The Magnificent Seven to Watch at Oakmont

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The Big 3

Jason Day

Why He’ll Win:

His game is as strong as ever – who can argue against this guy? I’m not going to throw a ton of numbers out there because, well, really who cares? Only one number matters — #1 World Ranking. With Day, it’s more about look than numbers. He walks courses with confidence — like Tiger used to; he’s comfortable with his routines; and he’s comfortable with how good he has become. He expects to win. And so do I.

Why He Won’t:

Ummmm…uhhhh. Misses a flight. Dog eats his clubs. But seriously, ummmm….uhhhh.

 

Jordan Speith

Why He’ll Win:

Impressive win (and critical to his mindset) at Colonial last month. Doubters, including Johnny Miller, will have a harder time saying that Speith’s psyche is still damaged after April’s collapse on the back-9 at Augusta. Two pieces to Speith’s game that always put him in the discussion when it comes to winning and competing for the big prizes – putting and short game. Putter is great and his wedge game will come in handy on these ice rink-slippery greens.

Why He Won’t:

It’s hard to repeat – in any form of competition. Especially when you’re talking about the greatest golfers in the world converging on, arguably, the toughest course in the country.

 

Rory McIlroy

Why He’ll Win:

Rory won the Irish Open last month, breaking a winless streak that dragged on for over a year. He’s a previous US Open champion (at Congressional in 2011) so the course will not scare him. Despite a quiet start to the season, McIlroy has put together 3 top 4s in his last 6 PGA Tour starts.

Why He Won’t:

The biggest knock on Rory this year has been his inability to string together a full 72 holes – always seems to be a 9-hole stretch that derails his tournament hopes. Oakmont’s not forgiving – if things start going south, it’s unlikely even Rory could recover.

 

 

The Quiet Contenders

Paul Casey

Why He’ll Win:

Casey shot the lowest round of the 4 days at Oakmont in 2007 – a 66. He has the consistency in his game to stay steady and not compound mistakes with more mistakes. His name always seems to pop up near the top of the leaderboard early on in majors. Now, he just needs it to be there at the end.

Why He Won’t:

That 66 was impressive – no doubt. However, the Englishman bookended the tourney with a 77 and 76. Needs to put together the best 4 consecutive rounds of golf of his life. No pressure, though.

 

Lee Westwood

Why He’ll Win:

Westwood emerged at Augusta on Sunday with a final round 69 to finish 3 back of Danny Willett. The soft-spoken European has, twice, placed third at the US Open. The old adage “slow and steady wins the race” doesn’t apply to anyone quite like it does to Westwood – tournament moves along and all of a sudden there’s Lee near the top and in contention. Now he just needs to finish it. Perhaps, the front row seat he had at the Masters watching fellow countryman, Danny Willett, win the green jacket will serve as some inspiration.

Why He Won’t:

Westwood isn’t getting younger and a track like Oakmont can take its toll on a player. Aside from the T2 at Augusta, Westwood hasn’t finished better than T38 on American soil this season.

 

 

Major Champs Looking for 1st US Open

Bubba Watson

Why He’ll Win:

Bubba does not have a great history with this tournament. But in 2007, he did enjoy his best US Open finish — T5. The long-hitting lefty sat at +1 after 36 holes and T2 going into the weekend. The key to Bubba’s game will be keeping his driver straight. Huge advantage if he can.

Why He Won’t:

Oakmont is the type of course that favors straight hitters and those who won’t be tempted to, well, do something stupid. A few drives in the rough and you’re talking about adding 4 to 6 shots to the scorecard. Got to keep it straight here – not sure Bubba can do that with the consistency that a win will require.

 

Phil Mickelson

Why He’ll Win:

A six-time runner-up at this Major Championship. Like Day, this is less about stats and more about feel with Phil – he’s got to win one of these before its all said and done, right? Alright, one stat – Phil has 4 top 5 finishes this year. Quietly playing really well.

Why He Won’t:

Oakmont has been the venue that has been least kind to Mickelson – T47 in 1994 and MC in 2007. A risk-taker through and through – it’s been Phil’s undoing before. Could be the same story in 2016.

 

 

Honorable Mentions:

Justin Rose – past champion; has the resolve to battle Oakmont (won at Merion in 2013); 5 top 10s; putting has been awful; lingering back injury kept him out of the BMW and the Memorial

Jim Furyk – T2 in 2007; calm, cool, collected; trying to become the oldest US Open winner

Dustin Johnson – not sure who holds the title of “Best Golfer without a Major” but DJ is in the discussion; looking to put Chambers Bay far behind him – a win might be the only result capable of that

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Golden State’s Team Effort Thwarts Cursed Cavs in Game 1

Is there a sports curse inflicted upon Cleveland? I know they have been tortured for decades and decades and decades without any sort of championship. I know “The Drive” that John Elway orchestrated in the 1987 AFC Championship Game tore the hearts out of Cleveland fans. I remember watching the 1997 World Series – and the collapse in the late innings by the Tribe in Game 7 that handed the title to the Florida Marlins.

I know bad things have happened to Cleveland. But are they actually cursed? After Game 1 of the NBA Finals, they might just be.

