Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 24, 2021

The NCAA Flounders And Fails

With the NBA and NHL playoffs and Euro 2020 all starting to get serious, and with fans who aren’t engrossed in any of those games likely mesmerized by the new national pastime of on-field cavity searches of major league pitchers, it was easy to miss the latest twists in the decades-long effort to have college athletes – the stars of a multi-billion dollar industry – treated as something more than chattel by the schools and conferences that profit from their athletic prowess.  While this week’s developments in that long saga were eclipsed by those other stories, that news will ultimately impact thousands of young men and women, long after which franchise lost out in this year’s conference finals and which reliever dropped his pants in front of an umpire have been reduced to hard-to-remember trivia answers.

On Monday a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court fired the latest warning shot across the bow of the NCAA’s old and listing flagship, the S.S. Amateurism.  The decision, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, affirmed a lower court order that the NCAA could not limit education-related benefits paid to student athletes.  While important and potentially substantial, such benefits are of course not the same as either outright salaries or compensation for use of an athlete’s NIL – name, image and likeness – an area potentially worth vast sums to star players in major college sports.

But while Gorsuch, and thus the court, chose to rule narrowly, a concurring opinion by Justice Brett Kavanaugh took an astonishingly harsh view on the broader question of NCAA rules and antitrust law.  “The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels.  But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” wrote Kavanaugh, adding “Price-fixing labor is ordinarily a textbook antitrust problem because it extinguishes the free market in which individuals can otherwise obtain fair compensation for their work.”  Just in case the message wasn’t clear, he concluded with this succinct warning – “The NCAA is not above the law.”

That admonition is now just days from becoming demonstrably true in seven states.  On July 1, recently passed laws in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Texas and New Mexico, as well as an executive order just signed by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, all allowing collegians to profit from their NIL, take effect.  State level regulation is the NCAA’s worst nightmare, since it creates the certainty of dramatically different frameworks between, and even within, conferences.  Overlay a map of the member schools of the Southeastern Conference on one showing those seven states, and consider the recruiting advantage Nick Saban, John Calipari, and other coaches at eight SEC schools are about to gain over their counterparts in say, the Big 10 or Pac-12.  Or for that matter, over their six conference rivals whose campuses aren’t in one of those states. 

Not that it is entirely hopeless for programs about to be left clinging to the outdated tenets of the NCAA’s rules.  Fourteen more states have laws scheduled to take effect on dates ranging from later this year to 2025, and legislatures in eleven others are considering laws of their own.  But even if all fifty states and D.C. were to act, there would still be differences between statutes.  Any highly recruited high schooler, especially if he or she plays basketball or football, the two sports with the most exposure at the collegiate level, would be a fool not to factor in potential financial opportunities when deciding what school’s letter of intent will get their signature. 

One might think that between losing a case at the highest court in the land, being flogged as a law-breaking cartel in a concurring opinion and having its regulatory landscape about to fracture into myriad pieces, the NCAA would be spurred to action.  One would be very much mistaken.  The NCAA’s Division I Council, which had been expected to act on NIL regulations at its meeting this week, instead adjourned Wednesday with nothing more than a decision to reconvene next Monday.  That paralysis may well be a sign of the Association’s ultimate weakness, namely that it must depend on broad agreement among its member institutions.  Independent conferences and individual schools are likely even now calibrating what they will be able to offer students based on what will soon be the law in their part of the country, versus the potential landscape if they agree to some common path forward.

NCAA president Mark Emmert has long since cast his lot with the increasingly unlikely answer of Congress passing national legislation.  His statement after Monday’s Supreme Court decision reiterated that forlorn hope, even as it also incongruously claimed victory by citing the Court’s affirmation of the NCAA’s rulemaking authority.  By Wednesday he was reduced to promising member schools “interim rules” before the various state laws take effect next week.

Because Justice Kavanaugh merely pointed out a simple truth, those temporary guidelines will be severely constrained by the new state laws about to take effect.  The best description for the near term is likely to be something between confusion and chaos, though the likely beneficiaries of the pending uncertainty will be young men and women with great athletic skill, which is not a bad outcome.  But every moment of confusion, every hour of chaos, every day of uncertainty, rests squarely on the NCAA.  The last chapter in this long saga could have been written years ago, but for the Association’s determination to cling to its archaic fiction of overseeing hundreds of schools filled with earnest scholars who just happen to play amateur sports in their spare time.  If you believe that one, Justice Kavanaugh will take you for a walk among the tailgaters outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, with its 100,077 seats, before an Alabama home game this autumn.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2021

Karma On The 17th Green

The best golfers in the world looking to the sky, grimaces on their faces, as shots sail wide of their intended targets or putts slide past holes.  It must be Sunday at the U.S. Open.  There is often ample reason during our national championship to recall the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot,” when then-USGA head Sandy Tatum had to answer claims that one year after Johnnie Miller shot 63 in the Open’s final round, the course had been set up with the intent of embarrassing the players.  Tatum’s response that of course there was no such desire did little to convince anyone in the field of a tournament where the winning score was 7-over par.

In recent years, under the leadership of retiring president Mike Davis, the USGA has relented a bit.  Only three of the thirteen Opens since the event last visited the South Course at San Diego’s public Torrey Pines have resulted in a winning score over par.  But that doesn’t mean – except for the ill-advised decision to take the 2016 Open to Erin Hills, a relatively young course that clearly was not ready for its moment on center stage – that a U.S. Open layout is easy.  Fans are usually reminded of that sometime during the final round.

This year, that moment came as the final twosomes were nearing the midpoint of their rounds.  The leader board was appropriately star-studded for a major.  Bryson DeChambeau, on the strength of birdies at the 5th and 8th holes, held a one-shot lead at 5-under par.  But the defending champion was far from in the clear, since the gaggle of players right behind included Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, and Louis Oosthuizen, all major winners, as well as Jon Rahm, the current owner of the unwelcome title of best golfer who hasn’t won a major.

No sooner did the NBC Sports announcers marvel at that impressive lineup than it started to crumble.  DeChambeau’s tee shot on the par-3 11th hole was wide right, leaving him with a difficult chip from deep rough.  He did well to put his ball a dozen feet past the hole, but the par-saving putt was wide right from the start.  The bogey was DeChambeau’s first in thirty-five holes, but his day was about to get much, much worse.  He bogeyed the next hole, added a double-bogey on the 13th, and capped the worst ever nine-hole score of his professional career with a quadruple-bogey on the 17th, where it looked very much like he had all but quit trying.  The ugly collapse added up to an 8-over 44 on the inward half, which took DeChambeau from the lead to a tie for 26th place.

