Column: Thomas Earns PGA–And Rightful Place Among Golf’s Young Stars

The biggest storyline entering the 99th PGA Championship was Jordan Spieth, and whether he could become the youngest player in history to complete the career grand slam.

When the dust settled at dusk on Sunday Spieth was, in fact, celebrating a championship on the 18th green–in street clothes, as he hugged close friend and first-time major winner Justin Thomas.

Thomas earned the PGA title by emerging from a crowded pack of contenders over Quail Hollow’s back nine on Sunday, and in doing so earned his rightful place among the group of young stars dominating today’s golf landscape.

A Well-Earned Title

Thomas started Sunday’s final round two shots back of 54-hole leader Kevin Kisner, and while he certainly benefited from a couple of good breaks on his way to winning the Wanamaker Trophy, he also showed his skill in the clutch en route to victory.

After struggling through the brutal opening hole, Thomas made a clutch 15-footer to limit the damage and make bogey.  Thomas then birdied the second and seventh holes, before holing a 36-footer for birdie at the ninth to get within a shot of Hideki Matsuyama’s lead.

Riding the momentum at the turn, Thomas’s 10th hole turned a good round into a round of destiny.  His tee shot was way left on the 600-yard par-5, but bounced off a tree straight to the center of the fairway.  After his second missed the green long and his third rolled to within eight feet, his birdie putt rolled to the left lip of the hole and stopped, before falling in the hole after 12 suspenseful seconds, keeping him within one.


A par at the 11th pulled Thomas into a five-way tie for the lead (when Matsuyama made bogey), then a par at the 12th gave him the lead as his fellow co-leaders each fell off the 7-under mark, Thomas chipped in from left of the green on the par-3 13th, adding to his final round highlight reel and his lead, which was two.


As other players continued to struggle down the stretch, Thomas made pars on the 14th, 15th and 16th, then birdied the difficult par-3 17th after an aggressive tee shot to 14 feet on a green guarded on three sides by water, allowing him to conservatively play the dangerous 18th with a three-shot lead on his way to clinching the victory with a tap-in bogey.

A Young Star

By earning the PGA title with his steady play throughout the final round, Thomas has also earned his rightful place among golf’s young stars, especially alongside his friend Spieth.

Thomas and Spieth, both 24, grew up playing together as two of the best junior golfers in the world.  Both represented the U.S. in the Junior Ryder Cup (Spieth 2008, ’10; Thomas 2010) and Walker Cup (Spieth 2011, Thomas 2013), contributing to American victories in each event.  Both would eventually lead a college team to a national championship (Spieth at Texas in 2012; Thomas at Alabama in 2013).

Both Spieth and Thomas appeared in a PGA Tour event at age 16.  Spieth opened eyes with a 16th-place finish at the 2010 Valero Texas Open, but a few months earlier Thomas had shot an opening 65 in the Wyndham Championship and become the third-youngest player to make the cut in a PGA Tour event, proving his game’s strength to all in attendance that week in Greensboro–myself included.

Spieth has had more success since the two turned pro, but that’s at least partially because Spieth turned pro before Thomas, and had more PGA Tour opportunities through sponsor exemptions, while Thomas had to qualify for the Tour through the second-tier Web.com Tour.

But now, Thomas is catching up in the most-viewed category of success–major championships–by ironically winning the one major Spieth lacks.

The major title puts Thomas a leg up on others in the tight-knit group of young stars.  Other young guns still seeking their first major include Daniel Berger and Smylie Kaufman from the U.S. and international players including Jon Rahm, Emiliano Grillo and Matsuyama, who went on to tie for fifth Sunday and has finished second to Thomas in two other events this season.  Rickie Fowler, who was also waiting to congratulate Thomas at the 18th green, is older (28) than some of the other players, but is close with Thomas, Spieth and others of the young wave.

Thomas will also be the favorite for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors as the Tour enters the FedEx Cup Playoffs next week.  Thomas leads the Tour with four wins, all by two or more strokes, including one in a major and one in January’s SBS Tournament of Champions.  On January 12, Thomas became the youngest of eight players in PGA Tour history to break 60, shooting 59 on his way to a win at the Sony Open in Hawaii.  Thomas also tied a U.S. Open record with a 63 in the third round before finishing ninth.

The last time two players under 25 won back-to-back majors was in 1925, when Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen won the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.

The names Jones and Sarazen were commonly heard in major championship conversations over the next decade.

We know the name Spieth will similarly be a part of the conversation for the extended foreseeable future.

But now, after earning his first major, Justin Thomas has earned his place in that conversation too.

Fast Five: Storylines Entering the PGA Championship

The final major of the 2017 golf season starts Thursday, as the 99th PGA Championship begins Thursday at Quail Hollow in Charlotte.

The tournament field, which is annually the deepest in golf, features 97 of the top 100 players in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Here are the biggest storylines entering this week’s event.

Quail Hollow

The Charlotte country club, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship each May with the exception of this year, is hosting a major championship for the first time, although it likely won’t be the last.  The PGA of America has shown its affection for the venue, as it was in the running for the 2020 and 2024 Ryder Cups.  It will also host the 2021 President’s Cup.

In a typical major championship (besides the Masters), the field is playing a venue that hosts that event once every few years that they may not have played since the last time a major was there (and younger players may not have played at all).  But at Quail Hollow, the players are all very familiar with the course from playing it in the Wells Fargo Championship each year.

A big factor in the 7,600-yard layout landing big events is the finishing stretch.  The 14th and 15th holes play relatively easy–although both have water in play–as a short par-four and a reachable par-five, but they are the calm before the storm.

The following three-hole finishing stretch, known as “The Green Mile,” often play as the three toughest holes on the course:  The 16th is a long par-four with water to the left and behind the green; the 17th is a long par-three with water on three sides of the green, and a penal collection area to the right; the 18th is a long par-four with a punishing creek down the entire left side, and imposing bunkers on the right on both the drive and approach.

If a player needs to play the final three holes in even-par to win on Sunday, they will have earned it if they end up hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy.  In the event of a tie, the PGA’s unique three-hole aggregate playoff would be played over these three difficult holes.

Quail Hollow is becoming the third course in North Carolina to become a major, and the first in Charlotte.  Pinehurst No. 2, a resort course 80 miles east of Charlotte, hosted the 1936 PGA and the U.S. Open in 1999, 2005 and 2014; Tanglewood, a public course in suburban Winston-Salem, hosted the 1974 PGA.

There are always questions regarding the weather for a major championship in the summer in the South, and while the temperature will be in the mid-80s for the week–a best case scenario for August in Charlotte–but scattered thunderstorms are expected throughout the week, which may challenge tournament organizers in trying to finish the event by dusk on Sunday.

Rory McIlroy

In seven Wells Fargo starts at Quail Hollow, McIlroy has two wins and has only finished outside the top 10 once.  His four-shot win in 2010 was his first on the PGA Tour, while his 2015 win set the tournament record for scoring (21-under 267) and margin of victory (seven shots).

McIlroy won the PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014, although after winning four majors in a three-year span from 2011-14 he hasn’t won one since his triumph at Valhalla.  But given McIlroy’s success at Quail Hollow, perhaps that could change this week.

McIlroy tied for fifth at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, shooting four rounds of 69 or better (the first time he’s done so the 2014 PGA), and tied for fourth in the last major at The Open Championship, matching his best major finish since his 2014 PGA win.

