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.)

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Column: Sergio’s major is worth the wait

After a long road from prodigy at age 19 to veteran at age 37, Sergio Garcia is finally a major champion.

The “best player to never win a major” burden has been lifted.  An 18-year pursuit has, at last, reached its end.

The memory of the 2007 Open Championship lip-out at Carnoustie, a water ball while leading at the 2008 PGA, and multiple run-ins with Tiger Woods has been erased by an epic victory Sunday at the 81st Masters, beating Justin Rose in a playoff.

Garcia, who won his first major in his 74th attempt, entered Sunday with the third most major championship starts without a win, behind only Jay Haas (87 starts) and Lee Westwood (76 starts), but became the third Spaniard to win the green jacket, joining Jose Maria Olazabal (1994, 1999) and Seve Ballesteros (1980, 1983), who would have turned 60 on Sunday.

At one point on Sunday, Sergio’s breakthough looked like it would have to wait another major.  After Garcia led by three on the front nine, Rose caught him with consecutive birdies on six, seven and eight, before Garcia bogeyed the 10th and 11th to fall two behind, then hit his drive on the 13th left into the pine straw across Rae’s Creek.

From there, however, Garcia turned the tide.  After a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie, Garcia punched out to 90 yards short of the green on the par-5, calmly hit his approach to seven feet, then made the putt for par.  Rose, simultaneously, missed a birdie putt to go up three.

After a birdie at 14, Garcia then hit one of the great clutch shots on the 15th hole–which is saying something considering that hole’s history in the previous 80 Masters–when his second shot to the par-5 hit the pin and settled 14 feet from the hole.  Garcia led briefly when he made the putt, although Rose birdied to tie at 9-under.

Rose birdied the 16th, where Garcia missed a short birdie putt, but Rose bogeyed the 17th to fall back to a tie, marking the first time since 1998 both members of the final pairing were tied for the lead on the 18th tee on Sunday.  That 1998 Masters was also the last time a player won his first major at age 37 or older, when Mark O’Meara won at 41.

Garcia hit two clutch approach shots into the 18th green–one in regulation and one in the playoff–setting up excellent birdie opportunities; after missing his five-footer to win in regulation, Garcia made his 12-footer in the playoff to win, and physically released the emotion of 73 previous frustrations in majors and 19 in the Masters, the most attempts ever before winning for the first time.

In winning the 81st Masters, and a record $1.98 million purse, Garcia has become the fifth player to win the Masters after previously winning low amateur in the event, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus.  Garcia won low-amateur in 1999, the last Masters before Sunday won by a Spaniard (Olazabal).

That 1999 Masters was just the beginning for Garcia, who turned pro at 19 later that year and finished second to Woods at the PGA Championship at Medinah.

What followed is a career filled with triumph in “normal events” on the PGA and European tours, perennial participation in–and impact in the outcome of–the Ryder Cup, but consistent near-misses in major championships.

Garcia finished in the top 10 in all four majors in 2002, finished as high as fourth at Augusta (2004), finished third at the 2005 U.S. Open and 2006 PGA Championship, the latter also coming during a Woods win at Medinah.

In the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, Garcia led wire-to-wire until the final hole, when he lipped out an eight-foot put for par to win the title, then lost a four-hole playoff by one to Padraig Harrington.

A year later in the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, Garcia held the lead for most of the back nine on Sunday, only to hit a ball in the water at the 16th and bogey two of the last three holes, losing again to Harrington.

A fourth runner-up finish in a major came at the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, when a final round 66 wasn’t enough to catch a historic performance by Rory McIlroy.

Garcia did win the 2008 Players Championship, the biggest tournament that isn’t a major, with a clutch shot to within five feet on the famous island green at the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.

But the questions still remained about whether Garcia could ever win a major, including from Sergio himself, and the noise has gotten louder as time has gone on.

But this week, Garcia seemed to have a clearer mind, which appeared to help him recover from the bogeys at the 10th and 11th to make a charge down the stretch.