While the leader’s fall was the most dramatic, it was by no means the only stumble down the stretch.  In the pairing right after DeChambeau’s, McIlroy also bogeyed the 11th with a three-putt, then suffered a championship-ending double-bogey at the 12th.  Playing a few groups ahead, both Koepka and Morikawa had their own sideways moments, playing over par down the stretch. 

That left Oosthuizen and Rahm, the 38-year-old South African who is now eleven years removed from his Open Championship win at St. Andrews, and the 26-year-old Spaniard whose early years on the PGA Tour were notable more for his volatile eruptions on the course than for his play.  But Oosthuizen’s sole major was no fluke, as evidenced by his five runner-up finishes, spread across all four of golf’s most important tournaments, in the years since.  The most recent of those was at last month’s PGA Championship, where Oosthuizen finished tied for 2nd with Koepka, two shots behind Phil Mickelson.  For his part, since reputations die hard Rahm’s early one will probably stick for a while, but in recent years he has matured greatly, while also starting to realize the promise that he’s shown on the golf course since he was ranked as the top amateur in the world in 2015 and 2016.  He arrived at Torrey Pines with five PGA Tour wins and five top-ten finishes in the majors. 

The first of those Tour victories came in 2017 at the Tour’s regular stop in San Diego, the Farmers’ Insurance Open.  What would have been the sixth appeared all but assured two weeks ago when, as the defending champion, he ended the third round of the Memorial Tournament with a six-shot lead.  But as he left the 18th green Rahm was informed by tournament officials that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing him to withdraw.  Rahm knew he had been exposed to an infected individual, and he lamented waiting far too long to be vaccinated.  But he also took the bad news, including the likely loss of the $1.7 million winner’s check, in stride, knowing that he would come out of the mandatory isolation period just in time for the U.S. Open.

So in the end it was those two, the typically phlegmatic Oosthuizen and the newly calm Rahm, matching each other over the final holes, with the South African clinging to a one-shot lead.  That lasted until Rahm stood on the penultimate green, surveying a 24-foot putt for birdie.  Although in order to hole it, he needed to hit it thirty feet or more, so severe was the break.  But Rahm judged the pace and turn perfectly.  He stayed in his putting crouch until the ball fell in the hole, then exulted with a fist pump.  The birdie moved him into a tie, with the reachable par-5 finishing hole remaining.  There Rahm pushed his second shot right, into a greenside bunker, and opted to blast out away from the hole rather than risk a too-speedy shot rolling down the green and into the pond that fronts the putting surface.  But in a virtual replay of the 17th hole, Rahm then curled in another long birdie putt, this one for the lead.

That left only the question of whether Oosthuizen would break out of the tie to end his long string of runner-up finishes at majors or join those who had already stumbled on another U.S. Open Sunday.  The answer came at the 17th, where Oosthuizen’s normal fade trajectory on his drive instead stayed left all the way, ending in a hazard area just off the wide expanse of fairway.  When he was unable to scramble to save par from there, Oosthuizen was left needing an eagle at the last just to tie, and any hope of that ended when his drive just missed the fairway.

Grimaces and gasps, disappointment and doubt, all were plentiful on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean Sunday afternoon.  It was the final round of a U.S. Open after all.  But there were also two big fist pumps on the final two greens, and a victory for a golfer who told the world his belief in karma helped him weather the blow at the Memorial.  When the last of those long putts rolled in, on a day when so many who are so talented stumbled and fell, it was hard to argue with Jon Rahm’s view.  Quite simply, his time at a major had come.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 17, 2021

MLB Tries To Shift The Blame

There is a classic scene in “Bull Durham” in which minor league manager Skip, thoroughly exasperated by the play of his squad, stands in the locker room and tells his charges that they are playing “a simple game.  You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.”  Yet while the essence of the Great Game can be reduced to such elemental actions, the major league rulebook and its five appendices runs to more than one hundred seventy pages, including eleven dedicated just to definitions of various terms.  And that considerable bulk doesn’t include the sport’s countless unwritten rules, which can’t be in a book since that would necessitate their being committed to paper.  So perhaps the game is not so simple after all.  That certainly seems to be the case this week, when far more attention is being paid to the legalistic language of the MLB rulebook than to any action on the field.

The center of debate is the second paragraph of Rule 3.01, which states “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.”  This language – and yes it really does include licorice – is reinforced many pages later in Rule 6.02(c), which details what a pitcher is barred from doing with a ball and includes a prohibition against a moundsman even having a foreign substance in his possession while on the mound.

These injunctions are anything but new additions to MLB’s rulebook.  The “emery ball,” a horsehide that has been scuffed by rubbing it against a rough surface such as an emery board, dates back more than a century.  But if one were to believe this week’s announcement from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s office, despite this clear and longstanding language the Great Game has suddenly been beset by a wave of rogue pitchers who have been callously defying authority by rubbing up balls with all manner of substances, from fairly simple combinations of rosin and sunscreen lotion, to exotic specialty products like Spider Tack, a paste originally marketed to weightlifters looking for a secure grip on objects weighing hundreds of pounds.  While these scofflaws, having been found out, will contend their intent was merely to enhance control over a rock-hard pellet they throw at speeds sometimes surpassing 100 miles per hour in the general direction of another human being, MLB has concluded that their real goal was to increase the spin rate of pitches, making their offerings virtually impossible to hit. 

That blatant disregard for the rules is why so many of baseball’s offensive statistics have been in steady decline for several years and have cratered to historic lows this season, or so we are told.  Now to the rescue comes the commissioner’s office, with a plan to strictly enforce those rules starting Monday.  Umpires will examine the uniforms, gloves and hands of every pitcher entering a big league contest and will be free to visit the mound as often as they wish if a hurler perhaps touches his belt or scratches the back of his head in a manner the umpire deems suspicious.  Ten game suspensions, during which the offender’s club will be unable to replace him on the roster, await those who now dare violate the sanctity of the rulebook.

Sky-high strikeout rates and a general paucity of offensive action are very real, and a legitimate problem for MLB.  But the sudden focus on “sticky stuff,” which oversimplifies a complex issue while placing the blame for it squarely on players, seems contrived.

