Back in the day, before women’s basketball was deemed worthy enough for the NCAA to even associate with it, the game was dominated by schools like Immaculata, Delta State, West Chester and Old Dominion.
Then came Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols and the big time. That might not be the order the history reads on the sport’s official timeline, but make no mistake that Summitt forever changed women’s intercollegiate athletics by being the biggest name in it.
Summitt died Tuesday at the too-young age of 64, five years after announcing to the world that she suffered from early-onset dementia. She leaves behind a legacy of personal decency and professional dominance unmatched in basketball. The winningest basketball coach in history – with 1,098 victories, eight national titles and Olympic medals as both a player and a coach – set the leadership bar for both women and men to aspire.
“I’ve been a fan of hers and the way she so passionately and profoundly led our game,” said Dawn Staley, who went up against Summitt as a player at Virginia and a head coach at South Carolina. “I can’t think of anyone whose footsteps I would want to follow other than hers. She has passed the torch to all who coach; it’s now our turn to make her proud.”
Pat Head (she didn’t become Summitt until she married in 1980) took over the Lady Vols in 1974 when she was only 22. She played for Tennessee-Martin before Title IX came along and women didn’t receive scholarships. She was a good enough player to qualify for the first women’s Olympic team along with pioneering female stars like Nancy Lieberman, and they won a silver medal in 1976.
The very next time the U.S. women participated in the Olympics, in 1984, Summitt led them to a gold medal as head coach.
Somewhere along the way, Summitt and Tennessee became the standard for women’s basketball not only in terms of wins but enthusiasm. The Lady Vols were steadily drawing more and more fans to their games as respect for the sport grew.
Back in 1986, it was Tennessee that owned the single-game attendance record with more than 10,000. As a writer for the student newspaper at Virginia, we were asked to promote a free giveaway of tickets and hot dogs to try to break the record when the undefeated Lady Cavaliers faced rival North Carolina. A crowd of 11,174 showed up to fill the rafters of the 9,000-seat University Hall – a situation that prompted the fire marshal to later reduce the accepted capacity to 8,392.
Tennessee responded to their attendance title being taken away by shattering the record the next season with 24,563 watching the Lady Vols beat Texas. They’ve since upped the on-campus record to 25,653 in 2006 against ultimate rival Connecticut.
When Virginia revived Hot Dog Night 23 years later to establish a new school record in its new arena in 2009, it naturally invited Summitt and Tennessee to attend.
It was Summitt and her program’s sustained excellence that made women’s basketball a must-see event in certain pockets of the nation. The Lady Vols have averaged more than 10,000 fans per game every season since 1996. Only in the last two years has their program’s rabid enthusiasm been topped in the Southeastern Conference by South Carolina, which drew an average of 14,364 to Colonial Life Arena last season.
Of course, the Gamecocks could reach the Lady Vols’ record 16,565 average attendance following Summitt’s only undefeated run to a third consecutive NCAA title in 1997-98.
By the time the NCAA Women’s Tournament first began in 1982, Summitt and the Lady Vols had established themselves as the measure for women’s college basketball. Tennessee had finished runner-up in the last two Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournaments in 1980-81 and reached the very first NCAA women’s Final Four. They reached the finals in 1984 and Summitt collected her first NCAA title in 1987.
Staley came along as a player in the late 1980s when Summitt was just reaching her peak as a coach. Staley’s Virginia team dealt Summitt her most heart-breaking loss, upsetting the top-seeded Lady Vols in overtime in the East Regional final and preventing Summitt from getting to coach a Final Four on her home court at Thompson–Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.
Summitt exacted her revenge the next year on Staley’s team, which led the nation in wins, by beating Virginia in overtime in the 1991 NCAA championship game.
In 1996, Tennessee trounced Georgia and Summitt’s Hall of Fame rival Andy Landers in the national title game, a defeat that so stung the Bulldogs’ coach that he and Summitt didn’t speak for more than a year. That marked Georgia’s last appearance in the Final Four while Summitt and the Lady Vols remained relative fixtures and claimed four more NCAA titles after that showdown.
Sadly, Summitt’s reign ended way too early – she retired after the 2012 season at age 60. Her cruel illness not only robbed her of her memories but didn’t allow her to exit the game on her own terms.
“She left us way too young,” said Landers, who retired in 2015 with 862 wins – but only 15 in 58 tries against Summitt.
Had she been allowed, Summitt could have won hundreds more games and eventually retired with a winning total so obscene that no basketball coach – not Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (1,043 wins), Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (980) nor UConn’s unparalleled Geno Auriemma (955) – could ever catch.
Summitt’s record will inevitably be passed one day, but never her place as the game’s most influential coach when women’s sports needed an icon to lead them into the prime time.
There’s only one Summitt in women’s basketball. As long as it’s played, coaches will always be aspiring to reach it.
One way or another, Friday will be about history for Reese Hoffa.
Either he will qualify for a record-tying fourth Olympics in shot put at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Ore., or his competitive career will be finished.
