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Michaux: New season brings hope to fans, prognosticators

Sat, 08/29/2015 - 9:10pm

For all the faults the game of football has – and they are numerous – there is nothing better than this time of season on the sports calendar.

We love the anticipation. We love the promise. We love the hope.

These last days before the opening kickoff are all about hope.

Hope that South Carolina bows up and proves last season was an aberration, not an omen.

Hope that Georgia can find a quarterback and finally fulfill its ubiquitous potential.

Hope that Georgia Tech has fresh talent to build on last year and take the next step.

Hope that Clemson can keep its stars healthy and perhaps achieve something special.

Hope that Georgia Southern shows up in Sanford Stadium undefeated and earns a significant bowl bid.

Hope that I’m not nearly as wrong about my preseason predictions as I was last year – but maybe a little bit wrong in the less optimistic guesses.

In the interest of full disclosure, last year was a relative disaster on the crystal ball front. The lesson is one should always stick with first instincts when it comes to meaningless predictions.

In a pre-training camp blog, I wrote this: “If I had to make a complete guess based on nothing but historical evidence and perception, I think the final four teams will end up being Alabama, Florida State, Oregon and Ohio State.”

Perfect ... then the thinking started and players got injured and by the end of August I came up with Louisiana State and Oklahoma replacing Alabama and Ohio State in the playoffs. I went with eventual 7-6 teams South Carolina and Virginia Tech winning their respective conference divisions. I had Georgia’s Todd Gurley winning the Heisman Trophy – which might have happened if a pile of mistakes and misfortune hadn’t fallen down on him.

So here’s to hoping for a better 2015 college football season all-around, starting with these picks:

 

GEORGIA: The biggest hurdle the Bulldogs have isn’t filling the quarterback role – it’s October. The team’s fortunes will be made or broken in a taxing month that includes Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Florida in succession. The middling Southeastern Conference East can be had, but the playoffs won’t happen again this year, which will start the irrational howling about Mark Richt again. Survey says: 10-3, Outback Bowl.

 

SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks will be better but not great. Losses to Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Clemson will dampen enthusiasm and raise the chorus about Steve Spurrier’s longevity. Verdict: 8-5, Gator Bowl.

 

GEORGIA TECH: There’s a lot to like about this team, especially Justin Thomas running the triple option. Jackets should be the class of the weak Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal. But I don’t like them winning at Notre Dame, at Clemson, on Thursday night against Virginia Tech or against rival Georgia. In conclusion: 9-4, Gator Bowl.

 

CLEMSON: If DeShaun Watson stays healthy behind a young offensive line, something special could be in store. We’ll know the stakes by mid-October after a Thursday night trip to Louisville followed by home dates with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Buckle up because this could get fun. Final answer: 12-2, ACC champs, Orange Bowl.

 

GEORGIA SOUTHERN: Eagles could not have made the transition to Division I-A and the Sun Belt look any easier, going 8-0 against new conference foes. This year – when they repeat – they’ll be eligible to compete in a bowl. Drumroll please: 11-2, Sun Belt champs, GoDaddy Bowl.

 

SEC: It’s Auburn’s turn in the Iron Bowl rotation to win the West – and thus the SEC title. The East will be its usual crapshoot of multiple-loss teams, with Tennessee taking a tiebreaker by virtue of a home win over Georgia.

 

ACC: Oh my goodness have you seen how weak Virginia Tech’s conference schedule is? It’s laughable. Non-division schedule is Boston College and N.C. State while Georgia Tech plays Clemson and Florida State. Hardly seems fair. Gobblers will be no match for Clemson in championship game.

 

PLAYOFFS: There will be massive shrieking about the four-team playoff limit when the Pac-12 gets shut out this time. High-end parity will have them eating their own out west, while the ACC and Clemson steal the fourth spot in the field with Ohio State, Auburn and Texas Christian.

 

HEISMAN: As a consolation prize for missing the playoffs, Southern Cal quarterback Cody Kessler will take the trophy in the name of the Pac-12 from a stage that includes Nick Chubb, DeShaun Watson and a Buckeye to be named later.

Perhaps I’ve underestimated the major locals and three of them can reach conference title games. The beauty is, we can always hope.

Michaux: Michaux: Trio begin quest for Masters Tournament spot

Wed, 08/26/2015 - 6:40pm

The great Masters Tournament qualifying series – a.k.a. the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs – gets underway today in Plainfield, N.J., and a few local favorites have their eyes on the Augusta prize.

Aiken’s Kevin Kisner, Augusta’s Charles Howell and North Augusta’s Scott Brown all are within reasonable distance of reaching the Tour Championship at East Lake (and all the major exemptions that go with it) with a couple of good finishes.

For Kisner, a Georgia grad, and Brown, from USC Aiken, the opportunity to compete in their hometown major for the first time is tangible. There are three ways to get into the Masters field by the end of the year – a tour victory, Tour Championship appearance or year-ending top-50 ranking – and any one of them would suit them just fine.

Kisner has lost in three playoffs this season and Brown held a share of the lead on the back nine in Greensboro last Sunday before finishing fourth.

“It’s a lifelong dream and goal of mine to play Augusta,” Kisner said. “I grew up going to the tournament, grew up so close to there. My whole life has been working to play it and tournaments like that. Although it might be the biggest nightmare as far as logistics and people wanting to go watch, it would still be probably the greatest thrill of my career. Hopefully we fulfill one of those three areas to get in and have a great time in April.”

Said Brown: “I’d love to get to East Lake and be able to play at Augusta. That would be a real treat.”

Kisner, currently ranked No. 36 in the world, is in the best position to fulfill a couple of those requirements. He starts the playoff series ranked 17th in points – exactly the same position fellow Georgia golfer Harris English began the series in last year. English, however, wound up falling to 32nd and missing out on the Tour Championship and the perks that came with it after missing the cut in the first two playoff events and finishing 31st in the no-cut BMW.

So Kisner understands it’s no time to breathe easy with the points quadrupled for the first three playoff events in which he’s statistically guaranteed a start in each.

“You’re never safe when they’re adjusting the points,” Kisner said. “I don’t think you can ever look at it like, ‘Oh, I’m good.’ You still have to go out and play well. I’m in a position to have a chance to win, but I’m also in position to have a letdown compared to the rest of the year. So you’ve still got to stick your nose down and keep grinding. Hopefully you pop off a couple of top-10s and have a chance to win and the rest will take care of itself.

“If you get comfortable you’ll be at home in three weeks. I want to go all the way to the end and that’s going to take a couple of good finishes.”

Howell and Brown start the four-event elimination series ranked 70th and 71st in points. That position is likely to get them at least the first two starts before the field gets cut down to 70 for the BMW Championship.

Both players understand how hard it is to make a playoff move. Howell started 2014 in 33rd and ended up treading water with finishes of T22, T35 and T36 in the first three events. He started 27th in 2013 and slipped to 35th. Howell’s seven top-25 finishes this season were his fewest since 2006.

Brown started 53rd last year and faded to 84th after a missed cut in the Barclays and a 77th-place finish in Boston. He said this time around is “no holds barred.”

Howell and Brown will likely need a 12th-place finish or better in one of the first two events to proceed to the BMW and a very high finish in at least one of the events to possibly make it to East Lake.

They can each take incentive from last year’s $10 million FedEx Cup winner Billy Horschel, who won it all despite starting the series in 69th place with a pair of wins and a runner-up that last three weeks. Two other players started off way back in the rankings last year and made it to the Tour Championship – Geoff Ogilvy was 90th and Morgan Hoffman barely squeezed in at 124th before a pair of high finishes moved him up.

“It would be awesome to do something like Billy Horschel did last year,” Brown said after vaulting 28 spots in the standings with his performance last week. “I feel like I’m playing good enough to do something like that if it will all come together. It’s such a week-to-week game anyway.”

Brown certainly proved himself under pressure by playing in the crucible with Tiger Woods on Sunday and electrifying the crowd with an ace on the third hole. While admitting nerves with the overwhelming crowds, he said the experience was both energizing and draining.

“Momentum-wise, it’s good, but it was a big drain playing with Tiger on Sunday,” Brown said. “Not only are you in contention in the golf tournament, but you’re playing with him. It’s like a double whammy. But I felt good about it.”

Kisner, who had never finished inside the top 100 in points before this season, plans to treat the next three weeks like he has the rest of his breakout season.

“You can’t really go out of your normal routine just because it’s the playoffs,” he said. “Just stick to what I’ve done all year and made me successful and see what happens.”

The only playoff course Kisner has played before is the BMW site Conway Farms, where he played in the AJGA Canon Cup as a teenager. But the new territory fits his increased stature on tour.

“The last three months of this year has all been new tournaments,” he said. “Never played Chambers Bay, never played Firestone, never played Whistling Straits. So it’s kind of gone with a theme when you get to these upper-echelon tournaments. It’s kind of like starting as a rookie on the tour, you’re starting as a rookie on this tier of the tour. I’ve got to figure out how to play these courses if I’m going to stay on this tier.”

With any luck, the next step on that tier is Augusta National.

Michaux: Matt NeSmith still has Walke Cup hopes

Sat, 08/22/2015 - 7:53pm

It was a successful yet frustrating U.S. Amateur for the local representatives.

North Augusta’s Matt NeSmith and Georgia Regents’ Maverick Antcliff posted field-low 65s in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the stroke-play qualifying at Olympia Fields to earn them each top-10 seeds in the 64-man match play.

That didn’t exactly buy either of them enviable matchups – like being the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and facing Michigan State or Kentucky in the second-round.

In the round of 32, Antcliff drew world No. 2 amateur Maverick McNealy, of Stanford, while NeSmith got world No. 6 and reigning NCAA individual champion Bryson DeChambeau, of Southern Methodist. Both McNealy and DeChambeau were joined by Georgia’s Lee McCoy among the first five players picked for the U.S. Walker Cup team.

McNealy dispatched Antcliff 5 and 4 on Thursday despite making only one birdie in 14 holes. NeSmith, however, ran into a buzzsaw in DeChambeau, who shot 31 on the front to go 6-up before also winning 5 and 4.

DeChambeau beat McNealy in the next round and is vying today to join Jack Nicklaus (1961), Phil Mickelson (1990), Tiger Woods (1996) and Ryan Moore (2004) as winners of both the NCAA and U.S. Amateur in the same year.

For NeSmith, the early elimination didn’t enhance his chances of joining the Walker Cup roster. The final five selections will be made by captain Spider Miller today, and two of those spots must go to mid-amateurs 25 or older.

That leaves NeSmith – who won the Southeastern Conference Championship and prestigious Player Amateur this season – competing with heavyweights Jordan Niebrugge (former U.S. Public Links champion and low amateur at the British Open), Alabama’s all-American Robby Shelton and last year’s U.S. Amateur semifinalist Denny McCarthy for the last three spots available.

Niebrugge and Shelton are considered shoo-ins and McCarthy also got eliminated in the round of 32. McCarthy is the world’s 10th ranked amateur while NeSmith sits 21st.

“I figured if I could get myself to the (quarterfinals), then I could give myself a really good shot,” NeSmith told the Golf Channel of his Walker Cup hopes. “I didn’t quite get there. It’s been one of my goals. It’s the biggest thing you can achieve in amateur golf, to get to that highest level.”

WELCOME TO AUGUSTA: Whatever happens in today’s 36-hole final is gravy, as the hard part of the U.S. Amateur is over. In Saturday’s nerve-wracking semifinals – a.k.a the Masters qualifying matches – DeChambeau and Virginia golfer Derek Bard booked passage to Augusta National. Congratulations. See you in April.

TIGER STALKING: On the surface and perhaps in any other year, Saturday at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., looked like a total mismatch.

