Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 3, 2022

The Real Powers In The Power 5

When this post was still just an idea, it began with “here we go again.”  But implicit in the familiar phrase is a suggestion that the event in question is returning after a period of absence.  That makes the wording inapt, for the recent history of college conference realignment is a story of nearly continuous movement of big-time collegiate athletic – which is to say, football – programs.  Looking back, what seemed in the moment like occasional periods of stability have really been only brief chances for the major players – athletic directors, university presidents, conference executives and television network heads – to catch their collective breath.

Once upon a very long time ago, collegiate sports were structured around conferences that were largely regional in nature, as evidenced by many of their names – Southwest Conference, Pac(ific) 8, then 10, and eventually 12, Southeastern Conference, and so on.  Whether identified by a region or its number of members, like the Big 10, the conferences fostered athletic rivalries that engaged both students and alumni, typically in multiple sports.  A lacrosse game between Ohio State and Michigan might not be played in front of 100,000 fans, but the competition was no less intense for the vastly smaller crowd.

Then in 1984, the Supreme Court tossed out the NCAA’s longstanding limitations on football broadcasts.  The more prominent conferences and especially their members that were football powers had chafed under the Association’s restrictions on both the number of games that could be shown nationally and the frequency of regional broadcasts during the season.  The 7-2 decision, authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, held the NCAA’s policy violated antitrust laws and freed conferences and individual schools to negotiate their own TV contracts.  The very next season the number of games broadcast jumped from 89 to almost 200.  While the tidal wave of college football games on television initially sent individual ratings down, the ruling strengthened the hand of conference directors and made possible the massive contracts for broadcast rights that now play an outsized role in college football.

At about the same time, the Texas-based Southwest Conference was gradually falling apart because so many of its members were constantly on NCAA probation and thus barred from appearing on television.  In 1990, scandal-free Arkansas departed for the Southeast Conference, and within a few years the other Southwest Conference members migrated to either the Big 8, leading it to be renamed the Big 12, the Western Athletic Conference, or the newly formed Conference USA.  In the same timeframe, not wanting to miss out on the TV riches of regional broadcast contracts being negotiated by newly empowered conferences, independents Pitt and Penn State joined the Big East and Big 10, respectively.  The age of realignment had begun.

While there have been multiple changes since, the one constant over the past thirty years has been the strengthening of the so-called Power 5 conferences.  The SEC, Big 10, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC have long been home to virtually every top-level football program except independent Notre Dame, and to many of the NCAA’s leading basketball programs as well.  But it now appears that realignment has moved into a new stage of consolidation that is reshaping even the familiar contours of the Power 5, as evidenced by last year’s joint decision by Texas and Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 in favor of the SEC, and this week’s announcement that UCLA and USC will decamp from the Pac-12 to become members of the Big 10.

Naming conventions aside, these moves will create two superconferences with 16 members each.  The Big 10, formed in 1896 as the Western Conference by seven universities all of which were within a few hours drive of Chicago, will stretch from sea to shining sea, from the two new California members near the beaches of Malibu, to New Jersey’s Rutgers, just a short commuter rail hop from the towers of Manhattan.  The SEC, formed in 1932 when the southernmost members of the old Southern Conference chose to form their own league, will cover that part of the country most enamored of college football.  Their size means these two conferences will account for essentially one-quarter of all the teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.  

More important, the Big 10 and SEC will count as members a dominant number of participants in the College Football Playoff.  The four-team CFP has been in place for eight season, so a total of thirty-two teams have played in it.  Twenty of those appearances have been by schools that are or soon will be in either the SEC or Big 10.  Since the ACC’s Clemson has six appearances of its own and despite a down year in 2021 should continue to be strong, that obviously leaves very little room for the now weakened Pac-12 and Big 12.

In the days since the announcements by UCLA and USC, that reality has led several commentators to predict the demise of one or both of those conferences.  Such a dire outcome seems unlikely, at least in its specificity.  Instead, the Pac-12 and Big 12 will refill their membership roles with schools from the mid-majors and other lesser leagues that are part of the Football Bowl Subdivision.  The Big 12 already responded to the departures of Texas and Oklahoma in this way, announcing that Cincinnati, Houston, BYU, and Central Florida will join the conference next year, and the Pac-12 will surely do the same.  But moves like that in turn marginalize conferences further down the collegiate sports food chain, and in the end, further conference consolidation appears inevitable.

That of course will be of no concern to the members of the two new superconferences.  With massive broadcast contracts, a lock on slots in the Football Playoff, and the lion’s share of athletic programs with large national followings, the Big 10 and SEC have set themselves apart from the rest of collegiate sports.  Now, perhaps, the music in the long-running game of college conference musical chairs can finally stop.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 30, 2022

Another Women’s Major, Another Lexi Implosion

Plenty of positive tales came out of last weekend’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the kind of stories one would expect to emerge from the third major tournament on the women’s golf calendar.  As already noted in this space, even before the event began the big news was the doubling of its purse, from $4.5 to $9 million.  Coupled with similarly dramatic increases in the prize money at the other women’s majors, the news was tangible proof of the hale health of the women’s tour.

Then there was the wire-to-wire victory by In Gee Chun, a performance that marked a comeback from years of physical and emotional turmoil for the 27-year-old Korean.  Chun won the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2016 Evian Championship early in her career, the latter coming just five weeks after her 22nd birthday.  Those major wins, along with ten victories in Korea and two more in Japan, catapulted her to third in the world rankings by the end of 2016.

Chun’s game then spiraled downward as she struggled with a back injury and serious depression.  In the nearly six years since that second major triumph in France, Chun had recorded just one win, in 2018.  Still fighting the loneliness of a golf tour that takes her very far from home, Chun arrived at Congressional Country Club at least in a better place physically and with her play trending in the right direction, though her name was hardly on anyone’s list of pre-tournament favorites. 

Her chances improved dramatically after she opened with an exquisite 8-under par 64.  The bravura round included a stretch of seven birdies in eight holes, moved Chun five shots clear of the field, and left her fellow competitors wondering if she had been playing a different course than the long and arduous rain-soaked track they had slogged around.  Then she nudged her lead one shot higher with a 69 on Friday to enter the weekend six ahead of Lydia Ko and Jennifer Kupcho.

But as Congressional dried out and the greens turned rock hard, Chun joined the field in struggling over the PGA’s final two rounds.  A 3-over 75 Saturday cut her lead in half, and a rough start to Sunday’s final round caused the rest of her advantage to quickly evaporate.  A front nine score of 40 might have presaged a total collapse after her dominant first two days.  Instead, Chun steadied herself and played the final nine holes in 1-under par, buoyed by a birdie at the 16th and a five-foot par saving putt at the last.  Although her card showed a second straight 75, it was good enough for a one shot win over a pair of pursuers and a long overdue return to the winner’s circle for In Gee Chun.

