Posted on: July 14, 2008 6:43 pm
Edited on: July 15, 2008 7:16 pm
 

25 Worst Major Champions Since World War II

Okay. I've looked at every golfer to win one of golf's four male major professional tournaments and picked out the 25 worst to win a title. There have been some very obscure champions, three of which even won multiple titles. But these were the worst.

Now, there were some that were less accomplished. Ian Baker-Finch didn't achieve that much in his career, but before his mental collapse he was a top-ten golfer and many thought he would win multiple titles. He was not one of the 25 worst.

I looked at how many titles each golfer won, the caliber of those championships, and how he performed in other major titles. Claude Harmon only won one title, the 1948 Masters Championship, but he never played full time on the PGA Tour and had numerous close calls for a second major championship. He's on the list, but behind people who have won numerous more titles.Also, I have excluded every major from the 2003 Masters Tournament onward. It is too soon to judge these people. Yes, Shaun Micheel, Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis, Angel Cabrera, and Zach Johnson are all mediocre golfers, but until 5 years have passed, I'm not ready to put them on this list.

Anyway, enjoy.

25 Worst Major Champions since World War II:

25. Bill Rogers – 1981 Open Championship
The Open Championship had a good streak of producing solid champions until the 1990s, with the obvious exception of Bill Rogers. Rogers won only five times on the PGA Tour (his Open Championship was not counted as a PGA tournament until 1998, giving him six titles), including three in 1981. He won thrice on the Japanese Tour and also won the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. He also had three top-four finishes in the U.S. Open.

24. Jim Turnesa – 1952 PGA Championship
Some players just prefer match-play, and I did not want to punish them for that. But Turnesa was clearly among the least accomplished of the PGA Champions before the switch to stroke play in 1958. He was runner-up in 1942 and had four other top-five finishes in majors, showing that he wasn't just a match-play specialist. But he also wasn't a winning machine. His only other PGA Tour victory came in the 1951 Reading Open.

23. Scott Simpson – 1987 U.S. Open
Here is a perfect example of a golfer who was statistically a lot better than expected. Simpson made the cut over 80 percent of the time in his career and put together a respectable 32 top-three finishes. That's more than five percent of all starts. But he only won seven tournaments. And that has to count for something. Simpson had nine top-10s in majors, including a runner-up in 1991.

22. Jerry Barber – 1961 PGA Championship
Tucked almost forgotten in the annals of history is the answer to one of the best trivia questions: What golfer won PGA Player of the year in-between Arnold Palmer's two awards in 1960 and 1962? Barber defeated Don January by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff to win the 1961 PGA Championship, a mere two years after Barber finished one stroke behind Bob Rosburg in the same event. Barber won seven PGA Tour events, only one of which came after his only major. Given, he has an excuse for not performing after that win. Who was the oldest first-time major champion? Two trivia questions, one person.

21. Mark Brooks – 1996 PGA Championship
Brooks has had five top-five major championship showings. He also has had five top-14 showings. He lost a playoff to Retief Goosen in the 2001 U.S. Open, which would have been his eighth PGA Tour victory and first since his win in the 1996 PGA Championship. Brooks has made the cut 54.8 percent of the time on tour and has had only 57 top-10 finishes from 749 starts. With each passing year, it becomes
harder and harder to remember a time in which Brooks was even mediocre.

20. Max Faulkner – 1951 Open Championship
Back in a time when mainland European golf was much inferior to American golf, Faulkner won seven tournaments, including the Open Championship of 1951. Four of those wins were in mainland tournaments. He never played in a major across the pond, but did accumulate five top-10s in the Open, four of which came before Arnold Palmer made the trip in 1960.

19. Claude Harmon – 1948 Masters Tournament
I thought long and hard about whether or not to put Harmon on the list. He never played full time on the PGA Tour, which explains how this was his only individual title. But since this list is slanted towards what the player accomplished, I had no choice. Harmon thrice made the semifinals of the PGA Championship and totaled 11 top-10 finishes in major championships. Had he chosen to tour, he probably would have won a handful of tournaments. Instead, he only won once: the 1948 Masters Tournament.

18. Lee Janzen – 1993 & 1998 U.S. Open
Janzen twice beat Payne Stewart by two shots to win the U.S. Open. He also won The Players Championship. Besides that, Janzen had only five wins on tour and merely 62 top ten finishes. He has made the cut two out of every three starts, but he usually finishes down the leaderboard. He is in severe danger of losing his tour card after this year.

17. Lew Worsham – 1947 U.S. Open
Worsham blossomed quickly after World War II into a top-level golfer. He won five titles, including a U.S. Open in a playoff over Sam Snead. He finished third in the 1951 Masters Tournament, the closest he ever came to winning a second major. He also won the World Championship of Golf in 1953, which was as close to a major as anything.

16. Herman Keiser – 1946 Masters Tournament
Keiser gets a reprieve of sorts. He missed four years due to World War II and retired in the early 1950s while still young. Still, he won only four individual PGA Tour events and never finished better than tenth in a major championship besides his win at the 1946 Masters Tournament.

15. Lou Graham – 1975 U.S. Open
Graham had three top-three performances in the U.S. Open from 1974 until 1977, winning it in 1975 in a playoff over John Mahaffey. In 1979, he would win three times on the PGA Tour, half of his six lifetime victories.

14. Dave Marr – 1965 PGA Championship
Marr is one of quite a few players on this list to win only three times on the PGA Tour. The 1965 PGA Championship was his last triumph, but it was big enough to propel him to PGA Tour player of the year for 1965. Marr was runner-up in the 1964 Masters Tournament and finished fourth in the 1966 U.S. Open.

13. Lionel Hebert – 1957 PGA Championship
Hebert's first PGA Tour victory came in the last PGA Championship held in the match-play format. He would go on to win another four times on tour, his last title coming in 1966. He accumulated 13 top-25 finishes in majors, six times finishing in the top-10. Neither of those stats are too shabby. His brother gained consideration of the list too, as Jay Hebert won the 1960 PGA Championship. Jay would win seven PGA Tour events and have 10 top-10s in major championships, good enough to just miss.

