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The Players Continues to get Better

Apr 20, 2015 -- 4:12pm

As one of the few people who’ve covered all of The Players since the tournament moved to its current location, the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, in 1982, I feel qualified to talk about how far it has come.

A quick answer is it has come a long, long way and has done so in a most impressive fashion. Keep in mind The Players immediately became the PGA Tour’s best tournament the day it was born.

At least that’s true from a spectator’s viewpoint. The golfers actually hated the new Pete Dye course. Generally speaking, the golfers despised Dye, who was then trying to establish a name for himself by resorting to “tricks” that seemed more suitable for a Goofy Golf course than a championship layout. Dye’s original greens on the Stadium Course all looked like they had elephants buried in them.

The players screamed about how unfair the greens were and they were right. There was actually talk of the players boycotting the tournament. No voice was louder than that of Tom Kite, a serious-minded 10-top player not known to cause waves.

The result was Dye’s greens went through a major renovation and by Year 3 we had basically the course you see today.

Now as a 33-year-old, The Players has never looked better.

More covered grandstand seating has been added every year. The Stadium Course is literally a series of stadiums overlooking many holes. Modern restrooms and areas for an amazing variety of food and shopping are convenient.  Since last year a new permanent restroom facility near the 16th hole has been built for $1.5 million.

To the PGA Tour’s credit, many of grandstand areas, as well as the food and restroom areas, don’t require a special ticket.

It is difficult to imagine what improvements will be made after this year’s tournament but it’s a good bet there will be some. Tournament Director Matt Rapp likes to say every year that “as good as this year tournament is next year’s will be better.” So far he hasn’t been wrong.

Inside the ropes The Players has always given us the best field in golf. Outside the ropes the venue is unlike -- and better -- than any other in golf.

The Players comes up in three weeks. If you go I promise you’ll be more impressed than ever.

NFL Draft and NBA MVP

Apr 17, 2015 -- 9:24am

My thoughts on the NFL draft and the NBA MVP:

The cliché “paralysis by analysis” wasn’t first uttered about the NFL draft but it could have been.

Is anything more dissected, researched, double checked, triple checked, examined, re-examined, x-rayed and debated more than the NFL draft?

The sports media are obsessed with it. The fans can’t seem to get enough of it. NFL general managers and coaches live in fear of it.

How many times can you study film on a player? How many times can you test their speed and strength? How much do you really learn from someone in a 15-minute interview?

I’m not saying teams shouldn’t do their homework on players they’re about to hand millions of dollars and the keys to their future. I’m just saying enough is enough.

There’s less than two weeks before the draft. My advice to GMs is it’s time to trust their guts and take a vacation.

They should check the daily police reports, however.

  • With the NBA’s regular season finally completed there’s a great debate about who should be voted the league’s MVP. There are several worthy candidates.

Is it Golden State’s Steph Curry, a deadly shooter who’s developed a superb all-around game?

Is it Houston’s James Harden, who’s become a triple-double machine?

Is it Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, another triple-double machine and the league’s scoring champ?

Is it New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, who making an argument that one day he’ll be the NBA’s best all-around player?

Is it the Clippers’ Chris Paul, who fits the point guard mold of John Stockton and Steve Nash?

They’re all legitimate MVPs.

But everyone knows the best player AND the most valuable player in the NBA is still LeBron James. Teams he plays for contend or win titles. When he leaves them they don’t even make the playoffs.

King James still rules.

Looking Forward to Guns and Hoses

Apr 15, 2015 -- 12:47pm

Talking about the good, the bad and the King . . .

  • If I didn’t take my sister-in-law Dianne to Guns&Hoses every year I’d be in trouble. There certainly wouldn’t be any more invites to Saturday brunch at her house.

But it’s not a problem because Guns&Hoses has become one of my favorite events of the year, too. If you’ve never been I recommend you go to the Arena Saturday night for the 17th annual boxing matches between area cops and area firefighters.

There are lots of reasons it’s a must-go-to event. Let me count the ways . . .