To be sure, many of the presumed villains in the piece have done poor jobs defending themselves.  Most notably, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow complained bitterly that having to abandon the rosin and sunscreen mix he had long used led directly to him gripping the ball too hard in his next outing, and so to an injury that now threatens at the very least his season, and possibly more.  That rant prompted widespread jeers from many fans who rushed right by its context – an athlete in the bloom of youth suddenly facing a potentially career-altering injury – in their haste to translate it to Glasnow saying he got injured because he was forced to stop cheating.  The jeering was no doubt met by cheering in MLB headquarters, where no one will complain if fans associate any of the Great Game’s problems with players rather than management.  After all, what are certain to be acrimonious negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement are only a few months away.

Even without assuming such Machiavellian intent related to the upcoming contract fight, MLB’s focus on the many pitchers who have been using grip, and presumably spin, enhancing substances conveniently narrows what should be an extremely broad indictment.  For as every fan, pundit, player, and executive knows, the Great Game not only has unwritten rules, it also has some pages of its official rulebook that are strictly enforced, and some that have long been, at best, advisory.  The pages with the rules about substances on baseballs have always been in the latter category.

Gaylord Perry was, by general consensus, one of the finest spitballers ever to take the mound.  So good in fact, he made it into the Hall of Fame in 1991.  Whitey Ford was accused more than once of doctoring baseballs in various ways, though he always swore he didn’t do so during his Cy Young Award winning 1961 season.  So it has always gone, down through generations.  Thus it came as no surprise this week when, after MLB’s announcement, we heard pitchers say that coaches and managers and front office personnel knew or encouraged or even instructed them to use some substance on the ball.

Does that widespread knowledge make it right to break the rules?  Of course not.  But it does put all of MLB in the role of Captain Louis Renault in that eternal classic, “Casablanca.”  No doubt Rob Manfred was shocked, shocked to find out what was going on in major league ballparks, as he tried so hard to make this all about the players. 

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 13, 2021

More Changes, And More Cash, For The CFP

We cannot say for certain, because the sole known work of Heraclitus of Ephesus has only survived in fragments.  Writing five centuries BCE, the Greek was influential enough on later thinkers, including Plato and the schools of Stoicism and Cynicism, to earn a place – with Michelangelo serving as the model – in Raphael’s famous 16th century “School of Athens” fresco.  So perhaps in the missing sections of “On Nature,” Heraclitus gets more specific on say, how Alabama’s dominance or the frequent snubbing of the Pac-12 has impacted the College Football Playoff.  Maybe he was the original advocate for regular inclusion of schools from the Group of Five conferences, the leagues that consistently put some of the sport’s most exciting product on the field, only to be dismissed by the CFP Selection Committee in favor of squads from the Power 5 leagues that are the committee’s core constituency.  What a shame if the annual debate over the makeup of the playoffs has been missing such an argument for twenty-five centuries.  While there is not quite enough evidence to reach a firm conclusion, it sure seems like Heraclitus had the CFP in mind when he laid out his philosophy.  For his core belief has come down through the ages as that familiar aphorism, “the only constant is change;” so what else could the Greek have been talking about?

Prior to 1992, which for some fans might as well be back in the days when the Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, college football’s national champion was the team that wound up atop the two major polls.  That meant the judgment of sportswriters and coaches, rather than the outcome of a decisive contest, decided the titleholder.  There was no guarantee that either the regular season schedule or the traditional, conference-based matchups of the major bowl games would produce a game between any of the top ranked teams.  And it also left open the possibility of co-champions, should the two polls produce different results. 

It was, in short, a process guaranteed to produce controversy and, depending on the final records of the top two or three squads, some quantity of bruised feelings among fans, particularly the well-heeled alumni whose contributions were increasingly important to athletic directors seeing the growing allure of big-time football programs.  So it was that after the writers’ and coaches’ polls picked different champions twice in succession in 1990 and 1991, the Bowl Coalition was formed.

This initial break from tradition was a union of five conferences plus independent Notre Dame with the organizers of seven bowl games.  The intent was to put together the best possible bowl matchups based on the poll rankings, with #1 versus #2 in one of those games being the most desirable outcome.  While the first year produced that ideal result, #1 Miami versus #2 Alabama in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, the first bowl showdown between the top two teams in the country since 1987, the Coalition was doomed from the start.  Its membership did not include either the Big 10 or Pac-10 (now Pac 12), nor was the Rose Bowl a member, because the granddaddy of bowl games refused to release those two conferences from their contractual obligation to send their champion to Pasadena.

So college football’s long and ongoing era of constant change began.  After three seasons the Bowl Coalition gave way to the Bowl Alliance, largely because of the demise of the Southwest Conference and a sudden turn by Notre Dame to relative mediocrity.  The Alliance, which had many of the same problems of its predecessor, also lasted just three years before yielding to growing calls for an expansion of the eligible participants, calls that included rumblings of antitrust investigations by Congress.  That led to the formation of the relatively long running but always reviled Bowl Championship Series.  Under a lengthy and mutating set of rules, the BCS assigned eight lucky teams to four bowl games – the Rose, Fiesta, Sugar and Orange.  Initially one of those four was designated as the national title game on a rotating basis, with the two top-ranked teams facing off.  Then in 2007 a separate championship game was introduced, thus expanding the field to ten teams.

But almost from the very first year of the BCS, there were fans and pundits calling for a more structured playoff format.  Conference commissioners and university presidents resisted fiercely for years, always clinging to the crutch that their “student-athletes” shouldn’t take the time away from their studies that would be required to participate in more than one postseason contest.  The excuse was always treated as the joke that it was since lower levels of the NCAA hierarchy have long had football playoffs.

Seven years ago, the faux concern about adequate time in study halls crumbled before the economic opportunity of a playoff.  But almost as soon as the current CFP began, critics emerged to ask why only four teams were included.  Now, once again, the golden glitter of potential television contracts and more revenue sharing for participating conferences has sounded a siren call.  In this case, the wayfarers unable to resist were the members of a CFP working group, who this week recommended expanding the playoff from four teams to twelve.  The top four teams would receive first round byes, meaning the real impact will be to add one more week to the college football postseason.     

This proposal will work its way up the CFP management tree in the next few weeks, though it likely couldn’t be implemented before 2023 at the earliest.  Schools in the Group of Five conferences are the most obvious winners, since it will take some extraordinarily creative excuses for the CFP Selection Committee to exclude them from a twelve-team field.  Make no mistake, that is a good outcome.  But the real winners will of course be the treasuries of all the participating conferences.  One early estimate put the annual value of the TV contract for an expanded playoff at two to three times the current $600 million.