It was also a good week for the host club’s Blue Course, which looked very different than when fans last saw it.  Both as the occasional site of a weekly PGA Tour stop through 2016 and the venue for Rory McIlroy’s domination of the 2011 men’s U.S. Open, as well as for three earlier men’s majors, the Blue Course was a tree-lined parkland routing.  It was a tough if not especially memorable or visually arresting test.  But as part of a 2018 agreement with the PGA of America to host multiple championships over the succeeding two decades, the club committed to a major renovation of its signature layout.  That project reconfigured several holes, most notably the par-3 10th, but its most striking element was the removal of thousands of trees, opening up the course as it had never been before.   A round on the Blue Course once meant playing through narrow corridors of trees, especially on the back nine.  Now the club’s massive Spanish Revival clubhouse is visible from virtually every hole.

Still, despite the positive stories of increased prize money, a winner on the comeback trail, and a venerable golf course made new again, much of the focus since Sunday has been on a darker tale.  Such is the nature of reporting.  After all, Amtrak trains make more than 33,000 trips over more than 21,000 miles of track every day, but the safe journeys of the passengers on all those rail cars aren’t considered news.  A derailment, on the other hand, is certain to make headlines.  So it was in that vein that the biggest story of the Women’s PGA Championship was the Sunday afternoon train wreck that was Lexi Thompson’s closing nine.

Thompson was ten shots behind Chun after the opening round, and still trailed by three when the two went off together in Sunday’s final group.  While Chun stumbled out of the gate, Thompson scored two early birdies and walked off the 4th green with the lead, which she stretched to two shots at the turn.  But nine holes remained. 

She bunkered her approach on the par-4 12th, blasted out long, and made bogey.  On the 14th she stood over a simple two-foot putt for par, stabbed at it, and watched it roll well left of the hole.  Thompson bounced back with a birdie on 15, and still led by two with just three holes to play.  That changed, in gut wrenching fashion, within minutes.  After her second shot came up just short of the green at the par-5 16th, she bladed her pitch shot over the putting surface, powered a comeback putt way past the hole, and turned a likely birdie into another bogey.  Chun’s birdie on the same hole produced a two-shot swing, and Thompson promptly dropped out of the resulting tie on the 17th, where another short par putt never touched the hole.  One last birdie try on the final green was short and low from the moment it left Thompson’s putter.

After posting at least one Tour victory every season from 2013 through 2019, Thompson’s winless streak is now at 36 months and counting.  More worrisome than the simple lack of trophies is the growing number of ugly collapses such as Sunday’s.  While some have involved poor shotmaking, like the wayward drives and the pitch shot only a 20-handicapper could love that fans saw down the stretch at Congressional, the constant theme has been a bad case of the putting yips. At last year’s U.S. Women’s Open, a five shot lead with ten to play wasn’t enough of a cushion.  Yet Thompson is still ranked 6th in the world, a tribute to her consistency and raw talent.  She is the only player in top-10 without at least one win in the past year, much less over the equivalent of three full LPGA seasons.  And her commitment to growing the sport is as strong as ever.  While she declined to speak to the media after her latest heartbreak, Thompson patiently signed autographs for scores of kids waiting by Congressional’s clubhouse.

Because she has been part of the conversation about women’s golf for a decade and a half – Thompson qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 12, turned professional at 15, and notched her first LPGA victory at 16 – it is easy to forget that she is still just 27.  She’s but a year older than Scottie Scheffler, two years younger than Justin Thomas, and the same age as Matt Fitzpatrick, this year’s winners of men’s majors who are collectively hailed as part of the PGA Tour’s youth movement.  There is, in short, every reason to think that the best years of Lexi Thompson’s career still lie ahead, years that should include many more LPGA wins and happier Sundays at majors. 

But before that can happen, Thompson must find a way to overcome a roadblock that is more mental than physical.  Whether it’s changing putters, or coaches, or her putting grip, or tying her shoelaces in a double knot and carrying her spare change in a different pocket, as the fictional Roy McAvoy was advised to do as a cure for the shanks in Tin Cup, Thompson needs to change something so that the last two feet to the hole stop looking to her like 200 yards.  Her legion of fans will be pulling for her to overcome her golfing demons soon.  After all, train wrecks may make headlines, but they are never good news.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 26, 2022

The Dream Was Deferred, But It Never Died

The 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft originated from the studios of the MLB Network in Secaucus, New Jersey, a practice that began in 2009 when the league shifted television coverage from ESPN to its own network.  Those studios remained the Draft’s home until just last year, when its date was shifted from June to July to make it a part of the All-Star Game’s festivities.  Last year’s Draft was thus broadcast from Denver and next month’s will take place in L.A.  The process by which major league franchises select college and high school players is now easier to relocate from year to year and to integrate into the many other events of one of the busiest weeks for off-field activities on MLB’s calendar because it has been dramatically shortened, to twenty rounds from roughly twice that number.

Back in 2013 the Draft ran 39 rounds, the fewest in several years on either side of that season.  A total of 1,216 players were selected, though in retrospect, despite that sheer volume of baseball ability the Draft was not especially productive.  The Cubs and Dodgers chose a couple of future National League MVP’s, with Chicago taking Kris Bryant as the second overall pick and L.A. selecting Cody Bellinger in the fourth round.  In between those two, the Yankees netted current face of the franchise Aaron Judge as a compensatory pick – selections made between the first and second rounds – for having lost free agent Nick Swisher to Cleveland after New York extended him a qualifying offer.  But there were few other future All-Stars chosen that year, a major letdown after the previous Draft produced ten such players among the first twenty-two picks.

Given the lackluster nature of the 2013 Draft, it has always seemed fitting that the first overall selection that year was right-handed pitcher Mark Appel of Stanford.  The Houston Astros, then deep into their rebuilding plan – they had taken Carlos Correa with the top pick one year earlier – made Appel the face of the 2013 Draft, rewarding him with the televised donning of an Astros jersey with the number one, and, more significantly, a signing bonus of $6.35 million.  It was the second time Appel was chosen in the first round.  One year earlier, the Pirates made him the eighth pick, but he chose to return to Stanford for his senior year rather than sign with Pittsburgh.

For all the attention lavished on player drafts in all our major team sports, and despite all the advanced metrics now applied to every aspiring young player, the process of identifying talent that will thrive at the top level of any of our games, and then keeping that talent healthy, remains as much art as science.  There simply are no guarantees, as the results of the 2013 MLB Draft attest.  But one thing that is very close to a given is that the first overall pick in the Draft will have a major league career, even if it often turns out to not be quite as stellar as the scouts had predicted.  Excluding Henry Davis, last year’s top pick who is still working his way up the Pirates’ farm system, only three players chosen number one since baseball’s draft began in 1965 have failed to reach the majors.  On that short and unhappy list are Steven Chilcott (Mets, 1966), Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991), and Appel. 

In each case, injuries played a key role in ruining the great expectations that were placed on the shoulders of these young athletes.  Chilcott’s occurred on the field, while Taylor’s was the result of an off-season altercation.  Both first stunted and eventually ended promising baseball careers.  The sad tale appeared to have repeated itself more recently with Appel.  After his made-for-TV moment, and after agreeing to contract terms with Houston and depositing that bonus check, Appel reported to the team’s short-season rookie league affiliate in upstate New York.  Not surprisingly, given his lofty status, Appel made just two starts for the Tri-City Valley Cats before being promoted one rung up the minor league ladder to the Astros’ Single-A squad in the Midwest League.  There he joined Correa, making a bit of minor league history as the first two top picks to play together on the same farm team. 

