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.

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

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

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

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

Erin Hills

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

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

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

The Weather

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

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

Phil Mickelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dustin Johnson

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

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

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

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

 

Other Contenders 

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

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

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

 

 

 

117th U.S. OPEN

Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)

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

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

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

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

Fast Five: 2016 Year in Review

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

 

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

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

Best Events of 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Honorable Mention

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

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

Feb. 21:  Denny Hamlin wins Daytona 500 photo finish

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

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

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

Apr. 7-10:  Danny Willett wins The Masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Biggest Stories of 2016

5.  Retirements

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


4.  Rio Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

3.  Cavaliers end Cleveland title drought

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

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

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

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

2.  Deaths

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

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



1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Louisville basketball escort scandal

The Rams relocate to Los Angeles

Baylor football sexual assualt scandal

The end of Deflategate

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

Golden State Warriors set NBA regular-season wins record

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

Kevin Durant signs with Golden State Warriors

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

The resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders

Tim Tebow plays baseball, signs with New York Mets

Jimmie Johnson wins 7th title, ties Petty and Earnhardt

New collective bargaining agreements in MLB and NBA

The rebirth of Penn State football

Major college football coaching changes (LSU, Texas)

Tiger Woods’ injury and return

Wake Forest game plans leaked to opponents (WakeyLeaks)

 

 

Fast Five: Greatest Ryder Cup Matches

The 41st Ryder Cup matches are this weekend.  The biennial team match play event between the 12 best golfers from the United States and the 12 best from Europe is a spectacle of pride and pageantry, as players who are used to playing only for individual glory will face the tremendous pressure of playing for team and country.

While the Ryder Cup was an afterthought for its first 50 years, as the U.S. regularly dominated a team from Great Britain & Ireland, once continental Europe was included in 1979, the event exploded into the tremendous event it is today.

Here are five (okay, really six) of the matches from over the years that have made the Ryder Cup into golf’s greatest drama.

5.  2008:  United States 16.5, Europe 11.5, Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, Ky.

This isn’t the only American Ryder Cup victory of my lifetime, but the only one I remember.  U.S. captain Paul Azinger split his team into three “personality pods” of four players each, pairing players with similar personalities instead of similar golf games.  The U.S. team, featuring six Ryder Cup rookies, responded in a big way, leading after every session and winning the matches with some clutch shotmaking throughout.  Azinger wrote a book on the pods strategy, called Cracking the Code, while Boo Weekley famously used his driver as a stick-horse (see below at 2:18).

4.  1969:  United States 16, Great Britain 16, Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Southport, England

Great Britain (it wouldn’t become Great Britain & Ireland until 1973, and Europe until 1979) had only won the Cup once since World War II (in 1957), but jumped out to an early lead on the Americans, and the teams entered Sunday Singles tied.  The score remained tied at 15.5 with the final match tied on the 18th, when American Jack Nicklaus, after making his own par putt, conceded the missable three-foot par putt of Brit Tony Jacklin, resulting in a 16-16 tie.  By Ryder Cup rules, the U.S. “retained the Cup” due to the tie, but Nicklaus’s move assured Great Britain would not lose outright for the sixth straight matches, and is known as one of the great displays of sportsmanship in history.  The gesture is known as “The Concession,” and Nicklaus and Jacklin would go on to co-design a course in Sarasota, Fla. called The Concession in homage to this Ryder Cup.  The pair also went against each other as Ryder Cup captains in 1983 and 1987.

3.  1985:  Europe 16.5, United States 11.5, The Belfry, Sutton Coldfield, England

Great Britain/Europe’s fortunes had not improved since those 1969 matches, as they had still not won since 1957 entering the 1985 matches.  After the U.S. took the opening session 3-1, Europe won each remaining session, clinching the Cup on Sunday with five matches still on the course.  After Scotland’s Sam Torrance made the Cup-clinching putt, he raised his arms to the sky and tears came down his face, as Europe had won their first Ryder Cup in 28 years.  These matches were not the closest or most dramatic in Ryder Cup history, but are among the most significant, as the Ryder Cup was reborn on September 15, 1985.

2.  1991:  United States 14.5, Europe 13.5, The Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, S.C.

This controversial Ryder Cup, played at course architect Pete Dye’s seaside gem near Charleston, is known as “The War By The Shore.”  Patriotism of the American fans was at a crescendo after the Persian Gulf War, and the Ryder Cup was just coming into its own, making this the perfect storm.  Add to that the ongoing Ryder Cup rivalry between Azinger and Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, which reached its peak at Kiawah, and the matches were the most boisterous in Ryder Cup history.  The back-and-forth affair came down to the final putt, a six-footer for German Bernhard Langer.  Had he made the putt, the teams would have tied at 14, and Europe would have retained the Cup, but Langer missed, giving the U.S. its first Ryder Cup win since 1983 by the narrowest of margins.  Unfortunately, many remember Langer more for this missed putt than for his two Masters victories.

