Fast Five: Storylines Entering the PGA Championship

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

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

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

Quail Hollow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory McIlroy

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

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

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

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

Jordan Spieth

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

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

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

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

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

Hideki Matsuyama

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

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

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

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

PGA Moving to May

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Notes: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Column: Fowler Shadowing Mickelson In More Ways Than One

Since Rickie Fowler joined the PGA Tour in 2010, he and Phil Mickelson have become friends, despite their age difference.

Fowler, 28, and Mickelson, 47, often play practice rounds together at Tour events, and have played together as partners in the 2010 and 2016 Ryder Cups.

Rickie Fowler (Chris Breikss/Flickr)

But as Fowler has shadowed Mickelson personally through his young career, he’s also done it professionally, as his career on the course is on a similar path to Mickelson’s.

Fowler opened this weekend’s U.S. Open as the first round leader with a 7-under 65 and was never out of contention until very late Sunday, but after tying for fifth behind winner Brooks Koepka remains the “best player without a major,” a title once held by Mickelson for a significant portion of his career.

The similarities between the career arcs of Fowler and Mickelson started early:  Both qualified for multiple major championships as amateurs, with Mickelson winning low amateur honors at two U.S. Opens and the 1991 Masters, and Fowler making the cut at the 2008 U.S. Open.

While Fowler did not win a PGA Tour event as an amateur like Mickelson did (Mickelson’s win at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open is the last PGA Tour win by an amateur), Fowler won both the prestigious Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top collegiate golfer in 2008 and PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2010, both of which Mickelson never accomplished.

Fowler and Mickelson are both perennial members of the U.S. team in Ryder/President’s Cups:  Mickelson has been on every U.S. team since the 1994 President’s Cup, while Fowler has appeared in three Ryder Cups and one President’s Cup, and in 2010 became the youngest player in U.S. Ryder Cup history at the time (21 years, 9 months; the record has since been broken by Jordan Spieth)

Phil Mickelson (center left) and Rickie Fowler (center right) play a practice round with Brandt Snedeker (left) and Dustin Johnson (right) at the 2015 Masters. (Shannon McGee/Flickr)

Mickelson’s began his career with 22 PGA Tour wins before his first major, the 2004 Masters, which he won at age 33 after playing several years with the dreaded “best player without a major” label that Fowler, with four PGA Tour wins and three more worldwide, currently bears.

Fowler is currently five years younger than Mickelson was when he broke through at Augusta, and actually has more top fives in majors–Sunday was his sixth–than Mickelson did at the same age of 28, when he had four.  Fowler also has two major runner-ups (the 2014 U.S. Open and Open Championship), while Mickelson’s best finish at the same age was a pair of thirds (1994 PGA Championship and 1996 Masters), before his first runner-up in the 1999 U.S. Open, four days after his 29th birthday.

Like Mickelson, who has suffered from the fate of being born within five years of Tiger Woods as well as losing majors to multiple major winners like Nick Price, Nick Faldo and Payne Stewart, Fowler’s near-misses have come at the hands of many of today’s best, notably falling to Martin Kaymer’s dominant U.S. Open performance in 2014 and to Rory McIlroy in back-to-back majors later that summer.

This comparison is good news for Fowler–Mickelson has gone on to win five major championships between 2004-13, and is only a U.S. Open title away from completing the career grand slam, something only five players have accomplished.

Many players, including Mickelson, have endured several near-misses in majors before finally breaking through for their first major title.  Just in this century, in addition to Mickelson, David Duval, Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington, Stewart Cink, Darren Clarke, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia all had multiple close calls in majors before hoisting a major championship trophy.

All of these players were among the best in the world at various points of the pre-major-champion stage of their careers, and all except Duval, who was 29, had to wait until their 30s to taste major glory.

Even Brooks Koepka, who is 27, has had two top five finishes in majors before Sunday’s impressive stretch run earned him his first major.

It took a while–two and a half seasons–for Fowler to get his first PGA Tour win (the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship), and another three years to get his second, which came at the 2015 Players Championship, the unofficial “fifth major” (which Mickelson never won until 2007), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Fowler, who is still young, hasn’t won a major just yet.

