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Ryder Cup is hard to beat for intensity

Tue, 09/30/2014 - 6:48pm

The Ryder Cup never disappoints.

Whether the United States blows a lead, gets blown out or (on rare occasions) wins against the Europeans, the Ryder Cup packs more drama, passion and suspense into three days than a season full of major championships.

It is, without question, the greatest second-guessing spectacle in sports. The Monday-morning captaining is one of the best traditions on the biennial golf calendar. Everyone is fairly certain they could have done a better job leading the losing team than the captain who just failed.

In this year’s case, everyone may be right.

Tom Watson is one of the greatest golfers of all time, one of the toughest competitors and arguably the most popular American to ever hit the links in Scotland. But at age 64, he turned out to be the wrong guy to lead this U.S. team at Gleneagles.

One look at the disconnect between Watson and his players at the always excruciating mass-losers press conference made that crystal clear. Phil Mickelson was wielding the microphone like a hammer in pointing out all the things his captain did wrong, and there wasn’t anybody exactly stepping up to defend Watson.

We can debate the appropriateness of the forum for Mickelson’s criticism, but there’s no denying the merit. The Americans lost for the eighth time in 10 Ryder Cups and looked more disjointed than ever before – including the Hal Sutton fiasco at Oakland Hills when the Phil and Tiger Woods partnership looked about as comfortable as Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart would together on Dancing With the Stars.

So here’s a special armchair edition of Birdies and lots of Bogeys:

TRIPLE BOGEY: Tom Watson. Starting with allowing Webb Simpson to text plead his way onto the team, through his nonsensical sitting of his hottest duo on Friday afternoon, to his unceremonious benching of his 4-1 career tandem of Mickelson-Keegan Bradley all day Saturday to his questioning his players’ fitness on Sunday, Captain America called more wrong shots than Jean Van de Velde on the 18th at Carnoustie.

BIRDIE: Patrick Reed. The former Augusta State star more than lived up to his “top five” proclamation on this stage, going 3-0-1 for the best American record of the week. His prickly personality is perfect for this format, as he showed with his fearless “Shhh!” to the crowds who heckled him during his singles victory over Henrik Stenson. Expect him to become a fixture under the Europeans’ collective skins for years to come.

BOGEY: Phil Mickelson. As right as he might have been answering a very specific question in the gloomy aftermath of another loss, it wasn’t the right place to do it. Plus, Mickelson’s 16-19-6 career match record can’t all be blamed on captains. If he did, as reported, ask to go back out Friday afternoon, some of the cascading fallout is on him as well.

BIRDIE: Justin Rose. If his 3-0-2 record wasn’t impressive enough, the 10 consecutive birdies he and Stenson made on Saturday morning to rally from 2 down to beat Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar was astonishing. Going back to his last few clinching holes at Medinah, Rose made 30-footers look like gimmes.

BOGEY: Bubba Watson. There may have been no beating Rose on Saturday morning, but Watson was a non-factor in his morning four-ball on Friday and his singles blowout loss Sunday. The Masters champion never saw the 17th or 18th holes all week and earned zero points.

BIRDIE: Rory McIlroy. Carrying the No. 1 ranking is burdensome, and McIlroy failed to win a full point until Saturday afternoon. But his quick 5&4 beatdown of Rickie Fowler in the third match Sunday was masterful and delivered the message that Europe would not fold.

BOGEY: Webb Simpson. He talked his way onto the team and then played so poorly in the opening match with Bubba Watson that he was benched until Sunday. A wasted captain’s pick with Chris Kirk and Bill Horschel idle at home.

BIRDIE: Graeme McDowell. All he did was go 3-0 and nurture the mercurial Victor Dubuisson. But it was the way he almost casually rallied from 3 down early to beat Jordan Spieth in the lead-off singles match that crushed American comeback hopes.

BIRDIE: Victor Dubuisson. The French rookie proved to be such an unflinching partner with McDowell that he was sent out as a backstop in the anchor match Sunday.

BOGEY: Ian Poulter. Other than his chip-in on 15 that helped rally for a halve with McIlroy on Saturday morning, Mr. Ryder Cup was Mr. Ordinary going 0-2-1. Goes to show you can’t just show up in any old form and be spectacular.

BIRDIE: Rookies. Experience, experience, blah, blah, blah. Rookies bring an energy to the proceedings that should be embraced more. Spieth (except for his Sunday retreat) and Reed were brilliant, Jimmy Walker was consistently steady, Dubuisson was a stud and Jamie Donaldson was superb. Only nervous Scotsman Stephen Gallacher struggled – though in fairness he didn’t get the nicest of draws.

BIRDIE: Jamie Donaldson. The 38-year-old Welshman deserves an extra shout out for the Cup clinching shot to a foot that was conceded. He stepped on Bradley’s throat and never let up.

BOGEY: Ted Bishop. His bold play picking Watson as captain backfired as did his over-the-top presentations such as the televised captain’s pick abomination. Keep it simple.

BOGEY: Golf Channel. Some of us woke up at 2:30 a.m. Friday to watch golf and saw more commercials instead. Shame.

BIRDIE: Paul McGinley. The European captain proved how you handle a team doesn’t require a major title or glittering resume. It requires preparation, common sense, understanding and leadership. It’s really very simple. It also helps if your team plays like Rory and Rose.

BOGEY: Centenary Course. Even in dazzling Scottish sunshine at a world-class resort like Gleneagles, a forgettable American-style layout can only do so much. Money talks, unfortunately, so we’ll never see another Ryder Cup on a great links course. Pity.

BIRDIE: Paul Azinger. Players like Jason Dufner, Billy Horschel and Mickelson are lobbying for the 2008 skipper to take the reins again in 2016. Not a bad idea.

DOUBLE BOGEY: Nick Faldo. Bad enough he lost the only Ryder Cup this century as European captain, he chose Friday afternoon for his TV tower to call Sergio Garcia “useless” in 2008 matches. The players seem to think the term applied better to the captain.

Michaux: With Hutson Mason in a funk, Todd Gurley comes to rescue for Georgia

Sat, 09/27/2014 - 8:50pm

ATHENS, Ga. — As one-dimensional offenses go, you can do a lot worse than Todd Gurley.

With a passing game that was – oh, how can this be put diplomatically? – ineffective, Georgia was in grave danger of losing to Tennessee between the hedges and all but ending any hopes of competing for a division title in the Southeastern Conference.

Clinging to a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter with a defense everybody knows could break at any moment, Georgia’s offensive coaching wizards did what all of the 92,746 people in attendance figured they should have been doing all along.

They handed the ball to Gurley.

Then they handed it to him again. And again. And 10 more times in the final 11 minutes. All Gurley did with it was rush for 129 of his career-high 208 yards, break one of them 51 yards for a touchdown, hurdle a poor safety who thought he could dive at his knees and single-handedly run out the final 2:14 including the game-ending fourth-and-3 conversion.

Problem solved. Georgia beats Tennessee 35-32.

“We came out and got like three straight three-and-outs and everybody was like, ‘We’ve got to run the ball. We’ve got to run the ball,’” Gurley said of the second-half lull. “I told coach what plays I wanted that I felt would work for me and we ran them and it started to get us going.

“Nothing matters right now but we’ve just got to get this victory. And I want to ball, so give me the ball. My line is going to poke a hole and I’m going to make it happen.”

Somebody certainly needed to, because it wasn’t going to come from quarterback Hutson Mason on this Saturday. Mason was (again, being diplomatic) not so good. He threw his first two interceptions of the season. He completed four passes for 25 yards in the second half. He was the person Tennessee was daring to beat them and he couldn’t.

So even with the Volunteers putting most able bodies along the front to stop one guy, Georgia had to give it to him.

“Every team’s going to load the box,” Gurley said matter-of-factly. “They’d be stupid not to, you know, with the running backs and the line we have. If they don’t then we’re just going to have a field day. But we’re going to get that right though – the passing game.”

Until it’s right – until Georgia gets back receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley to help stretch the field and offer some semblance of a credible passing threat – it’s good to have Gurley.

Is the 226-pound junior happy to have it all on his shoulders?

“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “A lot of guys depend on me to get the thing rolling. I depend on the line to get it rolling. I just come to those guys and they’re like, ‘I got you,’ and I’m not going to disappoint ’em.”

Gurley packed yet another Heisman candidacy highlight reel into the last 11 minutes.

The 51-yard touchdown burst right through the middle of the Volunteer defense was one thing. The full-speed sideline hurdle of Brian Randolph on a 26-yard run the next possession was something else.

“He jumped over that guy right in front of my face,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt. “That was pretty impressive to see right there in front of you. You just shake your head.”

“I was on the field and I was looking right at him,” said receiver Chris Conley. “It kind of froze me. ... It was one of those special moments. He’s a special player and he makes plays like that.”

“He makes everything easy,” said freshman backup Nick Chubb. “When you need a big play, he makes it.”

“It just seems like something new every week he seems to wow people with,” said Mason. “Not shocking.”

What went through Gurley’s mind before he made like Edwin Moses?

“It just happened,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to go out of bounds. You know, everybody is going to try to hit me low. I was thinking about just trying to turn it back inside the field, but this instant just told me to hurdle.”

All of that stuff was both critical and fun to watch, but it was the last possession that proves Gurley’s value and resolve. The Bulldogs recovered an on-sides kick after Tennessee scored again and cut the lead to three. Georgia needed two first downs to finish it off.

“I knew fatigue was setting in and then it becomes a heart thing. How deep can you dig?” Richt said. “I knew Todd was getting tired but he was digging deep.”

On that last possession, Gurley carried five consecutive times for 17 yards, which left them 3 yards shy of that second first down with 40 seconds still left.

So on fourth-and-3 at the Tennessee 26, what do you do? Not even Mike Bobo was going to try to call a roll-out pass or something this time.

“Everybody in the whole world knew we were going to give the ball to Todd,” said Mason. “So stop it if you can.”

“If it was anybody that was going to mess up the game or cost the game, I wanted it to be me,” Gurley said. “I didn’t want it to be nobody else. I knew I got it, I knew I got it before the play.”

That’s right. Gurley knew he got the first down BEFORE the play.

Final tally was 28 carries for 208 yards – his first 200-yard game since high school.

“I feel like I’m in the Big Ten or something,” Gurley said with a smile.

Richt was smiling, too.

“That might have been his most impressive game, just from a gut check and a guy making plays when we absolutely had to have them,” the coach said.

Gurley could use a little more help from the passing game, but he understands that his one-dimensional talent is what will define this team and this season.

“When you keep running on a team, they might be stopping you but they’re getting tired deep down inside,” Gurley said. “You just want to break their will and keep fighting. ... You just have to keep pounding it and sooner or later you’re going to get that one big one.”

This is a strategy that has worked so far – at least when properly applied (see first-and-goal at South Carolina). The Bulldogs are 4-1 and still chasing big goals.

“Without that run game I don’t know where we’d be right now as far as wins or losses,” admitted Mason. “Those guys have definitely carried our team.”

But for how long and how far? Plan A is really, really, really good, but Georgia needs to find a Plan B soon.

Michaux: Reed gets taste of Ryder Cup pressure early

Thu, 09/25/2014 - 5:21pm

Welcome to the Ryder Cup, Patrick Reed. For your opening act, go try to cut the heart out of the European team.

By the time most Americans wake up Friday morning, the former Augusta State star will have already made his Ryder Cup debut with fellow rookie Jordan Spieth against European stalwart Ian Poulter and Scotland’s own Stephen Gallacher.

It’s a great show of faith by American captain Tom Watson in the two youngest players on his team.

“I told them today, I’m going to throw you in the ocean without a life preserver,” Watson said after the four best-ball pairings were announced Thursday. “You’re on your own. You get out there and you get it done. They’re all in.”