Given that staggering number, and the history of the last thirty years, just don’t treat whatever decisions are soon announced as anything like a final word.  If twelve is good, why not sixteen?  Would one more week really hurt?  Heraclitus, who in one of the sadly lost papyruses of “On Nature” might have told us that we should absolutely take Alabama and the points against Ohio State, knew better.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 10, 2021

Open Dates At TD Garden

For almost a century, from the age of steam to the era of electric rails, thousands of travelers and millions of daily commuters have made their way through North Station, one of Boston’s two railroad hubs.  Through all those years, rail passengers have walked, or for the tardy among them, run, beneath the hulking mass of the city’s primary indoor sports and entertainment venue.  The arena locals now call the “old Garden” opened in 1928, having been built as part of the Boston & Maine Railroad’s construction of North Station.  Originally styled Boston Madison Square Garden, the facility was designed by Tex Rickard, now a largely forgotten figure but famous in the early part of the last century as an entrepreneur and leading boxing promoter.  Rickard was the force behind the third New York arena to bear the name Madison Square Garden, the one that was the immediate predecessor of the current World’s Most Famous Arena.  A big dreamer from his youth chasing gold in Alaska, Rickard had announced plans to parlay the success of the Gotham facility into a string of MSG’s in cities across the country.  Those plans died with Rickard, just a year after the Boston building became the second – and last – on his wish list. 

Because of his connection to the sweet science, Rickard’s design kept fans close to the heart of the arena’s floor so they could, in his words, “see the sweat on the boxers’ brows.”  But that also meant spectators were right on top of the action when the floor was expanded for basketball or hockey.  The Celtics and Bruins enjoyed the resulting home advantage, with the hardcourt team once compiling home records of 40-1 and 39-2 over consecutive seasons in the mid-‘80s.  The ice rink in turn, was smaller than others in the NHL, giving Bruins players an edge thanks to their local knowledge of the slightly different angles pucks would carom off the boards. 

By the time the Celtics were posting those imposing won-loss records, the Boston Garden was a dilapidated dump, with the impressive size of its resident rats adding a less desirable entry to its list of unique features.  The building’s lack of air conditioning made for an unpleasant fan experience and a borderline dangerous time for players when either of the local squads put together a deep run in the NBA or NHL playoffs.  Shortly after the Jacobs family, founders of the hospitality giant Delaware North, bought the arena and its hockey team in 1975, serious efforts to replace the old Garden began.   

At various times, the Bruins were believed headed to the nearby suburbs, or all the way up I-93 to Salem, New Hampshire; while the Celtics floated plans for a new home in Revere, on the other side of Boston Harbor.  In the end, after the kind of fight about financing that is common in the development of urban sports venues, agreement was reached on a new arena that would house both franchises, to be constructed just north of the existing building.  That turned out to be quite literally the case, for when the new Garden went up there was a mere nine inches of airspace between the two structures.  Even as construction neared completion, Shawmut Bank, the original naming sponsor, announced a merger with Fleet Financial Group, forcing a change in the interior color scheme and the replacement of every seat in the new arena, since they had all been stamped with Shawmut’s logo.

The new Garden, as it is still called a quarter century later by a gradually shrinking generation of gray-haired fans, opened in 1995 as the FleetCenter.  One decade and a few bank mergers later, it became the TD Banknorth Garden, shortened three years after to simply TD Garden.  During a brief nameless interregnum after Fleet paid to get out of its sponsorship, the Jacobs’ raised a little local goodwill and about $150,000 for charity by auctioning off one day’s naming rights thirty separate times.  Only two of the winning bidders had their first choice of a name rejected.  Oddly enough, “Derek Jeter Center” was one of the two names deemed inappropriate.

Yet as imposing as the structure is, and its massive bulk looming over the major artery through Boston is enough to distract many drivers from the elegant beauty of the cable-stayed Zakim Bridge that either just has or is just about to carry them over the Charles River, the facility has rarely been the scene of playoff joy for local fans.  The lone Stanley Cup won by the Bruins since TD Garden opened was captured on the road in 2011, a continent away in Vancouver.  And while the basketball franchise at least clinched its sole Larry O’Brien Trophy in the same time period at home in 2007, one title in twenty-five years hardly befits a team that won sixteen champions in the place that used to stand next door.

Back when the NBA and NHL campaigns were getting underway fans of both squads thought this season would be different.  While neither the Celtics nor Bruins were the first choice of most pundits, both were acknowledged to be contenders.  But now the Celtics have been rudely dispatched by the superstar laden Brooklyn Nets in five mostly lopsided first-round contests.  For their part, the Bruins briefly appeared in control of the second-round series against the New York Islanders before collapsing, ending a short postseason with three straight losses.

As has usually been the case in the years since TD Garden opened, the NBA and NHL playoffs continue their march through the warming days of late spring while local fans are left to ponder what might have been.  This year the pain is more acute since both franchises head into an early offseason in some degree of disarray, from the Celtics’ changes at the top to the uncertain future of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.  Meanwhile the massive electronic billboard on the north side of TD Garden, impossible to miss by southbound drivers on either I-93 or the lengthy off-ramp that runs right below it, advertises the arena’s coming attractions.  From Canadian crooner Michael Buble to former boy-band heartthrob Harry Styles to the latest tours by the Eagles and assorted other aging rockers, the flashing sign makes it clear that in the weeks ahead, a ticket to TD Garden will be Boston’s most prized ducat.  Just not for sports.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 6, 2021

A Collapse Of Olympic Proportions

“I feel really good about the direction her game is headed.”  That ill-timed analysis of Lexi Thompson’s golf was offered by an NBC Sports commentator even as Thompson walked off the 18th green of the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco, having squandered a five shot lead over the final ten holes of the Women’s U.S. Open and coming up one stroke short of a playoff.  The back nine at the Lake Course plays to a par of 36, but Thompson required 41 shots to navigate the inward half Sunday, after doing so in 34 strokes on each of the U.S. Open’s first three days. 

Thompson’s troubles, beginning with a double-bogey 6 on the par-4 11th, gave new energy to her pursuers just when they may have been ready to resign themselves to battling for second place.  Playing one group ahead, Japan’s Nasa Hataoka, who had made her own bogey on number 11, rolled in birdie putts on the 13th, 14th and 16th to post a 68 and a four-day total of 4-under par.  Walking alongside Thompson, Yuka Saso of the Philippines began the day just one off the lead but wore a dejected look after back-to-back double-bogeys early in her round.  But her slumped shoulders picked up as the lead narrowed, and she made birdies on the two par-5s on the homeward nine, moving to 4-under as well. 