As Fowler and his throngs of fans patiently await his first major, the assertion of some that he doesn’t have what it takes or that he won’t win a major because he hasn’t by age 28 is simply unreasonable.

Fowler failing to win a major to this point isn’t grim.  It’s normal.

And he’s just following in the footsteps of a friend.

117th U.S. Open

Leaders:
1. Brooks Koepka, U.S., -16 (67-70-68-67–272), ties Rory McIlroy (2011) for lowest score in relation to par in U.S. Open history
T2. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan, -12 (74-65-71-66–276)
T2. Brian Harman, U.S., -12 (67-60-67-72–276)
4. Tommy Fleetwood, England, -11 (67-70-68-72–277)
T5. Xander Schauffele, U.S., -10 (66-73-70-69–278)
T5. Bill Haas, U.S., 10 (72-68-69-69–278)
T5. Rickie Fowler, U.S., -10 (65-73-68-72–278)
8. Charley Hoffman, U.S., -9 (70-70-68-71–279)
T9. Trey Mullinax, U.S., -8 (71-72-69-68–280)
T9. Brandt Snedeker, U.S., -8 (70-69-70-71–280)
T9. Justin Thomas, U.S., -8 (73-69-63-75–280), became fifth player in U.S. Open history to shoot 63 (third round)

Notables:
T21. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -4 (70-71-71-72–284), highest-finishing former major champion
T27. Scottie Scheffler, U.S., -1 (69-74-71-73–287), low amateur
T35. Jordan Spieth, U.S.,  +1 (73-71-76-69–289)
Justin Rose (+2), Dustin Johnson (+4), Rory McIlroy (+5) and Jason Day (+10) missed the cut.
Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods did not play.

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.)

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

Fast Five: I Was There

I have been to plenty of sporting events, but some stand out more than others in my memory bank as the best events I’ve ever seen.  Each has their own unique story from my individual perspective.

October 4th marked the release of the new book I Was There, in which 65 of the biggest names in sports media share the five greatest sporting events they have witnessed in person.  The book was compiled by self-described “sports industry lifer” Eric Mirlis.

The criteria for the book is intentionally vague, meaning each contributor to the book can have their own interpretation of what their “greatest events” are.  As a result, in addition to the obvious examples of classic Super Bowls and championship games or series, there are some very outside-the-box events listed by the book’s participants.  Some of the events listed are all-time classics, while others have a deeper personal meaning.

The five events listed by each contributor are listed in chronological order, allowing the writers and broadcasters participating to not have to rank any of their five events over another.

I have seen 14 NASCAR races (10 Cup Series, 3 XFinity Series, 1 Truck Series), 11 MLB games, six ACC men’s basketball games, five PGA Tour events (but nine rounds), 2 FBS college football games, one NBA game, and too many Division II college games, Minor League Baseball games, collegiate summer league baseball games, and high school games to count.

But like anyone else, some of mine stand out, for different reasons.  And while I have not seen a Super Bowl or a World Series game, I have still seen some amazing events.

Here are the five greatest events I have witnessed, plus the five best I have covered:

Five Best Events I’ve Witnessed

Wake Forest at Clemson, Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C., January 24, 2015

I attend school at Anderson University, about 30 minutes away from Clemson’s campus, but having grown up in the Triad of North Carolina, I am a Wake Forest fan.  For Christmas a month before, I was given two tickets to Wake Forest’s game at Clemson.  I took my friend Garrett, a Clemson fan, and our seats were in the very last row, near the location of the TV cameras.

Wake Forest was in their first year under coach Danny Manning, after a 2-32 ACC road record under previous coach Jeff Bzdelik, and came in at 9-10 and 1-5 in the ACC, while Clemson entered at 10-8 and 2-4, so this was still a game between two bottom-half teams, but it was still an ACC men’s basketball game.

The Demon Deacons led over 39 minutes of the game, before Clemson took the lead with 0:58 left, and Wake Forest tied the game with a Devin Thomas free throw with 0:35.  Thomas missed the second free throw, but the Deacs got the rebound and looked like they would have the ability to set up the last shot and try to win.  But after Codi Miller-McIntyre turned the ball over with 0:25 left, and after Rod Hall drove inside but missed his shot, little-used reserve Josh Smith, who had just 14 baskets his last 19 games, got an offensive rebound and putback to put Clemson up 59-57 with 0.5 seconds left.  The play was essentially a buzzer-beater, and gave Wake Forest (another) heartbreaking loss on the road in ACC play.