On one side of the final third-round pairing you had rookie Tom Hoge (pronounced like the sub sandwich) playing his 80th tour round. On the other was Tiger Woods, trying to earn his 80th tour victory.

In his past life, closing out a weekend with any share of the lead was almost a foregone conclusion for Woods (37 of 47 times with 36-hole lead). But this is not any season for a player who’s fallen to 286th in the world and has struggled to sustain his game on the occasions he’s made the cut in 10 prior starts this year. He shot 73 on Sunday at the Masters and had failed to break par on Saturday in four made cuts since.

Woods only came to Greensboro for the first time desperate to win to keep his season alive an qualify for the PGA Tour’s playoffs. He has faithfully snubbed the event ever since turning pro and then winning the Masters in 1997 two weeks before what could have been his first Greensboro start.

The golf-rich community has been starved to see him, buying up every available ticket and giving him standing ovations after his rounds of 64-65 earned him a share of the 36-hole lead. When Woods made eagle on the 15th hole Friday to claim a share of the lead, “the reaction was so sudden, so loud, the water on the lake rippled from the noise” local columnist Ed Hardin wrote.

“It was a great atmosphere. Great to be a part of and lot of fun,” Woods said.

“This is going to get insane Saturday, and you know it. And Tiger knows it. And Tom Hoge knows it,” wrote Hardin.

It looked insane, with sold-out crowds swarming in Woods’ wake while the rest of the course appeared deserted from the blimp shots.

It will only get crazier if Woods keeps it up – and not just in North Carolina. A Woods victory would not only jump start his quest to catch San Snead’s PGA Tour wins record on the same course Snead won his 82nd and last event as a 52-year-old in 1965.

A Tiger victory – even against a relatively weak field – would be a welcome inclusion in what has already been a great season loaded with fresh superstars like Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy.

But as the Sedgefield throngs (and this weekend’s inevitable TV ratings spike) show, nobody in golf moves the needle and raises the pulse rate like a stalking Tiger.

TURNING BACK THE CLOCK: In other comeback news, 51-year-old Davis Love III held the Wyndham Championship lead for most of Friday morning and sat just one off the lead through 36 holes. The Ryder Cup captain could become the third oldest winner in tour history, behind Snead and Art Wall. Love won his 20th event seven years ago and last won in Greensboro in 1992. Perhaps a 21st win – and a U.S. triumph next fall at Hazeltine – would finally get him the World Golf Hall of Fame entry he already deserves. He had 69 on Saturday and four behind leader Jason Gore.

Officiating has been a labor of love Huffman family

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 7:37pm

They’ve been preparing for months, studding Hudl video and reviewing techniques. All the hard work comes together on the first Friday night of the season in prep football.

“It gives you a boost of energy every year,” said Chip Huffman, who’ll take the field at Westside when it plays host to Evans tonight. “I’m excited about Friday night.”

Huffman is not a player or a coach. He is a head referee, and he’s been handling the weekly assignments for Augusta association football officiating crews since taking over from his father, Fred, in the late 1990s.

The 53-year-old Butler grad and Evans resident has been officiating football since the fall after he graduated from high school in 1980. In 36 years, he’s missed only one season-opening Friday night – two years ago when a golf trip to Ireland overlapped with the opening kickoffs.

Like his father who officiated Georgia high school games for 45 years before being diagnosed with cancer, Huffman loves his “thankless” secondary job. His years of dedication to youth athletes was rewarded recently, as Huffman received the 2015 Charlie Bloodworth Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Athletic Officials Association.

“I’ve been blessed to work with very good officials and we’ve worked a lot of playoff games,” he said of the honor. “So it’s not only rewarding for me but for the guys I’ve worked with over the years. Not many times officials are recognized, so it was nice to come from my peers.”

The Augusta association of officials covers about 20 schools from Glascock to Lincoln counties. While most of the work is usually within an hour’s drive from home, several times a year Huffman’s team is asked to work as a “neutral” crew for rivalry games, usually in south Georgia hotspots such as Valdosta or Charlton County.

“I’ve done some Valdosta-Lowndes games,” he said. “Whole town shuts down. Last year it fell on Halloween night and the community moved Halloween so everyone could go to the football game. That’s what high school football means to folks in that part of Georgia. It’s a little different atmosphere than what we see locally.”

Huffman’s seen a lot happen on Georgia’s football pitches over the past 35 years – some Friday nights tougher than others.

The worst was Nov. 4, 1988, at Richmond Academy when a 175-pound senior defensive end named Freddie Hudson III lowered his shoulder to tackle Westside’s Scott Pittenger on the game’s opening kickoff. The 17-year-old Hudson suffered multiple fractures in his third and fourth vertebrae, which protect the spinal cord, and was paralyzed. Hudson passed away in 2013.

“To have a kid on opening kickoff crumble to the ground and end up paralyzed from the neck down – things like that don’t ever fall out of your head and you remember them forever,” Huffman said.

More often, however, the memories are less painful. Huffman has had the chance to see every great athlete from the region for nearly four decades – from Garrison Hearst at Lincoln County, Deon Grant at Josey or Washington County stars like Takeo Spikes, Terrence Edwards and A.J. Gray.

“I’ve seen some terrific players because we’ve had a lot of athletes come through this area,” he said. “You can tell who they are. You see more speed than anything that makes them stand out.”

He saw former Georgia star linebacker Rennie Curran when he was at Brookwood deliver the single hardest hit he’s ever witnessed.

“I was surprised the kid who caught the pass got up,” Huffman said.

He covered a Class AAAAAA playoff game between Norcross and Camden County that featured 19 Division I college players including current Bulldogs Brice Ramsey and Lorenzo Carter and Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara.

“That game was probably loaded with more talent than any game I’ve ever officiated,” Huffman said.

As the assigning secretary, Huffman’s the one who gets the angry phone calls Saturday morning from coaches upset about some call the night before. It comes with the territory.

“As officials we’re going to get some right and some wrong,” he said. “It’s just part of the game. We don’t have the luxury of replay. If you’re in the right spot to make a call, there’s not a whole lot people can judge you about.”

Huffman worries about what the future holds for high school officiating. It’s getting harder every year to attract college-age kids to don the stripes like Huffman did when he officiated as a student at Augusta College.

“It’s very hard to get them involved in it anymore,” he said. “Just the nagging they get from 5- and 6-year-old football games. ‘I’ve got to listen to this?’ You catch more grief in youth football than high school. I don’t know where officiating will be in 10 years.”

A new official Huffman did recruit is his youngest son, Chase, a former Greenbrier player. Now 25, Chase joined his father’s crew several years ago, meaning a third consecutive generation of Huffmans will be patrolling under the Friday night lights.

“He turned out to be a good official,” his father said. “He’s been to camps with college coordinators. I’m hoping he’ll make progress and move to the next level in a few years.”

Officiating preps remains a labor of love for Huffman, whose day job is spent as a commercial sales project coordinator for C&M Equipment in Watkinsville, Ga. There are off-season meetings and studying game film to keep abreast of everything to try to improve each season.

“People don’t realize the time involved,” said Huffman, who also helps assign basketball crews for GISA. “It’s a year-round deal getting organized for the season. But I enjoy it and there’s nothing better than Friday nights, teeing it up and letting them play.”

 

Michaux: PGA provides a perfect finish to major season

Tue, 08/18/2015 - 11:06am

It was arguably the perfect finish to punctuate the major golf season.

Jason Day playing with heart and emotion that came spilling out in tears all over the 18th green.

Jordan Spieth being his usual relentless self in pursuit and gracious in defeat while acquiring the world No. 1 ranking as the consolation prize.

Rory McIlroy acquitting himself well coming off a two-month break from an ankle injury, proving he’s not backing down from the fight for golf’s supremacy.

The PGA Championship capped off a dramatic and historic major season with a couple new records and a whole lot of promise.

The three best players in the world who have won five of the last six majors happen to be three of the nicest and most likable golfers in the world and all 27 or younger. It portends a popular new era for the game that is filled at the moment with fearless and dynamic young talent.

Day deserved to join the roster of major winners considering his nearly 50 percent record of top-tens (10 of 21 starts) on the biggest stages. Holding at least a share of the lead come Sunday in three consecutive majors, he burst into tears as he tapped in the final putt that broke the record for lowest major score in relation to par and validated a long journey to the top.

Then he spoke with candor about what the alternative might have been had he come up short again.

“It would have been very tough for me to kind of come back from a major championship such as this if I didn’t finish it off,” Day said. “Knowing that I had the 54-hole lead or tied for the 54-hole lead for the last three majors and not being able to finish, it would have been tough for me mentally, to really kind of come back from that. Even though I feel like I’m a positive person, I think that kind of in the back of my mind something would have triggered and I would have gone, ‘Maybe I can’t really finish it off.’”

He finished it brilliantly and left Spieth in awe watching him. It could not have been a better show.

The final major scorecard from glory’s last shot:

BIRDIE: Jordan Spieth. He’ll have to settle for the third greatest season in major history, coming one shot short of a playoff at the British and one spot shy at the PGA. But even in failing to win the Grand Slam he changed what we believed was possible in golf and became the game’s most popular star at barely 22.

BIRDIE: Rory McIlroy. Sure, he lost his No. 1 crown and came up short in head-to-head comparison with Spieth. But four rounds under par after a two-month layoff with a shredded ankle is hardly surrender. What he learned watching Spieth grind should only motivate him.

BIRDIE: Branden Grace. He mixed it up deep on Sundays with the best the game has to offer at Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits. Okay, Mr. Grace, you’ve got our attention now.

PAR: Phil Mickelson. His playfulness sliding down a hill on his trousers was fun. His 12 birdies and an eagle on the weekend were impressive. But Phil needs to be perfect now to compete with these fearless kids, and I’m not sure he has much perfect left in him approaching 46.

BIRDIE: Justin Rose. Added a 4th at PGA to his finishes of 2, 6 and 27 in majors this season with some of the best ball-striking of the bunch. Joins Spieth, Day, Grace and Louis Oosthuizen with at least two top-fours in majors this season.

BOGEY: Dustin Johnson. In fairness, like everyone else he wasn’t going to catch Day. But starting Sunday with a quadruple 8 is inexcusable for a golfer of his talents. It was reminiscent of his early implosion at Pebble Beach. Questions of his ability to close get more merit every major.

BOGEY: Tiger Woods. The best thing he did was commit to play in Greensboro this week. That’s the only way to pull out of this nosedive. Fifteen years after the greatest major run in golf history, he’ll be trying to avoid the Cut Slam in April.

BIRDIE: David Lingmerth. Two months ago most people never heard of him. Now the young Swede has a Memorial win and a lot of name recognition for spins atop the leaderboards in both the British Open and PGA.

BOGEY: Charles Howell. Was sitting pretty in the top 15 before retreating with 77-74 on a weekend when the scoring hit record lows. At least he made his first major cut since 2012.

BIRDIE: Whistling Straits. The PGA’s new go-to venue delivered excitement again and another high-caliber champion. Not only looks great on camera but the risks and rewards made for compelling play thanks to a fair setup. The 2020 Ryder Cup should be fun.

BIRDIE: Brooks Koepka. Since tying for fourth at Pinehurst last year, Koepka is proving to be a major player. Progressively improved from T33 to T18 to T10 to T5 in this year’s majors. He’ll be a force.

BOGEY:: Bubba Watson. Ant-man got into an argument with a rules official over whether ants were “burrowing animals.” His biology intellect might not be unexpected, but we do expect more than backdoor T21s from Watson.

BIRDIE: Steve Stricker. A solid top-30 in front of his home state fans was pretty fair for a part-time golfer. Without any exemptions left, he understands it might have been a walk-off major. Hopefully he’ll at least return to Whistling Straits as Ryder Cup captain in 2020.