During that brief first year, and again in 2014 and 2015, as Appel moved ever closer to the majors, he often displayed flashes of the ability that had turned heads in college, but also struggled with his control.  In the winter of 2015, after a season in which he reached Triple-A only to post a pedestrian 4.48 ERA, the Astros gave up on their prized draft pick and included Appel in a package of prospects traded to the Phillies for reliever Ken Giles. 

It was in Philadelphia’s minor league system that disaster struck.  In 2016 he went on the Injured List with a shoulder problem, then hurt his elbow while rehabbing, resulting in season-ending surgery.  The following season the shoulder issue returned, putting Appel on the shelf for two months.  By the end of 2017, the Phillies slapped the dreaded “designated for assignment” label on the former number one pick.  When no other club claimed him on waivers, Appel appeared headed back for another season of minor league struggles.  Before that could happen, just before Spring Training in 2018, weary of fighting through the constant pain in his shoulder and elbow, Appel announced he was “stepping away” from the Great Game.

But Mark Appel is today’s subject because against all odds, his baseball story didn’t end there, On Saturday, nine years after he was drafted, and more than four years after walking away from the sport, his name was removed from the short and unhappy list referenced above.  With a call-up to the Phillies from Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Mark Appel now wears a major league uniform.

Within months of his February 2018 announcement, Appel knew he missed the game and began to contemplate what it would take to get back.  He underwent another surgery that fall and began a long rehab, a slow and expensive process that Appel readily acknowledges might not have been possible without the financial cushion of his original signing bonus.  Since he had never formally retired, the Phillies retained his contract rights and agreed to give him another minor league shot last year.  The results, with Appel pitching in his customary starting role, were not great.  That might have been the end of any comeback hopes, but Philadelphia’s coaching staff decided to try him as a reliever.  This year, coming out of the bullpen, Appel has excelled – a 5-0 record and 1.61 ERA in 19 appearances for Lehigh Valley, with 24 strikeouts and just 8 walks over 28 innings.  At the end of the week, with the Phillies on the West Coast and setup man Connor Brogdon going on the COVID-19 Injured List, Appel’s long, long wait came to an end.

On Saturday he stepped onto a ball field as a member of a big league team’s roster for the first time.  Though the moment came long after it had been expected to, back on that June afternoon in Secaucus nine years ago, the now 30-year-old rookie was finally right where everyone always knew he belonged.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 23, 2022

The Positive Side Of Money In Golf

Over the past few months, so many words have been written about the nexus of golf and money – including plenty of them in this space – that a reader might understandably quail at the prospect of navigating through several hundred more on the topic.  But unlike the reams of reporting and countless opinion pieces on LIV Golf, the lure of Saudi cash, and the future of the PGA Tour, what follows is a wholeheartedly positive account of the significance and symbolism of a major investment in professional golf.

On Thursday at Congressional Country Club, in a tony suburb of the nation’s capital, the Women’s PGA, the third of five women’s majors, got underway.  First played in 1955 and for many years thereafter as the LPGA Championship, the event received a major boost in 2015 when the women’s tour and the PGA of America announced a partnership that elevated the tournament to a status alongside the men’s PGA Championship.  Shortly thereafter, the multinational accounting and consulting firm KPMG became the title sponsor, giving the event its current branded name of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

In its long history the tournament’s trophy has been lifted by most of the big names in women’s golf.  Mickey Wright, Nancy Lopez, and Patty Sheehan all won multiple times, as did Juli Inkster and Annika Sorenstam in more contemporary times.  Recent winners include Inbee Park, Canadian star Brooke Henderson, and, last year at Atlanta Athletic Club, Nelly Korda.  When she pulled away from third-round co-leader Lizette Salas over the final 18 holes to match the tournament record for lowest score in relation to par at 19-under, Korda’s third victory of the 2021 season and first career major elevated her to the top of the women’s world rankings.  It also enriched her bank account by $675,000 of the $4.5 million purse, which made the Women’s PGA the fourth richest stop on last year’s tour, tied with the Evian Championship and trailing only the U.S. and British Women’s Opens, and season-ending Tour Championship.

But this week, even as the field was becoming acquainted with Congressional’s layout, KPMG, the LPGA and the PGA of America announced this year’s purse would double, to $9 million, which brings to 300% the increase since 2014, the last year before the women’s tour partnered with the professional services giant and the PGA.  And the dramatic increase in prize money is not limited to just this week on the LPGA’s calendar.  The purse for the U.S. Women’s Open, contested three weeks ago at Pine Needles, nearly doubled this year, to $10 million from $5.5 million in 2021.  July’s Evian Championship is offering $6.5 million, $2 million more than last year, and in August the Women’s British Open will wrap up the major schedule with a $1 million increase in its purse, to $6.8 million.  The season’s first big tournament, now known as the Chevron Championship, also sharply increased its prize fund, going from $3.1 million to $5 million, and the Tour Championship will be played for an added $2 million on top of its already rich $5 million purse.

Just three years ago, Jeongeun Lee6 became the first woman to earn $1 million for winning a LPGA event when she in her rookie season she became the unlikely U.S. Open champion with a 3-shot victory over a trio of pursuers at the Country Club of Charleston.  This season the winners at the Tour Championship and four of the five majors will pocket at least that much.  In total, LPGA members will play for more than $93 million, a 33% increase over 2019, the last year played without changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Those numbers still pale in comparison to the PGA Tour, which in turn is in its own uncertain struggle against the mountains of Saudi cash being spent on the LIV Tour without regard to any financial return.  As all golf fans know, more than a handful of recognizable names who are now former PGA Tour players have signed contracts worth more than this year’s entire LPGA schedule simply to show up at LIV events for the next few years. 

Still, for the elite female golfers of the world the figures are stunningly good news.  Much of the credit goes to Michael Whan, now the CEO of the USGA.  When he took over as LPGA commissioner prior to the 2010 season, Whan inherited a tour that was shrinking in both events and dollars.  That first season the players on the new commissioner’s tour played 24 events, the fewest in nearly four decades, competing for just over $41 million in prize money.  This year the LPGA’s schedule spans the globe with 34 tournaments at which women golfers are chasing far more than twice as much money as was on offer little more than a decade ago.  Aside from the obvious opportunity for the best women players to earn a very good living, the LPGA’s success has helped it grow its developmental Epson Tour and allowed it to assist in stabilizing the finances of its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, the Ladies European Tour. 

