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Frank Booker has helped Sooners make it to the Sweet 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michaux: Masters on verge of topping century mark

Tue, 03/24/2015 - 1:55pm

The Masters Tournament is approaching a milestone its stewards have carefully tried to keep at bay for a half century.

When the deadline for inviting top-50 players hits at the conclusion of this week’s events, the tournament field will be on the brink – if not there – of triple figures for only the fourth time in its history and the first time in 49 years.

Currently 95 players are already qualified for the season’s first major, but four players not already invited are stationed inside the top 50 this week and two others are loitering just a top-10 finish outside the magic number with one week remaining to secure a spot.

The Masters will also automatically invite the tournament winners of this week’s Valero Texas Open and next week’s Shell Houston Open. If those PGA Tour winners are not already qualified, the 100-man mark will be breached.

“We’re wild and crazy about field size and we watch it like a hawk,” Masters chairman Billy Payne said in 2014 announcing the creation of the Latin American Amateur Championship, which added a seventh amateur to this year’s field. “You want exactly the right number. We’re going to figure out how to make it work no matter how many qualify.”

The last time the Masters field eclipsed 100 was in 1966, when 103 players teed it up. The record was 109 in 1962. The first time the field at Augusta National topped the century mark was in 1957, the year the tournament implemented the 36-hole cut with 101 invited participants.

It’s not a figure Augusta National prefers to accommodate.

“I would say that we are, of course, happy to have all hundred of them here,” Payne said the last time the field threatened to tip the scales in 2011 with 99 entries. “At the same time, looking at the number – freestanding, independent of the individuals who comprise it – it is difficult. It is borderline to be able to present the kind of competition that we want to. It is more than we normally have – the most we have had in some 40-something years.

“We say every year in response to that question, that we look and we study the qualifications, which we do. ... There is a maximum number of competitors for which we can give the experience that we want them to have and do it in a way that’s manageable. The hundred pushes that limit quite significantly.”

Since those three supersized fields in the era when the Masters was first entering the television broadcast era, the club has continually manipulated its qualifications criteria to, as Payne said two years ago, “maintain Bobby Jones’s desire to keep the Masters an intimate gathering of the world’s best competitors and to afford all players a reasonable expectation of completion in the reduced hours of sunlight in early spring.”

There have been some incremental contractions and expansions as the tournament gradually worked to draw the best possible field from around the world. After the 1966 Masters, when a record 64 players made the cut, the tournament started be more restrictive with its invitations. The next year’s field was only 83 players.

The field size averaged 77.9 during the 1970s and 84.4 during the 1980s. By the 1990s, fields ranged from 83 in 1992 to 96 in 1999 – averaging almost 88 players.

The 1999 Masters, however, was the start of watershed uptick in the field size when chairman Hootie Johnson began inviting players based on top-50 world ranking and expanded PGA Tour money leaders instead of tournament winners in 2000.

“Well, candidly, I think that the changes we’ve made have strengthened our field,” Johnson said in 1999. “It was a combination of those things that helped strengthen the field and kept it at an acceptable field for us number-wise.”

Only once since – when 89 players teed it up in 2002 – has the field dipped below 90 players. The average field size in the 16 years since the world rankings were included is 94.4.

At that number, the club was forced to start using threesomes instead of twosomes, flipping the morning and afternoon groupings the first two rounds.

“We think that in twos, you’re right on the margin at about 90 and it was better as far as the tournament is concerned to go to threes,” said Will Nicholson, the former chairman of the competition committee.

Payne made further tweaks to the qualification criteria, restoring automatic invitations to certain PGA Tour winners in 2008 and expanding that in 2014 to include fall events in the wrap-around schedule. He’s also added two new amateur champions from Asia-Pacific and Latin America. The U.S. Public Links was played for the last time in 2014, so that invitation will go away next year.

To accommodate the increased pool of potential winners, the Masters tightened its return offerings to top finishers in the previous Masters and other majors and eliminated the money list category. But it’s still pushing the limit for the tournament to continue sending every player off the first tee instead of splitting them off both the front and back nines.

It looked like the Masters might luck out with the first five PGA Tour events of 2015 being won by players already qualified. But four of the last six qualifying events have added winners to the field, with Matt Every becoming the 95th player with his second consecutive victory at Bay Hill on Sunday.

Three international players are guaranteed to still be in the top 50 at the end of the week – India’s Anirban Lahiri (No. 35), Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger (41) and South Africa’s Branden Grace (43), pushing the field to 98. England’s Paul Casey is currently No. 49 and will sit out the Texas Open hoping two players don’t pass him and knock him out of the top 50.

Two more players are loitering within striking distance with perhaps top-15 finishes in Texas – No. 52 Marc Warren and No. 53 Harris English. Six top-70 players are in the European Tour field in Morocco and could reach the top 50 with a victory.

Assuming four-time champion Tiger Woods doesn’t extend his current leave of absence and withdraw, the worst-case scenario for Augusta is that the field reaches 102 with five players making it in off the top 50 list and two new PGA Tour winners qualify in San Antonio and Houston.

The excessive field could prompt the Masters to take another look at its future qualifications, though the retirement of Ben Crenshaw after this Masters and Tom Watson in the near future along with the loss of the Public Links exemption will ease some of the strain on the tee sheet.

But 100 is a breaking point the Masters won’t let become a habit.

Michaux: Father, son made lasting memories during Georgia State's NCAA Tournament run

Sat, 03/21/2015 - 10:28pm

Georgia State not only hijacked the opening week of the NCAA Tournament, it stole Mercer’s crown as the most identifiable Peach State darling.

A year after the Bears from Macon dispatched No. 3 seed Duke in an opening-round upset, the Panthers from Atlanta reprised the role by knocking off third-seeded Baylor on Thursday.

While the name Baylor might not resonate the same way Duke does in the collegiate hoops realm, the style with which Georgia State did it will fill a good portion of One Shining Moment and live on long after this installment of March Madness is over. Even a second-round dismissal by Xavier on Saturday won’t diminish what the Panthers accomplished.

Junior shooter R.J. Hunter and his head coach father, Ron, delivered the tournament’s defining moment in the first hours of the first full day just four days after providing the highlight drama of championship week just to get there.

They were a father-son Vaudeville act – Shock and Ow! – a combination of talent and comedy that has made everybody stop talking about Kentucky for a few days. R.J. hit the shots and pops hit the floor in all manner of self-sacrificing prat falls.

First came the torn Achilles tendon during the celebration of Georgia State’s victory in the Sun Belt Conference championship after R.J. sank the game-winning free throws in a 38-36 victory over Georgia Southern.

Then sporting a cast and relegated to coaching from a rolling chair in the Jacksonville, Fla., sub-regional, the emotive coach fell off and onto the floor after his son drilled a game-winning 3-pointer to knock off Baylor in an improbable rally from 12 points down in the final three minutes.

The toll it’s taking on his body doesn’t bother the elder Hunter.

“I will be in a body cast from head to toe if we can get to Indianapolis and play in the Final Four,” Ron Hunter gleefully told CBS.

Father and son in the same frame of the decisive play with 2.7 seconds left has been played all over the Internet.

“I’m going to be honest,” R.J. said of repeatedly watching the bang-bang moment of their lives on YouTube, “I’d say roughly around 100 times.”

Only the intensity of the NCAA Tournament can deliver such unlikely moments. Thursday’s opening day was inarguably the best in the long history of the event with comebacks and chokes and controversy mingling in one of sport’s greatest shows. Five one-point games plus four others that came down to the final possession left basketball junkies breathless.

It was glorious.

But even with all the craziness going on, the quality of the teams advancing hasn’t been compromised. Only five lower seeds won on the way to whittling the field to 32 teams, and only two of those five could justifiably be called “Cinderellas.” Alabama-Birmingham was one, ousting trendy Final Four pick Iowa State from the South Region before bowing out to 11 seed UCLA on Saturday. No. 10 seed Ohio State, like UCLA, doesn’t fit the criteria while No. 11 seed Dayton playing essentially home games to reach another round of 32 isn’t a true bracket buster.

Georgia State, however is everything underdog lovers want to see playing the role of the wrench in the works. And the Hunters made the most of their 15 minutes of fame for as long as it lasted.

“I’m still trying to get fame in my own house,” Coach Hunter said in his one-man show that was his off-day media session. “My daughter is here. She’s getting married in a few weeks and we had breakfast this morning, and all she asked was for another check to write out for this wedding thing. .… My son is not listening to me. My wife is doing interviews. I tried to talk to her this morning – she said her people would get with my people. I don’t know what fame you’re talking about. I have no fame.”

Hunter got more attention than he bargained for in busting on President Obama for not picking the Panthers in his bracket.

“I was just playing with the President thing, man,” he said. “I didn’t mean that. The guy has done a great job, man. He’s made one mistake since he’s been a President, and that’s choosing against Georgia State. But man, stop the emails and all the political stuff. I’m not a political guy. I could care less. I exercise my right to vote. But quit sending me emails about that – that I’m disrespecting the office. The office of what? I’m not causing anything. We’re talking about a basketball game. Please stop with the emails. I’m nervous. I’m thinking my taxes are going to get something. I’m not getting money back anyway, but I think I’m going to owe more money, and I’m looking for Secret Service guys coming to get me. So please stop.”

Hunter swore his team would hop a bus and travel cross-country from Jacksonville to Los Angeles – “like the Brady Bunch or the Partridge Family” – if it reached the Sweet 16.

Alas, Xavier played the party pooper and sent the Georgia State bus back to Atlanta with a 75-67 defeat.

“We don’t worry about the nation’s feel-good story,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “They can find another story after Saturday.”

It didn’t last long enough, but the Hunters will have a father-son story of a lifetime.

“Next year or two years from now, you can win a National Championship, I can hit the lottery, there’s a lot of good things that can happen to me, but there’s nothing that’s going to happen better than the experience I’m having with R.J. right now,” Hunter said. “We’re having a ball as father and son. This is like an early Father’s Day present for me. We’re laughing and joking. This is something that we’ll be able to tell your kids and my grandchild about this 20 years from now.”

The rest of us will have the GIFs, memes and memories of Georgia State’s moment in the spotlight for as long as the tournament and Internet keep on going.

James Webb III has is making a name for himself at Boise State

Tue, 03/17/2015 - 10:38pm

Augusta fans tuning into tonight’s NCAA Tournament might recognize the name of a Boise State player – but they won’t recognize his game.

James Webb III played two seasons at Curtis Baptist in Augusta and another at Adelphi Christian in Aiken before following his coach to a prep school in Hilton Head Island, S.C., his senior year. But his old teammates in the area won’t believe what they see from Boise State’s 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore.

“I couldn’t even dunk before going into senior year,” Webb admits of his late-developing game.

Not only could Webb not dunk before leaving to play his senior year at The Oaks Virtual Academy, he was never much of a 3-point shooter in high school.

That’s all changed. As a rookie in Mountain West play this season, half of Webb’s field goal attempts were 3-pointers – ranking third in the conference hitting 44.9 percent. Equally impressive is his play around the rim, where he led Boise State in rebounds (9.0 per conference game) and dunks (15 in 18 games), shooting 65.4 percent from inside the arc and averaging a total of 12.9 points per game. He posted eight double-doubles this season.

“Now I can do pretty much whatever they need me to do,” Webb said.

If that caliber of play surprises people back home, well, it came as somewhat of a surprise in Idaho, too. After transferring from North Idaho College and sitting out last season, Webb didn’t score in only 13 total minutes in the Broncos first five games this year. Then senior all-conference center Anthony Drmic was lost to a back injury early in December and Webb stepped into the starting forward role.

“His injury was a big blow to the team,” Webb said. “We just had to find something that could replace that and fill that void. I went in and talked to the coaches and they worked with me and gave me little stuff to do. From then on I’ve been doing those little steps each game.”

Webb first flashed his potential in only the last 14 minutes off the bench at N.C. State in late November, leading the team scoring with 12. He posted a double-double in his first start on Dec. 9 against Adams State.

Once conference play began, however, he emerged as a star. In January he made his presence known in a huge road win at New Mexico that triggered a turnaround to the regular season conference title after opening Mountain West play 0-3. Webb went 7-for-7 on 3-pointers against the Lobos.