12. John Daly – 1991 PGA Championship & 1995 Open Championship
Talent is nice, but success is sweeter. Daly's “zero-to-hero” story is swell, but his record isn't. Outside of his two major titles, he has only four top-25 finishes in majors. He also has only three other PGA Tour titles, one European Tour triumph, and a victory on the Asian Tour. He has made the cut 54.4 percent of the time on the PGA Tour, finishing in the top-ten less than eight percent of the time he starts on event. The PGA Tour average is slightly over eight percent. Daly is statistically a below-average golfer for his career. Even when compared to many of these other golfers, that's bad.

11. Tommy Aaron – 1973 Masters Tournament
Aaron had already had eight top-25 finishes at Augusta, including four top-eight showings, before he won in 1973. His best finish in a major anywhere afterwards was 29th. His success outside of the state of Georgia is entirely lacking. He won only two other PGA Tour events, one each in 1969 and 1970, one of which was played in Atlanta. He won the Georgia Open, a non-tour event, three times. His best win outside of the state was the Western Amateur in 1960, one year before Jack Nicklaus took the event. That event was played in Illinois.

10. Charles Coody – 1971 Masters Tournament
As the hardest major to get into, it's a lot harder for someone to win the Masters by sheer fluke. He would have had to do something to get into the field. Charles Coody? Not so much. Coody had finished in the top 12 in his last two voyages to Augusta National, but he required Johnny Miller to falter down the stretch to win his green jacket. It was the last of three PGA Tour titles for Coody, although he would go on to beat the other major champions in the World Series of Golf that year. He made the cut almost 80 percent of the time during his PGA Tour career and earned 84 top-10 placings, but three wins and only eight top-10s in majors will get you high on this list.

9. Steve Jones – 1996 U.S. Open
No player was worse five days before his triumph than Steve Jones. He had mild success in the late 1980s, winning four PGA Tour events and having four top-20 finishes in majors by 1990. Jones successfully went through qualifying for the U.S. Open, earning him his first major slot since the 1991 Open Championship. Remarkably, he won. He would go on to win three more times on the PGA Tour, but never better than 24th in a major. His eight wins despite only 44 top-10 finishes is one of the better ratios in PGA Tour history.

8. Wayne Grady – 1990 PGA Championship
Imagine if Grady had won the 1989 Open Championship. Just fathom that. Grady lost to Mark Calcavecchia in a playoff, which ended up keeping him from being a two-time major champion. He won twice on the PGA Tour, including his triumph in the 1990 PGA Championship. He also won a European Tour event and thrice on the Australasian Tour. Overall, he made the cut 55.6% of the time on the PGA Tour and only 4 out of 26 times on the minor-league Nationwide Tour.

7. Dick Mayer – 1957 U.S. Open
Mayer triple-bogeyed the final hole of the 1954 U.S. Open when he needed only a par to win. No worries. He came back and won the event in 1957. Over his career, Mayer won only six individual PGA Tour events, but he won two big ones. Besides the U.S. Open, he also won the World Championship of Golf in 1957, earning $50,000 for that paycheck single-handedly won him the money title for 1957. That's all nice, but take away 1957 and this guy was a nothing.

6. Andy North – 1978 & 1985 U.S. Open
In his career, Andy North had 50 top-10 finishes from nearly 500 PGA Tour starts. He only had three wins. He had five top-10 finishes in majors, four in the U.S. Open. Of course, he won two of those. No man who has won multiple major titles was as inherently mediocre as Andy North. World-wide, including his time on the senior tour, he has four professional wins in individual competitions. Half of those were majors. Okay, he was runner-up seven times, but besides his win in Westchester in 1977, he never won a non-major. That's just remarkable.

5. Larry Mize – 1987 Masters Tournament
Between the 1983 and 1993 PGA Tour seasons, Mize won only once on American soil. That came on a miracle, 1 in 100 chip at Augusta to beat Greg Norman. It wasn't surprising that he won the Masters Tournament; he has always been competitive on his home course. But that doesn't make him a good golfer. Mize has been consistently mediocre, doing enough to keep his card. He has an impressive 86 top-10 finishes on tour, but only four victories is alarming. Especially when you consider he was at his peak when the PGA Tour lacked a dominant player. He becomes eligible for the senior tour in September.

4. Paul Lawrie – 1999 Open Championship
The 1999 Open Championship was saved from having the worst major champion ever by Jean van de Velde's collapse on the 18th hole. Instead, it settles for the fourth-worst. Lawrie has only had two top-10s in majors, none since his win. He has also won only five European Tour events, including the major. He has never won on American soil. About to turn 40 and with a ranking well into the three figures, it's a longshot for him to challenge again.

3. Rich Beem – 2002 PGA Championship
Beem won the INTERNATIONAL and came right back to win the PGA Championship in 2002, beating Tiger Woods by one shot. That defeat spiraled Woods into a tailspin that dropped him all the way to #2 in the world by the end of 2004. It did not mark a new beginning for Beem. He has made the cut in only 8 of 21 major championships since his triumph, and only 8 top-ten performances. In his career, Beem has three titles and 16 top tens, making the cut in only one more than 50% of 266 lifetime starts. That is just bad.

2. Jack Fleck – 1955 U.S. Open
Jack Fleck didn't start playing full-time on the PGA Tour until 1955, when he was already 33 years old. No worries. He decided to break his maiden by winning the U.S. Open in an 18-hole playoff over Ben Hogan. Instead of being poised for greatness, however, he went on to mediocrity. Over the rest of his career, he would win only two more times and finish in the top-ten of a major only thrice. He lost his PGA Tour card when his exemption for winning the U.S. Open ran out ten years later.

1. Orville Moody – 1969 U.S. Open
This one wasn't even difficult. Moody won only one PGA Tournament and only two non-senior events worldwide in his career. He only had two top tens in majors, both in 1969. Sure, he became a legend on the senior tour, winning two major titles among 11 tour wins overall, but that is irrelevant in my criteria. Moody was clearly the least successful golfer to win a major. I'm going to go beyond that and say he was the worst. But he did win a major, which is more than can be said about Colin Montgomerie.

Posted on: July 10, 2008 10:47 am
 

Dave Bliss: A Five-Year Retrospective

There are numerous dates on which I could write this piece.

