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Notes: Tales from the PGA Tour in 2017

By Doug FergusonDecember 27, 2017, 2:04 pm

Brooks Koepka is tweaking his schedule next year to play Pebble Beach, which only makes sense.

The U.S. Open champion has become an expert on beaches.

That conversation he shared with caddie Ricky Elliott on the 15th fairway of the final round at Erin Hills had nothing to do with club selection to a back pin. They take a fall vacation to the beaches of Asia and were discussing where to go.

''We had talked about Vietnam,'' Koepka said. ''Then he handed me the club and we hit it, and he says, 'Good shot,' and then we continued the conversation,'' he said.

They ended going to Vietnam and Thailand's Phi Phi Island, adding to a long list of beaches where he has run his toes through the sand, from Bali to Phuket, from Bermuda to the Bahamas. On the bucket list is Costa Rica.

What makes a good vacation spot?

''Clear water, a nice beach, not too many people, beautiful views,'' Koepka said.

The next stop is Kapalua on Maui for the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the start of a new year. If next year is anything like this one, golf is sure to deliver up plenty of tales from the tour that go beyond green jackets and claret jugs.


Jordan Spieth was on the first tee at Spyglass Hill during the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and the wait was longer than usual because Smylie Kaufman in the group ahead couldn't find his tee shot. When he saw Kaufman trudge back up the hill, Spieth immediately called for a rules official.

Could he spot something wrong?

No. He just realized that only an official can give a player a ride in the cart, and after Kaufman hit another tee shot, it would speed up the round if someone were around to drive him back.

Does the brain ever stop working?

''Only when alcohol-induced,'' Spieth said.


Padraig Harrington was holding court in the clubhouse at Riviera, talking about his ailing shoulder and options for surgery. He stopped in the middle of a sentence, pointed to a reporter and then motioned to the wall.

There was a framed photograph of Katherine Hepburn, wearing a skirt past her knees and a smile that made her one of Hollywood's most revered stars.

''This is the difference,'' Harrington said. ''He's looked at that and said, 'Lovely, isn't she?' And I've looked at that and said, 'She can play golf.'''

The photo showed Hepburn with her wrists cocked as she began to rehearse the swing. That's what got Harrington's attention.

''If you can waggle like that, you can play golf,'' Harrington said. ''She's able to hit the golf ball. That's how you tell. That's old-school. That's what Hogan used to do.''

Does every PGA Tour player see the same thing?

Apparently not.

Sergio Garcia came through an hour later. He was asked to study the picture and share the first thing that came to mind.

''Her skirt is too long,'' Garcia said with a smile.


During a three-week break in the summer, Bubba Watson kept busy in baseball. He is a part owner of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, though his recent experience had brought him closer to the field.

His son, Caleb, was playing T-Ball and Watson was coaching third base.

Watson tried to learn the rules of the league - a whistle blows when an outfielder has control of the ball and the kids have to stop running the bases - but at least he wasn't thrown out of a game. Best of all, he said Caleb loves baseball.

''All he ever says is, 'Dad, when I grow up I want to play for the Wahoos,''' Watson said. ''I tell him, 'Son, when you grow up, you want to own the Wahoos.'''


Dustin Johnson has been saying for nearly two years that his success is due largely to the amount of time he spends working on his wedges. To observe him on the practice range at Firestone was enough to get an idea of what he's talking about.

He set up his Trackman near his bag so he could see the number for how far each shot carries. That's all he cares about. Johnson typically aims for a target 95 yards away, then goes to 105 yards, 115 yards, 125 yards and upward. His goal is to get it within 5 yards of the distance.

From the 115-yard range, Johnson hit three straight shots and checked the screen.

The first one went 115.7 yards. The next one went 115.5 yards. The third one went 115.3 yards.


Rory McIlroy began the second round of the PGA Championship by sailing a 3-wood right of the par-5 10th green. It bounced onto a cart path and then rolled down the path along the right side of the 11th hole. By the time it stopped, McIlroy was more than 100 yards away, unable to see the green, trees on both sides of the path.

No problem.

He punched a 6-iron that skipped twice along the cement path and had so much speed that it went into the bunker, out of the bunker, onto and across the green until it settled in light rough. He chipped to a foot and escaped with par.

As he waited to tee off on No. 11, McIlroy leaned over with a smile and whispered, ''For what it's worth, it's 110 yards if you're ever down there.''


An afternoon session on the range ended with fond memories for Mike Thomas, a club pro in Kentucky and the father of PGA champion Justin Thomas.

''We used to chip all the time for quarters when he was little. I made so much money,'' Thomas said, just loud enough for his son to hear.

About 25 yards away, golf balls were stacked in the shape of a pyramid.

Game on.

The stakes here higher than a quarter - $50 to whoever could hit the stack with a chip shot. They each had five shots at it, and no one came particularly close until Mike Thomas decided to switch to a 5-iron. He bounced it right into the stack on his last shot.

Justin Thomas reached for his wallet as his father raised both arms in celebration.

''Act like you've been there before, Dad,'' Justin said.


Pat Perez is known to call it as he sees it. Give him a radio show, and he's even more blunt.

The topic was Tiger Woods.

Perez praised him endlessly for the way he moves the needle in golf, but then he assessed the current status of Woods, whose comeback lasted all of seven rounds before he withdrew in Dubai with back spasms.