BIRDIE: Boo Weekley. You have to love a guy who shoots 65 on Saturday and then goes fishing.

BOGEY: John Daly. His frustrated heave of his club into Lake Michigan after rinsing a sleeve in it only adds to his everyman charm. But the show gets tiresome after awhile.

BOGEY: Adam Scott. Last chance to add to his major resume using the anchored broomstick came and went with a missed cut. We’ll find out if he came do it without a crutch from now on. Here’s hoping he can.

BIRDIE: Nick Price. The International Presidents Cup captain has to feel pretty good about the way his team is shaping up with Day, Grace, Anirban Lahiri, Oosthuizen, Hideki Matsuyama, Marc Leishman, Charl Schwartzel, Scott and Danny Lee all in decent form. It might not be such a mismatch.

BIRDIE: Greensboro. A field that includes former No. 1s Scott, Ernie Els, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and Vijay Singh also finally got Tiger to grace Sedgefield with his presence. Never before has a city been so excited to see the No. 286th ranked player in the world.

BOGEY: Records. Tiger Woods watched from his sports bar in Jupiter, Fla., as Day’s 20-under topped his major scoring record while Spieth’s 54-under major season clipped his 53-under in 2000. In fairness, they lowered par at Pebble Beach on him despite lengthening the course. But still.

BIRDIE: Ellie Spieth and Dash Day. The sister and the son of the primary protagonists stole the show once the golf was over.

BOGEY: CBS. Blame it on the money-obsessed PGA of America or those infernal Omega/Rory ads, but there is less actual live golf shown at the PGA every year than in any other major. CBS gets it right in the end, but there was so much more that could’ve been done.

Michaux: Evans native Brian Tillman climbing ranks in beach volleyball

Sat, 08/15/2015 - 7:47pm

I’m not sure what ranks as the last sporting event in the world where you’d expect to find a former Evans High School basketball player and Augusta State computer science major, but the crown jewel of beach volleyball would be pretty far down the list.

The 56th Manhattan Beach Open, the longest continuous running tournament in beach volleyball and considered the mecca of the sport, took place this weekend and 34-year-old Evans native Brian Tillman was one of the 64 men in the 32-team main draw.

“This is huge,” Tillman said Friday from Los Angeles as he headed to the famous Manhattan Beach Pier for the event. “If you’re a fan of volleyball or know anything about it, they call this the granddaddy of them all. This is the biggest domestic tournament that we have. It’s like the Wimbledon or Super Bowl of volleyball for the United States.”

How Tillman found his way into the event that used to be featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when he was a kid is an unusual story. The 6-foot-6 Tillman never played much volleyball growing up, focusing on basketball at Evans where he played power forward for coach Kevin Kenny’s team before graduating in 1999.

He stuck to studying computer science when he went to Augusta State and got a job as a programmer for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Columbia. It was there that he started playing in a work volleyball league and had a colleague ask him to play in a local tournament.

“When I started going to tournaments I was hooked right away,” Tillman said.

Turns out he was a natural for a sport he’d never play in before he was 25.

“It helps in volleyball if you’re a taller, athletic guy,” Tillman said. “So I had a lot of natural advantages right off the bat and I was lucky enough to make good friends who helped me work on my skills and recognized I could be a good player. So I fell into the right group.”

Tillman spent a couple of years pursuing it fulltime, living in Florida and working with coach Michael Morales to hone his game. It was there he roomed with Jonathan Rogers, who became his two-man teammate.

Tillman married Holly Battenhouse last year and he settled down in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., taking a career job as a systems analyst for a government contractor in Charleston. But he still competes on the AVPNext Tour – a developmental tour for aspiring AVP pros.

AVPNext conducted a regional competition series this summer that offered automatic berths into the main draw at the prestigious AVP Manhattan Beach Open to seven men’s and women’s teams who emerged as regional winners.

“I’ve never gotten a chance to play in it before, so it was a goal of mine all summer because I saw the opportunity with AVPNext to win this trip,” Tillman said. “So I called my partner and he was up for it and we worked hard to travel all summer to win our zone and actually pulled it off.”

Tillman and Rogers won five of seven events – in Emerson, Ga., Wilmington, N.C., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Pompano Beach, Fla. – to claim the Southeast Regional and earn their spot at Manhattan Beach. It was only the second AVP main draw Tillman competed in, placing 17th in 2010 at an event in Virginia Beach, Va.

“It’s the biggest tournament either one of us has played in, so there’s a little bit of nerves,” Tillman confessed en route to the competition. “But we’re both very excited for the opportunity. Our goal was just to get here and see how well we could compete against the best players in the country.”

The competition didn’t go as well as planned. Seeded 20th in the 32-team field, Tillman and Rogers lost to 13th seeds Trevor and Taylor Crabbe, 21-12, 21-13, in the first round of the double-elimination event on Friday. Then later in the contender’s bracket against 29th seeds Justin Phipps and Bill Strickland, Tillman and Rogers won the first game 21-19 but lost the next two 17-21, 6-15 to finish the tournament tied for 25th.

Tillman finished with four blocks, 27 kills, 42 attacks, two digs and a 54.8 hitting percentage.

Even though they won’t get their names immortalized on the Manhattan Beach Pier with the likes of Karch Kiraly, Tillman got to compete in the deep, soft sand where legends have been made since 1960. Four-time women’s defending champion April Ross called Manhattan Beach “the most idyllic place to play in the entire world,” so they’ve got that going for them.

Tillman and Rogers walked away with $400 – which beats the case of Pepsi winners of the original beach volleyball tournament got in the late 1940s – and the experience of a lifetime that he never could have envisioned when Tillman grew up playing basketball in Evans.

Whatever comes next is just gravy.

“I love this sport,” Tillman said. “Even if I wasn’t trying to compete at the highest level I’d still be trying to play the best I could for as long as I can move. This is the high point of my career and I’ll go from here and see how long I can compete at a high level.”

Michaux: PGA Championship at Whistling Straights is on course for drama

Tue, 08/11/2015 - 7:02pm

The PGA Championship returns to Whistling Straits this week for the third time in 11 years – an unprecedented rate of recidivism that is even more impressive considering the course is only 17 years old.

The PGA of America’s love affair with the faux links layout on the shores of Lake Michigan is so entrenched that it will take the Ryder Cup there in 2020. It’s a visually stunning piece of Pete Dye-made architecture that looks spectacular on television and has produced playoff drama in both previous PGAs held there in 2004 and 2010. It doesn’t hurt that the only champions crowned there (Vijay Singh and Martin Kaymer) ascended to the world’s No. 1 ranking shortly thereafter.

That would seem to bode well for the setup between the two current stars battling it out for the title of world’s best. No. 1 Rory McIlroy returns to the arena for the first time since the U.S. Open, having had to sit out the British with a torn up ankle. He’ll have to hold off Jordan Spieth, who barely missed sweeping the year’s first three majors and can claim the No. 1 ranking this week.

This is the modern rivalry golf has been clamoring for, and the PGA obliged by pairing them along with British Open winner Zach Johnson for the first two rounds. If Whistling Straits were to deliver another playoff with those two superstars in it, the PGA of America might just declare it the “Home of the PGA” and return cyclically they way the R&A returns the British Open to the home of golf at St. Andrews at consistent intervals.

McIlroy and Spieth, however, are only two of the characters worth keeping an eye on this week. There are a lot of good stories in search of the Wanamaker Trophy:

1. RORY MCILROY. Taking a page from the Tiger Woods manual, the defending PGA champion spent the weeks leading up to it teasing whether he would show up. Woods had us watching the Augusta airport and seeking practice round reports to see whether he was planning to make his return from a two-month leave at the Masters in April. McIlroy utilized social media with videos, pictures and emojis offering clues that he was healthy enough to return.

“To play golf, it’s 100 percent,” McIlroy finally declared Monday after three days of practice on site. He has to be motivated to steer the spotlight back away from Spieth.

2. JORDAN SPIETH. Not only can he join Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three professional majors in the same year, he can snag the No. 1 ranking he covets. He can also make it finishing second as long as Rory is outside the top six, 13 or 33 (depending on how many share second) or solo third if McIlroy misses the cut.

“It would be really,
really incredible at the end of this week if I was able to hold that trophy and have that (No. 1) position going forward,” Spieth said.

He’s also motivated from the other wing of his PGA grouping considering his near-miss extending his Grand Slam quest at St. Andrews.

“So to have that chance and to feel like I was the one in control and to not finish it is a tough feeling,” Spieth admitted. “And it was a tough feeling on that flight home, especially with Zach and the (claret) jug there. I wish that it was in my possession there and not his.”

3. DUSTIN JOHNSON. If any story could trump those first two, it would be Johnson finally burying his major hiccups with a victory on the course where he infamously lost a spot in a playoff because of a bunker ruling that still has many befuddled. The rule was clear even if his situation in a trampled patch of sand wasn’t. Johnson is so close to fulfilling his destiny as a great player, it would be fitting if he got it here – with a sand save from one of the course’s 1,012 bunkers, no less. “I’m not too worried about it,” he said recently. “I like the golf course. I played well there, so...”

4. TIGER WOODS. It’s been six years since Hazeltine when Y.E. Yang blunted his seemingly inexorable march to a 15th major, and other circumstances intervened soon after to secure Jack Nicklaus’ major record. Woods remains fascinating even in a steep decline that has him on the brink of falling out of the top 300. He’s yet to prove he can put four rounds together and needs a high finish or his season will be over. “By playing well in the PGA, that determines whether or not I’ll play (Greensboro), and obviously the rest of the FedExCup Playoffs,” he said.

5. JASON DAY. He fought through vertigo and still contended at the U.S. Open. He left a playoff-inducing putt short at the British Open. He came back and birdied the last three holes to win the Canadian Open. Day is my pick to win this week (and since I picked Zach Johnson on European TV to win the British, I’m feeling lucky).

“I felt like it changed me and the way I look at myself after the week prior coming into the Canadian Open,” Day said of his bounceback. “And I felt very confident in my ability to come back.”

6. BUBBA WATSON. He lost to Kaymer in the 2010 playoff here, but this iteration of Watson is frighteningly more talented and confident than five years ago. His bombing drives in consecutive runner-ups in Canada and Firestone coming into this week bode well for another run.

7. KEVIN KISNER. Our local Aiken entry might seem out of place on this list, but the former Georgia All-American is worth a closer look this week. Kisner has missed his maiden in three playoffs this spring/summer, but two of those came on other Pete Dye masterpieces at Harbour Town and Sawgrass.

“Pete’s done some great courses and some I don’t love,” Kisner said. “Obviously those were two that I really do like. I’ve never been to Whisling Straits but I can’t wait to go in the summertime, that’s for sure.”

8. CHARLES HOWELL. It’s been 12 years since Augusta’s most heralded current pro finished tied for 10th in the 2003 PGA at Oak Hill – Howell’s lone major top 10. His major record defies logic for a player so talented who ranks among the top 25 in career money leaders. His recent major history is worse, with three straight missed cuts in the PGA since 2012 and zero appearances in any other major the last three seasons. Still only 36, now would be a good time to reverse that trend.

Michaux: Golf's 'Little Louise' was one big star

Sat, 08/08/2015 - 7:43pm

In a year that has seen the passing of so many of golf’s pioneers and legends, including Charlie Sifford, Calvin Peete, Pete Brown and Billy Casper, the latest loss on Friday hit close to home.

Louise Suggs, the women’s equivalent to Bobby Jones as the greatest golfers in Georgia history, passed away just a month shy of her 92nd birthday.

One of the 13 founding members of the LPGA Tour in 1950, Suggs won the first of her 11 major championships as an amateur in Augusta in the 1947 Titleholders at Augusta Country Club.