Before the series rematch began, most experts believed this was a coin flip. But for Cleveland to win, (1) Kevin Love needed to show up and be consistent – 20 and 12; (2) they needed to find a way to stop the hot 3-point shooting of Golden State; and (3) they had to aggressively attack the paint on both ends of the floor.

Well, let’s see how the Cavs did:

  • Love went for 17 and 13 – not show-stopping but not bad. Definitely good enough for the Cavs to win. Check.
  • Warriors’ sharpshooters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 20 points on 8 of 27 shooting. From 3-point land, both teams shot 33% — for Golden State that is a far cry from the 40-plus percent they shot during the regular season and playoffs combined.
  • Cleveland out-rebounded their counterparts 47-41 – as expected.

So you look at the stats and what the Cavs, seemingly, needed to do to win, and you probably think they at least gave themselves a great shot. But then I expand on it and tell you that Golden State’s leading scorer was Shaun Livingston, 20 points; that LeBron James was an assist shy of another playoff triple-double; and Kyrie Irving led all scores with 26 points. KInda crazy if Cleveland lost now, right?

Ummm …. see what had happened was.

What happened was the Warriors’ bench had themselves a game – to the tune of outscoring the Cavs’ bench 45 to 10. Guys like Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Leandro Barbosa carried the load when superstar guards Curry and Thompson had off shooting nights.

Furthermore, while the Cavs won the rebounding battle inside, the points in the paint shockingly favored the smaller-sized Warriors, 54 to 42. With the outside shooting off target most of the game, the Western Conference Champs relied heavily on backdoor cuts for easy buckets in the lane and 12 to 15 foot floaters by players who fill their roles perfectly in head coach Steve Kerr’s system.

What it all amounted to was a 20-point Warriors’ lead in the 4th quarter. When such great shooters like Steph and Klay are off and your team has one of the greatest players to ever put on a uniform, you need to take advantage and steal that game on the road. Instead, Cleveland got beat by role players, Golden State’s bench, and smaller lineups who somehow won the scoring battle inside.

And then just when the Cavs looked to be making a run – cutting the deficit to 11 from 20 with 3 minutes to play, Steph and Klay go all Steph and Klay. Back to back 3s from the Splash Brothers just when the Warriors needed them, and that was the icing.

If Cleveland really isn’t cursed, I’m at a loss explaining this one.

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Be Like Mike? LeBron Just Can’t Do It

As LeBron James embarks on his journey for a third championship ring, the similarities between he and Michael Jordan have never been fewer. James – the Jordan for this generation of millennials who are too young to remember “The Shrug” or the tongue and the 38 points in 44 minutes with the flu in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals – just accomplished something MJ never did in his illustrious career: LeBron is about to appear in the NBA Finals for the 6th consecutive season. Impressive? Without question. Historic? Definitely. Incredibly difficult and exhausting? No doubt.

Photo: WKYC-TV

LeBron deserves the praise he will receive for this accomplishment, and he deserves all other praise for his overall game and countless other record-setting, game-changing achievements over the course of his historically great career.

 

But as LeBron’s accolades grow and, even, surpass Jordan is some realms, I’m more confident than ever that James is not on Jordan’s level. A guy like LeBron James cannot be the face of the NBA and cannot hold the title of greatest player of all-time.

 

Take all of what I’m saying with the understanding that I’m a Detroit Pistons fan. I was a Pistons fan in the late 80s and early 90s and still a Pistons fan at the turn of the century. So of course, I have really never been in love with LeBron James – similarly I was never ever ever ever anything close to being a fan of Michael Jordan’s. But I think my allegiance to the Pistons allows me to compare these 2 all-time greats with the same cynical, envious eye.

 

I dislike LeBron for some of the same reasons I despised Jordan – Detroit rival, took over the league at a time when the Pistons were at the top, always getting the calls. A lot of jealousy and anger because the Pistons were about to take a back seat – as was most of the league. But that’s a fan for you.

 

Michael was mostly unlikeable to me because he couldn’t lose. He was as clutch as anyone who’s ever laced up a pair of, um well Jordans. And I hated every minute of it. Even when the Pistons “Bad Boy” Era faded away, I found myself actively rooting for anyone else to take down Jordan and the Bulls – Reggie Miller and the Pacers; the Knicks with Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and John Starks; Stockton and Malone’s Jazz. I was tired of seeing Michael win.

 

The difference between the two – and depending on who you speak to, there are many – is one big thing and it’s the complete, number one, without-a-doubt reason that I can’t get with LeBron: maturity. I know what you’re saying – that’s the reason???!!! If it boils down to one word, then, yes – maturity is it.

 

I think back to how Michael behaved. He was no angel on the court. He did his share of tugging at the officials’ shirtsleeves and getting them to give him the benefit of the doubt. He pushed off – just ask Bryon Russell. He worked the refs. But that’s what stars do. The NBA is a players’ league – more specifically, it’s a superstars’ league. That’s just how it is.

 

So sure, LeBron does the same things MJ did and he does the same things his peers do – Steph Curry, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook. They all get the calls more often than not – they know it, we know it, and it’s ok. They should get the calls – fans pay to see those guys play and no one wants any of those guys anywhere but on the court. But what I’m talking about goes much deeper than just getting the superstar treatment on the floor. The immaturity I’m talking about is more in how LeBron behaves and how he responds when he gets caught being immature.