“Because of where my head was at, sometimes, I did think, ‘Am I ever going to win one?’,” Garcia said Sunday after winning.  “I’ve had so many good chances, and I’ve either lost them, or somebody did something to beat me. So, it did cross my mind, but lately I’ve been getting some good help. I’ve been thinking a little differently, more positively, and I’ve been more accepting, that if for whatever reason it didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on. It’s not going to be a disaster.”

Sunday’s runner-up, Justin Rose, finished second at Augusta for the second time; the Englishman might have two green jackets if not for Jordan Spieth’s record-tying 18-under performance in 2015 and Garcia’s back-nine charge on Sunday.

But Rose, a good friend with Garcia, was beyond classy in defeat.  During the round, the pair acknowledged each other’s impressive shots with thumbs ups and low-key high fives.  Once Garcia won, Rose hugged him and congratulated him.

Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist posted his 5th Masters top 10 finish, the most by Rose in any major.  Rose has never missed the cut at the Masters, and his finishes have gradually trended upward over his career, including the two seconds in the last three years, with a tie for 10th last year.

Rose should win the Masters at some point in the next few years, but Sunday was Sergio’s day, a fact that Rose even acknowledged by tweeting his congratulations to Garcia on Sunday night:

Rose was far from the only member of the pro golf community who extended congratulations to Garcia on the long-awaited major title:

While the golf community is collectively happy for Garcia, whose win is among the most popular in recent memory, Garcia himself had been possibly the happiest he has been during his career when he came to Augusta.  His change in perspective about major championships not defining him helped him play looser, and he is entering a life-changing period off the course, as he is engaged to be married this summer.

And now, after taking the pressure off himself to perform on golf’s biggest stage, he has finally been able to do something that was waited on for so long many had given up on his chances to do so.

Sergio Garcia is finally a major champion.  After an epic performance and a thrilling victory, the green jacket was worth the wait.

 

 

The 81st Masters Tournament

Leaders:
1. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -9 (71-69-70-69–279), won on first playoff hole
2. Justin Rose, England, -9 (71-72-67-69–279)
3. Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, -6 (74-72-68-68–282)
T4. Matt Kuchar, U.S., -5 (72-73-71-67–283)
T4. Thomas Pieters, Belgium, -5 (72-68-75-68–283)
6. Paul Casey, England, -4 (72-75-69-68–284)
T7. Kevin Chappell, U.S., -3 (71-76-70-68–285)
T7. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, -3 (72-73-71-69–285)
T9. Ryan Moore, U.S., -2 (74-69-69-74–286)
T9. Adam Scott, Australia, -2 (75-69-69-73–286)

Notables:
T11. Rickie Fowler, U.S., -1 (73-67-71-76–287)
T11. Jordan Spieth, U.S.,  -1 (75-69-68-75–287)
T18. Fred Couples, U.S., +1 (73-70-74-72–289)
T22. Jason Day, Australia, +2 (74-76-69-71–290)
T22. Phil Mickelson, U.S., +2 (71-73-74-72–290)
T27. Jon Rahm, Spain, +3 (73-70-73-75–291)
T36. Stewart Hagestad, U.S., +6 (74-73-74-73–294), low amateur
Defending champion Danny Willett (+7), Henrik Stenson (+8) and Bubba Watson (+8) missed the cut.
Dustin Johnson withdrew; Tiger Woods did not play.

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

The Masters Stands Tall

Sports are made by championship events.  The Super Bowl.  The World Series.  March Madness.

Golf, however, is unique, with four major championships on its calendar.  Each is unique with its own character and ritual.  A win in any makes its victor a champion for life.

But among this quartet of triumph, it is The Masters that stands taller than the Georgia pines, and beams brighter than the Augusta azaleas.

Here at Augusta National, everything is pure.  The morning dew on the perfectly groomed fairways.  The roll of the smooth yet lightning-quick greens.  The soft ripples in Rae’s Creek.  The trees on Magnolia Lane blowing gently in the southern breeze.

Here, everything is rooted in tradition.  The champions of yesteryear are treated like royalty, and are members of the most exclusive assemblage in golf.

Two of these legends will start the tournament off in a special way on the first tee Thursday morning, although another, The King, is notably absent.

Here, everything is electrifying.  The best golfers in the world battle on the sport’s most famous course for its most coveted prize.