“Little Louise Suggs of Lithia Springs,” as the papers routinely called her, edged out Augusta’s own amateur Eileen Stulb on the last hole for what proved to be the first of four Titleholders triumphs and 61 official “tour” wins for Suggs.

Suggs won Titleholders green jackets again in 1954, 1956 and 1959, beating seven-time Titleholders winner Patty Berg in the first two and Betsy Rawls in the last. She finished second with Berg to Mickey Wright in 1961, one year before retiring from full-time tournament golf.

Only Berg (15) and Wright (13) won more career majors than Suggs, who became the first woman to complete the career grand slam when she won the 1957 LPGA Championship.

When Suggs sank a
20-foot downhill birdie putt in the rain to beat Berg by a stroke in the 1956 Titleholders, she was presented the trophy by Jones.

She was one of the last people to play a round of golf with Jones at Augusta National. It was the Atlanta “Grandslammer” she originally modeled her swing after.

Suggs was a fixture as a guest at the Masters Tournament up until this year, usually found sitting under an umbrella outside the clubhouse with players often stopping by to pay their respects.

She certainly earned her respect from both her female and male peers with not only her skill but her devotion to the game.

In the forward of her book, Par Golf For Women, Ben Hogan lauded the power Suggs generated from her diminutive frame.

“If I were to single out one woman in the world today as a model for any other woman aspiring to ideal golf form it would be Miss Suggs,” wrote Hogan, who partnered with Suggs to win the 1946 Pro-Lady Victory National Championship. “Her swing combines all the desirable elements of efficiency, timing and coordination. It appears to be completely effortless. Yet, despite her slight build, she is consistently as long off the tee and through the fairway as any of her feminine contemporaries in competitive golf. And no one is ‘right down the middle’ any more than this sweet-swinging Georgia miss.”

Hogan’s peer, Sam Snead, grudgingly respected her talent – even if he didn’t appreciate it quite as much. In an official LPGA event called the Royal Poinciana Invitational that featured 24 women and men on an executive course in West Palm Beach, Fla., Suggs beat a field that included Snead, Cary Middlecoff, Dow Finsterwald and Berg. Playing 54 holes from the same tees, she won by a shot over Dub Pagan and two over Snead.

Irritated that he lost to a woman – the only time that any woman has beaten men in a professional event from the same tees – Snead was grousing until Suggs fired back, “I don’t know what you’re complaining about. You weren’t even second.”

Suggs said Snead stormed off and peeled out of the parking lot.

“It was the most perfect squelch I ever heard,” she told The Associated Press in a 2003 interview. “He burned a quarter-inch of rubber.”

For what it’s worth, Snead won the second and final installment of the same tournament a year later, making him the only man to win an official LPGA event.

Suggs’ indomitable personality showed through until the end. The license plate on her car read “TEED OFF.” Like Jones, she also retired at the peak of her game in 1962, upset with the LPGA Tour over a $25 fine for withdrawing from a tournament despite having a doctor’s note verifying she was ill.

Despite that fallout, Suggs never wavered in her support of the women’s tour she founded, travelling despite health issues from her home in Sea Island, Ga., to Sweden or St. Andrews or wherever she was needed to support women’s golf. The LPGA Rookie of the Year award is named in her honor.

Suggs won a tournament every year of her career from 1946-62 – a grand total of 61 in all that ranks fourth all-time on the LPGA Tour. She also won so often as an amateur – including the 1947 U.S. Women’s Amateur and 1948 British Ladies Amateur – that she became the first woman inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1951 based entirely on her career before there ever was a professional tour. That period counted five of her major wins, including the 1949 U.S. Women’s Open, which she won by a record 14 strokes over rival Babe Zaharias.

Suggs was the first woman elected to the Georgia Athletic Hall of Fame in 1966 and among the first class of women inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame in 1989.

Suggs counts among her proudest moments being honored by the USGA in 2007 with the Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship. She was also selected to join the Royal & Ancient Golf Club when it finally invited women as members in February.

It was her native Georgia that stayed closed to her heart – and her wishes are to be cremated and have her ashes spread on her parents’ graves. Suggs counted Augusta and the Titleholders as her favorite event. In 1960, when snow blanketed the course during the tournament, Suggs went sledding down the hills of Augusta Country Club with Rawls and Wright until the manager made them stop.

“Louise Suggs said it best: It was like being in a family,” the late Eileen Stulb said in 2001. “We were all good friends.”

Only three of the LPGA 13 founding members are alive – Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork and Marlene Bauer Hagge.

But Little Louise Suggs of Lithia Springs was the last of the original giants of women’s golf. Her loss is immeasurable.

Clemson is not getting much love from nationally

Thu, 08/06/2015 - 4:54pm

No. 12 – really?

As the preseason college football polls trickle out, the number most associated with Clemson is 12. The USA Today coaches poll – 12th. Sports Illustrated – 12th. The Sporting News is a little more bullish, predicting the Tigers 11th.

The media who cover the Atlantic Coast Conference picked Clemson to top Florida State in the Atlantic Division and win the conference title, but the national naysayers still believe the Tigers will trip up somewhere and loiter behind 10 or 11 other programs.

Are they seeing this loaded offense? Have they watched Deshaun Watson play quarterback? Frankly, the only 12 that might be associated with Clemson come the end of the regular season is the number of wins they carry with them into the postseason.

“I love our team. I love our roster,” Clemson’s fired-up coach Dabo Swinney said. “I definitely think we have as good a shot as anybody out there.”

It’s understandable why more folks haven’t quite jumped on the Tigers’ bandwagon. There was a massive turnover on a defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation last year, so some dropoff can be expected. And Watson’s health is no guarantee, having played only a third of the offensive plays last season because of a broken finger and torn ACL that required off-season surgery.

Fair enough points of concern. But there’s certainly no reason to forecast relative failure in both departments. The defense should be plenty strong enough and Watson shows no negative signs as he opened preseason camp at full strength.

“When he’s out there, we got a chance each and every play for something good to happen,” Swinney said of Watson.

There is more reason than not to believe good things are about to happen for the Tigers this season. After a Thursday night road test at Louisville on Sept. 17, the three hardest games on the calendar will all be staged in Death Valley. Notre Dame comes to town Oct. 3 to face a Tiger team coming off two idle Saturdays. Georgia Tech shows up the next week. A month later, Florida State returns to Death Valley in what should be the decisive game of the division.

“Clemson deserves it,” said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher of the favorites role transferring out of Tallahassee. “We have our work cut out.”

Swinney, of course, downplays the polls and predictors. They don’t mean anything in August. But the potential for reaching the playoffs and getting a title shot is very real.

“I appreciate people having respect for our program and our players but, you know, really it truly is about the performance,” Swinney said. “Hopefully when it’s all said and done in December, whoever voted for us (to win ACC), we can make them look really smart.”

A key to that end will certainly be the defense. Losing eight starters to the NFL, including first-round pick Vic Beasley, will take a toll on any unit, but the Tigers are hardly bereft of replacement talent.

“There’s a chip on our shoulders from a lot of doubters out there,” defensive tackle D.J. Reader said. “We’ve been prepared. Those guys who left prepared us to come in and step up.”

There should be no such questions on offense, even with a mostly new line. Clemson’s depth at receiver and running back is an embarrassment of riches. Preseason all-ACC wideouts Mike Williams and Artavis Scott are the next in a chain of standout receivers with 2,000 combined yards last season. Their reserves might be just as gifted with senior Charone Peake, junior Germone Hopper and freshmen Deon Cain, Trevion Thompson and Ray-Ray McCloud giving the preseason player of the year pick Watson a wealth of targets to choose from.

“It’s going to be real fun for me,” Watson said as camp started. “My job is to make sure we have the right protection and get those guys the ball and let them make plays. They make me look good. My job is really not that hard.”

If his health holds up under the knee brace he’ll wear all season, the offense could make Watson look like a Heisman Trophy candidate and the Tigers look like championship contenders. He’s the kind of once-in-a-generation talent that could be the difference in the Tigers avoiding those “Clemsoning” missteps they’ve become famous for in recent years.

“This is a special person, he really is,” Swinney said of Watson. “He’s a great leader. He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around. I haven’t been around many seniors with the football IQ that this man possesses right now as a true sophomore.”

That’s why they’re not focused on the 12 in the polls but the 12 on the schedule starting with Wofford and ending with rival South Carolina.

“We have this saying that we play Clemson 12 times a year on our schedule,” Reader said, echoing the mantra Swinney has ingrained in them. “If we can control the things we can control, execute our plan, we can live with any outcome we get. We don’t really focus on being the targets. We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shots.”

It’s not unreasonable to think that when those 12 shots have been taken, Clemson could be standing among the final four.

By then, the only number that will matter is being the last one.

Michaux: Georgia facing rare QB uncertainty

Tue, 08/04/2015 - 7:54pm

ATHENS, Ga. — Three quarterbacks walk into a huddle at Georgia football practice ...

No, this is not the start of a bad joke. It’s the unknown reality the Bulldogs are facing in preseason camp, which started Tuesday.

Head coach Mark Richt said the race is on to determine who will inherit the reins of Georgia’s offense when the season kicks off a month from now against Louisiana-Monroe. It’s as wide-open a battle as there’s ever been for a team favored to win the Southeastern Conference’s East division.

The candidates are redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey, junior Faton Bauta and junior transfer Greyson Lambert. Despite whatever anyone’s preconceived notions might be about who should prevail, Richt said there are no favorites on the depth chart.

“We’re going to rotate them one guy with the first unit, one guy with the second unit, one guy with the third unit, rotating it around on a day‑to‑day basis until we think it should stop,” Richt said. “It could go all the way to the first game. At some point we may drop it to a two‑man race. It’s just hard to say how it’s going to go. But that’s our starting point.”

Being unsettled at quarterback is an uncommon position for Georgia in the 14 previous seasons with Richt at the helm – 11 of those seasons largely being manned by three of the four most prolific passers in school history, including four-year starters David Greene and Aaron Murray.

Only twice before has there been a true QB competition in the preseason for Richt to preside over.

His first year in Athens, Richt opened 2001 camp with semi-incumbent Corey Phillips pushed by freshmen David Greene and D.J. Shockley. Richt opted to redshirt Shockley and rotate both Greene and Phillips in the season opener against Arkansas State. Richt’s instinct to start Greene proved a good one as Greene held onto that role for four seasons and 42 wins.

After the well-seasoned Shockley led the Bulldogs to an SEC title in his lone year starting in 2005, the job was up for grabs again in 2006. This time he had a four-man race between Joe Tereshinski III, Joe Cox, Blake Barnes and hot-shot freshman Matthew Stafford. It proved to be a turbulent ride in the early season, with Tereshinski, Stafford and Cox each getting starts before Richt finally gave the job midseason to Stafford after consecutive losses to Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Stafford held the post through the next two seasons before leaving early to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft,

What differentiates this battle is that the winner might likely be just a placeholder for a season-plus before projected future star Jacob Eason joins the fold in 2016. Yet whether they’re a placeholder or not, whoever gets the call on Saturdays will be expected to deliver an SEC East title shot with a quality cast around him.

Each has his merits.

Ramsey has the most “Georgia” experience, with eight backup efforts to Hutson Mason last season, including the entire second half of the bowl game against Louisville.

Bauta has more limited mop-up action the past two seasons but is considered the best runner of the lot.

Lambert might have rolled into town only two weeks ago, but he has the most collegiate experience with nine starts last season at Virginia.

Nothing that any of them did prior to Tuesday’s first practice matters now, however.

“We’re going to base the quarterback decision on what they do in practice, what they do in scrimmages,” Richt said. “I’m not going to say, ‘What did Brice do last year?’ I’m not going to look at last year’s bowl game and make that part of the factor. I’m not going to use any other time that Faton has been on the field as a determining factor of who should be the quarterback. It will all be based on the experience at Georgia, not anywhere else. At Georgia. This camp. This spring in particular.”