 

LeBron flops and then in postgame interviews says he has never flopped. He brings the circus to town when he travels from city to city when free agency comes calling. He takes a dive in a game when no one even touches him – then when asked afterwards if he was trying to embellish the call on the floor, he denies, denies, denies.

 

Time and time again, I get the feeling none of us know the real LeBron James. (Not that we really know who any of these athletes are deep down in their personal lives.) But more telling, I don’t think LeBron really knows who he is – and if he does, I don’t think he’s comfortable with it. That’s why he denies things that are silly to deny. That’s why he calls out his teammates in social media but then never really acknowledges doing it. That’s why he left Cleveland, then left Miami, and then, ultimately, returned to Cleveland. That’s why no coach really seems to be comfortable coaching James; in turn, that’s why James always is trying to run out his coaches only to, yep that’s right, deny it when pressed by reporters.

 

The LeBron-MJ comparisons have gone on since before James was drafted by the Cavs. But no matter how many titles James ends his phenomenal career with or how many MVPs he collects, he’s not like Michael. His game is close, but who James is differs greatly from Jordan. Maybe deep down James is more like Mike than we think – but we’ll never know because LeBron doesn’t know either.

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Hiring Annie Apple — The Latest Head-Scratching Move by ESPN

I’ve been watching ESPN for as long as I can remember. My middle school mornings were spent watching sports highlights and getting acquainted with soon-to-be broadcast stars like Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott, Kenny Mayne, and Craig Kilborn. As an adult now, I still turn to ESPN to see highlights or get my sports fix for the day; but the more I discover about ESPN, the less there is to like.

 

Let me get one thing out of the way – I understand the television industry is a business. Sports, itself, is a business. People come, people go, and regardless of which side is at fault, sometimes it’s just business. (Maybe that’s a cop out, but I believe it to be true.) So when ESPN personalities split from the Mothership and these talented men and women go elsewhere, it can be chalked up to “it’s business”. Where I start to question things is when domino after domino after domino seems to fall and the result we, the viewer, are left with is a product that is not only lacking in substance, but seems to be intentionally gearing itself towards an audience that I don’t belong to.

 

Allow me to clarify a bit.

 

Like these people or not, enjoy their on-air personalities or not – Keith Olbermann, Bill Simmons, Dan Patrick are very talented guys who left ESPN in one way, shape, or form. If these parting of ways stood alone by themselves – probably no big deal, I don’t bat much of an eyelash. Talented guys will find work and make money and have a following of fans somewhere else. I’m not going to shed any tears – plus ESPN stocked up on other very talented guys (some had already been with the company – Stu Scott, Mike Tirico, Scott Van Pelt, Doug Collins to name a few).

 

But over time, the Worldwide Leader in Sports starting making decisions to bring in talking heads that appeared more interested in shocking people and borderline offending others. Remember when Stephen A. Smith was simply a courtside reporter for NBA games and occasionally was brought on for a 3-minute mini-segment on Sportscenter that would feature an anchor conversing with Smith an hour or two before tip-off? No? Yeah, I barely do either. Now, he’s arguably the face of the network – First Take, segments on NFL Sunday Countdown, extended in-studio segments on Sportscenter about any and all sports topics. And that’s ok – let the man be famous and make money and do his job. The problem I have is that Stephen A. (see how he’s even known simply by his first name and middle initial?) not only speaks his mind and is controversial, but that he plays to that growing audience of people who are dying to hear the extreme rhetoric. In other words to put it bluntly, America seems more and more ignorant in 2015 – and Stephen A shouts and yells and rants and people love it.

 

The questionable hires go on and on. Ray Lewis (who has been let go) – one of the NFL’s greatest defenders of all-time. But type in “Ray Lewis best quotes ESPN” into Google and check out what pops up – not exactly the prose of Herman Melville. Lewis would wax poetic and preach from the altar every time he was on camera. Lewis added little to what the average sports fan and viewer wanted to hear and see. And then there’s Curt Schilling. The former MLB pitcher was more interested in political grandstanding than he was in calling baseball games.

 

All three of those guys have the same thing in common – they stir people up and can be offensive. And ESPN knows this and even uses it to their advantage for ratings. But in the same breath, the network suspends them for insensitive remarks about women or domestic abuse or racially-charged epithets. ESPN wants it both ways – have these loud, obnoxious personalities spouting off on ESPN Radio or regular TV programming but also trying to remain politically correct. It doesn’t work both ways.

 

While the network loses guys like Mike Tirico, who by all accounts is one of the best play-by-play men and overall stand-up, good people in the business, they continue down this path of hiring on-air personalities for all the wrong reasons. Take this most recent – Annie Apple, mother of her lesser-known son and 1st round pick in last month’s NFL Draft, Eli. The first I heard of Annie Apple was when she tweeted about the women who would now be drawn to her son and all the other newly-minted millionaire 20-year olds chosen in the draft.