Even in the wake of last week’s dramatic and entertaining U.S. Open, it is impossible to predict what the landscape of men’s professional golf will look like a year from now, when the USGA takes its national championship across the country to Los Angeles Country Club.  Will the Saudi sportswashing effort continue to bleed the roster of the PGA Tour, or will the schedule changes and increased prize money at select tournaments announced this week by Tour commissioner Jay Monahan blunt the allure of big paydays untethered from the annoying necessity of actual competition?  For that matter, will the USGA, and Augusta National and the PGA of America before it, and the R&A after, welcome LIV Golf members to the fields of the 2023 men’s majors?  No serious observer can claim to know the answer to those questions.  But golf fans can take some solace in knowing that the LPGA is charting a path of dramatic growth and continued success.  On the women’s side of the ancient game, all the new money looks to be well spent.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 20, 2022

Fitzpatrick Makes History At The Open Golf Needed

It is silly at best, and the harsher term “presumptuous” is probably more accurate, to say the men’s United States Open turned on a single shot.  After all, from his opening drive off the 1st tee early Thursday afternoon until his final tap-in on the 18th green at the end of the weekend, winner Matt Fitzpatrick struck his ball 274 times, six less than par for the four circuits of The Country Club’s sprawling composite Open Course and one fewer than joint runners-up Will Zalatoris and Scottie Scheffler.  Just in Fitzpatrick’s final round on Sunday, there were multiple shots that stand out as significant mileposts on his road to victory.

Early in the round, on the uphill 301-yard 5th hole, a short par-4 that tempted the field to go for the green off the tee while severely punishing those whose efforts to do so proved errant, Fitzpatrick unleashed a tee shot that sailed dead straight up the slope and landed just shy of the putting surface before bouncing safely onto the green.  The daring gamble, after fellow competitor Zalatoris had laid up in the fairway, rewarded Fitzpatrick with an easy two putt birdie that at that point moved him into a tie for the lead with Scheffler.

And surely his putt on the 13th green is worthy of mention.  Fitzpatrick’s approach to the par-4 carried to the back of the green, more than 48 feet from the hole.  The long downhill slider to the right was a stern enough test if the goal was simply to hit a good lag and move on with a par.  But Fitzpatrick’s putt met a higher standard, curling down the slope with firm intent until it found the bottom of the cup for an improbable birdie. 

Then there was the downhill 15th hole, with its fairway bisected by the club’s main entry road from Brookline’s Clyde Street.  Fitzpatrick had already made history on the long par-4, closing out Oliver Goss to win the 2013 U.S. Amateur on the 15th green.  As recounted in this space all those years ago, the 18-year-old Fitzpatrick sealed his 4&3 victory in the 36-hole final by sinking a testing putt for par to become the first Englishman in more than a century to win this country’s top amateur tournament.

Perhaps fueled by that happy memory, Fitzpatrick birdied the 15th both Friday and Saturday, but his chance for a third red number appeared to evaporate when his tee shot sailed way right.  However the golf gods, who play a role in every championship, knew that the young Englishman and this par-4 have a special bond.  The tee shot was so far offline that it cleared the deep rough and landed on grass that had been trampled down by thousands of spectators.  From a clean lie, Fitzpatrick hit his approach to 20 feet, and then calmly rolled in a birdie putt that moved him two clear of Zalatoris and Scheffler. 

Any one of those shots might have been the defining moment of this year’s national championship, as could scores of others made over the full four days, not just by the winner, or even the two who shared second place, but also by Hideki Matsuyama or Collin Morikawa or Rory McIlroy, each of whom came tantalizingly close to adding another major title to his golfing resume.  But precisely because so many individual moments comprise a golf tournament, and because history demands a headline, we inevitably pick out one, even as we know that doing so is somewhere between laughable and arrogant.

Or, in this case at least, perhaps not.  For the 2022 U.S. Open offered a rollercoaster of emotions from start to finish.  Witness Scheffler’s Saturday.  He started the third round two shots behind Morikawa and Joel Dahmen, stormed through The Country Club’s front side to claim a two shot lead, then gave it all back on the inward nine, ending the day right where he began, two adrift of the leaders, who by that time were Fitzpatrick and Zalatoris.

Scheffler’s adventure was by no means unique.  U.S. Open conditions and a brute of a golf course tested not just the skill but the temperament of every player in the field, right up to the end.  Given that, plus the constant drama and frequent leader board changes, perhaps it is entirely fair to say that the tournament’s defining moment came on the 72nd hole.

Fitzpatrick would need that two shot edge he earned with his birdie on 15, for Zalatoris rolled in a birdie putt of his own one hole later after a brilliant tee shot to less than 6 feet on the par-3, and just ahead Scheffler also crept closer with a birdie of his own on the 17th.  The Masters champion had a look at another birdie on 18, but his 25-footer slid by the high side of the hole. 

That left the final pairing, and Fitzpatrick’s narrow advantage was in jeopardy when his tee shot on the 18th turned left into a deep fairway bunker.  With Zalatoris safely in the middle of the fairway, wedge in hand, the leader faced a shot he had long considered his weakness.  The fairway bunker play was from 156 yards and needed to get up quickly to clear not only the high lip of the trap, but a mounded island of grass in the middle of the bunker, just ahead of Fitzpatrick’s ball.  Walking to his own ball, Zalatoris looked at Fitzpatrick’s lie and, as he said later, thought it would be “pretty ballsy” to try to reach the green.

But that is exactly what the young Englishman did.  With veteran caddy Billy Foster steadying him, Fitzpatrick set aside his doubts about hitting from fairway bunkers.  In the crucible of the final hole of a major championship, he struck a career-defining iron that launched out of the sand, easily carrying the mound and lip ahead, sailing into the sky and arcing down onto the green, where it settled 18 feet above the hole.

The drama wasn’t done.  Zalatoris fought to the very end, putting his wedge approach inside of Fitzpatrick’s, and just missing a valiant birdie try that would have forced a playoff, after Fitzpatrick safely two-putted for par.  The 25-year-old is less than two years removed from the developmental Korn Ferry Tour and now already has three second place finishes at majors.  He appears destined for multiple grand golfing moments, but this day’s moment had already passed.

When it came, after so many others had vied for attention, it belonged to the soft-spoken young Englishman who is now just the third player, after Jack Nicklaus and Juli Inkster, to win both the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open on the same golf course.  Fitzpatrick is one of the most popular players on the PGA Tour with his fellow golfers, as was evident in their response to his win.  McIlroy came out of the locker room to hug him, and Zalatoris graciously told Fitzpatrick’s parents, “if I had to lose to anyone, I’m glad it was your son.”  Perhaps the surest sign of all was the tweet from PGA Tour curmudgeon Tyrrell Hatton, who began his congratulatory message with “I’m not crying, you’re crying!!!!!”

Crying too was caddy Foster, who has looped for four decades, including for the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, and Thomas Bjorn.  But Sunday was the first time he got to take home an 18th hole pin flag from a major tournament.  It was the capstone of a day on which it felt good to be a fan of golf, a sport that for months has been about anger and greed.  There will be more of that to come, of course.  But thanks to Matt Fitzpatrick, his pursuers, and a golf course that specializes in historic moments, for one weekend at least the talk among fans was not about Saudi money or obnoxious greed, but about birdies and bogeys, and a shot for the ages.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 16, 2022

Memories Abound, With More On The Way

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be attending the men’s United States Open this weekend.  The next post will be on Monday, one day later than usual.  Thanks for your support.