The PGA Championship comes just weeks after McIlroy’s highly-publicized split with longtime caddie J.P. Fitzgerald.  Harry Diamond, a friend who was the best man in McIlroy’s wedding, is temporarily carrying the bag for McIlroy, who said the situation has allowed him a fresh perspective on his shot selection and tournament preparation.

Jordan Spieth

After winning The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale three weeks ago, Jordan Spieth is now a PGA Championship win away from becoming the sixth player to win all four majors in a career, the “career grand slam.”

This week marks Spieth’s one and only chance to become the youngest to complete the career slam; if he doesn’t win the PGA until next year, he would be older than Tiger Woods was at the time he completed the career grand slam in 2000.  This major is the first of three straight with a player having a chance at completing the career slam:  Rory McIlroy can finish it at The Masters, and Phil Mickelson can at the U.S. Open.

Spieth tied for 13th at the Bridgestone in his first start since his Open triumph, but including The Open has won two of his last three starts.

Spieth only has one start at Quail Hollow–a tie for 32nd in the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship before he turned 20–but he has been successful on relatively unfamiliar major venues before:  he finished second in his first Masters (and won the following year), won the first U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, missed a playoff by one at St. Andrews in his first start there, finished second behind Jason Day’s domination at Whistling Straits, and won at Royal Birkdale in July.  With Spieth’s superb all-around game, he can win on any track at any time.

He’s also proven he can win back-to-back majors, doing so in the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy as players to do so in the 21st century.

Hideki Matsuyama

The world’s third-ranked player is coming off an impressive win Sunday in Akron, but he’s becoming a potential story in each major due to his consistency on the PGA Tour.

Matsuyama’s 2016-17 season started with wins at the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Hero World Challenge last fall, and the Phoenix Open in Feburary.  The Japanese star slumped from mid-February until the U.S. Open, with a tie for 11th at Augusta as his only top 20 in the stretch, but after a tie for second in the U.S. Open, a tie for 14th in The Open Championship, and last week’s win Matsuyama now leads the FedEx Cup Standings just two weeks before the FedEx Cup Playoffs begin.

Matsuyama is already the most accomplished Japanese player of all-time, and now he’s trying to do something only one other Asian player–South Korean Y.E. Yang–has done:  win a major championship (Yang won the 2009 PGA).

As accomplished as young stars like Rickie Fowler and veterans like Lee Westwood are, Matsuyama is now clearly the best player without a major title–but that distinction could change by Sunday night.

PGA Moving to May

Perhaps the biggest story in the days ahead of the 99th PGA Championship is about the tournament’s future, as the PGA of America announced this week the PGA Championship will move to May, starting in 2019.

The PGA has been nicknamed “Glory’s Last Shot”–organizers even used the phrase as an event slogan at one time–as the event has been the last chance to win a major in a calendar year.  That will change with the move to May, giving the PGA the second-spot in the major championship lineup between the Masters and the U.S. Open.

The Players Championship, which is not a major but is considered the biggest non-major tournament in the world–will move from its current May date back to March, when it was played from its inception until 2007.  The BMW PGA Championship, which is the flagship event of the European Tour and is also currently played in mid-May, is expected to move to September.

The move will take the PGA off of a date that was strongly affected by golf’s return to the Olympic Games in 2016; now, the PGA won’t have to move up two weeks as it did a year ago to accommodate the Olympic golf tournament.

Another factor is the PGA Tour’s rumored plans for a larger schedule overhaul, potentially moving the FedEx Cup Playoffs up to August in 2019 to avoid weekend competition with football that currently exists in September.

If that move happens, the game of golf will have a marquee event each month from March to August:  The Players, the Masters, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, The Open Championship and the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

Other Notes: 

Jimmy Walker holds an unusual combination of titles this week–defending champion and sleeper.  His struggles since his first major win 52 weeks ago can, at least partially, be attributed to Lyme Disease, but Walker showed flashes of brilliance last week at the Bridgestone with a Friday 65 on his way to a tie for 28th.

Dustin Johnson has been the top-ranked player in the world since the spring, although he’s struggled–at least by number-one standards–since the back injury that took him out of the Masters.  But Johnson has finished eighth and 17th the last two weeks, including a 68-66 finish at the Bridgestone, and his length will be advantageous at Quail Hollow.

Masters champion Sergio Garcia and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka are playing the first two rounds with Spieth in the traditional pairing of the season’s first three major winners.  Garcia and Koepka are trying to join Spieth (2015), Mark O’Meara (1998), Jack Burke Jr. (1956) and Gene Sarazen (1922) as players to win their first two majors in the same season.

Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els are both starting their 100th major championship.  The pair have combined for nine majors (Mickelson five, Els four), including Mickelson’s 2005 PGA win at Baltusrol, and Mickelson has six top fives in the last 10 Wells Fargo Championships at Quail Hollow, including a second to McIlroy in 2010.

Rickie Fowler’s first PGA Tour win came at Quail Hollow in 2012, in a thrilling playoff triumph over Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points.  Could his first major championship win come at the same venue?  He finished ninth last week at the Bridgestone with a 67-66 weekend.

Webb Simpson has just two top 10’s since February, but the 2012 U.S. Open champion is playing on his home course at Quail Hollow.  With some home cooking and his local knowledge, Simpson is a sleeper this week.

Charley Hoffman finished second and third in the last two PGA Tour events and is trending well in majors, finishing in the top 22 of all three majors so far this year, including an eighth at the U.S. Open.

Two-time major winner Zach Johnson finished second at the Bridgestone, and has three top 10s in the Wells Fargo Championship.  A win would leave him just a U.S. Open title away from the career grand slam.

Other former Wells Fargo Championship winners in the field include Vijay Singh (2005), Jim Furyk (2006), Sean O’Hair (2009), Lucas Glover (2011), J.B. Holmes (2014) and James Hahn (2016).  Brian Harman won the Wells Fargo in May, but the event was held at Eagle Point in Wilmington while Quail Hollow prepared for the PGA Championship.

Prediction:
I know it sounds like a movie script, but I can totally see the tournament unfolding this way:  An epic back-nine duel between McIlroy, Spieth, Fowler or Matsuyama, and an unexpected contender (Quail Hollow has produced some surprise winners, after all), culminating in a Spieth-McIlroy playoff, which McIlroy wins, denying Spieth the career grand slam (at least for now). 

 

 

99th PGA Championship
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET):

7:45 a.m.:  Hideki Matsuyama, Ernie Els, Ian Poulter
8:25 a.m.:  Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth
8:35 a.m.:  Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson
8:55 a.m.:  Zach Johnson, Lee Westwood, Charley Hoffman
1:05 p.m.:  Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Webb Simpson
1:25 p.m.:  Jimmy Walker, Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner
1:35 p.m.:  Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler
1:45 p.m.:  Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Chris Kirk

