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.)

Fast Five: Storylines Entering the 117th U.S. Open

The second major of the 2017 golf season, the U.S. Open, begins tomorrow morning at Erin Hills in Wisconsin.

156 players will tee it up in “golf’s toughest test,” each with the hope of hoisting one of golf’s oldest trophies on Sunday evening.

Here are the biggest storylines entering the 117th edition of the U.S. Open:

Erin Hills

The venue for this year’s U.S. Open is hosting the event for the first time.  The course, designed by Dr. Michael John Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, is carved from the rolling Midwestern hills 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee, and with ragged bunkering and thick fescue rough looks as much like Ireland as Wisconsin.

Erin Hills, the fifth public course to host the U.S. Open (all since 2002), hosted the 2011 U.S. Amateur, won by Kelly Kraft (who failed to qualify for this year’s U.S. Open), just after the course opened in 2006.  The par-72 layout–the first par-72 for a U.S. Open since 1992–stretches 7,741 yards, the longest course in major championship history.  Add to that the distance between some of the holes, and players will be in for a long walk over the next four days.  The course’s length could potentially play into the hands of the big hitters throughout the week, although a case could be made that the thick rough would work against them.

This U.S. Open marks the first in the state of Wisconsin, and the state’s fifth major championship (1933, 2004, 2010, 2015 PGA); Wisconsin native and former U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Jordan Niebrugge will strike the first tee shot of the event tomorrow at 6:45 a.m. local time, while fellow Wisconsin native Steve Stricker headlines the group of 78 who reached the U.S. Open through qualifying (from a field of 8,979 players).

The Weather

A big part of course conditions in any golf tournament is the weather.  Temperatures will stay in the mid-80s through the week until Sunday, with a forecast high of 77.  Thursday and Sunday look the best regarding potential precipitation, with 10 and 20 percent chances of rain, respectively.  Friday and Saturday, meanwhile, have more threatening forecasts, with a 50 percent chance of rain Friday and an 80 percent chance Saturday.  Winds will mainly come from the west, and will stay around 10 MPH until Sunday, when they are forecast to strengthen to 18 MPH.

The weather would be a big story regardless, but because of one star player’s unique circumstances, it could become and even bigger story on Thursday with a surprise rain storm…

Phil Mickelson

…because five-time major winner Phil Mickelson needs such a surprise rain storm to stay in the field.

Mickelson–who at 46 needs only the U.S. Open title to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam–is attending his daughter’s high school graduation in California, at 12 p.m. CT.  His scheduled tee time at Erin Hills is very late, at 2:20 pm CT, but still won’t be late enough for Mickelson to make it to Erin Hills unless the tournament’s first round is significantly delayed by weather.

Given the above forecast, such a delay is unlikely, meaning Mickelson would have to withdraw from the tournament.

18 years ago Mickelson was prepared to withdraw from the 1999 U.S. Open in the event wife Amy went into labor for the birth of Amanda, who was born the morning after the tournament ended (just as a playoff against Payne Stewart would have hypothetically started had Stewart not defeated Mickelson by one shot in regulation).  18 years later Mickelson will, in all likelihood, miss a chance to complete the career Grand Slam as he attends Amanda’s graduation, where she will be giving a valedictory address.

Mickelson has not yet officially withdrawn, holding out hope for an unlikely delay, and the USGA says he can withdraw at any time before his tee time on Thursday.  His place in the field would be filled by an alternate; the first alternate is currently Roberto Diaz.

UPDATE:  Mickelson officially withdrew at about 10 a.m. local time on Thursday, making this U.S. Open the first major championship without Mickelson or Tiger Woods in the field since the 1994 Masters.

Dustin Johnson

The defending winner of the U.S. Open after last year’s triumph at Oakmont, Johnson enters this year’s edition as the 7-1 favorite.  Johnson has five PGA Tour wins since last year’s triumph, which was his first major title, and is the top-ranked player in the world, with as large a lead over second-ranked Jason Day as Day has over 38th-ranked Brandt Snedeker.

Last year’s win came after a controversial delayed ruling by the USGA left Johnson’s exact score in question as the back nine of the final round played out, with a review pending that could (and eventually would) penalize Johnson one stroke for his ball moving on the fifth green after he addressed the ball.  For this year’s U.S. Open, the USGA has added four on-course video review booths to allow for in-round rules decisions to be made more efficiently.

Johnson is trying to become the first U.S. Open winner to go back-to-back since Curtis Strange in 1988-89.  Golf may not have Johnson’s undivided attention this week, as he and fiance Paulina Gretzky had their second child on Monday, but some players have won major championships under similar circumstances (including Danny Willett at the 2016 Masters and Bubba Watson at the 2013 Masters).

Johnson may also have some subtle form of redemption on his mind; he was the heavy favorite entering the Masters, but withdrew with a back injury after falling down the stairs of his rental home.

 

Other Contenders 

Beyond the top-ranked Johnson, three other superstars are among the favorites every time they tee it up:  Jordan Spieth (9-1), Rory McIlroy (10-1) and Jason Day (11-1).  Since the start of 2013, Spieth and McIlroy both have 58 major championship rounds, totaling 4,108 strokes and an 18-under par score, with both winning two majors including a U.S. Open.  In the same span, Day is -43 in major championship play, 10 shots better than anyone else.

However, six straight majors have been won by a first-time major champion, and the first and second round grouping of Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm could extend that streak to seven.  Fowler (18-1) has a win and six top six finishes in 2017, including a tie for second two weeks ago at The Memorial, while Matsuyama (28-1) is ranked fourth in the world, and Rahm (18-1) has eight top five finishes since the day he turned pro last year, which is tied for the most on the PGA Tour in that span.

Sergio Garcia (28-1) and Justin Rose (20-1) are also potential contenders after their epic back nine duel at The Masters.  Garcia, who won that Masters duel for his first major title, has five career top 10s in the U.S. Open including a fifth last year, while Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.

