Here are the names I’m expecting to make some noise at the Honda Classic this week.
First, look to the guys are playing well at the moment. Scott Brown, Thomas Pieters, Wesley Bryan, Ollie Schniederjans and Cameron Tringale all had top-8 finishes last week in Los Angeles. They’re the hotshots.
Next, look to the players who had top-10 finishes at the Honda last year, guys like Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia, the 2016 champion and runnerup, plus Blayne Barber and Justin Thomas and Graeme McDowell and Rickie Fowler. They’re the Honda hardheads.
Brown, who tied for 10th here last year, is the only one who belongs in both groups. I’ll circle his name, then, and keep a close eye on his opening round, which starts at 12:55 p.m. on the No. 10 tee.
Hey, it’s all guesswork in the end. Justin Thomas has been hot as a firecracker, for instance, and this morning he is missing fairways all over the place and scrambling to keep it together – 3 over par through 11 holes. That’s especially dicey since the morning rounds figure to be lower than the afternoon, when the wind normally picks up.
Tiger Woods’ withdrawal due to injury last Friday surely hurt the Honda Classic’s appeal with the casual fan, and so does Rory McIroy’s expected absence while resting a sore rib, but those who follow golf more closely will still see some of the world’s hottest players in the field.
Not talking “hot” as in some kind of high-profile recognition factor with the general public but more in terms of who is playing the best at the moment.
Take Justin Thomas, 23, of Palm Beach Gardens. He was the only player in the field to shoot all four rounds in the 60’s at last year’s Honda, which earned him a tie for third place. More than that, Thomas already has three victories in the PGA Tour 2016-17 wraparound season that opened last fall, including back-to-back January wins in Hawaii.
All of this has pushed Thomas to No. 8 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and high on that same list are some Honda entrants who may not be so familiar here but are killing it on the European Tour.
Danny Willett, the defending Masters champion, you already know about, but how about Tyrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick, who also are from England?
Hatton had top-10 finishes at the British Open and the PGA Championship last year and already in 2017 he has a couple of top-three’s on the European Tour.
Fitzpatrick, only 22, won the DP World Tour event in Dubai last November and tied for seventh at last year’s Masters. He’s a former U.S. Amateur champion, too.
Getting back to the PGA Tour, five golfers who have won tournaments this season are in the Honda field.
They are Thomas (CIMB Classic, SBS Tournament of Champions, Sony Open), Brendan Steele (Safeway Open), Mackenzie Hughes (RSM Classic), Hudson Swafford (CareerBuilder Challenge) and Cody Gribble (the Sanderson Farms Championship event played opposite the elite HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship tournament).
Not exactly headliners but remember the 2014 Honda Classic, where Russell Henley, a one-time winner on the PGA Tour, beat McIlroy and three others in a playoff.
You never know what’s going to happen in a sport ruled by 20-something’s.
Australian Adam Scott is the defending Honda champion. He went nine-under for 72 holes on PGA National’s Champion course. That was one stroke better than Sergio Garcia, who also is back last year and on a hot streak himself. Just two weeks ago the Spaniard won the Dubai Desert Classic by three strokes.
Players have until Friday night to confirm their participation in the Feb. 23-26 Honda field, which means there could still be a few big names to come.
Spring training opens this week so it’s time for autograph hounds to formulate a strategy for the four teams training in Palm Beach County.
Biggest names? You already know to have a Sharpie ready whenever Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright and Carlos Beltran are around.
When it comes to the best all-around player, though, you might want to head to the new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches to get the signature of Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve.
That’s what major league players seem to think, anyway, based on their voting for the 2016 Players Choice Awards. Altuve won Player of the Year and for the second consecutive year won the Majestic Always Game Award for consistent intensity and hustle.
Last year he won the American League batting title (.338), led the majors in hits (216) and set career highs for home runs (24) and runs batted in (96). That’s a mountain of stats for any player but even more impressive for a guy like Altuve, who stands 5-feet-6.
Of course, Altuve has to keep going if he wants to be the best second baseman in West Palm Beach this spring. Washington’s Daniel Murphy is the best at his position in the National League and he’s coming off a great 2016 season with 25 homers, 104 RBI and a .347 batting average that came up one point short of tying Colorado’s DJ LeMahieu for the batting title in his league.
Here are some other categories that might help you prioritize those autographs for players training in our county alone, depending on areas of particular interest. All numbers are based on 2016 regular-statistics, with a few bonuses thrown in for career achievements.
Batting average: Murphy and Altuve we’ve already covered, but the following players at Palm Beach County training camps also broke .300 last year. Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals and Wilson Ramos of the Washington Nationals (both at .307). Martin Prado (.305) and J.T. Realmuto (.303) of the Miami Marlins.