PGA Championship winners
(Year, Player, Nationality, Venue)
Match Play Era:
1916 Jim Barnes, England, Siwanoy
1919 Jim Barnes, England, Enginners
1920 Jock Hutchinson, Scotland, Flossmoor
1921 Walter Hagen, U.S., Inwood
1922 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Oakmont
1923 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Pelham
1924 Walter Hagen, U.S., French Lick Springs
1925 Walter Hagen, U.S., Olympia Fields
1926 Walter Hagen, U.S., Salisbury
1927 Walter Hagen, U.S., Cedar Crest
1928 Leo Diegel, U.S., Baltimore C.C.
1929 Leo Diegel, U.S., Hillcrest
1930 Tommy Armour, Scotland, Fresh Meadow
1931 Tom Creavy, U.S., Wannamoisett
1932 Olin Dutra, U.S., Keller
1933 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Blue Mound
1934 Paul Runyan, U.S., The Park C.C.
1935 Johnny Revolta, U.S., Twin Hills
1936 Denny Shute, U.S., Pinehurst No. 2
1937 Denny Shute, U.S., Pittsburgh Field Club
1938 Paul Runyan, U.S., Shawnee
1939 Henry Picard, U.S., Pomonok
1940 Byron Nelson, U.S., Hershey
1941 Vic Ghezzi, U.S., Cherry Hills
1942 Sam Snead, U.S., Seaview
1944 Bob Hamilton, U.S., Manito
1945 Byron Nelson, U.S., Moraine
1946 Ben Hogan, U.S., Portland G.C.
1947 Jim Ferrier, Australia, Plum Hollow
1948 Ben Hogan, U.S., Norwood Hills
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., Hermitage
1950 Chandler Harper, U.S., Scioto
1951 Sam Snead, U.S., Oakmont
1952 Jim Turnesa, U.S., Big Spring
1953 Walter Burkemo, U.S., Birmingham (Mich.) C.C.
1954 Chick Harbert, U.S., Keller
1955 Doug Ford, U.S., Meadowbrook
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., Blue Hill
1957 Lionel Herbert, U.S., Miami Valley
Stroke Play Era:
1958 Dow Finsterwald, U.S., Llanerch
1959 Bob Rosburg, U.S., Minneapolis G.C.
1960 Jay Hebert, U.S., Firestone
1961 Jerry Barber, U.S., Olympia Fields
1962 Gary Player, South Africa, Aronimink
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Dallas A.C.
1964 Bobby Nichols, U.S., Columbus C.C.
1965 Dave Marr, U.S., Laurel Valley
1966 Al Geiberger, U.S., Firestone
1967 Don January, U.S., Columbine
1968 Julius Boros, U.S., Pecan Valley
1969 Raymond Floyd, U.S., NCR C.C. 
1970 Dave Stockton, U.S., Southern Hills
1971 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., PGA National
1972 Gary Player, South Africa, Oakland Hills
1973 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Canterbury
1974 Lee Trevino, U.S., Tanglewood
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S. Firestone
1976 Dave Stockton, U.S., Congressional
1977 Lanny Wadkins, U.S., Pebble Beach
1978 John Mahaffey, U.S., Oakmont
1979 David Graham, Australia, Oakland Hills
1980 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Oak Hill
1981 Larry Nelson, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
1982 Raymond Floyd, U.S., Southern Hills
1983 Hal Sutton, U.S., Riviera
1984 Lee Trevino, U.S., Shoal Creek
1985 Hubert Green, U.S., Cherry Hills
1986 Bob Tway, U.S., Inverness
1987 Larry Nelson, U.S., PGA National
1988 Jeff Sluman, U.S., Oak Tree
1989 Payne Stewart, U.S., Kemper Lakes
1990 Wayne Grady, Austrailia, Shoal Creek
1991 John Daly, U.S., Crooked Stick
1992 Nick Price, Zimbabwe, Bellerive
1993 Paul Azinger, U.S., Inverness
1994 Nick Price, Zimbabwe, Bellerive
1995 Steve Elkington, Australia, Riviera
1996 Mark Brooks, U.S., Valhalla
1997 Davis Love III, U.S., Winged Foot
1998 Vijay Singh, Fiji, Sahalee
1999 Tiger Woods, U.S., Medinah
2000 Tiger Woods, U.S., Valhalla
2001 David Toms, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
2002 Rich Beem, U.S., Hazeltine
2003 Shaun Micheel, U.S., Oak Hill
2004 Vijay Singh, Fiji, Whistling Straits
2005 Phil Mickelson, U.S., Baltusrol
2006 Tiger Woods, U.S., Medinah
2007 Tiger Woods, U.S., Southern Hills
2008 Padraig Harrington, Ireland, Oakland Hills
2009 Y.E. Yang, South Korea, Hazeltine
2010 Martin Kaymer, Germany, Whistling Straits
2011 Keegan Bradley, U.S., Atlanta A.C.
2012 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, Kiawah Island
2013 Jason Dufner, U.S., Oak Hill
2014 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, Valhalla
2015 Jason Day, Australia, Whistling Straits
2016 Jimmy Walker, U.S., Baltusrol
Future Sites:
August 2017 Quail Hollow (Charlotte, N.C.)
August 2018 Bellerive (St. Louis, Mo.)
May 2019 Bethpage Black (Farmingdale, N.Y.)
May 2020 TPC Harding Park (San Francisco, Calif.)
May 2021 Kiawah Island (Kiawah Island, S.C.)
May 2022 Trump National (Bedminster, N.J.)
May 2023 Oak Hill (Rochester, N.Y.)

Column: Not the Next Tiger, But the First Spieth

After Jordan Spieth won his third career major championship on Sunday, four days before his 24th birthday, pundits and fans alike inevitably compared the talented Texan to Tiger Woods.

While Spieth’s career is off to an outstanding start, much like Woods two decades ago, he is not “the next Tiger Woods.”

He’s the first Jordan Spieth.

I not trying to be a smart-aleck, because the fact is that Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods have fewer similarities than some may think.

There are certainly comparisons between the two.  Both won their first three majors at a very young age—Spieth is actually about six months younger than Woods was at the time of his third major.

Both have shown mental strength to be a major key to their success, and both have an innate ability to make big putts from anywhere when needed down the stretch.

Woods used countless Houdini-like shots to escape trouble in many of his major triumphs, and Spieth used a similar shot Sunday on his 3-wood recovery from the practice area 50 yards right of the 13th fairway, turning a near-certain “big number” into a bogey that kept him in contention, which he followed with a 5-under stretch over the next four holes.

But on and off the course, there are major differences between Woods and Spieth.

On the course, Tiger’s first three major wins were more dominant than Spieth’s.  Woods’ first three major wins came by a combined 28 shots, including victories by 12 at the 1997 Masters and 15 at the 2000 U.S. Open.

The combined eight-shot margin of Spieth’s first three majors is still quite impressive, yet is nothing compared to the utter dominance of Woods.  And while Spieth’s 2015 Masters win at 18-under 270 matched Woods’ record for low score in the event, his 18-under came on an Augusta track softened by rain, where 11 players finished 7-under or better; in 1997, Woods was the only player 7-under or better.

After Woods’ third major, he promptly won the next three majors, the 2000 Open and PGA and 2001 Masters, a feat that will be difficult for Spieth to duplicate.  That said, Spieth will have one chance to win the career grand slam at a younger age than Tiger, when he competes in the PGA Championship next month in Charlotte.

Off the course, Woods can be cocky while holding things close to the vest, bluntly answering questions about his golf career and life.  Spieth is one of the humblest professional athletes in recent memory, and is very candid, honest and open.

Woods, the Buddhist son of a middle-class Green Beret, grew up playing the municipal courses of southern California.  Spieth, a Catholic son of a web CEO, grew up on country clubs of suburban Dallas.

Woods, who has a fascination with the Navy SEALs, worked out obsessively in his prime and built a massive muscular physique, using his strength to pull off some of his incredible shots on the course.

While Spieth has shown some strength at times, he is less of a “bomber” of the golf ball, and physically looks more like someone I might have competed against in collegiate intramurals than one of the best athletes in the world.

