Skip directly to content

Columns

Michaux: Local players Matt NeSmith and Greyson sigg are on top NCAA golf teams

Thu, 05/26/2016 - 11:00pm

As fate would have it, the most compelling showdown of the NCAA tournament so far involved a couple of local golfers going head to head.

The men’s NCAA Regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last week featured a dramatic three-day matchup between Greyson Sigg (Georgia/Richmond Academy) and Matt NeSmith (South Carolina/North Augusta). It might have been the last time the old friends will square off as amateurs going back 10 years to their Augusta Area Junior Golf Association battles.

“We hadn’t played together in college for quite some time and we were able to play three rounds together at regionals,” Sigg said. “That was fun to play with him. Shows a lot about Augusta area. For Matt and I, it speaks well about the competition. You could see us competing 10 years ago in the AAJGA and now the NCAA regionals.”

After finishing 1-2 in the regional (both individually and as teams), Sigg and NeSmith hope to lead their college teams to NCAA titles starting Friday in Oregon at Eugene Country Club. It will be the final amateur event for NeSmith, who will fly directly to Vancouver at the conclusion to begin his professional career as a member of the Mackenzie Tour, the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit in Canada.

“It is bittersweet, but I’m excited” NeSmith said.

Last week at Ol’ Colony Golf Complex in Alabama, the two mates played some of their best golf paired with each other for three consecutive days. Sigg held a share of the lead the first two rounds, with NeSmith perched only a shot behind each day. Through 16 holes of the final day, with both schools secured of advancing to the NCAA championship, they were deadlocked in a contest for individual medalist after Sigg birdied the 16th.

“I wasn’t really thinking about me to be honest with you, Sigg said. “I was just worried about posting the best number for my team. When I knew that we were safe on the back nine and I knew I had the chance to win the golf tournament individually, I knew it was basically Matt versus me.”

NeSmith three-putted the 17th hole to fall a shot behind. When Sigg hit his drive down the middle of the 18th fairway, NeSmith pulled his into the trees and seemed dead.

“I’m in the middle of the fairway with a 1-shot lead thinking all I’ve got to do is hit it on the green and two-putt to win,” Sigg said.

NeSmith wasn’t going to give up the rivalry match that easily.

“I had a little bit of a gap,” he said of his obstructed shot from 215 yards. “I didn’t have a choice at that point in time. I’m not playing for second or third, I’m playing to try to win. If I hit a good shot, I put the pressure on him before he hits it.”

NeSmith’s cut 2-iron ended up less than 15 feet from the pin to set up a subsequent birdie.

“I knew he was going to make that putt and I needed to make a birdie and I hit like 2 feet and made it,” Sigg said of his clutch 7-iron approach from 178 yards. “It was a really good finish. He made his putt before me and put the pressure on me. He did all he could do that hole.”

“After I hit mine he hit it to 2 feet, so it was over before we got to the green,” NeSmith said. “It was still a really cool shot. It was fun. Greyson is one of the best sports I’ve ever been around. He played fantastic for three days. If it couldn’t be me or one of my teammates, I’m glad it was him.”

Now they both hope their teams will advance to match play as one of the top eight Monday after 72 holes of stroke play.

Sigg and Georgia have plenty of reason to feel confident, having reached the semifinals last year and coming off team victories in the Southeastern Conference championship and regional.

“For us as a team we have momentum moving forward, obviously,” Sigg said. “We won the last two tournaments and they were two pretty good ones. So that always makes you feel good. But we’re at the best tournament of the year and we know every single team here could win this golf tournament.”

NeSmith and the Gamecocks have yet to reach the match play portion. South Carolina finished ninth two years ago in Hutchinson, Kansas, when NeSmith was a sophomore.

“That hurt pretty bad, especially because I didn’t help the team much and didn’t play very good,” said NeSmith, who won the individual SEC championship as a junior. “We know we can do it. We just have to play good and we haven’t done that in my three years so far. Our motto every year is to try to win the SEC Championship and make it to match play of the (NCAA) tournament. Didn’t get to win SEC and haven’t made match play yet. I hope I can be a part of at least attaining one of those goals.”

NeSmith hopes familiarity with the championship venue will help. He and fellow senior Will Starke – the only Gamecocks to appear in four NCAA Championships during their collegiate careers – were part of the 2014 squad that qualified out of the Eugene Regional.

“I’d say we have a little bit of a leg up on the competition when it comes to Eugene,” NeSmith said after two days getting acclimated to the Pacific Northwest by playing nearby Bandon Dunes. “Our coaches know the golf course and I know the golf course.”

Sigg and the Bulldogs had only one practice round to get familiar with the course, but they aren’t overly concerned.

“Just got to top it off with one more good week at the end of the year,” Sigg said. “We’re all really hungry to win the national championship, especially after how we finished last year. So we’re all really excited to be back here.”

Michaux: Former South Carolina State graduate Donnie Shell is giving back to his school

Tue, 05/24/2016 - 6:42pm

Donnie Shell has been blessed, and he wants to share that blessing.

A 14-year-year NFL career with Pittsburgh punctuated by four Super Bowl wins and five Pro Bowls. Another 15 years in management with the Carolina Panthers. Induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

None of it happens, Shell understands, if he hadn’t received an athletic scholarship to attend South Carolina State. It’s a blessing Shell plans to help pay forward to new generations of students at his alma mater.

“There’s such a need,” Shell said. “I can identify with our students. Most of our students come from rural areas of South Carolina. And they need help. Many, many years ago I was one of those students. I came from nine brothers and sisters and I know my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my college tuition. I was fortunate and blessed to get an athletic scholarship to South Carolina State University playing football and baseball and that’s how I was able to obtain my education.”

To make a mark in other young lives, Shell will launch the Donnie Shell Scholarship Foundation with a celebrity golf tournament on Thursday at Sage Valley Golf Club. Thirteen groups will raise close to $65,000 to benefit students attending S.C. State. It will start with a pairings party tonight that will share the purpose of the tournament and foundation through testimonials from current and former students who attended S.C. State on assistance scholarships.

The inaugural Shell Invitational will feature many of Shell’s former NFL mates, including Hall of Famers Franco Harris, John Stallworth and Mel Blount, as well as Mike Wagner and Greg Lloyd. Former S.C. State teammate Barney Chavous, who grew up in Aiken and coached at Josey, will also participate.

“All my former teammates are helping me out,” Shell said. “We’ve got a good group of people who are committed to helping one another and helping those students. It’s for the students at South Carolina State University who are academically gifted and need assistance with their tuition. Electrolux is our presenting sponsor and we’re really appreciative of the Wyatts and Sage Valley hosting it for us.”

Shell, who is from the tiny town of Whitmire, S.C., between Greenville and Columbia but now lives in Rock Hill, has never turned his back on his alma mater. He returned there after his pro career to serve as a graduate assistant for his old coach Willie Jeffries while he earned his master’s degree.

Now he’s a big part in trying to restore financial stability to the 120-year-old school. Like many historically black colleges, S.C. State has been suffering since the recession cratered the economy in 2008.

With the university’s outstanding debts hitting $20 million, a panel of lawmakers early in 2015 recommended closing S.C. State for two years.

Instead, they opted to fire its Board of Trustees and declare financial exigency, which is essentially the academic form of bankruptcy.

Shell was the only alumnus named to the new 10-person Board of Trustees to oversee the operation and management of the university and lift it from the financial brink.

“I’ve always been giving back ever since I left,” Shell said of his commitment to the Bulldogs. “I’m on the Board of Trustees and we came to help the school get back on its feet financially and get it in order. I’ve always had a connection with my school.”

Shell understands the value of historically black colleges which have long suffered from unequal government funding.

Despite declining enrollments, HBCUs take in roughly 11 percent of African-American college enrollees and graduate about 20 percent of all African-Americans who earn undergraduate degrees.

His efforts to help some get desperately needed scholarships is just a start.

“We need a lot of scholarship money – the more the better,” he said. “We’ve got a great engineering program and a lot of different great programs at South Carolina State but our students need assistance and it’s no different than when I came up. They are very bright young people but financially
need a boost. I won’t have a problem finding applicants.”

Many of Shell’s former Steelers teammates are charitably active.

In April, Shell attended a fund-raiser in Pittsburgh to support the Mel Blount Youth Home. In June, he participated in the 14th annual John Stallworth Foundation golf tournament in Alabama, which fills two golf courses and awards 10 annual scholarships for students attending Alabama A&M and other in-state universities.

It’s a model Shell hopes to emulate.

“He does an excellent job of raising money,” Shell said of Stallworth’s foundation. “I told him we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m mimicking his foundation with this.”

With a facility the caliber of Sage Valley willing to participate and engaged sponsors like Electrolux, Shell hopes this week’s event is just the start of something special that will benefit students in South Carolina for years to come.

“We’d like to continue to do it and build it and I think it can be one of the greatest tournaments in the state of South Carolina,” Shell said.

Positives can seen in Muirfield's vote failing to admit female members

Sat, 05/21/2016 - 9:44pm

Many might look at this week’s vote by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers to continue barring women from membership at Muirfield links and see it as a step back for the game.

From another perspective, however, it’s really a huge step forward.

The biggest positive is that the R&A – once an all-male bastion itself – immediately announced it would no longer conduct future British Opens at courses with exclusionary membership policies. Progress.

“The Open is one of the world’s great sporting events and going forward we will not stage the championship at a venue that does not admit women as members,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s new chief executive within hours of the announcement of the Muirfield vote on Tuesday.

But the failed vote itself was also encouraging. Muirfield’s review of 648 members eligible to vote on the issue showed 64 percent in favor of opening its stuffy clubhouse doors to females – falling just 16 votes shy of the two-thirds majority necessary to reverse its 272-year-old policy. The opposition to equality at the club is literally dying out and will be buried soon enough.

“The majority of members actually voted in favour of admitting women, which is encouraging,” said Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first female First Minister. “But I sincerely hope those who didn’t now reconsider and that the club as a whole revisits the issue.”

It’ll likely be revisited soon enough that Muirfield’s pristine links might not even miss its turn in the Open rotation. It was 11 years between the Opens won by Ernie Els (2002) and Phil Mickelson (2013) on the hallowed East Lothian venue. It was 10 years before that when Nick Faldo won there for the second time in 1992.

The Opens are all booked up through 2022 already. Another vote in the next couple years could easily be done in time to get Muirfield back in line right on schedule for 2023 or ’24.

Eventually Muirfield, like every other major player in the golf universe, will bow to the way of the world. It’s not a matter of political correctness. It’s the reality of an advancing society. The club has an absolute right to do what it wants with its own private club, but the reality is not as many people really want to be gender exclusive.

Augusta National Golf Club decided in 2012 to invite women to join – not because of a protest waged 10 years earlier but because its evolving membership sees the world and its place in it differently than the generations before.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, considered the spiritual home of golf, finally opened its membership to women in 2014 for the first time in 260 years. Last year, Royal St. George’s, a Open rota venue in southeast England, followed suit by ending its all-male membership.

Royal Troon, where this year’s British Open will take place in July, will be the last held at a club that currently excludes women. Troon is a bit of a special case, sharing its facilities with the separate Troon Ladies Golf Club. Both are considered joint hosts for this year’s Open.

Royal Troon is undergoing its own membership review to consider altering its policy.

This week’s news will likely play a key role in determining the outcome that was originally expected later this year but might get accelerated to be resolved before the klieg lights are trained upon it this summer.