Garrett could not have been more grateful for the free ticket to the game, so when the shot fell in, this was his reaction:  “Yeaaah! Yeaaah! (turns to me) Sorry. (turns back to the court) Yeaaah!”

Wyndham Championship, First Round, Sedgefield Country Club, Greensboro, N.C., August 18, 2015

Growing up in the Piedmont Triad, I attended the Wyndham Championship each year from 2007-09.  I saw the first PGA Tour wins of Brandt Snedeker (2007) and Ryan Moore (2009), as well as hometown favorite Carl Petterson’s lights-out round of 61 on his way to victory (2008).  We moved to South Carolina in late 2009, so I had not been back to Sedgefield since.

The week before the 2015 edition, with the Wyndham marking the last event of the PGA Tour’s “regular season” before the FedEx Cup Playoffs, I wondered if Tiger Woods, who was 187th in points, well below the playoff cutoff, may come to Greensboro for the first time in his career.  It seemed like a long shot, as under similar circumstances in 2011 he did not play in Greensboro and accepted his fate of his season being over.

And yet, the Friday night before the Wyndham, Woods committed to the event.  With one of the greatest athletes of all time coming to the Wyndham, which I still considered my “home event” on the PGA Tour, I bought a ticket for Thursday’s opening round within minutes of the announcement he was coming.  My non-golfing aunt, Terri, also decided to go and take in history–I don’t think she knew who any of the other 155 players in the field were, but she wanted to see Tiger Woods too.

We arrived at Sedgefield early enough to see Tiger warm up, then began following his group when he teed off.  I had seen Tiger at Quail Hollow in Charlotte in 2009, but this day would be much better.  Tiger teed off at 7:50 am, meaning Tiger’s gallery was smaller that day than any other day of the tournament, and seeing him in the Wyndham for the first time was a dream come true.  It became even more amazing when he played very well.

Tiger holed an incredible pitch shot for birdie on the 10th hole (his first hole), then bogeyed 11, leading me to think he had shown a glimmer of his old self before fading back into his struggles.  I was wrong, as he would birdie the 13th, 15th, and 18th holes for a 3-under-par 32 on the back nine, before birdieing the first, fourth, and fifth in a bogey-free front nine to shoot a round of 64.

This was (and still is) Tiger’s lowest round in competition since 2013.  Playing with Tiger were Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 65, and Brooks Koepka (who would eventually be a big part of last week’s U.S. Ryder Cup victory), who shot 67, but this was Tiger’s day.

Tiger, who needed to finish at least second to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs, would shoot a 65 the following day, and entered the weekend tied for the lead, and played well again on Saturday, entering the final round in a tie for second, before a triple-bogey on the 11th on Sunday ended his shot at victory and advancement.

Two weeks later, Tiger announced he had undergone more back surgery, and was out indefinitely.  Throughout 2016 he hinted at a comeback, but the 2015 Wyndham Championship is still his last start on the PGA Tour to date.

*Editor’s note:  to read more on my day following Tiger Woods at the Wyndham Championship, click here.


Bojangles’ Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C., September 6, 2015

Early in the 2015 NASCAR season, my friend Kevin told me he would very likely be able to get pit passes to Darlington for Southern 500 weekend.  I made sure he got us a third pit pass so Terri, the reason I am a racing fan to begin with, could come along.  She had never been to Darlington, but now would now, through the pit passes, get the greatest access in all of sports.

Kevin came in on Friday night, and him and I spent Saturday at the track for Cup Series qualifying and the XFinity Series event.  Kevin is friends with Harrison Rhodes, an NC State student by week and racecar driver by weekend, who was driving in the event.  As a result, we sat on his pit box for the entire time that he was in the race (he parked after 80 laps for his team’s financial reasons).  Denny Hamlin, Kevin’s favorite driver, won that Saturday event.

