Monday, April 11, 2011

The dark horse gets a spiffy new blazer...

You just had to see this one coming.

No, not Charl Schwartzel barreling out of anonymity to erase a four-shot final round deficit to capture The Masters, his first major championship. More predictable would be expecting me to take some time today to gloat about selecting the unknown 26-year-old South African as my dark horse to win the tournament from the start.

Well I'm not one to disappoint.

Quoted from Thursday's post on the first round at The Masters:

"Dark Horse: Charl Schwartzel
I was first turned on to the South African after watching several European Tour events (thanks to an English co-worker). I think the guy has the best swing in golf, which helps at Augusta if you can hit it in the right spots, which he usually does. His putting will be key."

Schwartzel hit it in all the right spots. And how about converting four birdie putts on the final four holes of the tournament? It's like I saw The Masters in a dream beforehand.

Pre-tournament, the bookmakers agreed Schwartzel was a long-shot, with our new champion going off at 66-1 odds to win the tournament. Makes me kind of sad I wasn't in Vegas a couple pints in. I could have done something silly, like win a ton of money.

The improbable pick won't go completely unrewarded, though (aside from my rapidly inflating ego). After selecting the eventual winner in an annual Masters bet with a golfing friend in St. Maarten, I can now expect a nice bottle of authentic Caribbean rum for my foresight. Thanks Charl, I'll drink to you soon enough.

Schwartzel's four consecutive birdies closed out the most intense and back-and-forth Masters Sunday I have ever seen. It was the first time anyone had ever birdied the final four holes to win the tournament (only Jack Nicklaus has also navigated those holes in four-under: eagle, birdie, birdie, par. Nice company). Nine players held at least a share of the lead at one point during their rounds, Nine! Such a log jam at the top of the leaderboard on the back nine at Augusta is unheard of. It would take something extremely impressive to break free from pack this time.

And everything about Schwartzel's final round 66 was the epitome of impressive.

Almost as good as the pick. Would it be wrong to take some of the credit?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Moving day at The Masters...

Traditionally, Saturday's third round is the time when anyone can go out early, post a low number, and get himself right back into the golf tournament. With several golfers shuffling their way up the leaderboard this afternoon, "moving day" is even more significant at The Masters. While a normal PGA Tour event trims the field for the weekend to the top 70 and ties, The Masters takes only the upper echelon, top 44, meaning anyone with who makes the cut is still in contention take the title, that starts with a strong round on Saturday.

So who made the most of moving day at The Masters?

-Wouldn't you know it? Bubba Watson made the biggest jump of the day, firing a 5-under 67 to move him into a tie for ninth heading into the final round. Bubba's big round vaulted him 37 spots up on the leaderboard, the biggest move of the day. He's still seven shots off the lead, but if he can go out and post low again tomorrow, who knows?

-Masters champion from 2009, Angel Cabrera also put up a 67, securing a tie for second and a spot in the final group tomorrow. While Bubba made the biggest move of the day, the Argentinian certainly made the most significant. Playing in the final group is a major advantage for Cabrera, already having won a Masters title. If he can knock down a few birdies early, it could rattle our charismatic 21-year-old leader Rory McIlroy and make it a very interesting Sunday back-nine.

-Adam Scott was the third man to shoot 67 today, leaving him in a tie for sixth, at 7-under. The 30-year-old will be keen to be the first Aussie to win The Masters. Only problem: 23-year-old Aussie Jason Day is currently besting him by one stroke, and in the four-way tie for second.

So, closing day at The Masters is setting up to be special no matter the outcome. It would be a great story should anyone in the top 10 prevail tomorrow. We could see McIlroy win his first of many majors as the youngest since Tiger to capture The Masters, or Cabrera win his second green jacket in three years, a feat previously reserved for Tiger, Jack or Arnie. Though Tiger struggled today, you can never count him out and what a second breakthrough it would be to see him win here again, or a whole host of contenders who would deservedly celebrate their first major win: Jason Day, Charl Schwartzel, KJ Choi, Luke Donald, Adam Scott, Buuuuuubba? All are in contention. What if 51-year-old Fred Couples (5-under, tied for 9th) can put together a run tomorrow? Fred won The Masters in 1992. What a story it would be if he could do it again 19 years later.