“We care very much for the reputation of Royal Troon Golf Club and it is important that the club, much like the wider game, reflects the modern society in which we exist,” club captain Martin Cheyne wrote in a letter to members last week.

Muirfield’s captain, Henry Fairweather, had recommended that women should be offered membership “on the same terms as the men,” but his committee’s desires were met with resistance from an anonymous 33-man contingent that lobbied against.

The resistance letter, obtained and published by a Scottish newspaper, cited “our special nature – ‘a gentleman’s club where golf is played’” and noted “a traditional resistance to change is one of the foundations of our unique position in golf and our reputation.”

Indeed, Muirfield is a unique place where the preferred method of play is foursomes (alternate shot) sandwiched around a lengthy formal lunch where members have to shed golf clothes for a full coat and tie in the clubhouse between rounds. The hard-liners fear their rituals would be ruined by the addition of women to the membership ranks.

“The introduction of lady members is bound to create difficulties,” the letter argued, further rolling out the stereotype that women would slow down the pace of play.

“Regardless of the conventions when they first join they are likely over time to question our foursomes play, our match system, the uncompromising challenge our fine links present, our lunch arrangements,” the letter stated. “The risks for the club are that a major change will fundamentally change our way of doing things and once that process develops it will be impossible to stop.”

Those traditions could evolve with or without women, of course. Perhaps Muirfield will go the way of Cypress Point, Pine Valley and Butler National and opt to keep doing things its male-only way outside the public realm.

That would be a shame for both the club and the wider golf world.

Most people these days agree with the United Kingdom’s most prominent modern golfer, Rory McIlroy.

“They can do what they want but in this day and age it’s not right to host the world’s biggest tournament at a place that does not allow women to become members,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully they can see some sense and we can get (The Open) back there one day.”

McIlroy is applying his own pressure on Portmarnock, another male-only club with the brawniest links in the Republic of Ireland, so that it might play host to future Irish Open’s hosted by McIlroy’s foundation.

“I’m going to put as much pressure as I can on them and not just because I’d love to see the Irish Open there,” McIlroy said. “It is 2016, and these things have to change.”

Despite this week’s negative vote, these things will change for the better.

Michaux: Will Muschamp could have staying power at South Carolina

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 10:45pm

AIKEN — The Boom Bus pulled up to Houndslake Country Club right on time, but Coach Boom’s Chevy Tahoe was a half hour behind it. The packed house of 300-plus Gamecock Club members awaiting his arrival hope that Will Muschamp’s best head coaching days are just as fashionably late.

On his eighth stop in the annual off-season Spurs Up booster tour, Muschamp exudes a certain comfortable confidence that may have been lacking when he made any similar circuit the first time around at Florida.

“I think any time you go through an experience you look back on the positive things that happened and the things you may have done a little bit differently,” Muschamp said of his second go-round at the helm of a Southeastern Conference East school. “But certainly the experience helps.”

There was a general sense of unease as South Carolina waited behind other prominent programs in the off-season coaching carousel. It was frustrating considering the Gamecocks had the first official vacancy when Steve Spurrier walked away at the midpoint of the 2015 football season with the program foundering at 2-4.

A couple of high-profile names on the Gamecocks’ wish list chose to stay put and others landed elsewhere, leaving the impression that South Carolina somehow “settled” on Muschamp.

That’s not a fair judgment, however. Regardless of how his brief tenure at Florida turned out, there is a reason his name kept popping up in coaching searches. Muschamp knows what he’s doing, but the fit needs to be right.

And Muschamp may fit better at South Carolina than any coach the Gamecocks have ever hired. If the school and fans are willing to be patient and accept realistic goals in the most loaded football conference in the country, Muschamp could be the guy to build a sense of sustain that’s never existed before at South Carolina.

As Muschamp stated, he wants South Carolina to “continue to be a blue-collar, over-achieving program.” And his brand of intense leadership is as blue-collar as it gets.

So often in Gamecocks history, the school has tried to hit the home-run ball with its coaching hires. They went for big-name injections with guys who already became national champion legends in other places – Paul Dietzel (LSU), Lou Holtz (Notre Dame) and Spurrier (Florida).

And those coaches worked out well for awhile. But there was always a term-limit on their success the minute they were hired. When you go into the living room of recruits, they want to know a coach is going to be there for the duration of their careers. When that reality becomes limited, as it did for Spurrier in the end, the ability to restock becomes limited along with it.

Muschamp has the potential to be a foundational hire the Gamecocks can truly build upon. Only 44 years old, he could become a lifer in Columbia if given the chance. He could become South Carolina’s own coaching legend instead of merely some other school’s legend in residence.

Spurrier left behind state-of-the-art facilities for Muschamp to work with, and it’s up to him to use them to compete consistently with state rival Clemson and the usual SEC behemoths.

“We can recruit in a five-hour radius to compete to win the East division every year and play in the greatest championship in the world, the SEC Championship,” Muschamp said to applause from the faithful.

As he’s gone around the state meeting with boosters, he’s growing on the fan base.

“It’s been very positive and very receptive just like everybody in Columbia,” Muschamp said of the mood that greeted him in every Palmetto port. “So it’s been really good to get out and meet the Gamecock family. ... Understanding fan base, understanding football team and setting the culture and foundation of your team. Those aren’t challenges, they’re part of the job.”

The real trick will come this fall when his team tries to bury a 3-9 campaign. Expecting South Carolina to suddenly bounce back with a 9-3 season isn’t realistic, but significant progress is attainable with what remains and the top-20 recruiting class Muschamp was able to cobble together on relative late notice.

“As much as anything, the buy-in has been outstanding and they’ve embraced everything we’ve asked them to do,” he said of the players. “I really like our football team as far as the guys and being around them and coaching them. So I’ve been very pleased with that.”

Wednesday marked 75 days until preseason fall practice begins, and Muschamp calls this period of self-governing on the players’ part “critical.”

“It’s going to be critical from here until Aug. 1 to make some gains,” he said.

Muschamp learned in spring camp that he has some depth at offensive line and some talent on his defensive front seven. As a lifetime defensive coach he knows rebuilding the secondary and renewing that defensive stability that was once the staple of South Carolina’s success is essential.

“In our league you’ve got to play good defense, got to be good in your front seven, got to pressure the quarterback with four guys, got to be able to stop the run,” he said. “I know we’ve played outstanding defense at South Carolina before. I’m not really worried about that, I’m worried about moving forward and playing better than we have. That’s my plan.”

But his biggest priority this fall is to find a quarterback capable of taking the team on his shoulders the way Connor Shaw did.

“That’s job No. 1 to find continuity at that position,” Muschamp said.

That quarterback may be Brandon McIlwain, a freshman who collected his first hit for the Gamecocks’ baseball team on Tuesday. He’ll compete immediately with incumbent Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez for the role.

“He’s a mature young man with a lot of intangibles at the position you’re looking for,” Muschamp said.

In the long run, the same might be said for Coach Boom himself.

Michaux: Lakeside golfer Hunter Dunagan wants team, individual titles

Sat, 05/14/2016 - 5:34pm

When it comes to winning individual GHSA golf titles, Lakeside’s Hunter Dunagan pretty much lives up to his name – been there, done it again.

But the defending two-time Class AAAAA medalist hopes to leave Monday’s state championship at Bartram Trail with a bigger trophy this time.

“Third straight would be pretty ridiculous,” Dunagan said, “but the team title is what we’re there to do. That’s what I’m really trying to get. The individual is pretty important, but I really want the team title because we haven’t gotten it any of my four years here.”

While Dunagan has walked away with consecutive medals after his 64 at Bartram Trail in 2014 and 67 at the Country Club of Columbus in 2015, his Panthers teammates left both as disappointed runner-ups. Two years ago at Bartram Trail was particularly painful as Lakeside lost in a playoff to Columbia County rival Greenbrier.

“A lot of stuff has to come together and the planets have to line up just right for you on any given day,” Lakeside coach Jody Hilley said. “Have to have a little luck involved, too.”

Lakeside has collected a lot of golf hardware for its trophy case over the years. The boys have won four team titles in 1999, 2006-07 and 2010 while the girls won back-to-back titles in 2012-13. Nine Panthers have also gathered up 10 individual medals since 1992: Will Garner (1992), Jason McKenzie (1997 co-medalist), Jay Mundy (1999), Payne Kassinger (2005), Brian Carter (2007), Kelby Burton (2010), Emmanuel Kountakis (2013), Eunice Yi (2013 girls) and Dunagan (2014-15).

For all the talent that’s passed through Lakeside, Dunagan is the only multiple champion.

“What separates him is his short game,” said Lakeside coach Jody Hilley. “Probably the best that’s ever come through here from 100 yards and in.”

That short game is what attracted recruiters from all over. The day after Dunagan shot 64 at Bartram Trail two years ago, Hilley’s answering machine was lit up with calls from Wake Forest, Florida State and Alabama. Georgia Tech had already offered him a spot when he was a freshman.

But after all his visits, Dunagan fell in love with the College of Charleston and accepted an offer to join the growing program.

“Went to Charleston and knew that’s where I wanted to be,” Dunagan said. “Loved the campus and all the golf courses we play and the head coach there.”

While Dunagan hopes to help the boys team over the hump on Monday, Megan Sabol is looking for a girls title she can call her own when they play in the Class AAAAA girls championship at West Lake.

Sabol helped Lakeside’s girls win a second straight team title when she shot 77 as a freshman in 2013. But in each of the last two year’s she’s finished as individual runner-up by two strokes each time with scores of 72 and 73.

“She’s just the opposite of Hunter,” Hilley said. “It’s crazy how that works out sometimes.”

Sabol would like to rectify that.

“I’m hoping for a team one or an individual one,” said Sabol, who will play for Armstrong State next year. “It’s been frustrating being like one or two strokes off. This year I’ve been practicing a lot to try to get that win.”

Sabol is a power player, hitting it farther than most of her high school peers.

“Megan is just so strong,” Hilley said. “She hits it further off tee than average high school girl. Length is her biggest asset. It gives her a huge, huge advantage.”

Nearly 1,000 golfers will compete for 10 state titles at 10 different golf courses in the Augusta area on Monday. Lakeside in particular hopes to make a huge splash in its own backyard by potentially sweeping the team and individual crowns in boys and girls. While the competition is stiff, the chances aren’t remote playing familiar venues.

“Golf is so fickle, but that would be great to be able to do that,” Hilley said. “It would be special for the boys and girls to win one and Hunter going for the three-peat.”

Said Dunagan: “That would be another cool thing. Something like that just doesn’t happen very often.”

The field is particularly deep on the Class AAAAA boys side, with the last two champions Cambridge and Greenbrier posing the deepest obstacles for Dunagan to get that elusive team win. Dunagan was recently medalist in the Class AAAAA sectionals, but the Panthers finished fifth 16 shots behind Cambridge. Lakeside also lost it regionals by 19 to Greenbrier.

It will take more than Dunagan to get it done.

“I feel like going into Monday we have a pretty good chance if my top four play the way they’re capable,” Hilley said.

“If there’s any course where we’re going to have a good chance at it, it’s Bartram Trail,” said Dunagan, who will be teeing off last on the 10th hole with the top players from Evans, Creekview and Dunwoody. “I’m going to have to try to put a good score on the board and hope the rest of the team does. You’ve got to come out hot or you’re going to get beat.”

Michaux: Having Rio Games is not worth a global health crisis

Thu, 05/12/2016 - 5:41pm

There were criticisms and lectures about patriotism and “good of the game” when a handful of high-profile golfers announced their intentions to sit out the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

But the proper question may not be whether Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen or Vijay Singh should compete in Rio but whether any of the athletes actually should.