Throngs of patrons follow, piercing the Augusta serenity with the loudest roars in golf.  For birdies, these roars echo through the pines around this hallowed property.  For eagles, the roars seem to echo around the world.

By Sunday, those birdies and eagles will determine a champion.  The fabled green jacket awaits the player who can stand taller than the rest, and win this pure and electrifying tradition unlike any other that stands tallest in the world of golf.

 

 

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

Column: Rules unfairly rob Thompson of LPGA major title

When So Yeon Ryu, the winner of the LPGA Tour’s first major championship of 2017, says she doesn’t feel right about how she won, you know there’s a problem.

In Sunday’s final round of the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson left the 12th green with a three-shot lead, strongly positioned for her second title in the event.

Then, the LPGA dropped a bombshell.

Rules official Sue Witters informed Thompson that she was being assessed a four-shot penalty after the LPGA had deemed that Thompson misplaced her ball when marking it on the 17th green in Saturday’s third round.

The violation had been discovered only after a television viewer, presumably watching Saturday’s round a day later on DVR, emailed the tour about the potential violation, after which officials reviewed video and penalized Thompson.

After the penalty, Thompson fought through tears to play the final six holes in 2-under, making three birdies including one on the final hole to reach a playoff.  She lost the sudden-death playoff to Ryu, who won her second major.

The violation itself is a two-stroke penalty, but given the circumstances two additional strokes were added for Thompson signing an incorrect scorecard in Saturday’s round.

Thompson, who fell from three ahead to one behind the lead, was understandably shaken by the sudden turn of events.

“Is this a joke?” Thompson asked, and after Witters confirmed she was serious, Thompson replied, “This is ridiculous.”

The golf community responded similarly to Thompson, with many, including the sport’s biggest name, showing their displeasure with the ruling on Twitter:

Based on the rules as written by the USGA, the ruling was correct.

“I can’t go to bed tonight knowing I let a rule slide,” Witters said. “It’s a hard thing to do, and it made me sick, to be honest with you.”

But the way it played out was certainly unfair, and begs the question whether some changes may be necessary.

Tiger Woods and the other professionals above have a point:  no other sport’s fans have the ability to call in (or, in this case, email in) potential violations they have seen from home on the event’s television broadcast.

This has an easy solution:  the PGA and LPGA Tours and other sanctioning bodies whose events are televised should place a rules official in the television truck, where they can watch the broadcast for potential violations and request replays or additional camera angles if necessary.

The potential for a fan at home to influence the officiating of an event, especially 24 hours later, is simply nonsensical.

The rule on signing an incorrect scorecard should also change in cases where the player has no intent of improving their score.  Penalizing Thompson, or any other player, two shots for not writing down a penalty that wouldn’t be discovered for another 24 hours is totally unfair to the competitor.

The original rule for signing an incorrect card was if the incorrect score was better than the player’s actual score, the player was disqualified.  Fortunately for Thompson, instead of being disqualified as she would have been with the original rule, a 2016 rule change made it a two-stroke penalty.

But that’s still unfair.  Thompson had no intent in signing an incorrect card, because she had no idea a penalty in her round was even possible.  Penalizing her for a review initiated by the LPGA upon a fan’s suggestion is completely unfair.

Enforcing such a penalty after 12 holes of the final round have been played is even more ridiculous.

Thompson entered the final round at 13-under par, leading Suzann Pettersen by two shots, and played from ahead through the first 12 holes.  Had she started the final round at 9-under, chasing the lead instead of protecting it, she would have played more aggressively to try to catch (and pass) the leader.  Instead, her strategy was different for two-thirds of her round because she had no clue she was about to be penalized.

There is no way this can be considered fair.  Knowing the “time and score” is immensely important for participants in any sport.  Reviewing a play in a “stick and ball” sport later in the game is unreasonable, which is why reviews in such sports can’t happen after the next play has begun.

In golf, it is legal for tournament officials to enforce a penalty from Saturday during Sunday’s round, but once the final player to finish the final round signs their scorecard, the tournament is considered over, so a penalty in Sunday’s round cannot be added on Monday.