1.       It’s a fun time. There’s great people watching and partying.

2.       There’s plenty of action in the ring. The boxing isn’t championship caliber, but these fighters are dedicated to putting on a good show.

3.       It’s a patriotic function and raises money for First Coast charities. This year, by the way, the families of the two New York police officers killed sitting in their squad car last December will be honored guests.

I hope to see you there.

  • Mediocre is the best way to describe Florida Gator football these days. Ever since Urban Meyer’s first resignation as head coach the Gators have been about as average as a team could be.

But what concerns me more than the coaches and players is what appears to be the shrinking of Gator Nation. Where’s the love? The passion? The bleeding of orange and blue? An estimated 21,000 for the spring game? Are you kidding me?

An outsider would say it’s simply a matter of the team’s lackluster performance over the last several years, but those of us who’ve closely followed the program for decades know better. The size and passion of Gator Nation “in all kinds of weather” was unlike anything I’d ever seen. (I learned quickly after I moved the Jacksonville in 1977. I still can’t get over Florida Field being packed throughout the ’79 season to watch a 0-10-1 team that was worse than its record.)

But now there’s less water cooler talk about the Gators; less Gator talk on the radio; empty seats at Florida Field. Spring practice came and went with little fanfare.

Meyer won big but shut out the fans and media. The disconnect between the football program and the fans continued after his departure.

It becomes more obvious every day.

Spieth a True Master

Apr 13, 2015 -- 10:23am

If Jordan Spieth had never been born this would have been a helluva Masters. Some of the brightest stars in the pro golf galaxy battled one another around the plush Augusta National layout.

I’m talking about Rory and Lefty and Dustin and Justin. Even Tiger provided a roar or two for awhile. They traded monster drives, laser iron shots, dead-on bunker shots and long, slick, curving putts.

But they were fighting for second place because Spieth was born, less than 22 years ago. And he owned this Masters almost from his first shot on Thursday, leading after every round and finishing a record-tying 18 under par. His opening 64 was one off the record. His 36- and 54-hole totals were new lows. He won by 4 but it felt like more because he never seemed to be wavering even with those big guns playing well.

Now the question is will Spieth eventual own a few more Masters?

It’s tempting to say no because unlike most of the other the modern-era golfers who won two of more Masters – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson – Spieth doesn’t blast jaw-dropping tee shots.

But Ben Crenshaw, a fellow Texan, wasn’t a bomber and he won twice with a brilliant short game. Spieth’s game, in fact, reminds me of Crenshaw’s.

An even bigger question is will he eventually “own” pro golf as Arnold Palmer once did and Tiger once did?

I realize we live in an era when we tend to crown kings quickly and overuse the word great so I want to tread lightly here.

Spieth already has proved he has the game. He won twice on the PGA Tour before the Masters. He has won around the globe. He made enough money to last a lifetime before he was legally old enough to drink alcohol.

But while winning often and winning majors is a must to “own” the sport, it’s not enough. Does he have charisma? I’m talking about that “it” factor that draws people, not just golf fans, to him.

He might. Women seem to love him. Men want to be him. He has personality on the course, often talking to his ball. He’s over-the-top polite and he’s respectful.

And he’s smart. I loved his answer when asked about being humble. He said he wasn’t sure how to answer that question because to do so would show a lack of humility.

Finally, of course, he has time on his side. Lots and lots of time.

I've Got a Problem...