From a cultural impact level, Spieth has no chance to equal the magnitude of Woods’ career.  The emergence of a black star who also has Asian heritage in a sport historically dominated by white men brought golf to an entire new audience.

While Spieth has throngs of fans he has, more or less, excited existing golf fans with the emergence of a new star more than he has taken the game to new audiences.

These two stars are quite different, so instead of pinning the weight of the “the next Tiger Woods” label on a player—which is quite unfair to anyone, considering there will likely never be another player to match the talent, domination and impact of Woods—let’s simply sit back and watch what someone with the talent of Jordan Spieth can do next.

No, Jordan Spieth is not “the next Tiger Woods.”

He’s the first Jordan Spieth, and that alone is exciting for the game of golf.

 

 

The 146th Open Championship
Leaders:
1. Jordan Spieth, U.S., -12 (65-69-65-69–268), becomes second youngest player to win three legs of the career grand slam (behind Jack Nicklaus)
2. Matt Kuchar, U.S., -9 (65-71-66-69–271)
3. Haotong Li, China, -6 (69-73-69-63–274)
t4. Rory McIlroy, N. Ireland, -5 (71-68-69-67–275)
t4. Rafa Cabrera Bello, Spain, -5 (67-73-67-68–275)
t6. Matthew Southgate, England, -4 (72-72-67-65–276)
t6. Marc Leishman, New Zealand, -4 (69-76-66-65–276)
t6. Alex Noren, Sweden, -4 (68-72-69-67–276)
t6. Branden Grace, S. Africa, -4 (70-74-62-70–276), in third round became the first player in major championship history to shoot 62
t6. Brooks Koepka, U.S., -4 (65-72-68-71–276)
Notables:
t11. Henrik Stenson, Sweden, -3 (69-73-65-70–277), defending champion
t14. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan, -2 (68-72-66-72–278)
t22. Rickie Fowler, U.S., E (71-71-67-71–280)
t27. Jason Day, Australia, +1 (69-76-65-71–281)
t37. Sergio Garcia, Spain, +2 (73-69-68-72–282)
t54. Justin Rose, England, +4 (71-74-69-70–284)
t54. Dustin Johnson, U.S., +4 (71-72-64-77–284)
t62. Alfie Plant, England, +6 (71-73-69-73–286), low amateur
Phil Mickelson (+10) missed the cut; Tiger Woods did not play.

Open Champions, since 2000
2000 Tiger Woods
2001 David Duval
2002 Ernie Els
2003 Ben Curtis
2004 Todd Hamilton
2005 Tiger Woods
2006 Tiger Woods
2007 Padraig Harrington
2008 Padraig Harrington
2009 Stewart Cink
2010 Louis Oosthuizen
2011 Darren Clarke
2012 Ernie Els
2013 Phil Mickelson
2014 Rory McIlroy
2015 Zach Johnson
2016 Henrik Stenson
2017 Jordan Spieth

Column: Hootie Johnson Leaves Behind a Complicated Legacy

William “Hootie” Johnson, the former chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, has died at age 86.

Johnson is one of only six men to serve as chairman of Augusta National, and while The Masters reached new heights during Johnson’s tenure, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.

Under his tenure as chairman from 1998-2006, Johnson oversaw the lengthening of Augusta National as new technology allowed golfers to hit the ball further, ensuring the course remained a tough test for the world’s best players each year on the second weekend in April.  Johnson also helped to keep the field truly elite, making changes to the tournament’s qualifying procedure.

Johnson helped bring the Masters to a wider audience, as he expanded television coverage of the tournament to the entire 18-hole course for the first time–it was previously contained to only the final 10 holes–and reopened the waiting list for tournament badges for fans for the first time since the 1980s.

But Johnson was also in charge of Augusta National during its biggest controversy:  the highly publicized disagreement with Martha Burk over the club’s policy not to allow female members.

In 2002, Martha Burk, who was chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, wrote a letter to Johnson suggesting Augusta National’s male-only membership policy was sexist.

In Johnson’s response, which played out publicly, he claimed the club had the same rights as any private club, citing the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts and sororities/fraternities as examples of organizations which allowed membership to only one gender.

However, Johnson’s tone in his response was less than subtle, calling Burk’s letter “offensive and coercive,” and saying the club would not change their policy “at the point of a bayonet,” and they would not be “bullied, threatened or intimidated.”  The response sparking a national controversy over the issue, with Burk leading protests against the club, including one near the course property in Augusta during the 2003 Masters.

Johnson, speaking as the public face of the Augusta National membership, certainly came across as stubborn, and many saw the response as misogynist and discriminatory.  This characterization of Johnson is ironic, because his personal history shows a much more progressive man than the one portrayed in 2002.

Johnson, a former running back at the University of South Carolina, worked as a banker in Greenwood, South Carolina before rising to prominence in the business world as an executive at Bank of America before becoming chairman at Augusta National.

As a businessman, Johnson served as co-chairman of a committee that developed a plan to desegregate state colleges and universities in South Carolina, and was a trustee at historically black Benedict College.  As a banker, Johnson often appointed both women and African-Americans to his corporate boards in an era before such appointments were common, and loaned money to minorities when others would not.  He was also the first prominent businessman to suggest removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House.

U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn (D-SC) defended Johnson to USA Today in 2002:  “His whole life has been just the opposite of what he’s being portrayed.  He’s always come down on the side of access and equality. He’s not a prejudiced person in any way. He is not deserving of this controversy.”

Johnson, who was a member of Augusta National since 1968 after joining at the invitation of club co-founder Bobby Jones, eventually resigned as chairman in 2006 at age 75, becoming chairman emeritus; the club admitted two female members, Condeleeza Rice and Darla Moore, in August 2012.

Augusta National and The Masters certainly grew during Johnson’s term as chairman, but after serving in a role where most haven’t been a household name–current chairman Billy Payne is still probably better known among non-golf fans as the CEO of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics–he’ll likely be most remembered for the standoff on Augusta’s membership policy, making his legacy complicated as he is remembered in the coming days.

 

 

Chairmen of Augusta National Golf Club:
Clifford Roberts, 1931-76
William Lane, 1976-80

Hord Hardin, 1980-91
Jackson Stephens, 1991-98
Hootie Johnson, 1998-2006
Billy Payne, 2006-present

Column: Earnhardt’s Daytona Experiences Are a Microcosm of His Career

Tonight, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will lead the field to green in the Coke Zero 400, starting a race at Daytona for (maybe) the final time.

But while it’s easy to foresee a future one-off run in a Daytona race at some point–his pole for tonight’s race does qualify him for next year’s Clash after all–tonight marks the final time that the 14-time defending Most Popular Driver will for sure fasten his belts in a Cup Series race at the World Center of Racing.

If this is, in fact, Dale’s Daytona denouement, what a roller-coaster ride it’s been.

The ride at the two-and-a-half mile superspeedway has been mostly good, and on some occasions it’s been great.

Earnhardt Jr. grew up coming to Daytona with his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who himself had plenty of success on Daytona’s high banks, but took 20 years to win the Daytona 500 after numerous heartbreaks.

Once he himself could drive, Earnhardt Jr. quickly became as proficient as his father at restrictor-plate racing at Daytona.  Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Daytona 500 driving for family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc., then after a move to Hendrick Motorsports and a mid-career slump, won the Great American Race again in 2014.