Reed is thrilled not to have to wait any longer to get started – even if the intense atmosphere on the first tee feels “almost like all the oxygen got sucked out.”

“I can’t wait to get out there and I couldn’t have a better teammate,” Reed said of the player he beat in a playoff in Greensboro last fall to earn his first career victory. “I’ve played a lot of golf with (Spieth), not only as a professional golfer, but junior and amateur golf. I think it’s a comforting factor for us and I think we’ll go out there and kill it.”

That killer confidence is unusual for a pair of uninitiated Ryder Cuppers. It’s not often that two rookies get thrown into the fire in the first session of the most pressure-packed event in golf. But it’s not an altogether foreign tactic.

In 2010 in Wales, Corey Pavin sent first-timers Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton out against European veterans Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald. The inexperienced Yanks won the match 3 and 2.

Watson hopes to get the same out of his young duo.

“I really wanted to see what they’ve got,” Watson said.

Watson is drawing on some old memories in sending out his young stars in such a pivotal match. He remembers talking to Byron Nelson about his rookie Ryder Cup experience in the 1937 matches at Southport & Ainsdale in England.

When the opening pairings were announced that Nelson and Ed Dudley would play the heavyweight English tandem of Henry Cotton and Alf Padgham, the headlines in the morning papers said “The lambs are thrown to the wolves.” After Nelson and Dudley won 4 and 2 to help trigger an American landslide, the follow-up headlines shouted “Lambs beat wolves.”

Watson hoped Reed and Spieth taking out Poulter and Gallacher could have the same effect on his underdog squad. Poulter has won seven consecutive Ryder Cup matches dating back to Wales in 2010 and is a European-best 12-3 all-time in the biennial showcase.

“They have a job to do and these kids are tough kids – both of them,” Watson said of Reed and Spieth. “Ian’s had a wonderful Ryder Cup career and it’ll give you a boost. These players aren’t dumb. They know Ian has that great reputation in the Ryder Cup and if they beat him it’s more power to them.”

The rookies are excited for the challenge.

“I don’t think you could have picked out two people that we want to play against more,” Spieth said. “I mean, get out there against Ian, obviously, with his Ryder Cup history and fire. I feel like our job is to win a point. We can do that with those two guys. We’re going to really lower their team morale, I feel like. I think our match is very important in the morning.”

It seemed inevitable that Reed and Poulter would match up at some point on this stage. Reed has often been called America’s answer to Poulter after Reed declared himself a “top five player” after winning the WGC event at Doral in March wearing Tiger Woods’ traditional red-and-black Sunday outfit. It was the kind of brash statement that people connect to Poulter, who after saying it would one day “be just me and Tiger” when he reached his full potential was dubbed “No. 2” by the world No. 1 Woods.

Now they meet on a stage best suited to their characters. Reed – who went 6-0 in match play leading Augusta State to consecutive NCAA championships in 2010-11 – isn’t likely to be intimidated by Poulter or the partisan crowds. After all, he did take out Oklahoma State star Peter Uihlein on the Cowboys’ home course.

“You look at Patrick Reed, when he gets it going he thinks he can beat the world,” Watson said. “I like that attitude in a player. That’s a good attitude to have.”

That’s a confidence shared by Spieth, who is no stranger to the international team spotlight having played in last year’s Presidents Cup. He twice played in the Junior Ryder Cup, including once at Gleneagles.

“There is a bravado to this duo that is very impressive,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said.

Watson plans to get every one of his 12 players on the course on Friday, and the best-ball seemed the better format to insert all three of his rookies. That meant sitting some of his best veterans – Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson and Hunter Mahan – until the afternoon.

“Playing somebody who hasn’t played in the Ryder Cup before, you like to get them to play all 18 holes and play their own ball and get them out that way,” Watson said. “That’s the reason I put the two rookies out there together.”

Traditionally, Augusta State players haven’t been accorded so much respect on the Ryder Cup stage. Reed is the third former Augusta State golfer to compete in the Ryder Cup since 2006, but the first to get thrown into the cauldron on opening day.

In 2006 at the K Club in Ireland, Vaughn Taylor sat the first three team sessions for Tom Lehman’s U.S. squad before finally getting out late Friday afternoon with partner Chad Campbell and earning half a point against European titans Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood.

In 2008 at Valhalla, Oliver Wilson was benched both sessions on Friday by European captain Nick Faldo. But Wilson went out Saturday morning with Henrik Stenson and took down the American power team of Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim, 2 and 1.

Both Taylor and Wilson ended up losing their Sunday singles matches in losing efforts for their respective teams.

Reed, however, expects to deliver more for his team. He’s proved himself capable in high pressure 18-hole sprints in college as well as Monday qualifiers on the PGA Tour.

“I’ll pull from the Monday qualifiers, but I’m mainly just going to pull from the match play I’ve played,” Reed said. “NCAAs, I was 6-0 in match play throughout my career. I played a lot of things in college, because at Augusta State, half the team was international and half the team was U.S., so we played multiple times a year in a Ryder Cup kind of a format and events like that. So those are just the kind of things I feel like are going to help me this week.”

Michaux: Loss to Florida State was latest example of 'Clemsoning'

Tue, 09/23/2014 - 7:50pm

I’ve never been one to wait in line overnight for the latest smart phone. Binge-watching is my preferred method for catching up with the “it” TV shows everyone else is talking about.

But when it comes to generating new sports terminology by altering other words, call me first generation. I was on the ground floor of “Tiger-proofing” in 1997 the day after the Masters Tournament. I have long understood the subtle differences between “Normanesque” and “Vandeveldian.”

So it comes with a small dose of shame to miss the boat on the gerund that was trending Saturday night – “Clemsoning.” Especially since it was obvious all along what it means and has meant since the Tommy Bowden days.

The term “Clemsoning” has been featured in the popular Urban Dictionary since Nov. 21, 2011, but its roots go back further. The first definition was codified as the Tigers were in the midst of losing three of the last four games that 2011 football season after starting 8-0 and reaching No. 6 in the polls.

It is the only definition someone who goes by the handle “solidverbal” ever drafted:

“The act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of a college football season.”

In fairness, the art of the intensely disappointing outcome is hardly unique to Clemson. This term could easily have been called “Georgia-fication” or “Richting,” as the South Carolina result two weeks ago illustrated. My alma mater, Virginia, is steeped in the tradition going way back, but the Cavaliers have never been prominent enough for anyone to notice. Virginia Tech is pretty good at it as well, as they showed the past two weeks by backing up an uplifting road victory at Ohio State with consecutive home losses to East Carolina and Georgia Tech.

But it’s Clemson that has seemingly perfected the craft in the most painful ways. Saturday night’s heart-breaking 23-17 overtime loss at Florida State was a prime example of delivering disappointment practically against all reason. The No. 1 Seminoles tried everything in their power to hand the Tigers a defining victory that Clemson repeatedly refused to accept.

“Every indicator we have that says we’re supposed to win we hit – and we lost,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said during his Tuesday news conference. “It’s a hard thing to walk into the office and deal with.”

You didn’t have to bleed Clemson orange to find the Florida State game hard to stomach. The Seminoles were without suspended Heisman Trophy quarterback Jameis Winston – who still commanded more airtime on ABC reacting to every twist and turn of a game he wasn’t a part of than the guys playing. His backup, Sean Maguire, was not much of a threat most of the night, even handing Clemson a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions.

Yet even with karma on their side, the Tigers failed to capitalize all night. Driving into the red zone seven times, they failed to score on four of those trips starting with the second possession that stalled at the Seminoles 6 resulting in a 23-yard field goal miss.

Late in the third quarter tied at 10, quarterback DeShaun Watson hit Stanton Seckinger for what was originally ruled a 20-yard touchdown before replays deemed him down just inside the 1. No problem, right? Except on second down with the nose of the football inches from the goal line, the shotgun snap sailed over Watson’s head and the Tigers recovered back at the 24. Another missed field goal ensued.

No worries. Maguire threw an interception on the next possession and four plays later Watson converted a first-and-goal at the 2 for a 17-10 lead with less than 12 minutes remaining.

No way it doesn’t work out this time. Clemson sacked Maguire to forced a second-and-24 only to let him hit an open receiver deep for a 74-yard tying touchdown the next play.

Then with 2:14 left, Maguire set Clemson up certainly for the last time. The Tigers intercepted and returned to the Seminoles 26. Just run a little clock and kick the winning field goal. Only C.J. Davidson fumbled at the 14, and the look on Maguire’s face as you could lip-read him saying “We got it back!” was priceless.

“THAT. THAT right there ... Was #Clemsoning,” tweeted @AuburnChopper, proving even the SEC crowd knows about it.

In overtime, Clemson made one last gaffe, failing to convert fourth down and 1 foot with a slow developing rush from the shotgun. Florida State punched in a touchdown in two plays on its possession and the Clemsoning was complete.

“Fourth and a foot – that’s on me,” Swinney said after the game. “Didn’t come here to play patsy.”

Some idiot “fanatics” sent death threats to center Ryan Norton through social media, which is not only ignorant but misguided. It wasn’t Norton who decided to utilize shotgun when only inches were needed because the coaches hadn’t prepared Watson enough under center.

And it was the coaches who took until four possessions into Saturday’s game to realize what everybody else knew after one series three weeks earlier in Athens – that Watson was the best quarterback option. Perhaps he could have made a difference at the start.

This is classic Clemsoning. Like the year before when the No. 3 Tigers hosted the No. 5 Seminoles in front of frothing faithful in Death Valley only to fumble the first snap and suffer a 51-14 defeat.

Or in the 2011 season, when Clemson sandwiched its first ACC championship in 20 years between demoralizing defeats to South Carolina and West Virginia – the latter 70-33 in the Orange Bowl.

Or when Clemsoning finally became an official thing after taking root in all those unfulfilled Bowden seasons.

The Tigers might yet run the table, end a five-game losing streak to South Carolina, reach another Orange Bowl and finish 11-2. That’s a reasonable possibility and a laudable goal.

Even so, 2014 will still be defined by what might-have-been without another moment of Clemsoning.

Michaux: 'Other' vote was big, too

Sat, 09/20/2014 - 7:24pm

Today’s column is brought to you by Scotland: Scotland, putting the single malt in the UK for 307 years – and counting.

The homeland of golf is currently basking as the center of the civilized universe – a role it hasn’t played much since the days of the Reformation.

Eighty-five percent of its citizens turned out at the polls Thursday to cast their vote on whether or not to remain part of the United Kingdom or strike out as its own independent nation. That 56 percent opted to maintain the status quo isn’t the most impressive element of the balloting. The voter turnout beat every election in United States history, where we get impressed when the engagement hits 57 percent.

But independence wasn’t the only significant vote in Scotland on Thursday, and not everyone chose to stick with almost three centuries of the status quo.

The global membership of The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews voted on whether or not to finally admit women members to their ranks. After 260 years of rules explicitly barring females, 85 percent of the cast ballots voted to welcome women members.

“This vote has immediate effect and I can confirm that The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews is now a mixed membership club,” said Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A and secretary of the club.

Coming two years after Augusta National admitted its first female members, the Royal & Ancient move into the 21st century is an enormously symbolic gesture. Despite breaking off its rules-making element into the separate R&A in 2003 after the Martha Burk firestorm at Augusta brought the debate about female membership in leadership clubs to the forefront, there was global confusion about a how a governing entity would exclude half of the world’s population from full status among its home club.

Thursday’s vote sends a clear message of inclusion that the game is ready to welcome all comers regardless of gender.

So good on Scotland and the R&A for choosing unity instead of exclusion. What better way to celebrate the results of both ballots than a week-long golf exhibition fondly known as the Ryder Cup.