Though it might seem odd, while walking the layout at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, as 141 professionals and 15 amateurs make their final preparations for the 122nd Men’s U.S. Open Championship, what comes to mind is a movie.  Even more unexpected is that the film scene running through one’s head is not from “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the well-received 2005 flick about amateur Francis Ouimet’s stunning victory on these grounds in the 1913 national championship, a win that ignited golf’s popularity in this country. 

Rather it is from an older movie about a different sport, the classic 1989 fantasy “Field of Dreams.”  That film climaxes with a soliloquy that many baseball fans know by heart, even though it is merely a bit of movie script.  James Earl Jones, in the role of reclusive author Terrence Mann, speaks of the cultural influence of the Great Game, and says in part, “The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”  That is the recurring thought, for one is indeed tempted to try and physically fan away the images of golfing history that appear at so many locations around this ancient venue.

One materializes right over there, just across the fairway of the 17th hole, in the crook of the dogleg on the par-4 hole.  Populating that hard turn to the left, as seen from the tee, are four bunkers waiting to capture drives that arrogantly seek too much of a shortcut across the bend in the fairway.  One of those bunkers did its defensive best against England’s Harry Vardon in 1913, swallowing his attempt to intimidate the 20-year-old Ouimet.  By that September Vardon had earned the title “champion golfer of the year” five times with triumphs in the Open Championship and had claimed this country’s national prize in 1900.  He and fellow Jerseyman Ted Ray were expected to outclass any of the American entrants, especially a spindly amateur who first traversed the course as a shortcut to school from his home directly across Clyde Street from the 17th. 

But there was Ouimet, tied with the English pair after three rounds, and still tied after all 72 holes of regulation, forcing an 18-hole playoff.  By the time the threesome came to the penultimate hole, Ouimet was at even par for the round and clinging to a one-shot advantage over Vardon, with Ray effectively eliminated at plus-5.  With the honor on the tee from a birdie four holes earlier, Vardon launched his drive down the left side and over the trees, which in that day blocked any view of the landing area.  Ouimet knew that if Vardon’s ball had carried the bunkers, it was likely sitting in the middle of the fairway with just a short pitch to the green and a possible birdie.  But the local hero and Eddie Lowery, his 10-year-old caddy, chose not to take the bait.  Ouimet took the longer route, hitting safely straight down the middle of the fairway, and his potential disadvantage turned golden when the golfers arrived at the landing area to find Vardon’s ball deep in one of the sand traps while Ouimet’s was sitting pretty on the short grass.  Minutes later it was the local amateur scoring the crucial birdie while England’s finest recorded a bogey that all but decided the outcome.

On the same green where those scores were made, more recent history arises.  There is Justin Leonard facing a 40-foot putt for birdie, with many other members of the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team looking on.  It is the final day of the biennial matches, one that began with the host team in a deep hole, trailing the visiting Europeans 10-6.  No team had ever won the Cup from such a deficit at the start of the Sunday singles matches.  Yet despite being clad in the ugliest golf shirts in Ryder Cup history, the Americans rallied, winning the first seven matches to storm into the lead.  Still when Europe captured a couple of late games, the outcome remained in doubt.  Team USA needed Leonard, who had trailed Jose Maria Olazabal on the front nine, to at least tie his match.  The American whittled the Spaniard’s advantage bit by bit over the inward nine, until the two were knotted on the 17th green.   That set up the moment that seemed so utterly unlikely when the day began, as Leonard rolled in his cross-country birdie effort, setting off a wild celebration.  When order was eventually restored and Olazabal proved unable to match his opponent from 25 feet, the U.S. comeback was complete.

Other memories arise all across the rolling property.  A long walk from the 17th is the composite hole formed for major championships by having contestants play down the 1st fairway of the Primrose Nine to the 2nd green of The Country Club’s newest nine holes, if a routing opened in 1927 can be called such.  The hole will feature as the 13th this year, but for the 1963 U.S. Open it played as number 11.  Julius Boros safely navigated it in par during that year’s playoff, while Jacky Cupit made bogey and Arnold Palmer returned a disastrous triple.  And yes, there they are now, the crowd of fans who proudly called themselves Arnie’s Army.  Suddenly deflated, they trudge after their hero to the next tee, knowing that his dream of a second national title has just come a cropper.

More history will be made this weekend of course.  The old course, built decades before managing massive crowds of spectators was a factor in golf course design, will be a mob scene in places.  At those spots most fans in attendance will see less than someone sitting at home.  But there are two aspects of The Country Club that even the finest high-definition flatscreen won’t convey. 

The first is its sheer size.  Such an expansive layout dedicated to golf, along with the club’s other recreations – it was founded, after all, a decade before the first holes were laid out, with a focus on horse racing – could never be developed in a modern urban setting.  Yet The Country Club’s rambling yellow clubhouse is little more than six miles as the crow flies, or about a two-hour drive in typical Boston traffic, from Fenway Park, Faneuil Hall, the Boston Common, and other landmarks in the heart of the city.  That speaks to the age of a club that was one of the five founding members of the USGA.  In 1882, what are now the densely packed neighborhoods of Brookline, Chestnut Hill, and West Roxbury that surround The Country Club were but country outposts, and a multi-hour trip from the downtown of a much smaller Boston was not a joke about traffic jams but the reality of rural roads and the transportation options of the time.

The course’s other notable characteristic is its rugged simplicity.  Oh sure, viewers will see the rock outcroppings and knee-high fescue.  But many will miss the ragged edges of the bunkers and the sloping false fronts of several greens, and, because television flattens landscapes, fans at home will not appreciate the steep hills and canted fairways that heavily affect club choice while producing frequent blind shots.  The Country Club is a reminder that long before golf course architects shaped the land to their desires, a links simply reflected the ground on which it was built.  It is golf in its natural state, a place where memories live forever.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 12, 2022

No Fairy Tale Finish At Big Sandy

It was only five weeks ago, when for a moment horse racing fans dared to dream, when a thoroughbred fairy tale coming true was suddenly a very real prospect.  Rich Strike had just powered along the rail at Churchill Downs to stun the horse racing world with a Kentucky Derby victory as an 80-1 longshot.  The unheralded horse wasn’t even in the Derby until the day before the race, when Ethereal Road was scratched just minutes before the final field was set.  Rich Strike was in Louisville as the first alternate on the points list based on performances in specific races over eight months leading up to the first Saturday in May.  The horse’s only victory in seven previous starts was as a 2-year-old in a claiming race that resulted in Rich Strike becoming part of Richard Dawson’s RED-TR Racing stable.  With Eric Reed doing the training and Sonny Leon in the irons, Rich Strike managed a third-place finish in one prep race and was fourth best in another, earning just enough points to make the trip to Churchill Downs worthwhile, on the remote chance that a spot in the field opened up.

When it did, the horse few bettors cared about ran a brilliant race, following the plan of its equally unheralded trainer and guided by a successful but little-known jockey.  Reed and Leon are veteran horsemen, but because each has focused his career on smaller Midwestern tracks, where there is typically more action at the adjoining casino than at the horse racing betting windows, they were easy to dismiss, just like their mount.  But as all the famous entrants withered under a blistering early pace, Leon followed Reed’s instructions to lay back and hug the rail.  When a late opportunity arose, the jockey guided Rich Strike through the maze of tiring contenders before swinging back to the inside for a final stunning drive to the finish.