Yet while the margin had narrowed to just one, Thompson still held the advantage and had a chance to increase it as she surveyed the curling line of a birdie try on the 16th.  But her putt never had a chance since it started at the left edge and the slope was going to move it even further to that side.  Then on the final two holes, Thompson hit two of her worst shots of the week, coming up woefully short with wedges both times.  Forced into up-and-down efforts, she followed those disastrous short shots with two of her worst putts of the tournament.  A weak stab with barely any backswing on 17 curled away short of the hole, and an equally tentative stroke at the last limped to a stop well short of the cup.  That sad putt effectively ended Thompson’s tournament, sending Saso and Hatoaka to a playoff eventually won by the 19-year-old Saso on the third extra hole. 

Because she came to the attention of golf fans at such a young age, it’s easy to forget that Thompson is only 26.  Of the six Americans currently in the top-20 of the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, only Nelly Korda is younger at 22.  Thompson, currently ranked 9th, turned pro at the age of 15, and cashed her first professional check with a 10th place finish at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont Country Club. 

That was the Open won by Paula Creamer, who turned in a courageous effort over the famed and brutal layout while still rehabbing from surgery on her right hand.  In the decade since, only two other Americans have triumphed at our national championship – Michelle Wie at Pinehurst in 2014 and Brittany Lang at CordeValle Golf Club five years ago.  Golf is an international sport, and aside from the various team competitions – the Solheim, Presidents, and Ryder Cups – when patriotic fervor and a fair amount of rank jingoism runs rampant, American fans have long since grown accustomed to rooting for players from other countries on both the men’s and women’s tours.  Still, the sturdy efforts of the LPGA to expand its footprint and grow the game for women in this country would certainly be helped by the occasional major victory by an American woman.  But the recent history of the U.S. Open has been replicated in the other women’s majors.  Since Lang’s 2016 U.S. Open victory, only two Americans have lifted the trophy out of twenty-three majors played, and none in the past eleven events.

The drought was supposed to end Sunday.  As the final groups approached the turn at Olympic, such a result seemed all but certain.  In the aftermath of Thompson’s collapse, some will surely point to the venue.  While this was the first women’s major played on the shores of Lake Merced, Olympic has hosted the men’s U.S. Open five times, and that history is rich with favorites coming undone over the layout’s fairways.  Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson all held 54-hole leads at Olympic, but the names of Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, and Scott Simpson are engraved next to that year on the U.S. Open trophy.  But neither those results nor this one were wrought by wood nymphs hiding in the boughs of the towering trees lining Olympic’s fairways.  For all the support teams, finely tuned equipment, and sage advice of an experienced caddie, in the end golf is a brutally individual sport.  Only the player swings the club.

With 11 LPGA victories, including a major win at the 2014 ANA Inspiration, Thompson is a superstar of the women’s game.  Her popularity, whether measured by the size of her pre-COVID galleries or her half-million followers on both Instagram and Twitter, is enormous.  She also understands the importance of the LPGA’s outreach efforts, taking time to sign autographs for kids at Olympic after what was surely a heartbreaking result. 

Thompson burst into the consciousness of golf fans as a young teenager who hit prodigious drives.  She remains one of the LPGA’s longest hitters, ranking 5th in driving distance in 2019, the Tour’s last full season.  But she is a terrible putter, ranking 135th in putting average that year, and only slightly better in that stat so far this season.  And any number of analysts have said that her wedge play would improve if she shallowed her swing on short shots to increase distance control and reduce mishits. 

Sunday, under the unique pressure of playing with the lead in the final round of a major, those weaknesses emerged, when only she could swing the club.  The result was heartbreak, for Lexi Thompson and many, many fans.  She has plenty of time to improve those aspects of her game, but whether she does, or not, may well determine whether years from now Thompson’s career is celebrated with awe, or recalled with a sigh, and whispered regret for what might have been.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 3, 2021

The Quiet Yet Awesome Power Of Naomi Osaka

It will be another ten days before winners are crowned on the red clay of Roland Garros.  The French Open, having returned to its familiar place in the rota of tennis Grand Slams and almost its regular spot on the calendar after moving to October and becoming the last of only three major tournaments played in 2020 thanks to the pandemic, is just now entering its first weekend.  As this is written we have no idea if the women’s and men’s draws will produce familiar champions or unexpected winners.  But we do know for certain this year’s titlist on the women’s side will not be Naomi Osaka.  In guaranteeing that result by withdrawing from the French on Monday, the 23-year-old four-time major champion has once again done what she seems to do so extraordinarily well and with less effort than she expends in a straight set rout, namely send the predominantly white male leaders of her sport reeling even while forcing both tennis, a game strongly associated with privilege, and the sports world at large, to confront a topic far too many people would prefer to avoid.

The drama began a week ago, when Osaka announced via social media that she would not participate in the formal press conferences that are mandatory for all players at tournaments – though in reality far more time-consuming and intrusive for a handful of top stars like Osaka.  In her post she acknowledged she would be fined for doing so, expressing the hope that the money would “go to a mental health charity,” after making it clear that her decision stemmed from a belief that the sessions negatively impacted the mental health of athletes by “bringing doubt into our minds” or “kicking a person while they’re down.” 

On Sunday, after a 6-4, 7-6 opening match victory, Osaka made good on her promise.  The response however, was not merely a fine of $15,000 – no indication of how the money will be used – but the release of a letter signed by the heads of all four Grand Slam tournaments, threatening Osaka with disqualification from all the tennis majors.  Less than 24 hours later Osaka was gone, announcing her withdrawal on Instagram.  In an achingly candid post, she revealed that she had “suffered long bouts of depression” since her first major victory at the 2018 U.S. Open, spoke of her severe social anxiety and explained that her original announcement was grounded in a desire to focus on self-care in the intense environment of the year’s second Grand Slam. The juxtaposition of the verbal bludgeoning from the tennis barons with the candid revelations of a young woman barely more than three years removed from her first ever professional victory at the 2018 Indian Wells Open was breathtakingly stark; a contrast that did the lords of Osaka’s sport no favors.

Two lessons stand out.  The first is that it is advisable – perhaps understandably so – to read with caution coverage of an event in which the press itself is a participant.  While there were certainly some dissenting voices, mostly belonging to younger, female sports journalists, the initial media reaction to Osaka’s declaration to skip press conferences during the tournament was harsh.  Multiple stories pointed out that the formal question-and-answer sessions are more important in tennis than in sports like baseball, basketball or hockey (to pick three that are currently ongoing), because there is no long season of game after game, in which reporters interact in locker rooms daily with those they are covering.  Going beyond that, more than a few characterized Osaka as a prima donna trying to use her celebrity to either avoid an undesirable chore or, far worse, gain an advantage – exactly how or what was never adequately defined – over her competition.

