The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
New Orleans is one of those places that doesn’t get all giddy over celebrities. I mean, they are around here all the time, like humidity or Spanish moss. The biggest of the big-time sporting events have made New Orleans the top venue for Super Bowl, NCAA Final Fours and football championships and the Sugar Bowl, and the recent acclaim as Hollywood South with its favorable tax incentives for movie makers has made celebrity watching even more ho-hum than usual. Street closings, production trucks and midnight car chases through City Park have become the rule rather than the exception. Nope, we never had those in Clark Station, Kentucky, although a neighbor once grew a potato that bore a striking resemblance to Andy Devine.
Although the locals are not as star-struck here as they are elsewhere, the smorgasbord of entertainment currently in town makes the last weekend of April one of the locals’ favorite weeks. Forgive me if this sounds like a Tourist Commission flyer, but where else in the country do you have to make a decision over an international music festival and a PGA golf tournament? Well, you can do both in New Orleans since the Zurich Classic PGA tour stop teed off Thursday, and the first weekend of the Jazz and Heritage Festival toots off Friday.
You can take your pick or even alternate between music and golf through Sunday. You can get the best of both if you know how, like on Tuesday when singer Darius Rucker teamed with Saints RB Mark Ingram to win the Capital One Celebrity Shootout in the Zurich Classic preliminary events. Rucker, one of my favorites, won’t be participating in Jazzfest, but the festival features its usual eclectic mix to satisfy just about any taste. Santana is the headliner at the Acura Stage on Friday and is playing at the same time as the Avett Brothers, another of my faves, on the Samsung Galaxy Stage. If your tastes incline to more aggressive sounds, Public Enemy will be pounding the sound at the Congo Square stage. In total, twelve stages provide more than sixty opportunities for music as diverse as Gospel, Jazz, Country, Cajun, Classical and even music for kids.
That's just on Friday when the Lovely Miss Jean and I will exercise our golf fan muscle. Friday is my favorite day at the Zurich since all the players who committed are still around, trying to avoid the weekend cut that is determined at sundown. I remember a few years ago following John Daly when he was going through some of his peaks and valleys. We caught up to him on about No. 7 when he was three-over par and followed him to No. 12 by which time he was about ten over par. But that’s Friday at the Zurich, and Daly started playing to the crowd with his majestic shots that no longer tracked radar and was only a threat to the alligators which draw as much interest as some unknown golfers.
Speaking of unknowns, the Zurich is a great venue for those players who used the tournament as a springboard to greater things. We saw Jason Dufner win the Zurich in 2012 and then go big time, winning the PGA in 2013. Same with Bubba Watson, who won the Zurich in 2011 and then went on to win two Masters tournaments. Bubba, who was raised in Bagdad, Florida, which is about four hours down the Panhandle, came back to the Zurich after winning the 2012 Masters because his mother wanted to drive to see him play. This year, Momma must have given him a pass after his second green jacket.
Lesser-known players give the Zurich that never-see-a-stranger flavor that New Orleanians love, but a lot of the big names come back year after year. Ernie Els, Justin Rose and Keegan Bradley are the most familiar names here this week, but young guns like Billy Horschel, last year’s winner, and Kevin Stadler, who finished in the top ten at the Masters, will add some spice.
Speaking of spice, the course will be dotted with local comestibles and beverages, so you’ll never be more than 100 yards from your next watering hole. That’s another good reason to spend Friday at the Zurich!
Kevin Hewitt will be running the Boston Marathon on Monday in honor of his dad, Ed. I last saw Kevin when he was about four, but Ed and I have been friends since the summer of 1969 when I won an internship with the Baltimore Evening Sun and Ed was a copyeditor on the paper. We became good friends, and two years later when the Evening Sun hired me, Ed offered his spare bedroom until I could find my own place.
During that two- or three-week period when I was living with Ed and his wife Allison, I suggested we go out for a run after work one day. I had just been discharged from active duty in the U.S. Army Reserve and was in good shape, which Ed was not. I remember we went to a junior high school track near his house and ran about one-quarter mile before he stopped, exhausted. But we came back the next day and the next and the days after I got my own apartment, and we never stopped. At least, Ed never stopped. I kept running when I felt like it, but Ed ran because he was bitten.
