May 8, 2012

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Mickelson Deserves Hall Induction

By: Joe Williams

At 41, Phil Mickelson was one of five inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday. He’s earned it.

Not only because of his four major championships, 40 PGA Tour wins, or the $66 million career earnings. He’s earned it with the way he plays the game and all of the fascinating moments he has given the fans.

Nobody (not even Tiger) adds more intrigue to a leader board than Mickelson because you never know what he will do. Maybe he will birdie five of the last seven holes to win the tournament. Or maybe he will hit his tee shot on the final hole into a hospitality tent and make a double-bogey that costs him the tournament. Either way, it is worth watching.

They call him Phil the Thrill for a reason. He’s regarded by many as having the best short game on tour, in large part to the flop shot he has mastered. His touch and creativity allow him to often, not only attempt, but pull off shots that other players wouldn’t even think of. Here are a few of my favorite Mickelson moments.

1. Of course, the top of the list is the 2004 Masters. In Phil entered the final round tied for the lead and at the end of the day he had a green jacket and was no longer considered the best player without a major championship on his resume. After a back nine where Mickelson made five birdies and was surrounded by players holing out from all over Augusta, he was the last man standing on a day that Jim Nantz called one of the greatest in Masters history. I agree and I think Phil would too.

2. When I heard the Mickelson had an instructional video for your short game, I knew it would be worth watching. What I didn’t know was that he would teach me how to hit the ball straight up and backwards onto the green. It’s an incredibly difficult shot. Even when you know how to do it, I don’t know if anyone but Phil can. If I want to hit one that goes backwards, I’ve got to find a tree to bounce it off of.

3. In 2006, Mickelson arrived at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot looking to win his third straight major, something only Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods have done. He had the lead after 71 holes but committed a colossal mistake on the final hole and finished one shot behind Geoff Ogilvy. I’m not putting this on my list because I’m glad it happened, but it’s another example of the style of play that makes Phil the Thrill so great to watch. Not many guys would have hit driver on that hole. He did. And he paid a steep price for not hitting a good one. This is where we get Phil’s famous “I’m such and idiot” quote.

4. At just 20 and still in college, he won his first PGA Tour event, the Northern Telecom Open, in Tucson as an amateur. It’s a feat that has only been done six times in history and hasn’t been matched since he pulled it off in 1991.

5. When a hailstorm crashes the party as Phil plays the 18th at the 2000 Williams World Challenge, he doesn’t seek shelter like a normal human being would. Instead of trying to putt on a green covered in hail, he pulls out a wedge and chips it in for birdie.

There are my five favorites. I give honorable mention to his PGA Championship win in 2005 and the run he made playing with two drivers in his bag. What are your favorites that I left out?

October 27, 2011

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Division Races Heating Up

By: Joe Williams

It’s seven weeks into the NFL season, and the division races are starting to take shape. NFL teams like Buffalo and Detroit have thrown their hats in the ring, and others like St. Louis and Indianapolis have played their way out of it. Here’s where we stand:

AFC EAST

It was supposed to be a battle between the Jets and Patriots, but the Bills have made it a three team race. New England’s only loss came at the hands of the Bills and their New Year’s Day rematch ought to have playoff implications. Buffalo has a few games against NFL teams at the bottom of the standings and two meetings with the Jets, so the schedule sets up well for them to stay in the race. The next month will be critical for the Jets. They play the Bills twice and New England once. One of these teams is going to be watching at home in January.

AFC NORTH

Cleveland and Cincinnati are hanging around. This is the only division with no NFL teams below .500. Wins against New England and Baltimore in the next two weeks would put the Steelers in the driver’s seat in the AFC. Things are going to get much more difficult for the Bengals with two games left against both Pittsburgh and Baltimore. We’re about to find out what this team is made of. Nov. 6 at Pittsburgh is the game of the year for the Ravens. If they can beat the Steelers for a second time, the division should be in their controls. The Browns are in the conversation at 3-3 but they haven’t beaten anyone worth bragging about. Can they steal a couple against the big boys?

AFC SOUTH

All it took was one injury for the Colts to go from AFC South dominance to one of the worst teams in the league. Someone is going to take advantage and after Sunday’s beat down of the Titans, it looks like it will be Houston. The schedule sets up nicely for them with most of their tough games already behind them. If Tennessee can get back on track, the New Year’s Day rematch could be huge.

AFC WEST

As usual, the Chargers are the heavy favorite in the West. And as usual, they let the rest of the West hang around. They host the Chiefs on Halloween in a must-win for Kansas City. The Chiefs really have to win the next three to stay in the race because they have a brutal five-game-stretch coming up. If the Raiders can get their act together during the bye week and get Carson Palmer ready to go, the West title may be on the line when they meet in the last game of the season.

NFC EAST

There will be lots of entertaining games between now and week 17, but it almost seems like we can just skip ahead to the last day of the season when Dallas is at the Giants and Philadelphia hosts Washington. That’s when this division will be sorted out.