Masters Sunday is upon us. No matter the outcome, if you're a fan of golf (or of sport for that matter), you can't be disappointed.

And finally, an update on my picks...

Power Pick: Nick Watney
While World number-one Martin Kaymer (78-72-missed cut, tied for 82nd) was the greatest dud at this Masters (fortunately, I bulls-eyed that one) I have to admit, Watney has been my biggest disappointment of the week. I've been very high on Nick Watney at Augusta since the season started in January. His game suits the course and I was more than optimistic in vocalizing my support for him as the apparent winner. Back-to-back even-par 72s to open the tournament left me discouraged, but hopeful, as a low-round on moving day would have put Watney into position (see Bubba). But a big ole 75 today dropped my front-runner into a tie for 42nd, 15 shots off the lead. He's going out early and could throw a silly-low number down, given there's no pressure on him now. But he's certainly out of contention. With that said, in (now) four Masters tries, Watney's worst finish is a made cut (with wherever he finishes tomorrow). That is a truly remarkable start to one's Masters career and I still peg him for winning at least one green jacket in his career. To anyone who disagrees, contact me, I'm taking odds.

Dark Horse: Charl Schwartzel
How sweet it is to be right (especially after you were oh so wrong!). I was lucky to stumble on Schwartzel but after seeing him a few times, you can clearly see the guy has some championships in him. He's been just hanging around all week and after a 68 today, he's in a tie for second and in the second to last group. Should Angel Cabrera taunt Rory into faltering tomorrow, Charl could capitalize. Regardless of whether Schwartzel wins, grabbing a guy out of obscurity who is second heading into the final round of The Masters is something I'm proud of. In addition, my second dark horse was KJ Choi, also tied for second at 8-under (and I have documentation to prove it), two dark horses in second > great power pick, any day.

But I have a feeling things are far from settled at Augusta National. Golf fan or not, the final round of this year's Masters is sure to be something special

Thursday, April 7, 2011

It has begun...

Call me a nerd. Call me a freak. Call me crazy.

But today from 10 a.m. all the way to 7 p.m., in front of a 60 inch television screen, two picture-in-picture laptops, and a streaming smartphone, I did absolutely nothing but watch golf. I barely had time to eat. And yet it wasn't a day wasted... The Masters is here!

It's truly an impossible task trying to put into words what golf's first major championship of the year means to me, but I'll try to do it anyway. Anyone who has ever watched golf knows of Augusta National and the prestige The Masters holds in the sport. Never having been there myself, I can tell you exactly where to hit the ball on every single hole for the best result (executing that, on the other hand, is a very different beast). I grew up watching the tournament every year on tv with my father, an avid golfer. As a tot, I sat on his lap, watching the back nine on Sunday, as he taught me about the greats: Arnold, Jack, Freddie Couples.

It was during The Masters that I saw the first man besides myself to swing a golf club left-handed, Phil Mickelson. Obviously, he became my favorite player. As my interest in the game grew, and watching Phil come so close, so many times but never winning that first major tournament, I became emotionally attached to his successes (as many others did).

And then this happened. It still gives me goosebumps.

Watching him trek up to the 18th green on Sunday with a 20-footer to win The Masters in 2004 (as a 17-year old, I had upgraded from my father's lap to my own couch. But no doubt, he was holding steady on his), I shot a glance at Dad. Without saying a word, we both communicated "could this be it?"

When the putt fell, Phil's arms shot up, Dad's arms shot up, my arms shot up, the golfing world's arms shot up... all simultaneously. I got misty-eyed, Dad got misty-eyed. Phil grabbed his toddler daughter, misty-eyed, and exclaimed "Daddy won, can you believe it!?"

That moment was the one when The Masters really took hold for me. It was more than four days of golf competition. At the bottom of it all, it's a week about family. Whether it be having your children caddy for you in the par three contest the day before the tournament starts, walking off the 18th green to kiss your wife and hug your kids, or simply watching it from your couch with your old man... it all has a special feel.

***And it's even more special when you're there... my father was lucky enough to attend the first round today. When he called me around 8 p.m., before I could even get the word "hello" out of my mouth, he was already boasting "TV doesn't do it justice!" It was his first trip to The Masters and I'm so pleased he got to go. As such a great patron of the game, no one deserves to see it more. I have never been, but I can only hope this blog is the start of a career that will one day get me covering The Masters, so I can bring Dad back.