“You’re hearing a lot of that out there like, ‘Who is he and where did you get him?’ ” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “No question you’re hearing that because he just continues to improve and he’s become a big weapon.”

Webb was named the Mountain West Newcomer of the Year, made the all-defensive team and was second-team all-conference. In conference play, Boise State outscored its opponents by 211 points with Webb on the floor – the largest margin of any Bronco at a rate of 71.7 to 56.9 per 40 minutes.

“Yeah, I think I surprised some people,” Webb said. “I think if you really didn’t know me you’d be surprised, but I kind of knew what I could do all along. I didn’t shoot the 3 that much growing up, but here they worked on my shot.”

Webb’s all-around athleticism (he also lettered in tennis, soccer, baseball, track and cross country in high school) has excited the Bronco fan base. He opened eyes with a Jordan-esque game-clinching breakaway dunk at UNLV where he took off from a step inside the foul line and slammed it home on the same night the lights on the Las Vegas strip dimmed in honor of late coach Jerry Tarkanian.

“I didn’t think it was mathematically possible,” Rice said of Webb’s high-flying act.

Webb’s biggest asset, however, is rebounding. He filled the need after Drmic’s injury and the graduation loss of its best rebounder. He led team in rebounding 23 of 30 games he played, reaching double digits 10 times, including highs of 15 against UNLV and Air Force. It was his follow tip-in that sent Boise State into overtime of the conference semifinals before losing to eventual champion Wyoming.

“I know I can’t play if I can’t get boards,” Webb said. “It’s just a knack for the ball. I see the ball go up and try to read how it will come off and just and get it.”

Boise State basketball doesn’t exactly have the same national profile as its football program. Last week’s brief No. 25 ranking in the AP poll was the first in school history. The Broncos have reached the NCAA Tournament six previous times since 1976 representing the Big Sky, Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences. They’ve earned at-large berths in 2013 and this year. They’re 0-6 in March Madness.

That kind of history didn’t exactly earn them a lot of respect from the selection committee. Not only did they get relegated to one of the 11th-seed “play-in” games in Dayton, Ohio, but they got matched up with the hometown Dayton Flyers. Conference rivals San Diego State, which the Broncos beat out for the regular-season title by sweeping two meetings by 15 and 10 points, received a No. 8 seed. Tournament champion Wyoming got a 12 seed but a pass into the so-called “second round.”

Is everyone underestimating Boise State?

“I think so, but that’s just me being biased,” Webb said. “We’re not really a basketball school and San Diego State has always been a basketball school. That’s fine. We know what we can do. I think we have the team to do it, too. Not many people know about us and how we play. I just think we’re going to shock a couple of people.”

That confidence comes from an 8-5 road record this season including wins in tough places like San Diego State, UNLV, Utah State and New Mexico. Four of those five road losses came to tournament teams, including No. 1 seed Wisconsin and No. 1 NIT seed Colorado State.

“I feel like we can handle it,” Webb said of the Dayton hurdle. “I mean, they have the advantage but that’s neither here nor there. We don’t really care about that. We’re just glad that we get a chance to play. This season we’ve been a great road team so we’re just going to treat it as a road game.”

Webb is certainly comfortable on the road. Growing up in a military family, he’s lived in Germany, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and now Idaho. His parents – James and Robin – still live in Augusta after his father retired from the Army.

“I’m pretty used to it,” Webb said of his nomadic life that led him to Boise. “It’s pretty quiet here, but it’s a lot better than what people think or imagine. It’s beautiful.”

As he develops into a go-to player, he hopes to raised Boise State’s profile along with his own starting tonight in the East Region.

“It’s a big a great opportunity for us,” Webb said. “Not many teams know about Boise for basketball and we’re gonna try and turn things around.”

Masters champ Watson staying mum on Champions Dinner menu

Mon, 03/16/2015 - 5:24pm

Bubba Watson finally revealed his Champions Dinner menu for his green-jacketed peers.

“We are definitely going to have food,” Watson promised Monday in a teleconference with Augusta National Golf Club announcing his promotional trip to New York next week on behalf of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship.

The 36-year-old Watson enjoys playing a cat-and-mouse game with anyone who inquires about what he plans to serve his fellow champions at the annual Tuesday night dinner in the Augusta National clubhouse before the Masters Tournament. He kept it a secret when he played host the first time as defending champion in 2013 and will again this year.

“It’s the one chance that I can just hold everything from everybody, so I’m doing it,” Watson said. “And I might never get that chance again.”

Two years ago, Watson served caesar salad and grilled chicken breast with sides of green beans, mashed potatoes, corn, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. Dessert was a confetti cake with vanilla ice cream. He would not say if this year’s menu would be different.

“I knew what the menu was before I even won,” Watson said. “I let them know and told them the same thing – I’m not going to tell anybody until Wednesday morning when they find out. Unless Nick Faldo tweets it again right after he leaves the dinner.”

Faldo tweaked Watson on Twitter immediately after leaving the 2013 dinner: “-@bubbawatson you had a year to decide on, grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, macaroni & cheese!!! #HappyMeal #PlayLikeaChampion”

Watson admits his tastes tip toward the simple.

“I eat plain,” he said, revealing that in both years that he won the Masters he ate one or two burritos every single night (including before attending the Champions Dinner) that consisted of only chicken, rice, black beans and cheese.

“So maybe this year I should do all burritos again,” he said.

His favorite dining spot when he went to school at Georgia was the lunch counter at Ad Drug in the Five Points district of Athens. He’d frequent it with teammate Dave Miller and coach Chris Haack, ordering a cheeseburger and milkshake every time.

He’s also partial to Mellow Mushroom and famously ate a post-Masters meal last April with his wife, Angie, and friend, Judah Smith, at the Waffle House on Wheeler Road. He ate a double grilled cheese with his hashed browns “scattered and covered.” He left a generous $148 tip for the wait staff.

He also ordered six milkshakes just before midnight at the Steak n’ Shake on South Belair Road, leaving a $24 tip on that tab.

If you’re guessing he’d get Waffle House to cater the dinner this time, you’d be wrong.

“You can’t use a name brand,” Watson said of the club’s rules that forbid commercialism.

“Augusta called and started asking what I wanted within a week after” winning, Watson said of his first go-round as host. “So they knew within two weeks but they wouldn’t tell. This year, not one call. They figure it’ll be easy to get whatever I want.”

One thing you can be sure of, the main course won’t come out of Ike’s Pond or any other body of water. Watson declined to eat the surf portion of Adam Scott’s surf-and-turf dinner – Morton Bay Bugs, a crustacean native to the waters off the Gold Coast of Australia.

“I didn’t eat the bugs,” Watson said. “I don’t eat seafood. The steak was real good, though.”

On Monday after playing this week at Bay Hill, Watson will go to New York to promote the finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship that will take place at Augusta National the Sunday before the first practice round of Masters Week. He’ll appear with the green jacket on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Monday night.

The next day he’ll be joined by 10-year-old Kelly Xu, who last year became the first female champion at Augusta National by winning the 7-9 girls division. Xu will return as one of 80 finalists this year, this time in the 10-11 age group.

Watson and Xu will be guests on CBS This Morning, ESPN’s SportsCenter and Golf Channel before finishing the day at the New York Stock Exchange.

“As a kid, I would be honored and thrilled just to try to compete and have a chance to make it to Augusta National,” Watson said, “so this is one of the best things that I’ve seen in recent years to grow the game of golf.”

If Bubba needs any menu advice, Xu said she would serve Brunswick stew, cornmeal, cornbread, sweet corn, sweet tea, and hot peach cobbler as her Champions Dinner menu.

Michaux: Bad decade ending for Georgia hoops

Sat, 03/14/2015 - 9:29pm

It’s likely, when the bids are unveiled tonight on the prime-time selection show, that Georgians will have two teams to cheer for (or hate against) in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.

That’s not that long between multiple bids if you’re a sparse outlier state like the Dakotas, Maine, Alaska or Hawaii, but it’s a pretty brutal lapse for an athlete-producing hotbed in the heart of the sports-enriched South.

Either Georgia State or Georgia Southern is guaranteed access as the winner of today’s Sun Belt Conference championship showdown – a rematch of the 1992 Trans America Athletic Conference title game won by the Eagles. The Sun Belt’s top two seeds have a budding rivalry brewing in their new neighborhood, and the winner of today’s rubber match could be a dangerous foe for some unsuspecting power-conference opponent. The last time Georgia State made it in 2001, the Panthers shocked Wisconsin as an 11 seed.

Meanwhile – despite its 0-6 record against top-50 teams and inexplicable loss to ACC bottom feeder Georgia Tech – the Georgia Bulldogs should get their first at-large invitation to the tournament since 2011. It escaped the unwritten rule (if it’s not written, it should be) that any team that loses to South Carolina three times in the same season is automatically eliminated. The Bulldogs avoided that ignominy Friday night to advance as far as the semifinals of the SEC Tournament.

It should be only Georgia’s second NCAA appearance in 12 years since Jim Harrick left the program in shame, except for the fluke of 2008 when a tornado ripped through the roof of the Georgia Dome and the last-place Bulldogs won three games in 30 hours, including an upset of Kentucky, in an empty Georgia Tech coliseum. Some have called that SEC title run a miracle, but it was more a sign of the apocalypse with the Bulldogs saddled another season with unpopular coach Dennis Felton before Mark Fox could start rebuilding.

But I digress. It’s been a very bad decade for basketball fans in the Peach State. The lone highlight since the diminutive Will Bynum twisted through the lane for a layup to lift Georgia Tech into the 2004 national championship game was Mercer taking down mighty Duke in the first round last year.

In four of the previous nine seasons, no teams from Georgia qualified for the 65- or 68-team fields. In the five other seasons when only one team did, it was never ranked higher than a No. 10 seed. Only that 2004 Georgia Tech team ever made it past the second round this century, and the Yellow Jackets are a long way (and at least a new coach) from ever getting back to relevance.

So this qualifies as a bellwether season for Georgia hoops, with even the Atlanta Hawks becoming the most dominant team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Georgia Regents returned to the NCAA Division II tournament for the 10th time, joining West Georgia and Columbus State in the 32-team field. Paine College had a legitimate beef for being excluded over arguably inferior teams.

Of course, arguing is one of the traditions of college sports. Come tonight, bubbles will burst and teams will go kicking and screaming into the consolation NIT. One of those teams might be Boise State, with former Augusta Christian player James Webb III. Despite Webb’s putback to force overtime Friday, the Broncos lost to Wyoming in the Mountain West semifinals and are at the mercy of the NCAA selection committee.

The committee has an unenviable job. It can be said without hesitation that it’s never left out a team that had any real chance of winning six games and a national title. But the NCAA Tournament is a unique event where even the chance to win one game can be considered a career-validating accomplishment. See Mercer 2014. A Sweet 16, Elite Eight or Final Four appearance are banner-raising triumphs.

Which is why an idea recently proffered by former Duke player Jay Bilas is worth considering. Bilas, this generation’s leading analyst for ESPN, suggested that the selection committee submit its at-large choices seeded 1-68 before conference tournament play. Evaluations would be based entirely upon the regular-season body of work, preventing lesser power-conference teams an unfair opportunity to pad résumés with a win or two in tournament play while the best mid-major or smaller teams don’t have the
same chance.

It’s an intriguing concept, letting every team know exactly what it has to accomplish to get automatic bids while watching conference champs eliminate the bottom bubble teams one by one. It would also give the committee a full week to work on completing the best possible bracket rather than hastily piecing it together on deadline as tournament results trickle in over the course of the last week.

This seems like a better solution than further expanding the field to 72 or 96, thus cheapening the accomplishment of just getting there. A larger tournament merely diminishes the regular season even more.

It’s nice to have regional teams to pull for (or against) when we join the office pools next week. But it’s better to know that those teams earned a place and believe they have a sporting chance to do more than respond “Present” at the tournament roll call.

Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson are top American golfers now

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 3:51pm

Before we all become inflicted with that madness of March that fills the last remaining month until the Masters Tournament, here are a few takeaways gleaned from the recent fortnight spent covering the PGA Tour down in sunny South Florida.