 

 

 

117th U.S. OPEN

Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)

8:51 a.m.:  Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm
9:13 a.m.:  Danny Willett, Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera
9:24 a.m.:  Matt Kuchar, Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed
9:35 a.m.:  Martin Kaymer, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson
2:36 p.m.:  Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia
2:47 p.m.:  Henrik Stenson, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen
2:58 p.m.:  Jimmy Walker, Justin Thomas, Paul Casey

3:09 p.m.:  Jason Day, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy
3:20 p.m.:  Steve Stricker, Stewart Cink, Phil Mickelson

U.S. Open Champions
(Year, Champion, Nationality, Host Course)
1895 Horace Rawlins, England, Newport
1896 James Foulis, Scotland, Shinnecock Hills

1897 Joe Lloyd, England, Chicago G.C.
1898 Fred Herd, Scotland, Myopia Hunt
1899 Willie Smith, Scotland, Baltimore C.C. 
1900 Harry Vardon, Jersey, Chicago G.C.
1901 Willie Anderson, Scotland, Myopia Hunt
1902 Laurie Auchterlonie, Scotland, Garden City G.C.
1903 Willie Anderson, Scotland, Baltusrol
1904 Willie Anderson, Scotland, Glen View
1905 Willie Anderson, Scotland, Myopia Hunt
1906 Alex Smith, Scotland, Onwentsia
1907 Alec Ross, Scotland, Philadelphia Cricket Club
1908 Fred McLeod, Scotland, Myopia Hunt
1909 George Sargent, England, Englewood
1910 Alex Smith, Scotland, Philadelpia Cricket Club
1911 John McDermott, U.S., Chicago G.C.
1912 John McDermott, U.S., C.C. of Buffalo
1913 Francis Ouimet, U.S., The Country Club
1914 Walter Hagen, U.S., Midlothian
1915 Jerome Travers, U.S., Baltusrol
1916 Chick Evans, U.S., The Minikahda Club
1917-18 No tournament due to World War I
1919 Walter Hagen, U.S., Brae Burn
1920 Ted Ray, Jersey, Inverness
1921 Jim Barnes, England, Columbia C.C.
1922 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Skokie 
1923 Bobby Jones, U.S., Inwood
1924 Cyril Walker, England, Oakland Hills
1925 Willie Macfarlane, Scotland, Worcester C.C.
1926 Bobby Jones, U.S., Scioto
1927 Tommy Armour, U.S., Oakmont
1928 Johnny Farrell, U.S., Olympia Fields
1929 Bobby Jones, U.S., Winged Foot
1930 Bobby Jones, U.S., Interlachen
1931 Billy Burke, U.S., Inverness
1932 Gene Sarazen, U.S., Fresh Meadow
1933 Johnny Goodman, U.S., North Shore
1934 Olin Dutra, U.S., Merion
1935 Sam Parks Jr., U.S., Oakmont
1936 Tony Manero, U.S., Baltusrol
1937 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., Oakland Hills
1938 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., Cherry Hills
1939 Byron Nelson, U.S., Philadelphia C.C. 
1940 Lawson Little, U.S., Canterbury
1941 Craig Wood, U.S., Colonial
1942-45 No tournament due to World War II
1946 Lloyd Mangrum, U.S., Canterbury
1947 Lew Worsham, U.S., St. Louis C.C.
1948 Ben Hogan, U.S., Riviera
1949 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., Medinah
1950 Ben Hogan, U.S., Merion
1951 Ben Hogan, U.S., Oakland Hills
1952 Julius Boros, U.S., Northwood
1953 Ben Hogan, U.S., Oakmont
1954 Ed Furgol, U.S., Baltusrol
1955 Jack Fleck, U.S., Olympic
1956 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., Oak Hill
1957 Dick Mayer, U.S., Inverness
1958 Tommy Bolt, U.S., Southern Hills 
1959 Billy Casper, U.S., Winged Foot
1960 Arnold Palmer, U.S., Cherry Hills
1961 Gene Littler, U.S., Oakland Hills
1962 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Oakmont
1963 Julius Boros, U.S., The Country Club
1964 Ken Venturi, U.S., Congressional
1965 Gary Player, South Africa, Bellerive
1966 Billy Casper, U.S., Olympic
1967 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Baltusrol
1968 Lee Trevino, U.S., Oak Hill
1969 Orville Moody, U.S., Champions
1970 Tony Jacklin, England, Hazeltine
1971 Lee Trevino, U.S., Merion
1972 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Pebble Beach
1973 Johnny Miller, U.S., Oakmont
1974 Hale Irwin, U.S., Winged Foot
1975 Lou Graham, U.S., Medinah
1976 Jerry Pate, U.S., Atlanta Athletic Club
1977 Hubert Green, U.S., Southern Hills
1978 Andy North, U.S., Cherry Hills
1979 Hale Irwin, U.S., Inverness
1980 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., Baltusrol
1981 David Graham, Australia, Merion
1982 Tom Watson, U.S., Pebble Beach
1983 Larry Nelson, U.S., Oakmont
1984 Fuzzy Zoeller, U.S., Winged Foot
1985 Andy North, U.S., Oakland Hills
1986 Raymond Floyd, U.S., Shinnecock Hills
1987 Scott Simpson, U.S., Olympic
1988 Curtis Strange, U.S., The Country Club
1989 Curtis Strange, U.S., Oak Hill
1990 Hale Irwin, U.S., Medinah
1991 Payne Stewart, U.S., Hazeltine
1992 Tom Kite, U.S., Pebble Beach
1993 Lee Janzen, U.S., Baltusrol
1994 Ernie Els, South Africa, Congressional
1995 Corey Pavin, U.S., Shinnecock Hills
1996 Steve Jones, U.S., Oakland Hills
1997 Ernie Els, U.S., Congressional
1998 Lee Janzen, U.S., Olympic
1999 Payne Stewart, U.S., Pinehurst No. 2
2000 Tiger Woods, U.S., Pebble Beach
2001 Retief Goosen, South Africa, Southern Hills
2002 Tiger Woods, U.S., Bethpage Black
2003 Jim Furyk, U.S., Olympia Fields
2004 Retief Goosen, South Africa, Shinnecock Hills
2005 Michael Campbell, New Zealand, Pinehurst No. 2
2006 Geoff Ogilvy, Australia, Winged Foot
2007 Angel Cabrera, Argentina, Oakmont
2008 Tiger Woods, U.S., Torrey Pines
2009 Lucas Glover, U.S., Bethpage Black
2010 Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland, Pebble Beach
2011 Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, Congressional
2012 Webb Simpson, U.S., Olympic
2013 Justin Rose, England, Merion
2014 Martin Kaymer, Germany, Pinehurst No. 2
2015 Jordan Spieth, U.S., Chambers Bay
2016 Dustin Johnson, U.S., Oakmont
Future Sites
2017 Erin Hills (Erin, Wis.)
2018 Shinnecock Hills (Shinnecock Hills, N.Y.)
2019 Pebble Beach (Pebble Beach, Calif.)
2020 Winged Foot (Mamaroneck, N.Y.)
2021 Torrey Pines (La Jolla, Calif.)
2022 The Country Club (Brookline, Mass.)
2023 Los Angeles C.C. (Los Angeles, Calif.)
2024 Pinehurst No. 2 (Pinehurst, N.C.)
2025 Oakmont (Oakmont, Penn.)
2026 Shinnecock Hills (Shinnecock Hills, N.Y.)

Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

Fast Five: Storylines Entering The Masters

The Masters gets underway tomorrow at Augusta National, and as always there are a plethora of storylines.

While Tiger Woods is absent, continuing to nurse a bad back, 93 of the world’s best players make up the most exclusive field in golf for the 81st time.

Over the years the fields at Augusta have gotten deeper, and this year is no exception, with dozens of players who have a legitimate chance to wear the green jacket on Sunday night.

As tournament play begins on Thursday morning, here are the biggest storylines:

The Weather

After Wednesday’s Par 3 contest was rained out for the first time ever, the course should play soft.  However, it won’t play easy, as winds of over 20 miles per hour are forecast for the Augusta area on Thursday and Friday.

Augusta National is never easy, but should play even more difficult than usual if this forecast is correct.  A score of even-par could easily be in contention entering the weekend.

Saturday and Sunday, the weather will be better.  Calm winds and warmer temperatures will allow for better scoring conditions, meaning that the even-par score that should be a contender on Friday evening will have to move a few under-par to don the green jacket on Sunday evening.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson

This will be the first major Dustin Johnson has played as the top-ranked golfer in the world, and the first Masters since his victory in last year’s U.S. Open, a win that got the proverbial monkey off his back in major championships.

Few players have entered a Masters as hot as Johnson enters this year’s edition.  Johnson has won three straight starts on the PGA Tour, and has finished in the top six in six of his last seven starts.

Johnson was the clear favorite early Wednesday, but now his status for the tournament may be in jeopardy after accidentally falling down the stairs in his Augusta rental home and injuring his lower back.  Fortunately, Johnson has the very last tee time (2:03 pm ET), so he has the longest possible amount of time to treat his injury and decide if he can play.

Johnson’s manager says he hopes to play, but the uncertainty about whether Johnson can play and how well he can play with the injury has made Johnson an even bigger story entering the first round.

Jordan Speith vs. the 12th Hole

Last year, Jordan Spieth led The Masters by five shots entering the back nine on Sunday, but a quadruple-bogey seven on the par-3 12th hole cost him his second straight green jacket.

Now, as the 23-year old seeks his third major championship, Spieth will have face redemption at the difficult Amen Corner hole after hitting two balls in the water the last time he played it in competition.

Spieth hit his tee shot to about one foot at the 12th in Tuesday’s practice round, perhaps exorcising some of the demons from a year ago.

Even with last year’s collapse, Spieth’s record at Augusta is the best ever by a player in his first three starts:  a win and two runner-up finishes.  With that experience, it would be shocking if Speith is not in the mix late Sunday.

The Young Guns

Spieth is not the only young star capable of winning the green jacket on Sunday.

20 years after a 21-year old Tiger Woods changed the game of golf forever with his 12-shot Masters win, the young stars who grew up watching Woods are primed for Masters success.

Rory McIlroy (age 27) is seeking to win the final leg of the career grand slam, and would become the second youngest to do so (Woods was 24).  McIlroy, who is ranked second in the world, led through nine holes of the final round in 2011 before a back nine 43 in his best chance to win to date.  McIlroy has finished in the top 7 in both of his starts after missing time with a rib injury.

Jason Day (29) is ranked third in the world.  His form hasn’t been as strong as some of the others on this list, although his mother’s cancer battle may explain that.  Now, after her cancer surgery was successful and she will not require chemotherapy, Day has a clear mind to go chase the green jacket.  Day tied for second in the 2011 Masters and finished third in 2013, and has the game to threaten in any major championship; he won the 2015 PGA Championship.

Justin Thomas (23) is ranked seventh in the world after starting the 2016-17 PGA Tour season with three wins.  Thomas, who grew up competing against Jordan Spieth in junior events, tied for 39th in his only Masters appearance last year, and his best major finish is a tie for 18th, although he has made the cut in five of his six starts.

Hideki Matsuyama (25), ranked fourth in the world, also has two wins and two seconds this season, plus an unofficial one against a strong field at the Hero World Challenge.  The Japanese star made the cut at Augusta twice as an amateur, and has finished in the top seven the last two years, along with a tie for fourth at last year’s PGA Championship.

Rickie Fowler (28), ranked eighth in the world, has a win at The Honda Classic and six top-six finishes this season.  While he didn’t win last week in Houston, some suggested his result of third is even better than winning (only two players the last 60 years have won The Masters after winning the week before, a spell that now falls to Shell Houston Open winner Russell Henley).  Fowler tied for 5th in the 2014 Masters as part of a season when he finished in the top five of all four majors.

Jon Rahm (22), ranked 12th, is the least established star on this list, but is still coming into Augusta on a hot streak after winning the Farmers Insurance Open and finishing in the top 10 in his last four starts (including two WGC events).  However, this is Rahm’s first Masters–the only Masters rookie since 1935 to win was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.  Rahm’s idol is fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, whose 60th birthday would have been this Sunday.

Danny Willett (29), ranked 17th, is the defending Masters champion, although he has not won an event since donning the green jacket last April.  Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) are the only players to win back-to-back Masters.