That was the moment when fans could imagine a dramatic equine Cinderella story, in which the horse and its unassuming connections raced into history by capturing the Preakness and Belmont, thus becoming the 14th and unquestionably least likely winner of the Triple Crown.  It would be an enormous boost to horse racing and bring a flood of positive publicity to a sport long dogged by problems of its own making.

Dreams though, are usually ephemeral, hard to recall in detail even shortly after one awakes.  And fairy tales are just children’s stories, fictions created to entertain impressionable minds, not the stuff of hard-bitten reality.  The moment passed, as almost always happens.  Within days of Rich Strike’s great triumph, owner Dawson announced that the horse would not run in the Preakness, pointing instead towards the Belmont, in keeping with the plan he and Reed had put together before the impossible happened at Churchill Downs.

Gone in an instant was that longed-for wave of feel-good stories, and so too was much of the interest, for all but the most avid racing fans, in the final two legs of this year’s Triple Crown.  Still, the lack of a compelling story didn’t mean the races were cancelled.

At Pimlico two weeks after the Derby, a field of nine was led to the wire by Early Voting.  The second choice of bettors at 5-1, the winner loped along comfortably behind the early speed of longshot Armagnac before moving to the lead on the far turn and then holding off favorite Epicenter’s late charge to win by a length and a quarter.  Winning trainer Chad Brown and owner Seth Klarman had opted to pass on the Derby, holding Early Voting for the race in Maryland.  It was a reprise of the scenario they followed in 2017, with equal success, when their colt Cloud Computing captured the race.

Then on Saturday, at the massive Long Island oval appropriately dubbed “Big Sandy,” the Belmont Stakes, oldest of the three Triple Crown races, was run for the 154th time.  A small field of seven colts and one filly went to the post.  Rich Strike was there as promised, but Early Voting was not, depriving racing fans who barely more than a month ago had been imagining an historic spring for their sport from even the small consolation prize of a faceoff between the winners of the Derby and the Preakness.

Perhaps that was just as well, for Rich Strike’s effort was doomed from the start.  Trainer Reed had said he did not want to see his horse running last, but that was exactly where Rich Strike was as the field rounded the first turn.  There was little improvement from there, with the Derby winner eventually coming home in 6th place.  After the race Reed took responsibility for the poor showing, admitting while utterly failing to explain his misplaced logic, that he had told jockey Leon to keep Rich Strike in the middle of the track, despite the horse’s documented preference for the rail.

Many lengths ahead of Rich Strike on Belmont Park’s home stretch, victory went to 3-1 favorite Mo Donegal.  The Todd Pletcher-trained horse took control at the beginning of the long final straightaway and easily bested filly stablemate Nest.  It was a bit of redemption after Mo Donegal earned the third most points in the Kentucky Derby qualifying races, only to be saddled with the dreaded inside post for that race.  Despite the starting handicap, Mo Donegal fought back to finish 5th at Churchill, presaging better races to come.

With the ideal story taken away, media coverage of the Preakness and Belmont focused on the local connections at both races.  Early Voting’s owner Klarman grew up three blocks from Pimlico, and this year’s race was run on his 65th birthday.  Mo Donegal’s trainer Pletcher is based in New York, and Mike Repole, the owner of both Mo Donegal and runner-up Nest, calls himself “Mike from Queens” and borrows the blue and orange of the New York Mets uniforms for the colors of his silks. 

But Klarman is a billionaire hedge fund investor, and Repole is a wildly successful entrepreneur who figured out just how valuable water can be, given a few additives and the right marketing.  He founded and eventually sold both Vitaminwater and Bodyarmor for a combined $9.7 billion.  Brown and Pletcher, the preferred trainers for these two, are among the elite in their industry, as are brothers Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz, Jr. who rode Early Voting and Mo Donegal to their victories.  They all reside at the top of horse racing’s pyramid, the kind of owners and trainers and jockeys one expects to see in the winner’s circle at Triple Crown races. 

Though not so long ago there was a moment, just a moment, when a very different story, involving a horse and trainer and jockey from the base of that pyramid seemed to be more than just a dream.  Perhaps the lesson for this increasingly fringe sport is not how far apart those two extremes are, but how very close.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 9, 2022

LIV Grows Bank Accounts, Not Golf

The RBC Canadian Open teed off Thursday morning at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Etobicoke, the one-time city that was incorporated into Toronto a quarter-century ago.  Thanks to COVID, it is the first time Canada’s national men’s golf championship has been played since 2019, which alone guarantees large crowds and an enthusiastic reception for the PGA Tour pros.  On Friday the LPGA’s ShopRite Classic begins in New Jersey, one of just two stops the women’s tour will make this year in the heavily populated northeastern United States.  Meanwhile, almost four thousand miles away, the top men’s and women’s tours in Europe – the DP World Tour and Ladies European Tour – are staging a unique joint event on the west coast of Sweden.  One of the co-leaders of the 156-player field after the first round of the Volvo Car Scandinavian Mixed was both a woman and an amateur, Carolina Melgrati of Italy, who just finished her freshman year at the University of Arizona.

There are, in short, plenty of stories worthy of attention from golf fans and those in the media who make their living covering the sport.  Inevitably though, much of that latter group’s focus on Thursday was on the Centurion Club in London, where a tournament for the obnoxiously greedy got underway with an afternoon shotgun start.  Perhaps that method of starting the event, so familiar to weekend golfers who take part in charity fundraisers held throughout the summer at courses all around the world, is what the LIV Golf Invitational Series means when its marketing materials boast about “growing the game.”  Surely a tournament that begins the same way as a local 18-hole scramble will be deemed relatable and attractive to millions of potential new golf fans.

The truth, which no amount of marketing can disguise, is that the LIV tour’s sole purpose has nothing to do with expanding golf’s appeal.  For what exactly is appealing about a group of golfers, many of them already extremely wealthy, volunteering as money launderers for a nation-state willing to spend whatever it takes to manufacture a positive image?  From Formula One racing to Newcastle United of the English Premier League to heavy investment in eSports, Saudi Arabia has poured money into various athletic endeavors through the country’s Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund controlled by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, the nation’s de facto ruler.  But that track record doesn’t make the scope of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the LIV tour any less breathtaking.

Like the six events scheduled to follow on LIV’s 2022 schedule, the London tournament features a $25 million purse, payable to a field of just 48 golfers who earn their pay over only 54 holes, not the usual 72.  Those seven tournaments are to be capped off by a championship event that will offer $80 million in prize money.  In contrast, the field in Toronto is playing for $8.7 million, and more than half the golfers will go home empty-handed after missing the 36-hole cut.  There will be no cut at the Centurion Club, and the player who finishes last will win $120,000.  With the richer purse at the final event, scheduled for late October in Miami, a LIV Series member could play just 24 rounds of very bad golf, spread out over five months, and claim roughly $1 million in Saudi riches after finishing dead last in every tournament.