For the fairness of all participants (the other players have a right to know where their opponents stand), it should be written into the USGA rules that a penalty cannot be added once the player has started their following round.

My proposal of a rules official in the television truck and no ruling suggestions from fans would help here too, because potential violations would come up immediately instead of hours later or the next day.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent memory penalty strokes have come into play late in a major championship.  In the final round of last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, Dustin Johnson was notified on the 12th hole that he may or may not be penalized a stroke for his ball moving on the fifth green–the decision could only be made once officials and Johnson sat down with video evidence after the round–and had to finish the round not knowing if he was, for instance, leading by one stroke or tied.

In Johnson’s case, the penalty ended up not mattering, as he finished at 5-under, four shots ahead of the nearest challengers at 1-under, and won by three after the penalty dropped him to 4-under.

Thompson wasn’t as fortunate.  As a result, the 2016 U.S. Olympian still had a chance to win, which she narrowly missed, but was robbed of her fairest chance to win one of the biggest events in women’s golf.

Now, as the sport of golf enters its biggest event this week at The Masters, a black cloud hangs over the sport, with a real question of how fairly its rules may play out in the event of similar circumstances on its biggest stage at Augusta.

Column: The greatest 64 days in sports

It’s Super Bowl Sunday.  You’re reading a sports blog, so I don’t have to tell you how big a deal the Super Bowl is American sports, and American culture at-large.

But Super Bowl Sunday, to me, is more than just one big game on one Sunday in February, but is instead the start of the best nine-week period on the sports calendar.

Over the next 64 days, from today until April 9, all five of the sports I closely follow have a major event that fans anticipate for months, in a stretch of the sports calendar that puts the other 301 days of the year to shame.

Football, of course, crowns its professional champion tonight in Super Bowl LI.  Pro football isn’t necessarily my very favorite sport to watch (in fact, I prefer college football over the NFL), but I do still enjoy it, especially during the playoffs and “The Big Game.”

While I do find the Super Bowl to be somewhat overrated, I appreciate the cultural event it has become beyond just a football game.  Everyone is watching, whether for the commercials, the halftime show, or (like me) to see if the Patriots or Falcons hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the game’s conclusion.  The sheer magnitude of the Super Bowl is unlike anything else in sports; on a cultural level in America, no other sporting event even comes close.

Three weeks from today, NASCAR celebrates its own “Super Bowl Sunday” of sorts with the 59th Daytona 500.  Unlike football (and many other “stick and ball sports”), NASCAR’s biggest event doesn’t end its season, but kicks it off, as the Daytona 500 begins the 36-race marathon that is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

An event that rose to prominence in 1979 with Richard Petty’s dramatic win continues to produce thrilling racing, including last year’s photo finish won by Denny Hamlin.  Some (myself included) are more than skeptical about NASCAR’s new race format, but there is still excitement building for the 500, and it will only continue to build during Daytona Speedweeks, the 10 days of events at the World Center of Racing leading up to the race on February 26.

After Daytona, the calendar will turn to March, a word that is synonymous among sports fans with college basketball.  After the 32 conference tournaments over the first two weekends of March, the field of 68 will be set for the NCAA Tournament on March 12, Selection Sunday, and the tournament begins on March 14.

The next three weeks are a flood of the buzzer-beaters, the upsets, and simply the insane basketball that makes us all adore the NCAA Tournament.  Instead of a one-day event, the tournament spans over three weekends, with the teams that play for the championship playing six games by the time the tournament is over.

The championship game is on April 3, the same day as MLB’s Opening Day.  Fans in every sport have season openers, during which they always possess hope for the upcoming season, but this is especially pronounced at the beginning of baseball season.

Teams and fans alike will be set to go after six weeks of Spring Training, as each team begins the demanding schedule of 162 games in six months.

This season, Opening Day will be prefaced by the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial World Cup-style competition held during Spring Training, established in 2006 and most recently won by the Dominican Republic in 2013.  The United States has, surprisingly, never medaled in the event, but has quite possibly their best roster ever entering this year’s edition.