Other young guns with a legitimate chance include Emiliano Grillo (24), Brooks Koepka (26), Daniel Berger (23) and Tyrrell Hatton (25).

Youth vs. Experience

But while the young stars have the talent to win The Masters, experience is always a factor at Augusta.

Masters champions receive a lifetime exemption into the event, with most playing the event into their late 50s or early 60s.  Often, one of these legends will randomly pop up on the leaderboard and contend on the weekend.

Jack Nicklaus, who stopped playing the Masters after 2005 but will be one of the honorary starters on Thursday morning, won his sixth Masters at age 46 in 1986 to become the oldest Masters winner, then tied for sixth at age 58 in 1998.

Phil Mickelson (46) is trying to tie Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods for the second most Masters titles, as a win would be his fourth.  Mickelson, while still in his prime, is a few months older than Nicklaus was in 1986, and has finished in the top seven in two of his last three starts.

Bernhard Langer (59), the 1985 and 1993 champion, tied for eighth in 2014 and was tied for third, two shots back through three rounds last year, before fading with a final round 79.  Langer comes in in good form with a win and two thirds this season in the PGA Tour Champions, where he leads the Charles Schwab Cup standings.

Fred Couples (57), marking the 25th anniversary of his 1992 Masters triumph, can threaten if his bad back cooperates.  Couples finished in the top 20 in every Masters from 2010-14, including a sixth in 2010, and has finished in the top six in all four PGA Tour Champions starts this year, with one win, and is second in Charles Schwab Cup points.

Other past Masters champions in the field include Charl Schwartzel (32), Adam Scott (36), Trevor Immelman (37), two-time champion Bubba Watson (38), Zach Johnson (41), Mike Weir (46), Angel Cabrera (47), two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal (51), Vijay Singh (54), Augusta native Larry Mize (58), Sandy Lyle (59), Ian Woosnam (59), and Mark O’Meara (60).

There are also players who have not won The Masters, but still have plenty of experience on Augusta’s hallowed ground.

Ernie Els (47), a four-time major champion, may be playing his final Masters, as his exemption from winning the 2012 Open Championship expires after this year.  From 2000-2004, Els finished in the top six every year, including two runner-up finishes.  Last year, he six-putted the first hole, eliminating a realistic chance to win just 15 minutes after his tournament started.

Jimmy Walker (38) and Henrik Stenson (turned 41 on Wednesday) are the winners of the last two major championships of 2016.  Walker, who won the PGA Championship, tied for 8th in the 2014 Masters, while Stenson, the Open Champion, has never finished better than 14th at Augusta, although he has 11 combined top 10s in the other three majors and was the 2016 Olympic silver medalist.

Matt Kuchar (38) and Brandt Snedeker (36) are both seeking their first major, and have both said how emotional a win at Augusta would be.  Kuchar finished in the top 10 each year from 2012-14, including a tie for third in 2012, and won bronze at the 2016 Olympics.  Snedeker has three top 10s including a tie for third in 2008.

Steve Stricker (50) has scaled back on playing regular tour events, focusing on the majors as he still seeks his first.  He has two top 10s in The Masters and none since 2009, but has not missed a Masters cut since 2008.

Lee Westwood (43), Paul Casey (39) and Sergio Garcia (37) are each European stars who have had successful careers but never won a major championship, while Justin Rose (36) has one major, the 2013 U.S. Open, and won the Olympic gold medal in 2016.  Westwood has only finished outside the top 11 once in the last seven Masters, with two runner-up finishes; Casey has four top tens, including ties for sixth and fourth the last two years; Garcia has three top eight finishes including a tie for fourth in 2004 and has four second-place finished in majors; Rose has four top 10s including a tie for second in 2015.

 

 

2017 Masters
Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)
7:40 a.m.:  Honorary Starters (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player)

9:06 a.m.:  Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Hadwin
9:28 a.m.:  Adam Scott, Kevin Kisner, Andy Sullivan
10:01 a.m.:  Fred Couples, Paul Casey, Kevin Na
10:12 a.m.:  Russell Knox, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama
10:34 a.m.:  Jordan Spieth, Martin Kaymer, Matthew Fitzpatrick
10:45 a.m.:  Phil Mickelson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Si Woo Kim
10:56 a.m.:  Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, Jason Day
12:24 p.m.:  Danny Willett, Matt Kuchar, Curtis Luck (a)
12:46 p.m.:  Angel Cabrera, Henrik Stenson, Tyrrell Hatton
1:19 p.m.:  Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry
1:41 p.m.:  Rory McIlroy, Hideto Tanihara, Jon Rahm
1:52 p.m.:  Marc Leishman, Bill Haas, Justin Thomas
2:03 p.m.:  Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker

Masters Champions
(Year, Winner, Nationality, Score)
1934 Horton Smith, U.S., 284

1935 Gene Sarazen, U.S., 282
1936 Horton Smith, U.S., 285
1937 Byron Nelson, U.S., 283
1938 Henry Picard, U.S., 285
1939 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., 279
1940 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 280
1941 Craig Wood, U.S., 280
1942 Byron Nelson, U.S., 280
1943-45 No tournament due to World War II
1946 Herman Keiser, U.S., 282
1947 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 281
1948 Claude Harmon, U.S., 279
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., 282
1950 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 283
1951 Ben Hogan, U.S., 280
1952 Sam Snead, U.S., 286
1953 Ben Hogan, U.S., 274
1954 Sam Snead, U.S., 289
1955 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., 279
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., 289
1957 Doug Ford, U.S., 283
1958 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 284
1959 Art Wall Jr., U.S., 284
1960 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 282
1961 Gary Player, South Africa, 280
1962 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 280
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1964 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 276
1965 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 271
1966 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 288
1967 Gay Brewer, U.S., 280
1968 Bob Goalby, U.S., 277
1969 George Archer, U.S., 281
1970 Billy Casper, U.S., 279
1971 Charles Coody, U.S., 279
1972 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1973 Tommy Aaron, U.S., 283
1974 Gary Player, South Africa, 278
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 276
1976 Raymond Floyd, U.S., 271
1977 Tom Watson, U.S., 276
1978 Gary Player, South Africa, 277
1979 Fuzzy Zoeller, U.S., 280
1980 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 275
1981 Tom Watson, U.S., 280
1982 Craig Stadler, U.S., 284
1983 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 280
1984 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 277
1985 Bernhard Langer, West Germany, 282
1986 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 279
1987 Larry Mize, U.S., 285
1988 Sandy Lyle, Scotland, 281
1989 Nick Faldo, England, 283
1990 Nick Faldo, England, 278
1991 Ian Woosnam, Wales, 277
1992 Fred Couples, U.S., 275
1993 Bernhard Langer, Germany, 277
1994 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 279
1995 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 274
1996 Nick Faldo, England, 276 
1997 Tiger Woods, U.S., 270
1998 Mark O’Meara, U.S., 279
1999 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 280
2000 Vijay Singh, Fiji, 278
2001 Tiger Woods, U.S., 272
2002 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2003 Mike Weir, Canada, 281
2004 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 279
2005 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2006 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 281
2007 Zach Johnson, U.S., 289
2008 Trevor Immelman, South Africa, 280
2009 Angel Cabrera, Argentina, 276
2010 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 272
2011 Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, 274
2012 Bubba Watson, U.S., 278
2013 Adam Scott, Australia, 279
2014 Bubba Watson, U.S., 280
2015 Jordan Spieth, U.S., 270
2016 Danny Willett, England, 283