My favorite driver is Jeff Gordon, who was in his last season and was making what was supposed to be his final start at one of his best tracks (he ended up running Darlington again in 2016, filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.).  The pit passes allowed me to get his autograph on Sunday, as well as many other drivers.  We watched cars go through technical inspection up close, then made our way to pit road for the race itself.

This was the first year Darlington hosted a “throwback weekend,” so many of the paint schemes were throwbacks to the legends of years past.  The track played 70’s music over the speakers in the hours leading up to the race, and Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem.

Multiple MRN Radio announcers called this the “race of the year,” as there were 24 lead changes among 11 drivers, and 18 caution flags over the 367 laps that make up 500 miles around the venerable egg-shaped oval.  As the race got late, Brad Keselowski appeared to have a strong grip on the race lead, as he led every lap from lap 304 to 356 (except during pit stops) before a late caution bunched up the field.

On the final restart, Carl Edwards took the lead away, and led the remaining laps to win his first Southern 500.  During the “cool-down lap,” as Edwards came back around to the frontstretch, Kevin and I took off running towards the center of pit road to get a view of Edwards’ famous backflip celebration, which was cool to see in person.

One takeaway from this race is how much I found it ironic that with pit passes, the best access a fan can get in any sport, you still ended up essentially watching the race on TV, as we watched the monitors on the back of each team’s pit box.


Racing Electronics 100, Bowman Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C., August 5, 2016

Bowman Gray Stadium is a bull-ring short track in eastern Winston-Salem, in a stadium that doubles as the home of Winston-Salem State University football.  The track is one of the longest-running short tracks in the country, and is known as “The Madhouse” after many of the wild events which have unfolded on the quarter-mile circuit.

I lived about 20 minutes from Bowman Gray Stadium growing up, but only went to a race there once before we moved to South Carolina.  This summer I lived in the area again, while interning for the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, so one of the things I wanted to do during the summer was to go to a Bowman Gray race with Terri.  The schedule made it difficult, as the Asheboro Copperheads had a game nearly every Saturday night, but we looked at Bowman Gray’s schedule and saw a Friday night in early August when the Copperheads were away.

We got to the track early enough to see the famous modifieds make their qualifying runs, followed by preliminary races featuring cars called Bandoleros.  These were short races featuring pre-teen up-and-coming drivers in cars that were not very powerful, but could still put on a decent show.

The modifieds then came out for their 100-lapper, and were led to the green by local legend Burt Myers.  Tim Brown, another longtime Bowman Gray driver and multi-time track champion, started at the back after his engine misfired in qualifying.  While I watched the action at the front, I also kept an eye on Brown at the back, and early in the race he struggled to make headway trying to get through the field.

Cautions and restarts helped aide Brown, and eventually on a restart with about 25 to go he was second, on the outside of Myers, who had led from the outset.  On the restart, Brown passed Myers off of turn two on the outside, a hard feat in short-track racing, to take the lead for the first time.

Two laps later, while Myers was trying to chase Brown back down, the skies opened up and a heavy rainstorm hit Bowman Gray.  Brown was awarded the win in the rain-shortened race, a victory that was likely among his finest, considering how hard he had to work to get through the field.

Terri and I got back to my grandparents’ house, where I was spending the summer, in time to watch most of the parade of nations at the Rio Olympics.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last race I attended with Terri before she unexpectedly passed away a month later.

 

Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field, Atlanta, Ga., October 2, 2016

Emotions are always higher when you are seeing something happen that will never happen again, and the same is true in sports.  Every MLB game I have ever attended was at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, and on this day I was fortunate enough to attend the final game in the venue’s history.  I got upper deck tickets for my dad and I for his birthday, knowing how much of an affection both of us have for the stadium.

Dad left home in Mullins before 5 a.m., and was in Anderson before 9, and we were on our way.  We took the MARTA train and bus to the stadium, and arrived shortly after the gates opened.

The Braves Museum and Hall of Fame was open to the public for free, so we walked through and explored the history of the Braves franchise through its years in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.  It was the first time since 2005 either of us had seen the museum.