1 (tie).  1999:  United States 14.5, Europe 13.5, The Country Club, Brookline, Mass.
2012:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5, Medinah Golf Club, Chicago, Ill.

It wouldn’t be right to rank one of these memorable Ryder Cups over the other, with both having an unimaginable outcome.  American fans would likely choose 1999 as the best, while Europeans would take 2012, but both featured remarkable comebacks from an identical deficit in Sunday Singles.

In 1999 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the Americans faced a 10-6 deficit entering Sunday Singles, something that had never been overcome to win a Ryder Cup.  But after Ben Crenshaw famously told the media on Saturday night “I’ve got a good feeling about this,” the U.S. won the first six singles matches to take the lead, then stood a half-point away from clinching the matches as Justin Leonard played the 17th hole against Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal, leading to the most controversial moment in Ryder Cup history.  Leonard holed a 40-foot birdie putt, forcing Olazabal to make his 25-footer to keep European hopes alive, but before Olazabal could putt, the U.S. team (and many wives/girlfriends, caddies, and assistant captains) stormed the green in celebration.  The over-the-top celebration was the black cloud hanging over what was, at the time, the greatest comeback in golf history, and is known as the “Miracle at Brookline.”

But while the 1999 American team came from 10-6 down to win on home soil, the 2012 European team faced the same deficit at Medinah Country Club in Chicago entering the final day, but as “visitors” on American soil.  The U.S. actually led 10-4 midway through the fourball matches on Saturday afternoon, before Europe pulled to within 10-6.  Similar to the U.S. comeback at Brookline, the Europeans won the first five matches in Sunday Singles.  Three pivotal matches turned in the final two holes, with Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, and Martin Kaymer each winning the last two holes (against Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, and Steve Stricker, respectively) to turn 1-up American leads into 1-up European victories, with Kaymer’s match clinching the Cup for the Europeans.  Ironically, Olazabal, who on the losing end of the clinching match in 1999, was the European captain in 2012, while the Americans were led by Davis Love III, who returns as captain this year.  After the matches, the European media dubbed the comeback the “Miracle at Medinah,” while some American media opted for the “Meltdown at Medinah.”

 

 

Ryder Cup TV Schedule

Friday:  8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Golf Channel)
Saturday:  9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (NBC)
Sunday:  12 p.m. to 6 p.m. (NBC)

Ryder Cup Matches

1927:  United States 9.5, Great Britain 2.5
1929:  Great Britain 7, United States 5
1931:  United States 9, Great Britain 3
1933:  Great Britain 6.5, United States 5.5
1935:  United States 9, Great Britain 3
1937:  United States 8, Great Britain 4
1939-45:  no matches due to World War II
1947:  United States 11, Great Britain 1
1949:  United States 7, Great Britain 5
1951:  United States 9.5, Great Britain 2.5
1953:  United States 6.5, Great Britain 5.5
1955:  United States 8, Great Britain 4
1957:  Great Britain 7.5, United States 4.5
1959:  United States 8.5, Great Britain 3.5
1961:  United States 14.5, Great Britain 9.5
1963:  United States 23, Great Britain 9
1965:  United States 19.5, Great Britain 12.5
1967:  United States 23.5, Great Britain 8.5
1969:  United States 16, Great Britain 16 (U.S. retains the Cup)
1971:  United States 18.5, Great Britain 13.5
1973:  United States 19, Great Britain & Ireland 13
1975:  United States 21, Great Britain & Ireland 11
1977:  United States 12.5, Great Britain & Ireland 7.5
1979:  United States 17, Europe 11
1981:  United States 18.5, Europe 9.5
1983:  United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
1985:  Europe 16.5, United States 11.5
1987:  Europe 15, United States 13
1989:  Europe 14, United States 14 (Europe retains the Cup)
1991:  United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
1993:  United States 15, Europe 13
1995:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
1997:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
1999:  United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
2001:  matches postponed due to 9/11 attacks
2002:  Europe 15.5, United States 12.5
2004:  Europe 18.5, United States 9.5
2006:  Europe 18.5, United States 9.5
2008:  United States 16.5, Europe 11.5
2010:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
2012:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
2014:  Europe 16.5, United States 11.5