The reasons for moving or postponing the summer Olympics are growing longer as the opening ceremonies draw ever closer. Rampant violent crime, incomplete infrastructure, toxic waters as well as economic and political upheaval are just the appetizers in the array of problems that await the athletes and any fans who choose to attend this August.

All of those significant issues, however, pale to the Zika virus outbreak that prompted the World Health Organization to declare a “global emergency” for only the fourth time, joining the Ebola and H1N1 influenza crises of 2014 and re-emergence of polio in 2009 on the official pandemic watch lists.

Zika may not seem as threatening as Ebola because it doesn’t leave behind a staggering body count (80 percent of individuals who contract it exhibiting no outward symptoms), but a wave of babies born with critically underdeveloped heads and brains should rise to the level of gravely concerning.

Despite the International Olympic Committee’s grossly biased declaration in January of Rio as a “safe environment,” the risk of accelerating the advance of Zika into the United States and around the globe is pretty short-sighted selfish thinking by the folks with a financial stake in refusing to acknowledge the obvious perils of proceeding as if nothing is wrong.

Considering Rio de Janeiro has become the Brazilian state with the highest number of suspected Zika cases, declaring it “safe” is pretty disingenuous of the IOC – even negligent in the case of executive Dick Pound labeling it a “manufactured crisis.” The virus has been further linked beyond the spike in microcephaly to a growing number of cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome in Brazil.

Adding a half million visitors into the mix – many of them of child-bearing age, including the athletes – who can potentially contract the virus via mosquito bite and carry it back to their home countries and spread it through sexual transmission is not the best form of global control.

Once it gains a foothold, Zika can thrive nicely in the warmer southeastern United States where the same Aedes aegypti mosquito can live. Experts predict Zika’s arrival in Georgia and South Carolina is inevitable, but it would be nice if scientists and medical professionals have the time to develop the drugs, vaccines and other necessary defenses to combat it first.

This week the Harvard Public Health Review ran a story detailing how serious the situation is and pleaded for drastic preventative action to be taken.

“Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago,” the story said. “Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.”

As big as the Olympics are on a global scale, it should not be preserved at all costs – the ultimate expense being a global health crisis. There have to be contingency plans with recent host venues around the world from England to China to Australia to the U.S. with the facilities and infrastructure to team together to handle a last-minute emergency plan.

Would it be hard? Absolutely. Would it be prudent? Probably.

Frankly, Brazil has bigger things to worry about right now than trying to play host to the world.

On Thursday, the Brazilian senate voted overwhelmingly to suspend President Dilma Rousseff and open an impeachment trial against her.

In retaliation, the president’s supporters have vowed to wage strikes and block highways, which would dovetail nicely with the influx of a half million Olympic guests.

Turns out the “Brazil model” that lifted the largest South American nation out of years of military rule and into the modern economic world was built on a foundation of corruption. Reports state that nearly two-thirds of Brazil’s lawmakers are undergoing some form of investigation or legal probe – including Vice President Michel Temer, who takes over as interim president facing his own impeachment process, as well as lower-house leader Eduardo Cunha, the third in line.

Is it any wonder that under such a political cloud and dealing with its most severe economic crisis since the 1930s that Brazil couldn’t follow through on its promises when it was awarded the 2016 Olympics? That it wasn’t able to clean up the waterways where Olympic athletes will compete or rebuild its transportation infrastructure or curb its violent crime problems in a city where the majority lives in poverty?

Perhaps eight years from now Brazil will be on more sound footing and better able to address all of the profound issues that plague it now. And by then, provided appropriate measures are taken to stem global escalation, health officials will have the Zika virus under relative control.

But officials seem be following the mantra, “Damn the mosquitos; full speed ahead.” LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan is instructing players to wear long sleeves and pants and slather on bug spray, likening Rio in August to nothing worse than “Orlando in January.”

Assuming nothing changes, let’s not condemn any athlete who chooses to stay away from these Olympics for whatever reason. And hopefully we’re not condemning a generation of newborns to no hope of a normal life all because the Games must go on.

Masters champ Danny Willett makes his return at the Players Championship

Tue, 05/10/2016 - 8:22pm

Danny Willett’s life has certainly changed after becoming a father and winning the Masters Tournament in a 12-day span. With a month to evaluate the difference, it’s basically a never-ending cycle of changing diapers and signing Masters flags.

“Definitely signed more Masters flags,” the 28-year-old Englishman said in ranking his two primary chores. “I’ve changed a few nappies, as I said, but there’s been a lot of signing that’s had to be done.”

Even returning this week to his professional life for the first time since leaving Augusta, Willett arrived at the Players Championship only to find a big box of flags from his tour peers waiting for him at his locker in Sawgrass.

“I thought it all stopped when I came out here, but yeah, there’s a few in the lockers for the lads and stuff,” he said during a news conference Tuesday.

Between being a new father and a new major champion and all the duties that come with both, the only thing there hasn’t been any time for in the last four weeks is golf. Willett hadn’t played a single round since his Sunday 67 at Augusta National before finally teeing it up with some friends on Saturday before leaving for the Players. So he’ll be dealing with rust as well as writer’s cramp when he finally plays in Thursday’s first round with Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker.

“Just looking forward to kind of getting back in the swing of things actually and actually playing some golf, which I haven’t done that much of in the last four weeks.” he said.

Willett had always planned on taking the month after the Masters off to adjust to his new family dynamic as well as refresh himself for what will be a hectic summer.

“It’s just been obviously a bit of chaos back home with media interviews and stuff, so it’s not really been the quiet four weeks I was expecting. And in a good way, obviously,” he said.

Jordan Spieth called his own post-Masters month off a “mini offseason” in advance of a condensed major schedule followed by the Olympics and a Ryder Cup. Willett will have to fit in playoffs on both the PGA and European tours as well. He anticipated more of a grind locking down spots in everything, but those goals were settled at Augusta.

Living with a green jacket in one’s wardrobe takes some getting used to. Willett said he doesn’t really like other people putting it on.

“Probably wear it a lot less than what most people think I would wear it, but I don’t want to get it dirty or spill anything on it,” he said. “So no, it stays sort of up in the wardrobe obviously, and then, yeah, it travels everywhere, just in case you have to you go meet someone or you go do something with it.”

With or without the jacket on, his Q rating has gone through the roof back home in Yorkshire.

“It does kind of go into your personal life a little bit,” he said of his growing notoriety. ”You can’t go and have a nice quiet drink with the missus and stuff. At nighttime you get people asking for pictures, autographs. It comes with the territory. You can’t really complain about signing a few autographs and taking a few pictures because you’ve just won the Masters.”

The one indulgence Willett enjoyed immediately upon his return home two days after the Masters was grabbing a beer and sitting on the sofa with his wife, Nicole, to watch a full replay of the final-round telecast – seeing the events that befell Spieth behind him and the way he stepped up to inheriting the lead down the stretch.

“I don’t know if I felt like I had to, I just wanted to see it back over, I guess, and just see some of the things that we did,” he said. “When you’re playing and you’re in and around that competitiveness you don’t really obviously step back. Four and a half hours go pretty quick when you’re playing, and Sunday went exceptionally fast. So I think it was just to actually watch it back and slow it down, and I guess just kind of take in actually what we just achieved.”

Other than that, life around his parents or three brothers hasn’t changed. The subject of what the youngest member of the family accomplished at the Masters doesn’t come up all that much – not when there’s a newborn grandson around to dote over.

“That’s the nice thing about when I get to go home, we don’t speak about golf,” Willett said. “We speak about everything else other than golf. So the less said about golf when we’re back home, the better. ... It’s far from talking about one person’s achievements. (My parents) got four boys, and talking about one will be a little bit harsh on the other three, so no, we just talk about more normal everyday things and how everyone’s been.”

Back in the public eye as a major winner, there will be more expectations regarding where Willett can go from here and what other flags he might have to sign in the future. He’s taking it all in stride.

“You dream about it and stuff and you practice hard for it, and then when it does happen, I guess, yeah, you have got to pinch yourself and appreciate just what you’ve done,” he said. “I’m not really too fussed about what everybody else thinks. I’m trying to do my bit. If I do my bit, and what I’ve done over the last 18 months, two years, then it’s proved to myself that I can do some pretty special things.”

Michaux: Braves are putting out embarrassing product

Sat, 05/07/2016 - 5:59pm

Leicester City has been the toast of the sports world after winning England’s Premier League as a 5,000-to-1 shot. It’s being called the greatest upset in the history of sports.

I’m not sure how oddsmakers differentiate between overwhelming longshots, but I think it’s fair to say the Foxes could not possibly have ever been a more hopeless cause than the current Atlanta Braves.

Slim-to-none would have been overstating the hopes of these Braves. Predicting them to lose only 100 games seems to have been a gross understatement, and the 500-to-1 preseason odds weren’t remotely tempting. Atlanta needs to thank its lucky stars that Major League Baseball doesn’t have a relegation system like British soccer or they could be playing in the Double-A Southern League next year when they move into their new Cobb County home.

We’ve passed the point of wearing bags on our heads as shamed Braves fans – certainly when the Hector Olivera’s domestic assault arrest surfaced. It’s best to just close our eyes and pretend the 2016 season doesn’t exist.

It’s easy to bury these Braves in some grisly numbers (through Friday), so let’s do it.

7-21: Record through Friday, on pace for a 41-121 season that would eclipse the 1962 Mets (40-120) for most losses in the modern era. (It’s a dramatic improvement from the 0-162 projection after the 0-9 start.)

6: Home runs, which is only 14 fewer than the second worst total in baseball by the Dodgers.

85: Runs scored, the
fewest in the league and less than half the total of the leading Cubs.

1-12: Record at Turner Field, which deserves a better send-off.

.226: Team batting average, which is the worst in the league.

.289: Team slugging percentage, easily the most pathetic quantifying statistic that is an astonishing 66 points worse than the nearest anemic team and only four points higher than the Red Sox batting average.

55.8: Percentage drop in value of Liberty Braves Group’s Series A stock from its opening price Monday of $36 to its end-of-week close at $15.91.

Not a pretty picture, any way you size it up. Defensive stats aren’t much prettier, ranked 26th in ERA (4.81), last-place adjacent in total errors (24) and rock bottom in fielding percentage (.977).

Five Braves regular position players are batting in Mendoza territory, with the incomparable Erick Aybar a paltry .190 and not doing a very good job of making anyone forget about Andrelton Simmons who was traded away for him (plus prospects). Aybar actually got two hits Friday night against the Diamondbacks and managed to get thrown out at second base twice by the catcher.

Things reached such a desperation point earlier this week that Atlanta reshuffled the lineup with seven roster moves in one day, calling up four minor-leaguers and sending three pieces of dead weight down. Right-hander Mike Foltynewicz proceeded to give up three homers in his first inning as a starter. The other three position additions are a collective 2-of-18 (.111) so far.

This stink runs deep.

Naturally, reports started circulating citing “high-ranking officials” that the Braves are considering firing manager Fredi Gonzalez. Because somebody obviously needs to pay for all of this stench and it couldn’t possibly be the fault of general manager John Coppolella or his mentor, John Hart, who stripped any marketable elements from the roster and left Gonzalez with essentially a Triple-A lineup to compete with against the bigs.