We got to our seat about 45 minutes before the 3:10 p.m. first pitch, and took in the pregame ceremony, in which Braves legends including Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez all took the field as part of the All-Turner Field Team.  That team also included “The Big Three” of Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, who threw out ceremonial first pitches after being delivered baseballs by Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox.

The opponent for the final game was the Detroit Tigers, who were still playing for the possibility of a postseason bid, and needed a win over the Braves and some help to stay alive.  Given those circumstances, the Tigers sent ace Justin Verlander, one of the game’s best pitchers, to the mound, a nice parallel to my first game at Turner Field in 2001 when I saw Maddux pitch.  Julio Teheran, a solid pitcher in his own right, pitched for the Braves.

After Teheran struck out the side in the top of the first, Ender Inciarte and Adonis Garcia led off the bottom half with singles, before Freddie Freeman got his 91st and final RBI of a career year with a sacrifice fly to center, giving the Braves a 1-0 lead.

After the first, it was the pitcher’s duel you would expect from Teheran and Verlander, as the two pitchers put up matching zeros, including many 1-2-3 innings.  Each starter went seven innings, before Jose Ramirez (ATL) and Bruce Rondon (DET) each pitched a scoreless eighth.

Jim Johnson, whose two-year contract extension with the Braves had been announced that morning, came in to close it in the ninth.  After a 1-out single by Miguel Cabrera, Johnson struck out J.D. Martinez and former Brave Justin Upton for the final two outs at Turner Field.

After the game, Hank Aaron threw a ceremonial final pitch to Cox, before Aaron and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk transferred home plate from Turner Field to SunTrust Park, the Braves home starting in 2017, via police escort.  The closing ceremony also featured a “parade of Braves Country states,” a nod to Turner Field’s history as Centennial Olympic Stadium and the 1996 Olympic opening ceremony, before remarks from broadcaster Don Sutton, Cox, Smoltz, and Braves vice-chairman John Schuerholz, who led the crowd in one final rendition of the famous “tomahawk chop” chant.

No, this wasn’t the closing of Yankee Stadium, but this was the final game at a place where we watched our favorite team play for 20 years, and for my entire span of memory (I’m 21).  So many memories were made at Turner Field, and the final game there is one I won’t forget.

Five Best Events I’ve Covered

Coastal Plain League West Division Championship Series, Gastonia Grizzlies vs. Florence RedWolves, August 10-12, 2014

I interned for the Florence RedWolves, a collegiate summer baseball team, in the summers of 2014-15, staying at home and commuting 30 minutes to Sparrow Stadium on the campus of Francis Marion University.  In 2014, the RedWolves won the Coastal Plain League’s West Division in both the first and second half of the season, and had a good shot at winning the franchise’s first Petitt Cup title in the playoffs.

After dispatching the High Point-Thomasville HiToms in an opening round sweep, the West Division Championship Series featured the two teams who had clearly been the division’s best all season, the RedWolves and the Gastonia Grizzlies.  The three games that ensued are collectively on this list, as the drama of playoff baseball and the budding rivalry of the two teams produced the best back-to-back-to-back games I have ever seen, which can be included as events I “covered” as I wrote the postgame press releases for the final two games.

Game 1 at Gastonia:
Several of us interns drove up to the suberb west of Charlotte and Sims Legion Park, the Grizzlies’ home.  Gastonia took a 1-0 lead in the first, but the RedWolves had a 3-1 lead by the seventh inning stretch.  The Grizzlies tied it in the 7th on a 2-RBI single by Weston Lawing, but after that both bullpens were absolutely phenomenal as an extra-inning game ensued late into the night.

RedWolves reliever Jacob Condra-Bogan allowed two runs in the seventh, but none for four innings after, and CPL Pitcher of the Year, closer Michael Morrison (a 2016 College World Series hero at Coastal Carolina), was scoreless in 5.1 innings.  Gastonia hurlers Robert Lawhon and Jared Cheek were just as impressive.

The RedWolves finally took the lead in the 16th on an RBI single by Joe Bialkowski and an RBI double by Brandon Rawe, and got three outs to win 5-3 and take a 1-0 series lead, winning the longest playoff game in CPL history.