As for my picks, I balked on getting this post out before the tournament started, but oh well. Trust me, I was hyping these players way before Arnie and Jack got us started off...

Power Pick: Nick Watney
Three top 20s in three Masters appearances. He plays Augusta National so well that I can't imagine him not winning a green jacket at some point, if not this year. Watney ground out an even-par round today (tied for 31st), seven shots off the lead. Nick struggled with his scoring and will need a solid round tomorrow, but is still very much in contention.

Dark Horse: Charl Schwartzel
I was first turned on to the South African after watching several European Tour events (thanks to an English co-worker). I think the guy has the best swing in golf, which helps at Augusta if you can hit it in the right spots, which he usually does. His putting will be key. 3-under after day one and earning me some valuable strokes in my pools.

The Bubba effect:
Though Bubba has the right game for Augusta and the creativity and enthusiasm to throw down a low number, I had a bad feeling about his chances coming into this week. But I couldn't look myself in the face if I didn't select him in all three of my Masters pools. Bubba battled for a one-over, 73. After double-bogeying #12 to go three-over, I'd consider 73 a success. Bubba is tied for 49th, eight shots off the lead, quite mediocre. If he wants to get back in it, he'll have to put up something silly-good in the morning.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

UConn Huskies: (Default) National Champions!

Even Jim Calhoun must be confused...

Just how the heck did his UConn Huskies emerge from the most anti-climatic Final Four in recent memory as champions? It certainly wasn't because they put forth the performances worthy of capturing college basketball's crown jewel.

More like they were the "least bad, decent team" in Houston last weekend.

In a semifinal weekend that screamed disappointing, each of the four teams that impressed so heavily in the previous two weeks limped over the finish line, including the squad who left with the hardware.

All three games of March Madness' penultimate weekend reeked of teams who had seemingly reached the end of their road as all underperformed by the standards they set through the first four rounds.

It would be harsh to say VCU choked in their loss to Butler. While they played no where near the level of their other tournament games, they were overachieving from the moment they crushed Georgetown in the first (their second) round. But then again, it's harsh to say they were overachieving. In each of their five tournament wins, the Rams were clearly the better team by a John Daly tee shot. They peaked at the right time, which is what this tournament is all about. Their magical train just ran out of track to run on one game short. The fact that they won one more game than the rest just to get to the Final Four because of these ridiculous new bracket setups strengthens the case that VCU were the real deal and deserved to be there.

However, Kentucky did choke. The Wildcats narrowly escaped an opening round defeat at the hands of Princeton, but quickly moved on to down West Virginia before besting overall number one Ohio State and North Carolina en route to their first Final Four since 1998. Kentucky was beating big-time teams and looked like a national champion. But all that came to screeching halt in the semifinal as the Wildcats put up a whopping 55 points against UConn. Even worse, the last three came on a meaningless, desperation three at the buzzer, so I'll give them 52, hardly worthy of a title game appearance. Fun fact: Kentucky lost this game by one. The Wildcats were 4-12 from the foul line, UConn was 9-11.

Initially, Butler looked like the only team in Houston capable of lifting the trophy. The Bulldogs halted the brake-lacking VCU Rams dead in their tracks in the only enjoyable game of the entire Final Four weekend, prompting many, as well as myself, to crown Butler champions even before their match-up with UConn. Reaching consecutive championship games was a feat in itself, but this was supposed to be a defining moment for the Butler program. Hell, it was supposed to be a defining moment for this decade of college basketball (in its first year no less!). The mid-majors are here. George Mason started it. Butler confirmed it. VCU amplified it. And now, Butler was supposed to cement it. But in the spotlight of the national title game, though they where there just last year, the Bulldogs looked like a team who couldn't handle the pressure. We can expect several more mid-majors to make deep runs in the tournament, but how long will it be until we can expect them to outlast the powers that have laid the groundwork?