“It’s the players, not the manager,” Freddie Freeman, the lone commodity languishing amid the wreckage, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Not that there is a lot of evidence to defend Gonzalez, who at this stage is merely a transition manager. Since his Braves were sitting a dead-level 42-42 last season on July 7, they’ve gone 32-73. But why get rid of him now and saddle presumptive replacement Bud Black (the long rumored favorite) to drag this carcass of a team through another 133 games this season?

At this point, the best we can hope for is that all the Johns (Coppolella, Hart and Schuerholz) have a valid plan for the future in following the Kansas City Royals model of strong arms and surgical batting. That all of these trades (Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, Craig Kimbrel, Alex Wood, Chris Johnson, Simmons, Shelby Miller) for prospects pays dividends. That Dansby Swanson becomes the next Derek Jeter and can share an infield with him for years with Ozzie Albies and Kevin Maitan. That Arodys Vizcaino can last long enough to have something worth saving in SunTrust Park and that all the young arms develop.

The consistently successful Braves we came to know and love through the glorious 1990s and early aughts are a distant memory. If the vision for a new future in a new stadium can replicate some semblance of those glory days, the current embarrassment can be erased from the stat sheet as a simple sacrifice.

Until then, do yourself a favor and watch Leicester City instead.

Greyson Sigg has played key role in Georgia's golf success

Thu, 05/05/2016 - 8:22pm

Greyson Sigg’s game has steadily improved in his third season at Georgia, and with it so has the former Richmond Academy golfer’s confidence that the Bulldogs are ready to win an NCAA title.

Georgia has a chance to become the fourth consecutive Southeastern Conference champion to win the NCAA Championship, following Alabama (2013-14) and Louisiana State (2015).

“After we just won SEC Championships, that gives us a lot of momentum moving forward,” Sigg said as his Bulldogs were installed Thursday as the top seed in the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Regional taking place May 16-18.

Sigg is a big reason for Georgia’s No. 3 national ranking. Along with senior star Lee McCoy, Sigg was named to the All-SEC first team. The junior from Augusta ranks second on the team and ninth in the SEC with a scoring average of 71.24.

More importantly, however, is that Sigg was an individual winner twice this season. He bagged his first collegiate medalist honors in September on the first playoff hole of The Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach. His second win came in March at Georgia’s home event in the Southern Intercollegiates at Athens Country Club, where he shot a career-best 6-under 66 in the opening round.

In all, Sigg posted five top-10 finishes this season, including a 10th in the SEC Championships at Sea Island, to match his total from the previous two seasons combined.

“He’s gotten sharper all around and a little more comfortable now being near the lead than he used to be,” said McCoy, who admits Sigg “consistently out ball-strikes me” with his predictable tight draw.

Sigg won’t argue with his star teammate’s assessment.

“I’m more confident and really teeing it up trying to win the golf tournament rather than trying to get top 10 or something like that,” Sigg said. “I don’t expect to play bad but I can handle a bad round and come back and try to shoot 66 the next day. I think over time I’ve given myself opportunities to win and know I can compete with all these guys.”

Sigg and McCoy are the only current Bulldogs players who have never missed competing in the NCAA Championships. Despite winning its regional two years ago, Georgia failed to advance to the eight-team match play portion in 2014. Last year, the Bulldogs advanced to the semifinals before being narrowly eliminated by eventual champion LSU.

“Last year I felt not so much as good as maybe freshman year because we’d been up and down so much, but it just goes to show if you’re in NCAAs you deserve to be there,” said Sigg, who lost both his matches in the match-play portion after posting two counting scores to help the Bulldogs advance. “We got hot that week and played really well and made it to the final four. We gave it a good run.

“I’ve been on both sides of it. Freshman year sucked. Had a pretty good year and go all the way out to Prairie Dunes. Going home early was not fun. I think that drove Lee McCoy and I as the only two returners to come back and want to compete more. I think it’s good for Lee and I to know how terrible a feeling it is to not even make match play. I think it helps knowing what it takes to get there.”

UGA is the highest ranked of five Georgia teams to qualify for the six NCAA regionals.

Two-time national champion Augusta University will return to the site of the Jaguars’ 2011 NCAA title as a No. 5 seed in Stillwater, Okla. Georgia Tech and Georgia State will compete as No. 8 and 10 seeds in Marana, Ariz., while Kennesaw State is the eighth seed in Franklin, Tenn.

Clemson, fresh of an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, is the No. 2 seed in Stillwater, where the Tigers also won their last NCAA title in 2003. South Carolina, led by first-team All-SEC star Matt NeSmith of North Augusta, is the third seed behind Georgia in Tuscaloosa.

While there are no guarantees in golf, Sigg knows this Bulldogs team is the best situated to win a title with seniors McCoy and Sepp Straka on board and sophomore Zach Healy back from last year’s semifinalists. Freshman Tye Waller, a spring transfer from Georgia Tech, rounds out the roster.

“I knew when Lee and Sepp decided to come back we’d have a really good shot at winning the championship,” said Sigg, who will inherit the reins as senior leader next season. “We’ve had four consistent guys this spring and played with pretty much four scores. Now Tye Waller’s been playing well and helped us out at SECs and made a huge difference. Having four guys who think they can win a golf tournament individually really has been huge.”

McCoy, the SEC individual champion who finished solo fourth in the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship in March, said he returned for his senior season to win a ring with his teammates.

“I expect us to win. I expect nothing less,” McCoy said. “This is without a doubt the best team that we’ve had since I’ve been at Georgia, maybe not on paper to start the season but to this point we click really well as a team. ... I certainly think we have the right stuff to do it. We have five guys excited about the opportunity and five guys who are looking to step on some throats in match play.”

Sigg isn’t looking past the regional, which is loaded with three ranked SEC rivals Auburn, South Carolina and Alabama playing on its home course. Just advancing to Eugene (Ore.) Country Club is the priority.

“Going into NCAAs, bottom line is you have to play good golf,” Sigg said. “If you’re there you deserve to be there. You have to go in with a good mindset and don’t act like you’re better than anybody.”

 

Michaux: Kevin Kisner is looking to build momentum

Tue, 05/03/2016 - 7:17pm

A year ago when the calendar flipped to May, Kevin Kisner could still comfortably be regarded as a member of golf’s relatively anonymous rank-and-file.

The Aiken pro could be applauded for an unflinching runner-up finish in his home-state event at Harbour Town, but the general public suspected he was likely to slip back into the pack of forgotten flashes in the PGA Tour pan.

Then came the Players Championship, where Kisner went toe-to-toe with Rickie Fowler in a bracing stretch run and four-hole playoff before finally running out of birdies. In an 11-week stretch between the Masters and British Open, Kisner made the golf world notice him by netting three runner-ups, two more top 10s and a tie for 12th at the U.S. Open.

Now No. 22 in the world, the 32-year-old Kisner is hoping familiar venues will bring a return to form.

“This is my stretch of golf courses that fit my game and places I love to play starting in Hilton Head,” said Kisner as he prepares for this week’s event in Charlotte, N.C., before returning to Sawgrass next week. “I look forward to this part of the schedule as much as anywhere and I look forward to getting some momentum going and shooting low numbers again and making some birdies and everything else will take care of itself.”

It says something about Kisner’s current station in the game that there could be any concerns when he’s sitting at No. 5 on the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup points list more than halfway through the season. But it’s been a relatively dry few months since Kisner’s hot run of four consecutive top-10 finishes from November through the Hawaii swing in January, including his maiden victory at Sea Island following a runner-up in the WGC event in China. Kisner amassed 91 percent of his 1,182 FedEx Cup points by mid-January, when he was comfortably leading the standings and enjoying a career-best No. 14 world ranking.

In the three months since, a T23 at Doral is the lone top-35 finish in Kisner’s past seven starts – which included a tie for 37th in his Masters Tournament debut. He mustered only 69th place in his return to Hilton Head Island, S.C., with a 10-over-par weekend.

“I feel probably better about my long game than I did last year in this stretch,” Kisner said. “I feel like I’ve just not gotten any momentum going. Not getting the ball up and down enough. Not making enough putts for birdie. Some of that’s due to hitting more greens and having more opportunities and missing more. That’s how the game of golf works. And some of it’s just golf. A couple bad bounces here and shooting a couple over when you could have shot a couple under. For the last few months that’s just kind of how it’s worked. Really, the short game has been pretty pitiful as far as I’m used to. I need to work hard on that and be prepared before I go to Charlotte.”

There have certainly been some mitigating circumstances for Kisner’s lackluster results of late. Gearing up for his first Masters as a local demanded a lot of attention beyond the golf course from friends and media. He’s also been literally unsettled, with the renovation of their home at Palmetto Golf Club several months behind schedule.

“There’s a lot going on,” Kisner said. “I don’t really have a house that we can call ours. We’ve traveled all over the world and stayed in different houses and rented different places. Didn’t really feel like we’ve been settled for the last few months.

“Then we had our first Masters and a lot of prep went into that – not only for golf but everything else that went into being in a major and being somewhat of a local guy. With that behind, I’m looking forward to getting back on a good run and I can’t wait to get back into contention.”

Perhaps that could happen this week at Quail Hollow, where Kisner tied for sixth in 2014. Getting back to Stadium Course at Sawgrass next week for the tour’s flagship event has Kisner’s competitive juices flowing.

“I’m excited. Obviously I have a lot of great memories of the place,” he said. “I know I can play well. Obviously the golf course suits my game. But you’ve still got to go do it. I need to kind of put my ownself in check and get back to the things that made me play well last year. Make sure I’m doing those things and get back into my mode of playing well.”

Kisner already has enough points to ensure he’ll head into the PGA Tour’s playoffs ranked among the top 30, as he’s already 83 percent of the way to his total last regular season when he entered the playoffs ranked 17th. But he can’t get complacent. Qualifying for East Lake is a big milestone, exempting players into all the next season’s majors.

The crammed summer plans for Kisner include Oakmont, Royal Troon and Baltusrol for the majors.

“It’s a great feeling to be able to make your schedule and for the first time in my career I’m eligible for all four majors which is pretty much the cornerstone of our game,” he said. “It tests all facets of your game which is why they’re majors and I look forward to preparing and trying to play my best those weeks.”

Kisner also sits 13th on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list. It will take a stretch of golf comparable to last summer to earn a place on Davis Love III’s American roster, and the competition will be relentless all the way up to the Tour Championship.

“I tell people all the time, if you watch a Sunday on the PGA Tour there’s no backup in guys and no letup,” Kisner said. “You can’t ever think you have this. You look at the FedEx Cup the same way. You always know you can improve. There’s only one place you can be the happiest at the end of the FedEx Cup and obviously I’m not there but four spots away. So I still have a lot of work to do.”

It’s heady territory for a former unknown who was ranked 254th last April, and Kisner can’t afford to keep floating to maintain his stature.

“It feels like it’s been forever and I need to get up there in the hunt now and be focused on a Sunday again,” he said.

Michaux: Hometown of Wrens, Ga., shows its appreciation for Fernando Velasco

Sat, 04/30/2016 - 5:32pm

Backup offensive linemen don’t generally get a lot of days named in their honor. Fernando Velasco, however, is so much more than a backup offensive lineman to the folks in Jefferson County.

He was celebrated on Saturday with Fernando Velasco Day in his hometown of Wrens, Ga., after becoming the first former Warrior football player to make it to the Super Bowl last season with the Carolina Panthers. His football accomplishments are really the secondary reason for a ceremony established to thank Velasco for all he and his charitable foundation have given back to his hometown.