Game 2 at Florence:
Back at home, the RedWolves were trying to clinch the best-of-three series in what would be a back-and-forth affair with a lot of “small ball” in the notoriously large Sparrow Stadium.  The RedWolves led 1-0 after the second, trailed 2-1 in the third, and led 3-2 after the third.  Each side scored in the fourth, making it 4-3, before Gastonia tied it 4-4 in the fifth, and Florence retook the lead at 5-4 in the sixth.

The RedWolves kept the one-run lead until the ninth, before Gastonia exploded (and Florence imploded) in the ninth:  double, sacrifice bunt, RBI single, error, RBI single, RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), strikeout, RBI single, 2-RBI triple, walk, flyout.  This may be the worst inning I have ever sat through, as the RedWolves went from two outs from winning the series to down 11-5 in a matter of minutes.  I didn’t bore you by listing each Gastonia player’s role in the inning, but I will add that Victor Zecca had the leadoff double and the 2-RBI triple.

But there was still a bottom of the ninth.  The RedWolves got the bases loaded with one out, before a Brandon Rawe sacrifice fly made it 11-6, and a wild pitch made it 11-7.  After loading the bases again, team RBI leader Conor Sullivan came to the plate representing the potential tying run.  It seemed like the potential perfect scenario for Florence, but Sullivan flied out to the warning track in straightaway center, the deepest part of a big ballpark, for the final out.

Game 3 at Florence:
The winner-take-all finale was more low-scoring than the first two games, but was just as entertaining.  The RedWolves took a 1-0 lead in the first, after CPL Hitter of the Year Gene Cone walked, was bunted to second, and scored when he stole third and the catcher threw the ball away.

Travis Burnette (FLO) and Sam Theole (GAS) were fantastic for both sides, matching zeroes and enduring a nearly one-hour rain delay mid-game.  Gastonia never had more than one baserunner in an inning through the first eight, meaning the 1-0 Florence lead had been as comfortable as such a lead can be in an elimination game.

In the ninth, Lawing was hit with a pitch, and Chris Robinson doubled with one out.  Morrison, running on fumes after his outing two nights before, came in and intentionally walked Sammy Taormina to load the bases with one out.  I was having flashbacks to the night before, but Morrison struck out Tyler Farmer and got Joe Koehler to ground out to second base, ending the threat and the game, giving the RedWolves a 1-0 win and a 2-1 series victory.

The emotional release of the final out led to me, as public address announcer, borrowing Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling’s line of “Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees wwwwwwin!” and exclaiming “RedWolves win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa RedWolves wwwwwwin!”

The RedWolves moved on to the Petitt Cup Finals, where they won the opener over the Peninsula Pilots in Florence, before losing two heartbreaking games at Peninsula’s home in Hampton, Va.

(Box score and play-by-play for:  Game 1    Game 2    Game 3)

 

Westside at T.L. Hanna, T.L. Hanna Gymnasium, Anderson, S.C., January 16, 2015

I began covering high school sports for the Anderson Independent-Mail on a freelance basis in the fall of 2014, under prep editor Adam Regan.  He left at the end of the year, taking another job in Florida, leaving me to cover the lead games in the area while the paper looked for a replacement, leading to my best assignment to that point when I got to cover a basketball game between crosstown rivals T.L. Hanna and Westside.

For someone covering high school sports in Anderson County, T.L. Hanna and Westside games might as well be the Super Bowl.  The entire town turns out for these games, and it is loud as everyone cheers boisterously for their chosen team.

After the Westside girls team defeated T.L. Hanna 49-33, attention turned to the boys game.  There was honestly more tension in the building as the boys warmed up then there had been at any time during the girls game.

After an even first quarter, T.L. Hanna led 18-14, and they stretched that lead to 30-21 at halftime.  Hanna led by as many as 11 in the third, at 48-37, before Westside started to come back, using seven points in the final 52 seconds of the period to cut it to 53-46.

Westside’s momentum continued in the fourth, as a 10-2 run gave them a 56-55 lead, their first since 3-1.  Hanna tied it again at 57-57, but did not score again, with Westside leading 59-57 in the final minute before an Austin Walker driving shot with 0:31 left make it 61-57 Westside, and two free throws further sealed the win, as the Rams stunned the Yellow Jackets, 63-57.