The UConn Huskies. Make no mistake, they deserve to have a national title. They were the first team in Big East history to win five conference tournament games in consecutive days. From the start of the Big East tournament, with Kemba Walker playing out of his skull, the Huskies looked like potential title winners. That changed upon first tip in Houston, UConn was simply lucky they were there with three other teams who were blinded by the moment and scared of seizing it.  The Huskies scored 56 and 53 points in their Final Four match-ups. Their opponents shot 26.3 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from the foul line. To say UConn wasn't personally handed the national championship on a silver platter by a bikini-clad Brooklyn Decker, just for showing up to the party, is nothing short of heresy.

This Final Four had the potential to be the greatest championship weekend college basketball has ever seen, with two mid-major start-ups pitted against two of the most storied programs who have been there, done that. Instead, it looked like a February trip to Siberia, with seemingly no one wanting to stay til the end.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dr. Tiger & Mr. Woods... and the rest of the World Golf Championships

Jack Nicklaus can relax now.

When the golfing phenomenon that is Tiger Woods blitzed the entire field to win the Masters by 12 strokes in 1997, his first major, Jack had to have felt an ominous chill down his spine. For he was watching the man who would rip his record of 18 major championships away from him. And in the years following, Tiger didn't disappoint. Passing Jack was nothing but a forgone conclusion for golf's resurrecting force.

... Until now.
 Stuck on 14 majors, with the last being that triumphant 2008 U.S. Open victory, Tiger is stumbling into a free-fall many are not sure he can recover from. While I have never particularly rooted for Tiger, his ability has been undeniable, and I have constantly backed him to return stronger and more focused after his injury that cost him nearly a year in 2008-09 as well as the whirlwind sex scandal that emerged a little over a year ago.

Now I'm questioning whether he'll ever win again.

Not just a major. Anything.

The Tiger Woods that won 71 PGA tournaments is long gone. The Tiger Woods that could beat most of his competitors just by showing up is no more. The Tiger Woods that was the best this planet has ever seen is a distant memory.

Jack is laughing.

A first round exit to sixteenth-seeded Thomas Bjorn at this week's World Golf Championships Match Play event was further proof that the top-seeded Tiger is no longer worthy of being mentioned among golf's elite. In fact, the way he's played lately, he's not even worthy of being referred to as Tiger. Until he proves me wrong, he'll be called by his last name like the other 125 guys on Tour.

Since the sex scandal, Woods has lost everything that made him great.

 Tiger & Woods. Golf's Jekyll & Hyde. Only sadder.

#1. Tiger had a killer instinct unlike anything golf had ever seen... Woods can't beat anyone because it would hurt their feelings.

#2. Tiger had focus, when he won at Torrey Pines, he went 50-of-50 putting from inside 10 feet... So far this year, Woods is 184th on Tour in putting.

3#. Tiger was a jerk... Woods has to always worry about what people are thinking of him.

#3 might be the biggest of all because it affects everything that made Tiger, Tiger. The best are always jerks. That's what makes them good, a "ME" attitude. Tiger was good because frankly he didn't care about any of his competitors. He could bury each and every one of them without a blink on his way to winning. Killer instinct. At his best, you could put a 90-year-old woman in a wheel chair in front of Tiger on the way to the green and he would have trampled over her like a wildebeest fleeing from a hungry lion, without even feeling a bump. Focus.

Killer instinct + Focus = Jerk.

With everything going on in Woods' life, he's trying so hard to not be a jerk anymore, and it's killing his golf game. Jack is sleeping easy again. If Woods wants to wake him up, maybe he should let Tiger out. Minus the... uh... you know...

Additional notes from the WGC:

-How good did Rickie Fowler look today? The pink-clad 22-year-old made quick work of world #4 Phil Mickelson in 13 holes with five birdies and two eagles. Mickelson was caught on camera laughing several times as he knew he was getting pummeled by something special today.

-How awful did Rory McIlroy look today? A #2-seed, McIlroy caught the beating of a lifetime against Ben Crane, who has the hottest putter in the tournament. Regardless of how well Crane was putting, the seventh-ranked player in the world probably should have put up more of a fight than losing in 11 1/2 holes. Perhaps he should have worn pink. It worked for Rickie, Luke Donald, and...

-Bubba's tracking! I was worried after Bubba pulled out of last week's Northern Trust Open with an abdominal strain, but he's coasted through the first two rounds, beating the scorching Bill Haas (3&2) and easily disposing of Mark Wilson, who's won twice already in 2011, 6&5. Bubba has a stiff opponent and former WGC Champion in Geoff Ogilvy tomorrow in the round of 16, so hopefully he can continue his good run of form.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The fickleness of it all...