In 1921, a team of Americans took on Great Britain in matches at Gleneagles, the British side winning 9-3. Those matches eventually turned into the Ryder Cup in 1927. Amazingly, this year marks only the second time in the 87-year history of the biennial matches that it’s staged in Scotland. The only other time was 1973 at Muirfield.

Jackie Burke’s 1973 American team won the Ryder Cup 19-13, but the team Tom Watson takes to the Jack Nicklaus-designed Centenary Course is considered a decisive underdog.

A top-heavy European squad led by No. 1 Rory McIlroy, No. 3 Sergio Garcia, No. 4 Henrik Stenson and No. 6 Justin Rose is considered a prohibitive favorite to win the Ryder Cup for the eighth time in the past 10 installments.

Considering the American side is without sidelined stars Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner as well as the two hottest-playing PGA Tour pros Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk, the theme that this isn’t the best possible U.S. team is an easy narrative to present.

Which is precisely why I believe the United States will win for the first time since 2008.

Forget the fact that the Americans actually have a slightly higher average world ranking (16.4-19.75), more top-20 players (8-6) and an even wider average accumulation of world-ranking points this year (209.84 to 179.33).

Many of the European players have been sleep-walking into the fall. Martin Kaymer has done almost nothing since winning the Players and U.S. Open this summer. Thomas Bjorn, Victor Dubuisson and Jamie Donaldson are underwhelming. Scotland’s own Stephen Gallacher struggled to break 80 in Wales this week and has the pressure of representing his nation as a rookie on home soil.

Formidable Northern Ireland partners McIlroy and Graeme McDowell are in a legal cat fight.

And much of the perceived European edge is based solely on reputation. Lee Westwood – who is playing his ninth consecutive Ryder Cup – has had his worst season since 2002, but his year has been twice as good as fellow captain’s pick Ian Poulter.

The flashy and intense Englishman may have been the heartbeat of the European team in his previous three Ryder Cups, but his results on tour in 2014 rank comparably in between Americans Jason Kokrak and Shawn Stefani. Yes, that Kokrak and Stefani.

Frankly, Colin Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer had better seasons and would have been more threatening combo of reputation and form.

Westwood said this week in Wales that Europe can’t rely on Poulter to bail them out again as he did two years ago at Medinah.

“I think it’s a lot to ask of him to do the same as he did last time,” Westwood said. “He turned the whole momentum of the Ryder Cup around on that Saturday night so let’s not put too much pressure on him with that, but certainly he seems to be able to raise his game for a Ryder Cup.”

The Americans may not have all the best names and look weaker to the eyeball test, but they have more depth, more gifted rookies, more motivation and less pressure.

So we may not be able to take away their freedom, but we can take away their Ryder Cup.

Jameis Winston's absence for a half could prove to be costly

Thu, 09/18/2014 - 5:02pm

This is awkward.

The most important game of the Atlantic Coast Conference season – the most important game of almost every ACC season – takes place Saturday night in Tallahassee, Fla. It will start without the conference’s most prominent and marketable player.

Jameis Winston – Florida State’s career unbeaten Heisman Trophy winner – was suspended for the first half of Saturday’s prime-time showdown against Clemson for standing in the middle of campus and screaming a vulgar refrain.

Considering his track record with escaping prosecution for sexual assault allegations a year ago, Winston’s choice to shout this particular obscene Internet meme is as shocking as it is ignorant. Go ahead and do the Google search if you want the particulars. It’s not hidden.

And so Winston – who managed to get himself suspended for three games from the Seminoles baseball team for stealing crab legs from a grocery store – has once again made a mess of things away from the field. How long is Florida State going to tolerate his selfish and foolish behavior?

A year ago – before news of his potential rape charge had come to light – Winston was a growing legend when he showed up in Death Valley and dismantled the Tigers in arguably the most hyped game in Clemson history. Memorial Stadium was literally shaking through kickoff until the Seminoles quickly silenced and stilled the home crowd.

Winston threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns in a 51-14 rout. Clemson players were offended before the game by a tweet from the freshman QB showing a picture of Death Valley with the words “Our house,” but they didn’t do anything to disprove his point.

Saturday they hope to go to the Seminoles’ house and make Winston pay for his lack of decorum, but Winston will be fashionably late. In his place for the first half will be 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore Sean Maguire, of New Jersey, who has completed 16 of 26 passes in brief mop-up duties.

Clemson says a half-Winston doesn’t change anything. The Vegas oddsmakers tend to agree, only dropping the favored Seminoles’ point spread from 201/2 to 17 points after the announcement.

“We’re not playing Jameis Winston, we’re playing Florida State,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “If we try to beat one player, we’re in for a long night. We’ve got to win as a team and we’ve got to defeat their team. It’s more than just one guy.”

Truth is, Winston’s partial absence could change everything – and it could be devastatingly costly for the ACC. The conference’s reputation in big postseason games was in shambles until Winston and the Seminoles ended the Southeastern Conference run with a dramatic comeback victory over Auburn in the last BCS Championship game.

Now with the dawning of a playoff era, No. 1 Florida State is the best – perhaps only – chance of the ACC being represented in the four-team field this year. Those 30 minutes could cost every conference program, including Clemson, millions of dollars. If the Tigers win, they’d be in the driver’s seat for a conference championship, but an opening blowout loss to Georgia may not look so good on the final playoff resume.

Having the most pivotal conference rivalry game so early in the season is always a danger, and with Winston out for half of it the stakes got higher.

“We’re going to play them whenever they say play them,” Swinney said of the timing. “That’s just the way it is. So I think when it’s this early in the season, you have to be careful that you have good perspective when you’re playing a big game like this where it’s been so huge the last few years from a conference standpoint. ... You have to be careful when you win this game, and you have to be careful if you don’t win it. That’s very important. If you celebrate and act like you’ve won the ACC because you’ve won this game, well, guess what? You’re going to get beat the next week and probably get beat again.”

With or without Winston, Clemson has its hands full on the road against the No. 1 team. Florida State has plenty of strengths aside from Winston, but having the best quarterback in the nation certainly helps pull it all together.

“We have to defend what they do, not who they are,” Swinney said. “Our program’s bigger than any one player, and so is Florida State’s. ... They’re a great team, with or without him.”

Winston, despite all of the stupid things he says and does off the field, seems to agree.

“We’re Florida State, not one person can change no game or no outcome,” he said. “I can’t go out there and win a football game. Florida State is going to win the football game.”

Perhaps they will. Odds are obviously in the Seminoles’ favor.

This puts ACC leaders in the awkward position of kinda/sorta hoping Florida State can survive this test without its best weapon. Because the price of losing could be dramatic. The Big Ten already knows about the consequences of losing early marquee games that have gravely diminished its conference’s chances of reaching the playoffs. The ACC can’t afford all of its own marquee programs saddled with losses before October.

Winston’s partial absence might give Clemson a better chance. Should the Tigers win and run the table, they’ll be in the playoff conversation. Should the Tigers win, claim the ACC but lose a sixth consecutive time to South Carolina, Saturday will prove to be one of the costliest days in ACC history.

Awkward, indeed.

US is leaving its best hope for victory in the Ryder cup back home

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 7:20pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – A day after finishing fourth at East Lake and second to a Gator in the FedEx Cup race, former Bulldog Chris Kirk insisted that he wasn’t too disappointed.

This wasn’t in reference to the extra $7 million on the table he left to Billy Horschel. It was about not having to board a plane the next week for Scotland and the Ryder Cup.

“I would have loved to have done it but I couldn’t be more elated with how I played the last month to get my biggest win and have a chance to win the FedEx Cup,” Kirk said Monday at the McGladrey Classic media day at Sea Island, where he triggered his breakout season with a one-shot win last November. “I came close but not quite. ... It’s not bothering me at all to be honest with you.”

Europe’s top star, Rory McIlroy, lost head-to-head weekend duels with both Kirk and Horschel at Boston and East Lake and knows first-hand what his U.S. opponents are missing.

“I’m sure Tom Watson is kicking himself at the minute,” McIlroy said after the Tour Championship.

Kirk and Horschel have been saying all the diplomatic things since stealing the spotlight of the PGA Tour’s “playoffs.” They insist Watson, the American captain, isn’t losing any sleep over not having the two hottest American hands on his 12-man roster that takes on a stacked European team next week at Gleneagles.

“Tom won’t be kicking himself for not picking me but he will probably be wanting to kick me for not playing like this a little earlier,” said Horschel, who finished second, first and first in the last three tournaments of the season.

But if Horschel and Kirk are not upset, the rest of us should be. The United States is NOT sending its best team to represent American golf. That point is not even arguable. It’s bad enough Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner are sidelined for various reasons, but Horschel (now No. 14 in the world) and Kirk (No. 22) are left out for tardiness?

Frankly, that’s not really acceptable. A system change needs to be made to ensure the best players make the roster and not just the more recognizable names. Picking a roster weeks ahead of time is folly.

Watson opted to take three players – Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson – with Ryder Cup experience instead of younger players in better form. That’s a tired old strategy that hasn’t really worked too well for the U.S. side in the past 20 years.

Paul Azinger, who is the only U.S. captain to win the Ryder Cup since 1999, was critical of Watson’s choices.

“I would have picked Chris over Webb, certainly,” said Azinger, who won in 2008 with six rookies including three that he selected as captain’s picks – Mahan, Steve Stricker and J.B. Holmes.

“Chris has won twice this year, he’s hot and I like hot players,” Azinger said. “Why not pick a rookie? It’s OK picking experience if you’re European but so often with us it’s losing experience.”

Davis Love III, the last U.S. captain whose team blew a four-point lead on Sunday, also offered a captain’s pick to rookie Brandt Snedeker a couple of weeks before Snedeker pulled a Horschel and won the FedEx Cup.

“We didn’t know what he was going to do the weeks after, but we sat down said it was either going to be this guy or Brandt,” Love said. “Do you pick the guy that’s hot right now and hope that he stays hot or do you pick the guy that’s not hot and hope he gets hot? We just said we’ll take the guy that’s hot.”

Watson bypassed Kirk – a former college player of the year who had by far the best 2014 season of his choices at the deadline.

Kirk had just gone head-to-head with world No. 1 McIlroy for two consecutive days to win in Boston, yet Watson didn’t even mention him in the over-the-top selection show until he was asked specifically about him.

Horschel wasn’t even on Watson’s radar at picking time, even though he’d just finished second to Kirk.

“I remember going down the list with Watson a month ago and Billy wasn’t even talked about,” Love said. “I don’t know if Billy even got fitted for clothes. They probably made clothes for Chris Kirk and Bill Haas and Webb Simpson. They probably didn’t make any for Billy. You’re taking a whole team and putting them on an airplane in a week, it’s hard to shift gears.”

Watson agrees: “Three weeks, I think that’s a logical place to make your final picks, because logistically, there are so many different things that go into it just to get the players over there, get them ready and get the things that they need done with their clothing, get their families involved and for their family and friends to get over there. It would be awfully tough to make a decision, the week before the Ryder Cup, say, after Billy Horschel wins the FedEx Cup.”

Are we seriously talking about clothes fittings as a deterrent to waiting to get the best players for the team?

Why not wait a little longer to let the players settle it all on the course? The PGA of America runs the Ryder Cup, and it wants to use its PGA Championship as a platform to launch the hype. So the points deadline has always ended after the PGA, and the captain used to make his picks the day after.

Azinger got them to extend his wild card deadline a few weeks later, but doing it in the midst of the PGA Tour’s playoff series still provides an incomplete picture.

“It’s always been the dilemma with the Ryder Cup,” Love said. “As soon as you pick then you shouldn’t play any more tournaments. Because somebody’s going to do well and you’re going to wish you had them on your team.

“It would be nice to wait. It’s a marketing machine and they want to announce it right after the PGA Championship. They want the PGA Championship to decide something.”