1. There are two kings of the hill in American golf, and their names aren’t Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson are head and shoulders the two best American golfers in the world, and that’s not just a reflection of their world ranking of No. 2 and 7, respectively. In terms of power and athleticism, they are the model of the modern golfer even if they might not have the golf sense of their predecessors Woods and Mickelson or potential successors like Jordan Spieth or Brooks Koepka.

Johnson came back from a six-month leave where he “worked on my game and worked on me” and might just be in position to finally fulfill the massive potential his talent has long promised. A victory at Doral, playoff loss at Riviera and T4 at his personal playground Pebble Beach forecasts a massive season.

Watson, meanwhile, keeps becoming more consistently good with his uninhibited swing. He hasn’t finished worse than 30th in 12 starts – with five top-10s including a World Golf Championship win in China – since his PGA Championship tantrum. He’ll be a significant threat to become the fourth repeat winner at Augusta National Golf Club.

2. Golf is undergoing another youth revolution. The undisputed No. 1 player in the world, Rory McIlroy, is only 25. His oldest peer rivals are Jason Day (27) and Rickie Fowler (26). His pending top-20 challengers are Spieth (21), Hideki Matsuyama (23), Patrick Reed (25) and Koepka (24). On the top 100 horizon are rookies Justin Thomas (21) and Daniel Berger (21) in addition to established talents like Russell Henley (25) and Harris English (25).

This is the generation of fearless golfers that Tiger Woods inspired. Get used to them, because over the next decade many of them are likely to inscribe their names on major trophies.

3. Mickelson may be past his prime as a golfer, but he has overtaken Woods as the most influential player in golf.

It was Mickelson who prompted the overhaul of the American Ryder Cup program with his vocal criticism in the aftermath of the latest debacle last fall, and it was Mickelson who steered the “task force” into adopting a new points system and captain protocols.

Mickelson’s influence is so absolute, he doesn’t care what anybody thinks, including new captain Davis Love III or PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. He endorsed a points system that excludes the season-opening fall events that includes Love’s tournament at Sea Island, saying “if you count money for those last three or four months, you’re giving the bottom half of the tour a three‑month head start over ultimately the top guys.” While the tour’s “bottom half” might be offended, Finchem admitted the tour “whiffed” on allowing that crediting oversight and would try to address it. Mickelson only doubled down, calling the wrap-around schedule confusing and suggesting “maybe we should start it in January like we used to.”

4. There are degrees of misbehavior, some classier than others. McIlroy is so good, he even made club throwing look cool.

Purists wailed when the world No. 1 heaved his 3-iron into the lake on Doral’s eighth hole. But the way he handled it after the round with part humor and part chagrin made it more forgivable than other professional tantrums. Golf is a hard game and sometimes it’s intolerable.

“It felt good at the time,” McIlroy confessed of his heave into the drink. But he added, “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it, especially if there’s kids watching at home.”

5. Donald Trump is the most ubiquitous distraction I’ve ever seen. He turns a World Golf Championship with an all-star cast into something all about him.

When J.B. Holmes shot an other-worldly 62 that was 11 strokes lower than the field average, Trump complained to the PGA Tour’s course setup crew. When McIlroy throws a club in the pond, Trump waits until broadcast hours to send in a frogman to retrieve the club and then returns it personally to McIlroy and holds a press scrum afterwards. When he sends his helicopter to retrieve Arnold Palmer for one of four ribbon-cutting ceremonies during the week, he orders the 85-year-old and visibly injured Palmer to “get up Arnie” at the presentation.

Trump is eagerly investing in golf, which is great. He’s bought and slapped his name on a major venue in Turnberry, coaxed the PGA of America to move its Grand Slam event to his course in Los Angeles and is erecting plush resorts in Scotland, Ireland and New York City. Everywhere you turned last week (even at the opposite event in Puerto Rico), Trump’s name was in a headline. Sadly, Trump’s making the game less rather than more accessible, with green fees to play the brutally tough Blue Monster at $325. Who wants to spend that much money to have a miserable time?

6. Based on the way this season is going, here are many favorites (in order) to win the Masters Tournament: McIlroy, Watson, Adam Scott (with a short putter that was surprisingly deft), Day and Johnson. It should be a lot of fun next month and for the rest of the season.

Michaux: Scott Brown in familiar position

Sat, 03/07/2015 - 7:25pm

DORAL, Fla. — On a different Donald Trump golf course in different tropical locale, Scott Brown is rebooting his slumping season in the same place he got it started two years ago.

Brown – a star at North Augusta High and USC Aiken – finds himself in a familiar place atop the Puerto Rico Open leaderboard entering today’s final round at the Trump International Golf Club. It doesn’t matter to him that golf’s heavyweights are gathered at Trump National Doral for a WGC event. The stakes are as high even if the purse is 60 percent less.

“It doesn’t get easier at all,” Brown said of trying to win for a second time on the PGA Tour. “It’s just as nerve-wracking because winning does so much for you out here and everybody knows it at this level. It gives you two years and gets you in some good tournaments like the PGA and Kapalua. If anybody tells you it gets easier winning, they’d be lying to you. Tiger (Woods) made it look easy in his career, but for the most part look at everybody else. It’s hard to win out here.”

Brown won the 2013 Puerto Rico open, making a birdie on the 18th hole to edge Jordan Spieth and Fabian Gomez by a stroke. Just like two years ago, he’ll enter the final round tied for the 54-hole lead, tied with Chris Smith. Eighteen other players are within three shots.

Unlike two years ago, however, Brown didn’t expect to be in this position after starting the third round 90 minutes ahead of the leaders tied for 21st and six strokes behind the leaders. He shot a bogey-free 5-under-par 67 to vault higher up the leaderboard than he imagined possible. Birdies on the 17th and 18th holes proved crucial.

“It’s definitely like a bonus,” Brown said of his standing in the last group. “I said before teeing off this morning if I could shoot 5 (under) I could get myself in contention or at least reaching distance. Obviously I thought it would be a little bit better at the top. I thought I might be two or three back going into (Sunday).”

The 7,500-yard course obviously suits his game.

“It sets my eye pretty well, and I think it’s got a great mix of holes,” Brown said. “It’s not our typical tour course now where it’s so long. It keeps a lot of us in the game a little bit here.”

It’s a welcome opportunity for Brown, who has struggled mightily since October. Brown missed the cut in seven of his past nine starts, finishing 62nd in the two weekends he reached.

“Obviously I was struggling on the West Coast and I got some good work in with my coach at Honda,” Brown said. “I’ve been kind of fighting the left shot for the last six or seven weeks and we’ve got it kind of dialed in and figured out where it was coming from. So I’m hitting it pretty good this week and just need to make some putts.”

It’s been a far cry from a year ago, when Brown made 21 of 30 cuts including four top-five finishes including the John Deere and Heritage.

“I work really hard at it,” Brown said. “I don’t expect to play great all the time but I expect to be there at least some because I work so hard in practice. I’m super proud of the way I’ve played. I’ve had nine or 10 top-10s on tour, which is not where I’d like to be but it’s not the worst, either. I’ve had some good tournaments where I’ve had a chance to win, too. Hopefully the more you get yourself in that position and the more opportunities you get to win golf tournaments, you just do it and in the right place get the right bounce and it happens.”

Winning an “opposite” event doesn’t earn an automatic invitation to the Masters Tournament – a dream goal for Brown.

But it carries all the other benefits of tour victories, which makes the stress level equivalent if not greater than what the top 50 players are experiencing this week at Doral.

“I’m sure it will feel the same (Sunday),” Brown said, comparing it to two year ago when he had no full-time tour status. “I’m sure I’ll be just as nervous. That’s why we play though, to get nervous and all the anxiety cranks up. Obviously winning is a big deal for anybody. Doesn’t matter what level it’s on. I’ll be feeling it but hopefully I just embrace it and go out and play a good round.”

The Puerto Rico crosswinds have wreaked havoc on the scoring this week, with Brown 12 strokes higher than he was two years ago. But forecasted lighter winds on Sunday mean he’ll need to keep scoring to hold off the field.

“I’ve got to set my sight on a number and not worry about what everybody else is doing,” Brown said. “I’ve got to reach double digits or 11-, 12-under par. So another 5- or 6-under for me and I like my chances. If somebody beats it, that guy deserves it.”

Ranked 223rd in the world, Puerto Rico doesn’t offer enough world ranking points to even get Brown down to his career-best 128th. But it jump start his flagging season, get him into Bay Hill and give him an outside shot of chasing a Masters bid.

“Puerto Rico would not get me in (the Masters) world ranking or with a win, but I have to play really good to get in there and probably have to win somewhere else along the way to get in there or just go on a tear from hear until Augusta to get in to be honest,” he said. “I’ll play all of them they’ll let me play in all the way to Augusta. If I play good (Sunday), maybe I can get into Bay Hill. It’s one of my favorite tournaments out here and hopefully I can get in it.”

Michaux: Adam Scott returns to action with new life, game

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 6:58pm

DORAL, Fla. — Adam Scott returns to work from his Australian summer vacation a fully changed man – new daughter, new caddie, new putter.

“Yeah, everything was getting a little boring so I thought just change everything completely,” said the 2013 Masters Tournament champion.

Winning his first major two years ago at Augusta hardly compares in terms of upheaval to the past 12 months of Scott’s life. He married his longtime girlfriend, Marie Kojzar, in the Bahamas a week after the 2014 Masters.

After the Tour Championship at East Lake, his veteran caddie, Steve Williams, retired to New Zealand. Scott spent the final events on the Australian swing auditioning new caddies and settled on Thorbjorn Olesen’s looper Mike Kerr.

Then during a two-month break before his daughter, Bo Vera, was born Feb. 15 in Queensland, Australia, he got to work experimenting with new grips and conventional short putters as the ban on anchored clubs approaches at the end of 2015.

He plans to employ a claw grip with one of two short putters this week in his season debut in the WGC event at Doral – though he was spotted walking around the resort with the broomstick putter he’s used since 2011 and won the Masters with in 2013.

“I’ve kind of enjoyed experimenting at home the last couple months because I’ve had so much time up my sleeve,” Scott said. “Thinking a little more objectively about it at the back end of last year, I thought because I do have to make an adjustment by the end of this year, if I’m going to spend some time doing it, I should try and start now and maybe find the best solution. I’ve putted lots of different ways at home, and you know, probably going to putt with a shorter putter this week. It’s been feeling good. I’ve enjoyed doing it. It’s not that big a deal. I did it for a long time, too, that way.”

Scott doesn’t want to get too stressed with the transition. He first used the long putter at Doral in 2011 and six weeks later finished runner-up at the Masters, so he believes he has enough time to get up to speed. He won’t feel the immediate need to break his broomstick in half the way Webb Simpson did to avoid the temptation of returning to it as a crutch.

“I think the important thing for me will be to just stay patient with it for a little bit,” he said. “Obviously it’s slightly different than what I’ve been doing, but it’s not completely foreign to me. You know, just give it a chance. I don’t think I need to snap my other putter. It treated me pretty well, so I don’t think it deserves a snapping.

“It’s going to be demanding, certainly if the wind is blowing. But I’m thinking, you know, my stroke and everything feels as good as it ever has.”

The biggest change, of course, is his family. The once desirable bachelor finally settled down and 10 months later became a parent.

He got to spend nine days with mother and daughter changing plenty of diapers and waking up at odd hours before leaving them to return to work and prepare for the Masters next month.

“I thought if I change a lot early, I’ll make up for my six week absence at the moment,” he said. “I think if you can kind of write up a whole dream scenario of how it should all happen, I think we had a pretty good run of things. It’s been a great couple weeks in my life, for sure.

“You know, throwing a baby in the mix is certainly going to make for an interesting year this year. It’s fantastic, and you know, it’s really exciting times for my wife and myself, and going to deal with lots of different things upcoming for sure. I feel like I’m in a really good place with everything.”

Scott shut his game down after playing five tournaments in Asia and Australia at the end of 2014. But friendly games at home with his mates wasn’t going to get him ready for Augusta.

“Certainly the last few weeks at home, seeing a bit of the guys play, I’ve got that kind of itchy feeling to play,” he said. “But I was home for good reason and everything is going well, so good time to kick it off here.”