There is an element of truth in the first point, but all but the laziest of reporters have acknowledged that especially during the pandemic, the virtual press conferences in place at most tournaments are generally stilted gatherings that rarely result in hard news.  Perhaps even the scribes most content to do nothing more than wait for their allotted question time would cringe at the countless YouTube videos of moronic or inappropriate queries being put to players.  And more than a few of those quick to assail Osaka as some would-be starlet were hastily rewriting their stories after her withdrawal announcement. 

Yet even as they did so, one cannot ignore the reality of the gender and racial makeup of those whose initial reaction was to carp.  Former ESPN reporter Jemele Hill pointed out in The Atlantic that when she wrote for the Orlando Sentinel in 2005, she was the sole black female sports columnist writing for a North American daily newspaper.  A decade and a half later, not much has changed.  In its latest survey, the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Equity in Sports found that 85% of sports editors, 82% of columnists, and 80% of reporters are white.   

The second lesson is more profound, for it reflects a truth not just about tennis, but about all our games.  One can imagine that when the four heads of the Grand Slam tournaments signed their joint letter, they truly imagined that one more upstart player would rapidly be brought to heel.  But the power in sports has shifted, and there is no going back.  It has been less than half a century since Marvin Miller brought down baseball’s reserve clause, the rule that effectively made a player the property of his team, finishing the work that Curt Flood began.  An eyeblink in the grand scheme, yet today in all our games it is increasingly the players who hold the power, and the accelerating shift of how fans obtain information has contributed greatly to that change.

We are no longer dependent on a team’s media staff, or the local sports page.  Now through social media we connect to players directly, or at least to what they want us to see and hear, which while certainly a construct, is no more so than what teams and leagues have always done.  When the tennis barons issued their edict, it was duly reported across the sports world.  That included ESPN, the cable network that paid $70 million to the USTA for full coverage of last year’s U.S. Open.  Its broadcast of Osaka’s triumph in the women’s final garnered the network 2.15 million viewers.  That’s an impressive number, but still about 200,000 less than the number of people who follow Osaka’s Instagram account, which she set up for free.  All of them received her statement on Monday within a few seconds of it being posted, and more than a third of them promptly shared it with all their followers.  Scores of other sports figures followed by voicing their support on various apps. 

A countless number of those subsequent posts stressed the importance of addressing the issue of mental health.  Even the tennis leaders, trying to recover from their unforced error, joined the chorus.  It brought to mind the scene at the ceremony following Osaka’s win in Queens last year.  In an almost empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, but to all those watching on ESPN, Osaka was interviewed by Tom Rinaldi, who noted that at each of her matches she had worn a mask with the name of a black victim of a police shooting.  “What was the message you wanted to send?” he asked.  “Well, what was the message you got?” Osaka replied, adding “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”  She won’t lift the trophy at this year’s French Open, but once again, Naomi Osaka has gotten everyone talking, even at the price of making some people uncomfortable.  Is there any doubt that she has already won?

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 30, 2021

History For Helio

We probably should have seen this coming.  After all, it has been a pretty good year for old guys – at least as the term applies to professional athletes, since our games are normally the dominion of players in their twenties.  There was 43-year-old Tom Brady guiding Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory, and 50-year-old Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship just last week.  So, it should not have surprised any fan when the New York Times chose to profile Scott Dixon in the runup to this year’s Indianapolis 500, for the 40-year-old appeared to be just the latest example of an athlete achieving greatly at what would be considered by many an advanced age for his sport. 

Like the football player and the golfer, Dixon had already accomplished so much, with six IndyCar Series championships in his career and 51 victories in American open-wheeled racing, a number that puts him third on the all-time list, just one win behind Mario Andretti.  Dixon was also a legitimate favorite to capture his second Indy 500 on Sunday.  He arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway having won one of the first five IndyCar races this season and leading the Series points race.  He then proceeded to capture the pole for this year’s 500, so it was not a rash bet to favor Dixon not just leading the field past the green flag but being in front for the checkered as well.

Yet for all the obvious emphasis on speed, races can turn on issues that have nothing to do with barreling down a straightaway at 220 miles per hour.  Things like the timing of pit stops and decisions on fuel strategy, the relative tire wear of two otherwise equally speedy competitors, or, in Dixon’s case, an engine that wouldn’t start.  The race was still in its early stages, the field cycling through initial pit stops, when Stefan Wilson crashed entering pit row, bringing out a caution flag and briefly closing the pits to other cars.  By the time he made another circuit of the two-and-a-half-mile oval Dixon ran out of fuel, and though he was able to coast down the lane to his stall, his crew then had trouble getting the engine on the #9 Honda to refire.  By the time Dixon was running again he had fallen one lap down to the rest of the field, and while he certainly didn’t quit, eventually working his way back into the top-10 late in the race before sliding back to finish 17th, Dixon’s hopes that IndyCar’s titular race would be where he tied Andretti were effectively dashed less than a hundred miles into the proceedings.

For much of the rest of the race, it looked like this 500 would serve as coming out party for one of the sport’s next generation.  The potential for such a result had been heralded by the finishes in this season’s earlier events.  While Dixon triumphed in the Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, the other four races were all won by drivers between 20 and 24 years old – Alex Palou at the season-opening Grand Prix of Alabama, Colton Herta in St. Petersburg, Pato O’Ward at the second race in Texas, and Rinus Veekay at the GMR Grand Prix, run two weeks ago over the Brickyard’s road course.  Those results are a powerful reminder that IndyCar is in the midst of generational change.  So too was the fact that all four young drivers spent time at the front of the pack on Sunday, combining to lead 97 of the 200 laps.  Palou, O’Ward and Veekay all came home in the top-10, and Herta’s 16th place finish was at least one spot better than Dixon.

It was Palou, at 24 the senior member of that foursome, who was poised for the checkered flag as the self-styled “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” entered its final laps.  But the sporting gods who lately seem intent on favoring veteran athletes were aware that there was a driver in the field who was both several years older than Dixon and for whom a victory would at once be both more consequential and far more unlikely.

At 46, Helio Castroneves of Brazil appeared to be in the uncomfortable netherworld of aging sports heroes – well past the prime of his career yet unwilling to quietly leave the stage.  It is a role fans have seen played by so many, in all our games, and it almost always ends badly.  Castroneves had 21 IndyCar wins over two decades, and came home first at Indianapolis in 2001, 2002, and 2009.  While never capturing the Series title, he finished second in the IndyCar points standings four times, most recently in 2014.  But he had not had a full-time ride since 2017, and after losing even his part-time role for Penske Racing after last season, this year he signed on to run just six races for Meyer Shank Racing, a tiny team that had never started a winner of an IndyCar race.  Still, Castroneves had shown that his skills were intact, winning the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race in January while driving for Taylor Wayne Racing.  He started in the fourth row Sunday, so it was clear he had a fast car.  In a race that was generally free of trouble, Castroneves was content for most of the afternoon to stay near the front, allowing others to lead the field. 