April 3, the Monday that marks the end of the NCAA Tournament and the beginning of baseball season, is also the beginning of Masters week, with the tournament rounds at The Masters beginning on Thursday, April 6.  The creation of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts is the biggest and most dramatic golf tournament of the year, set in the beautiful backdrop of Augusta National Golf Club, full of Georgia pines and perfectly-groomed azaleas, blossoming as spring sets in.

Golf, the ultimate individual’s game, is the only sport I played in high school, and therefore the one which I most identify with the players.  I’ve dreamed of playing in the Masters–and did so in the backyard many times–and now that I realize that’s probably unrealistic, I dream of driving down Magnolia Lane to cover the “tradition unlike any other” (then again, I’d like to cover all of these events some day).  Golf has four major championships, but among them The Masters stands tall.

The Super Bowl may be tonight, but even once the game is over, the fun will just be getting started.  It kicks off this great 64-day period, the most wonderful time of the sports year.

Fast Five: 2016 Year in Review

*Editor’s Note:  This post was originally scheduled to be published on December 31, but due to personal sickness was delayed until now. 

 

2016 was a crazy year in sports.  From exceptional and historic championship events, to the good and bad of the Olympic Games, to saying goodbye to several big names who retired or passed away.

From the best events of the year to the biggest stories, here is a look back at the year that was in 2016:

Best Events of 2016

5.  Jul. 14-17:  Henrik Stenson wins The Open Championship

The Open at Royal Troon began on Thursday with Phil Mickelson getting hot on the back nine, and eventually facing a putt for a 62, which would have been a record for any major championship.  The putt somehow stayed out of the hole, and Mickelson shot 63, becoming the 28th to do so in a major championship.


Swede Henrik Stenson shot 65 on Friday to pull within one of Mickelson, setting the stage for a fantastic weekend duel.  Stenson shot 68 Saturday to Mickelson’s 70, giving Stenson a one-shot lead entering the final round.

In the final round, Stenson and Mickelson went back and forth, and Mickelson ended the Open with a bogey-free 65, finishing 17-under par with the best 72 holes he had ever played in a major and 11 shots clear of third place J.B. Holmes.  There was only one problem for Lefty:  Stenson shot 63, joining Johnny Miller as the only players to shoot the mark in the final round to win a major.  Stenson took the lead for good on the 14th hole, birdieing four of the last five holes and 10 in the round to win his first major, beating Mickelson in an Open duel reminiscent of 1977’s “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

4.  Jan. 11:  Alabama 45, Clemson 40 (NCAA Football, National Championship Game)

As the clear two best teams in the country fought for the national title, they produced a game that many compared to the legendary USC-Texas Rose Bowl in 2006.  The two teams traded the lead throughout the first three quarters, with Alabama getting two rushing touchdowns from Heisman winner Derrick Henry, and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finding former walk-on Hunter Renfrow for two touchdowns.

After Alabama tied the score at 24-24 with 10:34 to go, coach Nick Saban made one of the gutsiest calls of his career, calling for the onside kick, which the Crimson Tide recovered, leading to a touchdown.  After Clemson answered with a field goal, Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to give Alabama a 38-27 lead.  A Watson-to-Artavis Scott touchdown with 4:40 left pulled Clemson to 38-33, before a long Alabama drive to milk the clock ended with the Tide putting the game away with Henry’s third touchdown.

3.  Apr. 4:  Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 (NCAA Tournament, National Championship Game)

After the Final Four in Houston saw two less than stellar semifinals, with Villanova beating Oklahoma 95-51 and North Carolina beating Syracuse 83-66 to advance to the championship game, the Wildcats and Tar Heels made up for it with one of the best championship games in NCAA Tournament history.

After North Carolina led 39-34 at halftime and by as many as seven points early in the second half, Villanova came back to tie the score at 44-44 and then take a 67-57 lead with 5:29 left.  Then the Tar Heels came back, led by threes from Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige.  After getting as close as 72-71, North Carolina trailed 74-71 in the closing seconds when Marcus Paige hit a contested, off-balance, game-tying three with 4.7 seconds left–given the circumstances, one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen (honestly, because of the degree of difficulty, even more of a clutch shot than the one that happened next).