He’ll try to shake the rust off and get his putter working in four starts at Doral, Tampa, Bay Hill and Texas before coming to Augusta early to prepare for his favorite event.

“I’m kind of starting a little late,” he admitted. “I’ve got to get playing and try and find that nice rhythm on the golf course. I think that’s my goal the next three or four weeks out here – find that rhythm again on the golf course.”

His partner in that quest now is Kerr, who has caddied for the likes of Ernie Els, Lee Westwood and Miguel Angel Jimenez. Scott received hundred of applications from all over the world, including one from a member of the Japanese royal family who admitted one of his qualifications was being “extremely lazy.”

Kerr was one of three caddies Scott auditioned in five starts. In two events together, Scott tied for fifth in the Australian Open and was runner-up in the Aussie PGA and determined Kerr was the proper fit.

“I’ve known Mike a long time, too,” Scott said. “So I know his personality quite well, and it was along the lines of what I thought I needed. You’ve just got to pick someone. I could keep having different guys try all the time but I don’t think I was going to get anything more, so I felt confident with Mike and my decision, and hopefully we’re going to start a good run right here.”

For Scott, the best run would be settling back in a routine with no more changes.

Michaux: Woods won't catch Nicklaus

Sat, 02/28/2015 - 3:23pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Jack Nicklaus will be invited into the NBC booth later this afternoon. He’s the unofficial host of the Honda Classic played on a PGA National Champions course he redesigned near his home in North Palm Beach.

Among the things announcers Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller will talk about with Nicklaus is “The Bear Trap” – the hazard-infested three-hole stretch of 15, 16 and 17 that will go a long way to determining who holds the trophy.

The real Bear trap, however, will undoubtedly be sprung at some point inside that TV tower. It involves Tiger Woods, who isn’t even playing his hometown event this week because his game isn’t PGA Tour quality at the moment.

Nicklaus will invariably be asked if he thinks Woods can still chase down his record of 18 major championship wins. The always diplomatic Jack will answer the same way he did last year, and the year before and the year before that and every year since about 2000. It will be roughly the same answer he gave the Golf Channel 10 days ago, the last time the Bear trap was triggered.

“I still do,” Nicklaus said. “Why would I not think that? ... He’s got a lot of golf in front of him. But it’s going to be up to him, he’s still got to do it. He may. He may not. Obviously chances are harder for him now than five years ago, but I still think he has time on his side.”

There may come a day – perhaps when Woods is 50 and still stuck on 14, 15 or (if he’s really lucky) 16 major wins – when an 80-something Nicklaus admits Tiger doesn’t have a chance. But for now there’s still no other acceptable answer for the legend to give. To answer any other way would be undignified.

Deep down, however, we all know that Nicklaus doesn’t really believe Woods can catch him. Nobody who has seen Woods chip and putt like a 20-handicap golfer when he’s not wincing and withdrawing with another back twinge or deactivated glute can possibly believe that that person is capable of winning, starting at age 39, as many majors as Phil Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros have in their whole careers.

Frankly, it’s time we all accept it and stop forcing Nicklaus to be disingenuous by asking him the same question over and over again almost seven years after the parameters last changed.

Tiger Woods is not going to catch Jack Nicklaus on the major scorecard. At this point, it will be a great accomplishment if Woods covers the three-victory gap on Sam Snead in the all-time PGA Tour wins list. That’s an attainable goal. So would winning another major or two, particularly the Masters where Woods has a lifetime exemption against a shorter field. It’s been 10 years since Woods last won at Augusta National. It’s been seven years since he last won any major.

It’s preposterous to believe that the Woods whose chipping proximity in Phoenix last month was 200 percent worse (30 feet) to the second worst player in the field (10 feet) is capable of winning four or five more majors. To quote the late great Leonard Nimoy’s iconic character Mr. Spock, it’s illogical.

Granted, that logic was borne from the simple premise that the worst thing we can do is count Woods out. I’ve fallen into that rabbit hole of thinking myself. When Woods came back to reclaim his No. 1 ranking with a five-win campaign in 2013, it was easy to see that he still possessed an internal genius that could do great things. He was only 37. Time seemed on his side.

That genius might not have dimmed, but his body has gravely diminished. Since withdrawing after 13 holes on Sunday at last year’s Honda Classic complaining of a bad back, Woods has been on a startling downward trajectory. His world ranking has plummeted to from No. 1 to No. 70 – its lowest since 1996.

He’s taken three leaves of absence from tournament golf in the last 12 months– the first to undergo microdisectomy surgery on his back last March, the second after the PGA to give his back more rehab time to get healthy and now a third to attempt to restore his game to tour standards.

“My play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf,” he said in announcing his indefinite leave on Feb. 11. “Like I’ve said, I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level, and when I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.”

Maybe that will be at Bay Hill. Maybe the Masters. Maybe later. Point is, Woods has lost the confidence that once made him the most efficiently successful player the game has ever known. In the last year, however, he’s more than twice as likely to miss the cut or withdraw with injury than he is to complete 72 holes of golf.

“I think he’s struggling more between his ears than he is anyplace else,” Nicklaus told Golf Channel last week.

“He’s sort of a mess right now,” Miller said. “I’m pulling for him but it seems hard for people to start having faith that he’s going to win regular events, let alone majors.”

“Having known him a long, long time, it’s hard to watch,” said David Duval, a former No. 1 player who never fully recovered from his own injuries and shattered confidence. “I had to live through a lot of it on my own, as well. I think that injuries have really broken him down, his physicality, and I think through that, mentally. And once you get scarred mentally, it’s a hard thing to come back from.”

If you love golf and love greatness, you want to see Tiger Woods come back and compete with Rory McIlroy and the rest of golf’s new world order. There’s still genius trapped inside his 39-year-old body yearning to come back out.

“I think Tiger will turn it around,” Nicklaus said. “He’s too dedicated, he works too hard at it, he’s got too much talent. He’ll figure it out. And personally, I think he needs to figure it out himself. Because a teacher can’t teach what’s inside your head. You’ve got to be able to put that positive thought into your head yourself.”

There may be occasions when we’ll get glimpses of the way Woods used to dominate. He may have his own 1986 Masters moment down the road. But to think that the player struggling to break par and make cuts can exhibit the consistent brilliance required to chase down Nicklaus is a massive stretch.

Age is a trap nobody can escape.

Michaux: US making right moves to change Ryder Cup fortunes

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 9:20pm

If you cut through all the self-congratulatory clutter of task forces and team-building group think, the American Ryder Cup team made a big step Tuesday toward winning the 2016 matches at Hazeltine.

It’s not necessarily the encore selection of Davis Love III to be captain – which Phil Mickelson called “the perfect choice.” It’s not all the back-patting nonsense of collaboration and collective experience.

It’s about common sense, and the PGA of America implemented that fundamental element to putting together the best possible U.S. team in a consistent system designed to be as competitive as possible against an overwhelming tide of European success in the biennial matches.

“We took a step back and said, you know, over the last 20 years, a 2-8 record, something should be done differently,” PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua said. “Something’s broken. We can do something better.”

In Tuesday’s introductory news conference at PGA of America headquarters, Love said what’s better is “a new process for continuity and teamwork which will prepare us for many years of success.”

The most significant part of that “process” is establishing a more sensible framework for having the best 12 players competing every other September. It’s something former captain Paul Azinger tried to establish in 2008 – the last time the Americans won – but was chipped away at in three successive losses since by disparate captaincies.

The biggest new piece is giving the captain more flexibility in choosing his team at precisely the right moment. Love will get four captain’s picks again, instead of three, and will get to make those picks at later dates when a more complete picture of the hottest players is available as the Ryder Cup approaches.

The first three captain’s picks will be made right before the season-ending Tour Championship. The last wild-card bullet will be left in the chamber until after the final event at East Lake.

The significance of that one change can’t be over-stated. This year’s U.S. team was hamstrung before it ever got to Scotland because captain Tom Watson had to make educated guesses about all of his captain’s picks a month before the Ryder Cup after only half of the PGA Tour’s showcase playoff events were concluded. That meant he never had a chance to even consider the player who won both of the last two events, Billy Horschel, or the next hottest player over the last three weeks, Chris Kirk. Those two in peak form might have changed the dynamic of the U.S. team completely.

Even better is that the deadline for the eight automatic qualifiers will be delayed until the end of August after the first playoff event in 2016, the Barclays. On its face, this pushed-back deadline was made because the PGA Championship is moving to earlier in the summer for one year to accommodate golf’s return to the Olympics. The upshot is that players will be grinding for points closer to the Ryder Cup than ever before.

“I think it’s a huge change,” Love said. “Obviously … the Olympic year really made us look at everything. We can’t obviously end the points at the PGA that early. So it gave us flexibility to do it where we thought was best. … We like waiting as long as we can to take the players who are ready to go.”

They’ve also jiggered the points system to weigh it even more heavily upon the biggest events and the most current year. Points will start getting earned next week at the World Golf Championship at Doral and in all of the remaining WGCs, majors and the Players Championship in 2015. Majors will be worth one point for every $1,000 earned while the other marquee events will offer one point for every $2,000 won.

The 2016 points won’t start accruing until the start of the year and not the wrap-around season, eliminating the fall events when the best players tend to take an off-season. Players will receive one point for every $1,000 in stand-alone PGA Tour events and double that in the majors.

“If you count money for those last three or four months, you’re giving the bottom half of the tour a three-month head start over ultimately the top guys,” Phil Mickelson said.

Those are the most essential elements, but the captain system is also critical. Despite his team failing to hold a substantial lead for him on the last day of the 2012 matches at Medinah, Love commands a respect from peer players. He’s high on emotion, but low on ego.

“He’s a guy that people love and respect, and he’s a guy that already has done a great job and put us in a position to succeed, even though we didn’t do it,” Mickelson said. “There’s nobody who is as unselfish, there’s nobody who can take the hits and pass the credit, who has past experience to work off of. If those are the things you want, there’s only one guy who fits that bill. He’s the perfect guy to get us started in a 20-year journey.”

But Love biggest task will be creating the model of succession. He’ll have four vice captains comprised of two former captains and two experienced Ryder Cup players. Love already named 2006 captain Tom Lehman as an assistant in his home state of Minnesota.

Mickelson said participation in 2016 as a player or vice captain will be compulsory for consideration as the 2018 captain.

It should be noted that none of these common-sense changes might have taken place had Mickelson – at the urging of his fellow teammates – hadn’t spoken up in the aftermath of the latest defeat at Gleneagles.

“It should have happened 20 years ago, but we were such a better team talent-wise that we were able to overcome it and come out on top, so it was never a necessity,” Mickelson said. “But as Europe got better players, better organized and started winning more, now it’s a necessity. We have to play our best. We are not more talented to where we can just show up and expect to win.”

At least in 2016, the Americans have a chance of showing up with their best talent and a sensible plan to face the challenge of turning the tide against Europe.

Vaughn Taylor appears headed back on road to PGA Tour

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 7:33pm

It was a welcome sight for local golf fans, Vaughn Taylor chipping in on the 14th hole for birdie to force CBS to acknowledge his presence on the Pebble Beach leaderboard.

It’s been a long time since the Hephzibah-bred, Augusta State-honed, Evans resident has been relevant on the PGA Tour. After losing his card in 2013 and narrowly failing to regain it on the Web.com Tour last year, Taylor is struggling to regain a foothold he held for 11 seasons on the world’s most prominent tour. His tie for 10th in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was a needed boost.

“It was a lot of fun,” Taylor said of his 15-under performance on the Monterrey Peninsula. “I had a great time last week and it’s always nice to play well, too. It’s good to get back in the mix on the tour.”

When you’re on the outside looking in, it’s hard not to let the stakes be overwhelming. Taylor’s birdie on the 14th hole moved him into a tie for fourth, four shots behind cruising leader Brandt Snedeker. A steady finish would have brought him a paycheck in excess of $250,000 and guaranteed him a spot in the Northern Trust Open.

Taylor knew it and started pressing, failing to hit the greens on Nos. 15 and 16 and missing 6-footers for par on each. That left him sweating it out that he’d remain in the top-10 and join this week’s PGA Tour field at Riviera.