“If I make the team, I’ll continue to throw,” said the 38-year-old Hoffa, the 2012 bronze medalist in London who starred at Lakeside High and Georgia. “If I do not make the team, I will pretty much retire immediately after the trials.”
The two-time world champion has been a consistent figure among the shot put elite since qualifying for his first Olympics in 2004, held at the stadium where the original Games were conducted in Olympia, Greece. Hoffa has finished among the top five in the U.S. outdoor championships for nine consecutive years. He won back-to-back U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008 and 2012, adding the Games in Beijing and London to his accomplishments.
In London, he finally earned a place on the medal podium, taking the bronze with a throw of 21.23 meters. Unfortunately for Hoffa, his medal was stolen in 2014 out of his truck parked near the Georgia Dome when he stopped on the way home from a fund-raiser in Alabama to attend a Falcons game on Monday Night Football.
“The medal has not been returned,” Hoffa said. “It was hard to have it taken, but it does not take away from the accomplishment.”
Friday could provide Hoffa with one last chance to earn more Olympic hardware in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Finishing among the top three in the trials would let him join Hall of Fame American shot putter Parry O’Brien, who competed in four consecutive Olympics from 1952-64 – winning two golds and a silver.
“I’ve been on three teams and each time I’ve been so honored to represent the U.S.A. and try to master one of the hardest events in the world to master,” Hoffa said. “If I make this team it kind of puts me in rarefied air in terms of being a four-time Olympian. Especially in the shot put. The athletes who can make it four times are incredible. So for me it would be awesome.”
This time, however, the odds are stacked against Hoffa.
His longest throw of 2016 – 20.83 meters (68.34 feet) in May at the Tucson Invitational – ranks 16th among throwers worldwide, behind six Americans all in the top 10. That’s more than 5 feet shorter than his career best in 2007 and well shy of the 22.00 meters he threw to win the last Olympic trials in 2012.
“My days are numbered,” Hoffa said in 2014 when he won his last event in the same ring where this week’s trials will be staged. Hoffa had to adjust his technique two years ago after injuring his knee in the Kansas Relays.
But he’s not ruling himself out against a deep field of veterans, like long-time practice partner and former Olympic teammate Adam Nelson, and younger stars like 27-year-old reigning world champion Joe Kovacs.
“I’m going to the Olympic trials trying to be a little bit dangerous,” Hoffa said. “I’m the dangerous guy with nothing to lose. I’ve already been there, done that and everyone else is trying to make their first or second team. My goal is to make it as difficult on those guys as I possibly can. If I make it difficult enough, I’ll make the team.
“I give myself about a 50-percent chance. It could go either way. If I show up and do what I need to do, I think my chances are good. But it’s going to be really tough, needless to say. There are a lot of really talented athletes. If on that day I throw what I need to throw to make team, I’m there. If not, I know the team that’s going to be (in Rio) is going to be really, really good.”
Whatever happens, Hoffa has already established the direction of his future. Two years ago he started the Hoffa Throws Academy in Watkinsville, Ga., to help the next generation of shot putters learn his craft.
“It’s been fun and I feel like I’m still learning a lot,” he said about coaching the middle and high school kids that come to his academy. “There’s a difference between being an athlete competing and being a coach trying to teach others to compete. It’s been a very unique challenge.”
Hoffa hopes he can put off fully committing to teaching others until after the Rio Games in August. But whatever happens on Friday, he’s come to terms with it.
“I need to just walk away and consider myself very happy,” he said.
Rory McIlroy withdrew Wednesday. Jason Day (currently uncommitted) is expected to follow suit. At least six major winners have already said they won’t compete when golf returns to the Olympics.
There’ll be no golfing version of the Dream Team in the Olympic Games. With only three weeks to go before the 60-player fields are set based on world rankings, the list of male defectors may grow, with Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Danny Willett among the prominent players expressing some concern about traveling to Brazil as the deadline approaches.
It’s certainly reasonable that players are taking into account their health and safety regarding the Zika virus and other issues that have plagued the host nation in the run-up to Rio’s Olympics in August.
It’s also reasonable to question the health of golf’s future in the Olympics after a 112-year hiatus. When your sport is the only one with its most prominent players refusing to go, it doesn’t make the best first impression on the people who decide whether golf will remain an Olympic sport beyond 2020.
Golfers, of course, are not the only athletes expressing worries about competing in Rio. Tennis superstars Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, basketball’s Pau Gasol and soccer’s Hope Solo all have said the Zika outbreak had given them pause, but each has recently said they plan to compete anyway.
The only American athlete, so far, to withdraw himself from consideration for the Games citing Zika concerns is cyclist Tejay van Garderen.
But golf is leading the way – by far – in terms of early defectors. McIlroy (world No. 4), Adam Scott (8), Louis Oosthuizen (14), Charl Schwartzel (23), Marc Leishman (37), Graeme McDowell (73) and three-time major winner Vijay Singh have all officially said they would not play. That’s 12 percent of the potential field declining consideration.