We ran road races around Baltimore, and I usually won until the day we lined up for a 10-kilometer race at Hunt Valley in the northern suburbs. The gun went off, and I never saw Ed again until the finish line, his smile stretching from ear to ear, which was a site because Ed was bald with a full beard. The son of a mutual friend liked to say Ed’s head was on upside down, hair on the bottom and skin on the top. I moved to New York a few years later and began running marathons, but I was already way behind Ed who had run a dozen by then, including New York and Boston.
I moved around over the years, and although we lived miles apart, we would talk to each other regularly, on December 15, the anniversary of our first run, and on January 24, which was my birthday and the day before Ed’s. We also chatted or e-mailed a couple other times a year, and over the years I learned that Ed had a streak of twenty years without missing a day of running, and his marathon total was up to over 75. But he took as much delight in the fact that his son Kevin was now running marathons, and some they even ran together.
The last few years, Ed cut back on his miles as golf and his grandchildren took more of his interests., but we always kept in touch. Last December on the 42nd anniversary of our first run, I left a message for Ed, and he called me back a couple days later. A month later, on my birthday, he didn’t call so I called him the next day on his birthday, and he got back to me a couple days later. We chatted, but Ed said he’d slowed down a bit and just did not seem like the effervescent guy I remembered. We didn’t speak again, and then one night about a month ago I got a call from our mutual friend whose son had the comical description of Ed’s upside-down head.
“Did you hear about Ed?” Ernie Freda asked me in one of those dreaded questions that gives away the answer. Ed was in Virginia preparing to hike one of the highest peaks in the state when he collapsed and died. Right there. Just like that! Another good man gone too soon. So Monday, when most of America will be watching the Boston Marathon because of what happened a year ago, I will be thinking of Ed Hewitt. And his son Kevin will be there, running the race for his father.
I missed church Sunday because of a nagging chest cold, but I watched the Masters so I figure I’m covered. You can’t help but see a religious parallel to a golf tournament played at a course the purists call the American Cathedral of Golf. CBS’ Jim Nantz sounds like the priest at a hospice when he solemnly intones factoids like Bubba Watson’s first victory as a pro was at Hartford in 2010 when he disclosed his father was dying of terminal cancer. Or his observation that Watson’s wife Angie and son Caleb were not in Augusta when Bubba won his first Masters in 2012 because they had just adopted the newborn. Nantz is the guy you want giving your eulogy if James Earl Jones is not available.
Augusta is supposed to be the one tournament where marshals will toss any miscreants shouting “Innahole” or similar inanities after a shot. I did hear some irreverent louts get away with it more than once, but I am confident they were quickly identified, escorted out and burned at the stake somewhere behind Butler Cabin. But CBS has a way of offsetting Augusta's reverential nature with its merry pranksters, David Feherty, Nick Faldo and Ian Baker Finch. I don’t know why they give speaking parts to so many of the Queen’s subjects when the best finish from any European Ryder Cup veteran was Lee Westwood at No. 7?
Feherty and Faldo were not shy about questioning Watson’s erratic putting on Saturday and some decisions he made on Sunday. One in particular came on No. 15 when Watson held a three-stroke lead and pulled his drive into the woods. He had a narrow opening for about a 200-yard shot that had to cross Rae’s Creek, but most players in the field would have punched out to reduce the chances of disaster. Not Watson. “He’s lost his marbles,” Feherty told the world just before Watson striped an iron through the pine straw and over the creek to a safe spot just off the green.
I wonder what Gary McCord would have said in that instance? I miss McCord, who was barred from the CBS Masters team after his remark that the 17th green at Augusta was so fast it seemed to be "bikini-waxed." He also informed his viewers that "body bags" were located behind that green for players who missed their approach shots. The Augusta National Golf Club, in charge of The Masters, has a well-polished record of no sense of humor when it banned Jack Whitaker, one of the most respected announcers in televised sports history, after Whitaker referred to the gallery as a "mob" rather than "patrons" in 1966. I don’t think Augusta National requires visitors to wipe their feet before they can follow the players, but they might have relaxed that rule after women were admitted to membership eight months ago.