I could have written it on June 15th, the five year anniversary of Patrick Dennehy's disappearance. Or on the 25th, when his Chevy Tahoe was found abandoned in Virginia Beach, Va, stripped of all its license plates. If I wanted to, and trust me when I say I never wanted to write this article, I could have waited until July 23 when Carlton Dotson was charged with murdering Dennehy, or July 25, when the mutilated and decomposed body of a young college student was discovered right outside of Waco, Texas, where both had gone to school. Finally, I could have waited until July 30, August 8, or August 16, all dates referring to Baylor men's head basketball coach Dave Bliss.

But instead, I chose July 10.

Nothing extraordinary happened in the story July 10, 2003, and that is exactly why it is the best day to remember it: to pick any of the other days would be to single out one event as the central point of what became the worst scandal in American collegiate athletics history.

If you have chosen to forget it, and trust me again when I say that is the only way to forget it, Patrick Dennehy was a rising junior on the Baylor men's basketball team; Carlton Dotson a rising senior, although he had lost his scholarship. Dave Bliss was the head coach

Sometime on either June 14 or June 15, Dotson murdered Dennehy with a bullet to the head outside of Waco. He then drove Dennehy's car up to Virginia, abandoned it, and returned home to Hurlock, Md.

Somehow, that was not the cruelest part of the story.

Dennehy's step-father noticed something was not right when his son did not contact him on Father's Day. The fact that he could not get through to his son or to anyone who knew where his son was troubled him further.

On June 19, a report was filed with the Waco police that Dennehy was missing. Four days later, an affidavit was filed for a search warrant for Dennehy's computer. A further two days was all that was needed to find his car. Somewhere during this time, Dotson told his cousin that he had murdered Dennehy.

The body was found decomposing outside of Waco on July 25, two days after Dotson was charged with the murder. On July 30, an autopsy confirmed that it was likely a homicide.

Nearly two years after the murder, on June 5, 2005, Carlton Dotson pleaded guilty to charges of murdering Patrick Dennehy and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Nearly five years after the murder, the other criminal walks free.

To this day, Dave Bliss remains a free man, at least in terms of the law. Sure, he cannot coach again in collegiate athletics until 2013, and I would be almost as shocked as I would be horrified if any institution that claims to provide higher learning would bring him in as a basketball coach.

Bliss was the man who on July 30 ordered his players and an assistant coach to lie to the media and say that Dennehy paid for his education through dealing drugs. The truth? Dennehy paid for his education through a scholarship provided by Dave Bliss that was in excess to the twelve that the school was allowed to give for men's basketball. He provided money to Dennehy and Corey Herring to cover costs not paid for by financial aid.

Rumors started flying that these players had received money, but Bliss denied it. Finally, on August 8, 2003, one day after Dennehy was buried, Bliss admitted to giving Dennehy money and resigned.

It wasn't until after his resignation, on August 16, that it was made public just what he asked his players and an assistant coach to do.

Dave Bliss ordered, not told or suggested like many media outlets have translated the story to convey, but ordered his players and an assistant coach to say that Dennehy had paid for his education through dealing drugs if approached by the media.

Dave Bliss ordered his students to lie about their ex-teammate, in the middle of all their grief, because he was concerned about his own ass.

As a role model, Dave Bliss makes post-Clemson Woody Hayes look saintly.

For the last five years, I have tried to fathom what Bliss did; I really have. The closest I could come to was accepting what he did as fact. But I still couldn't fathom it.

How could a man who has made a career out of mentoring young men, who has made a career out of growing and maturing young men into real life, who has made a career out of teaching young men lack any ounce of common sense or decency? I still cannot fathom it today.

It is one thing if he panicked right after Dennehy was missing and he himself said that he thinks Dennehy paid for his education through dealing drugs. That is just reprehensible. But what he did was one month after it became apparent that Dennehy was murdered, right after his decomposing body was found with a bullet wound in his head, Bliss ordered the same out of his players.

That truly is unfathomable.

Somehow, Bliss was not arrested for obstruction of justice. If I were in charge, I would have made sure he was. No punishment would suffice for what Dave Bliss did.

"I keep going back to him shaking my hand and me thanking him for coming," Dennehy's stepfather, Brian Brabazon told the USA Today when the revelations came out. "Had I had even an inkling of this, I would have grabbed his hand and his throat and thrown him against the wall and beat him."

I cannot see how Brabazon could have been arrested if he did any of that. What police officer in good conscience could protect the law if he didn't allow Brabazon to beat up Bliss?

Ray Ratto put it well in a special to ESPN.com when he wrote “Then came Dave Bliss, and suddenly the definition of what is too far was radically altered.” But that is just a tad too sugar-coated.

Dave Bliss went above and beyond what is too far. Murder is too far, but rubbing it in is worse. Bliss stepped in Patrick Dennehy's face, in Brian Brabazon's face, in the faces of everyone at Baylor and didn't feel a thing. That is ten times worse than what Carlton Dotson did.

Dotson made a mistake, a fatal mistake, but he is paying for it. Bliss barely is.

Over the past five years, Bliss has been entrusted to coach a minor league basketball team, the Dakota Wizards of the CBA. He has also coached high school basketball as a volunteer, something that needs a second to seep in, and most recently, has been a coach for Athletes in Action.

In case you don't know, Athletes in Action is a Christian sports group that claims to have the mission “building spiritual movements everywhere through the platform of sport." If you don't believe me, go to its website, aia.com/about/mission.aspx. It's right there in plain English.

Somehow, Athletes in Action believes that Dave Bliss deserves the opportunity to do that. If anything, he should be a player on that team, learning about what is spiritually right himself.

He never apologized, at least publicly. He did say that he was sorry that he "made a selfish decision to give those players scholarships," which makes sense when you consider how self-centered and self-absorbed Bliss has shown himself to be over the past five years.

Bliss never once cared that Dennehy was murdered. How could he? He had the more pressing concern of what would happen if people found out he paid Dennehy nearly $4000 to attend Baylor. Just the same, he never cared that he ordered his grieving players to lie.

No, Dave Bliss was sorry that he paid Patrick Dennehy, that he helped him play basketball, because Dennehy eventually stabbed him in the back. Had Dennehy not gone out with a friend he trusted, Carlton Dotson, only to get murdered in cold blood, Bliss might still be the head coach at Baylor today. Apparently, what Dennehy did to Bliss is just unspeakable.