But Daytona has also been the site of the darkest moment for Earnhardt Jr., not just his career but his life.  It was here in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, battling to protect third while Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Michael Waltrip fought for the victory, which Waltrip won.

Coming back to Daytona that July wasn’t easy.  A week before the 2001 Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt Jr. drove to the fourth turn to meditate, to “make peace,” as he later put it, and to bring closure before returning to drive the track that claimed his father’s life.

Yet that Saturday night when the checkered flag fell, it was Earnhardt Jr. who claimed the victory, with Waltrip second, a reverse of their 1-2 finish in February that was never celebrated due to Earnhardt Sr.’s death.

The defining image of Earnhardt Jr.’s career has to be the celebration, on top of his white and red #8 Chevrolet in the Daytona infield, giving a bear hug to Waltrip who joined him for the liberating moment.

I can count on one hand the number of times I could hear the roar of the crowd over the roar of the engines in a race I watched on television.  The moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Coke Zero 400 in 2001 is not only one of these moments, but is the most pronounced–in other instances the roar of the engines was still obviously discernible, but here the crowd was so loud the engines were, unfathomably, drowned out to little more than a faint hum.

If he can win tonight in possibly his final Daytona start, the reaction of the over 100,000 fans in attendance may be just as remarkable.

Earnhardt Jr. also won the 2015 Coke Zero 400, making him one of 11 drivers to win the event twice.  He is also one of 11 drivers to win the Daytona 500 twice, and one of only six to win both the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 twice (Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott).  In total, he has 17 wins at Daytona, including two wins in the Clash, five in Duels (Daytona 500 qualifying races), and six in the Xfinity Series.

Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona career is a microcosm of his life–he’s had big shoes to fill in the shadow of his father, and while he hasn’t statistically had as much success as his father, he’s certainly become something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would be proud of, both on and off the racetrack.

 

Go Time for Several Star Drivers

Earnhardt Jr. is in a must-win situation over the next 10 races, as he tries to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs, but he’s not the only star who finds themselves in a tight spot entering the regular season’s stretch run.

There are 16 spots in the playoffs, with race winners getting first priority.  10 drivers have earned a playoff spot through a race win so far this season, leaving just six spots for everyone else with 10 races left before the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Richmond.  With a strong chance of additional drivers winning over the next 10 races, that bubble could get even tighter.

Established stars searching for their first win of 2017 include Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth, and all have been knocking on the door of victory lane in recent weeks.

Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have also been close, as they each seek their first career win.  Joey Logano won at Richmond on April 30, but the win doesn’t count for playoff qualification due to his car failing post-race inspection (illegal rear suspension).

While race winners are in the playoffs (provided that they stay in the top 30 in points, which shouldn’t be a problem for any current winner), everyone else is fighting for wins to lock themselves in and not have to worry about squeezing themselves inside the increasingly tight points bubble.

 

The King Turns 80

Richard Petty, “The King” of stock-car racing, turns 80 on Sunday.

Petty won 200 races and seven championships over his 35-year Cup Series career, but that’s not even the biggest reason he’s arguably the most popular NASCAR driver of all-time.

If there was ever a competitor who wanted Petty’s advice, or a fan who wanted a handshake or Petty’s iconic autograph, they have never left the track disappointed.

Even 25 years after his career ended, the model of what a NASCAR driver should be on and off the track is still very much what Petty was:  drive fast, and after you’ve won thank and sponsors the fans any way you can, whether it’s through autographs or promotional appearances.

I’ve never met Richard Petty face-to-face, but I am one of the thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of fans who has his signature.  After I wrote a set of interview questions for Petty in a third grade class assignment, a family friend who volunteered at Victory Junction Gang, a camp for chronically ill children in Randleman, N.C. founded by Richard’s son Kyle in memory of Kyle’s late son Adam, passed along the questions to The King.

A few weeks later, I got a package from Richard Petty Motorsports, with Petty’s autograph and the typed answers to my interview questions.

To this day, Petty is by far the most famous person I’ve ever “interviewed.”

Petty will celebrate his 80th birthday as he’s celebrated many of the previous 79:  at the racetrack.

Petty has been present for every Daytona 500, driving the first 34 of them before attending the most recent 25 as a car owner, and was even present at the first Cup Series race in 1949.  He worked on his father’s pit crew before driving, started 1,184 Cup Series races, and has hung around the racetrack in the years since his 1992 “Fan Appreciation Tour.”

Tonight is the 2,515th race in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history; I’d be willing to bet The King has missed less than 100 of them.

The company colors (still Petty blue) will be carried by Darrell Wallace Jr. in the #43 Smithfield Ford, starting 28th in tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.  While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is certainly the sentimental favorite, wouldn’t it be fitting for The King’s milestone to be celebrated with a trip to victory lane?

Happy birthday, King Richard.  And thank you.

 

 

 

2017 Coke Zero 400
Lineup

Row 1:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott
Row 2:  Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 4:  Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
Row 5:  Ryan Blaney, Danica Patrick
Row 6:  Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson
Row 7:  Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne
Row 8:  Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch
Row 9:  Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin
Row 10:  Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez
Row 11:  Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Paul Menard
Row 13:  Martin Truex Jr., Landon Cassill
Row 14:  A.J. Allmendinger, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 15:  Chris Buescher, David Ragan
Row 16:  Darrell Wallace Jr., Brendan Gaughan
Row 17:  Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon
Row 18:  Cole Whitt, Corey Lajoie
Row 19:  Reed Sorenson, Ryan Sieg
Row 20:  Jeffrey Earnhardt, D.J. Kennington

Coke Zero 400 Winners
1959 Fireball Roberts
1960 Jack Smith
1961 David Pearson
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Fireball Roberts
1964 A.J. Foyt
1965 A.J. Foyt
1966 Sam McQuagg
1967 Cale Yarborough
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 LeeRoy Yarbrough
1970 Donnie Allison
1971 Bobby Isaac
1972 David Pearson
1973 David Pearson
1974 David Pearson
1975 Richard Petty
1976 Cale Yarborough
1977 Richard Petty
1978 David Pearson
1979 Neil Bonnett
1980 Bobby Allison
1981 Cale Yarborough
1982 Bobby Allison
1983 Buddy Baker
1984 Richard Petty
1985 Greg Sacks
1986 Tim Richmond
1987 Bobby Allison
1988 Bill Elliott
1989 Davey Allison
1990 Dale Earnhardt 
1991 Bill Elliott
1992 Ernie Irvan
1993 Dale Earnhardt
1994 Jimmy Spencer
1995 Jeff Gordon
1996 Sterling Marlin
1997 John Andretti
1998 Jeff Gordon
1999 Dale Jarrett
2000 Jeff Burton
2001 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2002 Michael Waltrip
2003 Greg Biffle
2004 Jeff Gordon
2005 Tony Stewart
2006 Tony Stewart
2007 Jamie McMurray
2008 Kyle Busch
2009 Tony Stewart
2010 Kevin Harvick
2011 David Ragan
2012 Tony Stewart
2013 Jimmie Johnson
2014 Aric Almirola
2015 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2016 Brad Keselowski

Fans Week Roundtable, Part II: Sports Heroes and Hysteria

In Part I of my Stiles on Sports Fans Week roundtable discussion with Justin Kenley (Cardinals, Panthers, North Carolina fan), Ryan Pittman (Cubs, Packers, South Carolina fan) and Garrett Black (Clemson fan), we discussed both exciting wins and heartbreaking losses they’ve experienced as fans.

In Part II, I asked more about their fan experiences, including who they admire on the field and the crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.