Even though nearly a third of the 40-man U.S. rowing team that competed in Rio’s polluted waters got sick during a test event last summer, you don’t see the best rowers turning down spots on the Olympic team. Wrestlers, swimmers, runners, jumpers, gymnasts and volleyballers aren’t backing out.
This speaks to a problem that led many players to question whether golf should be included in the Olympics in the first place. When an Olympic medal isn’t the pinnacle achievement in your sport – as it is for many of the events that only get showcased every four years – does it really belong on the Olympic stage?
Golf has four annual majors that are used as the ultimate method of judging its greats. Can you possibly equate Dustin Johnson’s victory last week against all of the world’s best players on a daunting U.S. Open course with whomever wins gold in what is a diluted version of a World Golf Championship event against only a couple handfuls of elite golfers?
The answer is no. An Olympic gold medal will be a cool trinket in some golfer’s trophy case, but it will never compare to a green jacket or claret jug.
The International Golf Federation, which successfully spearheaded the campaign to get golf back into the Olympics in 2009, promised the International Olympic Committee that all of the game’s best players were fully on board.
The Zika virus and Rio’s myriad other flaws, however, aren’t the only mitigating factors that have derailed those promises. With seven years to prepare to make a big splash, golf did little to make itself more appealing.
The format (72-hole stroke play against a weaker-than-average short field) is unimaginative and provides no nationalistic sense of team. The players are really just playing for themselves, as they do every week but without the financial reward.
Then there is the scheduling component, with the Olympics wedged into an already overcrowded summer schedule that includes three majors, a WGC, the PGA Tour’s playoffs and a Ryder Cup in a condensed 17-week window. The PGA Tour was unwilling to bench any event for a year to make comfortable room for the Olympics. The burnout stretch of U.S. Open, British Open and PGA in only seven weeks is enough reason alone for the top contenders to seek a break.
It all conspired to create a perfect storm for breeding disinterest from the top golfers.
Maybe it will be different four years from now when the 2020 Olympics are held in Tokyo. Maybe the top stars will have a better appreciation for what they missed. Maybe the tours will build more cushion into the schedule. Maybe they’ll adopt a more compelling format to differentiate the Olympics from the status quo. Hopefully there won’t be a global health emergency.
An optimist would point out that tennis wasn’t universally embraced when it returned as a medal sport in the 1988 Olympics without eight of the world’s top-10 players, but most of the best players show up now.
But it’s hard to be optimistic about golf’s future in the Olympics when the only conversation about it has been whether anyone really wants to participate.
OAKMONT, Pa. — You can probably guess the conversation that transpired when USGA officials took Dustin Johnson in to watch high-resolution close-ups of the time he never grounded his club at address or touched the ball that moved ever so slightly on the fifth green in the final round of U.S. Open.
“We think there’s enough weight of evidence – even though nobody in the world can actually see it – that you did something to cause this ball to move,” Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and competitions, might have said. “Do you have magnets in your putter head that magically pull balls backwards?”
Johnson’s likely response: “Whatever? I won.”
Johnson didn’t need to put up much of a fight. He knows he did nothing wrong, but he let his clubs do the talking in creating a four-shot gap that the USGA was powerless to spoil.
USGA executive director Mike Davis needs to send DJ a birthday card today and more every Christmas thanking him for saving everyone’s skins by making their governing foolishness moot.
A check of the final 116th U.S. Open scorecard:
BIRDIE: Dustin Johnson. Not only did he beat everybody on the course and tame Oakmont, he handled all the unnecessary noise with a grace and maturity that he’s normally not associated with.
BOGEY*: USGA. Rules officials made utter fools of themselves in the way they handled and then weakly assessed a penalty to Johnson despite a fair adjudication by the on-site official and Johnson’s playing partner. Apologizing for “distraction” doesn’t cover this black eye.
BIRDIE: Shane Lowry. “Bitterly disappointed” with his 76 that lost a four-shout lead, he served notice that he’ll likely be a more prominent fixture on the big stages.
BOGEY: Lee Westwood. Another chance melted away with a Sunday 80 he declined to comment about, but he did later quip that he’s halfway to the single-season “played-final-round-with-the-major-winner grand slam.”
BIRDIE: Jim Furyk. Despite his recent long injury layoff, the 46-year-old rallied to stake early clubhouse lead and earn a second runner-up finish at Oakmont.
BOGEY: Danny Willett. After missing short par-save putts late Saturday on 7 and 8, the fuming champion smashed the putter he won the Masters with repeatedly on the concrete wall and deck as he walked across the turnpike bridge. “We’ll have to get it refurbed, and then I won’t be using it again,” he said.
PAR: Kevin Kisner. Credit the Aiken pro for making the cut then hanging in there Saturday when he countered two bogeys, two doubles and a triple with six birdies and an eagle.
BIRDIE: Sergio Garcia. A major title still eludes him, but the Spaniard threatened again and even tended to a wounded bird after holing out of a bunker for birdie late Sunday. One of these days maybe it will go his way.