Neither Ramsey nor Bauta separated himself in spring practice, which was made apparent when the Bulldogs beat out Florida for Lambert’s graduate services. And Richt made it crystal clear that Lambert – who isn’t even mentioned anywhere in the media guide – is “competing for the job” on equal footing with the two guys who’ve been in the system longer.

“Everybody looks to the quarterback to know what he’s doing and have the confidence to handle all situations,” Richt said. “So that’s what I’m asking from all three of them. He’s just one of the three trying to do that.”

The logjam creates a very real possibility that Georgia could utilize more of a rotation when the season starts.

Richt tried that with Greene and Phillips before Greene distinguished himself. He was also known to give scheduled reps to primary backups in other seasons.

“I think the greatest advantage to a two‑quarterback system would be if you had two really dramatic differences in style as a player,” Richt said. “If a team has to prepare for this guy and it’s totally different than preparing for the other guy, I think that can cause issues for defenses in how they prepare. If you have two guys that are very similar in style, it could be an advantage in that it may just take a little pressure off one guy or the other. If you think one guy is hot, use him. It’s just hard getting the rhythm and staying in a rhythm as a quarterback. I found that it’s better to have one guy doing it. But, you know, we’ll just see how it goes.”

All three quarterbacks said all the right things at Tuesday’s media day.

“Every year since when I was at Virginia I’ve either seen a quarterback race or been a part of one and I’ve come out on both sides,” Lambert said. “So I understand that when it’s on the field it’s football and when it’s off the field we’re all friends. We’re each others biggest fans.”

Everyone on the roster has a vested interest in what develops out of this competition over the next four weeks and possibly the first couple of games into the season.

“They’re all pretty much the same for me – just hand the ball off or just drop it down to me,” tailback Nick Chubb said. “They’re all pretty much the same. They all do a great job at that.”

The defensive perspective isn’t must different.

“We barely even realize that there’s a competition going on because we’re just focused on getting better as a defense and just dominating this year,” linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “We know that the coaches will make the best decision and whoever they put out there will be able to go out there and win games.”

How many Georgia quarterbacks will it take to win games?

Again, this is no joke for the Bulldogs.

“They’re all going to get their opportunity,” Richt said. “We’ll keep rolling that until we get the answer.”

Michaux: SEC schedule has wrong mix again

Sat, 08/01/2015 - 10:44pm

The Southeastern Conference is mixing up a batch of weak tea and presenting it as a fine southern whiskey.

With unquestionably the lamest non-conference football schedule of any major league, the SEC will rely on its reputation to impress the playoff selection committee. It’s a recipe that has worked and may keep on working until someone calls its bluff.

“We have an aspiration, really the expectation, that we’re going to have at least one team in the playoffs,” said newly minted SEC commissioner Greg Sankey last month, echoing the general sentiments of his predecessor Mike Slive.

The SEC operates from a position of historical strength that exceeds other conferences. The weekly playoff rankings last year reflected the bias, with the SEC enjoying an overall high regard while top teams from the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC were carefully scrutinized for the relative weaknesses in their strength of schedule.

That was all well and good until the SEC (particularly its heralded West division) didn’t live up to its “best” reputation in the end. The backlash was swift and sweet for put-upon outsiders.

People got so sick of hearing how great the SEC West was from top-to-bottom, it made for a savory finish when it came crashing down in the postseason.

The West was humbled. If not for Texas A&M and Arkansas beating fellow middling teams West Virginia and Texas, it would have been a total humiliation.

Alabama proved inferior to Ohio State in the playoff semifinal. Ole Miss and Mississippi State got thoroughly throttled by TCU and Georgia Tech. LSU lost to a previously reeling Notre Dame while Auburn got clipped by Wisconsin.

Luckily for the conference, the oft-maligned SEC East went 5-0 in weaker bowls to salvage the overall perception.

None of it, however, seems to have dampened the enthusiasm heading into 2015. The preseason coaches poll has eight SEC teams in the top 25. A Sporting News poll favors nine – 36 percent of the top 25 situated in one of 10 conferences.

Perhaps the more democratic playoff era will correct this systematic over-inflation. It needs to start by compelling the SEC to prove itself more beyond its borders.

When it comes to the SEC, strength of schedule is just an oxymoron based entirely on its own inflated sense of self-worth. The non-conference opposition is a joke.

Of the “Power 5” conferences, the SEC has far-and-away the weakest out-of-conference schedule. The fourteen teams play only a combined 12 non-conference games against other Power 5 programs or major independents (that’s giving Missouri credit for playing BYU). South Carolina easily leads the pack as the only program facing more than one (North Carolina and Clemson) plus a third 2014 bowl team in Central Florida.

Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt shamefully don’t play any marketable non-conference games.

Contrast this with the Atlantic Coast Conference, whose 14 schools play 21 non-conference games against other Power 5 programs or major independents. Eight schools play two each (with Virginia deserving extra credit for booking Boise State along with UCLA and Notre Dame). Only N.C. State plays none.

SEC folks will argue that this is going to change in 2016, but that’s not really true. When the league opted to stick with its eight-game conference schedule last year, it implemented a rule starting next season that will require each team to schedule at least one opponent from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12.

All that means is that the Mississippi teams will have to stop dodging quality outside opponents and Vandy will lock in peers games with the Dukes, Wake Forests and Northwesterns of the “Power” realm.

Unlike the Big Ten, the SEC won’t stop scheduling Division I-AA programs (13 are on the schedule this season). And it won’t join the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten in playing nine-game conference slates.

So you won’t see any appreciable difference in future scheduling. Alabama will keep playing a marquee neutral-site opener (Wisconsin this year) with the faith that a win will grease the playoff track while a loss will be forgotten come December. Most other name programs will replicate the ’Bama template.

South Carolina, Georgia and Florida will continue to be the only marketable SEC programs to venture into deeper waters, adding second power matchups (when it suits them) to the existing annual rivalry games against quality ACC foes. The Bulldogs are typically better than most, but this year throttled way down with Alabama joining Auburn in the cross-division lineup. It will pick up UNC next year and Notre Dame in 2017.

The college football playoff selection committee needs to flex its muscle if it wants to compel SEC powers from padding the schedule with Southerns, Louisiana-Monroes and Middle Tennessees. It made Baylor and TCU pay for their weak non-conference schedules last year. It should make the same statement to the SEC.

If it comes down to choosing between comparable one-loss teams for the last playoff spot, wouldn’t it be better to pick a Clemson that played Notre Dame and South Carolina over an LSU team that only ventured as far as Syracuse or any Mississippi team that dared take on nobody?

That was not the message the committee was sending last year, when it still included Mississippi State in its top four after a loss to Alabama despite a laughable non-conference lineup of Southern Miss, Alabama-Birmingham, South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin.

Until the SEC gets the message, it will keep serving the same predictable weak tea. All it would take is adding a ninth conference game instead of that extra cupcake to boost the flavor for programs and fans alike.

But as long as we keep buying the same diluted formula, nothing will change.

 

Michaux: Rahmeer Carter's next leap is on big stage

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 9:15pm

Rahmeer Carter will miss freshman orientation and his first day of high school at Cross Creek, but he hopes to spend the next four years making up for his forfeited perfect attendance hopes with athletics excellence.

Carter, 14, qualified for the maximum four events in the AAU Junior Olympics, which will take place Aug. 3-8 at Norfolk State University in Virginia. The opportunity is worth the back-to-school sacrifice.

“I want to go to orientation so I can know, but I can catch up when I get back,” said Carter, one of the top seeds in the triple jump and long jump while also competing in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

The conflict with Georgia’s early first week of school kept some members of the Augusta Flyers Track Club from even trying to qualify for the Junior Olympics. Only two girls from the Flyers will join Carter in Virginia – 13-year-old Illiyana Lapeine (triple jump) and 10-year-old Zaniyaha Wellman (100 and 200).

For Carter, the national event marks a big milestone in his relatively meteoric rise in track and field. Competing in football and basketball at Pine Hill Middle School, he never participated in track until coach Rodney McFadden taught him a few basics in the spring.

“The first thing we practiced was jumping,” Carter said. “My coach had taught me how to do triple jump and I was great at it. After that I wanted to get more involved in track and started to run, too. I think I’m a better jumper because that’s the first thing I did and I came in first place most of the time.”

That was practically true in whatever he tried.

“I hated that he could only compete in a certain number of events because he was the nearly the best if not the best in just about every event that I asked him to try,” said McFadden, now the head football coach at Laney.

The 5-foot-10, 167-pound Carter proved to be a natural jumper with the right blend of balance, rhythm and focus. Not everyone has the coordination and strength to handle the hop-skip-and-jump combination of the triple jump, but Carter quickly ascended to the top ranks for his age group in Georgia. His competitive best is 39 feet, 10 inches, but Flyers coach Alex Gibson said Carter has reached 42 feet in practice and hits consistently in the 39- to 40-feet range.

“Right now he’s the third or second seed, but he’s close enough where he could come home with a national title in triple jump,” Gibson said.

It’s been an exciting leap into the track and field community for Carter.

“That’s why we’re all so excited because it’s his first year running track and he made it so far in his first year,” said his mother, Shalonda Carter, who will travel with him to Virginia along with his grandmother. “It came out of nowhere and caught us by surprise. We have high hopes for him. We want him to (reach finals) in the 100- and 200-meter dash. We’re hoping for it but we won’t be disappointed if he doesn’t. We’re almost sure he’ll qualify for the finals in the long and triple jump.”

Just reaching the final eight in any event earns All-America status, and Gibson believes Carter has a chance in every event he’s qualified to compete. His personal best long jump is 19 feet, 10 inches, while his sprint times (11.91 seconds in the 100 and 24.42 in the 200) have been steadily improving as the Junior Olympics approach.

“His run times have dropped and he could get in top eight as well, but not as easy as his jumps,” Gibson said.

Carter is thrilled at the foundation he’s established in such a short window.

“I’m very excited. I’m hoping to qualify for (finals) at least two of my events,” he said. “This is my first time, so, anything is good just getting here. I know I can improve in my running and if my form improves in my jumps I know I can get at least over 20 (feet in the long jump).”

Carter and his younger brothers have all cultivated their own athletic interests. Rondarius, 13, likes to play golf at The First Tee while Rashad, 10, is getting into the hurdles.

Rahmeer’s success has broadened his own options as he heads to Cross Creek. Playing defensive back in middle school, he plans to do the same when he tries out for the JV football team. He has the build and athleticism to play just about any skill position.

But track and field may open up more future potential.

“I like both, but if I had to choose right now it would be track,” said Carter.

Shalonda Carter’s cousin earned a college scholarship running track, and Carter’s Flyers coach believes with growth and hard work that he can pick up another 7 feet in the triple jump to challenge the state record and earn a full ride anywhere he wants.

“He’s a good listener and competitive and very coachable,” Gibson said. “Sometimes we have to slow him down.”

A good week at the Junior Olympics could ultimately have a bigger impact on his academic future than the first couple days of high school ever could.

“Our ultimate goal is wanting him to experience more competition and wider competition always makes him better,” said his mother. “Hopefully he can get a scholarship to a good college running track.”

ACC still fighting for respect despite recent success

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 8:03pm

The Atlantic Coast Conference held its annual football kickoff event at Pinehurst Resort last week. From the sound of things, it resembled a Daily Affirmations retreat with Stuart Smalley, a well known Saturday Night Live sketch.

“We’re good enough, we’re smart enough and doggone it, people like us,” could be the ACC football motto.

Only eight months removed from one of its most boastful gridiron campaigns and just over a month before the start of a fresh season, the ACC already seems to be in full defensive mode. People are already talking about it being the odd-conference out in the next four-team playoff.