Fast Five: Sentimental Favorites in the Sweet 16

As the NCAA Tournament enters its second weekend, certain teams always seem to capture the hearts of fans, many of whom are looking for another rooting interest after their own team has been eliminated.

This year there are not necessarily any “Cinderella” teams, but there are still a fair share of teams who can be sentimental favorites as the Sweet 16 begins tonight.

Honorable Mention:  Arizona (32-4, 2-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #11 Xavier, 10:09 pm ET, TBS

It’s odd to include a traditional power like Arizona on this list (that’s why they’re an honorable mention), but a potential Wildcats run to the title has its share of storylines, considering the Final Four is in Phoenix, and Arizona is celebrating the 20th anniversary of their last national title in 1997.

Honorable Mention:  Whoever is playing UCLA
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #2 Kentucky, 9:39 pm ET, CBS

The sports social media world keeps buzzing over the crazy things Lavar Ball, the father of Bruins point guard Lonzo Ball, has said.  I’m all for parents being involved in their kids’ lives and athletic careers, but Lavar Ball is completely over the top, considering at this point he’s making headlines on almost a daily basis.  If UCLA loses, maybe he’ll shut up–at least until his other two sons are playing college basketball in the near future.

5.  Gonzaga (34-1, 1-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #4 West Virginia, 7:39 pm ET, TBS

It’s strange to put a team on this list who is a 1-seed, and has participated in every NCAA Tournament since 1999.  However, the Bulldogs are still the little brother to fellow 1-seeds North Carolina and Kansas, and many aren’t even favoring the Zags to win the regional, since they may face Arizona in the regional final.  To even get there, they face a tough matchup with 4-seed West Virginia in tonight’s regional semifinal.

Gonzaga reaching the Final Four would be a feel-good story because they have come close but fallen short in their previous tournament runs.  Mark Few has led the Bulldogs to eight Sweet 16 appearances and two Elite Eights (1999, 2015), but have yet to reach the Final Four, despite having one of the most consistent programs in the nation.

The Zags play in the West Regional in San Jose, and the Final Four is in Phoenix, should they reach it; both locations should allow their fans to join them.

4.  Butler (25-8, 4-seed, South Region)
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #1 North Carolina, 7:09 pm ET, CBS

The Bulldogs have been the sentimental favorite before–they were back-to-back national runners-up in 2010-11, losing national finals to Duke and UConn–and now they return to the list seeded higher than either of those years (Butler was a 5-seed in 2010 and an 8-seed in 2011), as they make their first Sweet 16 appearance since the 2011 run.

But despite their recent success, the Bulldogs are still far and away the least accomplished team in the South Regional, which also includes North Carolina, who Butler meets Friday night, as well as Kentucky and UCLA.  Those three schools have combined for 24 national championships and 54 Final Four appearances.

Few expect Butler to make any noise in Memphis, but the Bulldogs program has been in this situation before.

3.  Xavier (23-13, 11-seed, West Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #2 Arizona, 7:39 pm ET, TBS

The Musketeers are on this list at the lowest-remaining seed.  Xavier has reached the Elite Eight twice, in 2004 and 2008, but has lost in the Sweet 16 four times since that 2008 appearance.

Xavier, who has been a near-perennial NCAA Tournament team for the last two decades, has had tough luck losing good coaches to jobs at bigger programs:  Skip Prosser (Wake Forest), Thad Matta (Ohio State) and Sean Miller (Arizona).

Now current Xavier coach Chris Mack will face former coach Miller in the Sweet 16.  Miller, who was coach the last time Xavier reached the Elite Eight, left in 2009 to succeed Hall of Famer Lute Olson at Arizona.

This will be a tough test for Xavier; the Wildcats are one of the favorites to win it all, and the game is in San Jose, which should give Arizona a crowd advantage.  Even if Xavier wins tonight, the Gonzaga-West Virginia winner would be no easier of an opponent on Saturday.

2.  Michigan (26-11, 7-seed, Midwest Region)
Sweet 16:  Tonight vs. #3 Oregon, 7:09 pm ET, CBS

On Wednesday, March 8, as the Wolverines were departing Ann Arbor to head to Washington D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament, their team plane (with the team, coaches, family members, band and cheerleaders aboard) skidded off the end of the runway due to high winds.  Miraculously, no one was injured in the accident.

Michigan flew to Washington early the next morning to play their noon opener in the Big Ten Tournament, where they wore practice uniforms since their game jerseys were on the crashed plane.  The Wolverines beat Illinois comfortably that Thursday, before beating Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin to remarkably win the conference title.

After starting their NCAA Tournament with a 92-91 win over Oklahoma State, the Wolverines upset 2-seed Louisville on Sunday (and became a further sentimental favorite by knocking the scandalous Louisville athletic department out of the field), advancing to their third Sweet 16 in five years.