As large as those numbers are, they don’t represent the serious money, which has been reserved for appearance fees going to the players with name recognition.  While no contract amounts have been confirmed, neither have any of the parties denied reports that Dustin Johnson’s five-year contract with the LIV Series is worth $125 million, or that Bryson DeChambeau’s soon to be announced deal carries a similar value, or that those two combined barely match Phil Mickelson’s reported guarantee of $200 million.  All that money, along with smaller but still eye-popping payouts to Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Kevin Na, Sergio Garcia and assorted others, is simply for showing up.  The checks will be good whether the recipients win a tournament or fail to break 80 in a single round.

With numbers like that being heavily discussed the last week or two, it’s easy to forget that at the professional level golf remains a lesser sport.  It’s appeal rests largely on the broad popularity of the game as an active participation sport for fans.  There are many times the number of duffers out on golf courses on any given weekend than there are middle aged men and women playing in local baseball, football, or basketball leagues.  But with annual revenues of just over $1 billion, the PGA Tour is small compared to the NFL, the NBA, or MLB.

So as a business model, the LIV Series makes no sense.  But it doesn’t have to, because the PIF isn’t pouring money into golf and other sports as a business.  It’s doing so to get dupes like 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell to say, as he did this week, that he was “proud” to help the Saudis “use the game of golf to get to where they want to be.”  The comment was made moments after McDowell referred to the murder of a Washington Post journalist as the Khashoggi “situation,” a remarkably polite substitute for the more accurate “execution and dismemberment.” 

As the LIV tour’s field was setting off down the Centurion Club’s fairways following Thursday’s shotgun start, the PGA Tour announced that it had banned the 17 players who defected to tee it up in London from future participation in Tour events.  Those who perhaps thought they might escape punishment by resigning their Tour membership were included, as all PGA Tour events are barred from offering those golfers sponsor’s exemptions.  It was exactly what commissioner Jay Monahan had promised to do, so it came as no surprise.  Nor did the decision of yet another corporate sponsor to cut ties with a player headed to the LIV Series – on Thursday Rocket Mortgage canceled its deal with DeChambeau.

Yet while welcome, actions like these could be overwhelmed by the allure of Saudi cash.  One can bet that Monahan is spending long hours listening to the concerns of the Tour’s top young stars, when he isn’t jawboning the likes of USGA CEO Michael Whan and Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley.  All of the top ten male golfers in the world, along with those close to that line, have so far remained vocally loyal to the Tour.  At age 33, Rory McIlroy is the oldest of that group.  He and 29-year-old Justin Thomas, who just won his second major, have been especially strong in defense of the PGA Tour.  McIlroy and Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm and Cam Smith, Viktor Hovland and Patrick Cantlay, Colin Morikawa and Sam Burns – these are the players fans pay to see.  Their loyalty, along with that of Tiger Woods, remains Monahan’s strongest defense.

But the trump card is held by those in charge of the four majors, none of which are run by the PGA Tour.  Whan and Ridley, along with the heads of the R&A and PGA of America, must decide how they will respond to the LIV Series.   This week the USGA said LIV players who had qualified would be welcome next week at the U.S. Open, but specifically left open the possibility of changing the criteria for the 2023 tournament at Los Angeles Country Club.  Given the short timeframe, it was a legally sensible decision, though notable for its careful wording.  Still, if the entities behind golf’s majors ultimately decide this isn’t their fight, then in time one, or three, or more of the names listed as stalwarts in the previous paragraph may succumb to the succubus of Saudi cash.  But if, like access to the PGA Tour, the door to the game’s majors is closed to those who have chosen riches over principle, then in time the LIV Series will be remembered as just the latest example of Greg Norman going into the final round with a big lead, only to see it all disappear. When that happens, golf will still have many stories worthy of attention.     

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 6, 2022

Brunch Ball In The Bronx

The Yankees and Tigers played baseball Sunday morning.  Despite the predictions of some, and perhaps the hopes of a few, the world did not end.

In the early days of this year’s delayed Spring Training, MLB announced a deal with NBCUniversal to air 18 regular season games both this year and next exclusively on the network’s Peacock streaming service.  Under the agreement, the games all start at either 11:30 a.m. or noon east coast time, and the contest in the Bronx was scheduled for the earlier first pitch.  The $30 million a year NBC is paying for the rights to this tiny fraction of MLB’s schedule barely moves the needle on the league’s $10 billion annual revenue stream.  The deal is important not for financial reasons, but because it represents an effort to broaden the sport’s media availability, as do similar agreements between MLB and the streaming services of Amazon and Apple. 

Whoever first said, “change is hard” was obviously a baseball fan.  For in the Great Game, change of any kind is greeted by some fans with the same enthusiasm as a warm beer in the bleachers on a steamy summer afternoon.  The curmudgeons are no less curmudgeonly when, as in this case, the “something new” is unrelated to the actual game played between the foul lines. 

The howls of protest that greeted news of MLB’s streaming deals came primarily from fans used to watching most of their favorite team’s games on that franchise’s local cable network.  These regional sports networks typically carry the bulk of a team’s schedule, save for games that are picked up as part of MLB’s national broadcast contracts.  In turn, those agreements have always been with major outlets such as ESPN or Fox Sports, networks almost certainly included in a subscriber’s monthly package of channels available through the cable box sitting near his or her flatscreen.  Still, even the minor inconvenience of searching for a different channel has been enough to draw the ire of some of the sport’s faithful.  And woe is the innocent who happens to be nearby if such a fan discovers that the availability of the desired contest is affected by local blackout rules. 

Imagine then, the response of this cohort of baseball aficionados upon learning in March that access to some games this season would require a separate subscription involving a technology unrelated to said cable box.  The bitterness that followed brought to mind the original outraged response by some to the designated hitter rule, anger that evolved into a stern resentment still harbored in a few quarters even as that innovation approaches its fiftieth anniversary.  The early start times for the games on Peacock, reportedly inspired by positive viewer response to MLB and NFL games broadcast from London on Sunday mornings, were but one more insult piled atop the grievous injury.

Kidding aside, fans whose commitment extends to wanting to be able to watch every contest of their team’s 162-game regular season schedule are to be celebrated.  But a constant and legitimate complaint is that MLB needs to do more to attract new fans, and the simple truth is that many potential viewers are no longer doing their viewing with a cable box serving as intermediary.  The league’s streaming deals are a small nod to that rapidly growing segment of fans, both current and potential.  Over the years On Sports and Life has offered plenty of criticism of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s leadership, and future occasions to do so again are certain to come along.  It seems only fair to recognize when the league’s leadership gets something right.  Expanding the ways that baseball can be seen is the right thing to do, even if it does in a very small way inconvenience some.  After all, folks not able to stream Peacock or Apple TV+ or Amazon Prime can always listen to the game on the radio.  Long before cable boxes, fans across the country clung to the words of talented announcers whose voices brought the Great Game to life.