“Unfortunately (I was) a little too conscious of it,” Taylor said. “It was definitely something I thought about. I was trying to take it one shot at a time and stay in my routine of what I was doing. But it had been a while since I’d been in that situation. I definitely knew the top 10 was going to get me in this week. I wish I hadn’t started thinking about it as much as I was. But it was natural to think about it a little bit. I’m glad everything worked out the way it did.”

Fighting against the current to get back among the golf’s elite as Taylor has been the past couple of years, it’s easy to feel like you’re never going to get your head above water. Taylor, however, knows a little too much about that in a very literal way.

Fishing alone last August below Strom Thurmond Dam just six miles up the Savannah River from his home, Taylor’s boat was swamped after one of his aging anchor lines broke. Not wearing a life vest, he originally tried to save his boat from sinking before realizing he was in bigger danger himself. His mind quickly raced to his wife, Leot, and infant son, Locklyn, at home.

“I was panicked a little bit and could have made it a lot easier on myself,” he said. “When I was in the water I thought of my family first. It makes you realize how much people need you. It’s not about yourself.”

Taylor got lucky. Dam operators lowered the flow to ease the current and he eventually grabbed hold of a waterproof tackle box that served as a flotation device to help him swim to shore a couple of hundred yards down the river. He’s also lucky that his deteriorating anchor line gave away on a warm summer day when he was only wearing shorts instead of in winter.

“I kind of felt like someone was looking over me that day,” he said. “I was lucky to be alive. It was an unfortunate accident and one in which I made a lot of mistakes as far as boating goes. You kind of live and learn a little bit. I could have prevented it. I learned that when I’m out there by myself I’ve got to be wearing a life jacket. I just didn’t realize the scenarios that can happen out there. Wearing a life jacket is No. 1. When you’re by yourself you never know what can happen. You can drown that easily.”

The lesson was another dose of perspective for the nearly 39-year-old Taylor. Locklyn is now 15 months old, and fatherhood has softened his sometimes volatile moods on the golf course.

“It’s changed things a lot,” he said. “Being a father is different and walking off the golf course you tend to forget about all the bad things. It just gives you a bigger view. He’s 15 months old and he doesn’t know what I shot or what happened on the golf course. It’s good for me to get away from that. It’s been refreshing for me and something I need at this point in my career. I’m really happy with where my life is right now.”

His golf is in “a completely different place” as well. A year ago he was a new father who’d just been demoted from the lucrative PGA Tour. His confidence wasn’t brimming.

“I was trying to work on some things and mentally I was all over the place,” he said. “I’d lost my card and was going back down to Web.com. So I didn’t really know what was going on or what to expect.”

In four starts this season – two on each tour – Taylor hasn’t been outside the top 20 yet. He tied for 20th in the PGA Tour’s Sanderson Farms Championship in November. With his tie for 10th at Pebble Beach, he’s 141st in the FedEx Cup standings.

In the season’s first two events on the Web.com Tour, he finished 15th and 12th in Panama and Colombia to sit 14th on that money list just ahead of fellow Augusta State alumnus Henrik Norlander.

Another good result this week at Riviera – where he’s made the cut five of the past six times he’s played and finished top 25 twice – and in two weeks in Puerto Rico would give him a leg up on regaining his status. The $141,100 he made at Pebble Beach was more than he earned in 23 starts all of last season and gives him more flexibility with his schedule.

“Originally I was just planning to play on the Web.com and get a few starts out here, but last week changes things,” he said. “I’d love to maybe play my way on out here and maybe get some invites to get in the top 125 and get more starts because of that. I’ll take it week to week.

“I can relax a little more and try to free it up and play a little bit without worrying about all that kind of stuff.”

Prep star Roquan Smith might have unwittingly set new trend

Sat, 02/14/2015 - 7:10pm

The funny thing about game-changers is you don’t often see them coming.

Chinese alchemists eight centuries before Christ were experimenting trying to develop an “immortality pill.” What they discovered instead eventually became one of the deadliest compounds in the world – gunpowder.

Nearly 3,000 years later, clinical trials tested the safety of a new drug designed to treat angina caused by heart disease. A funny thing happened to the trial subjects, however, and the next thing you know all of our sporting events are interrupted by Viagra commercials.

These unintended strokes of genius and countless others changed the world, each in its own way. Now a linebacker might have down the same for college football. Without even trying, he might have become the Curt Flood of college recruiting who brings a needed level of “free agency” to the star athletes.

Unless you’re a recruiting junkie, you never heard of Roquan Smith (or even Montezuma, Ga.) until last week. The Macon County senior was listed by ESPN as the second-best linebacker in the nation, the 29th best player overall. Those numbers are meaningless except to say that Smith is very good at tackling people and colleges wanted him.

During the ridiculously over-hyped National Signing Day coverage, Smith was asked by ESPN to make his college choice known on national television. At the appointed time, Smith reached under the table and pulled on gloves with the logo of UCLA even though he was still a little torn over whether to go to school across country or at nearby Georgia.

“First off, Wednesday morning, I woke up, and I didn’t know where I was going to go,” Smith explained to UGASports.com. “Going into signing day and when I was getting ready to sign, I still didn’t know where I was going to go. My heart was with UGA, but my mind was with UCLA and wanting to experience something different. When I got up there, I just chose UCLA on TV. Then, either place I committed, I wasn’t going to sign papers then. I said I wanted to get some time back, think, and see how the decision felt within.”

While Smith was still thinking about it, word leaked out that his future position coach at UCLA was going to by hired by the Atlanta Falcons. Having not signed and sent in his paperwork, Smith was suddenly back on the block and a trending story. Had UCLA already received his signed national letter of intent (NLI), he would have been locked into the Bruins regardless.

On Friday, nine days after becoming an unintended recruiting saga, Smith signed scholarship players to go to Georgia.

“I am relieved to say that I am officially committed to the University of Georgia, 100 percent,” Smith posted on the considerably lower-wattage forum of Instagram.

Smith, however, still refuses to sign the letter of intent that would bind him without recourse to the Bulldogs. Georgia’s fine with that, because Smith is considered talented enough to move the Bulldogs’ recruiting class from eighth or ninth to as high as sixth in the various rankings.

By not signing that NLI, Smith might have unwittingly changed the game in favor of other blue-chip talent. That one little piece of paper – which Sports Illustrated recently called the “worst contract in American sports” – guarantees the player nothing. A school can revoke its scholarship offer at any time between signing day and preseason camp, leaving the player with no recourse and a lost year of eligibility. It’s a relative safeguard for more borderline recruits, but it’s entirely weighted on behalf of the schools.

UCLA (which is hardly alone) tried to hide until after all the recruiting ink dried the fact that a coach was freely leaving to pursue a greater opportunity. That leaves anyone who trusted them and signed stuck without the chance to seek more suitable opportunities for themselves.

Smith’s holdout might set a precedent for other high-end recruits to give themselves a little cushion and an emergency exit plan. At the very least, it should force the schools and NCAA to legislate a little more leniency into the process and a better contract.

“Something’s got to happen,” said Burke County coach Eric Parker, who thinks Smith’s tactic could only effect about 1 percent of the best recruits. “You’ve got to work magic to take a pro sport (model) and run it through amateur rules.”

The NCAA is in a period of upheaval that will eventually see a lot of its arcane amateur rules rewritten to the benefit of the players. The enormous revenue generated by college football will soon not be just a one-way street into the pockets of programs, coaches and administrators at the expense of the indentured players. There will be cost-of-living stipends, improved medical coverage and four-year full-ride scholarships to protect the players who give their services to schools.

The operative word in all these evolving changes is “antitrust,” as in the court cases in which the collegiate status quo has suffered recent losses. But that anti-trust can apply to guys like Smith, who were offered deceptive sales pitches for their signatures. Parker believes a lot of it can be fixed with a later signing date – mid-April after spring practices – when coaching staffs are settled and players’ graduation goals are in sight.

In some fashion, Smith’s unprecedented move could flood the collegiate system the way Curt Flood altered the landscape of professional sports by refusing a trade by the St. Louis Cardinals. Flood ultimately won in court and provided the impetus for the modern free-agent system.

Like so many others accidental moments of genius, Smith wasn’t trying to be a trendsetter.

“It just happened how it happened,” he told UGASports.com. “I wasn’t looking forward to being anything. I was just doing what I thought was best for me.”

It turned out well for Georgia in the short term, but could be best for everyone in the long run.

Loss of four hall-of-famers in 10 days is difficult to take

Tue, 02/10/2015 - 5:06pm

If there has ever been a greater collective loss in the history of sports, please don’t remind me of it. It’s hard to imagine worse.

In a span of 10 days, the world lost four Hall of Famers – three of them golfers and one a basketball coach. In years to come, history might recall them only for their athletic achievements. At this moment, however, anyone who knew or met these four sporting giants are grieving the loss of their humanity.

Kel Nagle – one of the greatest Australian golfers who beat Arnold Palmer to win the 1960 Open Championship at St. Andrews – died on Jan. 29 at age 94. His nickname was “Mr. Modesty.” Fellow Australian great Peter Thomson said, “Of all the people I have met in the world of golf, this fellow is the finest.”

Charlie Sifford – who endured unimaginable discrimination to blaze the trail for black golfers on the PGA Tour – died Feb. 3 at age 92. Lee Trevino dubbed him the “Jackie Robinson of golf” while Tiger Woods mourned “we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man.”

Billy Casper – a three-time major champion and one of the most prolific winners in PGA Tour history – died on Feb. 7 at age 83. Overshadowed by golf’s “Big Three” even when he outplayed them, he’s been hailed as golf’s “most underrated” player. But it was his values and warm spirit that ultimately set him apart and left fellow Masters champions like Ben Crenshaw “saddened beyond belief.”

Dean Smith – who retired from North Carolina as the winningest basketball coach of all time – died on Feb. 7, as well, at age 83. A coaching visionary, he spent a career teaching some of the game’s greatest players how to compete and live right. But it was his social activism that left friends and rivals calling him a “great coach but a greater man.”

All four men were honored as Hall of Famers in their chosen profession. All four of them are respected for more than what they did on the field of play.

The only one I missed the chance to meet was Nagle. I had hoped to talk to him while traveling to Australia in 2013, but his health and my itinerary didn’t allow it. Everyone who knew him gushed about his gentlemanly nature and raved about his uncanny accuracy that accounted for more Australian Tour wins (61) than any other.

Sifford was a tough man to get to know, understandably mistrustful of the motives of strangers after enduring threats, taunts and years of injustice trying to open the doors at the highest level for black golfers. He didn’t get the chance until he was 38, almost the age Woods is now. His strength and determination were unmistakable and unshakeable.

“I think what Charlie Sifford has brought to his game has been monumental,” said Jack Nicklaus of his fellow Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient – the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Casper was a regular in Augusta every spring, usually holding court with family and friends at one of the umbrellaed tables behind the clubhouse. He was a favorite of reporters for always being both approachable and a gracious story teller. It was his generosity of spirit that made him beloved by anyone who met him.

He will be remembered for a lethal putter and 51 PGA Tour wins – seventh on the all-time list – including a pair of U.S. Opens and the 1970 Masters. During one stretch from 1962-70 at the peak of the “Big Three,” he won 33 times. Five times he won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average, a feat only surpassed by Woods. His career winning percentage trails only Woods and Nicklaus.

But these achievements aren’t what Casper considered his legacy.

“I want to be remembered for how I loved my fellow man,” he once said.

Coach Smith is the only one of these men for whom I can claim a lifelong relationship, of sorts. That doesn’t mean I knew him well – I covered his team for only the second half of the 1997 season for the Greensboro paper – but that he was an arcing presence in my life.

Coming of age in ACC territory in the 1970s, you always watched the Jefferson-Pilot Game of the Week on Saturdays. That game always included either UNC, Duke or N.C. State. It seems impossible, but I was a fan of all three. How could you not love watching David Thompson or Phil Ford or Mike Gminski and Jim Spanarkle?