Here’s a thought: let the top eight players secure berths after the PGA to keep that story line in house. Then keep maintaining the points list to determine two more players before the Tour Championship. Then let the captain pick his last two guys the day after the season ends.

Surely they can find a polo shirt and khakis to fit the guy and have his name stitched on everything in the last two weeks.

Kirk may or may not maintain his current level of excellence for two more years and earn a spot on the 2016 Ryder Cup team. But guys like Kirk and Horschel deserve to let the weight of their complete résumés speak for them right up to the end.

“I know logistically that would probably be tough to do, but I guess it’s possible,” Kirk said of pushing the deadline. “It certainly wouldn’t hurt. Billy Horschel is playing better than anyone in the world right now – forget the Americans and Europeans. Just finishing second then two wins in a row, he obviously would have been a huge asset to have on the team. A very fiery guy, too, which would have been good for America. I don’t know if they will change it or not, but it definitely wouldn’t hurt.”

The only thing that will hurt is regretting not giving it your best shot. The Ryder Cup, the players and the fans deserve that.

Michaux: Swagger is back for Gamecocks

Sat, 09/13/2014 - 10:41pm

 

COLUMBIA – The Southeastern Conference East is back in play – not that it ever wasn’t – proving that narratives derived from first impressions are typically reckless and off base.

In a game that will leave both factions talking and arguing for years over all the things that transpired Saturday night in Williams-Brice, South Carolina salvaged its season on the brink while Georgia sent the championship bubbly back to cold storage until further notice.

The 38-35 Gamecocks victory came more than five hours after the originally scheduled kickoff was pushed back 90 minutes because of lightning in the vicinity. And the upshot was a renewed lease on life for the Gamecocks, who generated most of the electricity once it finally started and benefitted from a few millimeters in the end.

“Some wins are better than others; I think this win was better than most others,” said the Gamecocks’ Steve Spurrier of his 201st victory as an SEC coach and record 16th against the Bulldogs.

Georgia – which modeled its no-pressure, no-cover soft defense for the night on the version South Carolina employed on the same field against Texas A&M 16 days ago – kept clawing back from double-digit deficits only to watch its late tying bid drift just high and outside of the right goalpost. Marshall Morgan set an SEC record in the first half with his 19th and 20th consecutive made field goals, but all anyone will remember are the two he missed, including the chip-shot 28-yarder that cost the Bulldogs the game.

Then it ultimately came down to one of those arbitrary spots and measurements that make all the gladiatorial effort seem ridiculous. Spurrier went for it on fourth-and-inches at midfield and his quarterback Dylan Thompson pushed into a pile and nosed the ball just over the 50-yard line with 1:22 remaining. Out came the chain gang to determine the fate of both sides and the marker leaned in favor of the Gamecocks.

It was a just end result, considering the Gamecocks looked the better team most of the night. Thompson picked apart the Bulldogs’ soft zone for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Running backs Brandon Wilds and Mike Davis gashed huge holes into the Georgia line in answer of three Bulldogs touchdowns in the second half.

And South Carolina’s defense – which was justly maligned after its shockingly bad debut against Texas A&M – stepped up when it mattered with just enough frequency. Todd Gurley got his 131 yards and a touchdown, but four times the Gamecocks held in the red zone to force field-goal attempts.

The last stop was critical. Thompson made his only major mistake of the night, throwing an interception on third-and-long that ended up setting Georgia up with first-and-goal at the 4 with 5:24 left. But in a coaching decision that will leave folks in Athens, Ga., scratching their heads, the Bulldogs opted not to pound it in with their feature tailback. Instead Hutson Mason faked the handoff to Gurley and rolled out into a Gamecocks rush that prompted an intentional grounding. Even more curious was the subsequent Gurley rush outside the hash marks that gave Morgan the tougher angle as the rain drove down.

Whatever offensive coordinator Mike Bobo thought of those calls was not readily known as for the second consecutive game he and defensive counterpart Jeremy Pruitt were not available for postgame interviews.

Pruitt’s defense was touted for the way it stepped up and shut down Clemson in the second half of an emotional opener, but it looked more like the version former coordinator Todd Grantham left behind Saturday.

And for all of Georgia’s rushing gifts, it didn’t get enough from its passing game to take the pressure off Gurley and Co. to make the decisive plays.

“Todd Gurley is part of our team; not the whole team,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week, and it was painfully obvious that the other parts aren’t quite as efficient.

Mason threw two touchdowns, including a quick two-play, 69-yard opening volley that answered South Carolina’s impressive opening march. But for most of the night, Mason wasn’t hitting the right spots, missing behind receivers or throwing short and low.

Turns out Georgia hasn’t plugged all the weaknesses that plagued it a year ago. The defense didn’t suddenly turn the clock back to 2011 with a new coordinator. The special teams didn’t eliminate its crippling mistakes. The offense doesn’t pose any deep passing threat to take the heat off the rushers. Penalties nullified an interception and Gurley’s 54-yard touchdown that could have changed the complexion of the game.

On the flip side, it turns out South Carolina isn’t as dead as they looked on opening night. The defense – using a lot of four down linemen again – regained some of its swagger. The offensive line looked as good as its preseason hype. The coaches made the adjustments Spurrier challenged them to make.

And in two short weeks everything we thought we knew about the SEC East rebooted to the original settings.

Georgia went from one win away from the divisional driver’s seat to an uphill climb.

“We just didn’t seize the moment,” Richt said.

South Carolina, meanwhile, went from the point of no return back to the front-running status it was presumed to hold before the Aggies backed them to the wall. The Gamecocks once again hold the tiebreaker with the Bulldogs and the jury hasn’t been offered any evidence yet on whether Florida or Tennessee are viable long-term threats.

“Hopefully we can use this as some momentum and start playing a lot better,” Spurrier said.

What we’ve learned is what we should have known all along. Nothing can be taken for granted in SEC football – especially before the ides of September.

 

Michaux: Mason should follow Belue's blueprint

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 9:13pm

ATHENS, Ga. — There are two quarterbacks in the Georgia football fraternity whose names are often invoked in drawing comparisons to current Bulldogs starter Hutson Mason.

The first is Aaron Murray, whose Southeastern Conference record-setting career is the act Mason has to follow after watching it for four seasons. It’s an unfair point of reference for any successor to live up to.

The second is D.J. Shockley, who like Mason had to wait patiently behind a four-year starter for his lone season at the helm. Shockley set his own high bar by making the most of it with an SEC title in 2005.

But as Georgia prepares for its second major test of the 2014 season at South Carolina with lofty goals in mind, it’s neither Murray nor Shockley that the Bulldogs are looking for in Mason. What they need him to become is another Buck Belue.

Belue might not fit statistically on the first page of Georgia’s greatest quarterbacks, but he was the one who directed the Bulldogs’ perfect 1980 national title season with a rare rushing weapon named Herschel Walker.

With the most gifted Bulldogs tailback since Walker in Todd Gurley and a stable of talented running backs behind him, the best thing Mason can do is not chase Murray’s gaudy statistics but be the next Belue. It’s a game manager Georgia needs under center, and not a game-breaker.

“I took pride in that,” Belue said of his understated role leading Vince Dooley’s ground-oriented offense, “I thought that was the essence of playing the position.”

For his part, Mason seems primed for the role.

“When you waited around for one year, and you’ve got one shot at this, records aren’t on my mind,” Mason said after passing for a modest 131 yards in the season opening win over Clemson. “Getting to Atlanta, winning championships and dancing in confetti are what I think about.”

Offenses have evolved considerably since Belue’s 1,314 yards and 11 touchdowns was considered fairly prolific by Georgia passing standards, but the principle of the quarterback being a game manager and letting the Bulldogs’ rushing weapons be more of the focus has been embraced all around.

“We’ve got a long track record of throwing the ball extremely well around here, but I know our number one goal is to win and do whatever it takes to win,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “In the second half of that last ball game we didn’t need to throw a lot to win the game, which was a tribute to our runners and blockers, and even our quarterback getting in the right plays and that type of thing. When your defense is playing like that, it’s not really wise to sit there and sling it around the yard.

“That particular trend (of not throwing a lot) wouldn’t bother me if we didn’t have to. And I’ll say this, Hutson’s main goal is to win. He doesn’t need to put any pressure on himself other than doing the things that will help Georgia win.”

Belue knows all about that. He had his share of talented receivers to work with including Lindsay Scott, and even then they spent most of practice throwing the ball all over the field. But when it came down to Saturdays, Belue’s primary goal was feeding the ball to Walker.

“I knew coming in we weren’t going to be like Jim McMahon at BYU and throw it all over the place,” Belue said. “My approach was how could I help the team win? I wasn’t going in there complaining about not throwing it to Lindsay Scott enough. There were going to be four or five plays during the course of a close game where I needed to make a play. So I understood that and tried to be ready for those moments.”

That’s the kind of advice and encouragement Belue shares with Mason, who he’s known closely since Mason was a prolific passer at Lassiter High in Atlanta. Despite a parade of quality running backs in the intervening three decades, Belue thinks Gurley is the most talented since Hershel with the same uncommon combination skill set of size, power and speed that is game-changing.

“I know they want to run it just like we did,” Belue said of the current Bulldogs’ regime. “I think the thing that would apply is that when you’ve got a great running back, sooner or later your quarterback is going to have to help you win the game. Hutson’s got to be ready to do that. That’s the way I looked at it.”

Belue’s most famous moment – arguably the most famous in Georgia history – came against Florida when he hit Scott on third down over the middle and the speedy receiver turned it into a 92-yard touchdown in the closing minutes that sustained the championship run.

Belue only attempted 156 passes in 1980 and averaged 119.5 yards per game, but it was making those passes count and minimizing mistakes that mattered most.

In today’s offense, Mason will get twice as many chances to show off his arm, but the same principles of patient restraint apply to him.

“Everyone wants to go out and play, but at the end of the day it’s about winning,” Belue said. “It’s not about the stat sheet. That’s not the most important thing. And Hutson is out front with that, too. I like the approach. I can identify with that.

“So much outside the team is about stats, and he’s never going to be able to live up to that side of the bargain (after Murray). But it’s a wonderful thing having a guy like this able to step in because you’re not going to see a noticeable drop-off. You lose somebody like Aaron Murray you just assume there’s going to be this big void. Right now he’s taken the reins of this thing and played well.”

Belue knows the term “game manager” is construed as negative, as if it questions a limitation of a quarterback’s talent. But Belue has no doubt that Mason possesses the skills to carry a passing game if that need arises Saturday against the Gamecocks or in November against the Gators or Tigers.

But it’s the way Mason manages Gurley and Co. that will ultimately define his one-year term.

“I thought he managed the Clemson game beautifully,” Belue said. “You’ve got a lot of young guys out there and you’re positioning them in the right place and you can’t have critical penalties at critical times. You use that coach on the field experience he has to get them in the right play and out of a bad play. That’s the essence of playing the position.

“He did what he needed to do to help them win the game. There’ll be some times where he’s going to have to stand in there and throw it 40 times and pick out the right guy consistently. No doubt he can do that effectively, too.”

There are all kinds of legacies, but Belue’s modest blueprint would be the best one for Mason and the Bulldogs to follow.

Michaux: Masters champ Watson energized by end-of-year events

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 4:30pm

ATLANTA – To borrow a phrase from another Athens, Ga., product, it’s the end of the season as the PGA Tour has constructed it, and Bubba Watson feels fine.

A grueling grind through the last three majors to an unyielding four-week “playoff” swing culminating at East Lake for the Tour Championship has left players gassed and looking forward to a break from golf. Phil Mickelson withdrew early last week to get a head start on some rest while several others who failed to qualify among the top 30 expressed relief.