 

SOS:  Who is your favorite player, and why?

Justin:  For the Panthers it’s hard, but I’ve got to say Luke (Kuechly).  And not even just from that fandom perspective; I just love how he brings it every single play.  The dude is everywhere.  And I guess that’s something that, as a fan, you appreciate a guy going all out.

For the Tar Heels, it’s hard man.  I love me some Marcus Paige, though.  I just love his story.  Kind of a guy that not a lot of people knew, coming out (of high school), and “is he really going to be that good,” and to carry the team the last two years the way he did, that was just, I love Marcus Paige.

And Cardinals, good gosh, if this was six years ago, I would’ve said (Albert) Pujols, without even a wink, definitely.  I don’t know, man, I like so many of them, for different reasons.  There’s very few guys that we’ve had in the last few years that I said, “man, I just don’t like that person.”  If I had to say my top ones, I love Molina (Yadier Molina), because I was a catcher, and I think he’s just amazing at what he does.  I love the way Carp (Matt Carpenter) plays, I love the way Waino (Adam Wainwright) pitches, and then… it’s hard to narrow that one down.

Ryan:  There are three.  Jason Grilli is probably my favorite player of all time.  I met him when I was 10 years old at a baseball camp in Toledo.  He actually taught me how to bunt.  He’s a relief pitcher, and he was a nobody then, and I guess he’s kind of a nobody now, but he’s had some times where he’s been closer with the Pirates, he’s been closer with the Braves, and the occasional game saved for the Blue Jays now.

I met him 12 years ago when he was nobody, and I’ve watched him ascend throughout the major leagues, and he’s almost 40 now and still pitching.  It’s kind of cool to be like, hey, I’ve got his autograph right there.  It’s kind of cool.

Another is Omar Infante.  I just watched him growing up, and he played the same position I did, and he played for the Mud Hens in Toledo.  He played shortstop, then moved to second base; I played shortstop, then moved to second base.  And it was kind of cool.

Carlos Pena is also on that list.  There was one time I called him over to sign his baseball card, and they asked everyone to stand for the national anthem.  He’s holding my pen and my baseball card, and he says “Hold on,” and puts it on the railing, turns to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem, then he grabs the card, signs it, and then runs over to first base to play.  He went from me to first base to start the game, and it was just really cool.

And then he went on the next year, two years later, to hit 40-something home runs for those same Rays that I described earlier, the ’08 Rays, and he became a huge power hitter, and I still remembered that fond memory as a kid.  Kind of changed the way I think about professional athletes.

Garrett:  I’m gonna have to go with Hunter Renfrow.  Not only did he catch the winning touchdown, but he’s got the story and the character to go behind it, and it’s just great to see a former walk-on catch a touchdown and then be vainly tackled by three future draft prospects.

 

SOS:  Who is a “role player” you’ve always liked, and why?

Justin:  Easily Skip Schumaker.  Just a guy that comes, and didn’t matter where he was playing, he was going to bring it, every day.

I’ll never forget in 2013, we went to St. Louis for my graduation present, and the Dodgers were playing, and it was the first time Skip had come back to St. Louis after he got let go, and man, Skip Schumaker, who a lot of people wouldn’t know his name, he got a standing ovation from like 40,000 people in Busch Stadium, and it was awesome.  It was just really, really cool.

If you know the Cardinals, you appreciate what he did.  Because he could play second base, right field, pinch hit.  You knew he was going to do something.

Ryan:  I’ve always been a fan of utility players in baseball.  Currently Ben Zobrist fits that, and I guess there are so many now.  It used to be a lot more rare.

Guys like Martin Prado, who’d play every infield position and every outfield position, and I appreciate that, they might not have a set position that they’re best at, but their bat is valuable enough and their leadership is valuable enough their team can’t take them out.  So they might not have an everyday spot, but they play everyday.

Garrett:  I really have to appreciate Cole Stoudt.  Can we call a backup quarterback a role player?  Because he was never gonna be the guy.

I mean, he was a starting guy, but the expectation was never to win a championship with Cole Stoudt.  But I think he provided leadership to keep the team together, in the Tajh (Boyd) to Deshaun (Watson) handoff, and got hurt just in time for Deshaun to come.  But I think the kind of leadership he provided for the team, in that transition year between Tajh and Deshaun truly taking over, kind of kept that team together.

SOS:  That’s interesting, because that’s not necessarily a popular opinion in Clemson fan circles.

Garrett:  Here’s the thing:  at any other school that wasn’t swimming in quarterback prospects, like Clemson has been lately, Cole Stoudt could’ve started.  I mean, he wasn’t great, and to be fair we kind of got spoiled with Tajh, so we kind of expected we’d get that kind of production, and to be fair we got better later on, but we should’ve known it was going to get worse before it got better.

 

SOS:  Besides your favorite teams’ known archrivals, who is one team you can’t stand?

Justin:  I really don’t like the Reds, but I feel like that falls in that rivalry a little bit.  There’s a couple of NFL teams I don’t like.  Really, the AFC North.  The Ravens, the Bengals, and (my fiance) Courtney would kill me because Courtney is a Bengals fan, but just, the way they play just irks me.  There’s not one team—I hate the Patriots, obviously, but I feel like everybody hates the Patriots, so I feel like that doesn’t really count.

I will say in basketball, I really don’t like Kentucky.  Kentucky just, I love beating Kentucky.  I don’t mind the whole one-and-done movement to an extent, but I kind of hate the way they’ve done it, and I just, I don’t really like Kentucky.

Ryan:  Typically because of fantasy sports, I don’t hate any team, because I need their players.  That’s tricky.

I don’t like the Mets.  I really don’t like the Royals either.   I feel kind of bad saying it, but like the kind of players they had that have now since passed who were frustrating to watch, you know, Yordano Ventura was just annoying… rest in peace.  He was trying to cause fights, and they seemed to be getting into fights with other teams because they didn’t think they were getting the respect they deserved, and I was like, “come on, play the game, earn the respect,” and that was really frustrating recently.  But yeah, the Mets.  The Mets just always beat my team, knocked us out.

Garrett:  Everyone hates Alabama, but we just beat them so I don’t have as much hatred in my heart anymore.  I’m probably going to have to go with Florida State next, although that’s a division rivalry.  It’s hard to hate Pitt (laughs).

I loved beating Ohio State (in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl).  That felt good.  Because everyone was telling us how Urban Meyer’s like the best coach ever, and to be fair, he’s a great coach, but it feels good to topple the big guys.

 

SOS:  Who is one team you wish you had been alive to watch or old enough to remember?

Justin:  I would have loved to seen, and I don’t have a pinpoint year, but I would’ve loved to have seen Stan Musial play for the Cardinals.  Just because he meant so much to my grandpa; I mean, that was my grandpa’s dude.

Ryan:  Actually there’s two.  The Yankees, back when they were with Babe Ruth, and Joe DiMaggio, and those Yankee greats, I’d love to see one of those Yankee teams play.  And then, more recently, but still before me, was the Big Red Machine.  Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan

SOS: Pete Rose

Ryan:  Yeah, I’d love to go back and watch them, because they were a dominant team, but they weren’t in a big city.  They were small market Reds winning games, pretty cool.

Garrett:  ’81 (Clemson), obviously.  That was the other golden era.

 

SOS:  Do you have any strange superstitions when your favorite teams play?

Justin:  If I go to one game, and what I wear works, I wear the same thing again.