After a timeout, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball up the floor, setting up Kris Jenkins for an open three that will forever live in basketball lore.  Jenkins’ buzzer-beater gave Villanova their second national title (1985) in thrilling fashion, culminating a game CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander called “a thrilling, undeniably heart-stopping, instant classic of a title game.”

2.  Jun. 19:  Cleveland 93, Golden State 89 (NBA Finals, Game 7)

Game 7 had some fantastic storylines beforehand.  The Cavaliers and Warriors were playing a rematch of the 2015 Finals, which had been won by Golden State.  The Warriors had reached The Finals by overcoming a 3-1 deficit to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, then they led Cleveland 3-1 before the Cavaliers fought back to force a Game 7.  The Cavaliers were trying to become the first Cleveland pro sports team to win a championship since 1964, led by native son LeBron James, and doing so on the road in Oakland.

The largest lead of the game for either side was seven, which Golden State enjoyed at halftime, and the game saw 11 ties and 20 lead changes.  After a Warriors layup by Klay Thompson tied the score at 89 with 4:39 to play, the teams combined to miss 12 consecutive shots, including a phenomenal James block from behind on an Andre Iguodala attempted layup.  Kyrie Irving broke the scoring drought with a clutch three, over league MVP Stephen Curry, with 0:53 remaining, and after Curry missed a three, James was fouled hard on a fast break with 0:10 left, staying on the floor for a few moments before hitting one of the two free throws to give Cleveland a 4-point lead, before Curry missed again and time expired, and James fell to the floor in tears as a champion.

The story of LeBron James returning home to Cleveland and winning the city the championship it so desperately wanted was a great story to watch unfold, even as someone who was (mildly) pulling for the Warriors.  As the city won its first title in 52 years, ESPN broadcaster Mike Breen proclaimed, “Cleveland is a city of champions again!”

1.  Nov. 2:  Chi. Cubs 8, Cleveland 7, 10 inn. (World Series, Game 7)

“Game of the Century” is an overused term in the sports world, but leading into just the fifth Game 7 of a World Series since 2001, I said this was legitimately the biggest baseball game in the 21st century thus far.  But even with the Cubs coming from down 3-1 to force a Game 7 in a series between teams with 68- and 108-year title droughts and the matchups of Kluber-Hendricks and Francona-Maddon, I wondered if it could possibly live up to the hype.  And yet, somehow, it surpassed it.

So many moments from Game 7 were memorable on their own, and together they combined to truly make the greatest baseball game of this century to date, and one of the greatest ever.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a homer for the Cubs, and Javy Baez added one of his own, giving the Cubs a 5-1 lead.  The Indians pulled to within 5-3 after two scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series since 1911.  David Ross, in his final career at-bat, homering to make it 6-3.  A furious Indians rally against Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman in the 8th, culminating with a game-tying homer by Rajai Davis, the latest in any World Series Game 7.

Nine innings weren’t enough for this classic, and with the game tied 6-6 and going to extra innings, the whole world got to catch its breath with a short rain delay.  After a Ben Zobrist go-ahead double, the Cubs took an 8-6 lead to the bottom of the tenth, but the Indians didn’t go down without a fight, scoring off of Cubs rookie Carl Edwards.  Mike Montgomery, who had never recorded a save in pro baseball, relieved Edwards with two outs, and got Michael Martinez to hit a soft grounder to third that will become one of the most replayed baseball highlights in history:  the final out of the Cubs’ first championship since 1908.

In my post on the game the next day, I summed up Game 7 this way:  “The Cubs and their fans have literally waited a lifetime to celebrate winning the World Series.  It’s only appropriate that the game of a lifetime put them over the top.”