BOGEY: Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler. Sad showing for the only top-50 players to miss the cut in the Masters, Players and U.S. Open this year. Mickelson is aging out on his career slam hopes and Fowler has posted six miserable first-round major starts since his top-5 slam in 2014.
BIRDIE: Jason Day. Credit the world No. 1 for making a run after a dreadful start. At least one of the Big Three was relevant.
BOGEY: Rory McIlroy. Poised to recover from a 77, McIlroy came back to complete his second round Saturday morning and folded. He left the course without comment after his closing double bogey. Tiger Woods would get torched for doing something like that.
BOGEY: Jordan Spieth. Defending champion just hung right underneath the surface all week and never challenged.
BOGEY: Henrik Stenson. After an opening 69, the Swede didn’t even bother to return to finish his suspended second round when it was apparent he was going to miss the cut. Poor form.
BIRDIE: Andrew Landry. During a rookie season aptly described in the official player guide as “has struggled,” the former Palmetto Amateur champion flirted with a first-round 63 and stuck around to earn a spot in the final Sunday pairing.
BOGEY: Patrick Reed. Despite coming in with good form, former Augusta State star missed the cut.
BIRDIE: Chase Parker. Forget Sunday, the Augusta resident played a superlative 36 holes Saturday to not only make the cut in his major debut but beat the Masters champ in the third round.
PAR: Bryson DeChambeau. Once again, the next big thing climbed atop a major leaderboard only to have an acute sideways encounter derail his hopes. But his T15 still bodes well for the future.
BIRDIE: Jon Rahm. Low amateur (T23) is going to soon be a major force on tour. Big, strong and ready for his close-up.
BIRDIE: Twitter. Social media stream provided the perfect venting forum for the top players to vent their frustrations at the USGA and support Dustin Johnson during the drawn-out ruling process. It’s better than the interview room.
PAR: Johnny Miller. The 1973 Oakmont champ survived an all-out assault on his defining 63 as Landry, Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka threatened to tie or even beat the standard of major excellence. Don’t expect Oakmont to be so easy in 2025.
BIRDIE: Arnie and Jack. Watching from his home at nearby Latrobe Country Club, Arnold Palmer’s absentee presence was palpable. But Jack Nicklaus, who vanquished Arnie in 1962 playoff at Oakmont, showed up to greet DJ at 18. Never gets old.
BOGEY: Fox. There were some dramatic staffing improvements from the Chambers Bay debut (granted the bar was low), some of the graphics are cool and the limited commercial aspects at the end were welcome, but they still have too many voices and much room to improve.
BIRDIE: Oakmont grounds crew. Despite monsoon rains that drowned the perfectly conditioned course and washed out bunker on Thursday, they got it back in shape to play the next morning.
BIRDIE: Shinnecock. Already going back in 2018 to the place where the course was pushed to silly extremes in 2004. The Long Island “links” will also get the 2026 U.S. Open. Talk about long-range planning.
BOGEY: Diana Murphy. USGA president seemed a little off in her trophy ceremony speech. In her defense, her organization’s handling of things could have driven anyone off the rails.
*ONE-SHOT PENALTY: USGA. Upon further review, we need to add another stroke for sticking by their silly ruling despite “weight of evidence” and overwhelming opinion against them.
Only Dustin Johnson could finally end his long-suffering major championship history on America’s meanest golf course in the middle of a Twitter riot with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head.
Despite the United States Golf Association’s best efforts to clutter up the game’s most uncluttered mind with the unnecessary threat of a retroactive penalty, Johnson buried any uncertainty and his tortured past with a decisive three-shot* victory in the 116th U.S. Open at Oakmont.
(* – The USGA isn’t fooling anybody; we all know it was really four shots.)
On the toughest hole on the golf course, Johnson dismissed his demons and any doubts with a dart of a 6-iron from 190 yards to 5 feet for an exclamation-point birdie. For old times’ sake he could have three-putted from there like he did last year at Chambers Bay and accepted a penalty like he did from the PGA of America at Whistling Straits and still had his name engraved on the trophy.
The only thing that could have stopped DJ was pulling a Roberto de Vicenzo with his scorecard. It would have fit the Dustin Johnson brand that he carried with him at all previous major championships, but that story doesn’t suit him any more. Golf’s most athletically gifted player finally fulfilled what has always been meant to be his destiny provided he could get out of his own way.
“After last year, to come back this year and perform like this, you know, I think it shows what kind of golfer I am,” he said.
Sunday’s triumph doesn’t erase Johnson’s past major transgressions, but it ends the misery generated by the annual rehashing of them. The meltdown at Pebble Beach, bunker-gate at Whistling Straits, the OB stumble at Royal St. George’s and the three-putt on the cauliflower greens at Chambers Bay are all just footnotes now that he’s broken through the glass ceiling. With talent like his, there are few limits to his potential to collect many more.