Playing a round at Augusta National is on my bucket list, but the players enrich the viewing experience to the point you almost believe they are sitting with you watching the event with a tub of popcorn and a few beers. I would love to go frog-gigging with Bubba or have a drink with Miguel Angel Jimenez, the 50-year-old pony-tailed Spaniard whose golf game trails wine and cigars as his primary interests. I’d also love to go to a Braves game with Matt Kuchar, the Georgia Tech product who just looks like he is having a ball out there. I was pulling for Kuchar and Bubba, but I kept thinking that Jonas Blixt was the Swede in the weeds who would make a last-minute charge. Fortunately for local golf fans, we will get to see more of Blixt at the Zurich Classic this week.
I haven’t discussed this with the Lovely Miss Jean, but I would like to introduce our 19-year-old daughter to Jordan Speith. The kid took a two-stroke lead at No. 7 on Sunday before he dropped back to Watson’s shotfest, but he was gracious and poised at the finish. I wonder if he likes horses?
Since college basketball is over and I have my life back, I celebrated with a round of golf with friends on Wednesday. It was a great day to be on the course with 70 degree temperatures, a clear azure sky and a slight breeze. I could not imagine a more pristine setting, unless of course I was at the Masters golf tournament, which teed off Thursday morning. But there I would be watching, and here I was playing, although my game has not changed much over the winter. Of course, I have nobody to blame but myself. Did I see a pro to help me? Naaaahhhh! I try to fix my golf game like a guy with a broken leg Googling "fix broken leg."
Why is it inherent in the human condition to think we can solve every problem, physical or otherwise, through self-medication? We refuse to go to professionals and instead we seek advice from sources whose only credentials on the subject is accessibility. Usually, we seek answers online or we consult such wizardry as the Dalai Lama’s Book of Answers, now available in new, used or Kindle versions on Amazon.com.
My wife gets her medical advice from a sister who should have been a doctor. I know that not so much by all the cures and solutions she dispenses freely, but from the Voodoo mask and smoldering chicken bones in her secret upstairs solarium. Here are some free samples: For a sore throat: “Take Echinacea tablets; I think there’s a few left in this bottle. The Indians discovered it. You ever see a Navajo with a chest cold?” How about allergies: “Ye gads, I don’t care what the doctor says, don’t take Prednizone! It makes you crazy!” I once had a troublesome rash on my leg about the same time she saw the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” She advised me to follow the cure-all practice of the movie’s Michael Constantine. I sprayed the rash with Windex. Damned if it didn’t disappear!
Where all this is leading is the fact that even as we self-medicate our physical problems with easy solutions we do the same thing when trying to fix our golf game. I once paid for a series of lessons, but I don’t remember if they worked because it was just before the blur of Katrina. But since I have friends who play, I’ve asked a couple of them for advice on how not to hit the ground two inches behind the ball. One told me to roll my left hand counter-clockwise on my backswing. I went out and hit 100 golf balls while working on turning my wrists counter-clockwise. I hit 50 duck hooks that went between 30-60 yards, and 50 more swings that grounded three inches behind the ball. Another guy told me just before my backswing is at the top, start moving my hips forward and aim for a contact point three inches in front of the ball. I tried to hit 20 balls with that advice and had 19 whiffs and one club that I sent whirlybirding about 40 yards down the range, further than my last hit!
The online swing gurus promise to let me in on the secrets of their success for $57 a year, although I learned later that the full enlightenment of their mysticism will not come until I fork over another $225 for the complete set of 49 instructional DVD’s and their logo visor! Lessons with a pro are out of the question, because instructors today make them way too complex! Even the most friendly golf instructor can make us feel stupid. It is a rare instructor who sends the student off with fewer than five or six things to work on, a checklist of a dozen mechanical issues that the average guy can’t possibly grasp, much less incorporate into his game. The more technical the lesson, the worse it gets. I can’t process advice such as turning around a pivot knee while holding my right elbow close to my side then thinking about a proper swing plane before I hit down on the irons or up with the driver. I need to find a Golfer’s Anonymous meeting. “My name is Jim, and I’m a golfaholic!”
But maybe the problem is all that advice. There are simply too many moving parts to a golf swing, and every tip I’ve ever tried has become a part of my swing. Now, with all this new advice that hasn’t worked, I am supposed to instantly stop turning my left hand and moving my hips forward when none of it works? You can’t just try something for a few days and then not think about that tip anymore and expect it to go away. We can’t discard swing tips like we discard beer bottles. There is no “Default” or reset switch on the golf swing. I just want to hit the damned ball, but golf might be the only sporting activity where practice can make you worse.