I truly believe that the last paragraph is exactly how Dave Bliss views the story.

So I write this article today, not because anything horrific happened on it five years ago, but because nothing horrific happened on it five years ago. Picking one day over the next singles out one act as the true villainy.

The entire two months was villainous, from start to finish, by both Carlton Dotson and Dave Bliss. Both should be in prison right now.

Instead, the man whose actions were probably worse walks free.

Dotson is currently serving a 35-year sentence with a chance for parole in 2021 all because he was misguided and never grew up.

The more we learn about the man he trusted to help him, Dave Bliss, the more we understand just why he never did.
Posted on: July 7, 2008 10:38 pm
 

Unheeded Words: Washington's Final Thunder

Washington might not be a horse racing hotbed, but the small community in the Pacific Northwest has always loved its champions.

None, financially speaking, was as prolific as Saratoga Passage, who passed away unceremoniously Saturday of colic at the age of 23.

It was so unceremonious that the Thoroughbred Times, one of the three main online news sources for thoroughbred horse racing, didn't even pick up the story until Monday evening. And that's nothing. The Daily Racing Form hadn't posted the story as of its Monday evening update.

To boot, the Seattle Post Intelligencer confined the story to a paragraph at the end of a story about the Governor's Handicap, a race contested the same weekend at Washington's only thoroughbred track, Emerald Downs.

For a state that has always appeared to love its equine heroes, it's a sad sign.

Saratoga Passage, a chestnut gelding, was born at Crescent Harbor Farm in Oak Harbor, Wash in 1985. A son of Pirateer out of the mare Loridown, Saratoga Passage went on to outperform his breeding.

Loridown was the daughter of Sherri Ruler, who won Washington-bred three-year old filly of the year award during her racing career. However, none of Saratoga Passage's immediate bloodlines had won any major racing event.

He, of course, would.

At age two in 1987, he won the Tukwila Stakes and Gottstein Futurity at Longacres Park before shipping south to California for the Grade I Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita.

He was a late supplement to the Norfolk Stakes as he had not been nominated on time. This required his owners, Melvin and Helen Beck, to pay a $10,000 fee. Then, to complicate matters more, it rained. His connections had no idea how he would run on a muddy track.

As it turns out, he would run golden.

Saratoga Passage won the race, with a purse of over $300,000, by 2 ¼ lengths.

The horse that ran fourth, Success Express, would win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile later that October at Hollywood Park. Saratoga Passage, as well as the horses that finished second and third in the Norfolk, were not nominated for the championship race.

He was considered a contender for the 1988 Kentucky Derby as his three-year old year began. Not just had no Washington-bred ever won the Kentucky Derby but no Washington-bred had ever even run in the race.

Saratoga Passage was scheduled to run in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, but a stress fracture in his left front cannon bone was found. He would not race for another ten months.

With Washington's Triple Crown dreams dashed, Saratoga Passage resumed training near the end of the year and returned to the track in February. He also had a new trainer, future U.S. Thoroughbred Hall-of-Famer Bobby Frankel.

His four-year old season started poorly, including a last place finish in the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park in June, but it wouldn't end the same.

Saratoga Passage was switched to the turf at Del Mar and won an allowance race. A few weeks later, he won the Grade I Eddie Read Handicap.

By winning that race, Saratoga Passage became not just the only Washington-bred to win a Grade I stakes race on both dirt and turf surface, he became the first to win multiple Grade I stakes races period.

He still is the only one to do so.

Unfortunately, it was the last victory for the rising star.

He finished a competitive third in the Grade I Oak Tree Invitational Handicap that autumn at Santa Anita. The winner, Hawkster, set a world record time for 1 ½ miles on the turf at 2:22 4/5. But that race was the beginning of the end.

He lost his first five races as a five-year old before he again set his sights on winning the Oak Tree Invitational Handicap.

In the race, he closed down the stretch to again finish third, but jockey Russell Baze noticed something was wrong and immediately pulled him up. He had injured the tendon in his left front leg. Saratoga Passage's racing career was over.

Saratoga Passage retired with six wins from 47 starts for total earnings of $818,212, $150,000 more than any other Washington-bred has won. He spent the final 18 years of his life at Crescent Harbor Farm where he was born.

Yet somehow, nobody noticed when he died.

Washington mourned when Captain Condo died in 1996.

Yes, there's no doubt Captain Condo was more popular than Saratoga Passage, but he wasn't that much more popular. The gray gelding won 30 of 70 lifetime races from 1985 until 1992, almost entirely at now-defunct Longacres Park, on his way to more than $500,000 in career earnings. When he died, articles flew everywhere.

There's barely a whisper for Saratoga Passage.

And maybe that makes sense.

On September 21, 1992, venerable Longacres Park in Renton, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, closed down after nearly six decades of racing. A near-record crowd of 23,258 people came out to watch the horses run one more time. The site had been sold to Boeing in 1990, but the corporation allowed the Emerald Racing Association to run races there for two more years before closing the facility.

And on that day, Washington thoroughbred racing began to die.

Before the final race, track announcer Gary Henson gave the crowd a chilling epitaph: “These horses belong to you. Listen to their final thunder.”

I'm sure he didn't know he was talking about the entire industry in Washington, not just Longacres Park.

Emerald Downs opened in suburban Seattle in 1996, returning racing to the western part of the state. Yakima Meadows near Spokane, which closed in 1995, was the only racing facility in the state in the interim.

Despite early promise, the track has struggled to stay competitive. Purses continue to sag and small field sizes make the product unappealing to gamblers.

The breeding industry is just as troubled.

In 2002, Washington had an 11 percent decline in the number of live foals, the largest mark of any of the 12 states with at least 1000 mares standing there. Oklahoma, Maryland, and Kentucky were the only other states to see a decrease of any margin. The previous year was even worse with a remarkable 21.5 percent decline from 2000, by far the worst mark in the nation.

Almost every year since 1992, the year Longacres closed, has seen a decline of some sort. Many years the decline has been staggering.