“I’m an offensive lineman, I guess, so I’m really not a speaker-type guy,” Velasco said. “But it is pretty cool and fun for people to recognize you when you go home and to really be grateful for some of the work we’ve done in the community. I’m just so grateful and appreciative of everything they want to do for me. I never set out to do anything to get individual achievement.”

Jefferson County football coach J.B. Arnold has called Velasco “the best ambassador” the county has ever had since he graduated in 2003. His role model traits first came out when he was named the overall team captain as a senior at Georgia in 2007. During his eight-year career in the NFL, his home county has been one of the biggest benefactors of Velasco’s Right C.H.O.I.C.E.S. Foundation.

Velasco considers it his calling and responsibility to set an example for not only other kids growing up in Jefferson County but his fellow adults in the community who set the tone for others to follow.

“It’s always been a blessing to be a blessing to others,” he said using his favorite expression.

“That’s why we do what we do. We just want people to be able to look at us and see that no matter what your situation or what you’re going through you just trust God and have faith and you can truly be whatever you want to be and your dreams are attainable. You can’t allow anyone to steal your dreams and have to reach for them with all your might.

“Also those parents and adults, I encourage them to step up and be role models for the kids and be examples in the community. I really feel that’s one of the reasons God put me on this Earth, and so I don’t take that lightly.”

After a ceremony at Wrens Middle School honoring his accomplishments and service, Velasco naturally wanted to make the rest of the celebration about the community. So instead of his usual football and cheerleading camp he’s been conducting since 2010, his foundation paid for a festival to involve everyone.

“We just are going to have a family community fun day with bouncy houses and games, give out free food and drinks and have a DJ with some music,” Velasco said.

“Celebrating a man who has given our community so much!” Dr. Alan Long, the Jefferson County principal, posted on Twitter.

Velasco gave folks in Jefferson County a reason to have a rooting interest in Super Bowl 50. He tried to share as much of the experience as he could with his hometown fans. A 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos tempered some of the celebration.

“They were disappointed just like I was disappointed that we didn’t win,” Velasco said. “But no matter what, they still showed their support and everything and I appreciate that a lot. It’s just the story of my life, being able to persevere through anything. You get excited and stuff doesn’t happen the way you want it to happen, God wants you to learn something at the same time. Keep a smile on your face and stay positive and keep pushing.”

Despite the outcome, Velasco said being a part of a Super Bowl was the greatest experience of his career.

“I’m trying to find a word to do it justice,” he said. “Unbelievable, maybe. It was just so exciting and it was fun. Everything that came along with it, having all my family and friends there with me. They really enjoyed themselves. I can remember standing there listening to the National Anthem and being in awe of everything that was going on pre-game. It was like, ‘Wow, this is why you turn the television on 30 minutes early to watch the Super Bowl. And I’m here.’”

The sting of the loss lingered longer than most, but Velasco’s personality was able to process it and put it into proper perspective.

“For me, I was able to move on,” he said. “It was another game that we lost. You can’t stay down in the dumps about it too long. You just have to pick your head up, brush your shoulders off and keep going and hopefully get back there next year.”

Velasco, 31, has moved on by signing a veteran-minimum deal with the Buffalo Bills worth $965,000 for his eight seasons of NFL service already. He’s expected to replace Kraig Urbik as the primary backup at all three interior line positions.

“Obviously I bring value being able to play three different positions, so they like that,” he said. “That’s one of things that’s been able to allow me to play in this league for nine years.”

Buffalo went 8-8 last season and is trying to reach the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1999.

“They were right on the verge last year trying to get over that hump,” Velasco said of his new team. He spent the last two weeks in Buffalo and attended a Bills draft party on Thursday night, interacting with his new fan base as Buffalo added Clemson DE Shaq Lawson to the fold.

He plans to continue to set the right example with how he handles himself professionally.

“My role is pretty much the same – be ready whenever your name is called,” he said. “Whether that’s a starting opportunity or a backup opportunity, just make sure that I’m always ready.”

On Saturday, he was the center of attention representing community pride in his hometown.

“It does feel good that people see your work and want to recognize you for that,” he said. “I love to do it because I love to see the faces of the kids. Because for me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Michaux: Golf's old guard needs to loosen up

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 5:58pm

It’s been a very fun month for golf – at least it seemed that way.

Jordan Spieth blew up in the Masters Tournament and recovered with an epic brocation in the Bahamas with fellow young pros Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Smylie Kaufman. Snapchat photos and videos of shirtless 20-somethings goofing around on a tropical golf course under the hashtag #SB2K16 pervaded social media for days.

Back at home in Aiken, Kevin Kisner was profiled in an entertaining Vice Sports video having a good time at Palmetto Golf Club, his home course, with friends as he prepared to make his Masters debut. It was the kind of peek behind the scenes at one of the game’s non-traditional elites that makes golf look pretty fun.

It didn’t take long before those youthful golfing endeavors started drawing disapproving looks and even disciplinary action from the game’s old guard determined to stamp out any playful insurgencies that might appeal to a younger audience that golf so desperately needs.

Kisner confirmed on social media that he and a few fellow Palmetto members had been summarily suspended by the 124-year-old club for their behavior in the video.

“You really suspended/in hot water with the club for the Vice video?” one follower asked Kisner on Twitter.

“Yes, along with everyone in video who are members as well. Pretty comical,” Kisner replied.

As for the Bahama bros, prominent blogger and Golf Channel contributor Geoff Shackelford spoke for the establishment under a judgmental post entitled “Sorry: #SB2K16 Is Not Something To Be Lauded.”

“At times, the behavior exhibited was boorish, unbecoming of pro athletes who do so much to inspire kids and reckless to their physical health,” Shackelford wrote.

You can practically feel the collective eye-roll from the kids who aren’t watching golf for the Cialis commercials.

Kisner, 32, is at the top end of a generation we call “millennials.” They are the most coveted demographic in the world – adult consumers between the ages of 18 and 34 who are at the heart of most marketing campaigns.

Golf needs millennials to buy in. The old club dynamic is losing membership and some clubs have shuttered along the way. The biggest obstacles to growing the game are time, cost and access. The last thing golf needs to do is turn off young people to the core attraction – a game that can be enjoyed in all manner of different ways by different people.

A Forbes story this week cited National Golf Foundation stats that 6.2 million millennials – 28 percent of all golfers – play about 100 million rounds per year in the United States and spend about $5 billion annually on golf.

This group matters for the game’s future health, and many of them don’t want to conform to the stereotypes of a stuffy old game.

If they want to play in cargo shorts with their hats on backwards or enjoy a beer in the clubhouse wearing a nice clean pair of jeans and a T-shirt, what harm does that really do? I don’t know who drew the original line on acceptable cotton fabrics at denim, but the guy is probably as dead as the notion that non-ripped jeans aren’t as appropriately dress casual as khakis.

You don’t have to like the way everyone else chooses to behave or dress to accept it. As long as everyone isn’t disrupting others or damaging property, it should be fine. One of the beautiful things about Palmetto is that it’s a great course and laid-back club that doesn’t make everyone feel like they’re walking on egg shells the way some private clubs do.

A simple “Hey, Kevin, let’s not do that again with the carts,” would have sufficed in the wake of the Vice video. Instead, the club went with a classic overreach in suspending its most prominent ambassador – making nobody look good in the process.

There was a personal moment last May at the famed Firestone Country Club in Ohio that fits this topic. I was there staying on property with a 16-man group as the guest of my brother, who is an out-of-town member. We played the famed South Course in the morning and then had a rather boozy team scramble on the West Course in the afternoon.

Before dinner, as the shadows grew long, four of us went back out with only 7-irons to play the first and ninth holes on the South in a little money match. It was particularly memorable for me since I drained long “putts” with my 7-iron on both holes to play them in 1-over and win all the bets. A few folks sitting in rockers on the clubhouse veranda overlooking the ninth green even applauded.

That’s when we were approached by a clubhouse manager. He was polite but he made it clear we were not to do that again.

That kind of harmless fun, however, is what golf needs to stop suppressing and start encouraging. Racing golf carts certainly deserves a polite rebuke because it can be dangerous and damaging, but it hardly warrants a club suspension by overreacting overlords. Goofing off with friends in casual rounds is pretty much the best part of the game.

There is a place for decorum without dismissing good, clean fun. Golf will be healthier when it finds the balance and the old guard and new wave are allowed to peacefully coexist.

Wesley Bryan is having a dream season

Tue, 04/26/2016 - 7:32pm

Wesley Bryan gained internet fame with his brother hitting trick golf shots, but that’s nothing compared to the trick the Augusta resident pulled off in the last six weeks.

In only six starts as a rookie on the Web.com Tour, Bryan has two victories, two more top 10s and has already locked up his PGA Tour card for next season. For a guy who had never played anything more than mini-tour events prior to 2016, he’s already climbed to 212th in the world rankings – barely behind No. 209 Ernie Els and 210 Stewart Cink.

“It’s crazy how quickly all this has happened,” said Bryan, who shot a course-record tying 63 last Friday en route to a four-stroke victory in the El Bosque Mexico Championship. “I didn’t think in a million years that the first six events I would have two wins, a couple other top-10s and lock up my PGA Tour card. I always knew that I was good enough to compete out here, I’d just never gotten the opportunity. So when I finally got out here I basically had to rely on that self belief because I really had no experience to draw on.”

The 26-year-old Bryan was hardly an unknown before becoming the runaway leader on the Web.com Tour money list in 2016. The 2012 South Carolina graduate is the son of longtime Chapin, S.C., club pro, George Bryan III. His older brother, George IV, was a three-time All-American for the Gamecocks. Wesley won the 2007 Southern Cross Junior Invitational at Palmetto Golf Club and competed with his brother on Golf Channel’s 2015 season of Big Break.

In tandem with his older brother, Bryan Bros Golf became viral sensations in 2014 making trick-shot videos. But then Wesley soared through all three stages of Q School last year, securing his Web.com Tour card with a tie for ninth in the final stage last December. Suddenly the guy who admitted suffering “yips” and threatened to hang up his clubs after shooting a 101 his junior season in college was going to compete on the world’s top developmental tour starting out in places from Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and Louisiana.

“I feel like the Bryan Bros stuff last year really helped me learn how to travel, staying on the road week after week after week,” Bryan said. “Granted we weren’t playing tournaments, but it got me used to this traveling lifestyle, sitting in the air. That’s definitely played a role in my preparation stuff for this year.”

In his first notable career start the last week of January, Bryan finished tied for seventh in Panama. With the result he debuted in the Official World Golf Rankings at 1,127th.

“The way I played all through Q school, I knew my game was better than it had ever been,” he said. “So I wasn’t shocked when I got myself into contention the first event of the year. That let me know if I play my game and play well that I can play with these guys out here on the Web.com Tour. Kind of getting over that first hump the first week kind of settled me down and realize I do have the game to compete out here.”

Two starts later, in March, he rallied and survived a back-nine duel to earn his maiden win in Louisiana with his brother as his caddie. Last week in Leon, Mexico, he rallied again from two down entering the final round and ended up cruising to his second victory. At 212th in the world, he’s ahead of former world No. 1 Vijay Singh (216).

“In Louisiana, I played the entire back nine within at least one of the lead and not once did I feel any nerves,” Bryan said. “The back nine in Mexico, I had it all the way up to a five-shot lead at one point and I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I could barely choke down water. I couldn’t get any food down. I had the cotton mouth going and the heart was beating a million miles per hour. I think that’s good. That’s why we tee it up, to feel those nerves. And I was still able to hit the shots when I needed to under that type of pressure and stress.”