“It couldn’t be any better,” he said. “I think it’s well deserved. After everything that I’ve been through in the majors – I’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times – to finally get that major win, it’s huge. It gives me a lot more confidence going into every major to know that I can win. It’s a big monkey off my back for sure. I feel a lot lighter.”
En route to his rally from four shots behind Shane Lowry at the start of the round, Johnson had to endure the latest case in a long list of buffoonery from the USGA. Cleared by the on-site rules official when his ball moved slightly toward his putter as he was getting ready to address it on the fifth green, Johnson was informed by another official on the 12th tee that he might face a one-stroke penalty after a post-round review.
The impending threat basically hijacked the final hours of the U.S. Open. The game’s top players staged a social media rebellion against the “amateurs” running the national championship. There was no mincing of words on Twitter or confusion as to who was the villain and who was the sympathetic figure.
“This is ridiculous... No penalty whatsoever for DJ,” said Rory McIlroy. “Let the guy play without this crap in his head. Amateur hour from @USGA.”
“Lemme get this straight,” said Jordan Spieth. “DJ doesn’t address it. It’s ruled that he didn’t cause it to move. Now you tell him he may have? Now? This a joke?”
“Laughable!” said Rickie Fowler.
“@USGA treatment of @DJohnsonPGA absolutely shocking,” chimed in Ernie Els.
After Johnson was indeed assessed what the masses agree was a bogus penalty stroke after his round, the crowd around the 18th green erupted in boos when it was brought up during the trophy presentation. Johnson didn’t seem to care that the governing body that failed to restrain him from hitting drivers that carry 329 yards in the air would look like fools over a ball that wobbled a millimeter on absurdly fast greens despite him never touching or soling his putter behind the ball.
Johnson didn’t need to put up much of a fight in the clubhouse. He rendered it all moot by his impervious performance and handled it better than most golfers probably would have, shrugging it off in his usual manner then taking care of what he could control while everyone with a chance to benefit from his misfortune faltered all around him.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to be penalized,” he said. “So I just went about my business – just focused on the drive on 12 and from there on out, that we’d deal with when we got done. It doesn’t matter now. I’m glad it didn’t matter because that would have been bad. But, you know, it worked out.”
Amidst his own dejection for letting his four-shot lead slip, Lowry tipped his hat to Johnson for not letting the situation get to him.
“It didn’t affect the way I played,” Lowry said. “If anything, I credit Dustin for playing the way he played on the way in, having that hanging over him, because I probably would have wanted to know straightaway if it was me.”
When history reflects on the 116th U.S. Open, the egg all over the USGA’s face won’t matter as much as the name etched permanently onto its trophy and the scene of him celebrating Father’s Day with his 18-month-old son, Tatum, in his arms a year after hugging the infant as consolation.
For all his faults, Dustin Johnson deserves to be counted among the major winners. Of course there had to be more adversity along the way. It only makes the outcome that much sweeter.
“Just one more thing to add to the list, right?” he said of the weirdness he’s endured. “It definitely makes it sweet. It’s nothing new at this point. It’s happened so many times you kind of expect it now. To not have it effect the outcome is fantastic. It shows how well I played.”
OAKMONT, Pa. — The middle of the longest day in Chase Parker’s young career was summed up by his father’s best Nick Faldo impression.
“It’s a bit of a blur, guv,” Charlie Parker said.
After a stop-and-start first round that took two days to complete, the 25-year-old Parker played 36 holes on Saturday – a 12-hour marathon that finished 15 minutes after sunset with Parker draining the final putt of the day to save par in near darkness.
But there were no complaints from the Parker clan. They were all giddy to still be at Oakmont watching the former Westside golfer competing alongside the reigning Masters champion in the U.S. Open.
“Today was just unreal,” said Kay Parker, Chase’s mother. “We couldn’t believe he even made the cut. It’s just wonderful. We’re just so proud of him. So proud of him.”
Making the cut was the day’s top priority with Parker beginning his second round already 5-over par with the cut line projected to be 6-over. The margin for error was slim.
“The first 18 was just a huge grind,” Parker said. “I was working so hard trying to stay in it and trying to make the cut. I really emotionally spent myself on that first 18.”
A bogey on the 6th hole – his 15th of the day – had him pushing the projected cut limit with the three hardest holes on the golf course to play. But he gutted a par out on No. 7 and hit a 57-yard bunker shot to 8 inches to save par on the long par-3 8th.
“That was definitely the shot of the day for me,” he said.
A perfect drive and approach to 20 feet on the difficult 9th left him two putts from an even-par 70. But when his downhill putt trickled 5 feet past, the nerves were obvious. Parker’s hands were shaking when he handed his brother, Davis, the ball after marking and asked, “Do I need this?”
“I said the cut was 6 (over), but yes we need this,” said Davis, his hands shaking even more.
Parker was the last player in the field to make the cut, and he couldn’t finish his post-round interview before his mother ran up and started hugging and kissing him.
“Is this your mom?” he was asked.