Washington once was one of the top breeding and racing states in the nation, along with Nebraska, Michigan, and Ohio. Like those states, it now could be passed off for dead.

If Saratoga Passage had the good fortune to die ten years ago, it would have made headlines in the state. Unfortunately, he didn't have the good sense.

Instead, Saratoga Passage, the champion gelding from Washington, decided to live out his days in peace, frolicking around, while the world around him died.

Washington, stand up and honor your hero like you did Captain Condo in 1996. Let him know you remember him.

Gary Henson seemed to say it best when he told Washington “these horses belong to you.” Unfortunately, it seems those sentiments fell on deaf ears.

The 23,258 people there listened to their final thunder, most likely unaware how final it would be. It was more final than death.

So please, rest in peace Saratoga Passage– rest in peace for the state that conveniently forgot you.
Posted on: July 6, 2008 5:29 pm
 

Campeón, Sportmeister, There's Not Much in-Betwee

There were some clichés I never thought I would say. Near the top of that list was “both men deserved to win.”

Maybe I didn't fully understand the implications of such a statement; maybe I thought it couldn't capture reality; maybe I avoided it because it was a cliché. None of that matters now. After watching the gentlemen's singles finals at Wimbledon Sunday, there is no saying that has more truth that I have ever come across.

Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in quickening darkness late Sunday evening in Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in a five-set epic that will go down as the greatest tennis match ever played, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. The victory ended Federer's five year reign at Wimbledon and allowed Nadal to turn the tides after losing to Federer in the finals in England in consecutive years.

But both men deserved to win.

From the very first point of the match, the quality of the tennis was almost as electric as the crowd. Yes, there were some mishits and errors that you wouldn't expect out of either player, the two best players of the generation, but the quality of tennis was unexplainable.

Both players gave everything.

Nadal managed to return some shots that just didn't make sense. In the fourth set tiebreaker, he got to a Federer cross-court forehand and hit a winner down the line. No one else in the world would have even touched it.

Federer came through in the clutch. I lost count at how many aces he had when facing break point or down 0-30 to stay in the match. Then there was his backhand passing shot later in that fourth set tiebreaker at Championship Point for Nadal that placed itself gently in the back corner of the court.

I usually don't applaud often when I'm watching at home, but I did after almost every other point. The quality was unreal.

I thought it was over when Nadal took the second set 6-4, giving himself a two set lead. Then to boot, Federer fell behind 0-40 on his serve in the middle of the third set.

Before you knew it, Federer had held and we were in a rain delay. Federer then won the set in a tiebreaker.

Federer had his chances to win. He faced 13 Nadal break points, but he only converted one of them. Probably the most crucial came in the fifth set at 4-3. Had Federer broken, he would have had an opportunity to serve out for the title.

Nadal got ahead of Federer 15-40 in the 15th game of the set, but Federer came through with another clutch ace and fought off the second break point. Nadal earned another opportunity, which Federer again saved. Finally, on the fourth break point, Federer hit the ball long and Nadal tried to serve it out.

On his second Championship Point of the game and fourth of the match, Rafael Nadal closed out Roger Federer in near-darkness. It was the longest finals match in Wimbledon history at four hours and 48 minutes. The previous record? A paltry four hours and 16 minutes in 1982 when Jimmy Connors defeated John McEnroe.

McEnroe was the NBC announcer for Sunday's match and even he couldn't think of a greater match.

“I think this would have to be the greatest match I've ever seen,” he said. It wasn't that long before he added an epitaph.

“I'd like to think there were no losers.”

I never thought I would agree with such sentiments, but I have to. Both men gave everything.

Roger Federer was crying at the end of the match. You could see the tears in his eyes. I've never seen him cry when he lost at Roland Garros.

Rafael Nadal, right after Roger Federer hit the fourth Championship Point into the net, flopped to the ground, nothing left, and he too began to cry. I don't remember seeing him shed tears after any of his four Roland Garros conquests.

Probably no one, not even Federer, could be disappointed with this match. Both hit nearly twice as many winners as errors. Neither could have been faulted if he lost for giving the match to the opponent.

Rafael Nadal went out and won the match. Federer almost did the same. And if Federer had won, I'd still be writing this article.

For nearly seven hours, five of which were spent playing tennis and the other two waiting for the rain to cease, the two best tennis players in the world played the best tennis of their lives. And what they left us was the greatest sporting contest of all time.

It didn't take long for ESPN to offer up a poll asking which was more thrilling: the Tiger Woods vs. Rocco Mediate playoff at the U.S. Open in June or Sunday's Wimbledon final, and the tennis match held a slim 54 percent to 46 percent lead. I'm willing to bet the entire 46 percent that voted for the golf didn't watch Sunday's match.

Federer and Nadal gave everything. Every point was unreal; it really was. The shots that these two men hit lack verbiage.

I cannot fully digest what I watched.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both deserved to win. They both deserved to lift the Gentlemen's Singles Trophy. They both deserved to read the trophy and see the inscription, “The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of the World."

The trophy was first awarded in 1887, one year after William Renshaw became the only man to win six consecutive titles. And with Nadal's victory, nobody has matched him.

But if losing can ever approach winning, Federer has come the closest. No runner-up that I've ever seen has deserved the title more than Federer did this year.

Not Patrick Rafter in 2001. Not John McEnroe in 1980. Not Rafael Nadal in 2007. All three played brilliant matches in defeat.

But Sunday was something different. Sunday was something unreal.

Nadal and Federer both deserve to win the title and the tears in their eyes sum it up perfectly.

It hurt Roger Federer to lose. It hurt Rafael Nadal to win. They both could see how much the other one wanted it.

Neither wanted it more; neither less. Neither played better; neither worse. Neither gave more; neither less.

For one Sunday in suburban London, two utter equals, at least in terms of talent and heart, gave everything. To say one of them lost is an insult the other.

Rafael Nadal won the title fair and square, but Roger Federer did not under any circumstance lose it. That's an important distinction.

I'd rather avoid clichés, but this one just cannot be circumvented.
Posted on: July 4, 2008 11:03 am
Edited on: July 4, 2008 3:23 pm
 

Safin and Federer: A Three-and-a-Half Year Letdow

Now I know what three and a half years feel like. Of course, I'd rather not have this feeling, not yet, but there's no denying it.