I have seen a football game and a basketball game between the two schools since as a spectator (and both went to overtime), but this remains the only game in either of the two big high school sports that I have covered between the two (although I have covered many games featuring one or the other, as well as two softball games between the two).  Sitting courtside, and being a part of the game (at least in the sense of covering it) was a treat.

(Independent-Mail:  Westside boys, girls defeat T.L. Hanna)

 

Clemson at Anderson, Abney Athletic Center, Anderson, S.C., November 8, 2015

As an Anderson University student, this game had been circled on my calendar for months.  The Trojan women had won the regular-season conference title the year before, and were, even as a Division II team, getting the chance to host Division I Clemson from the ACC in a preseason exhibition.  A week or so before the game, Scott Adamson, who was Independent-Mail sports editor at the time, approached me about covering the game.  The writers who normally covered Clemson were focusing on the undefeated football team, and Scott, who normally covered Anderson games, would be busy working a Clemson soccer game, giving me the opportunity to cover a game I could literally have walked to.

The Anderson men had played Clemson 52 weeks before at Littlejohn Coliseum, and I had attended that game as a fan, but this game was even cooler to me because I thought Anderson had a shot to win.  The Trojan women were preseason favorites in the South Atlantic Conference, while Clemson was picked to finished last in the ACC.

A record crowd of 1,027 packed the Abney Athletic Center on a Sunday afternoon, with the student section doing a “blackout” of the section of seats across from the two benches.

The first half was back-and-forth throughout, with Anderson leading 34-31 at the break.  A 22-9 Trojans run gave Anderson a 54-40 in the third, before Clemson fought back to make it 56-48 at the end of the third, but from that point it was all Trojans, closing the game on a 23-7 run to win 79-55.

The game was better than the final score would indicate, but beyond that, this was the first (and so far only) collegiate game I covered for Independent-Mail, and featured my school beating our ACC neighbors.  I was thrilled with the outcome, although I was there in a professional capacity, so I did no cheering and probably did not even smile during the game.  I was there covering the game, not as a fan or student.

I kept that poker face through postgame interviews, and through the 90-second car ride back to my room, until I walked through the door.  Once I was in the privacy of my room, I finally let out a huge fist pump in celebration of the Trojans’ big win.

Anderson would win the SAC regular season title for the second straight year, while Clemson went winless in conference play to finish last in the ACC, with the results for both teams reflecting what had been foreshadowed in November at the Abney Athletic Center.

(Independent-Mail:  AU women demolish Clemson)


Florence RedWolves at Asheboro Copperheads, McCrary Park, Asheboro, N.C., July 16, 2016

For the summer of 2016, I interned with the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro.  My role was originally to cover American Legion baseball games and the Asheboro Copperheads, a team in the same league as the RedWolves, for the paper.  However, once sports editor Dennis Garcia, who was also the play-by-play broadcaster for the Copperheads on CPL Webpass, found out I had called a few games on Webpass for the RedWolves two years before, he invited me to do some games with him on Webpass.  I would end up broadcasting every Copperheads home game except one on Webpass, even doing some games solo when Dennis was stuck at the office finishing the layout of the sports section of the paper, including this one.

It was weird when the RedWolves, who I had spent the previous two summers interning for, came to Asheboro for games.  Before the July 16 contest, the two teams had already played in Asheboro on June 13 and July 13, and five times in all, but this game stands out as not just the best these two teams played that season, but the best game overall that I covered that season.

It didn’t look that way at first, as Florence scored six runs in the top of the first, on just three hits with two Asheboro errors, and two more in the second to make it 8-0.  In the bottom of the second, Connor Lind showed a small sign of the offensive onslaught that was to come for Asheboro with a solo homer, although at the time it just made the score 8-1.

In the fourth, T.J. Nichting singled, and Lind homered again, making it 8-3.  Colin Rosenbaum then walked, and Vito Friscia homered, making it 8-5.  Later in the inning, Zach Duff joined the home run party with a solo shot to make it 8-6.