But when matters turned serious in the final laps, he called upon the experience gained from many thousands of miles run over open-wheeled racing’s most famous oval.  Castroneves moved in behind Palou as they sped past the row of bricks that mark the finish line for the next to last time.  As the pair headed down the front straight, he swung to the outside – an unexpected move – and raced past the leader even as the two cars entered Turn 1.  By the time they came out of Turn 2 Castroneves had cemented his lead, leaving just a lap-and-a-half for Palou to reclaim the advantage.  Youth may well be served by the time the IndyCar season ends, but it came up short on Sunday.

The checkered flag moved Castroneves into the small and exalted class of four-time Indy 500 winners.  After joining A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears, Castroneves was his typically ebullient and emotional self.  Always one of the most popular drivers in the Series, he parked his car at the finish line, got out, and climbed the protective fencing to wave at and celebrate with the fans.  As race officials waited patiently on the other side of the track for the traditional wreath presentation and milk-drinking celebration, Castroneves hugged everyone in sight.  And, it should be noted, it looked very much like everyone on the grounds wanted to hug him back.  It was a most unlikely end to the Indianapolis 500.  Which is to say, it was exactly the result we all should have seen coming.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 27, 2021

History And Happiness In The Bronx

It has been a lovely evening for a ballgame.  Although the start of summer is still a month away, the daytime air held a touch of heat and humidity, a not entirely welcome harbinger of conditions that will be common enough in a few weeks’ time.  But that hint of summer sultriness dissipated with the setting of the sun, replaced by a pleasant and slowly dropping temperature and the soft touch of a breeze.  A pale sheen of cloud cover has drifted in overhead, though not enough to fully obscure the waxing gibbous moon that now hangs directly above the big stadium in the Bronx, like a flashlight in need of new batteries. 

Just over 14,000 paying customers have watched that moon make its slow progress across the sky above.  It is the largest attendance of the season, since this is the first game played under newly relaxed pandemic guidelines that now allow the Yankees to fill up to one-third of the Stadium’s seats.   Part of the franchise’s response to those new rules has been to open a handful of sections to fully vaccinated ticketholders.  Proof of that status is required for admission, but once through the turnstiles fans in those sections are free of the socially distanced pod seating in place throughout the rest of the ballpark.  Still, one could not help but notice that those seats did not fill up tonight.  Perhaps there was not enough time to market those tickets, or perhaps large numbers of fans are choosing to set their own rules, ones that are still more cautious than the government edicts.  

A handful of less than packed seating sections aside, what is most interesting about the crowd is that although the contest between the Yankees and the visitors from Chicago’s South Side has moved into the 9th inning, most everyone is still here.  At a ballpark that is also a tourist attraction there is always a segment of the crowd that arrives late and leaves early.  But not tonight.  No doubt some have stayed because of the comfortable weather, but surely the game has contributed to keeping people in their seats, for this one has been a taut thriller from Jordan Montgomery’s first pitch. 

The 28-year-old left-hander slots into the middle of New York’s rotation, but tonight he gave his very best impersonation of an ace.  Through seven innings and ninety pitches Montgomery allowed just four hits while walking none and striking out eleven, a career high.  Yet the Yankees needed their starter to be that good, because Carlos Rodon, pitching for the White Sox, showed that the no-hitter he recorded against Cleveland in mid-April was no fluke.  Rodon fanned the first five Yankees he faced; the first time that has happened at the Stadium since Sandy Koufax turned the trick in the 1963 World Series.  In six innings of work, he surrendered just two hits, walked none, and struck out thirteen, like Montgomery a career high.  The duel between the two is already one for the Great Game’s record books, as the first contest in the modern era in which both starting pitchers recorded ten or more strikeouts while issuing no walks and allowing no runs. 

In the home half of the 7th, Gleyber Torres finally put New York on the board.  The shortstop was late on a 99 mile-per-hour four-seam fastball from reliever Michael Kopech, but he got just enough bat on the ball to slice it over the short porch in right field for a home run.  The lead proved short-lived though, as Chicago responded in the top of the 8th, plating the tying run off New York reliever Jonathan Loasiga.

So, we are here, top of the 9th, all tied up at 1-1.  After eight innings of gradually building tension, Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman jogs in from the bullpen and takes the mound.  Three of Chapman’s five pitches to Yermin Mercedes top 100 MPH, but only one finds the strike zone, and Mercedes trots to first with a leadoff walk.  A pinch runner replaces the slow DH, making plain Chicago’s intent to play for a single score.  Thus it’s no surprise when Leury Garcia lays down a sacrifice bunt to the first base side.  The little roller is well-placed, with Chapman the only Yankee with a chance to make a play.  He charges off the mound, bends to pick up the bunt, and promptly flubs it for an error, putting two runners on with no outs.

On Baseball-Reference.com, Chicago’s win percentage, which was an entirely appropriate 50% at the start of the inning, spikes up to 70%.  For Yankee fans in the stands, there is no talk of percentages, just a growing sense of dread.  Chapman stands atop the hill as leftfielder Andrew Vaughn steps into the batter’s box.  He looks at two fastballs, the first outside the strike zone, the second in it.  Then Chapman, as he has done with great success in 2021, mixes things up with an off-speed slider.  Vaughn swings, bat and ball make contact, and an already historic game becomes even more so.

The ball is hit on the ground, sharply and right at third baseman Gio Urshela.  He gloves it just as it leaves the infield dirt on its second hop.  Urshela takes three quick steps and plants his right foot on third base for the force out of pinch runner Billy Hamilton, who has barely had time to break from second.  Even as that right foot is landing, Urshela is pivoting on it, turning to fire the ball to second.  Rougned Odor is racing there from his defensive post and arrives just in time to take Urshela’s throw.  Only now starting his slide into second, Garcia is out by several feet.  By the time he skids into the bag, too late to influence the play, Odor has moved to Garcia’s inside and past him, and is sending the baseball on its way to first.  There Luke Voit awaits, fully extended to shorten, if only by a millisecond, the time until Odor’s throw arrives in his glove.  The play at first is close, but clear.  First base umpire Todd Tichenor emphatically signals the third out, and Voit pumps his fist.  On the far side of the infield Urshela does the same, and between them Chapman makes it a threesome of fist pumps even as a broad smile creases his face.