In 2005 at the Australian Open, Roger Federer and Marat Safin played one of the greatest tennis matches of all time with Safin upsetting the world's number one ranked player 9-7 in the fifth set. For four hours and 28 minutes, two of the best players in the world dueled, playing some remarkable tennis for a spot in the Australian Open final. Safin's victory of Aussie Lleyton Hewitt in the finals was almost a letdown after the semifinal.

And so too was today's semifinal.

For years I've been saying that Safin has the most talent of any player in the world- more than Federer or Rafael Nadal, more than Hewitt or Novak Djokovic. And I've been saying how so long as Safin didn't self-destruct out on the court, an activity that has become routine for him for the majority of this decade, he could and should be anyone.

So no one was less surprised than I was when Safin upset Novak Djokovic in the first week of the Championships Wimbledon. Of course I didn't pick him to win; I'm not silly. But I also wasn't surprised.

Safin showed his true talent, absolutely destroying Djokovic's game in every facet. Safin overpowered Djokovic with his serve; his beautiful backhand, one of the best in tennis history, hit winners almost every time Djokovic had a second serve; even his forehand, usually his weakness, was well placed, hugging the line on the far end of the court while Djokovic stood stunned.

On that one American morning and early British afternoon, Marat Safin reminded us of what he can do.

I wrote about it then- I felt compelled to. And after his match against Roger Federer, I feel compelled to write again. What other choice do I have?

Federer did to Safin what Safin did to Djokovic.

Safin earned only two break points in the entire match, both early in the second set. He converted neither. Safin did have his chances, facing a slew of 30-30 points in the second and third sets, but only once was he able to capitalize and even reach break point. Even when he faced second serves, Federer served wide and Safin was off-balanced just trying to get the ball back.

Given, Federer played nearly flawlessly, serving as many aces as unforced errors, 14. But they both hit almost the same percentage of their first serve. Federer held a slight advantage, 66.7 percent to 64.5 percent, trivial in the flow of things.

But never in the match did Safin give anything to make you think he had the game to seriously challenge Federer. Never. You just knew it was coming where he would break down, where his weak mind would take control. He finally lost it in the third set, destroying his racket and getting a conduct warning from chair umpire Lars Graff.

Federer at the time was already up two sets. He took the first set 6-3 and the second in a tiebreaker.

After Safin was broken in his first service game of the match, he held for almost the rest of the match, but to no avail. Safin was serving at 4-5 in the third set and 30-15, but lost his next three points. The last won the match for Federer. And it figures how Federer won the point.

Safin hit the ball into the net but got a lucky net cord. Of course, it went right to Federer who hit a cross-court backhand winner.

Game, set, match Federer. It might as well have been game, set, career.

This was Safin's chance to show that he still had what made him the top-ranked player in the world more than seven years ago. This was Safin's chance to show that he still had what made him a three-time Australian Open finalist, winning one, and a champion in 2000 in New York.

Correction, this was Safin's last chance.

I have said it before and I'll say it again: Safin's win over Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open in 2000 should have been the changing of the guards. But should is the first key word. Safin should have been the best and most accomplished player of his generation.

Safin had the game to be the greatest player of his generation. His backhand is one of the best of all time. His movement allows him to return anyone's serve. It's no coincidence that he served more aces than Andy Roddick when the two met in the quarterfinals of the 2005 Australian Open: no one could get anything by Safin.

He had the game to dominate Roger Federer on any surface, even on grass. Safin's big-serve game with great movement up at the net, even though he would never admit it, is best suited for grass, his least-favorite surface. In case you were wondering, he won 16 of 20 points at the net in the match.

He had the game to stay on top for a while. He was only 20 when he rose to the top and with such all-around talent, even if he slowed down or his serve was no longer as strong, he had the ground strokes to compete with anyone. Heck, he showed what his ground strokes could still do in his annihilation of Djokovic in the second round.

But that's the second key word: had. He had the game. The past tense was evident today.

Safin didn't play that poorly, even though his antics in the third set suggest that he thought he did. I'm not saying he played well, but he didn't play that poorly. Federer played extremely well and still not even close to his best and took the match with ease. If Safin still had the game, he could play mediocre and at least make the match more competitive.

He didn't because he no longer has the same talent as Federer.

Safin should have been the greatest player of his generation and for three and a half years I've been waiting to for him to show it again. Today I learned that he no longer has the game to ever show it again. And this is what three and a half years feels like.

Sure, they've met over the past three and a half years. Just last year they met in the third round of Wimbledon, but Safin was in the middle of his funk and never really showed up. Today he did.

And after three and a half years, it was a letdown.

I knew it would be considering how much I built this match up in my head: the most talented player of the generation versus the most accomplished. And I still think that assessment is accurate.

But Safin is no longer the most talented player in the world. He once was, but he's not anymore. He no longer had the great baseline movement that made him the second-best serve returner in the world, behind only Andre Agassi. He no longer has the slice on his backhand that made it impossible for anyone to return. Most importantly, he no longer has the mind to compete with the world's best.

Safin should have been the best player in the world; he should have had more thrilling wins like he did at the Australian Open in 2005 or the U.S. Open in 2000, but he always found a way to self-destruct mentally. He had that potential. But he never lived up to it.

Today I saw what was likely the last I will ever see of Safin playing a match with a realistic hope to win a major title, and after three and a half years, it's disappointing. It feels like three and a half years.

Actually, it feels like a lot longer.
Posted on: June 27, 2008 2:03 am
Edited on: June 27, 2008 1:47 pm
 

A Gimpse of Greatness

Every now and then we are surprised by greatness. Usually it comes from redundant people and we expect it: from Tiger Woods and Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant and Albert Pujols.

Sure, these people don't always succeed, but when we see their greatness, we can only admire it.

But Wednesday, we were surprised and we shouldn't have been. Less than eight years ago, Marat Safin was number one in the world and expected to challenge Pete Sampras's mark of 14 grand slam titles. And really, we would have been more surprised if he did not. He had everything: a solid serve, a nasty backhand that could put the ball anywhere on the court, and one of the two best return games since Jimmy Connors, right next to Andre Agassi.