After a Ryan Kent sacrifice fly for Florence in the fifth made it 9-6, Nichting led off the bottom half with a homer, before Rosenbaum singled and Friscia homered again, tying the game at 9-9.  Asheboro would then take a 10-9 lead in the sixth when Rosenbaum doubled to score Lind, before holding that lead until the ninth.

Bryan Blanton, who had been a CPL All-Star but was beginning a set of struggles that would haunt both he and the Copperheads in the second half, came in in the ninth, and even after three walks in the inning was an out away from getting out of the jam, before CPL All-Star Zach Files singled, scoring two to give the RedWolves an 11-10 lead.  The Copperheads threatened in the ninth when RedWolves closer Tom Colletti walked a pair, but could not score, and the RedWolves had a wild 11-10 victory.

The Copperheads, who had won the CPL West first half title, continued to struggle through the rest of the second half after this game, and eventually lost at Savannah in the first round of the playoffs on a walkoff hit.  Florence, who had finished seventh out of eight in the first half, had a much better second half and missed the second half title, and therefore the playoffs, by one game.

(Box score and play-by-play)

 

Greenwood at T.L. Hanna, Jim Fraser Field, Anderson, S.C., September 23, 2016

This was my first trip to T.L. Hanna in the 2016 season, and it seemed like just a run-of-the-mill game at first.  It was homecoming for the Yellow Jackets, who had lost to Greenwood 18 straight seasons before ending the streak last year.  What seemed like an ordinary game would become the greatest football game I’ve ever covered.

After a scoreless first quarter, Greenwood and Hanna both scored on long touchdown passes, then both kicked field goals in the final 1:04 of the half, making it 10-10 at the break.

Greenwood started the second half with a 15-play scoring drive of 65 yards, before Hanna went 65 yards themselves in one play, an Alex Meredith-to-A.J. Bryant connection to tie the score at 17-17.  This remained the score into the early stages of the fourth, before Greenwood scored on another lengthy drive on a Dre Yarbough touchdown pass to highly touted receiver Sam Pinckney, but the Eagles missed the extra point, keeping it 23-17.

Braylon Peterson returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, as Hanna provided another answer and took a 24-23 lead.  Greenwood had their own answer, an 11-play scoring drive culminating in another Yarbough-to-Pinckney touchdown, and a two-point conversion to make it 31-24 with 2:03 to play.

Hanna calmly marched down the field in five plays, scoring to tie the game at 31-31 with 1:06 to go when Meredith found Reel Wise from 35 yards, sending the game to overtime.

In the extra session, Greenwood scored when Yarbough found Pinckney again from 10 yards on the first play of overtime (high school overtime in South Carolina gives each team a possession from the 10-yard line).  The Yellow Jackets answered again, when Meredith turned a broken play into a 9-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 38-38.

In double overtime, Hanna went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, as Jaydon McKinney scored for the 45-38 lead.  On the first play of Greenwood’s possession, they ran the same play they scored on in the first overtime, and Hanna LB Shai Thomas jumped the route and intercepted Yarbough to end the game and give Hanna a 45-38 win.

I finished postgame interviews about 10:55, and the Independent-Mail has an 11:00 deadline, but one which is stretchable.  Prep editor Lake Morris said it could be stretched to 11:40 at the latest, and I finished writing about 11:35; I was glad to make sure the story of this crazy game got in the next morning’s paper.

(Independent-Mail:  Thomas INT leads Hanna over Eagles)

 

Honorable Mention:
Pickens at Belton-Honea Path,  April 22, 2016
The game itself was nothing spectacular, as B.H.P. took an early lead before putting the game away with a 8-run sixth inning to win 10-0, but it was historic as, on Senior Night, Bears coach Steve Williams won his 500th game.  His postgame interview is the only time an interview subject of mine was moved to the point of tears, as Williams was humbled and grateful for his accomplishment, and how many former players came back to witness the milestone game.  I got lucky on this one–I was scheduled to cover a different game until late that afternoon when weather changed the Independent-Mail‘s plans.

(Independent-Mail:  Williams wins No. 500 as Bears top Pickens)
***Editor’s Note:  This game was one of the five in the original draft of this post, which was written before the Greenwood-T.L. Hanna game occurred, so I felt it appropriate to include it as an honorable mention.