If you’re an average-to-poor player, and you don’t know why, then you are doomed to eternal failure. That is part of the reason I have failed at trying to get the Lovely Miss Jean to come out and play golf with me. Why won’t she come out and play? “Because I don’t want to play until I can play better!” But you are never going to get better until you play, I scream. “And how is that working out for you?” she responds sweetly as she heads for the mall. With her sister.
I wonder if she has any good advice? Like spraying Windex in my eyes before I swing?
I am writing this on Sunday afternoon, less than an hour after returning from Dallas where my son and I saw Kentucky and Connecticut win NCAA Final Four semi-final games in very different but compelling fashion. You should know by now that Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison justified his coach’s description that he is a “cold-blooded assassin” by hitting a three-point shot with 5.7 seconds to go for a 74-73 win over Wisconsin. You probably also know that top-ranked Florida was victimized by a couple Connecticut pickpockets in the Huskies’ surprisingly easy 63-53 victory. What you don’t know is why I am back in New Orleans and not still in Dallas for the Monday night championship game?
You need to know that the student-athlete who lives in my house has three tests on Monday, and his mother insisted that he come back and take all three! No matter that he had the chance to see our favorite team win another NCAA championship game live and in person. Breathe. I am a proudly devoted parent and husband first and a Kentucky fan second. Most of the time. As long as parental obligations don't mess with my carefully organized four-hour window on Monday night! Breathe deeply. Let’s change the subject.
I felt bad for Florida, who didn’t see that one coming! Kentucky had better watch out Monday night or they won’t see it, either, the “it” being Connecticut guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. The best description of the Huskies duo I have heard is that they play defense like two angry squirrels who have climbed inside your shirt. The two, Boatright in particular, embarrassed the SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin, who was stymied every time he tried to do the things he had done with ease all year. Repeatedly, Wilbekin faked a drive, and Napier or Boatright did not budge. Wilbekin would fake again, and Napier would swipe at the ball and knock it loose, to Boatright. Wilbekin finished with two shots and one assist against three turnovers.
Boatright and Napier have been decapitating offenses throughout the tournament by abusing the point guard tasked with running them. Michigan State’s Keith Appling managed only two points and four turnovers in an Elite Eight loss. If the Huskies are to hoist a trophy on Monday, it must happen again to Kentucky’s twin engines, the 6-foot-6 Harrison brothers, who have committed just 10 turnovers combined in the last three games. The Harrisons' size also could turn the tables on the UConn pair, much like they did when they handled Russ Smith and Louisville's pressure.
I believe Kentucky has some other advantages, even over Florida, when it comes to matching up against the Huskies. If a player with limited skills like Florida’s Patric Young could score effectively in the paint, Julius Randle should have a big night. He is a little taller than Young, but he is much more skilled. Plus, he's a lefty, which makes him more unconventional to defend. As long as James Young stays out of foul trouble, Kentucky will always have a go-to option on offense. And if UConn double-teams Randle, he has become savvy about passing out of double teams, and more trusting of his teammates. But Randle is not Kentucky's only viable frontcourt threat. He is one of four Wildcats who are long, strong and skilled enough to hurt the Huskies in the paint.
Which brings us to another Kentucky edge, the bench contribution. In five tournament games, the Wildcats are averaging 10.6 points per game from their bench, but 32 of their 53 bench points in the NCAA tournament have come in their last two games. That’s because of the contributions from forwards Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee, who for much of the seasonwas the forgotten McDonald's All-American. The beast is Poythress, who returned after a "disappointing" freshman season and reinvented himself as an energizing glue guy off the bench. He tipped the balance against Wisconsin by providing eight points and seven rebounds in 29 minutes. Connecticut has averaged 10.2 points per game off of its bench in the NCAA tournament, but has received only 12 points from its reserves in its last three games. UConn relies heavily on Napier for its scoring, but if either team can get a spark off the bench, it could be a big advantage Monday night.
And that is when I will be at home in front of my 42-inch HDTV, not the six-story, 25,000 square foot HDTV at AT&T/Jerry Jones Stadium, that hovers over the court and in my face, even from Section 444. Breathe. I will sit there, agonizing over Kentucky’s normal first-half malaise, complaining at the inevitable “bad calls” that go against my team, cheer madly when they come back and then go to the liquor cabinet to toast the 2014 champions. And only then I will breathe easy. Being at home might not be so bad after all! Go Cats!