But the reigning Masters champion takes a contrary stance with a $10 million prize at stake this week and national pride on the line in two weeks at the Ryder Cup.

“This is what we do for a living,” Watson said Tuesday. “I’ve got a great therapist – not a mental therapist; a physical therapist – that stretches me and gives me massage and therapy after the rounds. As good as I can be. I’m getting older, but I feel fine.

“We all get energized when we get to this tournament. We all get energized trying to take home ($10) million. Kind of energizes you.”

Energy is the last thing most people think about when they arrive at East Lake. The Tour Championship is generally quiet even by golf standards. Fans weren’t allowed on the course for Tuesday’s practice rounds and the galleries following 29 players during the tournament won’t measure up to the crowds that flocked recently to Cherry Hills in Colorado or Ridgewood in New Jersey.

And the many permutations of the FedEx Cup points system have failed to enthrall. Competitive math has a long way to go before capturing the public imagination.

Watson, however, never claims to be a mathematician and isn’t worried about the ways he could win the bonus cash without winning the tournament. At third in the points standings behind fellow Georgia Bulldog Chris Kirk and former Florida Gator Billy Horschel, Watson is one of five players who control their own destiny with an outright victory. No reigning Masters champion has ever won the FedEx Cup.

“Obviously I’m in the situation now where if I win it takes care of itself,” he said. “Come in second, there’s a few other things that have to happen. Coming in third, I don’t even know if I have a chance if I come in third. But I think second I have a chance if everybody finishes a lot worse.

“This is my best ranking ever coming into this tournament. I’m looking forward to it. I wasn’t here last year. Last time I played here I think I finished fifth, which was pretty good for me around this track.”

Winning would mean a lot to Watson. With two green jackets already in his closet, he’s got a big head start on a potential Hall of Fame induction one day since no player with two victories at Augusta National has been excluded from enshrinement. Add a seventh PGA Tour title and the overall trophy to his resume and he’s that much closer.

But the payout is significant even for a guy with his endorsement portfolio. He insisted he’d give $1 million right away to churches and charity and apply whatever else toward an accelerated retirement plan.

“Retirement would happen a lot quicker if I win the FedEx Cup,” he said.

But for all that is at stake for Watson this week, it’s an event that pays him nothing that is his biggest priority. Watson was the top point earner to qualify for the United States Ryder Cup team. And with missing stars like Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner from the squad, Watson’s talent will be much needed for captain Tom Watson’s team to have a chance against the top-heavy Europeans on foreign turf.

Given the choice to win the Tour Championship and $11.4 million or the Ryder Cup, Watson said he’d choose the latter.

“When I look at my career as of now, I’ve won a major, I’ve won a golf tournament, I’ve won a team event – the Presidents Cup – but I’ve never won a Ryder Cup,” he said. “So at the end of it, I’d love to have that. This might be my last chance at winning a Ryder Cup. Or I might make another team, you never know.”

Watson teamed with Webb Simpson to win two team matches at Medinah two years ago, but the Americans blew a big lead in the Sunday singles. Watson channeled his UGA roots by encouraging the partisan crowds to make noise on the first tee as he hit. That’s a role he doesn’t intend to reprise.

“No, I will not be doing that,” Watson said. “Just because it was on our home soil. That was my little way of trying to grow the game of golf. ... It was just the one-time thing. I think it was fun. I would not do that especially on foreign soil where they might be against that.

“But you never know,” he added. “When I get over there, I might get excited and do it anyway.”

Michaux: Local competitors eye spot in Drive, Chip and Putt regional finals

Sat, 09/06/2014 - 8:25pm

The Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is designed to inspire kids all over the country to get into golf and dream about competing at Augusta National.

For some, the dream destination isn’t such a long trip.

Madison Cooper Harwell, a 13-year-old girl from Evans, advanced to compete in the regional finals, held Sept. 15, at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, Ga. Harwell is one of four kids with local ties to get within one victory of making it to the finals held the Sunday before the Masters Tournament at Augusta.

Only 80 kids will make it to Augusta on April 5 from a pool that was twice the size of last year’s and started the three-stage process this summer at 256 local qualifying sites in all 50 states.

“On a scale of 1-10, I would be like a million,” Harwell said of her excitement level. “It would make me really happy if I made history to be one of the first local girls to be there to compete. I think I would actually be more excited to go to that than just to the Masters.”

Harwell won the 12-13 girls group in the subregional Aug. 18 at The First Tee of Augusta, where she first took up the game at age 8 in group lessons. Harwell won both the drive and putt portions and was fifth in chipping. Also advancing from the same subregional was Emma Chen of Augusta, who finished second in the 10-11 girls division. Chen swept all three skills to win her local qualifier in June at Wilmington Island in Savannah.

Another Evans native, 8-year-old Isaac Milford, swept the drive, chip and putt portions to win the 7-9 boys division in the subregional in Hawaii, where his family moved last December.

He’ll compete in the regional final next Saturday at Torrey Pines.

“Isaac says he is playing golf to go back home,” said his mother, Jennifer Holsten-Milford.

Sam Means, 12, of Augusta – the son of WJBF news anchor Brad Means – finished second in the subregional at Fort Jackson Golf Club near Columbia to advance to Saturday’s regional finals of the 12-13 boys near Washington. Means, however, came up short of winning his division at River Bend Golf Club Saturday, failing to qualify for Augusta.

Harwell is making her second run at reaching Augusta National after barely missing out in 2013 with a third-place finish in the subregional. Her brother, Carter, finished 11th in local qualifying at BridgeMill Athletic Club in Canton, Ga., in June.

Madison, who studies online in the ninth-grade honors program at Georgia Cyber Academy, has stepped up her practice regimen to prepare for the regional finals.

With the help of club pro Robby Watson at Bartram Trail, she practices hour-long sessions twice a day, working 20 minutes at each discipline.

“That seems to be helping,” she said. “What’s improved a lot is my chipping. At the local qualifier I only got one point in chipping and I’ve working on my chipping so much this past month I got 30 points in chipping.”

The putting and chipping scoring in the DC&P is determined by how close you get to the cup inside concentric circles worth certain values.

Her typical drives carry about 180 yards and roll out around 200, and must be kept inside fairway boundaries.

“I feel really confident, especially since I worked on my chipping,” she said. “I went out to the golf course the other day and practiced from 30, 15 and 6 feet and almost 100 percent of the time I’m making it in the 20-point circle range. So my goal for this one is to make all my putts and all my chips at least in the 20-circle range and keep all my drives in the fairway.”

Harwell took up sports to work on her respiratory strength after surviving a dangerous virus in her lungs when she was 4.

She settled on golf over softball and soccer because she could play it outdoors year-round.

In tournaments, she’s fared well in Georgia State Golf Association and Augusta Junior Golf Tour events. She’s also volunteered time to help younger kids in the Hook-a-Kid on Golf program at The River Club.

Her competitive instincts also thrive on the pageant scene, where Harwell holds titles as Miss Pre-Teen Augusta and was second runner-up for Miss Georgia Pre-Teen, which qualifies her to compete for the National All-American Miss title at DisneyLand in November.

The nearly 5-foot-7 Harwell aspires to eventually play professional golf and be a model.

“She’s a winner,” said her mother, Mary Ellen Harwell, an on-line collegiate professor. “She’s used to winning, she has that mindset. When she is competing in tournaments and pageants, she thinks very positively.”

That’s how Harwell is approaching the regional finals with confidence and minimal nerves. Only the winners in each age group advance to Augusta National.

With her scholastic interests in advanced math and science, she knows that overcoming long odds requires hard work and a positive attitude.

“When I’m in tournaments I would tell myself, ‘I’m Tiger Woods; I can do this,’” she said, though her golf inspirations these days tend to be Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson. “I just have to be confident in myself and, as my coach says, just trust the ball and go with it.”

Harwell, whose father, Lee, worked for 20 years at Club Car, has attended the Masters three times. She watched last year’s Drive, Chip and Putt finals on television and was even more motivated to earn her way into the event.

“It was a lot of inspiration because the whole time I was watching it I was thinking that could be me next year,” she said. “Now that I’ve made it this far, it very well could be.”

Michaux: Gamecocks in need of turnaround

Thu, 09/04/2014 - 8:10pm

These are uncertain times in Gamecock Nation – a crossing between the road of relevance South Carolina football fans have become accustomed to traveling and the long, dark secondary byways.

Which way the program turns this season relies on one of the toughest coaching challenges Steve Spurrier has faced.

Spurrier is already making some changes after a demoralizing opening-game loss at home to Texas A&M – a 52-28 undressing that Spurrier said “we’re still and will always be embarrassed by our performance.”

But with 11 games still ahead, including Saturday’s redemption opportunity against a pretty fair East Carolina team, the Gamecocks intend to change the script or die trying.

“We realize it’s history and just try to learn from it and try to play a whole bunch better and coach a whole bunch better the next time out, so that’s where we are right now,” Spurrier said at his weekly news conference. “Obviously we have to do things a little differently or we’re in for a long season, so we’ll try and do that and try to put a team on the field that our Gamecock fans will be proud of Saturday night.

“It’s only one game. We’ve got to stay positive as coaches, players and fans.”

The resounding defeat to the Aggies exposed some uncomfortable truths about the Gamecocks program. For all the great strides it has taken in getting high-end talent under Spurrier and before him Lou Holtz, its depth on the roster is still shallower than places like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana State and Florida. If that wasn’t the case, the Gamecocks would not have felt the need to change defensive schemes from a proven model this off-season.

For the first time in a long time, they don’t have a stash of blue-chip All-American athletes dotting the defensive side of the roster like Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Melvin Ingram, Stephon Gilmore or Chris Culliver. For the first time in three seasons, they don’t have Connor Shaw and his relentless will to win leading the offense.

The Gamecocks haven’t always been pretty to watch during three consecutive 11-win seasons since their lone SEC Championship appearance in 2010, but they’ve been effective. If things weren’t going as planned in close games, either Shaw or the defense always seemed to make the big play at the right time to get the win.

It was the embodiment of “team sport” that one side would bail out the other more often than not.

Aside from some nice hookups between Dylan Thompson and Nick Jones, new playmakers didn’t step up against Texas A&M to make the difference. Mike Davis’ health limits the rushing game. The personnel on the line and secondary in the 3-4 defense neither pressured the quarterback nor covered the receivers.

Spurrier hoped to address that with perhaps some schematic changes but also a renewed vigor in practice. He talked about a “sense of urgency” and being “too lackadaisical” and always moving at a faster pace. He challenged both his offensive and defensive lines to get better by sending them out against each other five-on-four to “practice the heck out of it and see if we can get better.”

He wants to be better than bad on third downs and force more three-and-outs – areas that can only improve after being run over by the Aggies.

“We need to try to dominate out there, make the other team punt seven or eight times and get them off the field,” Spurrier said.

Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt believes they’ll come out the next two Saturdays at home and prove the opener was a fluke.

“I can’t even imagine having another game like that,” Surratt said. “We HAVE to be better. ... This week is a test to show what kind of people we have on this team. I feel that the people we’ve got here we can get things done. People we’ve got we can be even better than last year.”

Spurrier is “hoping and believing” that’s the case.

“Again, we think we have the players to fix it, so we’re going to find out here Saturday night,” he said.

The Gamecocks have another school-record streak on the line.

The last time the Gamecocks weren’t ranked in the top 25 of the AP poll was for the season-opener in 2010. They jumped in at No. 24 before beating Georgia 17-6 on Sept. 11, 2010, and have been somewhere between No. 3 and No. 20 all but twice since.

The Texas A&M beatdown threatened the Gamecocks’ presumptive standing among the game’s seasonal elite.

“I hope we’re still there and don’t completely drop out,” Spurrier said before the latest poll came out with South Carolina falling from ninth to 21st. Another loss this week to East Carolina or next week to Georgia might be the end of that streak.

