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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Manchester Derby for more than all the marbles

It’s hard to imagine a scenario when the off the field pressure could exceed what takes place on the pitch but on Monday night that will be the case when the Manchester Derby takes place. Manchester City was officially formed in 1894 have hoisted the FA Cup five times but never been EPL champions, Manchester United formed in 1878 (LYR) has 19 EPL Championship Trophies including last season, 11 FA Cup titles, and three Champions League crowns among their other accolades. The fans of Manchester England have been at war since “The Great War” and although they’re unable to shake the stigma of being the JV side in the city of roughly 2,7 million, they have every intention of striking David in jaw with right cross on Monday evening as they have Man U. in their crib with a chance to take back the top spot in the EPL with three matches to play. It would be the ultimate coup, upset, turnabout, whatever superlatives you can conjure up but in the realm of global uprisings this would be among the biggest. However on the other sideline is a dynasty that is not ready to relinquish its status and has some of the ultimate weapons of mass destruction pointed directly at Etihad Stadium where they hope to exceed the record for 47,304 fans set in 2004 when they hosted Chelsea. To say that this will be bigger than that would be an understatement, because every match until now has been.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The man they once called “Captain Fantastic” John Terry has again fallen well short of the billing after getting red carded and ejected in the first half of the Champion’s League semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona. Despite being down one man for most of the match the Blues put on a perfect display of defense and how to not only tread water but turn the tide for about an hour of game time to post a 2-2 draw and advance to the final on aggregate. Moreover it was a complete statistical domination for the Italian side including Possession (83%), Total Shots (23-7), Territorial Advantage (82% to 18%), and Corners (10-1) BFC failed to win the only stat that really matters, goals. Once the buzz wears off from their victory the focus will surely turn to the poor example set by their captain who will also miss the final and if the band needs to move on to someone whom better exemplifies what Chelsea football is about. When the final decision comes down on who will manage the Blues going forward the second shoe will certainly be about who will head the club on the pitch.

Monday, April 9, 2012

No Tiger, No Problem, Sunday delivers at Agusta

It started with Louis Oosthuizen's historic double eagle on the second and ended with the people's champ making the unlikeliest of shots out of the trees and on to the green, setting the table for Bubba Watson's first major championship.

Four rounds. Many leaders. Tons of tears. Typical Masters drama.

The first major of the year did not disappoint as Peter Hanson, Matt Kuchar, Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson were all in contention on the final day of the 76th annual Masters at Augusta National.

But as the aforementioned names faded down the stretch, playing partners Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson emerged together, finding themselves atop the leader board when it mattered most.

Oosthuizen, of South Africa, got off to a roaring start logging the first ever double eagle on the second hole at the Masters, and only the fourth double eagle in the tournament's history.

Mickelson followed by making waves of the opposite kind when he triple-bogeyed the No. 4 hole, a horrendous sequence from which he never fully recovered.

Watson, a local favorite who attended the University of Georgia, got in the groove on No. 13 making what would be his first of four consecutive birdies, culminating with the sixteenth hole where he finally pulled even with his partner Oosthuizen.

Both men overcame ugly tee shots on No. 18 to par the hole and tie for first at the end of regulation at 10-under 278, forcing a sudden death playoff.

While Oosthuizen's only PGA tour victory was a mighty impressive seven-stroke victory at The Open Championship in 2010, Watson had faced a playoff situation on a major stage once before, finishing second at the 2010 PGA Championship after being defeated by one stroke on the third and final playoff hole.

On this day, the outcome would be vastly different for Watson who had three PGA tour victories to his name coming into these Masters.

The first playoff hole was the No. 18 par four where both men made phenomenal approach shots, prompting Oosthuizen to compliment his opponent as they walked up the green together. We all thought Oosthuizen's birdie putt was in, but the ball went slightly right, visibly crushing the golfer who dropped into a crouch after the ball lipped out. Adversely, Watson's shot went left and both men parred, so on to the No. 10 hole they went for round two, not yet knowing that this was where the most memorable shot of the 2012 Masters would be etched in to our memories.

Watson and Oosthuizen both blew the tee shot on the par four No. 10, but Oosthuizen at least had a straight shot despite his ball landing slightly in the gallery. Watson, on the other hand, was in the trees with a much tougher task ahead.

Oosthuizen ended up on the front edge of the green after his second shot, providing him with a literal and figurative uphill battle. Meanwhile, Watson's second shot from the mulch and trees had to be seen to be believed, as what looked like an impossible shot was executed with nonsensical precision. Hooked in who-knows-what direction, the ball curved perfectly, rounding it's way on to the green, paving a surprisingly smoother path to the green jacket than the road traveled by Oosthuizen on No. 10.

After his shot on to the green, Oosthuizen found himself away, thus right back at it, attempting a long putt for par. It was a tough shot, but definitely makable. Oosthuizen's shot was a beauty that once again, just lipped out as you could almost hear the man's heart break underneath his shirt. Oosthuizen bogeyed the hole, thus Watson found himself in a two-putt par situation.