While he’s already guaranteed a PGA Tour card for the 2017 season, remaining No. 1 on the final Web.com Tour money list would give him the coveted full PGA Tour exemption. Another victory this season would make him the 11th player in history to gain a battlefield promotion. The last player to achieve that three-win advancement was Carlos Ortiz in 2014.

“God it feels amazing,” Bryan said immediately after his win. “To wrap it up this early in the season is just incredible, but I know there’s still work to be done. There’s a lot riding on the tournaments upcoming. Because I know another win gets me straight out there. So I’m going to put my head down starting next week and get straight back to work.”

Speaking from the plane before flying to Indiana for this week’s Web.com Tour stop, Bryan said he is hoping to keep the roll going. He did suffer a minor setback, documented with a photo on social media, when his trophy from Mexico did not survive the trip home intact.

“You never tee it up to lose so obviously every week that I tee it up there’s one goal in mind,” he said. “I’m sure the third win is going to be the hardest one to get, but I know if I’m able to get myself in contention again I’ve been able to hit all the shots that I need to under the gun.”

Bryan moved to Augusta in May 2014 when his wife, Elizabeth, started classes in the Physicians Assistant program at Augusta University.

She graduates in May, but with her fielding job offers in Augusta and them purchasing a house, the Bryans are more likely than not to remain Augusta residents.

While he keeps traveling the Web.com Tour this season, he’s already started daydreaming about next season and finally fulfilling his career dream to compete on the PGA Tour and perhaps earn a place in a future Masters Tournament.

“I’m so excited words can’t even express it,” Bryan said.

Michaux: Woods needs to stay patient and not rush back

Sat, 04/23/2016 - 6:53pm

It was two weeks too late and at the wrong Augusta-area event, but Tiger Woods returned to the public view with his golf swing on Thursday.

Performing at the behest of his sponsor in a junior clinic in Graniteville. Woods hit a full array of shots from wedges to driver for 45 minutes. He took requests, hitting his famous “stinger” as well as calling various shaped shots to certain targets that did exactly what he commanded them to do.

The rogue videos that popped up on social media sent a stir throughout the golf world that Tiger Version 8.0 (honestly, I’ve lost track of the reboots) would be back in circulation imminently.

Golf Channel began speculating that Woods might return to play as soon as two weeks at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., citing lengthy range sessions down in Jupiter, Fla. Experts started analyzing the few available swing clips from Thursday like they were the Zapruder film.

“If that’s pretty good I’d hate to see bad,” one unidentified swing coach messaged Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck. “Worst swing I’ve seen him make other than it was smooth but that will go away under the gun. ... So upright. Club through shoulders but not the right foot – at high speeds a recipe for back problems.”

Tiger’s camp maintains the “no timetable” in regards to his return from a pair of back surgeries that have sidelined him since August. But that status might get officially updated on Monday when Woods shows up in Houston for the opening of his latest course design, Bluejack National, and talks on the record. He’s expected to play the new course, which will only ramp up the comeback frenzy.

Frankly, it’s all too familiar and a little concerning. Woods has made so many premature returns from hiatuses over the last few years that a pattern has emerged. He says he’s heeding doctors’ orders and taking his time, but too often he’s ultimately rushed himself back into the fast lane targeting major events he so desperately doesn’t want to miss. And the results have not been in his best interests.

It seemed obvious that Woods didn’t really want to let go of the possibility of playing in the Masters Tournament two weeks ago, as he waited until late on the Friday night before the season’s first major to officially announce “it’s prudent to miss this year’s Masters.” After starting to hit balls daily, the temptation to tee it up is hard to pass up when you know the window of opportunity is getting shorter.

That’s what is so worrying about the upcoming summer schedule. With majors at Oakmont, Royal Troon and Baltusrol where he’s posted top 10s in the past, the temptation to hurry up to be ready for them is undeniable. An epic story by Wright Thompson that came out on ESPN.com on Thursday detailed Woods’ decline over the past decade and illustrated his tendency to believe in his own invincibility.

The reality of his 40-year-old body has proven otherwise. And considering that his next comeback attempt will arguably be his last, it is imperative that he doesn’t make any missteps.

The problem with returning for the high-profile summer season is an inevitable clash between expectation and reality. Woods can’t escape excessive scrutiny whenever he tees it up, whether or not he has a realistic chance of contending after so much idle time dealing with serious injuries. Jumping directly into the biggest events on the toughest courses against the strongest fields runs the risk of doing more physical and mental harm than good.

With everything he’s been through regarding his back, his swing changes and his confidence hiccups after the last few years, it’s hard to fathom Woods almost out of the top 500 being ready to legitimately contend for a major title in the next three months. See last year’s disastrous forced major campaign as the model for what is likely to happen again.

The prudence that guided his decision to skip the Masters would suggest a less strenuous road back. Waiting until his own Quicken Loans National in late June to return would give him two more months to build up his strength and endurance before easing back into tournament condition in staggered starts at venues like Greenbrier, Hartford and Greensboro. Later throw in a couple of fall starts with a long-term focus of going full-speed into the 2017 season.

It’s hard for an elite athlete like Tiger Woods to be patient, but he needs to think in the long-term instead of the immediate.

“I don’t think you should get too carried away with the speculation and target the first start,” said Woods’ friend Notah Begay, who was on hand for Thursday’s range session.

As good as it was to see Woods back in our backyard, wearing his signature red shirt and mingling with the future generation of golf stars this week, it’s more important that we welcome a healthy Tiger back to the first tee at Augusta National next April.

There’s no need to rush.

South Carolina golfer Trent Phillips is ready for Junior Invitational

Wed, 04/20/2016 - 9:28pm

GRANITEVILLE — At 135 pounds, Trent Phillips didn’t cut the most imposing figure during introductions on the first tee at Sage Valley Golf Club. Then the 15-year-old left-hander from Inman, S.C., casually uncoiled a 315-yard drive high and long down the middle of the fairway.

“Wow,” said Savanna Weigand, a junior at Aiken High School representing the First Tee of Aiken in Wednesday’s Fluor Competitor/Amateur competition on the eve of the sixth annual Junior Invitational at Sage Valley.

Phillips subsequently hit his wedge to a foot from the cup for birdie on the 429-yard hole to start off a breezy under-par practice round where he was never in jeopardy of a bogey on the 7,344-yard course.

“If I had really grinded, I could have gone deep,” Phillips told his Palmetto State mates Christian Salzer and Caleb Proveaux over lunch. “I didn’t want to go low today. But I’d take that three days in a row, how I played today.”

This is the mindset of the 54 boys competing in what has become the most prestigious invitational in junior golf. They are fearless taking on a course that I can personally attest will chew up the average amateur from tees that are 600 yards shorter than the tips the field will play from over the next three days.

Phillips is one of only three 15-year-olds in the field, along with Aden Ye from China and Noah Goodwin from Texas. Yet like pretty much every other invitee, Phillips is already committed to play collegiately at Georgia once he graduates from Boiling Springs High School in 2018. He’s following his older brother, Trevor, who will enroll as a Bulldogs freshman golfer in the fall.

Trent never considered going anywhere but Georgia once his brother committed and he got to meet Bulldogs coaches Chris Haack and Jim Douglas.

“I was always going to lean toward where my brother went because I always wanted to play with him,” Phillips said. “I like those coaches. You want to go somewhere where you see success.”

Trevor Phillips tied for 44th at 13-over in the 2014 Junior Invitational, but he couldn’t make it back one more time after suffering a torn ACL snowboarding and will have to watch his little brother play this weekend. A third Phillips son – 12-year-old Zach – is a few years away from trying to qualify to compete at Sage Valley himself.

Who’s the best of the threesome?

“I don’t know,” Trent said. “It would be either me or my older brother. It’s back and forth.”

Trevor is bigger and longer, but it’s Trent who their father says has the best temperament to handle whatever challenge golf throws his way.

“Of all my boys, Trent’s the only one I never have to worry about,” Brian Phillips said. “Whatever sport he plays, and he’s good at all of them, he never gets over- excited. He just goes and does the best he can do and whatever that number is he’s OK with it. If he makes three birdies in a row or three bogeys in a row, you’d never know the difference. My other sons would let you know it.”

Whatever Phillips is doing has worked for him. He’s already won two South Carolina Class AAAA state titles as an eighth and ninth grader. He’d like to become the first player to win five in a row before he heads off to college, even though he downplays the accomplishment.

He ranks 12th in Golfweek’s boys rankings, well ahead of his older brother who ranks 35th.

Phillips is one of four players from South Carolina in this year’s Junior Invitational field – joining Salzer (Sumter), Proveaux (Lexington) and Andrew Orischak (Hilton Head Island), who is making his second consecutive appearance in the event. It’s an impressive contingent considering the rigid qualifying standards to get into the elite field that hails from 13 different countries. Only Texas, Florida and California with five each have more playing this year, and those golfing hotbeds dwarf South Carolina in size of the talent pool.

Salzer, who will play at N.C. State, won the S.C. Junior Amateur to qualify automatically. Proveaux, a South Carolina signee, was the state Class AAA champion. Orischak, a Virginia commit, is 27th in Golfweek’s boys rankings.

Despite its size, South Carolina every year has represented the home state well taking on the rest of the world. Carson Young of Pendleton, S.C., won the 2013 event. Matt NeSmith of North Augusta finished fourth in each of the first two years. Cody Proveaux, Caleb’s older brother, was a first-round leader in 2012 and finished ninth.

Phillips, who didn’t get to come watch his brother play two years ago because of a high school tournament, hopes to become a Junior Invitational regular for the next couple years.

“Ever since they told me how it was, I’ve wanted to come here and play,” Phillips said. “I’ve never gotten to play anything like this.”

Michaux: Georgia is hiding the best QB behind the red and black curtain

Tue, 04/19/2016 - 7:26pm

It’s pretty clear that Georgia is trying to hide something, but a 6-foot-5 quarterback with a cannon arm isn’t going to stay invisible for very long.

Jacob Eason spent all of spring practice sequestered from the outside world. He hasn’t talked to the media since signing day. He hasn’t (as far as anyone will say) worked with anything but the second- and third-team offenses during practices or scrimmages.

Then Saturday, in front of more than 93,000 witnesses, the five-star quarterback from Lake Stevens, Wash., went out and showed everybody what all the hype is about. To the full house of casual observers, he seemed head and shoulders the best quarterback on the field in the annual G-Day spring game over roster incumbents Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey.

First-year Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart, however, still is telling everyone to pay no attention to the guy he’s been hiding behind the curtains.

“People are going to say that by what Jacob did there today it’s going to be hard not to start him,” Smart was asked after the early-enrolled freshman completed 19 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown with mostly reserve weapons at his disposal.

“Really? Why would people say that?” Smart responded. “To me he ended up 60-something percent; Brice was 60-something percent; and Greyson had two drops and one bad decision. So for people to say that, maybe they should go to Coaching 101. Because I don’t see that being the case. What I see going into the fall camp is three guys who have three different traits. All three of them have got some growing to do.”

We get it. It’s the natural instinct of football coaches to downplay the readiness of heralded freshmen quarterbacks. Regardless of skill set, going from high school to college football in the Southeastern Conference is an enormous transition. There are always some growing pains.

Mark Richt once tried to convince everybody that the Bulldogs were better off with Joe Tereshinski under center rather then eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick Matthew Stafford. So Bulldogs fans are familiar with this song and dance.