NFC NORTH

The Packers have already got people talking about a 16-0 regular season. It’s probably not going to happen, but as long as Rodgers is healthy, they should win the North division. Detroit still has two shots at the defending champs though so they could make things interesting. Chicago is too far back to catch Green Bay but the Bears will be in the thick of the wild card race.

NFC SOUTH

The Falcons, Saints, and Bucs won a total of 34 games last year. They are on a similar pace right now, and, just like last year, one of them is going to get left out of the playoff picture. New Orleans has a one game lead and the last two at home, so they should have an edge. It could come down to which team gets knocked off by Carolina in the last month of the season.

NFC WEST

San Francisco has five wins. The rest of the division has three. It is the 49ers‘ division to give away. And if they keep playing well with a soft schedule coming up, they could even earn an opening round bye.

May 4, 2011

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Second Round Shockers

By: Rick Jarrell

The first round of the NBA playoffs was a surprisingly exciting and competitive introduction to the NBA’s second season. Usually nothing more than a cake walk for most teams, each series seemed to have an unusually enticing aspect to it. The current era of talent is peaking, as the young bucks are surging to take the reins from the old guardas they begin their decline. It’s a thrilling time to be a fan, so in case you’ve been living in a cave for the past two weeks, here’s a quick recap.

The Memphis Grizzlies rid themselves of the Western Conference’s top seed in the San Antonio Spurs, gaining the franchise their first playoff series win. The Dallas Mavericks managed to hold off the upstart Portland Blazers to win their series. The Los Angeles Lakers did the same against the New Orleans Hornets. The Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, and Atlanta Hawks provided surprisingly entertaining performances despite vanquishing their opponents with relative ease.  High expectations were met and transformed into more high hopes for the second round. Will the encore be able to please the fans? So far, the answer is emphatically, YES!

Trendy Finals Picks in Peril

Peril may be a more drastic description than currently warranted, but this could get very interesting after Wednesday night. Perhaps the two most common finals picks, the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls, as well as trendy sleeper Oklahoma City Thunder, all lost their respective opening games. That’s three out of four home teams effectively losing their home court advantage. It’s too early to tell whether or not these losses will matter, but not too early to proclaim each Game 2 a must win for the home team. The likelihood any team, even a title contender, loses their first two home games and comes back to win the series is very low.

The away teams are still in the driver’s seat, though. Out of the three in peril, I’m still confident the Bulls will rebound to overtake the Atlanta Hawks. Derrick Rose’s  ankle is a concern, but assuming it’s an injury the newly crowned MVP can play through, his team still matches well against the Hawks. Joe Johnsonwill score his points, but Jeff Teague and Josh Smith will not play nearly as well as they did in the first game, and will revert back to being offensive liabilities. The Game 1 loss for the Bulls, along with the gritty first round series with the Indiana Pacers, should serve as a continued wakeup call, and may help them in the long run.

The Lakers and Thunder, however, may be in trouble. The Mavs charged back from a 16 point deficit and survived a Kobe Bryantlast second shot to beat the defending champs. Bryant said it himself – the Mavs can beat the Lakers. Right now, LA is playing well below their talent level. Other than Kobe, the team seems to lack a sense of urgency.

The Thunder, also playing complacent in Game 1, were caught off guard by an equally athletic, gritty Memphis team. Kevin Durant played well, but turnovers and second chance points fueled the Griz early on as Zach Randolph lit up OKC for a playoff career high 34 points. For the Thunder to win, Russell Westbrook needs to control the ball better, the bench needs to provide a scoring punch, and Z-Bo needs to be at least deterred from dominating the offensive end.

In Game 2, OKC did just that. Turnovers were still higher than they should be, but Westbrook played better, James Harden and Eric Maynor provided a scoring outburst in the first half, and Randolph and Marc Gasol were held to 28 points combined. Now the series heads back to Memphis all knotted up.

The Original Three vs. the New Three

The one team to take advantage of their home court, the Miami Heat, appear set to fully embrace their villainous image on the way to an NBA title. Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, with a few flashes from Chris Bosh, have dominated the veteran Celtics the first two games. Despite the final scores being relatively close, the Heat dominated each game. Boston fans will point to the large free throw advantage by the Heat and controversial ejection of Paul Pierce as reasons for the team’s shortcomings, but the Heat look to be firing on all cylinders at the right time. Wade and James have learned to alternate domination on the offensive end, and the team as a whole supports with strong defensive stances and timely three (see James Jones Game 1 performance).

I for one am surprised at the outcome so far. Coming in, I expected this series to be the most competitive in the conference semifinals. In the past, the Celtics have proved to be a well oiled machine, turning it on when it matters most, specifically in their finals run last year. But the team’s ability to do so may have reached its peak, as the clearly more talented Miami duo has made the aging Celtics look mortal. There’s a very good chance this series goes the full seven game and alternate home wins, but after the Heat’s performance in the first two games, it’s hard to see how Miami can be stopped.