“It’s unjustified,” Bos­ton College coach Steve Addazio said of the ACC’s second-tier reputation among the Power 5 conferences that vie for national supremacy. “I really think the ACC is one of the top two conferences. It’s the ACC and the SEC.”

Despite a late-season letdown – much of it against the ACC – the Southeastern Conference suffers no such inferiority complex when it comes to football reputation. It’s sustained success speaks for itself and offsets any hiccups that come around.

The ACC, however, can’t catch a break even when it thinks it’s earned it. Too many years of underachieving form a bad foundation in a sport that still leaves too much room for judgment calls.

You’d think the ACC would be sitting in high cotton after its recent success on the field. Florida State won the last BCS title, unseating the SEC and its representative Auburn to cap 2013 season. The unbeaten Seminoles then earned a berth in the inaugural playoff last season, bowing out to Oregon in the semifinals.

But it was more than just Florida State that gave the ACC reason to crow last fall, with Georgia Tech and Clemson joining the Seminoles in the top 15 of the final poll. After a long run of BCS bowl futility, the ACC has won three consecutive Orange Bowls, including Georgia Tech’s 49-34 beatdown of one of the SEC’s presumed elite, Mississippi State, last year.

On the final week of the regular season, the ACC even got to boast a rare 4-0 sweep of the SEC in rivalry games. That Florida State, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Louisville were unquestionably the four best teams in the ACC while their respective opponents (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky) arguably rated in the lower half of the conference during down seasons in the SEC East isn’t the point. It was a nice accomplishment nonetheless.

The long-simmering resentment of its second-class stature behind the SEC was apparent in Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson’s comments after the Orange Bowl.

“For a week or so we won’t have to hear about the SEC,” he said.

That honeymoon is obviously over. With the preseason gearing up, early predictors have the ACC lagging behind the other four power conferences when it comes to qualifying someone for the playoffs. The perception problem is on display in ESPN’s early Football Power Index, which rates eight SEC teams ahead of the first ACC program (No. 19 Clemson).

Tigers coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t understand the lingering negativity and bias.

“Six years ago, when I first came in the league, we were getting beat up a little bit,” Swinney said. “But all you’ve got to do is look at what’s happened, the results on the field, and that has changed. This conference is as good as there is in the country.

“To me, this conference is the most complete conference when you look at winning on the field, draft picks, APR, graduation rates. Our conference doesn’t take a back seat to anyone else.”

Johnson certainly doesn’t like the constant comparisons of the ACC to its regional neighbors. With wins over Georgia and Mississippi State, he is comfortable lobbing a few verbal grenades and is happy to do so whenever he’s offered the bait.

“I can assure you Georgia isn’t any different than Clemson or Florida State or some other teams we play,” Johnson told ESPN on Monday in a nice little jab at the in-state rival he’s 2-5 against.

Asked whether the ACC should adopt the SEC’s new transfer policy banning programs signing players dismissed for serious misconduct, Johnson smugly said, “We don’t have that problem, I don’t think. We can’t get them in school anyway.”

And when asked whether the SEC champion is likely guaranteed a playoff spot, Johnson didn’t contain his irritation.

“Why so? I don’t get it,” he said.

What the ACC doesn’t get is that perception is part of the reality. The ACC (not unlike the Big Ten) has too much dead weight dragging down the credibility of its teams at the top. Fair or not, when those underlying teams beat up on each other, it’s characterized as “mediocrity” while the SEC gets labeled “parity.” These semantics will continue to matter as long as there aren’t enough seats at the playoff table.

There’s an easy fix that can soften the need for all the self-affirming rhetoric – keep beating the other guys on the field.

If you are good enough to do that consistently – doggone it – people will eventually respect you.

Michaux: Atlanta Braves' glory days are just about over

Sat, 07/25/2015 - 6:46pm

Induction day in Cooperstown, N.Y., should come with a Bruce Sprinsteen soundtrack.

It’s all about those Glory Days.

I had a friend was a big baseball player

Back in high school

He could throw that speedball by you

Make you look like a fool boy

The wistful theme of faded fame is unnervingly appropriate for Braves fans. For the second consecutive year, Atlanta’s glory days will be feted at the Baseball Hall of Fame. John Smoltz will be reunited with his rotation mates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and former skipper Bobby Cox. They were all the backbone of an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles and an era of contending relevance that lasted two decades.

It was a remarkable time to be a Braves fan, and these were remarkable figures who helped make it happen.

The worst part, however, is that with Smoltz’ induction today, we’re running out of excuses to keep looking back at the good ol’ glory days. Between staggered jersey retirements and Hall of Fame enshrinements, the reflection wheel has kept rolling continuously for years since the Braves actually reached a National League championship series. It will run out of reasons to stop spinning in three years when Chipper Jones joins the gang in Cooperstown.

Smoltz was the one constant during the entire glorious run from 1991-2005. He was the guy you could count on in the postseason. He’s the guy you knew would work his way back from injury. He was the guy who always delivered in the clubhouse.

For 21 years, Smoltz was around for the best of the Braves. When he looked around his locker in the clubhouse, the scenery didn’t change all that much from the manager’s office on down. There were always new faces scattered here and there, but it was never wholesale. Consistency in all facets was the key to Atlanta’s sustained success.

That’s what makes it so hard to follow what the Braves are trying to do now. It was clear 2015 was another lost season before it ever started. Familiar faces like Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Justin Upton and Craig Kimbrel were traded away in the quest to rebuild for the future. The present is largely irrelevant, a point driven home for the rest of this season as well as next with the deadline swapping of Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe for more “young arms.”

Atlanta’s sole focus seems to be getting ready for 2017, when the franchise will relocate to an inaccessible junction in Cobb County. They are a lame-duck roster in a lame-duck stadium with lame hopes of ever reaching the postseason any time soon.

Worst yet is that there are no guarantees that all of these roster moves will amount to anything close to what the Braves once enjoyed. Despite the sheer volume of young arms they’ve methodically collected, odds of them ever amassing a core set of pitchers the caliber of Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine are unrealistic. Nobody ever gets that lucky more than once – three contemporary first-ballot Hall of Famers in one rotation is a script too fanciful for even Hollywood.

So lets enjoy seeing Smoltzie get his due. Of all the stars who rolled through Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field during the glory days, he was always my personal favorite. He created more memories over a longer period of time than any Brave ever has.

Think I’m going down to the well tonight

And I’m going to drink till I get my fill

And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it

But I probably will

Unfortunately, when the ceremony is over the Braves will resume their current existence already in regress. Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons can only imagine what it was like to be part of those glorious pennant chases.

After Chipper Jones, it will be a long time before the Braves have anyone else worthy of hanging a number from the rafters of their new stadium, much less immortalized in bronze at Cooperstown.

The glory days have indeed passed us by.

Michaux: Steve Spurrier should worry about his own team, not his 'enemies'

Thu, 07/23/2015 - 8:26pm

Not to sound all enemy combatant here, but Steve Spurrier seems to have reached the “get-off-my-lawn” stage of the aging process.

In his latest paranoid rant aimed at the media, Spurrier railed about “enemies” spreading rumors that South Carolina’s head ball coach is getting too old for this. As if the fact that he’s 70 and imprudently suggested himself last fall that he might have “two or three” more years left in him has nothing to do with any of this.

Spurrier called an impromptu news conference Wednesday to “clear the air” on the subject once and for all, bringing with him some quotes from Attila the Hun to make his point. The primary source of his discontent was “enemy” columnist Mark Bradley for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who had the audacity of being quoted in the hometown Columbia newspaper when asked his opinion of the Gamecocks’ prognosis in 2015.

“I think they are a program on the descent, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how long the coach stays,” Bradley said. “There are some guys you think, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be coaching when he’s 70.’ Steve Spurrier was never one of those guys for me, and it’s hard for me to envision him coaching much beyond this if he doesn’t think he has a chance to win, and I’m not sure he’s going to have a chance to win the next few years the way he’s had it the last few years.”

Bradley’s solicited assessment did not please Spurrier.

“We let that guy write in our paper the other day,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense, does it?”

THIS IS NOT the first time Spurrier has been confused about editorial direction of what he calls “our paper.” Two years ago it was The State’s own sports columnist, Ron Morris, who drew the coach’s ire and sparked a petulant and short-lived boycott of speaking whenever Morris was present.

“As all of you know, we’ve got a negative guy over here that tries to hurt our football program,” Spurrier said in 2013, pointing at Morris but never saying his name. He claimed Morris wrote something untrue about the recruitment of Bruce Ellington to the football program, an assertion he never supported with proof and gave up on pretty much immediately after his tantrum. That egregious coaching overreach led to some editorial embarrassment at the newspaper, which banned and then reinstated Morris to covering the Gamecocks.

“That’s the only thing I take exception to sports writers, when they write something that isn’t true,” Spurrier said.

You can now add pointing out his age to the list of journalistic malfeasances in the ball coach’s rulebook.

“Now that we’re 7-6, some of our enemies want to make you think Spurrier’s gettin’ old, can’t do it anymore,” he said. “Some people are gonna try to convince you that our 7-6 isn’t as good as some other schools’ 7-6. We have to understand we have some enemies out there.”

Perhaps one of those enemies was himself. Spurrier wasn’t that impressed with his Gamecocks last year before they lost four of five games during a midseason malaise.

“We’re not a very good team but we’re 3-1 somehow, and we’ve got all the voters fooled thinking we’re pretty good, I guess because we beat Georgia,” Spurrier said in a postgame vent after a close shave at Vanderbilt.

Spurrier clarified that the “enemy” is “the media,” which is funny considering the media has a long-standing love affair with arguably the most colorful and entertaining head coach in the business. Spurrier’s coaching bona fides are unquestionable, and his cockiness has certainly drawn attention to his unparalleled successes.

WHAT HE’S DONE at South Carolina in making it a relevant force in the Southeastern Conference East is remarkable. In the midst of his Wednesday rant, he managed to rattle off all of his accomplishments while trying to sound humble for postponing “five or six years” any of the school’s plans to name the field at Williams-Brice Stadium after him.

He says those successes have created these “enemies,” which is fair enough. Nobody worries about perennial patsies.

“Expect our enemies to talk about us,” he said. “We finally won enough games, although it wasn’t that much last year, we finally won enough that they’re trying to convince us that my age has something to do with it and I can’t coach anymore.

“Last year at this time I was 69, we were 11-2 and there was no question about my age. Now that we’re 7-6 we’ve got some enemies out there. I’ve got some guys that don’t like me out there talking and writing.”

Spurrier insists that “age is just a number” and noted that the team’s doctor declared him to be physically and mentally “a 55-year-old guy.” Yet his skin seems to get increasingly thinner as he fails to handle the stick he’s never been shy of giving to others.

PERHAPS THIS WAS all some kind of ploy meant to fire up his team in preseason camp. Perhaps it was essential to convince recruits who got scared away when Spurrier made hints about his potential retirement.

Mostly, however, it made him sound old and paranoid, which isn’t the message he really hoped to deliver.

“Don’t believe what our enemies say about us,” he said. “We’re coming back. We’ve got a dang good team out there and I just want Gamecocks to know it.”

It’s never been wise to doubt Spurrier’s coaching chops. Here’s hoping his Gamecocks’ 2014 was a one-off lull.

It’s best if Spurrier let that team and its performance do the talking for him and stop worrying about what his “enemies” say.

Michaux: Zach Johnson headed to hall after Open win

Tue, 07/21/2015 - 5:44pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Sometimes there’s not a whole lot of difference between ordinary and extraordinary. Zach Johnson and Jordan Spieth illustrate that.