Since the accident, the Wolverines have seemed to play more loosely, and have no doubt played better than before.  Tonight, they face an Oregon team that lost its best player, forward Chris Boucher, in the Pac-12 Tournament.  Should the Wolverines advance to the Elite Eight, they would either encounter a Big Ten title game rematch against Purdue or a rematch of their classic 2013 comeback win over Kansas in the Sweet 16.

Sure, the Michigan program has had tremendous success in the past–the Wolverines have reached five Final Fours, including 2013, and won the 1989 national title–but the story of this team in their run to the Sweet 16 has been incredible.  Now, as they face an uphill climb as the lowest seed in the Midwest Regional, the Wolverines will try to continue to play out this movie-like scenario and write their Hollywood ending.

1.  South Carolina (24-10, 7-seed, East Region)
Sweet 16:  Friday vs. #3 Baylor, 7:29 pm ET, TBS

Sure, the Gamecocks happen to be a team I pull for, but that’s not why they are at the top of this list.

The Gamecocks are a sentimental favorite because of their program’s history (or, really, a lack thereof).  This tournament marks just the ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the program, and the first since 2004, after the Gamecocks were snubbed from the field last year.  Before last year’s NIT bid, the program had just one winning season since 2006.

After a first round win over Marquette–their first NCAA Tournament win in 44 years–the Gamecocks shocked the world and beat Duke 88-81, eliminating one of the biggest favorites to win the national title.

Beating Duke is enough by itself to make the Gamecocks a sentimental favorite for some, but especially when the win got South Carolina to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1973.  Now, the Gamecocks face Baylor (you know, that school that turned a blind eye to sexual assaults committed by student-athletes) as they try to reach their first Elite Eight in program history.

The East Region, at Madison Square Garden in New York, is wide open:  3-seed Baylor is the top remaining seed, and 4-seed Florida meets 8-seed Wisconsin (who beat 1-seed Villanova) in the other regional semifinal.  South Carolina, led by SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell (21.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.9 APG), have arguably the best player on any team in the East Region.

South Carolina is trying to complete a unique trifecta for its state:  Coastal Carolina won the baseball national championship in June and Clemson won the football title in January.  Schools from one state have not held all three titles simultaneously since 1975.

 

 

Sweet 16 Schedule (all times ET)

Midwest Region (Thursday, Kansas City)
#3 Oregon vs. #7 Michigan, 7:09 p.m., CBS
#1 Kansas vs. #4 Purdue, appr. 9:39 p.m., CBS

West Region (Thursday, San Jose)
#1 Gonzaga vs. #4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m., TBS
#2 Arizona vs. #11 Xavier, appr. 10:09 p.m., TBS

South Regional (Friday, Memphis)
#1 North Carolina vs. #4 Butler, 7:09 p.m., CBS
#2 Kentucky vs. #3 UCLA, appr. 9:39 p.m., CBS

East Regional (Friday, New York)
#3 Baylor vs. #7 South Carolina, 7:29 p.m., TBS
#4 Florida vs. #8 Wisconsin, appr. 9:59 p.m., TBS

Fast Five: Double-Digit Seed Sleepers to Reach the Sweet 16

As the first round of the NCAA Tournament gets underway, everyone tries to pick the big upset or two, in an attempt to say “I called it!” if it actually happens.

But in this year’s bracket, there are multiple teams with double-digit seeds who have a realistic chance at winning not just one, but two games, and advancing to the Sweet 16.

These Cinderellas haven’t just been invited to The Big Dance; they may still be on the dance floor when the tournament enters its second weekend.

While I did not pick all of these teams in my bracket (in fact, I only picked one to advance to the Sweet 16), they are the teams that have the best opportunity to make a run through the first two rounds, based on both matchups and their own abilities.

 

Honorable Mention:  Marquette (19-12, #10 seed, East)

Marquette’s draw is tough, against South Carolina in the Palmetto State, then potentially against Duke, but consider this:  South Carolina has lost five of seven and hasn’t won a tournament game since 1973, while Golden Eagles coach Steve Wojciechowski was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and teams led by Coach K proteges tend to play well against Duke.

5. Florida Gulf Coast (26-7, #14 seed, West)

I know they’re a 14-seed, but this wouldn’t be fun without one really low seed on the list.

In 2013, FGCU captured the nation’s hearts with an improbable run to the Sweet 16, upsetting 2-seed Georgetown and 7-seed San Diego State, advancing further than any 15-seed in tournament history.  Here’s the thing:  this team is actually better.

The 2013 Eagles actually didn’t win the Atlantic Sun regular season title, but won the league tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament.  This year, FGCU did win the regular season title with a 12-2 league record, and the team is 19-2 since Dec. 17, including seven straight wins.  The 2013 team, nicknamed “Dunk City,” had 148 dunks, but this year’s edition has 157, while this year’s team also has two more wins entering the tournament than the 2013 Eagles did.

They have their work cut out for them against Florida State, the 3-seed in the West Region, but while the Seminoles have had a great year with some really big wins, they also have been slightly inconsistent.  The ‘Noles are an impressive 7-3 against the Top 25, but have four losses against teams that missed the NCAA Tournament.  The game is in Orlando, so both teams will have a large fan turnout.

Looking ahead to a potential second round matchup, the Florida State-FGCU victor will face either 6-seed Maryland or 11-seed Xavier, and either will be beatable.  Maryland enters the tournament having lost four of their last six, while Xavier lost six straight from Feb. 11 to Mar. 1 after point guard Edmond Sumner was lost for the season with an injury.

4. Vermont (29-5, #13 seed, Midwest)

The hottest team no one is talking about entering the tournament is Vermont, who has the nation’s longest winning streak at 21 games.

The champions of the America East Conference, the Catamounts have not lost a game since Dec. 21, and three of their five losses on the season came to fellow tournament teams.

Purdue is the regular season champion of the Big Ten, although this has been a “down year” for the historically strong conference, and the Boilermakers were one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament.  Purdue also has a knack for inability to finish games in the tournament; the last two years they have blown big leads late to lose in overtime in the first round.