But there was something different about Carolina. The color was unique. The floor of Carmichael Auditorium was distinctive, with the outline of the state at center court and the hand-operated scoreboards in the corners. The wholesale “Blue Team” substitutions and the “Four Corners.” The way they pointed at each other after made baskets and raised their hands after fouls. And there was Dean Smith directing it all. My adolescent self loved those Heels and by extension him.

Then Virginia suddenly became relevant with Ralph Sampson and the Tar Heels became the enemy. Smith’s teams stood in the way time and again, including a Final Four that should have been Virginia’s to win. My college self loathed the Heels and by extension Smith. His success was as grating as his nasally voice, his whining about physical play, his choking the life out of what should have been one of the greatest games with his stall ball tactics that left stars like Sampson, Othell Wilson, Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins standing around looking at each other for most of 40 minutes.

A decade later I moved to North Carolina and in January 1997 found myself falling into the beat writer role covering UNC. The Tar Heels immediately started off 0-3 in the ACC for the first time in Smith’s career and were 3-5 by the end of the month. His demeanor never changed. By March, the Tar Heels won another ACC Tournament and rode a 16-game winning streak to the Final Four.

Along the way, Smith surpassed Adolph Rupp’s record for all-time coaching victories. Everyone was writing profiles of Smith, but he wouldn’t talk about himself. In talking to others, the depth of Smith’s character came into focus for me. His selflessness. His social conscious that led him to stand up for desegregating his school and community and speaking out against the death penalty. His unabiding loyalty. His humility. The professional me deeply admired the man.

John Feinstein posted the perfect Dean Smith quote that summed him up: “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”

That’s the common thread here – all four of these Hall of Famers did the right things in their lives. They were not only great at their chosen crafts, they were great at leading by example. History will remember their feats, but it’s their lost presence in this world that is incalculable.

Rest in peace, gentlemen. We thank you for all for gracing our lives with your lessons.

Michaux: Top-ranked South Carolina women face toughest test yet in No. 2 UConn

Sat, 02/07/2015 - 6:42pm

“Say who dat? Who dat? We dat, we dat.

The best in the nation, trying to be dat, be dat.

Garnet and black, garnet and black; we bleed dat, bleed dat.”

– T-Roy lyrics, sung to the tune of Fancy by Iggy Azalea

ATHENS, Ga. — They have a music video going viral. They have a perfect 22-0 record. They have the No. 1 ranking in the nation.

As junior guard Tina Roy’s lyrics claim, the South Carolina women’s basketball team is all “dat.” On Monday night, they’ll get a chance to prove it under the most testing circumstances possible at the home of perennial NCAA champions Connecticut.

“First things first, we the realest.

And we ’bout to make the whole world feel it.”

Four busloads of Gamecocks fans made the trip to Athens on Thursday night to see the Gamecocks match the best start of any sports program in South Carolina history.

Even short-handed, the Gamecocks easily handled No. 22 Georgia 58-35 to remain perfect, but it’s Monday night at UConn where thoughts have been drifting since the season started in November.

Before Thursday’s tip, coach Dawn Staley asked for a show of hands how many players were already thinking about UConn.

“Of course we all raised our hands,” said freshman forward Jatarie White. “She was expecting that. She knows it’s a big game. But we knew we had to take care of this game before we could start really concentrating and putting our focus on UConn.”

“One team one goal, just so you know,

we goin’ to the top, we ’bout to blow.

O-N-E is the motto,

Get it done that’s for sure.”

This is a South Carolina team that has been thinking and talking about winning a national championship since day one. The team’s motto is “One” – one team, one force, one family, one goal, one history.

At No. 1 for 11 consecutive weeks since UConn stumbled early in overtime at Stanford, why not think big? A top seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks only got better by adding three blue-chip freshmen – A’ja Wilson, Bianca Cuevas and White – who have already proven to be valuable assets.

South Carolina is so deep that its second (Alaina Coates) and third (Wilson) leading scorers come off the bench. And the electric Cuevas is just starting to add an element that Georgia coach Andy Landers highlighted in different color on his board – to no avail as the Bronx guard put up a team-high 16 on Thursday.

“She’s no joke, this kid is real,” Landers said of Cuevas.

Under Staley’s guiding hand, the Gamecocks are no joke. Still trying to find its offensive footing, it dominates with a defense that frustrates opponents. Georgia was held to its lowest point total in seven years, snapping an 18-game home winning streak.

“Our defense has gotten better and better every time we step on the floor and I think it’s become contagious led by Khadijah Sessions,” Staley said. “She gets after it and disrupts and everybody behind her disruption is joining the party. Our offense still needs a little bit of work, but when you can defend and keep people from scoring, you give yourself a little bit of cushion.”

“We ’bout the have that ring

shining our fists.”

There is no cushion awaiting them Monday in a sold out Gampel Pavilion. To call the challenge awaiting them in Storrs, Conn., daunting would be an understatement. The Huskies just don’t lose there.

The longest home court winning streak in history was 99 games by UConn, ending in 2012 to unranked St. John’s. UConn has lost only seven times in Gampel since 1993. They’ve won 257 times there in those 22 years – a garish 97.5 winning percentage.

Of course, losing in general isn’t something the Huskies do often – evidenced by their 40-0 NCAA championship season last year. Last Tuesday, UConn coach Geno Auriemma reached his 900th victory faster than any other college basketball coach, hitting the milestone in only 1,034 games. His winning percentage of 87.04 percent in the best in the history of the women’s game. He also holds a record nine NCAA titles and appeared in the Final Four 15 times.

The Huskies have won 21 consecutive games since a November loss at Stanford and dominated American Athletic Conference foes by an average of more than 50 points.

South Carolina seems ready to knock down the UConn bar.

“We’re going to treat it like any other game,” said junior guard Tiffany Mitchell, the team’s leading scorer. “Just because they’re UConn we’re not going to treat it any different.”

But this isn’t any other game. This is the biggest game the Gamecocks have ever been involved in.

“It’s UConn,” Mitchell admitted. “It’s hard to overlook them and people are looking forward to this game. We just take each game and finally we’re ready to take them.”

Staley believes they’re up for it.

They showed resolve Thursday playing hard with Coates suspended for a game for violating team rules. They simply found new ways to achieve the same result.

“I think that’s how we’re able to perform the way we do because we don’t get too high with the highs and too low with the lows,” Staley said. “We just kind of maintain and focus on the task at hand. It’s easy when you don’t get ahead of yourself and you don’t look back. “

They don’t have to look ahead any more.

This is the game they’ve been waiting for, the chance to measure themselves against the standard of women’s basketball.

“I’m excited and the whole team’s excited, but we’re just going to go out there with a level head and just do what we do,” said Roy, who wrote the song that outlined exactly what they plan to do.

“We going to the top, because I said it.

Final Four championship, that’s where we headed.”

Michaux: Sifford just wanted to compete

Wed, 02/04/2015 - 11:29am

Charlie Sifford was already deep into his 70s when I first started talking to him – far removed from the bile and hatred that defined his career. Yet every conversation with him followed a pattern of suspicion, gradual acceptance then guarded cooperation.

The racism that dogged the first black member of the PGA Tour during the peak of the civil rights era had conditioned Sifford’s mistrust. His feelings deserved respect because every time he talked about his life in golf he was taking you back decades when respect was the last thing Charlie Sifford was afforded.

“It was a shame,” Sifford told me the first time I spoke to him. “It’s just a shame that in this country when a black man stands up for his rights you’ll be penalized.”

Sifford was 38 years old in 1961 when the Caucasian-only clause was finally rescinded by the PGA Tour. He spent his prime years dominating the all-black United Golfers Association, winning five consecutive national titles. But like any great athlete, Sifford longed to compete as equals against the best.

“When I went out as the first black man to play on the full PGA Tour, it was one of the most frightening and dangerous things I’ve ever faced,” Sifford wrote in his book, Just Let Me Play: The Story of Charlie Sifford, the First Black PGA Golfer. “It took a long time for the Caucasian clause to fall. But for the black man in golf, the struggle had just begun.”

Sifford was not the first black golfer to play a PGA Tour event – that distinction belongs to Bill Spiller at the 1948 Los Angeles Open. He is also not the first black golfer to win a PGA Tour event – Pete Brown won the Waco Open in 1964.

But Sifford was the first full-time black member of the PGA Tour after the whites-only clause was lifted. The former caddie from Charlotte, N.C., spent 10 years suffering insults, threats and injustice while still retaining his playing card by finishing in the top 60 on the money list. He became the first black tour member to win at the Greater Hartford Open in 1967. He won a second time at the 1969 Los Angeles Open.

Sadly, neither of those accomplishments earned him an invitation to play in the Masters Tournament. Augusta’s slowly evolving qualification standards didn’t allow a black man to play until Lee Elder in 1975.

“Charlie felt slighted and singled out,” said Pete McDaniel, who wrote the book Uneven Lies on the history of African-Americans in golf. “He felt every time he reached the finish line, they moved it.”

The late Jim Murray, arguably America’s greatest sports columnist, skipped covering the Masters for many years in silent protest of its exclusion of Sifford.

“This august Augusta tournament has a complicated formula for selecting its field,” Murray once wrote. “If you come from Formosa, it’s easy to get in. If you come from a cotton patch in Carolina, it’s impossible.”

Pete Brown, who currently lives in Augusta, became a PGA Tour member in 1963, two years after Sifford first broke that barrier. While enduring his own share of racial scorn, Brown said Sifford’s leadership into the white world of golf made it easier on him.

“Charlie had a rough time,” Brown said in 2012. “They harassed him a lot. I got about half of it because I came along right after him. So we were together most of the time. So whatever he got I got, but it got better later. When he was alone by himself, I don’t know how he made it through that.”

Brown arguably had the better personality to pioneer the challenge first, but it was Sifford that circumstances chose to handle the task.

“Different personalities and different spirits,” McDaniel said of the two early pioneers. “Charlie was discriminated against right in his face. Everywhere he turned it seem the door closed. He was told he wasn’t welcome. He was told he wasn’t good enough. He was told he wasn’t equal to any other majority player because he was a minority. That burned his soul. So much so that he still pains from it today.”

Perhaps the toughest task of Sifford’s career was breaking the color barrier in his native South. Just months after the Caucasian-only clause fell, Sifford accepted an invitation to play in the 1961 Greater Greensboro Open – just two hours up the road from where he was born and raised.

“I just made up my mind I was going to play because I figured that if anybody is qualified to do anything, they should be given a chance,” Sifford said. “I just wanted to try. Of course I was worried. A black man playing golf in Greensboro, North Carolina. Jesus Christ!

“Somebody had to do it, so I just took a shot at it. It was pretty tough because of the things I went through. I did it professionally. If I had done what everybody thought I was going to do and take one of them clubs and go upside of somebody’s head, it would have been all over with.”

The galleries in Greensboro in 1961 made inviting targets. A group of more virulent racists trailed him around Sedgefield Country Club, kicking his ball and hollering abusive threats and slurs that got thicker the more beer they drank. At one point, Sifford got to his ball to find it covered in a pile of beer cans – which was better than the feces he was greeted with in a cup on the first hole at the 1952 Phoenix Open.

“One of them said, ‘Let me see you hit that one, darkie,’” Sifford said of his Greensboro abusers. “I started swinging my golf club and cans was going everywhere.”

In spite of all the hostility, Sifford bit down harder on his cigar and shot a 68 in his opening round at Greensboro to take a one-shot lead over Billy Maxwell. He played with eventual champion Mike Souchak and Maxwell in the final threesome on Sunday but shot 75 to finish tied for fourth.

“Oh well, I couldn’t win,” he said four decades later. “There was too much pressure.”

Yet Sifford did win merely by showing up and refusing to quit, blazing the trail for his peers and generations that followed. He understood too well that the same vestiges of racism that defined his experience haven’t disappeared.

Even as Tiger Woods dominated the game and elevated it to new levels at the turn of the century, there remained many people who resented his success based solely upon the color of his skin. Years after Woods’ breakthrough Masters victory in 1997, hate mail still routinely piles up.

“A lot of people don’t realize what Tiger Woods is going through,” Sifford told me in 2000 when Woods was about to embark on an unprecedented grand slam run. “He’s catching the same thing. Not everybody is too happy about what he’s doing.”

Woods respected Sifford for enduring a level of bigotry with enough grace to pave the way for him to become golf’s leading man.