Two years ago in the (NFL) playoffs, the first day we went it wasn’t that cold, so I wore my Luke Kuechly jersey, and just a hat or whatever, but then the next game it was really cold, it got colder, and I didn’t care, I just wore the same thing.  We won in this last time, I’ll win in it again.

I’ve never been like a crazy superstitious kind of guy.  I will always, though, if I’m watching my team play, I’m going to wear something of that team.  I will do that, even if it’s just sitting on the couch.

Ryan:  Sometimes, in a game that really matters, in football or baseball playoffs, something like that, if my team is struggling, say, two-thirds of the way through the game, and I’m not wearing any gear of that team, I’ll go track down a Cubs hat or a jersey or a Packers t-shirt, just to see if (it helps), just supporting.  Never the opposite, though.  If I’m wearing gear and they lose, I don’t take it off, but sometimes you’ll get halfway through a game and go, “oh shoot, I’m not supporting my team,” so you do whatever you can to make them get back in business.

Garrett:  I have a mechanical tiger that plays Tiger Rag.  He used to dance, but the wheels broke.  Every time we score any points, I always click his paw and make him play the Tiger Rag song, and while this probably has more to do with Dabo (Swinney) and Deshaun (Watson), it has only been wrong, like, three times in the last four seasons.

SOS:  What do you mean, “it’s only been wrong”?

Garrett:  Like, whenever I hit the button every time when we play, we always win.  Again, that probably has more to do with the players, but I like to think I’m contributing.

 

SOS:  What is a crazy or unique experience you’ve had while watching a game?

Justin:  I remember, it was so funny, because my dad is not a guy to like freak out on TV.  At the game, he’ll freak out and stuff, and yell, but on TV he just doesn’t.  And I vividly remember when Marcus Paige hit that shot (to tie the game) against Villanova last year, the shot that no one will ever remember except Carolina fans, my dad jumped off the couch and just screamed his head off, and was pumped.

And I remember, it was just so funny, because obviously I was caught up in the moment, freaking out, but it was just funny to me, because I was like, “my dad never gets this into it in a game.”

The Seahawks game two years ago in the playoffs (was crazy).  We made that huge run, 15-1, divisional playoffs, and I kid you not, the upper deck where we were sitting at, we did not sit down for the entirety of that game.

Like, we were up at first half, at kickoff, when they came out of the tunnel, and then we sat down at halftime, and then when the clock hit zero we left.  And it was just crazy.  Because like, I’ve been at games where you stand a lot, but just the way that season was rolling, and the electricity in the air, you didn’t want to sit down, and so that was pretty crazy.

I about hit Courtney in the face this year, when Luke Maye hit that shot against Kentucky.  I really did.  I was punching the air, I was going nuts.

I will say, I am really weird about, like—regular season, and I can just sit on my couch and chill, but like, if it’s the playoffs, I bring a chair, and I sit probably as close as me and you to the TV, and I’m in it.  I’m in it.  Because it’s every pitch.

Ryan:  I was at Wrigley Field in 2003 when Barry Bonds, in batting practice, hit a baseball over Sheffield, through a window across the street, and that video’s kind of gone popular now, a cool “I didn’t do it,” you know, that was pretty funny though, just to—I don’t think he even noticed that it was out there, and it was like “did he just…?”  Yeah, he just hit one across the street, through a window.  That stands out.

I seem to have been to a lot of games where Top 10 plays happen on SportsCenter.  You were at one where Andrelton Simmons made that sick play against the Mets that we didn’t see because people (standing in the aisle) blocked us.

SOS:  I kind of saw it.  You were a little more blocked.  The best play I’ve ever seen live.

Ryan:  It’s kind of cool, you see it in person and then the next day it’s #1 on SportsCenter.  I was at a Hawks and 76ers game and a dunk made #1 on SportsCenter, and I was sitting right there watching it.  That’s pretty sweet.

Garrett:  The year of the “Kick Six” in the Iron Bowl, we were sitting in a beach house, and the Iron Bowl was taking a little long to finish that year, so we had the Iron Bowl going on here (on one TV), and the Clemson-(South) Carolina game going on here (on another TV).

And I would much rather see us win and Alabama win—I don’t like Alabama, but I’d rather–I’d trade an Alabama win for a Clemson win, if that makes sense—but I was incredibly ecstatic watching, what’s his name, Chris Davis run that kick, that (missed) field goal back for a touchdown, but then my joy quickly turned into despair when Tajh Boyd proceeded to throw like six interceptions.

 

Tomorrow, Fans Week continues with a look at some of the crazy things I’ve ever heard and seen from fans at sporting events. 

Fans Week Roundtable, Part I: Gratifying Wins and Gut-Wrenching Losses

Most of us aren’t members of any team or coaching staff in any pro or college sport, but there is one position we all hold:  fan.

This week, Stiles on Sports will glimpse at the admiration for our favorite teams and players, the exciting wins, and the heartbreaking close calls that are all a part of fanhood.

Welcome to Fans Week.

To start, I talked to three friends (and fellow recent graduates of Anderson University) who are as big of sports fans as I am in a roundtable discussion about their experiences as a fan.

All three have had one or more teams they pull for win championships in recent years, and all have had agonizing near misses too.

Justin Kenley is a St. Louis Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and North Carolina Tar Heels fan.

Ryan Pittman pulls for the Chicago Cubs, Green Bay Packers and South Carolina Gamecocks.

Garrett Black is a Clemson Tigers football fan.  While he only has one team he is a diehard fan of, following that team has been a roller coaster ride over the last few years.

Our conversations covered the full gauntlet of fanhood:  Part I of this two-part roundtable includes discussion on joyous championship occasions and agonizing losses.

 

SOS:  What is your best win as a fan?

Justin:  It’s got to be Game 6 (of the World Series) in 2011.

It was on a Thursday night, and I had a cross country meet Friday morning, and I had to run at 7:30, so we had to be at the meet at 6:15.  Our coach was the kind of guy that you’re in bed by 9:00 on those nights, and I was like, “nah, I can’t go to sleep.”

I was sitting on the edge of our ottoman, and my mom and dad were in there, and I remember thinking we were really done.  And when David Freese hit that triple, I lost my stinking mind.  I just went crazy.  And then, obviously, the next inning, Josh Hamilton hits a home run (for Texas), and then Lance Berkman ties it up again, and then obviously the home run in the 11th.

Honestly, the home run in the 11th, I didn’t freak out nearly as bad as I did for the triple and the single, because it was just the moment, with two strikes, down to your last pitch, but yeah, it’s got to be that.  Game 7 was kind of a letdown too–well, not for me, but as a game.

Ryan:  Probably South Carolina baseball in, I think it would’ve been 2011, they played UConn in the Super Regional, and it was at Carolina Stadium, and I was actually able to go, and I was there when they clinched it to go to Omaha.

As a fan, actually being there for that, seeing the celebration–you know, you watch other teams win on TV and stuff, but actually being there and watching them make the dogpile in the middle, that’s a priceless moment.

And obviously, my greatest sports thing as a fan ever was when the Cubs won the World Series last year.  I’ve never been happier in my life.  I was watching a team that I thought never could win win, and that was pretty spectacular too.

SOS:  Garrett, as a Clemson fan I guess yours is pretty obvious.

Garrett:  Well, let me tell you about a game that happened this past January… (laugh)

SOS:  What was that like as a fan?