 

 

She then followed up with a tweet to Roger Goodell about the underwhelming desserts at the NFL Draft – to which the Commissioner responded by sending Apple a plate of brownies.

 

And now Annie Apple is going to be a routine contributor to ESPN’s pre-game show on Sundays this Fall?

 

The woman maybe has the qualifications – God knows she’s tweeted those out too, since her hiring became public earlier this week.

 

 

And maybe she’s sharp and bright and able to entertain. But from the bits and pieces we are getting about Eli Apple’s mom, she seems to fit this mold that ESPN has been striving for over the past decade – shock, shout, offend, suspend.

 

This is not the ESPN I grew up enjoying.

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Reports of the Warriors’ Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

It’s always fun to paraphrase the great Mark Twain – and even more so when it’s truly on point.

 

After Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the world was ready to all but declare the Golden State Warriors dead and their historic season over. The loss was, yes, surprising – remember Golden State had lost only 1 home game at Oracle Arena all season. They let a double-digit halftime lead evaporate – something they hadn’t done since, well, maybe the days of aforementioned Mark Twain. So, yes, to see the defending champs go down in the series opener was a little bit of a shock. But, please. Let’s not forget who we’re talking about here.

 

73-9

 

The 2-time reigning Most Valuable Player of the league

 

The 2-time reigning NBA Coach of the Year

 

The defending NBA Champions

 

This is essentially the same exact team that fell behind 2 games to 1 against the Memphis Grizzlies last postseason. In the NBA Finals last June, the Cleveland Cavaliers took a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 against these Warriors before Steph Curry and his guys rallied to win 3 straight and hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. My point — this team has a bit of a tendency to start off slowly in some of these playoff series. And dropping a game (at Oracle or in OKC or in my backyard for that matter) against a team like the Thunder, who held 4th quarter leads in each of the 3 regular season meetings between these two teams, should not signal the distress flags.

 

And just like they’ve done for more than a calendar year, the Warriors bounced back with authority last night and rolled to a 118-91 victory to knot the series up at one game apiece. The MVP was in typical MVP form, as Curry went for 28 points in just 30 minutes on the floor – 17 of which came in the deciding 3rd quarter. The Warriors opened up what was an 8-point lead at intermission to 20 at the end of the 3rd quarter.

 

Knowing the makeup of this team and their history together, how could anyone doubt this team or even think of writing them off after the Game 1 defeat? Head Coach Steve Kerr didn’t and his comments after Game 2 sum up, very succinctly, how he feels about his team. When asked if there was anything in particular that stood out from the victory or the 3rd quarter in particular, Kerr responded, “Nothing. Nothing stands out.” Typical Warriors. Typical Curry.

 

This reminds me of another Mark Twain quip: the secret to getting ahead is getting started.

 

Although it took them a second, the Warriors — it’s safe to say — have gotten started.

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For Brad Ausmus and the Tigers, It’s Just Time

Ausmus

You know how when you’re in a relationship and it’s just not going anywhere? There’s not hatred or anger, really; it’s just run it’s course. Nothing new or exciting is happening, neither of you really care to share regular, everyday stories with each other anymore. By no fault of either person, the relationship is just over. The Tigers and Manager Brad Ausmus, it appears, have reached that point.

 

(Weiss/ Detroit Free Press)

It’s been an up and down 2-plus years with Ausmus at the helm. A 90-win inaugural managerial year in 2013 was marred by a sweep in the ALDS at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles. The postseason defeat was rather uneventful and even expected by many fans. The elimination brought to light bigger problems that critics, still today, hound Ausmus for – such as his in-game decision making and the use of his bullpen. That lackluster finish spilled over into the 2015 campaign as the team trudged through the year – an embarrassing year at times – to finish in the basement of the AL Central Division with just 74 wins.

 

This year has not started any better and the future doesn’t look all that bright – the defending champion Royals are in the division and the White Sox and playing well. Even the Cleveland Indians have been dominating the Tigers so far this season (6-0). My point is the team just might not be good enough to compete for this division and may not even be good enough to compete for a wildcard spot. If that’s the case, what’s the sense in continuing down this road? There are no signs of a turnaround within the clubhouse or on the field; and with every defeat, Ausmus’s seat only burns hotter. He’s admitted he’s “in the crosshairs”, and knows every press conference he holds after a game is the media’s chance to second-guess every decision he makes. And I’d argue that feeling has to impact his performance.

 

So the argument becomes is it worth it to fire the manager mid-season. Nine times managers have been fired within the first 81 games in the past 10 years and only once did that new manager lead that team to the playoffs during that season – Jim Tracy with the Colorado Rockies in 2009. And since 2000, a managerial change at any point during the season has an average impact of +0.021 as far as team winning percentage. The results beyond that season have varying degrees of success for the team and the new manager. For instance, when the Oakland A’s fired Bob Geren in June 2011, new manger Bob Melvin had similar results, as the A’s struggled all year. However, Melvin’s A’s made the postseason in each of the next 3 seasons.