Apr 10, 2015 -- 9:42am

Among the things in sports that bother me, in no particular order, are:

  • Sportscasters who call nearly all athletes kids. High schoolers are kids. College and pro athletes are young men, even though many don’t act like it. Sportscasters would never even think about calling young men killed in, say, Afghanistan kids.
  • How so often athletes are praised as competitors. For example: “His greatest strength is how competitive he is.” Or, “I’ve never seen a more competitive kid.” Aren’t athletes almost competitive by definition? The real story would be if an athlete wasn’t competitive.
  • How secretive (paranoid?) so many coaches are. Closed practices are a good example. Sure, I understand some closed practices, but many coaches go to the extreme. Please, don’t shut out the fans.
  • ESPN anchors who have a punch line for every story. I love humor and I see big-time sports as entertainment, but, please, not every story.
  • Athletes who look and act miserable while competing. I understand some athletes need to get in a “zone” to perform their best, but being a pro athlete is one of the greatest jobs in the world and athletes shouldn’t act like they’re being tortured. Most male fans would cut off a toe to be in their places.
  • TV interviews at halftime of games. How often have you learned anything or been entertained? (Okay, the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich is the exception.) Often the halftime interview is simply “eye candy” for the male viewers.
  • Gatorade drenching of victorious coaches and “the pie in the face” on the game’s star during the postgame, on-the-field interview. Both have gotten old and too predictable.
  • Slow players, regardless of the sport.
  • The overuse of the word “great” to describe every opponent, every teammate, every play and everything else.
  • Game officials not being accountable. Why shouldn’t they publicly explain controversial calls after games – like coaches and athletes?
  • Grown fans who put on ridiculous outfits and paint their bodies, not to show support for their teams but to get on TV.
  • Fans who go to games but pay little attention to the competition because they’re too busy doing whatever on their cell phones.
  • Fans who think it’s perfectly okay to scream filthy words and spill their beers on other fans. (I also despise fans who insist on standing and blocking my view but I understand I’m in the minority on this one.)
  • Athletes who don’t hustle and give their best efforts. Worst case is not running hard to first.  

Previewing the Masters

Apr 08, 2015 -- 9:08am

Seldom, if ever, have I looked forward to the Masters more than I am this year. There are so many intriguing storylines/questions.

They include:

  • Will the world’s No. 1 golfer, Rory McIlroy, win his third straight major and complete the career grand slam, something only five other golfers have ever done? Certainly he can, particularly if rain softens the August National course, but l I wonder if he putts well enough to earn a closetful of green jackets.
  • What will Tiger Woods’ “comeback’ look like? I don’t expect him to chunk too many chip shots, but I do expect him to miss the cut.
  • Will Bubba Watson do what only Jack Nicklaus has done: win three Masters in four years?  Maybe. Nicklaus said years ago Augusta National was the perfect layout for lefties, once a rarity in golf. Phil Mickelson and Bubba proved him right.
  • Has Mickelson finally succumbed to Father Time? The three-time Masters winner hasn’t played much better than Tiger since winning the 2013 British Open. These days he regularly three-putts and shoots scores in the mid-70s. My guess he’ll win another tournament or two, non-major variety, and continue to slip down in the world rankings.
  • Who’s the most overlooked golfer in the field? My vote goes to Jimmy Walker, whose game fits Augusta National. He’s long, hits it high and putts with the best. And he’s won more PGA Tour events in the last year and a half than anyone.
  • Who’s the best of the “young guns” not named McIlory? Jordan Spieth may top that list. The oddsmakers have made him (and Bubba) 10-to-1 favorites, second only to McIlroy (6-to-1). But Patrick Reed and Jason Day belong on the list, too. And the hot new guy on the rising star list is Brooks Koepka.
  • Of the 19 former champs in the field who have a snow ball’s chance in hell of winning? Bubba, Adam Scott, Zack Johnson, Charl Schwartzel, Angel Cabrera, Mickelson, Tiger and seniors Bernhard Langer, Vijay Singh and, yes, Fred Couples. (Remember, I did say snow ball’s chance in hell.)
  • Can any of the seven amateurs win? No.
  • Which is the better Masters sandwich: egg salad or pimento green? Close call, but egg salad wins in a photo finish.
  • Who is my pick to win the green jackets? I’m torn between Day, who has come close on several occasions, and Dustin Johnson, who seems to have matured as a man and has played well this year since returning from his exile (self imposed or forced by the Tour, you make the call.) My vote goes to . . . DJ. 
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