Eason, Lambert and Ramsey certainly do have different traits. With a few seasons of collegiate experience already, including last year as Georgia’s starter, Lambert may be the safest play with enough talent and game management skills to avoid making the huge mistake. Ramsey hasn’t been fully trusted with the keys to the Bulldogs’ offense yet.

But only Eason has the obvious traits of being a quarterback who could elevate the offense with his arm and poise. His outsized talent and cool was obvious to anyone watching Saturday’s intrasquad game.

It wasn’t just the numbers, though Eason won that comparison as well. His 65.5 completion percentage, lone touchdown pass and total yards edged out Ramsey (16-25, 64.0 percent, for 224 yards) and easily exceeded Lambert (11-22, 140 yards, 1 INT).

But it was the quality of his throws that made the biggest impression. His 35-yard back-shoulder deep pass to Riley Ridley on his first possession drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd thirsting to see his arm in action. He later lobbed a perfect 37-yard deep strike that only Reggie Davis could catch up to in the fourth quarter.

He more than delivered with all eyes watching, even after offensive lineman Aulden Bynum greeted him to the huddle with these encouraging words: “Don’t screw it up, kid.”

Smart praised his young prodigy’s poise in front of the biggest crowd he’s ever performed before, yet he still kept qualifying everything about Eason with comments like “held the ball too long a couple times” or “needs to improve” regarding collegiate blitzes or the old coaching standby “I’ll reserve a lot of that judgment until I get a chance to watch all of the tape.”

But no amount of constructive criticism or subterfuge could hide the biggest quarterback on the field showing the most pure talent to elevate the offense into something greater.

“He throws BB’s,” Smart conceded. “Sometimes he throws them to the other team, sometimes he throws them to our team, but he throws BBs. He can spin the ball. I didn’t hide anything from you all when I said the guy has an elite arm. He’s got great arm strength and great arm talent when he makes good decisions most of the time and he’s got to communicate better.

“Again, I’m glad everybody got to come out and see Jacob Eason. I think the welcoming and the clapping in the stands when he got up, that’s all great. But the guy who starts the game against North Carolina will be the guy who gives us the best chance to win the game. And if that’s Jacob Eason he’s gonna be picked, but it may not be. Our fan base is going to support whoever our quarterback is. ... We’ll make those decisions in ample time.”

Georgia’s fans may have already made up their collective minds. Before ever playing a down, Eason has 46.6 thousand Twitter followers – half as many people who packed into Sanford Stadium for G-Day. Lambert (5,696) and Ramsey (13,700) don’t even have half Eason’s social media support combined.

For the next five months, Eason will disappear behind the red-and-black curtain again. He and his fellow quarterbacks will likely continue to be kept away from the media. Smart’s coaching mantra of “there’ll be no comfortable” will permeate off-season workouts and preseason camp until the season opener against North Carolina at the Georgia Dome.

“I’m going to say it again – the summer months for us are a chance to observe and watch those players grow,” Smart said. “All three of those guys have got to get better feet. All three of those guys have got to compete and do a better job of executing the offense.

“We’ve got a lot more offense than we showed (Saturday). From where they are now, they’ve got to improve and show dramatic improvement, in my opinion, for us to be as successful as we need to be.”

Whether it’s Game 1 against the Tar Heels, the Game 2 home tuneup against Nicholls State or Game 3 at Missouri in the SEC opener, it seems pretty apparent from the outside that Eason will be the quarterback Georgia needs to be as successful as it can be.

Michaux: Georgia fans turn out for Smart

Sat, 04/16/2016 - 8:55pm

ATHENS, Ga – If the devil came down the Georgia looking for souls to steal, he could have found about 93,000 of them in Sanford Stadium on Saturday ready to trade anything or a title.

Kirby Smart kicked off his tenure at Georgia with an audacious homecoming request. He challenged Bulldog Nation to fill Sanford Stadium on a Saturday afternoon in April to watch an intrasquad game – setting a 93K bar that was twice as high as the previous record of 46,815 last year in the 15th season of former head coach Mark Richt.

“Wow,” Smart said. “For the fan base to come out and support our program and support our kids the way they did, it touches you in the heart and makes a special moment to know that the fan base has got your back and got your program’s back. There were a lot of doubters out there who said it couldn’t be done and said they won’t come ... but they came. They came in droves. I appreciate that, more than they know.”

After a brief Ludacris concert and the usual pregame hype videos, Smart’s face filled the video scoreboard.

“Ladies an gentlemen, please rise. It’s good to be home,” he said, setting off shrieks of approval from the standing-room-only crowd.

Allen Iverson would have been incredulous seeing fans stream into a stadium five months before anything counts to watch a glorified scrimmage.

“We’re talking about practice, man,” went Iverson’s infamous rant. “What are we talking about? Practice? We’re talking about practice, man. We’re talking about practice. We’re talking about practice. We ain’t talking about the game. We’re talking about practice, man.”

Hotels in Athens were booked solid for the weekend. It was like the Masters never ended.

It speaks to the insatiable appetite Georgia fans have to win a championship. It says a lot about expectations that Georgia was willing to run off a popular head coach who did everything right, took the Bulldogs to the most SEC Championship games of any school in the past 15 years and won 10 games a season including his last.

Smart has made it crystal clear that the Richt ways are over. One of his first acts was taking Georgia in the opposite direction on transfers, restricting any departed players from going to other SEC or in-state rivals or reuniting with their former coach in Miami.

More troubling was that on the same day Smart and director of athletics Greg McGarity visited the state capitol in Atlanta, the legislature abruptly passed a new bill allowing the state’s athletics programs an unprecedented 90 days to comply with open records requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

What exactly Georgia might be trying to hide for three months is unknown, but it was troubling when Lt. Governor Casey Cagle dropped the gavel on the restrictive bill with the words “I hope it brings us a national championship is what I hope.”

If Smart brings a national title to Athens for the first time since 1980, the fans who are willing to fill Sanford Stadium for a practice game aren’t going to complain about methods.

Saturday’s G-Day was a far cry from bygone days when Vince Dooley tried to drum up interest by inviting celebrities like Lewis Grizzard and Ted Turner to coach the squads and call the plays. This was on an entirely different scale.

Fans came Saturday not only to show their support for Smart but to see what kind of team they might expect in the fall. It was hard to assess future success with a spring roster depleted of running backs and defensive linemen and a vanilla defensive scheme.

“I don’t think we necessarily put the best show on for them,” Smart said. “We had some sloppy ball at times, but they came to support us. It speaks volumes to where Georgia is headed and what Georgia can do.”

The biggest pre-game cheer came when still recovering tailback Nick Chubb was shown stretching on the video board. We’re talking about stretching, man.

The practice game lacked much enthusiasm until presumptive quarterback savior Jacob Eason started warming up in the second quarter. After a couple of short dumps to former Aquinas star Brendan Douglas, Eason prompted an eruption from the crowd when his first deep pass was completed to fellow freshman Riley Ridley for 35 yards. Later, the top QB prospect connected with fellow five-star recruit Isaac Nauta for a touchdown. He floated a perfect deep strike in the second half to Reggie Davis up the right sideline to set up another touchdown.

“I don’t think he knew there was 93,000 people there,” Smart said of Eason. “Because he sure didn’t have any care. He’s a very level-headed kid so for him do that was good.”

Nothing that took place Saturday would indicate that Eason was game-ready to jump Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey as Georgia’s starter for the season opener against North Carolina at the Georgia Dome. But he’s clearly the most gifted of the lot and a critical piece in Smart’s plan for immediate success.

Eason’s promise aside, perhaps the most encouraging thing Smart has said in his first months at the helm regarded his philosophy toward the kind of players he’d like to bring in the future beyond just wanted everyone to be bigger and stronger. The strong preference to pro-style pocket passers under Richt cost the Bulldogs chances with Georgia-grown quarterbacks who excelled in other programs such as Cam Newton, Nick Marshall and Deshaun Watson.

Having been challenged enough by each of those multi-threat stars while he was defensive coordinator at Alabama, Smart will be more aggressive in bringing that kind of versatility to Athens.

“I would love to have a pro-style system with a quarterback that can run,” Smart told a national scribe before spring practice even started.

Whatever the near future brings in the fall, the takeaway from Saturday is that this is Smart’s team now and Bulldog Nation is fully invested.

“As far as the team, we’ve got a lot of getting better to do,” Smart said. “As far as the program, thank you fans. For them to come out and honor these kids and believe in this program and buy in to what the entire organization is doing. From the time I issued the challenge at the basketball game, the marketing department and everybody was one team united. Let’s push this goal. Everybody pushed and we go what we needed.”

Michaux: Green Jacket will soften blow for Jordan Spieth

Thu, 04/14/2016 - 6:06pm

Food probably doesn’t taste as good. Sleep isn’t as restful. Waking moments are likely interrupted by a memory loop of the 12th hole.

Jordan Spieth understood what his immediate future would feel like before he ever left Augusta National. When you measure your career in major titles and historical milestones, the ones that get away are never easy to forget. The loser’s hangover is worse than any winner who goes on a celebratory bender.

“This one will hurt,” Spieth admitted. “It will take a while.”

Spieth will never forget what happened Sunday at Augusta National. He had a five-shot lead with nine to play and he was poised to become the youngest player to win three majors and tie Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros with a second green jacket before he’s even 23. That kind of opportunity doesn’t happen all the time – even for a kid who’s never known what it’s like to not hold a lead in the final pairing in three career Masters Sundays.

So the short term has to be painful. But the long term? Spieth will be fine.

Why so certain? Because he’s already got a green jacket hanging in his locker forever at Augusta.

“He won it last year, so I don’t feel too sorry for him,” Rory McIlroy said when he found out about Spieth’s Amen Corner demise.

McIlroy knows more than most about the value of such possessions. He suffered his own Masters meltdown on the same holes where Spieth spit this Masters away. McIlroy was only 21 in 2011 when he blew a three-shot lead at the turn with a gruesome run of triple-bogey-double on 10, 11 and 12 that left him bent over in anguish on the 13th tee.

The difference? McIlroy didn’t already have a green jacket of his own. Five years later, he still doesn’t. The Masters haunts him as the only jewel in the career slam that has eluded him. The scars reopen a little every year when McIlroy returns to Augusta.

He admitted as much when he left Sunday.

“I haven’t got the job done when I needed to and I don’t think that’s anything to do with my game, I think that’s more me mentally and I’m trying to deal with the pressure of it and the thrill of the achievement if it were to happen,” he said. “I think that’s the thing that’s really holding me back.

“Yeah, this is the one that I haven’t won and this is the one I want to win more than anything else. I won a claret jug; I want to win more. I won a Wanamaker (PGA trophy). I won the U.S. Open. But this is the one that I haven’t.”

There is something to be said for playing with house money. It still stings when you blow it, but they can’t take your nest egg away if it’s not on the table.

This is where Spieth’s collapse – however shocking it was to see – deviates from past Masters disasters like McIlroy, Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, Ed Sneed or Scott Hoch. Whether big or small in their stature and failure, none of them ever got a peek inside the Champions Locker Room. Their lost chances still haunt each of them in one way or another.

Davis Love III, a two-time Masters runner-up, can certainly attest. Seeing what happened to Spieth picks the scabs of his own career heartaches.

“Every time I see something like that I think back to the ’95 U.S. Open,” Love said Wednesday at Harbour Town. “I had a putt to win and then I had a putt to get in the playoff and then I made the putt to not be in the playoff. I’ll never forget. I bogeyed the last two holes and I could have won the U.S. Open. You never forget it. Just maybe you think you’re never going to have another chance. At 22 (Spieth is) going to have a lot more chances. I’m sure he’s looking at it differently. It doesn’t matter if he wins five Masters and five of every other major and breaks Jack’s record, he’s still going to look back and go, ‘I could have won that one.’ He’ll never get over it.”