 

So you fire the manager and what happens? In all likelihood, nothing – at least nothing immediately. So why all the talk? Why all the speculation? Why all the clamoring for Ausmus’s job? It’s these types of situations where it has nothing to do with statistics or possible outcomes or past history of what could or might work out. It boils down to the simple fact that a change is needed. I’m not big on making changes for the sake of making changes. And the thing is – Ausmus by all accounts is a very bright guy, has a sharp baseball mind, understands the game, is cordial with the media, and his players respect him. I’ve been a Brad Ausmus supporter since he was hired, and I continued to support him even when the team underachieved and struggled. I was in the minority last off-season when I opposed him being fired. But now it feels like it’s time. He hears the noise (it’s not whispers anymore) about his future. The media (aside from Fox Sports Detroit) is becoming more brazen in the questions they ask him during his postgame pressers. The players hear it all, too. And while they publicly supported their skipper all throughout the 2015 season, you wonder how long they will continue answering questions about his future this season. At some point, it has to become tiresome to them. It’s already become tiresome to fans.

 

We can debate all day and night over who should replace Ausmus – Omar Vizquel or Lloyd McClendon or Gene Lamont? But that’s not what this is about, even though it is a fair and reasonable question. This is about knowing when something is over, when it’s run it’s course and there is no more good that can come of the situation. That’s where the Tigers are at with Ausmus. It’s just time.

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After a Year, We’re Back for More Magic at Sawgrass

The 2015 season in golf was truly remarkable. From the manner in which Jordan Speith dominated the field and the course at Augusta to Dustin Johnson’s utter collapse on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay to Speith nearly winning the remaining two majors to Jason Day overpowering the links course at Whistling Straits, it was a great year to be a golf fan. And all that excitement brought with it anticipation as everyone waited for the 2016 season to open (particularly the “Majors Season”) so we could see what would happen next. If last month’s Masters is any indication of the type of season that is upon us, we might not even remember the fun we had in 2015. We’re all looking forward to seeing how the game’s greatest hold up at the historic Oakmont at the U.S. Open in June. We’re all wondering, can Jordan add a couple more majors to his bag at such a young age? Will Jason Day capitalize on his PGA Championship and world number 1 ranking? Can Rory recapture the magic in a major that has seemed to allude him as of late? Will another young star emerge on one of the game’s greatest stages? And what will Olympic golf in Rio look like this Summer?

 

So many questions. But the one I’ve been waiting to have answered for 12 months is here this week: what is the sequel to the 2015 Players Championship?

 

Rickie Fowler’s play at the TPC at Sawgrass last year was nothing short of incredible – more specifically, his play at the 17th was mind-boggling. He didn’t run away with the tournament (heck, he had to go through 2 other guys in 4 playoff holes to finally secure the title), but he didn’t need to run and hide. He didn’t need to set a scoring record in route to winning what’s deemed the sport’s “5th Major”. The way he won it was perfect just the way it unfolded.

 

Fowler shot 6-under in his final 6 holes Sunday afternoon; and when he took the tee box at the Par 3 17th, he stuck his wedge within 7 feet of the pin, as the Stadium Course crowds went wild. But that was really only the beginning of Rickie’s magical afternoon. The playoff he fought to be a part of with Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia would force the threesome to return to the 17th as part of the 3-hole aggregate playoff format. And again, Fowler dropped his tee shot within 6-feet. Two times in the matter of 90 minutes, Fowler struck 2 tee shots that few would be able to hit once in their lifetime. But because Kisner and Fowler remained tied after the 3-hole playoff, the two made the trek back to the island hole for the climax to the drama. He couldn’t possibly hit a better shot than what he’d already hit TWICE earlier, right? RIGHT???

 

Wrong.

 

He did.

 

I don’t expect the same magical performance from Fowler this weekend, but not because he’s incapable of playing well and even successfully defending his title – rather expecting a result in the way it happened last year would be unfair. But Sawgrass brings out the magic. It’s a special course. The crowds, the island hole, the purse. Let’s not be remiss – The Players is called the “5th Major” and it pays like it too. Someone will piece together their own bit of magic this weekend – we can only hope it comes any where close to last year’s ride. Here’s a few players to watch:

 

RORY

(Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Rory McIlroy

You can’t help but wonder how Rory will respond after missing his most recent chance to complete the career Grand Slam last month at Augusta. It’s not like his game was looking all that great heading into the Masters, but now after a Saturday 77 put him out of contention what is his mental makeup moving forward? That’s probably a silly question considering Rory has long been considered one of the most mentally-tough players on tour. He finished tied for fourth at Quail Hollow last week and is still ranked inside the top 10 in driving distance. Bottom line – Rory’s too good to not be in contention this weekend. And he loves the limelight and certainly has a flare for the dramatics. What better stage than the Stadium Course.

 

garcia-full-getty

(Halleran/Getty Images)

Sergio Garcia

I typically don’t get in the habit of picking Sergio Garcia to win very often. Admittedly, there’s not much rationale behind it – maybe it stems from him not being able to hang on to the lead in the majors he’s contended in, maybe it’s his demeanor that irks me, or maybe he just flies under my radar most weeks. Not this week though. If anyone has a better resume at Sawgrass, please bring them to me at once! Besides winning The Players in 2008, Sergio has finished runner-up twice (including last year in the playoff), placed third in 2014, holds 6 top tens here, and is the all-time earnings leader at this tournament. Tiger Woods would always say a course “fits his eye” when explaining the successes he had at certain venues. Sawgrass fits Sergio’s eye without question. For a course that forces top-notch iron play, Sergio has it covered. Length off the tee is not a prerequisite for winning at the Stadium Course. Sergio’s accuracy and his ability to reach greens in regulation will give him a really good shot at holding the trophy, again, on Sunday.