“Our generation is umpteen times better than what my father grew up in,” Woods said in 2006. “My father wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotels as his team when he played college baseball. Charlie Sifford wasn’t allowed to play on the PGA Tour. I am allowed to play on the PGA Tour. Charlie wasn’t allowed to play in the Masters. I am allowed to play in the Masters. These are things that have happened and transpired in one generation. One generation from now, things should be umpteen times better.”

The respect Sifford was routinely denied as a player rightfully caught up with him as a pioneer. In 2004 he became the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

In November, came a moment Sifford could never have imagined more then 50 years ago when he embarked on that frightening new road. In the White House he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the first black man elected President of the United States – Barack Obama.

“I didn’t do this for me, I did it for the world,” Obama quoted the 92-year-old Sifford as saying before placing the medal around his neck.

On Tuesday night, a month after suffering a stroke that sent him to the hospital, Charlie Sifford died. May he find a richly deserved peace in death that eluded him most of his life.

Michaux: Seattle coach's calculated risk didn't work in the Super Bowl

Tue, 02/03/2015 - 7:55pm

Silver lining postscript to Super Bowl XLIX: at least the Atlanta Falcons didn’t introduce Seattle’s offensive coordinator Tuesday as their next head coach.

Falcons fans hope that Arthur Blank’s last question before signing a check and handing the franchise keys to former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was, “What would you have called on the 1-yard line Sunday?”

Quinn’s only proper answer could have been, “Feed the Beast.”

Seattle’s defense gave up four passing touchdowns and a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the New England Patriots on Sunday then started a little sour-grapes brawl at the end of the game, but the new Falcons skipper could walk through the doors at Flowery Branch with his head high because his name isn’t Pete Carroll or Darrell Bevell.

Assuming you were one of the record 120.8 million people watching the closing minutes of Sunday’s Super Bowl, you probably count among the 120.8 million armchair coaches who quickly recognized what is being hailed as the worst play call in sports history.

There may not have been a more unifying national moment since the moon landing than the response to Carroll and Bevell’s decision to pass on second-and-goal from the 1 with the clock ticking down under 30 seconds and the Patriots leading by four. Marshawn Lynch – the most stubborn running back to tackle in the NFL – was standing right there in “Beast Mode” waiting to blast through the goal-line defense for the go-ahead touchdown and declare on camera, “I’m only going to Disney World so I won’t get fined.”

Everybody in the world knew it was coming. You could have polled Barrack Obama and John Boehner; Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh; Tiger Woods and Dan Jenkins; Taylor Swift and Kanye West and every last one of them would have agreed on the same thing: “Hand the ball to Lynch.”

Heck, if Carroll had time to call up Mark Richt and Mike Bobo on his headset, they could have explained to him in great detail the consequences of not handing the ball to Todd Gurley ... I mean, Lynch ... in that scenario.

In every living room and bar room across America, the same general scream was universally uttered when quarterback Russell Wilson cocked his arm to throw. “What the heck are they doing?” – or something like that – rang out from 120.8 bewildered mouths.

Whether you cheered, cried or remained indifferent when rookie safety Malcolm Butler jumped the route and intercepted the pass to clinch the Patriots’ victory, you still agreed that the Seahawks coaches had lost their collective minds. Heck, the Seahawks themselves even agreed.

“I don’t understand how you don’t give it to the best back in the league on not-even the 1-yard line,” said Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin.

Common sense and logic certainly would seem to favor the overwhelming majority who thought the Seahawks should run it. The outcome of the disastrous pass play is indisputable. As the saying goes, only three things can happen with a pass and two of them are bad.

But the reality isn’t quite as cut and dried. Two outcomes of that play would have been positive from Seattle’s perspective – a touchdown catch or a harmless incompletion. So Carroll was working with 66.7 percent favorable odds to start.

The stat gurus at ESPN also pointed out the fact that in every goal-line play in the NFL this season, pass plays had a 60.9 percent conversion rate (resulting in 70 touchdowns) compared to 57.1 percent success on runs. The number of interceptions thrown in those 115 prior pass plays was zero.

What’s more, Lynch’s own goal-line track record is hardly infallible. On the season, he scored once in five rushing opportunities from the 1. That’s 20 percent. In his career, he’s scored 15 times in 36 carries from the opponent’s 1 (41.7 percent). Nine of those times (25 percent), he lost yardage against goal-line defenses. Beast mode isn’t always the best mode to score.

So passing on second down wasn’t necessarily the worst idea in the world. If the ball had fallen incomplete, the clock would have stopped with 26 seconds left. Then you would have third down and the Patriots’ defense would need to account more for both the run or the pass, giving Lynch a better chance to bust through. If he fails then, you can use the last timeout with around 10 seconds left and pass again on fourth down – either winning, losing or drawing pass interference to get one more crack at choosing between run or pass again from within inches of the goal-line.

Whatever happened, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t going to get his hands on the ball again with any meaningful time left thanks to his own genius coach’s decision not to call timeout and let 20 precious seconds spill before (luckily for him) what turned out to be the fateful play.

The point is, as obvious as it seemed to all of us at the time, passing isn’t as indefensible as it’s been deemed. The mistake was more likely in the type of pass play that was called – an inside slant into traffic rather than a rollout fade pass that gives an athlete like Wilson more options.

Coaches have to make quick decisions all the time. The best decision isn’t always the obvious one. Sometimes it pays off to veer from convention. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Carroll probably should have played it safe and handed it to Lynch. If the running back had failed to score, fewer people would have blamed the coach.

But, in the span of 11 years, Carroll didn’t win two national championships in college (and play for a third) plus make it to consecutive Super Bowls (winning one) by playing it safe. His calculated risk bit him this time.

It’s easy to pile on his failure. Falcons fans, however, should be hoping that Quinn learned a little something from his former boss – not just to play it safe.

Bryan brothers go for non-virual glory on Big Break

Sat, 01/31/2015 - 5:56pm

Golf’s Bryan brothers have not only turned making a name for themselves into an art form, they’ve turned it into an industry.

The former South Carolina Gamecocks golfers from Chapin, S.C., have become viral sensations in the past 10 months with their trick-shot videos. On Monday, George IV and Wesley Bryan will take it up another notch in their debut as competitors in the latest season of Golf Channel’s Big Break reality show.

“It will be fun to see how the whole season unfolds and the drama that builds up,” said 24-year-old Wesley, who moved to Augusta in May when his wife, Elizabeth, started classes in the Physicians Assistant program at Georgia Regents University-Augusta. He practices at Forest Hills with the Georgia Regents men’s golf team.

The sons of longtime Columbia club pro, George Bryan III, the Bryan brothers have held a high-profile for years around here. George – an eventual three-time All-American at South Carolina – twice won the Joe Wyatt Memorial at Aiken’s Houndslake Country Club during his high school days. Wesley followed suit with an individual title at the 2007 Southern Cross Junior Invitational at Palmetto Golf Club, where their father also won the Aiken Golf Classic in 1984.

Perhaps the biggest influence they had in Augusta, however, didn’t come with their names attached. In 2005, former Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson cited a casual round with a 5-foot-10, 160-pound teenager who was hitting wedges into the 7th and 17th holes at Augusta. “We are not worried about Tiger; we are worried about these 17-year-olds,” Johnson said.

That 17-year-old was George Bryan, who played with his brother and father with Johnson, helping inspire the last massive lengthening project at the home of the Masters that summer.

A decade later on the mini-tours, the Bryans are seeking their own big breakthrough competing against each other and 10 additional men for more than $120,000 in prizes and a coveted exemption in the inaugural Barbasol Championship in Alabama on the PGA Tour in July. They are the second set of brothers to participate in the 23 installments of the golf reality series of challenges and competitions, following the lead of Tony and Gipper Finau.

“There’s one common goal and that’s to win,” Wesley Bryan said of the Big Break experience. “You have to go through every single person. It doesn’t matter who’s standing across from you.”

The Bryans grew up watching the show that twice before featured South Carolina friends (Tommy Gainey and Mark Silvers) winning. So they decided to audition last January for The Palm Beaches, FL, edition.

“One of our teammates from South Carolina was Mark Silvers and he went on the Big Break a few years ago and won,” Wesley said. “That kind of planted the seed a little bit.”

Before they got accepted, another bit of golf footage captured their attention.

“We were watching ESPN one day and saw these two high school kids and one guy chipped another guy a ball and he hit it out of midair,” Wesley said. “We saw on YouTube it got over a million hits. We were like, ‘Dadgum, it can’t be that hard.’ So George and I were curious whether it was or not. We went out and tried it and I was able to hit it on one of the first few shots. So maybe we ought to make a couple of videos and see if people liked them.”

Turns out, people do. BryanBrosGolf trick-shot videos on their YouTube channel have generated more than 600,000 hits since they started in April. Another video they did for GoPro camera generated 1,215,362 views alone.

“After that video got over a million views, that opened up doors for us to do bigger things,” Wesley said. “We did a full 11-part series for Golf Digest over the summer in L.A. and they’re still coming out. In 2014, we probably grossed over 2.5 million views on various platforms.”

The videos are a fun way of promoting themselves and don’t require much set-up or many takes. Wesley is “the designated hitter” while George is often the set-up man.

“He’s done well in embracing his role,” Wesley jokes. “It makes us work great together.”

Their improvisational skill would make them seem like naturals for some of the quirky contests on the Big Break. But the intensity of the competition allowed no margin for outtakes.

“The nerves – it’s a whole ’nother ballgame on that type of show,” Wesley said. “I’ve played in hundreds and hundreds of tournament a never felt the nerves you feel there. It’s different. It’s not a golf course where you tee it up and if you hit a bad shot you have a chance to go recover. You have to pull off a shot right then and there and if you don’t there’s no hiding or chance to redo. All the pressure just accumulates into one shot and you’ve got to hit a series of those. The pressure is way different than regular golf. It was a lot of fun.”

That’s saying a lot considering Wesley has endured his share of disheartening golf moments. At the 2010 NCAA Regional, his crushing 9 on the par-3 closing hole cost the Gamecocks a chance to advance to the national championships when a double bogey would have sufficed. His Big Break bio cites “yips” that nearly prompted him to hang up his golf clubs after shooting 101 in a tournament during his junior year.

But he got back on track as a senior and has competed well on the eGolf and NGA Hooters tours since graduating in 2012.

What’s next? The Bryans are bound to secrecy about the results until the Big Break season plays out on the air.

“Every day we get people saying ‘How did you do?’ Obviously we can’t say anything,” Wesley said. “There’s a lot of anticipation.”

For Monday night’s premiere, the BryanBros are playing host to a party at the Carolina Ale House in downtown Columbia for family, friends and anyone else who wants to join them. While they already know how the competition ends, Wesley Bryan is curious to see how it’s presented – especially with the hours of daily private interviews mixed in.

Maybe this will be the breakthrough that launches one or both of them to non-viral glory.

“The exposure definitely doesn’t hurt, as well as the exposure we’re getting from the trick shots,” Wesley said. “We’re getting to the point where we offer enough exposure to brands and companies where they hop on board. The mini-tours can be financially burdening and you’re basically living week-to-week, paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s not as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be from the outside perspective.”

New wave of Australian punters arrive in the U.S.

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 8:23pm

Get used to this phrase, because it’s likely to keep repeating – the Ray Guy Award goes, again, to Tom from Melbourne, Australia.

It might not always be Tom – like 2013 winner Tom Hornsey of Memphis and 2014 winner Tom Hackett of Utah. Next time it might be Cameron (Johnston) of Ohio State or Jamie (Keehn) of Louisiana State. Maybe Will (Gleeson) from Ole Miss or his brother Tim (Gleeson) at Rutgers. Perhaps Daniel (Pasquariello) of Penn State or Nick (Porebski) from Oregon State.

The point is, it stands a good chance of the next Tom, Nick or Cameron holding the Ray Guy statue consistently being someone from the Melbourne, Victoria region – the heart of Australian Rules Football that is changing the way America punts.