Home runs: Evan Gattis of the Astros hit 32 last year. Jedd Gyorko of the Cardinals hit 30. Houston’s George Springer and Beltran, a new Astros teammate, each hit 29. And don’t ever forget Stanton, who hit 27 for the Marlins in an injury-shortened season and his the franchise’s career home run leader.
RBI: There are four on this list with 96 or more last season. Murphy leads the way with 104. Next is Christian Yelich of Miami with 98. Houston teammates Altuve and Carlos Correa had 96 each. Better save some space, too, for Beltran, who is fourth among active players with 1,536 career RBI and 50th all-time.
Stolen bases: Trea Turner of the Nationals led this group last year with 33, and even better he’s from Park Vista High School west of Lake Worth. Altuve had 30 and so did the Marlins’ Dee Gordon, who was the NL stolen-base champion in 2015 but missed 80 games last year due to a suspension.
Wins: Scherzer of the Nationals won 20 game last year. Carlos Martinez of the Cardinals and Tanner Roark of Washington won 16 each. Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals won 15 and Dan Straily, a Miami newcomer, won 14 games last year for Cincinnati.
ERA: Under 3.00 last year were Roark (2.83) and Scherzer (2.96). Martinez came close at 3.04. Special mention to Wainwright, who is fifth among active pitchers with a career ERA of 3.17 and has been making batters work forever.
Strikeouts: Scherzer led the major with 284. Strasburg had 183, but in 10 fewer starts, and forget the Astros’ Collin McHugh, who struck out 177 last year.
Bottom line, don’t waste time worrying about the hardship that projected cost overruns might have at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the new forever spring-training home of the Astros and Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach.
Could be that the final price tag for the stadium and all the other facilities at the Military Trail site climbs past $150 million. That will be something for Crane and Nationals owner Ted Lerner to figure out. Lerner is the billionaire who owns the sprawling Chelsea Piers entertainment complex in New York City, among other things.
Pitchers and catchers report next week to West Palm Beach’s new spring training facility for the Astros and Nationals. The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals are also due back at Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium, which opened in 1998 at a cost of $28 million.
So the Miami Heat take an 11-game win streak to Milwaukee on Wednesday night. What’s the best thing that could happen now?
The obvious answer is make it a 12-game win streak. What, you allergic to winning?
The NBA, however, is a strange place at this time of year. Fans worry about their team wasting an opportunity at a lottery draft pick by stinking badly enough to miss the league’s wide postseason net but not going all the way to utterly rancid.
That’s where Miami is now at 22-30, a couple of games back of what would be the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference if the season ended today, which it almost never does.
You know they’re saying that the NBA draft pool is deeper and more talented than usual. They’re saying that qualifying for that final playoff spot doesn’t mean much once LeBron and the Cavs are finished messing you up in the opening round. They’re saying all kinds of things, but through it all I say win as many games as you can, period.
To do less is to fall short of the dedication level of the paying customers up in the stands, which no professional organization should ever do. And if being just a little bit good but not great is an unforgivable sin, then what’s the point of having half the teams that are in this league?
On this same week back in 2004 Miami was bumping along in a similar limbo. Stan Van Gundy has pushed the team to a 21-32 record but he was running out of ideas at the end of a five-game losing streak. There sat the Heat, outside the playoff picture and in the running for some top draftee names like Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor and Shaun Livingston.
So what happened? Some rookie named Dwyane Wade scored 27 points to help the Heat eke out a close win over a truly lousy Orlando team. Whatever. Then the Heat started putting together a few modest win streaks. Fine. Then, in March, they won seven in a row. Fun.
Before you know it, South Florida’s getting interested in getting tickets for a game again, because Miami is climbing past a bunch of dog teams to grab the conference’s No. 4 seed in the playoffs at 42-40.
The Heat beat New Orleans in a physically tough seven-game series to open the playoffs. That was really Wade’s coming-out party, and it continued with a second-round series that pushed Indiana to six games. This wasn’t the greatest thing ever to happen to the franchise, but it was entertaining, and it sure beat sinking to the bottom of the standings just to get a shot at some college kid who might not pan out anyway.
As it was, Miami took Dorell Wright, a solid player but not a star, with the 19th overall pick in the 2004 draft. Could have been a little better, but there were no guarantees, and Pat Riley has never much cared for the draft anyway.
He went out that summer and got Shaquille O’Neal instead, trading away a future first-round pick as part of a large package. The franchise’s first championship season wasn’t far away after that.
Dwight Howard, the raw, rebounding bull who went first overall in 2004 to that previously mentioned lousy Orlando team, is still looking for his first.
No telling what might happen when it comes to veterans moving around and teams manipulating contracts and league rules closing and opening loopholes. What we should know without much of a doubt is this.