It’s a triple play, that rarest of defensive gems, one that takes far more time to describe than to execute.  The Baseball Almanac records it as the second of the season, and the 724th in the history of the Great Game.  If that sounds like a lot, consider that the first one on the list is dated May 13, 1876.  That is less than five per season on average, and the first by the Yankees at home in more than eight years.  It would be hyperbole to say that the roar of appreciation makes the Stadium shake, for there simply aren’t enough people in the stands to do that.  But as the Yankees prance to their dugout, 14,000 fans who have just gone from the depths of doubt to the heights of hysteria do their very best to sound like three times that number.

Only minutes later, in the bottom of the inning, Aaron Judge laces a leadoff single to center, Urshela follows with a single to right, and Torres grounds an RBI single to left to plate Judge with the winning run, because after the top half of the 9th, the only possible outcome of this contest is a New York victory.  Forever witnesses to history as it was made, we fans stream to the exits.  As we do so, it’s safe to say that behind every smiling face there is one common thought.  It really has been an exceptionally lovely evening for a ballgame.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2021

Old Dog Phil Has Learned A Few New Tricks

“The Legend of Bagger Vance” won’t be found on anyone’s list of top-10 sports movies.  Two decades later the 2000 film, which bombed at the box office, grossing only half its production costs, is worth noting mainly because of Jack Lemmon’s narration.  It proved to be Lemmon’s final role in a movie, albeit an uncredited one.  But perhaps the producers were on to something when they chose to shoot some of the golf scenes at the Kiawah Island Resort, home of the Ocean Course, the site of this year’s PGA Championship.  It turns out that on the windswept fairways of Pete Dye’s treacherous design, where the Atlantic Ocean serves as a constant backdrop, Hollywood endings really do happen.  What else can one call the victory by Phil Mickelson, who turns 51 next month, had not won on the PGA Tour since 2019, and didn’t have a top-20 finish at a Tour event in more than a year when he arrived at Kiawah?  Like every touring pro his age, Lefty had turned to the Champions Tour as the place to be if he was interested in cashing a winner’s check or lifting a trophy. 

When he teed it up at a regular Tour event, Mickelson would regularly declare that his game was “getting there” or “really close” or some other variation of promise and potential, and there were individual rounds here and there which lent credence to those pronouncements.  But tournaments are four rounds long, and as evidenced by the results cited above, Mickelson’s on-course performance for many months prior to the start of the season’s second major left him in the ranks of the afterthoughts on lists of potential contenders.  And if a cleareyed assessment of his golf was not enough to exclude him, there was the simple fact of his age.  No golfer over fifty had even won a major.  The closest to turning that improbable feat was Julius Boros, who captured his third major, the 1968 PGA Championship at Pecan Valley Golf Club in San Antonio, almost two months after his 48th birthday.

All that meant when Lefty opened with a 2-under par 70 on Thursday, three shots adrift of first round leader Corey Connors, the attention of fans and the media was elsewhere.  Brooks Koepka, who won back-to-back PGAs in 2018 and 2019 was between Mickelson and Connors at 3-under, as was rising young star Viktor Hovland, and defending champion Collin Morikawa matched Phil’s number.  Any of those three seemed a more likely candidate to still be in the picture come Sunday than did Mickelson.  Hovland and Morikawa didn’t contend, though the latter did put up a decent defense of his title, eventually finishing tied for eighth place.  Though with their brief time on the first page of the leader board both outdid pre-tournament favorites Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, who did well to make the cut.  That in turn bettered some very big names, like the top two players in the world rankings, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, both of whom were spectators for the weekend. 

Still, that Friday supposition proved at least partly prescient, because Koepka added scores of 71 and 70 to his opening 69, good for a 54-hole total of minus-6 and a spot in Sunday’s final pairing, where he’d make history were he to become the first golfer to win this title three times in four years.  But what was utterly unexpected was that when Koepka made his way to the Ocean Course’s 1st tee Sunday afternoon, his playing partner for the tournament’s final walk, and the leader after three rounds, was Mickelson.  Against all odds but in keeping with his consistently stated self-belief, Lefty had matched his opening score on Saturday, and in between the pair of 70s squeezed in a round one shot lower on Friday, all of which added up to a 7-under par total, with 18 holes remaining.

When Mickelson’s opening tee shot found the left rough, leading to an opening bogey, while Koepka’s split the fairway on the way to a birdie, their positions were immediately reversed.  Though the denouement was hours away, surely at that moment golf fans around the world uttered a collective sigh, thinking that here at last was the ending they had feared, when the antique nerves of the old warrior prove no match for the fearless resolve of youth.  But in fact, the drama had only begun.  Koepka immediately handed the lead back by making double-bogey to Mickelson’s birdie at the par-5 2nd hole, and that was just the second of five holes which produced a swing of two shots or more between the final two.  Meanwhile one group ahead, Louis Oosthuizen, having started two behind Mickelson and one back of Koepka, was motoring steadily along, seemingly ready to pounce if they both stumbled.  At least that was the case until the 13th, when an untimely double-bogey all but ended the 2010 Open Championship winner’s hopes for a second major title.

Though he showed no emotion that would prove the theory, the scores during the round indicate that it may have been Koepka, rather than Mickelson, who most felt the pressure.  A two-shot swing in his favor on the par-4 6th hole moved Koepka back into a tie, but he immediately bogeyed the 7th and fell two adrift when Mickelson birdied.  Three more bogeys on the first part of the back nine followed, after which Koepka was fighting as much for a spot high on the final leader board as for the Wanamaker Trophy.  In the end he could only complain about how on the final hole members of the huge crowd, which was of course hugely pro-Mickelson, had bumped his surgically repaired knee; a sadly typical comment from an enormously talented player who would clearly prefer to play all his golf in private.

Majors are played to their conclusion, and Phil is still Phil, so fans held their breath when he bogeyed the 13th and 14th holes.  But as was reported this week, in his dotage Mickelson has learned the value of staying in the moment and playing within himself.  He has taken up meditation, and throughout the tournament could be seen closing his eyes at length while standing behind his ball, visualizing the shot to come and not hitting until he was comfortable with his mindset.  Thinking his way around the golf course, he hit all the shots he needed to coming home, the last of which was a six-inch tap-in that made history.  It may have been a less dramatic style of play than what fans are used to from Phil, but the result was still pretty thrilling.  In fact, it would have made a good movie.

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