“That’s the plan, to be honest with you,” said Hackett, who’ll accept the award from the Augusta Sports Council for the nation’s top collegiate punter at tonight’s All-Area Football Banquet. “There’s a lot of us over here right now. We all grow up in Melbourne and Victoria playing Australian Rules Football, so our legs are powerful enough and we’re used to kicking a football around. It’s just a matter of getting the technique down pat.”

Both Hornsey and Hackett honed the punting craft at Nathan Chapman’s Prokick Australia school in Melbourne, and their success fuels a growing pipeline of camp graduates to U.S. colleges.

“There is an art to (punting), we just have a bigger talent pool to draw from,” Chapman said. “They’re all good at it.”

HACKETT, WHO ONCE shagged balls for Hornsey at Chapman’s camp back home, is just the latest example of a trend from Down Under that is revolutionizing the craft of punting in a way not unlike what European soccer influence did to place-kicking in the 1960s. The rugby-style placement punts are gradually becoming as ubiquitous as the soccer-style kicks. The determining factors in each evolutionary movement are very much the same – better accuracy from athletes more disciplined in the skill from childhood.

“American kids might throw a baseball or football with their fathers until the age of 12 when they realize they can’t play quarterback and they don’t have the speed or athleticism to play a skill position, so why not try punter,” Hackett explained. “And then they start kicking from the age of 12 up. For us, we’ve been kicking since we could walk. So if we can just get the technique down, our legs and muscles are used to it so we should have an advantage.”

That was certainly the case with European kickers who adapted to a new field. Poland’s Fred Bednarski was the first “soccer-style” kicker to make a field goal, for Texas against Arkansas in 1957, but the credit for institutionalizing the practice typically goes to Hungarian Pete Gogolak.

Gogolak’s soccer-style success at Cornell in 1961 and then the professional ranks with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills started the dominoes quickly falling. Norwegian Jan Stenerud quickly followed and developed into the NFL’s greatest placekicking weapon, eventually becoming the only pure kicker inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. By the mid-1970s, more placekickers were using soccer style than the conventional toe kick. Once Mark Moseley retired from the Washington Redskins in 1986, straight-on kickers were extinct.

While the Australian Rules Football kicking style might not have as universally dramatic an effect on punting, the rugby-style placement kicks are a major evolutionary development in special teams strategy. These Aussies can typically kick with both feet and the Australian Rules Football instincts make them more capable of handling a bad snap or approaching rusher.

“We’ve got a unique ability to just adapt to that situation and think on our feet, as such,” said Chapman. “That is just second nature.”

THEIR END-OVER-END “drop punt” style was honed to hit accurately to teammates downfield, so placing it inside the 20-yard line is hardly a daunting challenge. Hackett led the nation with 35 punts inside the 20-yard line and 19 punts inside the 10. He also ranked second in the country in average (46.7) and led the nation in total yards (3,736).

“There’s a crossover but we have to adapt to American style,” Hackett said. “Basically from midfield what you’ll see in punters is an end-over-end kick. We call it the drop punt and it’s basically when the ball spins backwards. When you try to pin opponents deep we have a tendency to have good accuracy and touch to place it hopefully inside the 10.”

The key to adapting is developing the deep, high spirals made famous by Hall of Famer Guy, from Thomson. Learning the “torpedo” kicks, as they call it, is where Chapman and his Prokick Australia school comes into the picture.

Chapman tried out in three preseason games for the Green Bay Packers in 2004. While seeking an NFL job, he sought advice from Rick Sang – who coaches and runs Guy’s popular Prokicker.com camps. Chapman quickly saw the potential to inject more Australian punters into U.S. colleges with the Ray Guy camp model, so he started his own Prokick Australia to teach promising young footy players the Guy-style to incorporate into their versatile skill set.

“That’s what Nathan teaches essentially is the torpedo kick,” Hackett said. “That’s for when you need to hit a 60-yarder to try to flip field position. We struggle with it early and through hard work and determination get the hang of it. It took me about nine months to be able to really start clicking with that specific kick.”

CHAPMAN’S “ALLIANCE” with the Prokicker.com camps makes the connection with the Ray Guy Award more meaningful.

“When I started camp in Australia it stems from everything we learned in our connection with Rick (Sang) – it literally helped me shape what we’re doing,” Chapman said. “That why it’s such a prestigious award for us because being so close. I started what I did from what Rick did for me and techniques based off Ray Guy’s videos and talking to him and doing what Rick does at his camps.”

The prerequisite to get into Chapman’s camps is the ability to already kick 40 yards with 4.5 hang time. He builds it from there. making sure his students adhere to collegiate eligibility requirements while producing videos he distributes to every U.S. college to see who calls back.

“We’ve still got to convince them to spend a $200,000 scholarship on a kid who’s never played before based on a video all the way from Australia,” Chapman said. “That’s scary for a coach. Conservative coaches let somebody else go first and then they realize they need to go and get one because they’re falling behind the pack.”

Prokick Australia will have 30 to 40 guys will have been placed at some level of college football by next year – a 90 percent placement rate of Chapman’s pupils.

“I think it’s only a matter of time before almost every school will have an Australian guy punting,” Chapman told USA Today last year. “In another five or 10 years there might be hundreds over here.”

AUSTRALIANS IN COLLEGE football is not entirely new. Melbourne native Pat O’Dea made the conversion from rugby to American football in 1898 for Wisconsin, playing fullback in addition to his kicking duties. The “Kangaroo Kicker” reportedly made a 62-yard drop-kick field goal and several punts in excess of 100 yards, feats which helped eventually get O’Dea inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1962.

Colin Ridgeway of Melbourne was the first Aussie to punt in the NFL in 1965 with the Dallas Cowboys, but only for three games. Darren Bennett became the poster boy for Australian punters, playing 11 seasons (1995-2005) in the NFL with the Chargers and Vikings and paving the way for fellow Victorian pros Mat McBriar, Ben Graham, Brad Wing and Sav Rocca – the latter becoming the NFL’s oldest rookie at age 33.

The first wave of Prokick Australia grads are trying the make the transition to the NFL. Hornsey went to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys this year but didn’t catch on. Arkansas’ Sam Irwin-Hill is one of the top NFL Draft or free-agent prospects this season. Hackett has another year at Utah before he’ll try to land an NFL job.

“I’m hoping to have a better year than I did last year and then go to the combine or pro day and Senior Bowl and keep my fingers crossed that teams out there are looking for something that I offer,” Hackett said. “I’m going to try to play in the NFL because that’s why I’m here and that’s what I’m good at. I wasn’t good enough to play Australian Rules Football professionally. I reckon I’ve probably got a much better shot at the NFL than I do at the AFL.”

That may seem strange, but the tasks they’re asked as punters to do in American football pales to the more all-around Australian version.

“It’s a game of positioning and running and kicking and catching,” Hackett said of the game at home. “It’s a lot harder than the job I have here – and that’s just concentrating on kicking a pigskin – I can tell you that much.”

Hackett had never heard of Guy before coming to the states to play. But when Hornsey won the award last season, Hackett’s awareness and interest was piqued.

“After Tom Hornsey last year won the Ray Guy I said to Nathan that I’m going to win it this year,” Hackett said. “I don’t know why I said that because looking back it was a kind of stupid thing to say and a little bit arrogant and I don’t like to be arrogant. But I told him I’d try to win it for him.”

That’s a spirit Chapman appreciates and hopes will build and open more doors to Australians transforming the art of punting.

“The aim is to win it again next year,” Chapman said of the Ray Guy Award. “We’ve got plenty of guys who can compete against each other. It’s a bit of an in-house challenge now. Let’s see if we can’t shake a few things up in the states and try to take control of that award.”

Michaux: Patriots have the air of cheaters

Sat, 01/24/2015 - 6:47pm

Even for a sporting event that sucks more oxygen out of the room than any other, never has so much pre-Super Bowl air time been devoted to … air.

The deflated balls controversy from the AFC Championship Game has dogged Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for most of their idle week – becoming the storm in the calm before this week’s storm. No one is denying their athletic superiority in a 45-7 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts. Their moral superiority, however, is very much in doubt.

If you pay any attention to sports, you know the gist of it already. Here’s a brief recap just in case.

Postgame inspections revealed that 11 of the 12 footballs used in that game were deflated significantly (2 PSI) below the league-mandated threshold.

Belichick – one of the most meticulously detail-oriented coaches in all of sports – claims no knowledge of how it happened. Brady – one of the most gifted and aware quarterbacks in NFL history – claims he never noticed a difference in the footballs.

It’s all a little hard to swallow from two guys who demand precision. Let’s not think for a minute this was some rogue ballboy or equipment manager who did this. This kind of thing had authority behind it.

The NFL is once again saddled with another controversy that calls into question the league’s integrity. There’s no way that commissioner Roger Goodell is going to conclude his investigation into the incident before Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks. Frankly, the deflated balls should have no bearing on that game. It’s not like anyone really thinks the Patriots should forfeit and step aside to let the team they beat by 38 points take their place in Arizona.

But this isn’t as frivolous as it might seem on the surface. Two pounds per square inch of pressure certainly wasn’t the difference in last week’s outcome. That, however, is not the point.

The point is – somebody thought it MIGHT be the difference. And that’s what matters here and that’s why the NFL needs to make an example of Belichick and the Patriots by punishing them where it hurts – draft picks.

Belichick, aside from being one of the NFL’s greatest coaches, is notorious for seeking the thinnest of competitive edges. It’s hard to overlook “Spygate” in 2007 when the Pats were caught taping an opponents defensive signals during Week 1 of what proved to be an undefeated season up until a narrow Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Turns out Belichick had been doing that since 2000.

The NFL fined Belichick the maximum $500,000 and took the Patriots’ first-round draft pick (31st overall) for the taping scandal.

That’s the kind of thing that gains a reputation. In golf, “cheating” is a stain that never washes away. In football, the definition isn’t as sharp.

Two weeks ago in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens complained about the Patriots’ “deceptive” manipulation of eligible receivers, a ploy that helped confuse the defense and rally New England to victory. As unorthodox as it was, those formations were well within the confines of the rules if not within the spirit of them.

This is part of what makes Belichick so successful and also so universally loathed outside of the Patriots fan base. He finagles the mandatory weekly injury reports to keep opponents from knowing everything needed to prepare. He’s gruff and looks like a slob in his ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt that would make Tom Landry cringe.

His results, however, can’t be argued with. Even though the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in 10 years, Belichick is the most successful postseason coach in history with 21 wins (passing Landry’s 20). Factor in those postseason victories and he also passed Curly Lambeau (231) for fourth on the all-time victory list with 232 – trailing only Don Shula (347), George Halas (324) and Landry (270).

His 15-year run with the Patriots is arguably the greatest coaching performance of all time with a 175-65 regular season record (.729). With Brady at the helm, he’s led his Patriots to the playoffs 12 times in his 15 years, advanced to the AFC Championship Game nine times and the Super Bowl six times. They’ve won three rings (2001, 03, 04) to go with the two rings Belichick got as Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator in New York.

The Pats have finished first in the AFC East 12 of the past 14 seasons – akin to the Braves’ run of NL division dominance. New England was second in 2008 after losing Brady to injury in the season opener, barely missing the playoffs despite going 11-5.

So Belichick’s success is unquestioned. His motives, however, are not.

The ball issue speaks to the lengths the Patriots will go to get an edge. This is tampering – however slightly – with the equipment essential to the game. Tampering with equipment in other sports – golf, NASCAR, tennis, baseball – gets you disqualified and/or suspended. It’s a very serious matter. It’s cheating every bit as much as a golfer who replaces his marked ball a dimple or two closer to the hole.

Yes, both teams had to play with the same deflated balls. But if only one team knew it (and more than likely prepared for it), that’s an advantage. Imagine a basketball team raising the rim a quarter of an inch – barely perceptible to the naked eye. You don’t think that would throw off an unsuspecting shooter?

A victory over the Seahawks and Belichick will tie Chuck Noll with the most Super Bowl victories by a head coach. He’s not going to care if he’s fined $1 million.

The only way to send a message to Belichick and anyone else thinking about intentionally bending the rules is to go after something competitively essential. Taking away one first-round pick over Spygate in 2008 didn’t teach Belichick a lesson. So, at the very least, take away their first two picks in the next draft.

The only way to keep cheaters from cheating is to make it harder for them to prosper.

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