How quickly it all can change.

11 days ago, in a fit of rage and passion, I was the nearest I have ever been to throwing in the proverbial towel on my all-time favorite team, my obsession, Arsenal Football Club. The Arsenal had just thrown away a 4-0 halftime lead en route to the greatest collapse in English Premier League (and probably all of soccer) history. In my 13 years of religiously following the club, never had I been so embarrassed to call myself an Arsenal fan. I had experienced bad beats before, and to be fair, Arsenal is one of the more frustrating teams the footballing world has to offer, but this had a sting unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Directly after the final whistle of that glorious yet miserable draw, I had to get in my car and drive to work. In the rain. For 12 minutes I sat in silence (I punched the radio off immediately) stewing in anger and disbelief over what had just happened. The guy who had supported Arsenal long before anyone in his town had heard of Manchester United was suddenly, legitimately, considering tossing all seven of his Arsenal jerseys in favor of a new team (... Fulham. Because they have a knack for signing American players. Not the best idea for trying to win in England, but admirable enough for me!).

As gutted as I was with the complete and utter choke job my team put forth on that Saturday, and as much as I wanted to discard them, Arsenal is my team.

And today, they repaid me and every one of their fans like me by coming from behind to upset probably the best football machine the world has ever seen in Barcelona, 2-1.

I cheered. I laughed. I yelped. I nearly cried from joy as my team completed a historic turnaround in less than 20 minutes. My team. The same team I nearly swore off less than two weeks prior.

11 days ago, there's no way I would have admitted an Arsenal fan. Today, you'd have to gag me to prevent me from telling you I am one.

It made me realize sports are like life. Sometimes it's awesome. Sometimes it awful. But stick with it and your Arsenal will come.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why sports?

For as long as I can remember, people have been asking me "Why do you love sports so much?" And after a long college career of successfully convincing every professor I ever had that sports somehow had a valuable connection to whatever term paper they deemed necessary for me to write, I have gotten no closer to discovering a legitimate purpose to my obsession that labeled me as a slacker in the university world. Until now.

Luckily (and unfortunately), ESPN radio personality Mike Greenberg put words in my mouth long before I ever could (meaning, he's quicker and smarter than I am. But I have no problem quoting him on this). In his book "Why My Wife Thinks I'm an Idiot: The Life and Times of a Sportscaster Dad," Greenberg explains why he (we) love sports so much, and should never be ashamed of it.

"Sports are like war without all the dying. Imagine how intriguing war would be as a spectator sport if, when it was over, everyone shook hands and showered together. The strategy, the passion, the courage, the stakes; war is magnificent theater until you start counting bodies. That's where you lose me.

"In sports, you never lose me. You plan your attack, prepare physically and emotionally, attempt to execute your game plan - often in hostile environments - and then it ends and you all have a beer together.

"... I often read about people whose lives are filled with tragedy, civil war, poverty, hunger, and I think about how much better off the world would be if everyone could spend all that energy worrying about football. Maybe I'm on to something with that. Maybe the solution to all our problems can be found in irrelevance. Try it. The next time the mortgage is due and the baby is crying and you're late for work and the car in front of you is taking up both lanes - that is the best time to fret over someone dropping a ball you care too much about. It may not make your troubles disappear but it might make them blurry, distort the focus, at least a little."

Thanks to Mike Greenberg, I think I finally know why I have dedicated everything I do the phenomenon that is sports... They are the most important, unimportant thing we have left.

In the midst of everything going on in the world today, sports mean nothing. And that's why they mean everything.

Look at how the Southeast rallied around the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina, or how the entire nation pulled for the Yankees (the only time we'll ever do so) after 9-11. Sports unite us. They give us hope for something great. They are an escape from everything that is awful in this world.
That's why I love them, You can't take sports too seriously, even though they seem like the most serious thing in the world. Just like you can't take yourself too seriously. Sports are supposed to be fun. And what is life if you can't make it fun? That's what it's all about.

Laugh. Play sports. Cheer on your team. Forget about your troubles. Have Fun!