But a major turnaround could send the Gamecocks back toward their goals as preseason favorites in the SEC East.

“Obviously, preseason talk, is all it is,” Spurrier said. “No one knows how a team really comes around to be. Obviously, expectations are there every year. Some teams are maybe not as good as advertised and some are better than advertised. It’s a wait and see for us.”

Tom Watson shouldn't have overlooked Chris Kirk

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 9:28pm

Tom Watson announced his trio of Captain’s picks for the American Ryder Cup team at 30 Rock on Tuesday night in the studio where Saturday Night Live is produced.

Fitting, since one of the picks he settled on was a joke.

As most expected, Watson picked Ryder Cup veterans Hunter Mahan and Keegan Bradley – two choices that can easily be supported by their performance records in the past and 2014.

But for the third choice he ignored red-hot former Georgia golfer Chris Kirk – who just assumed the FedEx Cup playoffs lead with a victory Monday at the TPC Boston shooting a 66 while paired with world No. 1 Rory McIlroy. Watson instead played the veteran card once more and rolled with 2012 U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson despite his inferior record in 2014.

Golf is supposed to be a meritocracy, but Watson’s uninspired choice proves that it’s just a boys club that prefers to remain exclusive.

“The final selection really came to me this morning,” Watson said a half-hour into the long, drawn-out unveiling ceremony Tuesday night. “I kind of had a revelation this morning and took a look at the last Ryder Cup played ... I looked down and I see ‘Webb Simpson 5&4; Webb Simpson 5&4.’ That’s got to be the guy.”

Good to know that two matches that happened two years were the determining factor instead of a season-long body of work that is peaking right now.

When former captain Paul Azinger lobbied to change the points system before the 2008 installment, the rational was to reward the players who play the best in a Ryder Cup year.

“I want players who are red-hot if I can find them,” Azinger said, in announcing a weighted points system as well as delay in selecting more captain’s picks.

Azinger meant it and delivered the only American victory since 1999 with six rookies on his roster and no Tiger Woods.

Watson was supposed to be an inspired leader who would break the pattern of cyclical thinking that hasn’t worked very well for the United States in losing the cup 10 of the last 14 times and five of the past six. What was the point of waiting three weeks if those performances didn’t really matter?

“I’ve been looking at these statistics for a long time,” Watson said.

What stats? Clearly not performance if he can ignore a guy with two wins in past 12 months, who’s leading FedEx Cup by a lot, ranks No. 5 on the money list and has the most Official World Golf Ranking points gained in 2014 of all candidates as well as eight members of the European team.

This isn’t just about last week for Kirk, though that should have been proof enough. It’s about the last year where he distinguished himself above Simpson.

That world rankings points gained stat is a significant one. No matter what you think of the world rankings, there is method in its madness.

There was not a single unqualified Ryder Cup candidate for either team that gained as many points as Kirk in 2014. His 163.33 points gained was more than Mahan (157.17), Bradley (126.86), Bill Haas (113.70), Simpson (91.08) and Brandt Snedeker (78.87) not to mention Phil Mickelson (137.26) and Zach Johnson (132.26).

It blows away Paul McGinley’s European wild-card picks Stephen Gallacher (149.75), Lee Westwood (95.80) and Ian Poulter (45.99) and five other guys on the European roster.

A familiar lament among experts was that Watson didn’t really have much to choose from. In fact, he had more that Europe which was beaming about its embarrassment of riches.

“It says a lot about the European Tour and the standards we have now in Europe the quality of picks that I have and how far we’ve come over the years for me to have such an abundance of talent to choose from,” said McGinley on Tuesday, who opted to leave No. 30 Luke Donald and his 10-4-1 Ryder Cup record off the team.

McGinley’s European squad has four of the top-five players in the world and winners of three of 2014’s four majors plus the Players Championship, McGinley will have the kind of elite firepower that the U.S. typically loses with lately.

On Tuesday, McGinley added a worthy 40-year-old rookie from Scotland (Gallacher) and a pair of Ryder Cup stalwarts (Poulter and Westwood) whose reputations look way better on paper than either one of them has looked on the golf course this year. The 12 European cast members all rank among the top 38 in the world.

McGinley could afford to take a flyer on Poulter and Westwood because they are proven players in a Euro model that has been working. Yet even McGinley was willing to give a rookie a chance based on form.

“I’ve said all along fromDay 1, I’m not afraid to pick a rookie if he proved himself and there’s no doubt that Stevie Gallacher has proved himself and earned his spot on this team,” McGinley said. “He was up against it. As a rookie, you’ve got to do a little bit more to earn a pick, and I think Stevie did a little bit more.”

Gallacher finished third in a relatively weak Italian field last week. Kirk beat McIlroy and the PGA Tour’s best. Yet Watson didn’t have the guts to pick the new blood that has proven a tonic for a stagnant U.S. side.

Watson already had three rookies on his roster – Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed – before making his three wildcard selections Tuesday night. It shouldn’t have stopped him from adding one more.

The Americans have won only one of the past six Ryder Cups since 1999, and the formula for that lone triumph in 2008 spits in the face of the conventional logic. Azinger’s U.S. team at Valhalla was considered heavy underdogs with six rookies and no Woods. Yet the energy and performance of those six rookies generated 13 points in a 16.5-11.5 American victory that was its most lopsided since 1981 before Europe had ever won the event.

The three rookies on this American team aren’t to be overlooked. Two of them are among the only four Americans with multiple victories this PGA Tour season. The fourth (Spieth) is considered the next great American golfer who almost won the Masters Tournament in his first start and already proved his international chops with two points as a captain’s pick in last year’s Presidents Cup.

Kirk is the only player in the world with multiple victories this season not to be chosen. We’ll know in a few weeks if Watson’s faith in the past pays off.

We’ll unfortunately never know what Kirk might have added to the present and future of the U.S. in the Ryder Cup.

Gurley, special teams, defense share credit for Georgia's win

Sat, 08/30/2014 - 11:31pm

ATHENS, Ga. — In an effort to avoid making too broad a judgment on Georgia’s 45-21 season-opening victory against Clemson, let’s just say a whole lot of narratives emerged that will become very familiar to both fan bases in the coming months.

First and foremost, let’s address the elephant on the field. Because that’s what it must have felt like for Clemson defenders trying to tackle Todd Gurley.

The junior tailback was planted himself firmly as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in almost a part-time role on a smoldering August evening between the hedges. There will be season-long highlight reels of other candidates that won’t look as impressive as Gurley’s 17 touches on Saturday night.

Gurley had 15 rushes for 198 yards and three touchdowns – each one more impressive than the one before it. He went 23 yards untouched around the left corner in the first quarter. He cut back and stuttered 19 yards up the middle in the fourth quarter. He broke away 51 yards up the right side later in the fourth quarter.

Oh yeah, he also went straight up the middle like a bullet train from 5 yards deep in his own end zone for a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the second quarter after Clemson had gone up 21-14.

Even his non-scoring plays were memorable, like the 19-yarder when he ran right over Clemson star lineman Vic Beasley.

His 293 all-purpose yards were, incidentally, a Bulldogs record.

“That was probably one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of,” Gurley said.

By the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs were showing up their absurd depth at tailback with newcomers Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but there is no doubt that the Bulldogs are a different team any time Gurley is on the field. His presence opens everything up on the offense.

Sometimes his big plays were too good, long runs that require a brief rest that before he can get back on the field the offense is in third and long and a promising drive would bog down.

But by the fourth quarter, the relentless pounding of Gurley and other fresh backs proved too much for the Tigers. Georgia kept speeding up the offense and catching the tired defense in misalignments that produced big play after big play as a 3-point lead entering the fourth exploded into a what could have been a 32-point blowout.

Lost behind the performance of Gurley and his stable of immpressive backups were two storylines that are most notable in their change of tone.

First is a special teams performance that was as critical to Georgia’s success on Saturday as anything else. Special teams were a massive issue a year ago in a negative way, but on Saturday that were a huge strength.

“We’ve got a bunch of new talent and the repetitive work this offseason really paid off,” said placekicker Marshall Morgan.

Freshman Sony Michel made two huge coverage plays in the first quarter on a punt and kickoff that set the field-position tone. Both punter Collin Barber and Adam Erickson pinned Clemson inside the 10 in the second half. Kicker Marshall Morgan made his 18th and 19th consecutive field goals. Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie made clean catches and showed some pop in punt returns.

And of course Gurley broke the big one in a surprise role as the deep man on kickoffs.

“I think that might have the best thing,” Gurley said. “Special teams were awesome, might have been better than the defense and offense. Without special teams we definitely wouldn’t have won this game as big as we did.”

Then there’s defense, which a season ago was largely irredeemable under former coordinator Todd Grantham. Despite making their fair share of mistakes on Saturday, you could see new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s unit molding into shape as the game wore on. With blitz calls at the right moments, sound tackling and more pass breakups, in-game adjustments and three-and-outs in one game than you could remember seeing all last season, there was enough positive to make the Erk Russell proud.

“This being my senior year I’ve played with a lot of great guys,” said corner Damian Swann. “I’ve played on a good defense here so I know that feeling when we can go out and stone some people. To get back to that tonight was an unbelievable feeling because that’s what we’re used to here. ... I think once Pruitt stepped his foot on this campus, we knew we were going to be good. We knew we’d have the opportunity to be dominant.”

Gurley, who even showed his leadership a couple of times in the defensive huddle, was raving about the defense.

“It was incredible, we wouldn’t have done it without them,” Gurley said. “They had stopped them a couple of times and we didn’t execute like we were supposed to. Luckily they kept stopping them and stopping and we finally scored and put them away.”

On the Clemson side, the narratives that were bubbling up will be more of a personnel matter . The biggest that will grow bigger is at quarterback.

The way the veteran Cole Stoudt vs. freshman Deshaun Watson dynamic plays out could have a disruptive effect on a Tiger offense trying to retool after losing so many big weapons.

Watson entered for a series in the second quarter after three consecutive three-and-outs and promptly threw two perfect deep passes that ate up 59 yards and an equalizing touchdown at 14-14. He didn’t return until late in the third quarter, when whatever momentum he might have had after his first possession had long worn off.

Stoudt isn’t a bad quarterback, but Watson has the potential to be special. He’s the kind of talent Clemson fans will be eager to see more of after his initial glimpse. How Dabo Swinney handles the QB conundrum will have a major impact on the season.

He also might want to reconsider his tailback rotation with C.J. Davidson clearly showing more burst than senior starter D.J. Howard.

Of course, the big takeaway of the night will remain Gurley and his Heisman campaign that erupted on social media with every touch he had.

Gurley was dismissive, as he clearly had a larger narrative on his mind in the new playoff era.

“It’s only week 1,” he said. “We’ve got like 15 more weeks to go.”

Michaux: Gamecocks need to forget this one

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 11:34pm

COLUMBIA – Stunning doesn’t begin to describe this.

Less than halfway through Thursday night’s season opener at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Southeastern Conference East favorites were getting booed by their home fans, the post-Johnny Manziel Texas A&M offense had run off 53 plays for 393 yards and the Aggies led 31-14 against a defense-less South Carolina.

Steve Spurrier immediate assessment was just as harsh as the Gamecocks crowd.

“They’re kicking our butts,” the head ball coach said at halftime. “They’re out-blocking, out-tackling, out-coaching us. They know what they’re doing. We’re getting beat by a much better team right now. I don’t know how we can change it, but we’ll try something different.”

Different didn’t work either. With 20 minutes still left, the Aggies had 45 points, 501 yards and a 24-point lead. When it was all said and done, the Aggies “hung 50” on Spurrier’s team in his house (52-28) and the Gamecocks hung their heads in shame.