At the 2000 U.S. Open, Sampras had 18 aces in a straight set win over Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals. He could muster only eight against Safin in the finals. Additionally, Safin earned nine break chances, converting four of them. In his first six matches of the tournament, Sampras had only been broken four times total.

When Safin won that final to claim his first grand slam title, many people thought we were seeing a changing of the guards. Safin rose to the top position in the world after that victory and he seemed to have the complete package. Within a year, he began plummeting.

It wasn't that he was a flash in the pan. No, definitely not. Safin was clearly the most talented young player in the world. When he was on, and he could be on, there was no one who could touch him. But he beat himself, arguing with the umpires left and right and just mentally blowing up on the court. It was almost painful.

Still, based on pure talent alone, he made the finals of the Australian Open in 2002 and 2004.

The 2004 one was the most shocking, as he entered ranked 86th in the world. He beat top-ranked Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals in five sets, somehow serving one more ace than Roddick in the match. Roddick, of course, holds the record for the fastest serve ever recorded. And in the semifinals he took care of Agassi, somehow getting 33 serves by the American return wizard. He was defeated by Roger Federer in the finals, but this was not the last we'd hear of Safin.

No doubt the 2005 Australian Open was Safin's greatest triumph. He entered ranked fourth, but an early exit could see him drop clear out of the top 15.

In the semifinals, Roger Federer took a two set to one lead, but Safin fought back and defeated him 9-7 in the fifth set. It still is the last time a healthy Roger Federer lost to anyone but Rafael Nadal in a grand slam.

That bears repeating: Roger Federer has not lost in the last 12 slams in which he was healthy to anyone but Rafael Nadal since losing to Marat Safin in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open. It also should be mentioned that nobody was that shocked when Safin won that match. Only with the tailspin that's occurred for Safin since then does this match raise eyebrows.

Then in the finals, Marat Safin won his first grand slam in more than four years, defeating home favorite Lleyton Hewitt in a convincing four sets.

Safin has not won an ATP-level tournament of any calibre since then. No grand slams, no Masters Series shields, no regular tournaments in more than three years.

In case you were wondering, Federer has won 32 titles since then.

Entering Wimbledon this year, Safin's ranking had plummeted to 75 and with a second round meeting with Novak Djokovic, nobody expected him to be able to improve it. A third-ranked Djokovic who with a title would move to number two in the world against a moribund Safin on Safin's admitted worst surface?

But it's amazing how quickly we forget the talent that Safin possesses. He has more talent than anyone in the world: more than Roger Federer could ever dream of happening. On the rare occasion that Safin is able to overcome himself, he shows it.

And on Wednesday, we saw that greatness.

We saw what we all expected to see since he won the 2000 U.S. Open over Pete Sampras, nearly a full year before Roger Federer defeated Sampras at Wimbledon in his five set epic.

That Federer-Sampras match was supposed to be the changing of the guard at Wimbledon; the Safin-Sampras match was supposed to be the changing for the other 11 months of the tennis year.

As it turned out, Federer was the player who was more mentally capable to win, but never has he shown that he is the most talented player in the world. That honor has always belonged to Marat Safin.

And Wednesday on Centre Court at Wimbledon we saw a glimpse of what might have been. Yes, Djokovic did not play his best match, but he didn't play awful. He won barely a third of his second serves because Safin always found a way to hit a winner. Safin showed he could return any serve wherever he wanted to on the court.

The tennis we saw from Safin was brilliant. It just was. It wasn't perfect, but it didn't need to be.

Usually when the number three player in the world loses to a guy ranked outside the top 50, it's because he played poorly and his opponent played a near-flawless match. Safin definitely made his mistakes, scoffing up 21 unforced errors in the match.

But Safin showed greatness.

There he was on the most important court in tennis; there he was on his least preferred surface; there he was going against one of the best players in the world and Marat Safin thoroughly dominated every facet of the match. The scoreboard, if anything, makes his straight set win seem closer than it really was.

On Wednesday we saw greatness, and we were shocked. And after all the greatness we've come to expect, it's a relief.

Finally, after eight years of waiting, we could be poised to see Marat Safin live up to his potential. So long as he stays sane, he can win this tournament. His talent is just so unending.

If he does win this tournament, most likely by knocking off Roger Federer in the semifinals and Rafael Nadal in the finals, he may finally show that he has not wasted his talent. But I wouldn't count on it.

If they both played a perfect match, Safin would beat Federer on any surface, even on Safin's loathed and Federer's beloved grass. And nothing would be better than the chance to see it.

Unfortunately, nobody knows when Safin's greatness will show up. He could bomb out Friday and nobody would raise an eye. It's what we've become accustomed to expect.

For someone with such ability, it's a shame. It's just a crying shame. There's simply no other word with the power to describe it.
Posted on: June 16, 2008 5:29 pm
 

Tiger, and nothing else

Tiger. I have nothing else to say. Nothing.

Monday at Torrey Pines, going head-to-head with the world's 158th ranked golfer, Tiger Woods officially earned the designation of the greatest golfer of all time.

Here was a man just a few weeks after knee surgery playing a course that defeated Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh, Geoff Ogilvy and, eventually, drew even with Lee Westwood, and for 72 holes, he defeated it, albeit by one shot. The only other person who could say that was Rocco Mediate.

And after 91 holes, Tiger still had the course beat. Not even Mediate could say that.

Tiger Woods, bad knee and all, had defeated the U.S. Open and every other top golfer in the world. And nobody was surprised.

That last line is the most important. Nobody was surprised. No one.

I wasn't surprised. Rocco Mediate wasn't surprised. Johnny Miller wasn't surprised. And you weren't surprised. How could you be?

This was, nay, is Tiger Woods. This is what he does.

Only Tiger Woods birdies the final hole twice to stay alive in the U.S. Open in one tournament. Twice! He did it Sunday and he did it Monday. Heck, on Saturday he eagled it to take a one shot lead. And were you surprised then? How could you be?

I wasn't alive when Jack made his charge at Augusta in 1986, but from what I've read, many people, many so-called experts, were surprised. He had been written off as over-the-hill; he had been written off as old.

But Tiger wasn't written off.

Even with a bum knee, he was the favorite or at the very least the co-favorite before the event.

