reasonable shots at competing for a BCS title.
And even rarer, all three will be able to determine the pecking order amongst each other with each team playing the other in 2013.
Clemson opens its schedule at home against Georgia and closes it on the road against rival South Carolina. The Bulldogs follow that much-anticipated opener by taking on the Gamecocks in Athens the very next week.
These are the games that will most define 2013 for each program. This is what they work for this spring.
“I want to leave a legacy as one of the all time greatest teams to ever come through the University of Georgia,” Georgia senior defensive lineman Garrison Smith said. “We’re going to have a lot of young guys coming through. Me being the lone senior on the defense, I would love to go out and bring a national championship to the University of Georgia and for Athens and the whole state of Georgia. Just to bring the title here would be some of the greatest history ever made.”
Similar proclamations and dreams can be heard in Columbia and Clemson.
The buildup all starts now.
There was much rejoicing and glad-handing from the powers that be in Statesboro that Georgia Southern was movin’ on up in the on-going collegiate realignment carousel.
But not every Eagle eye sees the grass any greener in the Sun Belt Conference.
Pat Douglas – Georgia Southern’s “original runt” when the school reinstituted its football program in 1982 – isn’t so sure that his alma mater did the right thing in trading the “championship” for the “bowl” in college football’s Division I heirarchy.
“It hasn’t sunk in,” said Douglas, the former Aquinas star who was the only senior among 98 freshman on Erk Russell’s start-up team that quickly became a Division I-AA powerhouse with a record six national championships. “I haven’t been plugged-in real well as to why we’re doing this. I’ve got a hunch it’s why most people are moving around conferences these days – money. I just hate to think of ruining those longtime rivalries (in the Southern Conference). ... That’s good competition and it’s not like we’ve outgrown that conference. I just don’t know that Western Kentucky or Louisiana-Monroe or whoever is going to be that much better competition than what we’re playing now.”
Douglas’ hunch is correct. Georgia Southern sees moving up as an opportunity to present the school as a bigger player in the collegiate landscape by being the small fry in the BIG pond instead of the biggest fish in the I-AA pool.
“Our student-athletes deserve the opportunity to compete and perform on a national stage, and all of our academic people deserve to perform on a national stage as well,” said school president Brooks A. Keel. “This move helps us market the university and get the word out beyond the reaches of Statesboro and our region.”
“In 10 years, I see us competing for championships within the Sun Belt Conference,” said Tom Kleinlein, the director of athletics. “I see us being a nationally-recognized institution for athletics and academics because of the exposure this move will have given us.”
Show of hands, please, if you consider South Alabama or Western Kentucky as “nationally recognized” on par with Alabama or Kentucky due to their long-standing Sun Belt affiliations. Anyone?
Regardless, Georgia Southern joined Southern Conference rival Appalachian State in leaping to the Sun Belt this week. The league also added Western Athletic Conference orphans Idaho and New Mexico State as football-only members. With 12 football members, league commissioner Karl Benson expressed interest in creating two divisions and having an annual conference championship game.
Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are likely to be fixed in the East Division with conference members Georgia State, Troy, South Alabama and Western Kentucky. The WAC newcomers will likely join Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State and Texas State (with non-football members Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas-Arlington filling the slots in basketball season).
Georgia Southern opted to step up after 65 percent of current students voted to pay $75 a semester to support the move to a new level (the parents who pay had no say).
Those fees will be applied to a 6,300-seat addition to 18,000-seat Paulson Stadium and a new end zone football operations center.
Do administrators really believe those extra seats will be filled by fans more eager to see Troy and WKU than they were to see rivals Furman and Wofford?
Perhaps on Thursday or Friday nights to get on ESPNU?
“I just wonder do you get that much more notoriety or exposure playing on a Thursday night against a team that nobody around here knows anything about than you would playing for and perhaps winning the national championship in what I still call I-AA?” Douglas said.
Last December, Georgia Southern played host in the afternoon to Central Arkansas in a quarterfinal playoff game on the same day Georgia faced Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship in Atlanta. Only 8,888 fans showed up at Paulson for the playoff game.
“We filled up about half of the dad-gum stadium and it was embarrassing,” said Douglas.
“I don’t know if in this close proximity of Athens and Georgia Tech in Atlanta ... you just kind of wonder when are you going to oversaturate it?”
Douglas’ son, Denis, is currently a sophomore at Georgia Southern and was among the 35 percent who did not vote in favor of the fee and moving up in classification. His older brother, John, played football for Georgia Southern and his younger brother, Brendan, will join the roster at Georgia next season, but Denis is just a football fan.
“I hope it works out,” he said. “I love the Southern Conference and it’s all about tradition. Something new to me doesn’t sound that good to me. But all the students were really pumped up about it.”
The football tradition Georgia Southern gives up is competing for a national championship. Six times the Eagles have won the title. Each of the past two seasons under coach Jeff Monken they’ve reached the national semifinals.
The Sun Belt currently has two automatic bowl tie-ins – the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl played the week before Christmas and the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala., played in January in the vicinity of the BCS Championship game. Last year it placed a record four teams in bowls with at-large invites to the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl in Detroit and the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Miss.
While Georgia Southern will be eligible for the Sun Belt title in 2014, it won’t be bowl-eligible until the 2015 season. The Eagles will play their already established Southern Conference schedule this season but without any eligibility for the conference championship or the playoffs.