Garrett:  I lost my mind.  My younger brother actually took a video of my reaction.  I go in and out of the frame multiple times because I spent the next 30 seconds to a minute just kind of screaming and running around the room.

 

SOS:  What is your worst loss as a fan?

Justin:  I’ve gotta go with the Super Bowl loss…not to the Patriots but to the Broncos.  Villanova (beating North Carolina in 2016) sucked, but just growing up in Charlotte, and loving the Panthers, and just to see the electricity that that team was bringing to Charlotte, and to be on such a roll, and then to just fall short, that hurt.

I was awful mad that night.  Because I had to drive back two-and-a-half hours from my home, because we had a Super Bowl party, and that was not a fun ride back.  Because I still think, and call me a biased fan, but I still think if we play them 10 times, we win seven of them.  I really do think that, especially that year, and they just didn’t play good, so that sucked.  Villanova’s up there, but that one really sucked.

Ryan:  I’ve got to go back to the Packers when they were playing the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.

They had the huge lead in the fourth quarter (19-7), and the Seahawks got a miraculous touchdown with like, what was it, 30 seconds or a minute left, and then freaking, was it… Bostick, Brandon Bostick, decided not to block, decided to be a hero and field the onside kick, and he ended up becoming the villain, and the Packers lost that game, which I thought was a game they should have easily won, and been in the Super Bowl that year.  And that was painful.

Garrett:  I’m probably going to have to go with the Orange Bowl loss (to West Virginia in 2012, 70-33).  Just, I remember me and my dad watching it, and I think we were down two or three scores, and we’re like, okay, now’s the time to buckle down and get with it, and I think we allowed another two touchdowns within—I mean, West Virginia was scoring all over the place that game.  So we just turned the TV off, and we didn’t speak for the rest of the night.  It was tough.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff win stands out in your memory?

Justin:  Two years ago, we were playing the Cubs in the regular season, and it was just one of those frustrating nights, the ball didn’t seem to bounce our way, nothing really happened, and then the ninth inning with two outs, Jhonny Peralta hits a line drive over the left-center field wall in Wrigley Field.

And it was just awesome to see Wrigley Field so pumped and excited, and then the air was let out of that place.  And I think if I remember correctly, they went on to win it in the 10th.  Which, it’s kind of funny that that’s a baseball game, because one out of 162, but that one stuck out in my mind.

Another one I remember… I was at Bank of America Stadium the year before we made the big run, and we went 12-4, and it was when we played the Saints, in the monsoon game.  And literally, I was up in the upper deck and couldn’t even see the field, because the rain was so bad.  It was that bad.  But that kind of like Cam (Newton)’s emergence, leading us to a division title and stuff, and that game sealed the NFC South for us.  That was awesome.

Ryan:  This is going to be a little off the grid…

SOS: That’s the point of the question.

Ryan: I think it was two or three years ago, South Carolina basketball was in the SEC Tournament as like a 13-seed, and all of a sudden they won a couple of games and made it to the quarterfinals and lost there.  It wasn’t a great season, but those two wins, I think were against Auburn and another crappy team in the SEC, but it was like—in my opinion those wins were big, because I was like, “hey look, we’re winning in the tournament.” It was symbolic to the fact that it was going to get better.  So at the time, obviously, it’s not a huge deal when a 13-seed beats a 12-seed, or something like that, it’s not a big deal…

SOS: But the next day beat a 5-seed, I think.  I want to say it was Arkansas.

Ryan: Yeah, it’s like wow, here we are, it’s a game that didn’t really matter but it gave me hope as a fan.

Garrett:  When Deshaun (Watson) snapped the losing streak against (South) Carolina, and he was playing on, what, a torn ACL, and it was a home game, in fairness, but five losses in a rivalry that heated, in a row, that was like being able to breathe air again.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff loss stands out, or “still stings”?

Justin:  Any time we lose to Duke, I hate it.  I almost treat the Duke games like playoff games.  And obviously there’s playoff losses that sting, but just regular season games—there’s always a game that where like, “man, we had that.”

I also hated when (the Panthers) lost to Atlanta, when we went 15-1.  That really stung.  Because I really thought, “we’re going to go undefeated this year.”  Only two games away from doing it, and then to win in the fashion we did in Week 17, it would’ve been nice to have won in Week 16.

Ryan:  This is going to go way back.  Wow, it must have been ’03 or ’04.  The Cubs were playing the Brewers at Miller Park.  Craig Counsell hit a leadoff home run, and the Brewers won the game 1-0.

I watched that entire game as a 10-year old, like, come on, come on, let’s get a run, like, can we score a run, because the pitching was great, and that game still stands out, because, like, the first inning home run, you can get so much time to come back, you’ve still got 24 outs to work with, and…. no.  That loss stands out.  It didn’t affect anything, but that’s a non-championship, non-playoff loss that stands out.

Garrett:  The one that’s freshest on my mind is the loss to Pitt this year, because we were the better football team, we were at home, we should’ve won that game.

But we were kind of resting on how good we were supposed to be, and not actually playing to our full potential, and I think had we won that game we wouldn’t have won the national championship.

 

SOS:  Who is one team that didn’t win a championship that you are particularly fond of?

Justin:  I loved the 2013 Cardinals.  I thought that team was loaded.  I still think we were the best team that year.  I loved our bullpen, going seventh, eighth and ninth, with (Kevin) Seagrist, (Carlos) Martinez and (Trevor) Rosenthal; I was like, “man, you get us in the seventh inning with the lead, it’s ballgame.”

I loved that team, and I hate that—I feel like it was one of those things that we just didn’t play well in the World Series, and it happens.  I loved that team, and obviously the Panthers two years ago.  That was a fun team to watch.  Cam (Newton) doing Cam things that we’d never seen before, that was a lot of fun.

But that Cardinal team was good, man.  I remember going into the World Series, and obviously, 2011 was different, because we snuck in to the Wild Card and just got hot at the right time, but 2013 I was like, “man, this is the best team I’ve seen us put together in a while.”  So just, it just kind of sucked to lose it, because I felt like we were so good, but that happens, man—sports.

SOS: Yeah, to win a World Series you’ve got to play well for a whole month.  You have an off week, you’re done.

Justin: It happens.

Ryan:  Does it have to be a team that’s my favorite team?

SOS: Not necessarily.

Ryan:  Because, there’s a handful of those teams that I just… I think the Tampa Bay Rays, back in 2008, when they made the World Series.  It was with their low-payroll, low-everything, no really big superstars, but they found a way to win games, and it was kind of cool to watch that small market team that hadn’t been in the league that long just kind of come out of nowhere with guys that were fun to watch and just enjoying the game.  That’s probably my favorite non-championship team.

I could say the 2015 Cubs, too, (once the rebuilding team was respectable), but there wasn’t that connection yet with those players.  It was still bits and pieces, and like it wasn’t quite there yet.  It was all magical anyway, we shouldn’t have even been in the playoffs that year.

Garrett:  I’d have to give it to the ’15 Tigers, the ones that lost the championship game.  They’re the ones that kind of finally shed the underperforming label, because we could’ve won the ACC as many times as we wanted to and that would always just be “all you can do is win the ACC.”

I remember, like in the 24 hours after we lost that game (to Alabama), I saw probably three or four different think pieces on how much respect people had for Clemson after that game.  It just was like the perception of who Clemson was and what we could accomplish kind of just changed overnight after that game.

 

Tomorrow in Part II, our roundtable will discuss the panelists’ favorite players to watch, who they wish they could’ve watched, and crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.