“This is,” he said. “She’s a little happy.”
The whole family was. Davis, who is three years younger, had already swallowed a crown on his front tooth (which was originally broken off by his older brother with a tennis racquet when he was 7), but he was all smiles after they made the weekend.
“He made (the par putt) and I’ve never been so excited,” Davis said. “I’ve won golf tournaments before and I was more excited for this.”
The day only got better when Parker found out he was going out for the third round with reigning Masters champion Danny Willett. By the time the day was done in the gloaming, Parker had beaten Willett by a stroke with a third-round 72.
“It was cool,” Parker said. “You always know if you make the cut you’re probably going to play with some big name. I didn’t feel any added pressure playing with him. We both shot the same thing the first two rounds and we were right where we’re supposed to be.”
Parker seemed calm and collected despite the fatigue of playing Oakmont from 9:12 a.m. to 9:05 p.m. He putted the perilous greens beautifully all day, draining a 25-footer for birdie on the 18th.
The only short putts he missed were birdie chances from 5 and 8 feet on Nos. 4 and 5 after his threesome was put on the clock and they were racing to complete the round before play was suspended by darkness.
“We weren’t taking as much time on the putts,” he said. “Get in that situation you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Tied for 46th at 7-over in the biggest event he’s ever competed in, Parker has settled into the experience. The blurring has stopped.
“It’s not bothering me any more like the first day,” he said. “You get used to it. I don’t even know what place I’m in but there’s nothing to lose at this point. I’d love to shoot an under-par round out here. That would mean a lot to me.”
OAKMONT, Pa. — Any U.S. Open championship is designed to be the most grueling and miserable experience in major golf. Few people understand that better than Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia.
Despite its reputation as the most notoriously vicious course in America, a rain-softened Oakmont might just put one of the aforementioned veterans out of their major misery this weekend.
The three greatest current players never to have avoided vomiting upon themselves in the clutch at a major spent Friday huddled on the leaderboard in red figures. While the modern Big Three – Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy – was busy shooting a combined 14-over par, the Bit-spitting Trio played themselves into painfully familiar position.
With all three residing in red figures among the top four, perhaps it’s finally time for one of them to bury his tortured history and be initiated into the fraternity they’ve belonged in for far too long. One of them might even shave the beard they’re each hiding behind this week.
With a combined 80 worldwide wins among them and 49 top-10s in majors, it’s hard to distinguish which one of them has suffered the most on the most defining stages. You could make a case that any one of them is the best reigning player without a major win, citing Westwood’s longevity, Garcia’s consistency and Johnson’s superior athletic gifts.
While a shrugging Johnson might not ever display any outward signs of frustration, he’s certainly had the most gruesome major derailments of the threesome. There was the Sunday meltdown at Pebble Beach, the bunker gaffe at Whistling Straits, the brain-lapsing shove out-of-bounds at Royal St. George’s and last year’s agonizing three-putt on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay.
Westwood has suffered mostly from proximity. Nine times in the last nine years the former world No. 1 finished second or third, spanning all four of the majors. He missed putts to make playoffs at Torrey Pines and Turnberry, got overtaken by Phil Mickelson at Augusta and Muirfield and couldn’t capitalize at the end in April at the Masters.
Then there’s Garcia, whose destiny has had the rug pulled out from under him so many times by guys named Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington and McIlroy that he’s often lost faith. The effervescent El Niño, who skipped to the first of four major runner-ups in the 1999 PGA at age 19, has evolved into a sometimes bitter 36-year-old.
“I’m not good enough ... I don’t have the thing I need to have,” Garcia said in 2012 after stumbling at the Masters. “In 13 years I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”
Yet for all their past failures, here they are again knocking at the door. And each of them seems as confident as ever.
Johnson has seven top-five finishes already this season, including a career-best T4 at the Masters. He was on cruise control much of Friday, hitting 25 consecutive greens in regulation in a stretch of 27 bogey-free holes, settling into a share of the lead at 4-under despite failing to birdie any of the par 5s.
“I felt like I played really good all day,” Johnson said. “I just need to stick to what I’m doing. ... If I keep driving it like I am, I’ll be tough.”
Garcia collected his ninth PGA Tour win – tying Seve Ballesteros for the most by a Spaniard – in his last start at the Byron Nelson. He shook off two early bogeys at Oakmont to scramble his way to 2-under par through 36 holes – draining a 51-foot bomb to save par on his last hole in the gloaming.
“Every time you win, it gives you extra confidence,” he said. “I felt last week I had a couple of days where I couldn’t really practice that great and this week didn’t start great, but I’ve settled down a bit and hitting the ball well, and hopefully it will be similar to Byron Nelson.”
Westwood, the 43-year-old graybeard of the group, has rebounded from a nightmarish season involving a divorce to regain his top-50 stride in only eight starts in 2016. He finished his first round in the morning with a couple of birdies to sit at 3-under 67 heading into a long Saturday.