As for Sunday’s affair, the 11:30 start time made for a rather thin crowd when left-hander Jordan Montgomery took the hill for the Yankees.  But most of the empty seats filled up soon enough, with more than 38,000 enjoying a sunny and pleasant day at the Stadium.  Athletes in every sport are creatures of routine, ballplayers perhaps even more so as a means of navigating the grind of the longest season.  Media reports after the game had a few on both teams acknowledging that, just like those fans who weren’t quite ready on time, they had to make some adjustments.  But at the other end of the day, fans and players alike had the welcome bonus of free time on a weekend afternoon and evening.

That came after a back-and-forth tussle between New York and Detroit.  Montgomery has been cursed with a lack of run support in almost every one of his starts this year, and that unfortunate trend continued.  The rangy southpaw surrendered just two runs while pitching into the 7th, but the Yankees could only match that output against Tigers’ starter Rony Garcia, who was originally signed by New York as an international free agent in 2015, then claimed by Detroit in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft.

Those two New York tallies came in the 5th, after it appeared the inning was over when shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who had reached base on a single to right, was initially ruled out trying to steal second as the back half of a strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out double play.  But a replay review clearly showed he beat the tag.  Given new life, New York capitalized when Joey Gallo homered to deep right.  The Yankees then took the lead in the 7th on a bases loaded walk, only to fall behind half an inning later when erratic reliever Miguel Castro yielded a pair.  New York then rallied again in the bottom of the frame, with Anthony Rizzo doing most of the work.  The first baseman was hit by a pitch to lead off.  He then stole second and advanced to third when the throw bounced into center field.  Rizzo then charged home on a slow chopper by Gleyber Torres, sliding in safely as third baseman Harold Castro’s throw went to the backstop.

The 4-4 tie pushed the game into extra innings, and after Yankees reliever Michael King set the Tigers down in order in the top of the 10th, Aaron Judge took up his position as the designated runner at second base in the bottom of the inning.  Rizzo’s infield single moved Judge up 90 feet, and Josh Donaldson’s long fly ball to the left field warning track easily sent him home without even a courtesy throw.  The comeback victory was New York’s sixth walk-off win of the season, giving the Yankees the best record in the majors with exactly one-third of the schedule complete.  Though there is still very far to go, at least some of the happy fans heading for the exits did so thinking this just might be a special year in the Bronx.  Of course, even more than baseball in the morning, for the hopes of Yankee haters that would surely be the end of the world.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 2, 2022

Golf At A Crossroads

A NOTE TO READERS:  The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday.  Thanks for your support.

Money talks.  Those were the final two words the last time this space was dedicated to the Saudi Investment Fund’s latest sportswashing effort, the high-profile challenge to professional golf’s established order through the LIV Golf Invitational Series, led by Greg Norman.  Three weeks later, we now have some idea of just how much bloodstained Saudi cash it took for Norman to persuade at least one big name player to listen.  Originally scheduled for release last Friday, the list of golfers in the field of LIV Golf’s debut event next week at the Centurion Club in London was finally made public on Tuesday.  The delay was so Norman could finalize a contract with two-time major champion and former world number one Dustin Johnson, who for $125 million becomes, at least for now, the face of the fledgling tour.

Johnson was the closest thing to either a surprise or a leading current player among the forty-two names on LIV’s list.  The full field for the 54-hole event is being advertised as forty-eight players, with the remaining six slots filled from an Asian Tour event being held this week, and at least one pick by Norman.  The other immediately recognizable names – Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, and Kevin Na, for example – are golfers either past 40 or closing in on that age, with their most recent PGA Tour win a receding memory.  Other than Johnson, a Golf Digest analysis put just two others on the list in the category of “in their prime PGA Tour players,” Talor Gooch and Hudson Swafford.  Gooch notched his first Tour victory at the RSM Classic last November, a week after his 30th birthday, while the 34-year-old Swafford has three PGA Tour wins, including the American Express in January.  But neither golfer’s absence from the RBC Canadian Open, the PGA Tour event that will be played opposite the London tournament, is likely to cause a drop in ticket sales.

There are also many names that not even devoted golf fans will recognize, though in fairness it should be remembered that even say, Oliver Fisher, the 33-year-old Englishman who is ranked 979th in the world and has won once in a 15-year European Tour career, is an elite golfer.  Still, it is also fair to say that a field full of Oliver Fishers is not exactly what Norman and the LIV Golf marketing department have been promising.

That makes Johnson’s decision all the more important, and valuable, to LIV Golf.  For while Rory McIlroy’s description of the field as not “anything to jump up and down about” is accurate, the presence of a player barely 18 months removed from winning the Masters and who was world number one as recently as last July and number three at the start of 2022, lends next week’s tournament at the Centurion Club a sheen of legitimacy, surely much to the delight of Norman’s Saudi overlords.  In that regard Johnson is arguably worth more than even Phil Mickelson, who most of the golfing media assumes will be Norman’s “commissioner’s pick,” given Lefty’s precipitous fall from grace when his obnoxious greed became public.

It is of course possible, by squinting just a bit, to see Johnson as not all that different from the group of aging names listed above.  He turns 38 later this month, the same age as Na.  He hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since that November 2020 Masters victory, or anywhere at all since a victory in – surprise – Saudi Arabia in February of last year.  That drought is largely why he’s no longer ranked number one or number three, or even in the top ten. 

But at thirteen in the world, he remains one of the game’s top players.  Just as important, his willingness to renege on the statement he issued in February, when Johnson quashed rumors he might jump to LIV Golf by saying “I am fully committed to the PGA Tour.  I am grateful for the opportunity to play on the best tour in the world and for all it has provided to me and my family,” could make it easier for other, younger players to walk back, or simply walk away from, similar expressions of support.

None of the sport’s young stars have done so yet, at least in part because they seem to possess a remarkably mature understanding that life at the top of the PGA Tour is exceptionally good, and money isn’t everything.  Johnson has more than $200 million in estimated career earnings – $74 million in purses, third all-time behind Tiger Woods and Mickelson, plus another $27 million in FedEx Cup bonuses, also third all-time, behind McIlroy and Woods – and at least as much in endorsements.  But that’s over fifteen years on the Tour, while LIV Golf will reward him with more than half as much in a fraction of the time and will do so even if he finishes last in every tournament he plays. Little wonder Johnson spurned the Royal Bank of Canada, one of his sponsors and the presenter of the RBC Canadian Open, which featured Johnson in this year’s advertising.

As tempting as the Saudi cash must be, the history and prestige of playing on the premier men’s golf tour in the world, the entrée it brings to the sport’s most important tournaments and with that the opportunity to build a lasting legacy, along with the knowledge that one can ultimately spend only so much money, has been enough to keep golf’s top stars loyal.

Then again, scarcely more than three months ago that number included Johnson.  Which means the next chapter of this story will be written by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.  He has talked tough, threatening suspensions and outright bans of players jumping to LIV Golf.  But on Tuesday the time for talk ended.  There is no action that will deter players who care only about the size of their bank accounts, for ultimately the PGA Tour can’t compete financially with a nation-state.  But in sports, as in life, fulfilling careers are about more than paychecks, even when the amounts on those checks have multiple commas.  That certainty has always been Monahan’s strongest weapon.  It’s time for him to use it.  If he doesn’t do so, well, money talks.

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