For a team to stop Purdue (34th in nation with 80.1 PPG), they need a good defense, and Vermont has it (61.6 PPG allowed is 11th nationally).  One would imagine Vermont will have to overcome adversity to beat a team like Purdue, but that will be no problem for coach John Becker–before Vermont, he coached at Galludet, the nation’s leading university for the deaf.

5-seed Iowa State, the Big 12 Tournament champions, are a possible matchup for Vermont in the second round, although a potential defeat of the Cyclones by 12-seed Nevada is a trendy first round upset pick; such an upset would set up a second round matchup of two double-digit seeds should Vermont beat Purdue.

3. UNC Wilmington (29-5, #12 seed, East)

The regular season and tournament champions of the Colonial Athletic Association enter the NCAA Tournament having won 18 of their last 21.  Last year as a 13-seed, the Seahawks played 4-seed Duke close, losing 93-85 after leading at halftime, and this year they will play 5-seed Virginia in the first round.

When people think Virginia, they think defense, and rightfully so:  the Cavaliers allow a national-best 55.6 PPG.  However, the Seahawks have the offense to match, ranking 10th nationally at 85.2 PPG.  Devontae Cacok is shooting 79.9 percent from the field, a mark that is over five points better than the existing NCAA single-season record.

Virginia has, at least theoretically, underachieved in the last three tournaments as a 1- or 2-seed, and they have also lost their last three tournament games when they were a 5-seed or lower.  The Virginia-UNCW game will tip at 12:40 pm ET this afternoon, and early afternoon games have a knack for producing upsets.

The winner of Virginia-UNCW will face the winner of Florida-East Tennessee State in the second round.  While 4-seed Florida would be a tough matchup for the Seahawks (as they would be for anyone else in the field), it is within the realm of possibility that East Tennessee State could upset the Gators, as the Buccaneers are dangerous with four senior starters.  Either way, UNC Wilmington has the tools to potentially compete with either team and threaten to make the Sweet 16.

2. Middle Tennessee State (30-4, #12 seed, South)

Last year, Middle Tennessee State pulled off arguably the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history, shocking 2-seed Michigan State 90-81.  Even after three players from that team graduated, this year’s Blue Raiders are even better, winning the C-USA regular season title (last year’s team did not), then backing it up with the league tournament title.

The Blue Raiders have won 20 of their last 21, led by four seniors and three players averaging at least 14.5 PPG (JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw).  The Blue Raiders rank 11th nationally in field goal percentage; their first round opponent of Minnesota ranks 213th.

Minnesota is 24-9, but has lost two of their last three, and a five-game losing streak in January is a dark spot on their resume.  The Golden Gophers are coached by Richard Pitino, the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino (the pair are becoming the first father-son duo to coach in the same NCAA Tournament, although they cannot meet until the Final Four).

Minnesota is over-seeded, at least in my opinion, while Middle Tennessee State is under-seeded; as a result, even though this is a 5-vs-12 game as seedings go, ESPN’s BPI gives Middle Tennessee State a 46 percent chance to win.  That’s the fourth highest percentage for any double-digit seed, and by far the highest for any team seeded 12 or worse.

As far as a potential second round matchup, the Minnesota-MTSU winner will face the winner of Butler and Winthrop.  Butler is a heavy favorite, and is responsible for two of Villanova’s three losses, but have shown they are beatable with a trio of “bad losses.”  Winthrop is a heavy underdog, but may have the best player on the floor on Thursday in Keon Johnson, a 5-foot-7 guard who scores 22.5 PPG.

1. Rhode Island (24-9, #11 seed, Midwest)

Rhode Island enters their first NCAA appearance in 18 years with wins in eight straight games and 12 of their last 14, having played their way onto the tournament bubble, then off of it by winning the Atlantic-10 Tournament (and automatic NCAA bid).  The Rams are looking to repeat the success of the last time they were an 11-seed:  in 1988, they went to the Sweet 16.

The Rams’ first round opponent is Creighton.  The Blue Jays started the season hot, but are just 8-7 since losing guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the year, with half of those wins coming against the bottom three teams in the Big East.

An intriguing individual matchup to watch is on the inside, between Creighton’s Justin Patton and Rhode Island’s Hassan Martin.  Patton has a decided height advantage (7-foot to 6-foot-7), but Martin plays bigger than his height and has led the A-10 in blocked shots four straight seasons.

Creighton is a 61 percent favorite in ESPN’s BPI, and just a 2-point betting favorite, despite the 6-vs-11 seeding of the matchup.

In the second round, the Rams could potentially meet Oregon or Iona.  Oregon is without post-man Chris Boucher, who blew his knee in the Pac-12 Tournament and dealt a big blow to Oregon’s chances at a deep run.  The Ducks won the first NCAA Tournament in 1939, but haven’t been back to the Final Four since.

14-seed Iona is capable of upsetting Oregon if leading scorer Jordan Washington (17.9 PPG) can stay on the floor; he averages just 21.7 minutes per game.  Whether Oregon or Iona wins, the potential second-round matchup would play to Rhode Island’s favor.

 

 

NCAA Tournament

East Region
#1 Villanova vs. #16 Mount St. Mary’s (Thursday, Buffalo)
#8 Wisconsin vs. #9 Virginia Tech (Thursday, Buffalo)
#4 Florida vs. #13 East Tennessee State (Thursday, Orlando)
#5 Virginia vs. #12 UNC Wilmington (Thursday, Orlando)
#3 Baylor vs. #14 New Mexico State (Friday, Tulsa)
#6 SMU vs. #11 USC (Friday, Tulsa)
#2 Duke vs. #15 Troy (Friday, Greenville)
#7 South Carolina vs. #10 Marquette (Friday, Greenville)

West Regional
#1 Gonzaga vs. #16 South Dakota State (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#8 Northwestern vs. #9 Vanderbilt (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#4 West Virginia vs. #13 Bucknell (Thursday, Buffalo)
#5 Notre Dame vs. #12 Princeton (Thursday, Buffalo)
#3 Florida State vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast (Thursday, Orlando)
#6 Maryland vs. #11 Xavier (Thursday, Orlando)
#2 Arizona vs. #15 North Dakota (Thursday, Salt Lake City)
#7 Saint Mary’s vs. #10 VCU (Thursday, Salt Lake City)