“I’m probably a little bit fresher than most people,” he said. “(The Masters) gave me a big boost, a big shot of confidence. I haven’t contended in a big tournament for a while. So it was nice to get up there and hang about and give myself a chance. ... It was nice to feel those emotions again.”
With a day to dry out in the sun, Oakmont should return to form and start showing its teeth on the weekend. With any luck, one of the tortured trio will show his own toothy smile as a major winner at long last.
OAKMONT, Pa. – Former Augusta State golfer Derek Chang is making his major golf debut on Thursday at the U.S. Open, playing in the final morning grouping with Watkinsville, Ga., amateur Kyle Mueller and Ohio financial planner Richie Schembechler.
“It sounds cliche but it’s a dream come true – surreal,” Chang said. “At the same time, I’m weirdly comfortable for some reason.”
After sharing medalist honors in the Houston sectional qualifier, Chang arrived at Oakmont on Saturday and was anything but comfortable at first blush.
“Saturday I was planning on playing nine (holes) but the greens were so fast I was rattled and I just putted for two-and-a-half hours trying to figure out the speed,” Chang said.
While Oakmont’s notorious greens have actually sped up since Saturday, Chang believes he’s ready for the challenge of what’s considered the hardest golf course in America. The Alpharetta, Ga., native played two seasons at Augusta State after transferring from Minnesota. His redshirt season coincided with the Jaguars’ second national title in 2011, so he spent a year practicing at Forest Hills under former coach Josh Gregory.
Chang spent his 2015 professional season on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, but the grind of traveling while trying to hone his game proved counter-productive to his development.
“I spent a lot of time and energy going down there last year and kind of dug myself in a hole and was not in a good place mentally,” he said of a season with only one made cut to show for it. “I learned a lot but really struggled.”
This year he decided to stay closer to his home in Dallas, working with Gregory on his game performance while playing the Adams Golf mini tour and attempting to Monday qualify into PGA and Web.com Tour events.
Getting through local and sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open is his first shot at the big leagues. He’s not setting a target number this week and will take it as it comes.
“I’m confident that if I take care of my game and play well for me it holds up pretty well out here,” Chang said.
OAKMONT, Pa. — The obligatory “grand slam” questions await every reigning Masters Tournament champion when he shows up to the U.S. Open venue. Jordan Spieth’s 2015 run only intensified the glare this week on Danny Willett.
The surprise Masters winner comes to Oakmont trying to replicate the major combo Spieth pulled off last year. All he has to do this week is beat a field that includes every one of the top 50 players in the world on arguably the hardest golf course in the world.
“Sounds easy, huh?” said the 28-year-old Englishman. “I guess it is one of them things, you know. You have got to keep breaking it down. You can’t look at it as a whole. It is quite funny, because, yeah, running up to this week, you are the only guy that can do it in the same year.
“It’s just nice that we have got that chance. What comes of that, you know, you don’t really know. But yeah, we’re going to try to get prepped, and like I said before, hopefully come Sunday we’re somewhere there or thereabouts to give you that little bit of a feeling that, yeah, this is actually possible.”
There’s not enough evidence to suggest that Willett even belongs in any slam conversation. His career résumé doesn’t measure up with the only other players who have won the first two legs since the idea of the modern professional grand slam took root – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Spieth. He’s never even played a U.S. Open on a traditional punitive venue shrouded in dense rough like Oakmont – having competed only the past two years on unconventional setups at Pinehurst and Chambers Bay.
Forget the historical context, Willett is still getting used to his present status of being mentioned in the company of current standard bearers Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Spieth. That he’ll play the first two rounds at Oakmont with far more recognizable players McIlroy and Rickie Fowler is a step up that requires acclimation.
“It’s nice to be in and around it, to kind of feel more comfortable in and around playing with them guys and being in that environment,” he said. “This is a position you want to be in. You want to be playing in majors with Rory, Rickie, Jordan, Jason and playing against them. It’s going to happen a lot more from now for the rest of my career. So it’s something we’re going to have to get used to.”
Now that he has a major title of his own, does Willett feel like an equal to his Ryder Cup compatriot McIlroy?
“No. What Rory’s done in the game is pretty massive,” Willett said. “I think he’s helped the younger generation within European golf strive for a little bit more. Just as Tiger did for worldwide golf, I think Rory’s done similar for the young lads on the European Tour to really put their foot down and try to get up there and try and chase him down and try and achieve a little bit of what he’s been able to do. It’s certainly helped me.”
Even with a green jacket in his closet and the global prestige that came with winning the Masters, Willett might have broken into the top-10 (No. 9) but he hasn’t cracked the top tier of golfing favorites. Oddsmakers in his home country only list him as a 40-to-1 chance this week, behind 11 other favorites including five players who’ve never won a major championship.
Willett’s not complaining.
“I still feel like it’s quite nice because you have got Jordan, Jason, and Rory obviously playing such good golf, and Rickie as well,” he said. “Yeah, you do get under the radar a little bit more, which is quite nice.”