 

UNIVERSITY PLACE, WA - JUNE 18: Henrik Stenson of Sweden smiles on the fifth hole during the first round of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 18, 2015 in University Place, Washington. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Henrik Stenson

Stenson is a guy who I keep waiting to see holding the Claret Jug or donning a Green Jacket. The former FedEx Cup winner has the game to win a major championship. Stenson won at Sawgrass in ’09 and came close in 2013. He hits the ball straight off the tee and that’s what you need to be able to do. What will play to Stenson’s game is the fact he can put the driver in the bag and not be punished. The question will be his putting. How he handles the flat stick seems to be the recurring issue for the Swede.

 

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(Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports)

Patrick Reed

How do 8 top ten finishes sound? How do you like someone ranked 3rd on the PGA Tour in Scrambling? Pretty good, huh? The catch with Patrick Reed, however, is you can’t take the good without the bad. Two of the American’s last 3 starts found him finishing 49th and 28th, respectively, on Sunday. But his ability to recover and not compound mistakes with more mistakes is a great asset, especially on a course like Sawgrass. Playing mistake-free is not an option for any player this weekend – can Reed make enough shots to be at top after 72 holes?

 

Zach Johnson of the United States tees off on first hole during the third round of the 111th US Open at Congressional Country Club on June 18, 2011, in Bethesda, Maryland. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Zach Johnson

No one’s game has ever been more simple, more accurate, or less exciting than Zach Johnson!! Similar to Jim Furyk’s game in that his accuracy always keeps him in contention, Zach Johnson’s bugaboo can be his lack of length off the tee. But Sawgrass puts little emphasis on length. His ball-striking will be on full display this weekend and Johnson’s nerves of steel will make him one to watch on Sunday afternoon.

 

senden-847-meyer

(Meyer/Getty Images)

John Senden

Maybe a guy off the beaten path who comes up this weekend and snatches a career-changing title is John Senden.  The 45-year old Australian has put together 4 top 25 finishes this season, including a T17 at Quail Hollow last weekend. His game is very unassuming and he is not likely to take many risks at Sawgrass. If he can limit the errors and scramble in the top 10 for the week, Senden’s play on the greens is good enough to put him near the top of the leaderboard Sunday.

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No Steph, No Problem: Klay Thompson Proving Curry’s Not the Only Superstar Guard in Golden State

Great teams find ways to win – even when they shouldn’t. Even when the odds are stacked against them and unforeseen circumstances occur that put them up against the wall. Let’s face it — what I’m describing is not quite what the Golden State Warriors are facing; however, they do have to deal with a certain amount of adversity as their MVP guard and superstar, Stephen Curry, recovers from a sprained knee. Despite the record-setting 73-win regular season, the Warriors still had to maneuver through the difficult Western Conference playoffs – with a looming battle with the almost-equally great San Antonio Spurs. When Curry went down, that difficult journey became much more treacherous – some may even consider the Spurs the favorite if Curry isn’t close to 100-percent healthy. But before we start talking like the Warriors title chances are doomed, maybe we should take notice of a star who’s shining brighter than ever in the absence of his fellow Splash Brother.

 

Klay Thompson hasn’t exactly just been going through the motions and catching a free ride on a championship team. Let’s not forget, this is the same player who went for a record 37 points in a single quarter in an NBA game last season. Thompson’s 3-point shooting prowess is only bested by teammate Curry – in the HISTORY of the NBA!! This season, Thompson shot over 42% from long range and hit 276 total three balls – a mark that only trails Curry in NBA history. But something has elevated him to another stratosphere this playoff run. And one can’t help but wonder that with Curry sidelined, Thompson has embraced the role of a superstar.

 

Through Games 4 and 5 against Houston and Game 1 against Portland, Thompson drained 7 three-pointers in each – an NBA postseason record. What’s most impressive is that he did that with Curry, for the most part, on the bench injured. Thompson has increased his points per game from the regular season to the playoffs as well – 22 ppg up to nearly 26 ppg. No one will argue that Klay needs to be a banger inside and grab many boards, but even his rebounds per game have slightly increased from the regular season; and his assists have gone up 1.5 per game in the postseason.