Honorable Mention

Jan. 16:  Arizona 26, Green Bay 20, OT (NFL Playoffs, Divisional Round)

Jan. 23:  Denver 20, New England 18 (NFL Playoffs, AFC Championship)

Feb. 21:  Denny Hamlin wins Daytona 500 photo finish

Mar. 18:  Northern Iowa 75, Texas 72 (NCAA Tournament, First Round)

Mar. 20:  Wisconsin 66, Xavier 63 (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)

Mar. 20:  Texas A&M 92, Northern Iowa 88, 2OT (NCAA Tournament, Second Round)

Apr. 7-10:  Danny Willett wins The Masters

Jun. 30:  Coastal Carolina 4, Arizona 3 (College World Series Championship, Game 3)

Aug. 11-14:  Olympic Men’s Golf Competition (G: Justin Rose, S: Henrik Stenson, B: Matt Kuchar)

Sept. 30-Oct. 2:  United States wins Ryder Cup

Oct. 1:  Tennessee 34, Georgia 31 (NCAA Football)

Oct. 1:  Clemson 42, Louisville 36 (NCAA Football)

Oct. 4:  Toronto 6, Baltimore 3, 11 inn. (AL Wild Card Game)

Oct. 5:  San Francisco 3, N.Y. Mets 0 (NL Wild Card Game)

Oct. 9:  Toronto 7, Texas 6, 10 inn. (AL Division Series, Game 3)

Oct. 10:  San Francisco 6, Chi. Cubs 5, 13 inn. (NL Division Series, Game 3)

Oct. 13:  L.A. Dodgers 4, Washington 3 (NL Division Series, Game 5)

Nov. 12:  Pittsburgh 43, Clemson 42 (NCAA Football)

Nov. 20:  Jimmie Johnson wins Ford 400 and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship

Nov. 26:  Ohio State 30, Michigan 27, 2OT (NCAA Football)

 

Biggest Stories of 2016

5.  Retirements

Every year has its fair share of retirements, but it seemed 2016 had more big names saying goodbye than most years.  Peyton Manning retired as a Super Bowl champion.  David Ortiz was an MVP candidate at age 40 in his farewell.  Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final game.  David Ross homered in Game 7 of the World Series in his final career at-bat.  Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira walked away from the New York Yankees.  Vin Scully said goodbye after an unfathomable 67-year run as a Dodgers broadcaster.  Fellow broadcaster Dick Enberg said “Oh my!” one final time.  Tony Stewart won one of the year’s best races at Sonoma as part of his final season.  Family man Adam LaRoche walked away from millions after his son was unwelcome in the White Sox clubhouse.  The accolades for this list seem endless, and they have given us many moments we’ll never forget.


4.  Rio Olympics

Entering the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the host city was a major story, with concerns about the water quality in Rio, trash in the streets, and risk of Zika virus.

Once the games began, there were some excellent performances by the best athletes in the world, including a successful games for the United States team.  Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all-time, while fellow swimmer Katie Ledecky was utterly dominant in setting multiple world records.  Simone Manuel stunned everyone, becoming the first African-American woman to ever medal in swimming when she won gold in the 100m freestyle.  Simone Biles won five gymnastics medals, with four gold, as the “Final Five” obliterated the competition to win gold going away.

Outside the American delegation, Jamaican Usain Bolt finished his career with a third gold in the 100 meter dash.  Fiji’s rugby team won gold to score the nation’s first Olympic medal ever.  Brit Mo Farah fell down and recovered to defend his gold medal in the 10,000m run.  Golf returned to the Olympics for the first time since 1904, with Great Britain’s Justin Rose and South Korea’s Inbee Park winning gold.

There were still some controversies, both within and outside of competition.  Shaunae Miller dove across the finish line, and while I wrote I had no problem with it, many did.  The water in the diving pool mysteriously turned green.  12-time medalist Ryan Lochte claimed he and three teammates were robbed at gunpoint, before it turned out a drunk Lochte had vandalized a gas station bathroom and fabricated parts of his story.

While the 2016 Summer Olympics were not perfect, but fascinated with these storylines and many more.

3.  Cavaliers end Cleveland title drought

The career of LeBron James has created some of the top stories in years past, as the Akron native left his hometown Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat in 2010, and after two titles in Miami, signed back with Cleveland in 2014.  After an NBA Finals loss to the Warriors in 2015, the Cavaliers looked destined for another loss to the Warriors in 2016, trailing 3-1, but came from behind to win three straight games, including two on the road, and the title, clinching in a legendary Game 7.