In the two months since capitalizing on Spieth’s meltdown at Augusta National, Willett has gotten much of the celebrating behind him with an extended break and shaken the rust off his game. He tied for third in his last start in the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth. Despite banking his first major, history shows that the second step is rarely any easier except for a chosen few.
“Obviously, yeah, it’s nice that you’ve already got one,” Willett said, “but because you’ve already got one, you want another one and another one and another one. I think you put the pressure on yourself inside anyway.”
Friday’s memorial service honoring Muhammad Ali was a remarkable gathering as only the most significant athlete of any century could inspire.
From the slow funeral procession through the streets of Louisville, Ky., that drew throngs of everyday people to see or touch the hearse bearing him home to the long celebrity-laced service at the basketball arena, Ali drew people of all walks together.
A man who at one time was such a polarizing figure became the ultimate unifier at the end. Muslims, Christians, Jews and Buddhists; Republicans and Democrats; black, white and native Americans – they were all represented during a string of eulogies honoring The Greatest.
Among the thousands of words from politicians, clerics, celebrities, family and friends, one line stood out to me. It came from comedian and longtime friend Billy Crystal, whom Ali always called “little brother.”
“You had to live in his time,” Crystal said.
There has never been an athlete more suited to his time than Ali. And those of us who lived through even a part of it were blessed by his place in it – even if there were times you might not agree with what he stood for.
Born in 1964 – at the start of Ali’s bloom – the former Olympic gold medalist in Rome had already won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, joined the Nation of Islam and shed his “slave name,” Cassius Clay, by then.
Still too young to remember his conscientious objection to fighting in Vietnam, his comeback fight from exile in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry or his “Fight of the Century” loss to Joe Frazier, Ali came into clear focus for me at arguably the peak era of American sports.
There has perhaps never been a more significant year in sports history than 1973. The Dolphins completed their perfect season at the Super Bowl. Billy Jean King won the “Battle of the Sexes.” Secretariat set the summer ablaze with the Triple Crown. Johnny Miller shot 63 in the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont. O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,000 yards.
That same year, Ali had his jaw broken by Ken Norton in the spring and came back in the fall to win the rematch. He was setting the stage for the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila to come.
Even with everything else going on in sports, Ali was mesmerizing. Without the benefit of a 24-hour channel devoted exclusively to sports, be still dominated any medium he was in whether it was in press conferences, talk shows, variety shows or anywhere else he might show up.
In a world that had the bar set for iconic brashness by Babe Ruth and Walter Hagen, Ali took it to another plane. Even with contemporaries like Joe Namath and Jimmy Conners, the Louisville Lip was in a league of his own. His lyrical playfulness, menacing competitiveness and headstrong social consciousness kept the public dancing around like he did in the ring. We’d never seen anything like him. Whether you loved him or hated him, you couldn’t take your eyes off of Ali.
The best part of living in his time was the experience of collective wonder. Sports hadn’t yet saturated every hour on countless networks. Whether it was live or a network re-broadcast, you saw it happen along with everyone else and you got your analysis from the newspapers. Ali fights were can’t-miss parts of the annual athletic rhythm right up through the difficult-to-watch end.
In the wake of Ali’s death, we could see the clips of all his greatest hits. The soundbites are priceless, but so too were the words of the scribes like David Kindred, Dave Anderson and Robert Lipsyte who were blessed to cover Ali in his prime.
The world was far from perfect in Ali’s time, but in so many ways it was better than today.
Ali’s flame burned quickly. Parkinson’s disease robbed us of his brilliance for most of the second half of his life. But despite his health, his legend and his relevance endured. He went from being reviled by many in the turbulent 60’s to being beloved.
When a shaking Ali appeared out of the night atop the stage at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and took the flame from Janet Evans, it was greatest moment in the history of the opening ceremonies. Anyone who claims they didn’t choke up seeing the greatest athlete of the century trembling as he held aloft the torch is probably lying. Who didn’t hold their breath as he struggled to get the apparatus lit for it’s final trip to the cauldron? Who doesn’t recall how the flame haltingly made its way up the wire, as if mirroring Ali himself.
In many ways, that was Ali’s biggest triumph, appearing before the whole world for essentially his final bow. Whatever Bill Payne has accomplished in his career as the chief of the Atlanta Olympics and the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, orchestrating that enduring moment was his greatest gift to sports world.
We’re always losing irreplaceable pieces of our past, but this year has been particularly tough on our sense of mortality. We’ve lost iconic artists like David Bowie, Prince and Merle Haggard. We’ve lost household treasures like Morley Safer and Nancy Reagan. We lost a legend in Gordie Howe – Mr. Hockey - this week and watched another great, Arnold Palmer, unable to take his swing on the first tee at the Masters.
Now we’ve lost The Greatest. Ali, for all his imperfections, was the perfect champion for his time. As the world still suffers from so many of the same afflictions he stood up to unflinchingly in his prime, it’s hard to swallow that he might have been the last of his kind.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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’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.”
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.