“It was obvious the oddsmakers didn’t know what they were talking about,” Spurrier said. “That team was so much better than us it wasn’t funny. ... We’ll regroup and come back and try to fight again against East Carolina in nine days and see if we can look like we know what we’re doing.”

Before you could say goodbye to August, a season that tingled with championship aspirations fell immediately into the desperation category. The Gamecocks could very well be playing for their SEC East lives in two weeks against Georgia or face the prospects of having to run the conference table against the likes of Auburn, Missouri and Florida just to have an outside chance of staying in the division race.

The team that played Saturday didn’t look capable of running any tables.

“It was a mistmatch – coaches and players – tonight,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know what else you can say. If we played them again they’d be a three-touchdown favorite.”

This was not how the opener was supposed to go in a stadium where the home team hasn’t lost in 18 games dating back to 2011.

The Aggies defense which ranked among the nation’s worst a year ago was expected to be the one that struggled to tackle or cover. The A&M offense wasn’t anticipated to be as lethal without Manziel running and gunning all over the place. The Gamecocks rushing attack was supposed to be imposing and not impotent.

But right from the opening drive the Aggies were the Kenny Hill Show – and as you watched sophomore quarterback pick apart the open spaces in the Gamecocks defense it was impossible not to hear the Benny Hill theme song running through your head as if everything was in fast-motion except the Gamecocks defense. Hill surpassed Manziel’s single-game passing yardage record with 511 yards in his first career start. He surpassed the most ever yielded by the Gamecocks (485 by Georgia’s Eric Zeier in 1994).

Gamecocks’ semi-veteran Dylan Thompson threw four touchdown passes in the first three quarters and had a chance to alter the momentum trailing 45-28 with third-and-1 and the ball at midfield after a rare defensive stop. But Thompson threw a jump ball deep that Texas A&M’s Armani Watts intercepted to kill that brief spark of hope.

Somewhere in Cleveland, you could envision Browns rookie teammates Manziel and Connor Shaw watching the SEC Network premiere and wagering which one of them would be missed more. Manziel would have been paying off by halftime.

Better yet, they should both mail checks to Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney because it was defense that killed the Gamecocks.

“We don’t have a pass rusher right now, I guess,” Spurrier said.

In three consecutive 11-win seasons, South Carolina’s defense only allowed one team (Georgia in 2013) to gain more than 23 first downs in a game. A&M had 23 in the first half Saturday.

All told, Texas A&M ran 99 plays, gained 680 yards and 39 first downs.

It could have been worse. The Aggies ran out the last 10:05 with a 17-play drive that ended when the clock ran out with first-and-goal at the 3.

“I thought we would play a lot better,” Spurrier said. “I’ve been reading like you guys have about our new 3-4 defense. Did everybody like that 3-4 defense? I don’t know if it would have mattered if we played a 6-6 defense. We’ve got some coaching decisions to make to see if we can’t find a pass rush somehow.”

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward didn’t think scheme was the problem, but it would be shocking to see Spurrier willing to stand pat with East Carolina and Georgia on the horizon.

But the bigger job will be mentally getting the Gamecocks turned around and focused on forgetting Thursday and moving forward with the tone of the season hanging in the balance.

“We won’t get much favorable press and that’s probably going to be good for us,” Spurrier said. “We don’t have to worry about any more win streaks. It was a good one while it lasted. We can go back to trying to be a decent team and not read the paper too much, hopefully.”

They don’t ever want to read about this. For the fallen favorites, it will be hard enough just living with it.

Michaux: Predictions for the college football season

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 3:20pm

As college football finally enters the playoff era, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Same could be said for my preseason predictions.

This annual exercise is more often than not destined for failure. College football has so many variables (just ask the injury-decimated 2013 Georgia team) that it’s practically impossible to foresee all of the eventual pitfalls in August.

But usually you can at least stumble upon one or two keen judgments.

That was not the case in 2013. Granted, nobody else has come forward to claim forecasting an Auburn-Missouri matchup in the Southeastern Conference championship game. And anyone can be forgiven not seeing Jameis Winston’s sudden ascent at Florida State or Duke’s emergence as a viable threat, much less an Atlantic Coast Conference division winner.

But it’s hard to explain away my broad faith in South Carolina to sweep both the BCS title and the Heisman Trophy with Jadeveon Clowney. I didn’t suspect Clowney would coast through his final collegiate season in NFL draft-prep mode or the Gamecocks losing to Tennessee.

And there’s simply no excuse for picking Louisville to make the BCS final. Must have been drinking the same Kool-aid that prompted Cardinals officials to rehire Bobby Petrino and pay Todd Grantham $1 million a year for his expertise in building one of the worst defenses ever assembled in Athens, Ga., last season.

So, I guess I wasn’t the only college football idiot last year.

This season doesn’t have to be better, but it can’t be worse.

Without further ado, here are the things I will be apologizing for next year:

SEC: Sorry Gamecocks, but you’re my pick again in the East. This has to be your year. The schedule is aligned too well to be otherwise. Mizzou can’t do it again. Florida might be much improved, but the Gators have both Louisiana State and Alabama to deal with and that’s too much. Georgia and South Carolina both face defending champ Auburn, but the Bulldogs have to go to Columbia, where the Gamecocks are on a roll. Over in the West, the Iron Bowl winner would be the safe pick. But I have a hunch that LSU is going to have a surprise year with all that new five-star talent and Alabama coming to Death Valley. The Tigers will be the ones to win in Atlanta and geaux all the way to the playoffs.

ACC: Winston is certainly going to miss Kelvin Benjamin – a lot – but the Seminoles still have too many weapons (and a home date with Clemson) to give up ownership of the Atlantic Division. Assuming Winston stays out of trouble, this should be an easy repeat. As for the Coastal, any one of five teams could step up and win the weakest division of the Power 5 conferences. Miami and North Carolina are trendy picks to finally emerge, but as much as it pains me to say, Virginia Tech is likely to be the representative in Charlotte, N.C. Florida State will be the one to get a playoff bid assuming they don’t stumble non-conference against Oklahoma State or Notre Dame.

HEISMAN: If your name isn’t Archie Griffin, it’s hard to repeat as America’s collegiate darling and win consecutive Heisman trophies. So let’s assume Winston is going to sit this one out. Let’s also assume that Georgia running back Todd Gurley can get through a season healthy. That’s a big assumption. But if Gurley does, he’s the best running back in the nation. A healthy Gurley should keep Georgia relevant until the end and close enough for voters not to dismiss his candidacy. And since 12 of the last 13 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks, it’s about time a rusher got ahold of the trophy depicting a rusher once again.

PLAYOFFS: I’ve already given you my SEC and ACC reps, and I think LSU-FSU would make a fine Sugar Bowl semifinal matchup. As for the Rose Bowl semifinal, it looked like a perfect Pac-12/Big Ten pairing was possible with Oregon and Ohio State. But Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury alters the forecast for the Buckeyes. Oregon will have its hands full with UCLA (perhaps twice) and that winner should qualify. I’m not sure Michigan State will have a strong enough record for the Big Ten to submit a playoff team over an Oklahoma squad that has little in its way to a perfect mark. So my guess is Oregon-Oklahoma meet. When all is said and done, the SEC has to win the first playoff. So LSU it is.

Naturally, this pretty much guarantees that Alabama will beat UCLA for the first true national title.

Being more inclusive with their schedules would help SEC and ACC

Sat, 08/23/2014 - 5:36pm

Both the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences are stuck in the muck of conventional thinking.

For two conferences that made aggressive plays to grow their brands, they got awfully conservative last spring when it came time to applying their new competitive structure. By electing to maintain eight-game football schedules and two seven-team divisions, their expansions have weakened their unions and made them more segregated.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A simple shift in thinking could bring their larger conferences closer than ever. Lose the divisions. Retain the rivalries. Expand the schedule. Bond everybody.

If that seems radical, it’s no more extreme than when the SEC created divisions to establish a championship game in the first place.

It’s just common sense to expand the conference schedule to nine games to create more familiarity in a 14-team conference. Ask Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

“I’m all for playing as many good quality games for players, fans and the betterment of our game,” Saban said at SEC Media Days. “But I think some fundamental changes have to be made before anybody would be interested in that. I know that everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I think that, you know, every player that comes to an SEC school should play every team in the SEC. ... Well, you can’t expand the conference and not expand the number of games you play to be able to do that.”

When the SEC first adopted its divisional system in 1992, it established a model that other major conferences hustled to duplicate. With 12-team conferences, it was a relatively perfect fit.

But when a second wave of expansion pushed the SEC and ACC (and Big Ten) to 14 teams, those divisional alignments and protected crossover rivalries only made things more restrictive. Retaining an eight-game schedule allows only one rotating non-division game among six opponents.

The word “conference,” after all, is defined as “a group of sports teams that play against each other.” Playing 43 percent of affiliated teams twice every 12 years hardly fits that definition.

The ACC’s decision to keep an eight-game schedule was complicated by the Notre Dame situation, with the Irish maintaining football independence but agreeing to play five ACC teams per season as non-conference games. If Clemson played a nine-game ACC schedule, the Tigers would have only one free week to bring in a patsy in the years they play Notre Dame because of their annual rivalry with South Carolina.

The SEC’s reasoning for standing pat was mere hubris, so why change it?

“The strength of our conference without question is at the top,” said Greg McGarity, Georgia’s director of athletics. “Other (conferences) that want to schedule nine games, perhaps their strength of schedule is not that tough from top to bottom.”

Fair enough, but is that really a good reason to limit competition within the conference?

The SEC locked in a schedule rotation for the next 12 years. Georgia will play at Louisiana State in 2018 and get a return home game against LSU in 2025.

South Carolina will similarly go to Auburn this season and not play the Tigers at Williams-Brice Stadium until 2021. Every 12 years, season-ticket holders can count on seeing Alabama once – which is better than whole classes of football players who miss that chance unless luck aligns them in an SEC Championship game.

Is this really the kind of segregated conference they want? That fans want?

“I think sometimes these players don’t care when they play A&M,” McGarity said. “Their memory of history is last year. I think it’s a fans-type thing – the frequency or infrequency. So the fans’ recall is totally different than these young people.”

Since the fans will be the ones footing most of the growing bill for collegiate sports with their booster contributions, ticket sales and cable fees, perhaps their perspective should count a little bit more.

Here’s my fan-friendly solution: The best way for the SEC and ACC to become fully integrated again is to embrace a paradigm shift — a complete break away from the divisional thinking while establishing a rivalry-rich “pod” system.

Done properly, it can open up more frequent matchups with everyone in the league while still retaining essential rivalries that are the heart of college football. Every year, each school plays the same four opponents — three pod mates and a crossover rival — leaving the other nine schools to rotate for the remaining conference games. If you also expand to a nine-game conference schedule, it’s possible to never go two seasons without playing every team at least once.

At the end of the year, the two teams with the best records play for the championship. If that means a Georgia-Florida or Iron Bowl rematch, so be it. You want your best represented for playoff consideration.

It is a rare day when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany – a longtime roadblock in the quest to establish a legitimate college football postseason playoff – is the progressive voice of reason. But Delany has the most sensible take on why his expanded 14-team league elected to switch to a nine-game conference schedule (albeit with the same divisional system).

“We’re going to get larger, we’re going to play each other more,” Delany told USA Today. “We want to be a conference.”

That alone is reason enough, but the changing college football landscape makes it even more essential to build up from within.

“We want our fans to come to games,” Delany said. “We’ve got to give them good games. We also have a (TV) network. We also have season-ticket holders. ... What I really like is that every athlete in the Big Ten who plays football will play every opponent inside the four-year period. That’s what I like.”

Asked if the coaches were on board with the plan, Delany spoke like a boss and not an enabler.