Winning is good. It builds and maintains the proper mindset for an entire organization. It tells fans they are not fools. It recognizes that no one star coming out of the draft will bring a championship in one hearty swipe.
Anything else is just playing the lottery and, just as in real life, that’s not much of a plan.
That Super Bowl comeback for New England the other night continues to amaze the deeper you dig into the details.
Here are five overlooked nuggets from the Patriots’ 34-28 overtime win over Atlanta, one for each of Tom Brady’s Super Bowl rings.
The Patriots’ offense just kept coming, of course, no matter the score, and that had a cumulative effect on the exhausted Falcons at the end. Did you know, however, that New England ran 93 total plays, a Super Bowl record?
Joe Montana and the 49ers only ran 77 plays in their 55-10 Super Bowl blowout of Denver in 1990. Likewise, the Chicago Bears snapped the ball just 76 times in their 46-10 rout of New England in 1986.
Judging by those numbers, Sunday night should have been a blowout, too.
But wait, there’s more from the category of total offensive plays.
Atlanta only snapped the ball 46 times. To give you an idea of how much time that is for an offense to sit idling on the sidelines, Miami lost a Super Bowl 24-3 to Dallas in which the Dolphins ran 44 plays and were never in the game at all.
During the 2016 regular season the Dolphins ran 41 plays against Tennessee and lost 30-17. Also, they got routed 22-7 by Cincinnati while running 43 offensive plays.
Just one more reason to marvel that the Patriots and Falcons ever wound up in overtime in the first place.
Atlanta’s league-leading offense was on a major roll headed into the game, with an average of 38.8 points scored over a winning streak that had reached six games.
On Sunday the Patriots limited the Falcons’ offense to 21 points. One of Atlanta’s four touchdowns came on an interception return.
Brady’s quarterback rating was only 95.2 with that pick-6 included. That was his sixth-worst number for the season, playoffs included.
Guessing you’d still probably have him quarterbacking your team more than, say, Matt Ryan, who had an extremely efficient quarterback rating of 144.1 on Sunday night and a postseason average of 135.3.
Analytics like this are useful, but Super Bowl history isn’t written in strings of computer code.
New England running back James White, a product of Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School, had 11 career postseason catches going into that game. The last time New England was in the Super Bowl, as a matter of fact, White was a healthy scratch.
Against the Falcons, however, White caught 14 passes, a Super Bowl record. For comparison’s sake, Julio Jones, the Falcons’ phenomenal wideout, caught only four balls on Sunday night and Atlanta had just 17 catches as a team.
Oh, and White also ran for two touchdowns, one to tie the game at the end of regulation and another to win it in overtime. Of, course, this is the Patriots way. Two years ago, cornerback Malcolm Butler, an undrafted free agent from the University of West Alabama, provided the Super Bowl winning edge for New England.
We don’t get to hear from Lane Kiffin that often, at least outside of tweets and videos and such. So far he has addressed the South Florida media twice, on the December day he was introduced as Florida Atlantic football coach and again for Wednesday’s announcement of the Owls’ 2017 signing class.
It’s important, then, to get the best questions in first, such as what does he think about De’Andre Johnson, the quarterback who was dismissed by Florida State in 2015 after being caught on security video punching a woman at a Tallahassee bar.
A plea deal followed, with probation plus a fine and 10 days in a sheriff’s work program to put those legal issues behind him. Johnson, a former four-star recruit, played last year at East Mississippi Junior College, a program featured as “Last Chance U” in a Netflix documentary, and signed with FAU a few days before Kiffin was hired there.
“I’ve had a chance to be around him a little bit,” Kiffin said Wednesday, “and also to see him around our recruits. Every weekend that we’ve been here, he’s opened his door and showed our recruits where he stays. He’s hosted guys every weekend.
“He’s a very humble kid, and I also got to go to his junior college because we ended up signing a player from there (defensive end Tim Bonner) and go to meet with the people there. Not just the head coach but the president of the university. The way they talked about him, he’s a really special kid that had a really bad decision that he made and has really learned from it and he’s moving forward, so I’m excited that he’s being given this opportunity.”
Kiffin went heavy on the signing of junior-college transfers, including wide receiver/tight end DeAndre McNeal. He played for Texas as a true freshman but was dismissed for an unspecified violation of team rules. UCLA and Missouri were among the teams offering 2017 scholarships to McNeal but Kiffin won out.
“DeAndre was a tough get,” Kiffin said. “He did some major offers. Kind of at the last minute it came down to us and UCLA. That was kind of tough for him because he had west-coast ties from playing junior college out there (at Fullerton College).
“We had some background with him, which is why I hire coaches, because they have backgrounds. So he had been in our camp at Alabama and I had worked with him there and had a plan for him there and we ended up signing him for that reason. He’d always been a guy that I had a plan for, how we’d play him. We always wanted him every time I saw him. Now he can come play in the offense here and work with (offensive coordinator) Kendal Briles, who has been successful with receivers.