 

Now, of course, it’s only logical that Thompson’s production and opportunities would increase with Curry out. And the 2015-16 NBA Playoffs are only 7 games old for the Warriors so it’s hardly a wealthy sample size to make sweeping proclamations. But what Thompson has stepped into when his team needed it was a role that he may not relinquish all that quickly – with Curry back or not. Don’t misconstrue what I’m saying – there will NOT be a battle between the guards to see who the star of the team is (heck if there’s a battle for that, I’m not so sure Draymond Green wouldn’t beat the both of them). What may happen is the birth of a second star, who will fill the role his team needs him to fill but has all the ability in the world to step up and do much more when called upon to do so. That’s the trick that NBA teams and players can’t quite seem to figure out – LeBron and D-Wade couldn’t figure that out in Miami or else they would have collected more than 2 titles. The feeling around the league is you gather as much talent as possible and throw multiple stars together and the winning will just happen – that’s why rumors still persist about LeBron uniting with BFFs Chris Paul, Carmelo, and, again, with Wade. Superstars = Rings. But that’s proven to not always be the best formula to follow. And while these Warriors have supremely talented players, they all fit roles that they accept and thrive in. No question that Steph is a superstar (and face of the NBA), Klay is stating his case, and Draymond Green has established himself as one of the most well-rounded players in all of basketball. But these guys know what their team needs to be successful. That’s why they won last year against King James in the Finals. That’s why they bumped Michael and the Bulls from the top of the mountain and went 73-9. And that’s why – Steph or no Steph — no one should overlook them right now.

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Oh, Bob Quinn, Why Must You Tease Lions Fans?

When Bob Quinn arrived in town to take charge of the Detroit Lions franchise, fans in the Metro-Detroit area hoped he could replicate what few Bill Belichick disciplines have been able to do. Moving the Foxboro philosophy to other NFL cities hasn’t exactly panned out for those who have attempted the feat — Scott Pioli struggled in Kansas City; the Josh McDaniels coaching experience in Denver was disastrous; even Belichick Originals Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis couldn’t make head coaching gigs last in the NFL. But if one organization’s fan base deserves something to be hopeful for, it’s got to be the Lions. And when Martha Firestone Ford chose Bob Quinn to become the Lions new General Manager, fans could envision the Patriot Way settling in, nice and comfortably, in Allen Park.

 

In filling the many holes on the Lions’ roster, Quinn certainly went about his re-build with his old employer in mind. He pulled guys who had a history in New England –Tavon Wilson, Stevan Ridley, and Tim Wright. He added another tight end in Matthew Mulligan – the Patriots have been known for years for having a propensity for running multiple tight end packages. He took a flyer on former Giant Geoff Schwartz to add depth to the offensive line. And he even spent money signing a former Cleveland Brown cornerback, Johnson Bademosi, much in part to his skill set on Special Teams – very “Belichickian”. So Lions fan were happy, the future seemed brighter and the franchise appeared to behaving like an actual NFL franchise that wanted and was trying to win.

 

Then the draft came and more reason for optimism in the Motor City. Quinn went safe with his first pick as Lions GM and took Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker. He followed that up with a second round pick that many projected as a first rounder in A’Shawn Robinson – defensive tackle out of Alabama. Quinn, then, added a center, a hard-hitting safety, and a few picks to add depth to the defensive line, guard position, and linebacker. He even scooped up a Long Snapper. The only other team known to draft long snappers is, well, you know. Everything was moving nice and steadily in the right direction it seemed. Slowly and methodically build the team, keeping in mind the Belichick blueprint. And then came the 6th round…

 

With his 6th round pick, Bob Quinn undid all the good he had done. He gained the trust of the Lion fan base. He nurtured them along free agency – being smart and judicial. He went through 5 rounds of the NFL Draft, picking players who fit the roles he was looking for. Then, he, unwittingly, threw the Detroit Lions fans into a delusional fit. His sixth round selection made the Lions fans think of another Patriot move that forever changed that franchise. University of Michigan quarterback selected in the sixth round? Have we heard that before? Anybody? Anybody?

 

Heading into the draft, the quarterback position was a need. The talk around Detroit (and the league) was that Matthew Stafford needed someone backing him up that would push him in practice and light a bit of a flame under him. In order to get the most out of your franchise quarterback, you need to make him feel a little pressure from within – that was the thought. Some thought Dak Prescott from Mississippi State or Kevin Hogan from Stanford with a mid to late round selection was where the Lions were headed. Some even thought Connor Cook’s free fall would end with the Lions in the 3rd or 4th round. Nope. The Lions stuck to the theme that Bob Quinn brought to Detroit – the Patriot Way. And what is more “Patriot” than grabbing a 6’3” U-M quarterback who completed over 60% of his passes and held a 2 to 1 touchdown to interception ration in his career in Ann Arbor? Am I talking about Jake Rudock or Tom Brady? Ha, it’s a trick – those stats describe them both! (I kid. I joke. It’s funny.) But to Lions fans, this is not a joke. It’s not funny. It’s real and it’s possible that Jake Rudock will do for the Lions organization what Tom Brady has done for New England’s. Crazy? Yes, of course. High unlikely that will actually happen? Agreed, 100 percent. But tell that to Lions fans. Jake Rudock may as well throw on a number 12 jersey, start dating supermodels, and pick up cliff-diving in the offseason.

 

Poor Lions fans have been through so much – Barry Sanders leaving them high and dry on the eve of training camp, Matt Millen singlehandedly setting the franchise back 10 years by trying to field a team made up of only first round wide receivers, Calvin Johnson retiring early. The list goes on. And now, just when Bob Quinn has steadily and cautiously convinced fans that by rationally operating the front office the organization could be headed down the winning path, he goes ahead and let’s the crazy back in.