Every time Johnson wins a major, he calls himself an ordinary guy from Iowa. His steady if unspectacular game doesn’t raise many people’s pulse rates. He’s further proof that great putting and a great wedge game can still trump supreme athleticism.

Some might scoff, but Johnson is heading for the Hall of Fame. With two majors and 12 PGA Tour wins, his record is comparable (if not as globally tested) with David Graham, who was inducted last week with two majors and eight tour wins (though admittedly many more internationally). His two majors and 10 wins in the past decade join only Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy in that category.

Johnson’s majors have come on the world’s two greatest stages – Augusta National and the Old Course. That joins an elite group to win at both shrines: Sam Snead, Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Woods.

Spieth’s own skill set is relatively ordinary in comparison to the Rory McIlroys and Dustin Johnsons of the elite realm. Like Johnson, it’s his putter stands out where the rest of his game might not.

Yet Spieth made everyone believe in the impossible again. Despite five three-putts in the second round and a four-putt Monday, he kept fighting his way back to the top. When he sank a 50-footer for birdie on 16 to share the lead, we all believed that this remarkable 21-year-old might actually win the grand slam.

It didn’t happen – “it’s hard to do that every single time,” he sagely said – but that doesn’t diminish what he accomplished by merely coming close. His extraordinary effort was an absolute gift to the game.

A few other treasures were found at the Home of Golf:

BIRDIE: Marc Leishman. The Aussie – who skipped the Masters Tournament in April when his wife was in a coma and nearly died from toxic shock syndrome – nearly became the first player to win after being as low as 50th after 36th holes. He held a two-shot lead with three to play and had more bogeys in the playoff (2) than in the previous 36 holes.

BOGEY: Louis Oosthuizen. Hard to criticize a guy with consecutive major runner-ups and a swing as pure as the South African’s, but with a chance to join Nicklaus and Woods as repeat champions at St. Andrews he missed two short putts in the playoff.

BIRDIE: Amateurs. Five made the cut, four spent time in the top six Monday, three (including Georgia Tech’s Ollie Schniederjans and Englishman Arthur Chesters) finished in the top 12 for the second time in 100 years and one (Paul Dunne, of Ireland) led entering the final round for the first time since Bobby Jones in 1927. In the end a 21-year-old American named Jordan (Niebrugge) did win something – the silver medal for low amateur.

PAR: Jason Day and Sergio Garcia. In all-too-familiar fashion, these serial close-call artists teased and fell short again. Garcia characteristically missed a 2-footer on 13 to halt his run and Day left a playoff-gaining birdie putt short on 18.

BIRDIE: Jordan Spieth. Not only was his effort inspiring, he continues to display class by not only crediting the guys who beat him but shaking off his disappointment to stick around to watch the playoff and being the first one to congratulate Johnson.

BOGEY: Dustin Johnson. Considered the man to beat after leading first two rounds, DJ added to his major mishap legacy with a matching pair of 75s that made him seem utterly disengaged.

BOGEY: Adam Scott. He had the look of a winner wielding his long putter to charge into the lead late, but missing a 1-foot putt on 15 ruined him as he spit up five strokes on the last five holes, including a drive OB on 18.

BIRDIE: The Old Course. It might not be the test it once was, but the Old Lady still has a little bite when the weather plays its part and it puts on an incredible show. If you were not entertained by that final round, then you might as well stop watching.

BOGEY: Tiger Woods. Relative to a course tailor-made for him and perfect conditions, his opening 76 was way worse than his 80 at Chambers Bay. Back-to-back missed major cuts for the first time in his career is another milestone in his swoon.

PAR: Phil Mickelson. Lefty is never short of dramatics as he made a valiant Monday run only to have it end with a wayward drive on 17 that settled on a balcony of the Old Course Hotel.

BIRDIE: Tom Watson. Despite a 3-hour rain delay that pushed his goodbye into darkness, thousands respectfully remained to cheer the five-time Champion Golfer of the Year home. A shank and three-putt were not what he wanted as his last Open image, but he told his son carrying the bag, “There are no tears. There’s only joy.”

BIRDIE: Brandt Snedeker and Ernie Els. When officials were ready to suspend play with Watson on the 17th tee, his playing partners stepped in and insisted a legend be sent off “the right way” and not during an early morning gale. It cost Snedeker the cut with a double on 17 in the gloaming, but it was pure class.

BIRDIE: Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell and Tom Lehman. Eternal respect for players who wait late to watch a champion like Watson say goodbye. More class.

BIRDIE: Nick Faldo. Looked old in an opening 81, but after making birdie on 17 Friday he donned his vintage yellow sweater for a final pose on the Swilcan Bridge and proudly posted 1-under 71. “If I’m sensible, that is it,” he said of his Open future.

BOGEY: Rickie Fowler. Fresh off a links win in the Scottish Open, his T30 would classify as mundane for the No. 3 betting favorite at the start.

BOGEY: Bubba Watson. He should be better than this at links golf, but his sensitive visualization skills are thrown off by blind shots.

BIRDIE: Old flames. It was nice to see that links golf can bring out the best at times in some major names like David Duval, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Stewart Cink, Paul Lawrie and Geoff Ogilvy. Even Bernhard Langer and Mark O’Meara made the cut, the latter just days after being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

BIRDIE: New names. In addition to a couple amateurs, keep an eye on Brits Danny Willett, Anthony Wall and Marc Warren at future Opens. Young Yanks Robert Streb and Eddie Pepperell made good impressions as well.

BOGEY: Kevin Kisner. Aiken native/Georgia star got the bad end of draw but went 4-over his last 26 holes to miss his first cut since before Masters by one shot.

BIRDIE: Ivor Robson. Over 41 years he introduced 18,995 players “on the tee,” including Tom Watson in both their first and last Opens. Fittingly, the last name he squeaked out was an amateur named Dunne.

BOGEY: The R&A. For sending 42 players out in unplayable wind for 32 minutes Friday, contributing to one lost stroke by Spieth among many others. Playing the role of Billy Horschel, Aussie Scott Hend called them “an absolute disgrace:” They’re sitting in there sipping whiskey and smoking cigars and there’s never going to be an admission that they’re wrong. They’re never wrong.”

BOGEY: BBC. In its penultimate Open as primary rights holder, the terrestrial network made local viewers eager for Sky Sports by not showing the first six hours of Monday’s thrilling final round. While Americans enjoyed action on ESPN, including the early holes of Leishman and Johnson, Brits saw Homes Under the Hammer, Heir Hunters and Bargain Hunt instead.

Spieth's hiccups ends his Grand Slam quest

Mon, 07/20/2015 - 4:59pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland —This is the way the Open ends – not with a slam but the whimpering regret of a relatively anticlimactic three-man playoff that didn’t involve Jordan Spieth.

Zach Johnson survived a four-hole aggregate putting contest with Louis Ooshuizen (while Marc Leishman followed in their wake) to claim the claret jug and the title of Champion Golfer of the Year. With a green jacket in his closet since 2007 and 12 PGA Tour titles, a campaign argument could be made for the man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to make the Hall of Fame.

With all due respect to Johnson, however, and his richly deserved victory, destiny seemed pointed Monday toward a bigger moment and a Champion Golfer of a Lifetime.

Spieth sat perched on the precipice of history with a share of the lead with two holes to play after a 50-foot birdie putt found the bottom of the cup on the 16th hole. Fans stuck around to surround the final two holes with every expectation to witness a coronation walk.

Suddenly the 21-year-old who has handled every challenge thrown his way at Augusta National and Chambers Bay wobbled. The 8-foot putt that he so routinely makes drifted low for a bogey on the cruel Road Hole. Then his pitch that absolutely had to find the 18th green to give him a reasonable birdie look spun back into the Valley of Sin. His attempt to conjure the magic of Costantino Rocca miracle putt slid an inch by the cup and the impossible quest was suddenly over.

Instead of joining Ben Hogan as the only player to win the Masters Tournament, U.S. and British Opens in the same season and head to the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits with a Grand Slam at stake, Spieth joins Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as guys who finished one shot shy at the British Opens.

“It won’t hurt too bad,” Spieth said. “It’s not like I really lost it on the last hole, and 17 was brutally challenging. I just didn’t hit a great putt there, and I just picked the wrong wedge out of the bag on 18. I made a lot of the right decisions down the stretch and certainly closed plenty of tournaments out, and this just wasn’t one of those. It’s hard to do that every single time. I won’t beat myself up too bad because I do understand that.”

The galleries, however, groaned with each misstep as the realization that something truly momentous was slipping away. When Spieth made his par at the last, much of the life was sucked out of what had been a crackling day of drama on the Old Course.

“That was some phenomenal golf by everyone that was played,” Spieth said of the torrid pace that was set in front of him.

Sparks were flying all day from a revolving cast of protagonists and bit players strutting and fretting their hours upon one of the game’s grandest stages.

Four different amateurs made appearances in the top six in the most hotly contested chase for the coveted silver medal.

Phil Mickelson made an early run that ended on a balcony of the Old Course Hotel.

Padraig Harrington posed an early threat before retreating.

Adam Scott rode a birdie binge to the top of the leaderboard before spewing up five strokes on the last five holes.

Perpetual bridesmaids Sergio Garcia and Jason Day hung around but couldn’t close.

But it was Spieth who put on a passion play with peaks of promise and valleys of sins. With Johnson, Leishman and Oosthuizen pushing the number to 15-under, Spieth had little margin for error.

His few errors proved as costly as the five three-putts he’ll rue from the scattered second round. With the wind and rain kicking up at the wrong time, he putted off the par-3 eighth green and swallowed a double bogey that required back-to-back bounceback birdies to rectify. His birdie chip on 13 hit the stick and didn’t drop.

For a moment, it seemed like destiny when his 50-foot putt disappeared on the 16th and the place lit up along with his expression.

“That putt on 16 went in, but none of the historical element came into my head whatsoever because 17 is just so brutal, and 18 is tough to get close,” Spieth admitted.

With Spieth clearing the stage and taking a seat outside the R&A clubhouse to watch the three men that beat him battle it out in the playoff, Johnson stole away with the hardware thanks to two birdies on the first two holes and two short Oosthuizen misses on the last two.

Johnson did what Spieth couldn’t, draining a curling downhill 30-footer on the 72nd hole to set the bar that Leishman and Ooshuizen followed.

Ironically, it was Johnson who Spieth has gutted twice in his “hometown” event at the John Deere Classic – beating him in a playoff two years ago to earn his tour card and edging Johnson again by a stroke last week.

“I can’t describe the magnitude as to what (Spieth) was going through because I’ve never been in that position certainly,” said Johnson, now a fellow two-time major winner. “We haven’t really seen that with the exception of Tiger (Woods), right? I mean, truthfully he could be sitting here.

“To have a champion like Jordan take the time on 18 to give me best wishes … speaks volumes as to what he is. He’s a phenomenal talent, and I’m telling you right now, a lot of you guys know him, he’s a better person than he is golfer.”

There’s nobody arguing that. The only shame is Spieth didn’t better an achievement that few golfers can even fathom.

Jordan Spieth has his sights set on the claret jug

Sun, 07/19/2015 - 4:52pm

There’s the defending Old Course champion, Louis Oosthuizen.

There’s the perennial major contender and world No. 9, Jason Day.

There’s even a 22-year-old Irish amateur fresh off a bogey-free 66, Paul Dunne.

At the close of business Sunday, these are your Open Championship leaders at the front of the race for the claret jug. Within five strokes behind them on a course capable of yielding almost any score are 22 players, including major championship stock the likes of Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, Retief Goosen and Charl Schwartzel. There are hungry lions like Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama and former Augusta State All-American Patrick Reed.

There are so many ways this tournament could go today it can make your head spin.

Yet you can stare at that remarkable cluttered leaderboard perched high above the Old Course and only one name stands out. Only one man is seeking more than Champion Golfer of the Year – he’s auditioning for Champion Golfer of All Time.