“It makes it pretty easy to recruit receivers if you’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really good receivers. Myself and Kendal have coached a lot of good receivers.”
Briles, who will handle FAU’s playcalling, is another scrutinized addition because he last worked at Baylor. Kiffin declined comment when asked about an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual assault by Baylor football players against women between 2011 and 2014.
“We obviously have a policy of not discussing any allegations at any other university,” Kiffin said. “Today’s focus is on our signing class, and we’re excited about that class and we’re excited about our coaching staff. I thought we brought a very dynamic coaching staff here and, as you can see, guys are excited about playing for them.”
It won’t every be boring with Kiffin in Boca Raton. Most major recruiting sites ranked his first FAU signing class as the best in Conference USA. Some of these junior-college transfers will surpass the talent level commonly found in the league. Now it’s a matter of getting everybody on target with everything from grades to discipline to motivation.
If Kiffin wishes, he can relate to things he learned about tightening down on those goals while working for Nick Saban at Alabama. Or he can forge his own path. Again.
Lots of celebration and plenty of disappointment as the smoke clears on Wednesday’s National Signing Day.
Not everybody gets to go to a national championship contender or a Power Five conference or even a Division I school. Heck, the overwhelming majority of supposed high school stars don’t get a college scholarship at all.
Therefore, if you or someone important to you got shut out on a favorite destination and pushed down the ladder to a low-profile choice, here is a bit of encouragement about what still can happen.
In Sunday’s Super Bowl, there will be as many starters from Valdosta State (Atlanta offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder) as there are from Florida State (Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman).
There will be as many players on the two rosters from Rutgers as there are from Alabama, with five each.
Notre Dame gets no one in the starting lineups, but West Alabama gets one very famous name (New England cornerback Malcolm Butler, a former Super Bowl MVP).
Monmouth has as many starters (New England wide receiver Chris Hogan) as Oklahoma (Atlanta guard Chris Chester).
Southeastern Louisiana (Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford) and Kent State (New England wide receiver Julian Edelman) are represented in the two starting lineups. Ohio State and USC are not.
Football careers, in other words, aren’t made in one day, even if it happens to be National Signing Day.
Great opportunity will be given to kids who sign with the big schools, sure, and a stronger dose of overall competition and coaching.
Just think, however, of Joe Flacco (Delaware) and Deion Branch (Jones County Junior College first and Louisville as a transfer) and Kurt Warner (Northern Iowa) and Doug Williams (Grambling) and Richard Dent (Tennessee State) and Terry Bradshaw (Louisiana Tech) and, most of all, Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State).
All were Super Bowl MVP’s.
All took whatever minor opportunities they were afforded and made it work in a major way, whether anyone was watching or not.
National Signing Day is upon us. Just hoping there will be a few funny stories today to balance out all the discouraging shell-game interplay between coaches and players.
There have been some good tales through the years, the taller the better, and with Jim Harbaugh in the recruiting business, the entertainment value can only improve.
Last year the jet-fueled Michigan coach actually slept over at the house of a top defensive end prospect from Phoenix a few weeks before Signing Day.
Hey, an in-home visit is an in-home visit, right? Harbaugh sat on the couch watching Netflix with the kid late into the night. Ate some banana bread. Drank some 2 percent milk. Then the coach curled up somewhere for a few hours of sleep and the next morning went to school with the recruit, 6-foot-7, 250-pound Connor Murphy. They actualy sat together in English class.
Here’s the real shocker. Murphy liked Harbaugh, enjoyed their time together and never came close to telling the coach to curb his enthusiasm and find somewhere else to be. When signing day came, however, Murphy committed to Southern Cal.
These grand gestures often pay off, however, like the time former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini challenged a 315-pound offensive line recruit to a wrestling match in his family’s living room. Only took a few seconds for the coach to be lifted into the air but the kid, an Illinois state wrestling champion, chose not to body-slam the coach. He signed with Pelini instead.
One of my favorite stories along these lines is from way back on Christmas Eve 1985.
South Carolina head coach Jim Morrison showed up that night at the doorstep of a highly-recruited quarterback named Todd Ellis. The coach came dressed as Santa Claus and dropped a packet of scholarship papers in the kid’s hands like a holiday gift. Shouting “Merry Christmas,” Morrison hustled over to his rental car and was off with a flash.
Ellis wound up going with South Carolina, setting all kinds of passing records, and he’s still committed today. He is the play-by-play “Voice of the Gamecocks” for the program’s radio network.
If you wind up hearing of something wacky like this for the 2017 Signing Day rush, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It beats reporting all the coaches crowing about their signing classes being exactly what they wanted, and pretending that the ones who got away weren’t really that much of a priority in the first place.