I’m sure Jack Nicklaus looks back at one or two of his 19 career runner-ups in majors and thinks, “I could have won that one.” I’m sure Tiger Woods sees the names of Rich Beem, Michael Campbell, Trevor Immelman and Y.E. Yang on the trophies he’s held and thinks, “I should have beaten them.” I’m sure Arnold Palmer thinks back on his blown leads in 1959 and ’61 and believes, “I should have won four Masters in a row.”

Spieth will return next week at his home-state Texas Open and will share how his food tastes and if his sleep’s improving. In the meantime, his caddie, Michael Greller, gave a glimpse of the team mentality in a heartfelt Facebook post.

“The 2016 Masters stung. ... But don’t feel sorry or sad for us,” Greller wrote. “We won’t get stuck in this moment, nor should you. We will work harder, fight harder and be better for it. We will bounce back as we have done many times.”

What’s done is done. Spieth can’t get a mulligan at No. 12 or erase the unsightly quadruple bogey from the permanent record. But he can heed the lesson of one college basketball coach, who cited Psalm 30:5 after his team blew a commanding late lead and got eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

There will be other joys in Spieth’s career. One terrible, horrible, no good, very bad hole won’t stop that.

Spieth’s last words before he got into his car Sunday night and drove out Magnolia Lane on were fashioned in a little gallows humor.

“They just told me I can’t take my green jacket with me,” he reportedly said.

The good news is they can’t take his green jacket away. That record-setting 2015 triumph can offset a multitude of sins in the memory bank. In the long run, that will make all the difference as he moves on and leaves the 2016 Masters heartbreak in his rearview mirror.

10-year-old's journey to Augusta unique

Fri, 04/01/2016 - 9:17pm

Spring break was starting at Johnnycakes Corners Elementary School in Galena, Ohio, so the whole fourth grade was ready for a party.

Typically there isn’t a guest of honor for such occasions. Then again, typically one of the elementary school classmates isn’t heading off to compete at Augusta National Golf Club to produce a “What I did for spring break” project that trumps most fourth-grade presentations.

Mia Raines, 10, will be among the 80 finalists in Sunday’s Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National, so her school sent her off in style.

“They had a surprise party for her at school,” said Mia’s mom, Michelle. “She had friends come over and decorate her room with balloons and streamers and posters and today they had a big party for her at school with posters and handwritten cards from kids and teachers and all the fourth-grade classes. It was pretty special.”

Each of the kids who qualified for the third Drive, Chip and Putt final has his or her own unique story about reaching this destination. Mia Raines has come further than most to get here.

Born in the Jiangsu province of China, Mia was adopted when she was 13 months old by Nolan and Michelle Raines. Even though she’s the youngest, Mia is the second of three girls the Raines adopted. Leila, 14, was adopted first, from Moscow. Kara, 17, joined the family at age 11 from China.

All three girls have taken up golf and improved to the point where their parents no longer play with them. When Mia was asked about her dream foursome that would include Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Michelle Wie, it comes with an addendum – “but can my sisters play with us, too?”

When the Raines fell in “love at first sight” with a 7-month old Mia upon the adoption referral, there was no second thought about the infant girl’s two heart defects, including having a hole in it.

“We were told she might have to have open heart surgery and we wouldn’t know until we got her back here in the U.S. to see doctors,” her mother said. “But she’s never had any problems. We’ve been really blessed and we go see her cardiologist on a regular basis and it’s proved to be no problem. If you see our daughter she’s got the energy of 10 kids.”

Mia started playing golf when she was 3 and her father would take the girls to the driving range on the weekend. She started competing when she was 6 with a personal-best nine-hole score of 35.

Her career goal? “I want to be a professional golfer or basketball player who also rescues animals,” she said.

Raines will have one significant handicap to overcome when she gets to Augusta – it will be the first time all year that’s she’s played on actual grass. Living in Ohio, the offseason is literally that for six months, confining Raines to practicing in the family’s basement hitting into a net and putting on a 13-foot artificial practice green. Once a week she works with her coach at the local driving range, hitting balls off a mat out of a heated bay.

“She’s been practicing hard, but it has not included real grass,” her mom said. “It’s challenging because they compete against girls from much warmer climates. On the other hand, having a clear offseason helps them so they don’t get burned out.”

A year ago, Mia barely missed out on making it to Augusta when she was 9, finishing runner-up in the regional finals. She watched the 2015 finals on television, rooting for fellow Ohioan Alexandra Swayne, who competes regularly with her sister Leila in the 14-15 age division.

“It made me want it more,” Mia said.

She would not be denied in her regional return at Oakmont, winning by 11 points overall while beating the field in chipping.

“I might have been a little nervous but I was more confident in how I’ve improved my skills over the year,” she said.

Leila, who led her Berkshire Middle School boys team to a 16-0 season, made it as far as the subregional and will try one last time next year to make it to Augusta. Kara, who has already verbally committed to play golf at Youngstown State, is too old to participate in the Drive, Chip and Putt.

But the whole family is excited about coming to Augusta and experiencing the Masters. Nolan Raines attended a Masters before Mia was born, but the rest of the family has never been to Augusta.

“I’m excited to be there because I get to compete with the best of the best,” Mia said. “It’s just a beautiful course to see and I think it’s just a great experience.”

“Leila loves Golf Channel and watches the app on her phone or on TV all the time,” their mother said. “She’s my diehard golf junkie 24/7 and appreciates the significance of the Masters. Kara is excited to go, too. I’m a photographer and am very visual, so to be able to see that gorgeous course and walk it and see all the players has me really excited.”

Once her competition is over, Mia wants to follow her favorites during Monday’s practice round – particularly Jason Day, who lives not far from their Galena home. During last year’s PGA Championship when Day outdueled Spieth in a final pairing of Mia’s two favorites (her lucky hat has autographs from both on it), the whole family cheered so loudly from their basement that “I think the neighbors heard.”

“Day lives close by but he’s also a great golfer and a good dad,” Mia said. “I really like Jordan Spieth, too. He’s a great golfer and a good big brother.”

Now it’s Mia’s turn to have people cheering for her. If things go well, Johnnycakes Corners might have to throw another party to welcome Raines back from spring break.

“She has quite the little fan club here in Galena, Ohio,” her mother said.

Michaux: Nature Trail Golf could find its place

Tue, 03/29/2016 - 8:01pm

GROVETOWN — Bill Boswell, an Augusta golf course architect, has been toying with the concept of a scaled-down version of golf for years and he may have hit upon the perfect rendition of it.

Granted, Boswell didn’t invent the idea of miniaturized golf. Everything from executive courses to par-3s to Putt-Putt have capitalized on the theme for a long time. Augusta National’s short course was built in 1958, and the famous Par 3 Contest began in 1960. Cayman golf, which employed reduced-flight balls on a small course on Grand Cayman Island, was designed to appeal to beginners.

What Boswell has done, however, is create a prototype course on an equestrian property in Grovetown for what he calls “nature trail golf,” and it may be an easily replicated, low-budget, low-maintenance, low-key answer to attracting new and old golfers to the game.

“I learned how to play golf in my backyard playing around the house and through the flowerbeds, designing courses as I went,” Boswell said. “My joy was in finding different holes, and that’s how I got into golf course design. A lot of people who’ve come out and seen this say the same thing – that’s how they learned the game playing through the neighborhood.”

Boswell has pretty legitimate golf design bona fides. He graduated from Clemson with a degree in architecture with extensive electives in turf management. He worked with Robert Trent Jones in Europe for eight years, helping build courses like Valderrama in Spain. He’s worked with Mike Hurdzan in Ohio and Willard Byrd in Atlanta, doing original designs and renovations. He eventually came back home to Augusta and now works out of his house doing course renovation work including North Augusta Golf Club before it closed.

But the idea of creating a scaled-down version of the game he loves has been a long-time side interest. The only thing holding him back was the golf ball.

“The problem was finding a decent ball to use,” Boswell said. “Cayman balls were always lopsided and you couldn’t putt with it. Dave Pelz came out with the “Almostgolf” ball that goes a third of the distance with good balance and a true roll. I thought, ‘this would work.’”

So Boswell started tinkering with the idea. Before TrueNorth Church in North Augusta built its permanent home, Boswell asked if he could borrow the site in a pasture off Exit 1 for three months to experiment. He mowed a fairway with his push mower and shaped a green and started hitting the reduced-flight balls around.

“I found right off the bat that the light ball sits up well on any type of grass,” he said. “I was picturing a miniature golf course with little bunkers and good conditions. What I found was you didn’t need those perfect conditions. You just needed natural obstacles like weeds and flowers and bushes and that gave enough interest to it.”

Before long he created four greens and nine holes on the temporary site and invited the mayor of North Augusta and the superintendent at Augusta Country Club and other friends to try it out.

“Everybody in golf I took out to play it loved it and thought it had a lot of potential,” Boswell said.

So he kept working on the concept. He studied disc golf and attended a couple of tournaments for the popular low-cost “Frisbee” pastime. He even tried using clubs and balls on a disc golf course,

“What I found there was you were always punching under limbs and stuff,” he said. “But it was the same kind of scale.”

Three years ago, Boswell went to a garage sale in Grovetown and spotted a site across Wrightboro Road. He called the Canterbury Equestrian Center pretending to want to board a horse and struck up a conversation with the owners about the fenced-in 50 acres adjacent to it that was undulating and relatively open with scattered trees.

The owners were intrigued enough to give him four months leading up to the 2014 Masters to give it a try. With a John Deere and a push reel mower he started carving holes through the brush.

“The owner saw and thought it was great and said to do whatever I want and they’ll help,” Boswell said.

Two years later, Boswell has 11 greens and 12 holes – ranging from 120 to 555 feet – criss-crossing the picturesque site he calls the Canterbury Golf and Equine Trail. The actual golf footprint is five acres and requires only six hours of maintenance a week in the growing season to keep the fairways and greens trimmed. It utilizes natural elements like fallen trees and marshy low spots to enhance the challenge.

“This has turned into ‘Nature Trail Golf’ because you’re playing through nature and don’t need the expense of a regular golf course,” Boswell said. “Having a bigger site allows you to meander around and have a true nature trail.”

The rules are simple. Players only need three clubs (4- and 8-iron plus a wedge) and use the Almostgolf balls. The holes are a foot in diameter but each hole has a 6-foot “gimme circle” around it. A threesome can play nine holes in about 45 minutes.

“You can take kids out and nobody is intimidated,” Boswell said. “It’s a good way to introduce people to the game or back to the game who gave it up for whatever reason.”

Boswell invited officials from Georgia’s state parks and recreation to have a look and they left impressed by the possibilities for future development, with the state parks director telling him “This could work.”

“What scared him was the word golf because state’s golf courses don’t make money,” Boswell said. “This was low maintenance and something they could do.”

For now, Boswell uses word-of-mouth for an experience he doesn’t even charge a fee to play. There is a Facebook page for “Nature Trail Golf” that includes YouTube drone footage of his course to promote the concept. All you have to do is contact Boswell to take you out there since it’s private property. More than 200 enthusiasts have joined him so far, including a small outing that generated more than $3,000 in donations for a local group that helps people with special needs.

“My dream goal would be for it to become popular in parks and recreation a lot like disc golf,” Boswell said. “That would be ideal.”

Pages