This British Open is all about Jordan Spieth now. He knows it – and loves it.

With history in play, Spieth seems the right man for the moment. Joining Ben Hogan as the only golfer to win the Masters Tournament, U.S. and British Opens in the same season and setting up an unprecedented shot at the calendar grand slam hasn’t burdened Spieth to this point.

Why start now?

“I can’t speak for tomorrow given it’s the last round, and if I have a chance coming down the stretch, if it creeps in, I’ll embrace it,” Spieth said. “I’ll embrace the opportunity that presents itself. As far as handling it, I don’t look at it as a negative thing, I look at it almost as an advantage. Why should it add more pressure in a negative way? If it adds more pressure, it just makes me feel like this is something that’s a little more special. Let’s go ahead and get the job done.”

What 21-year-old talks like this? What 21-year-old can straddle the past and the future and remain so firmly in the present?

Spieth started Sunday’s third round five shots behind the man he vanquished at Chambers Bay in June and threw down seven birdies in a 66 that left him one shot behind the leading trio.

Most guys would try to dismiss the stakes he faces, yet Spieth doesn’t shy away. It’s what makes him so unique.

“What are my thoughts on the magnitude?” he said. “I see it as something that’s only been done once before, and it was a long time ago. … And I’d like to have a chance to do something nobody has ever done. So if I think about it that way, then I just want it a little bit more (Monday). To be able to try and go into the last major and accomplish something that’s never been done in our sport is something that only comes around to a couple people ever, and I’d like to be one of those people to have that happen. That’s just going to go into my fight tomorrow.

“I’m also going to have to manage that, and that’ll go into my fight ahead of time. Once I get inside the ropes, we’re just going to have our game plan and be ready to go. But I do recognize what’s at stake, and for me to accomplish that feat is going to be to simplify things and to just go about our business.”

The transcript for Hogan from Carnoustie on the eve of the final round in 1953 is unavailable. But it’s doubtful the Hawk was so effusive with his thoughts.

We can, however, look back at Saturday night in Augusta in 2001 to see what Tiger Woods was willing to share facing nearly identical questions as he took a one-shot lead over No. 2 Phil Mickelson into the final round with a chance to sweep all four majors in a row.

“The historical implications of tomorrow, are you thinking about that at all or are you just totally shutting that out?” Woods was asked.

“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “I’m kind of thinking about my swing right now. Going to go to the range and work on it. Sorry.”

“Come on – give us something better than that,” he was pressed. “This is something a lot of us may never see again in our lifetime if you win again tomorrow. Has that entered into your mind?”

“I hope you live a little longer, then,” was all Woods offered.

We have lived long enough to see Spieth step to the plate with an entirely different skill set and platoon of spoilers the scope of which Woods never had to deal with on the final day of any of his major wins.

Spieth will attack history without reservations.

“I don’t want to place third (Monday) – I want to win,” he said. “It’s going to be hard. I highly doubt somebody really breaks through in the pack given this golf course can yield a lot of birdies, so it’ll be a pretty bunched leaderboard, so it’s just giving myself as many chances as I can. … For me to win (Monday) probably coming from behind a couple shots on a course where you need birdies, I’m going to have to play aggressive golf.”

There’s a lot of other names who cannot be dismissed, but this Open is all about Spieth now.

That’s exactly the way he wants it.

“There’s really no downside,” he said. “If we have a chance to win and we don’t execute (Monday), then we’re going to be okay. And with that attitude, it actually frees me up a little bit to say I can take these extra chances.”

Don’t take your eyes off him, because champions and moments like this don’t collide very often.

Michaux: St. Andrews is much more than golf

Sat, 07/18/2015 - 6:14pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — “Nae wind, nae golf,” the Scots are fond of saying.

Oh, the irony.

The Old Course’s greatest defense left the R&A and the Open Championship in an indefensible position Saturday when 40-mph winds made a mockery of the 32 minutes of golf that should never have been played in the morning.

Some players suffered as many as two holes while some never hit a shot as the R&A finally came to the realization that the second round would have to be suspended for a third time in two days. All it took was 42 players going 21-over-par in a hole-and-a-half to come to the realization that a circus was brewing.

History eventually will tell whether Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson or Jason Day were deprived of a claret jug because of shots cast away in the forecasted gale. It is a grave consequence of the championship obsession for green speed that makes it impossible for balls to remain in place when the most common element of links golf kicks up above a breeze. It should be noted that other courses around Fife were open for business all day.

Television microphones picked up Spieth, who three-putted No. 14, saying “We should never have started,” while Johnson barked similar sentiment to an R&A official after making only his second bogey of the week.

“Obviously, from our point of view, it didn’t seem playable,” Spieth said.

“I think there was an error made,” said former Georgia golfer Brendon Todd, who three-putted 16 and 17 before they halted play. “We shouldn’t have restarted.”

There are few places in the world, however, that are better to spend 10 hours of a glorious sunny day in a weather delay. As irritated as the players were having to ride out hourly updates on the wind conditions while keeping their glutes activated, the shopkeepers and pub owners across the Auld Grey Toon enjoyed a banner day.

It would have been easier to get a ticket to the Masters Tournament than a seat at Little Italy or an elbow on the bar at the Dunvegan at lunch time Saturday. North and Market and South streets were bustling like it was Christmas in New York.

Saturday, in fact, was a perfect day to revisit all of the history that pours from every crack in the cobblestones from the links to the cathedral ruins. The golf – at a measly 600 years – is but the latest attraction for the pilgrims who have been flocking here for centuries.

Step from the university grounds across the bricks in the sidewalk that mark the spot where Protestant reformer Patrick Hamilton was burned during the 16th century and past the coffee shop “Where Will met Kate.” Visit the shrine to the Tom Morrises – Old, Young and the wee grandchild who died in Darien, Ga. – buried along with the first golf pro Allan Robertson and fellow Open champion William Auchterlonie in the graveyard. Walk the Scores from the castle ruins past the Witch’s Hole to the Martyr’s Monument that trace the history of the Reformation.

On a bench above the R&A clubhouse overlooking the Chariots of Fire West Sands beach you have a chat with a friend from Aiken. All through the week you see friends and officials and caddies and players at every corner and all hours of the day.

It’s as if the great live oak behind the Augusta National clubhouse had spread its canopy over an entire burgh for a week.

Seriously, if an Open Championship week at St. Andrews isn’t on your bucket list, you need a bigger bucket.

Eventually, once the winds subsided to an acceptable speed to resume play, the crowds flocked back to the Old Course to pack the bleachers and fill every inch of the Links Road that so fittingly and inextricably connects the town to the golf.

After three suspensions for rain then darkness then wind, the second round finally concluded nearly 39 hours after it started.

Dustin Johnson reclaimed his lost stroke and the outright lead with a two-putt birdie on the 18th. Spieth clings to his Grand Slam pursuit exactly five second-round three-putts behind the leader. Tiger Woods walked unceremoniously over the Swilcan Bridge where Tom Watson and Nick Faldo waved goodbye the night before.

Stars from five continents comprise the top 10 at the halfway mark as they’ll chase Johnson into the first Monday finish since Seve Ballesteros won his third claret jug in 1988.

Assuming the elements cooperate with the course setup, it promises to be quite a finish on the oldest recurring stage in sports.

Michaux: Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth meet in playoff that never was

Thu, 07/16/2015 - 10:26pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — What the USGA and Chambers Bay couldn’t produce, the R&A and St. Andrews provided Thursday – the playoff that wasn’t.

Dustin Johnson got a chance to play his next official round with Jordan Spieth, an opportunity he deprived himself of a month ago when he three-putted the 18th green and failed to force an 18-hole playoff in the U.S. Open.

It may be small consolation, but firing a flawless British Open-leading 7-under-par 65 to best the world No. 2 by a couple of strokes had to feel a little better than when he walked off Chambers Bay without even accepting his runner-up silver medal.

“We had a lot of fun out there today,” Johnson said of his head-to-head opening round with Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama. “It’s special when you’re playing well. You always have a lot more fun when you’re playing well.”

While both Johnson and Spieth hovered atop the leaderboard all week in the U.S. Open, they never were paired together. Had Johnson made his 4-foot comeback putt on the 72nd hole, it would have set up an intriguing duel of massively contrasting styles.

It was striking to see how the two players dissected the complex riddle of the Old Course on Thursday – and illuminating for Spieth as he tries to win his third consecutive major in his Grand Slam quest.

“If D.J. keeps driving it the way he is, then I’m going to have to play my best golf to have a chance,” Spieth said. “It’s hard to argue with somebody who’s splitting bunkers at about 380 yards and just two-putting for birdie on five or six of the holes when there’s only two par-5s. I don’t have that in the bag, so I’ve got to make up for it with ball-striking.”

Johnson produced five birdies and a relatively easy eagle en route to the lead, overpowering the downwind holes before scrambling to a couple of impressive par saves on 16 and 17 to avoid any blemishes on his card.

Spieth, on the other hand, used all of his guile and his putter to make seven birdies, including a curling 20-footer on the 18th to offset a pair of hiccups on 14 and 17 coming home. He has a confidence in his all-around game to avoid being intimidated by Johnson’s athletic gifts.

“I’ve played enough golf with him to where I believe in my skill set that I can still trump that crazy ability that he has,” Spieth said. “I expect when he stands on the tee it’s going to be up there miles and down the fairway. I also expect that I can birdie each hole when I stand on the tee. It just happens to be a little different route.”

That route has taken Spieth to the brink of an historic opportunity at age 21, while the 31-year-old Johnson keeps letting the major mantel slip on his shoulders.

Perhaps Johnson’s greatest strength is his ability to forget. The 83 he shot at Pebble Beach, the bunker fiasco at Whistling Straits, the OB rocket at Royal St. George’s and the three-putt at Chambers Bay might have left weaker players shattered.

Johnson, however, can shrug it off and get right back in another hunt.

“I don’t really dwell in the past too much,” he said. “You can’t really change it, so there’s no reason to worry about it.”

While admitting that missing out on a playoff with Spieth was a “disappointment,” Johnson sees his latest experience in the U.S. Open as a positive.

“Nothing bad happened at Chambers Bay,” he insisted. “I wasn’t disappointed, really. I played really well, did everything I was supposed to. I couldn’t control what the ball was doing on the greens there. There’s really no bad feelings from that, only good. I played really well and then it carried over to today.”

The dynamics of an opening round compared to a two-man playoff are certainly not comparable. Spieth and Johnson chatted easily and often as they played the game’s most historic course.

“You’re kind of rooting for each other to get into contention versus on Sunday you’re just rooting for yourself to just outplay the other,” Spieth said.

Last month’s events never came up among “good buddies.”

“No chat about the U.S. Open at all, as I wouldn’t imagine there would be,” Spieth said. “I enjoy playing with Dustin. I’ve played a lot of golf with him. You know, it was an unfortunate ending to the (U.S.) Open in general, and today we just got off to a normal round of golf like always, and we were able to actually feed off each other and enjoy the day.”

They’ll go out again today in more trying conditions, with potential for wind and rain to bring out entirely different elements of their respective games. So Thursday was a day to set themselves apart with a low number.

“Everybody knows the weather Friday and Saturday is going to be very difficult, so today I thought was very important to get off to a good start and try to make as many birdies as you can,” Johnson said.

We’ll never know what might have happened in an 18-hole showdown given the chance last month, but it’s evident that we haven’t seen the last of Spieth vs. Johnson.

“I certainly expect him to be a guy to beat every single time you play,” said Spieth, the guy who’s been the man to beat in every major this year. “He’s got as much talent or more than anybody. You just have to outplay him.”

On Thursday at this Open, nobody could.

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