But while this championship was the first for the Cavaliers franchise, this story was about more than just one sport in Cleveland, but all of them, as the city won its first championship in any sport since 1964, ending a drought that led The New York Times to once call Cleveland “the capital of sports heartbreak.”

The Cavaliers fell victim to Michael Jordan playoff buzzer-beaters twice, then lost James in the controversial announcement program “The Decision.”  The Browns lost playoff games on a late interception (“Red Right 88”), an infamous fumble (Earnest Byner), and John Elway’s “The Drive,” before leaving town entirely in 1995 (becoming the Baltimore Ravens), only to be reborn as an expansion franchise in 1999.  The Indians were two outs away from the 1997 World Series title, before a costly Jose Mesa error led to an extra-innings loss to the Marlins.

The Cavaliers title ended the heartbreak, but may also have started a sustained run of athletic success for the city.  While the Browns did go 1-15 in the 2016 season, the Indians reached the World Series, and will have an even better roster in 2017, while the Cavaliers currently have the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference as they try to defend their title.

2.  Deaths

Many people of influence in all facets of American and global culture passed away in 2016, but the year seemed to especially hit the sports world hard.  Muhammad Ali, the boxer who was named Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Century in 1999, died after a long battle with Parkinson’s, while Pat Summitt, the longtime Tennessee women’s basketball coach who is the winningest coach in NCAA history, succumbed to dementia.  Arnold Palmer, “the king” of golf, and Jose Fernandez, a young star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died just hours apart on September 25.

The list also includes broadcasting legends Craig Sager, Joe Garagiola and John Saunders, football coaches LaVell Edwards, Dennis Green and Buddy Ryan, former Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam, basketball legends Nate Thurmond and Pearl Washington, NHL Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, baseball trail blazer Monte Irvin, and dirt racing champion Bryan Clauson.  71 people, including 19 players from Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense and numerous other team staff and media, were killed when a plane carrying the team to a championship match in Medellin, Colombia crashed, while only three players survived.



1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908

Entering 2016, it was no secret that the Cubs had a great chance to break their curse of 108 years and finally win the World Series, and before the season I picked them to win.  Even still, the way it played out makes this one of the biggest and best sports stories of my lifetime, and one that many veteran baseball writers called the best story they have ever covered.

Coming back from a 3-1 deficit and capturing a thrilling Game 7 to win it all, the Cubs finally rewarded the waiting of their long-suffering fans, some of the most loyal anywhere, with their first championship since 39,466 days before, when Theodore Roosevelt was president.  The resulting reactions from jubilant Cubs fans, nearly all of whom were experiencing their first championship, were expectedly emotional, with many brought to joyous, relieved tears.

The North Side rode the monumental triumph–and, in many cases, disbelief–for days after Game 7, including the Cubs’ victory parade and rally two days after the victory, which saw 5 million people–the seventh largest crowd in human history–pay tribute to their baseball heroes, the unit of Cubs who finally ended sports’ most famous championship drought.

After seeing the Cubs end a historic period of futility in such dramatic fashion, and the depth of the celebration that followed in Chicago and throughout the country, I named the Chicago Cubs my 2016 Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year.


Honorable Mention (in generically chronological order, with yearlong stories listed first)

Athletes get politically involved (Colin Kaepernick, Curt Schilling, ESPYs cold open, etc)

Player conduct (Draymond Green, Grayson Allen, Vontaze Burfict, etc)

Performance-enhancing drugs (Dee Gordon suspension, al-Jazeera report)

Louisville basketball escort scandal

The Rams relocate to Los Angeles

Baylor football sexual assualt scandal

The end of Deflategate

John Scott voted to NHL All-Star Game, wins MVP

Golden State Warriors set NBA regular-season wins record

Leicester City beats 5000-1 odds to win English Premier League

Kevin Durant signs with Golden State Warriors

Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits out with concussion, Jeff Gordon returns

The resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders

Tim Tebow plays baseball, signs with New York Mets

Jimmie Johnson wins 7th title, ties Petty and Earnhardt

New collective bargaining agreements in MLB and NBA

The rebirth of Penn State football

Major college football coaching changes (LSU, Texas)

Tiger Woods’ injury and return

Wake Forest game plans leaked to opponents (WakeyLeaks)