Oosthuizen's shot went right, so naturally, Watson's went wide left, leaving him a foot-long putt for par and the win. Watson gathered himself, read what little grass there was standing between him and the green jacket before making a minuscule putt for his first major championship.

The only sight sweeter than his miraculous shot on the second playoff hole was the picture of emotion painted by Watson as the 33-year-old broke down and sobbed on the shoulders of his caddie, mother and several friends.

Without his wife Angie who stayed home with the couple's newly-adopted infant son, Watson's outpouring of emotion continued during the green jacket ceremony inside Butler Cabin. Watson, who lost his father to cancer in late 2010 said, "I never got this far in my dreams…To go home to my new son, it's gonna be fun."

Watson's win makes it the fifth Masters victory for lefties in the last 10 years, joining fellow southpaws Mike Weir (2003) and Mickelson (2004, 2006, 2010).

Near the end of play, CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell tweeted, "If Bubba wins, he'll make 10% of his 12-year career earnings with Masters check. Earned $14.4M in career. Win worth $1.44M."

On so many levels, this was indeed one sweet win for Bubba Watson, the freshly-crowned People's Champ of golf.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Countdown to Agusta

Between a rejuvenated Tiger Woods, his old nemesis Phil Mickelson and the emerging young star that is Rory McIlroy, Augusta, Georgia is the place to be next weekend as the 76th Masters has epic potential.

I'll never forget watching Tiger and Phil, paired together for the final round of the Masters back in 2009. As a small-town sports reporter and anchor, it was my job to write, edit, produce and deliver the sports segment in Sunday's newscasts. There I was, editing the Masters highlights off of live television, recording the game using an old-school VCR tape deck and importing the raw footage into the computer for editing. With every shot Tiger or Phil took, especially with Mickelson's six birdies on the front nine, I was re-editing the highlight, dropping and adding clips with both a sense of frustration with the workload and excitement with the electricity I could feel from the greens of Augusta zapping directly into my office all the way in southeastern Idaho. Remember that shot Tiger took in the middle of the freakin forrest, through the trees, shown over and over again in crisp, slow-motion replays?

While the Tiger vs. Phil soap opera lost steam down the stretch, there was little time for disappointment as the game went to a three-way sudden death playoff with Angel Cabrera finally putting on the Green Jacket as the sun began to set.

I have 2009-ish hopes for this year's Masters because of the strength of the field. Tiger. 4-time Masters champion. Mickelson. Jacket-winner three times in the past eight years. McIlroy. The Irishman who managed to maintain enough confidence to win the 2011 U.S. Open (by a whopping eight shots) despite coming off the Masters in which he played the worst round in tournament history when leading after 54 holes, shooting an 80 on the final day and surrendering any hope of victory. Day and Scott. Last year's runners-up. Westwood. Rose. Furyk. The list of potential leaderboard-toppers is vast.

Tiger may have momentum coming into the Masters now that his PGA Tour victory Mojo is back, but I wouldn't take Tiger over the field in this one. Not yet. There are too many other talented golfers who have a real shot at the Green Jacket.

What about Augusta's defending champ, Charl Schwartzel? He comes in ranked seventh in the world, but he hasn't won since last year's Masters. If he repeated at Augusta, he would join one of the most exclusive clubs in all of golf as only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have won back-to-back Masters.

Someone to watch out for is Luke Donald, the Englishman who currently owns the No. 1 ranking in the world (McIlroy is No. 2 in case you were wondering). The 34-year-old has yet to win a major, but with 10 wins on Tour and a superb putting game, Augusta might just be the place for Donald to get over the hump and win his first major.

That leads us to our next question… when was the last time the No. 1 player in the world won the Masters? How much does one's world ranking even matter at Augusta? Here's a look at the winners and their world rank heading into the tournament over the last 11 years:

2011 - Charles Schwartzel (No. 29)
2010 - Pil Mickelson (No. 3)
2009 - Angel Cabrera (No. 69)
2008 - Trevor Immemlan (No. 29)
2007 - Zach Johnson (No. 56)
2006 - Phil Mickelson (No. 4)
2005 - Tiger Woods (No. 2)
2004 - Phil Mickelson (No. 8)
2003 - Mike Weir (No. 10)
2002 - Tiger Woods (No. 1)
2001 - Tiger Woods (No. 1)
2000 - Vijay Singh (No. 8)

Tiger was the last top-ranked golfer to win the Masters, a feat he cannot accomplish this year with the No. 6 ranking. I still don't understand how he was ranked that high after a 30-month winning drought, but that is neither here nor there.

Mickelson comes in ranked 15th but he's played well this season with a victory at Pebble Beach and a near-win the next week at the Northern Trust Open where he lost a three-way playoff.

I would put my money on Mickelson or McIlroy to take the Masters this year, but with a field filled with both veterans and youth, it's going to be one heck of a fight for anyone in contention.

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