Even when he was grimacing in pain, using one of his clubs as a cane just to walk up to the ball after he hit it, you expected him to pull off something miraculous.

Even when he double-bogeyed the first hole three times, not once did anyone think that Tiger was done. Maybe you thought he was in trouble, but you knew this was Tiger.

And that's when I realized that Tiger had taken the next step, Tiger had officially become the greatest golfer to ever live, bar none.

No longer was I waiting for him to break Jack's mark of 18 majors. No longer was I waiting for him to break Snead's mark of 82 tour victories. He doesn't need those marks to be the best ever. Not anymore, at least.

Just by making the cut, he showed that he is the best today. Do you honestly think any of these guys could make the cut so quickly after knee surgery? But everything he did in the three rounds after that should have silenced any critics.

Remember 1997, remember when Michael Jordan scored 38 points in game 5 of the NBA finals against the Utah Jazz despite battling the flu? Were you surprised? You couldn't have been.

Now, Jordan had long-since solidified his status as the greatest to ever play, but that symbolized it. Sure he hadn't broken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mark for most points scored or equaled Bill Russell's 11 titles, but at that point, you couldn't argue that he was not the greatest ever. And you didn't.

After Rocco Mediate missed his par putt on the 91st hole on Monday, Tiger Woods's fate was sealed. Not just was he the United States Open Champion for the third time, he was the greatest golfer to ever live. To argue otherwise would be fruitless.

Records are nice; they are sweet. But they aren't the definition of greatness. They help to define it, but they aren't the entire definition.

Most likely, Woods will shatter each mark. He will leave them in his dust. But he doesn't need to. He doesn't need to ever make another cut.

He doesn't need to do anything else ever to assure his legacy as the greatest golfer to ever live.

His legacy now is, it just is. And there's nothing more I can say. There's nothing more I need to say.

If you saw it, you know what I'm talking about. You are not surprised. There is no way you can be surprised.

Tiger. I have nothing else.
Posted on: June 15, 2008 1:32 am
 

Hypocrisy in Bristol

Few things in sports go hand-in-hand as well as ESPN and hypocrisy.

Sure, there are the high-profiled bashings of spring college football two days before ESPN decides to send Gameday to the University of Florida's spring game. And then there is ESPN's talk of high journalistic standards, the same standards that lead one of its primary writers to announce that Les Miles had accepted the head coaching position at the University of Michigan just an hour before he publicly announced that he had not taken the job.

But this story has been ignored, brushed to the side, because ESPN never wanted it to see the light of day.

On February 29, Save Oregon Wrestling (SOW) purchased 11 half-minute time slots on ESPNU and one on ESPN for broadcast during the 2008 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in St. Louis. Just one day before the event was set to begin, ESPN turned back the advertisements, claiming that the network did not air “advertising that consists of, in whole or in part, political advocacy or issue-oriented advertising.” SOW was reimbursed in full.

ESPN, it should be noted, had a backlog of advertisers who wanted to buy airtime that was already sold to various groups, including SOW.

SOW was founded not shortly after the University of Oregon decided that it would drop wrestling after the 2007-2008 school year, a decision that was made July 13, 2007. It dropped wrestling to make way to add baseball, as well as to make competitive cheerleading a scholarship sport.

At the time, Oregon was the only full PAC-10 member without a baseball team and one of only four with a wrestling program.

Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny made the decision, claiming that the decision was his and not ordered by anyone else in the department.

“I felt it was my responsibility to examine all facets of the athletics department and determine how we could improve its operation and fiscal efficiency,” he wrote in a release to the media the morning of the decision. “The changing landscape of collegiate athletics over the past decades has influenced me to come to the conclusion that these changes will be in the best interest of the future of the university."

Kilkenny, it must be noted, was a former booster of the university who helped finance the buyout of his predecessor. He also has no college degree, the only Division I athletic director at any school who does not have this basic requirement.

He dropped the program and claimed that Title IX was at issue, a stance that he would later retract.

Additionally, financial problems certainly are not the problem. Baseball costs more than $1 million annually to field a program; wrestling is about $700,000. Furthermore, the university will have to pay more money for scholarships for competitive cheer.

All this is not to mention the money that Nike gives the department.

Finally, SOW raised more than $2 million, enough to fund the team for three years while it continued to raise its goal of $6 million, enough to build a stand-alone facility for wrestling. Yet Kilkenny wouldn't budge, deciding instead to cut wrestling and lie to the student-athletes about the motive behind cutting wrestling.

It's not financial. He is adding a sport that costs much more and adding scholarships to another sport.

And it is not Title IX. The department has come out and shown that it was in complete compliance with Title IX and adding a sport wouldn't have affected that.

Then what is it?

But the real problem is ESPN's hypocrisy.

ESPN had a chance to put this story on the front page, to let the world know about what the Oregon athletic department was doing, but it chose not to. Investigative journalism into a real issue in one operation of sports is not ESPN's way.

Sure, it will investigate heckling in Little League Baseball, but it won't investigate the disorganization of an athletic department.

Instead, it turns down the advertisements and hides behind a policy that it seems to only enforce when it wants to.

ESPN has no problem airing “issue-oriented advertisements” that it agrees with, such as a campaign to keep children away from steroids. Those commercials have been running left and right on ESPN for the past couple of weeks. Is that not, at least in part, issue-oriented?

No, it is issue-oriented, but it is one that ESPN agrees with. ESPN has invested itself in a campaign against steroids and therefore it has no hesitation airing advertisements that talk against steroids.

But a campaign against lying to student-athletes? But a campaign against the manipulation of the population of an entire state because a booster wants baseball and doesn't want his school to support wrestling?

Never. That's not ESPN's way.

So here we are now, three months later, and these wrestlers are suing the university, a case they might very well win because the university did not engage in good-faith negotiations with the program, and it is a non-story. It is a non-story because ESPN wants it as such. ESPN wants every story to be about steroids, not wrestling.

ESPN's policy is hypocritical and it probably knows it. The executives aren't stupid.

They know that steroids are an issue, and yet they chose to air advertisements on the subject. Just the same, they chose not to air advertisements aimed to save a wrestling program.

The policy looks good, but ESPN enforces it only against issues it does not want to turn into a story.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com