Midwest Region
#1 Kansas vs. #16 UC Davis (Friday, Tulsa)
#8 Miami (Fla.) vs. #9 Michigan State (Friday, Tulsa)
#4 Purdue vs. #13 Vermont (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#5 Iowa State vs. #12 Nevada (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#3 Oregon vs. #14 Iona (Friday, Sacramento)
#6 Creighton vs. #11 Rhode Island (Friday, Sacremento)
#2 Louisville vs. #15 Jacksonville State (Friday, Indianapolis)
#7 Michigan vs. #10 Oklahoma State (Friday, Indianapolis)

South Region
#1 North Carolina vs. #16 Texas Southern (Friday, Greenville)
#8 Arkansas vs. #9 Seton Hall (Friday, Greenville)
#4 Butler vs. #13 Winthrop (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#5 Minnesota vs. #12 Middle Tennessee (Thursday, Milwaukee)
#3 UCLA vs. #14 Kent State (Friday, Sacremento)
#6 Cincinnati vs. #11 Kansas State (Friday, Sacremento)
#2 Kentucky vs. #15 Northern Kentucky (Friday, Indianapolis)
#7 Dayton vs. #10 Wichita State (Friday, Indianapolis)

 

Fast Five: Biggest Storylines Entering 2017 NASCAR Season

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season starts tonight, with the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, a non-points event with an all-star field.

As always, there are a plethora of storylines entering the new season and Daytona Speedweeks.  Here are the biggest subplots entering the new year:

5. Johnson Goes For Championship Eight

After winning his record-tying seventh Cup Series championship in November, the 2017 season is Jimmie Johnson’s first chance to win an unprecedented eighth title and break the record of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson has won his seven titles over the last 11 seasons, while Earnhardt won his seven over 15 seasons and Petty won seven over 16 seasons.  Even if Johnson, 41, does not win his eighth title in 2017, he is expected to have several competitive years left to try to break the record.

4. Daniel Suarez enters Cup, replacing Carl Edwards 

Carl Edwards’ retirement at 37 came as a surprise to everyone in the NASCAR garage.  His replacement, however, was not as surprising to insiders, although it is a name casual fans may not recognize.

Daniel Suarez, 25, replaces Edwards in the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after winning the XFinity Series championship in 2016, becoming the first minority champion in any NASCAR national series, and the first born outside the U.S. (Mexico).

The very talented Suarez will immediately be a threat to win races and qualify for the playoffs, and joins a rookie class that also includes Erik Jones (#77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) and Ty Dillon (brother of Austin, #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet).

3. Changes at Stewart-Haas Racing

Tony Stewart also retired after the 2016 season, and is replaced in the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford by Clint Bowyer.

SHR, which consists of Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, is changing to Ford for the 2017 season after the last 14 seasons (eight with Stewart as co-owner) with Chevrolet.  The move allows SHR to become one of the two co-leading teams with Ford (alongside Penske Racing), after spending their tenure with Chevy in the shadow of Hendrick Motorsports.  With the move, SHR also had to change engine providers; after using Hendrick engines for their entire history, the company now moves to Roush-Yates Engines.

The team is also is fighting a developing legal battle with ex-sponsor Nature’s Bakery.  The company ceased its sponsorship of Patrick after the first year of a three-year contract, as the small company was struggling to pay for their sponsorship.  As a result, SHR has sued Nature’s Bakery for a breach of contract, and the company has countersued.  Patrick will still be sponsored for 2017 by TaxAct and Aspen Dental, the latter of which extended their sponsorship to fill some of the void left by Nature’s Bakery.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returns

Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the last 18 races of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion, one which he says is at least his fourth such injury in racing.

The son of Dale Earnhardt, who was killed 16 years ago today in the Daytona 500, has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 straight seasons, capitalizing on both his father’s popularity and his moderate Cup Series success.

The 42-year old Earnhardt Jr., who married on Dec. 31 and enters a “contract year” in 2017, returns at arguably his most successful track, as he will make his first start of any kind since July in next week’s Daytona 500.  He will not race in the Advance Auto Parts Clash tonight; Alex Bowman, who earned a spot in tonight’s field by winning a pole at Phoenix last year, will drive the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Earnhardt Jr. is a 26-time Cup Series race winner, and has finished in the top five in points four times, including a third-place points finish in 2003.  He is one of 11 drivers with multiple Daytona 500 wins, and can become just the sixth with three or more with a win next Sunday.

1. NASCAR’s Changes for 2017

NASCAR in 2017 will look different from any NASCAR season in the past, for multiple reasons.

First, the Cup Series has a new title sponsor.  What was the Sprint Cup Series in now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as the energy drink company signed a “multiyear deal” with NASCAR back in December.

A new identity for the Cup Series made this offseason natural timing for other changes, and NASCAR has made several.

The biggest change is the new race format:  races will be divided into three segments, called “stages,” with points being awarded to the top 10 after each stage in addition to the full field at the race’s completion.  Stage winners will also recieve bonus points for the newly-named playoffs (formerly “The Chase”), as will the top 10 in regular season points, and those bonuses will carry through all the way until the Round of 8 (previously, bonus points only applied to the initial round, the Round of 16).

Many say the result will be better racing throughout the entirety of the event, although there are many skeptics, myself included.  Tonight’s 75-lap exhibition has no stages, so we won’t see the new format in action until next week’s Daytona 500.

In addition, NASCAR announced a new damaged vehicle policy for 2017.  Teams will no longer be allowed to replace major parts on damaged cars, and while they will be allowed to fix damage on original parts, they will only be allowed five minutes on pit road to perform such repairs.  Any car that has to go behind the wall or to the garage will be out of the race.

This rule is a safety initiative by NASCAR, as often times in the past when teams have sent patched-up cars back on the track they have caused accidents.  How much it affects the racing–and how much attrition goes up–are a big unknown right now; this change will potentially be seen in tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash (i.e. a hypothetical “big one” takes out 14 of the 17-car field).

How all these changes affect the competition, including driving styles and strategy, will be a big storyline throughout the entire 2017 season.