“I always liked competing for a national championship instead of not a very good bowl,” said Denis Douglas.
Now fans can aspire to attend a pre-Christmas trip to New Orleans and maybe an extra money game per year on the road against an SEC or ACC school looking to pad its non-conference slate with a “D-1” willing to travel.
“I love that school and love Statesboro and Coach Monken has done a tremendous job,” said Pat Douglas of the program he helped start.
“Shoot, I’m rooting them on all the way. We’ll continue to be on the bandwagon and support them 100 percent. I just kind of scratch my head.”
He’s not alone. We can only hope Georgia Southern did the right thing.
The Sweet 16 is littered with many of the usual suspects from Tobacco Road, Hoosier territory, bluegrass country and Kansas.
And then there is every unaffiliated fan’s new favorite team – Florida Gulf Coast University.
Every now and again a truly unifying entity emerges, and tonight one of those bandwagon agents will have just about everyone in the nation on board cheering for the team from “Dunk City.”
FGCU – the school that didn’t exist until 1997 and few people knew of that existence until last Friday – is the first No. 15 seed to ever sniff the sweet air of the regional semifinals. The high-flying Eagles that everybody has suddenly fallen in love with will be taking on the Florida Gators – the flagship program everybody not associated with the Gainesville, Fla., school loves to hate.
As a lifelong fan of the Richmond Spiders who holds three credit hours from Virginia Commonwealth and once lived around the corner from George Mason, there is no hesitation in admitting that Florida Gulf Coast is the greatest bracket-busting story in the long history of March Madness.
Seriously, a week ago you didn’t even know what the initials stood for as you reflexively scribbled in “Georgetown” as the winner of the first round game. Now after two electrifying upsets, we can’t get enough of the Eagles.
What about the FGCU story ISN’T awesome?
There’s the viral video of “Dunk City” written in 10 minutes by two FGCU students and a dirty-bird dance that spontaneously sprang from the bench.
There’s the head coach – who may or may not be independently wealthy from a co-founding a health care business information firm – who was once a barn-storming shooting guru with an actual supermodel wife.
There’s a roster of joyful, free-wheeling athletes who perform on the biggest stage in college basketball as if it were a pickup game in the gym.
“You can’t just be too uptight and serious all the time, and my players, they have unique personalities,” said coach Andy Enfield. “You’ve probably seen that. I think that helps them tremendously in games because they don’t care who we play. They don’t care what stage they’re on. They don’t care where they play. They just have this unique confidence about them to compete.”
This is what makes the NCAA Tournament so irresistible – improbable teams from little known conferences wreaking havoc with the presumed powers. It’s something that can’t be replicated in football.
Florida Gulf Coast’s success has created all sorts of fan-demonium. School students Black Magic (Malike Adigun) and Bambi (Amber Angeloro) wrote and performed a music video immediately after the Georgetown upset that has generated nearly 500,000 hits on YouTube and countless more on aggregation websites.
The school’s newspaper – The Eagle News – published a special 16-page Sweet 16 edition this week.
The school’s Web site – which shut down at one point last weekend due to unprecedented traffic volume – is breathlessly trying to keep up with its overnight stars on the court.
“The FGCU men’s swagger and spirit, not to mention their speed and dunking finesse, have captured the hearts of hoops fans and underdog-lovers across the country,” wrote the team’s PR department. “The national buzz has ignited interest in Florida Gulf Coast University, now affectionately dubbed ‘Dunk City.’”
All the alley-oops and tomahawk jams have shocked opponents into submission, but it’s real talent that has carried them this far. A 21-2 second half run buried Georgetown and a 17-0 surge unraveled San Diego State.
All the while FGCU players laugh and dance and carry on with unbridled emotion like Ian Poulter at a Ryder Cup. The tongue-wagging Atlantic Sun player of the year Sherwood Brown threw out the “Dunk City” name after the Georgetown victory and it caught fire.
‘’They play with a swagger, and they have a right to do that,’’ said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who formerly rode Michigan’s swaggering Fab Five to consecutive national championship games.
Enfield – whose wife, covergirl Amanda Marcum, gave up the fashion runways from New York to Paris to raise their three kids and cheer from the bleachers – came to Fort Myers from Tallahassee two years ago and immediately transformed his program into giant killers.
While the closest thing to blue chippers are two transfers – 6-foot-10 Nate Hicks from Georgia Tech native Atlantan Jamail Jones from Marquette – he turned the unheralded players he inherited into shooting stars. The attitude is all theirs.
“If you’re not a fun loving guy, if you take yourself too seriously or you’re just a jerk, you’re not going to play for me,” Enfield said.
Who wouldn’t want to play for him?
“Our goal was to make history and we did it,” he said.
How much history remains to be seen. They have the talent and demeanor to become the greatest cinderella story since Jim Valvano ran around the court in Albuquerque, N.M., looking for someone to hug.
Valvano’s charmed 1983 N.C. State team may hold claim with many of the all-time fairy tale story because they actually got to (in the tournament sense) “live happily ever after.” The Wolfpack cut down the nets in the end, as did No. 8 seed Villanova two years later.
But N.C. State and Villanova – for all their unlikely success – had power conference pedigrees that FGCU of the A-Sun can’t boast.
Yet the Eagles have plenty to brag about. Keep on dunkin’ and dancin’ and everybody will long remember their new favorite team. The favored Gators, Jayhawks, Hoosiers and Cardinals better beware the kids from Dunk City.