“No, they weren’t on board. We agree to disagree,” he said. “There are certainly things where it’s great if you can get everybody on the same page, but there are certain things you have to do because you have to do them.”

Saban agrees: “People should make those decisions beyond us. They should do it based on what is in the best interest of our league and college football in general.”

For now, the SEC and ACC chose not to deal with the complication of enhanced competition.

“With a nine-game schedule you rotate around quicker, but what it would do for schools that have a 10th game – like for us against Georgia Tech?” McGarity said. “Then it would not have been practical to play a Clemson or have 11 out of your 12 games be against Power 5 opponents. I don’t think there was anybody for that at all.”

If they’d just unwrap their heads from typical thinking and look at it from a new perspective, the leagues we love might be surprised how good a more inclusive future can be.

Creative thinking would solve SEC and ACC schedule issues

Sat, 08/23/2014 - 5:19pm

If the 14-team Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences would scrap the two-division system, they could maintain essential rivalries while establishing more frequent competition within the conferences.

With a little creative thinking, teams could be arranged to each play a group of the same four teams each year. This would include three regional rivalries annually, plus one permanent, traditional rival.

If they expand the conference schedule to nine games, each school would have five games annually to rotate among the nine other teams. They could either play home-and-home in consecutive years or stagger the seasons so that each program would play every school at least every other year.

Establishing each school’s group of opponents is simple. In the SEC, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky stick together, while you pair up Alabama and Auburn with Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

In the ACC, the southern wing of Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami are a perfect union. On the northern end, group conference newcomers Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville and Boston College.

That leaves six teams in each conference. The trick is to divide them regionally into groups of three, each team playing the other two plus one from the opposite trio.

In the SEC, Louisiana State, Ole Miss and Mississippi State would be aligned together in one base. Arkansas, Missouri and Texas A&M form the other base. The cross-pairings would be LSU-Texas A&M, Ole Miss-Missouri and Mississippi State-Arkansas.

The ACC is even more simple with the four North Carolina and two Virginia teams that preserve long-standing unions on Tobacco Road and the essential rivalries that trace back to the beginning of college football in the South.

North Carolina, Duke and Virginia make up one, and N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest the other. The cross-over pairings are UNC-N.C. State, Duke-Wake Forest and Virginia-Virginia Tech.

At the end of the year, the two teams with the best records play for the championship. This would require a tweak of the current NCAA bylaws covering divisions and championship games, but the new autonomy for the “Power 5” conferences makes that a simple matter to legislate.

Michaux: U.S. Amateur finalists will realize dreams of playing in Masters, U.S. Open

Sat, 08/16/2014 - 9:19pm

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Gunn Yang and Corey Conners meet today at Atlanta Athletic Club for the U.S. Amateur championship – and the biggest thing at stake is just a trophy.

The real pressure of the U.S. Amateur came in Saturday’s semifinals, when lifelong dreams get realized or dashed.

With their 1-up semifinal victories, Yang and Conners won the right to play in the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National and U.S. Open at Chambers Bay regardless of what happens in today’s 36-hole match. Their vanquished opponents – Fred Wedel and Denny McCarthy – leave Georgia with bronze consolation medals and regret.

“It stings,” said Wedel, a 19-year-old junior at Pepperdine ranked the 619th amateur in the world. “I was one hole away from playing in the Masters and U.S. Open. Obviously those are things you dream about from a young age. Just that it was so close ... if I’d lost in the round of 16 or the quarters, it wouldn’t sting as much. It hurts.”

Yang, conversely, was walking on air after blowing a 1-up lead with a water ball on the 18th hole only to sink a 5-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole to win and unleash a Tiger-like roar.

“It’s just a dream come true right here,” the 776th-ranked amateur from South Korea said. “It was always my dream to play with all the top players in the world in any type of PGA event. But the Masters ... this is amazing.”

This is the power and the cruelty of a match-play semifinal with more at stake than any other non-championship sports event in the world. These young men can’t just go through an open qualifier to get to Augusta. So the strain is considerable and the thought of the available rewards never strays too far from their minds the deeper they get into the match play bracket.

“Yeah, it adds a lot more pressure,” Wedel said. “Definitely I think that while you’re out there, it’s in the back of your mind. ... I was aware of what was going on, but at the end of the day, I mean, it’s golf, and if I’m not going to be able to live up to that pressure, then I don’t belong.”

Yang felt it as well, especially when he had to wait for just a few seconds on the 11th tee a hole down in the match to Wedel.

“Into my round it popped up all of the sudden a couple of times,” Yang said. “I wasn’t trying to play mind games, it’s just human nature I guess.”

McCarthy said those outside demons are for the moments off the course and not on it.

“When you’re playing your match, you’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, if I win this hole I can probably get one step closer to playing at Augusta,’” he said. “I mean, obviously it’s crossed my mind at some point previously to the round, but no, not during the round today.”

Perhaps nobody understood the stakes Saturday more than Conners. A semifinalist last year at Brookline, he lost to eventual winner Matthew Fitzpatrick and had to watch the happenings at Augusta and Pinehurst from home.

“Definitely being so close last year, it did sting quite a bit,” Conners said. “I still tried to keep my head up and be proud of making it to the semis. Quite an accomplishment in itself. But it did sting a little bit, so there was a little more motivation this year, I guess. I knew what it felt like. Just tried to bear down and do my thing out there.”

The pressure was on display down the stretch Saturday in both semifinal matches. Wedel missed a 3-footer for par on the 17th after making a spectacular chip from atop a rock wall with half his feet suspended over the water.

Then Yang thinned a 5-iron out of a fairway bunker into the water fronting the 18th green, letting Wedel square the match with a 5-iron from the same bunker to 8 feet for a conceded eagle and extra holes.

In the match behind, Conners’ steady driver escaped him with a pull into the water, but he salvaged par to retain his 1-up lead.

For Saturday’s losers, it was a disappointment they’ll have to force down as they reset their goals.

“I can’t control anything about it now,” McCarthy said. “It’s done and over with so I’m just going to move on and hopefully be at one of those events in the near future.”

For the winners, it was already a dream realized. Both Conners and Yang want to win Sunday’s final and put their name on the trophy won by the likes of Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. But for the rest of Saturday, they could exhale a little bit and start thinking ahead to practice rounds at Augusta National in the coming months and a guaranteed spot in April in the Crow’s Nest and place in the Masters.

For Conners, his dreams include a round with Mike Weir, his inspiration when he got into golf as an 11-year-old while Weir was winning the 2003 Masters.

“I was telling somebody yesterday I remember watching it on TV,” he said of Weir’s victory. “He had a 6-foot putt to get into a playoff on the 18th hole, and I had to leave the living room and go into another room I was so nervous and excited for him. I heard some fans cheering on the TV or my dad clapping and I came back and saw that he made it, and I was pretty excited. Yeah, that was kind of when I was getting into some competitive golf, and I really looked up to Mike. Yeah, it would be cool to maybe play a game with him.”

Yang can’t wait to see the 13th hole that captured his attention as a 12-year-old watching it for the first time. Now only eight years later and against odds he’ll be invited to play Azalea himself when it’s in full bloom.

“This is amazing,” he said. “I thought I could come to this match play, but I never thought I could come to this far. I’m just really looking forward to getting an invitation to the Masters and other great events.

“I’m already dreaming just imaging how it’s going to be like.”

Qualifying for the Ryder Cup will cap off former Jag Patrick Reed's strong season

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 8:47pm

Patrick Reed returns to Greensboro, N.C., this week, where a shot out of the weeds last August launched a meteoric career trajectory.

As 12-month windows go, few in golf other than Rory McIlroy could match Reed’s for overall value. It would be fair to say his last year ranks “top five.”

There were three victories – including a World Golf Championship event – starting in Greensboro. There was the birth of his first daughter in May. There was his first spin in all four major championships.

Then, to crown it all off, there was confirmation of his qualification onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

“It’s amazing,” Reed said of all the things that have come his way since making a birdie from a bed of ivy vines at the Wyndham Championship to beat Jordan Spieth in a playoff. “A lot has happened in a year – really two years ago from Monday qualifying to winning my first tournament here last year. It’s happened pretty fast.”

It has certainly been an eventful ride to the top tier in golf – where Reed famously stated he belongs among the top five in the world after his wire-to-wire victory over an elite WGC field at Doral. He currently ranks 26th in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Reed is among the top Americans, as his inclusion on the Ryder Cup team verified. He hung onto the ninth and final automatic spot by a narrow margin over Zach Johnson – though the 2007 Masters Tournament winner gets in because Dustin Johnson is taking a leave of absence from golf and will not participate.

“I just found out right after the PGA that I made the team, so I haven’t had a lot of time to process it and think that far ahead,” he said of the marquee international team matches Sept. 26-28 at Gleneagles in Scotland. “I’m just excited to be a part of it and get a chance to represent my country.”

Reed is the third former Augusta State golfer to qualify to play in the past five Ryder Cups, following Vaughn Taylor for the American side in 2006 and Oliver Wilson for the European team in 2008. It’s a remarkable streak for a relatively small college, tied with perennial power Oklahoma State for placing the most different players in that same span.

“That’s pretty cool, I didn’t know about that,” Reed said. “It just shows that if you work hard it doesn’t matter where you come from.”

Before his victory at Sedgefield Country Club last year, the Ryder Cup wasn’t even a remote possibility for the guy who turned 24 before last week’s PGA Championship.

“When you get out here there are two things you dream about – playing in the major championships and playing for the Ryder Cup,” Reed said. “I can’t believe in only two years on the PGA Tour I’ve already managed to achieve both. It’s very exciting.”

He’ll join 21-year-old Spieth and fellow three-time tour winner this season, Jimmy Walker, as rookies on the U.S. team. Tom Watson has three captain’s picks to hand out and could consider another rookie, but it’s fair to say the Americans will be decided underdogs in Scotland regardless.

That’s fine with Reed, who relished that role in compiling a perfect 6-0 match-play record in back-to-back NCAA title runs for the Jaguars in 2010-11.

“I was an underdog two years in a row in the NCAA championships and handled that,” Reed said. “I like being the underdog. There really are no underdogs at this level. Everybody on both teams are great players.”

Reed certainly brings a dogged tenacity to the American side. He has a flair for getting under his peers’ skins, as the reaction to his “top five” remarks illustrated. But he also has a knack for winning head-to-head matches as his NCAA record and a semifinal run in the 2008 U.S. Amateur attests.

What does he hope to offer the U.S. side?

“Really, just points,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about is getting points for the team and hopefully I can bring that and help fire our team up.”

Reed doesn’t believe the pressure of the partisan atmosphere will be anything he can’t handle. He believes he’s dealt with enough pressure to be ready for the unique environment.

“I know there will be some nerves – that’s going to happen,” he said. “But more than nerves it’s going to be excitement. I’m excited to get out there and play for my country and see what it’s like.

“One of the most stressful things I’ve ever played was our first Monday qualifier, and the second most stressful thing I’ve ever played was Q School. So playing in both of those, once I got to the PGA Tour event … to me that almost seemed like a breeze compared to 100 something golfers, four spots, 18 holes and a golf course you really haven’t ever seen before and you have to go out and play.”

He admits that the stress of trying to cling to a Ryder Cup berth got to him at the PGA, where he shot 73 on Sunday and tied for 59th as he kept an eye on Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Ryan Palmer on the scoreboards.

“I was so focused on what Zach was doing and what all these other guys were doing on that final round that I wasn’t able to play golf,” he said. “You know, it’s definitely a learning experience, and I’ll definitely learn from that.”

For now, Reed returns to his tour comfort zone in a place where he held off Spieth in a playoff.

“It really jump-started my career, that’s for sure,” he said of his maiden victory. “Playing really well here, and actually being able to cap it off and win, it led to me being able to play very well for almost a full year in a row and hopefully that will continue.”

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