 

Good luck, JR15. (In 15 years, remember this was all a joke – I really did believe you would turn out to be like TB12.)

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Spurs – Thunder: Act 3

One has 5 NBA Championships since 1999; three presumptive Hall of Famers; one of the greatest professional coaches in all of sports; and a known pedigree for winning. The other has 2 of the NBA’s top 5 players; a 6-year run of hanging around the top of the Western Conference and contending for an NBA Championship; and an ability to any given time to look like the best team in the league. Welcome to Spurs-Thunder III.

For the third time in six seasons, these two perennial Western Conference powers will meet – this time for the right to play the defending champion Golden State Warriors (assuming all goes according to plan on that end of the bracket). The previous two series were in the Western Conference Finals, with the winner moving on to represent the conference in the NBA Finals. But make no mistake – that should not make this series any less important or less exciting. In fact, this series may just carry with it more intrigue than either of the previous two meetings.

With Steph Curry’s sprained knee sidelining him for up to 2 weeks and the uncertainty surrounding how healthy he will be once he does return, this series takes on a bit of a Western Conference Finals feel. The winner of this series will certainly be feeling more confident than they would have felt 2 weeks ago before the reigning MVP went down in Game 5 against Houston. Couple that with Kevin Durant’s impending free agency and the aging players on the Spurs side — like Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker — and this may be the last time we have a playoff meeting with these same stars. There’s a lot to look forward to as these two heavyweights prepare to match up.

  1. Russell Westbrook. OKC has the perfect situation when they take the floor against most teams. They roll out Westbrook (a triple double machine) and Durant (a physical freak of nature) and let the opponent pick their poison – because you can’t stop them both. And that very simple formula is more often than not good enough to put the Thunder in the win column most nights. But I did say MOST teams. The Spurs are not most teams, of course. And Kawhi Leonard is not your typical NBA defender. Leonard will be tasked with the challenge of guarding Durant during the series. And that matchup has yielded very positive results for Gregg Popovich’s team this year – Durant shot 26% from the field with Leonard guarding him and still below 40% with Leonard just being on the floor at the same time as the former MVP. So it seems Pop has the right idea when it comes to limiting KD’s production and efficiency. But Westbrook is another story. With Tony Parker and Danny Green taking turns checking the high-energy guard, Westbrook shot 67% from the field in the four games the two teams played this season. Will Westbrook’s production, alone, be enough to give the Thunder the edge?
  1. OKC’s Bigs v. LaMarcus Aldridge. The Thunder have the athleticism to make this a series and even win the thing. But they don’t have the skilled big men to bang with the Spurs in a 7-game series. Billy Donovan will have to be very strategic with Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Enes Kantor – who they will match up with and how to keep them out of foul trouble. LaMarcus Aldridge is not a poor rebounder by any means, but if you’re going to find a weak spot – rebounding is it. And Matthew Bonner and Boris Diaw are also flawed in the paint when it comes to grabbing boards. So the opening is there for the Thunder to take advantage, if they play their cards right. If Kantor and Adams can be a force to some degree on the offensive glass and get easy put-backs or create second chance opportunities for Durant and Westbrook, that will be a success. And let’s not forget about the Hall of Fame man in the middle that Popovich has gone with for nearly 2 full decades. Tim Duncan will not let this series come and go with being heard from. Being a presence in the paint and putting up 12 and 8 might be all the Spurs need.
  1. The San Antonio Bench. You will have a hard time finding a deeper bench in the entire NBA than what Gregg Popovich has at his disposal. This will allow Pop to run hard defensive schemes at OKC’s dynamic duo and not worry too much about foul trouble with his starters. San Antonio has done it all year with the league’s nastiness defense and the ability to rest key players for longer stretches during games and not miss a beat. The Pop’s 2nd and 3rd teamers stand on their own at times while facing the oncoming rush of Westbrook and KD?
  1. The Tale of Two Styles. Billy Donovan would love to run up and down the floor all day long with his potent superstars slashing and gunning; but that’s a tall order against any lineup the Spurs send out. He has far better athletes and far more firepower. But the Thunder lack a defensive prowess. Popovich will try to muck up the game on the defensive end, stall the Thunder attack, and play with obscene offensive efficiency on the other end of the floor.

This Spurs team may be the deepest that Gregg Popovich has had during this historic stretch of dominance. He now has a new core of players – LMA and Kawhi have slid in for Ginobili and Duncan. But the same blueprint for winning exits – staunch defense, efficient offense, role players who do what is asked of them (and do it very well), and protect homecourt.

The Thunder must feel a sense of urgency – the looming free agency of their superstar forward and the sense that they have fallen short of expectations for years now. They run into, quite possibly, the strongest of the Spurs teams they have had to face over the last 6 years with, remarkably one of their weakest teams during this stretch. Their bench can’t match San Antonio’s, Donovan’s defense is not of the same world as Pop’s, and they have struggled all season to hold 4th quarter leads. But they have the athleticism to keep them in games, and they have a history with the Spurs. They won’t be afraid and they won’t back away.

This may be the final time these players all meet in the playoffs wearing these uniforms. Sit back and enjoy it. This is what NBA Playoff basketball should be.

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