''He knows he can't beat anybody,'' Perez said, one of several comments that went viral.

Perez said he explained the full context to Woods in a text message. He said he heard back from Woods, though it didn't sound as though Woods was all that happy. Perez figured that out late in the year, when he was hoping for an invitation to Woods' Hero World Challenge and heard nothing back.

He was on the range in Shanghai when the topic of the Bahamas tournament came up. Perez had just won in Malaysia to move to No. 18 in the world. Dustin Johnson, hitting balls next to him, wasn't aware that the cutoff to qualify for the World Challenge through the world ranking was a month earlier.

''You'll get in,'' Johnson said.

''No chance,'' Perez replied.

Johnson insisted, and so Perez turned and asked an observer, ''How many players are listed in the world ranking?''

He was told about 1,900 players.

Perez turned back to Johnson and said, ''There are 1,899 players who have a better chance of getting in than I do.''

Note: Ferguson is the golf writer for The Associated Press.

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Inside Attica: Interviewing Valentino Dixon

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 20, 2018, 2:00 am

By RYAN GRIFFITHS

Some stories stick with you longer than others. First time you get to do a feature. First time you meet a sports legend (it was Allen Iverson for me). Seeing a championship isn’t bad, either. Been there, done that. Lawnmower museum on the east coast of England, tsunami survivors in California, re-connecting Al Geiberger with his lost 59 tape, all good, but no story or environment has stuck with me like going to Attica Correctional Facility in 2013 to tell the story of Valentino Dixon.

For starters, I’d never been searched before setting up for an interview. Not just me, everyone - all three cameramen, Jimmy Roberts, the guy escorting us in who worked there. Everyone. Attica trusts no one. Can’t blame them after 1971, when inmates protesting living conditions took members of the prison staff hostage. The ensuing police response left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead.

Attica has a "shank wall," a collection of homemade weapons seized from inmates and displayed like baseball cards in a plastic case on the wall outside the guards' lunchroom. Prison interior decorating at its finest. Nice touch.

We went to do a story on an inmate who was introduced to the world in a Golf Digest article by Max Adler in 2012. "The golf artist who had never stepped foot on a golf course - Valentino Dixon.: He was in for murder. Second degree. You know, your standard golf story.


Wrongfully imprisoned man freed after nearly three decades


Dixon, a former aspiring artist before getting caught up in the Buffalo drug-dealing scene, started sketching photos from Golf Digest for the warden. I’ve never been to prison, but from what I have gathered from watching The Shawshank Redemption some 8,000 times, getting in the warden’s good graces is a smart habit to pick up if you’re doing serious time.

Dixon's art was insanely good. Even more so because he did it all with colored pencils. No paintbrushes allowed (see shank wall above). Jimmy, the crew and I stopped for a good 10-15 minutes to marvel at his creations before continuing with the interview.

We spent a solid 40 minutes talking to the man who supposedly killed a man 20-something years prior. In that time, he pleaded his innocence to us over and over again. He spoke like a man who had rehearsed every angle of his story over and over and over again. I give him credit - there were no holes in his story. I consider myself a pretty good judge of character, and he didn’t look like a killer, didn’t sound like one. either. But what did I know? I’d never met one - that I know of. And if you were stuck in prison for 20-plus years and all of a sudden had a camera in front of you and a platform to plead your innocence, wouldn’t you do your best to try to get out of there?

Since the guards wouldn’t allow any food, the crew and I stopped at the first deli we saw on the ride back into Buffalo. After we were done eating, we all looked at each other, knowing what we all were thinking: "Do you think he did it?”

Didn’t matter what we thought, we were just there to tell the story. On Wednesday, however, people whose opinions mattered made a decision and allowed someone who loves the game of golf, but has never stepped foot on a golf course, to do just that if he so chooses. That's a story that will stick with him for the rest of his life.

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Wrongfully convicted inmate who turned to golf artistry freed

By Associated PressSeptember 20, 2018, 12:35 am

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A New York prison artist who never played golf but became known for drawings of lush courses he could only imagine was set free Wednesday after authorities agreed that another man committed the murder that put him behind bars for nearly three decades.

Valentino Dixon walked out of Erie County Court into bright sunshine and hugs from his mother, daughter and a crowd of other relatives and friends, ready for a meal at Red Lobster and vowing to fight on behalf of others who are wrongly convicted.

"I love y'all," Dixon shouted after trading the green prison uniform he wore in court for jeans and a T-shirt. "It feels great."

Earlier Wednesday, a judge agreed to set aside Dixon's conviction in the 1991 shooting death of 17-year-old Torriano Jackson on a Buffalo street corner and accepted a guilty plea from another man who had confessed to the killing two days after it happened.

"There was a fight. Shots were fired. I grabbed the gun from under the bench, switched it to automatic, all the bullets shot out. Unfortunately, Torriano ended up dying," Lamarr Scott, who has been in prison for 25 years for an unrelated attempted murder, told the court. "I dropped the gun and ran and it was over and done with."

Scott said he had gotten the gun, a Tec-9 semi-automatic, from Dixon and the two men had driven together to the crowded corner where the fighting broke out. Scott was given a sentence of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison, concurrent with his current term.

Judge Susan Eagan let stand a count of criminal possession of a weapon against Dixon, and its 5- to 15-year sentence, which she said he had satisfied.


Inside Attica: Interviewing Valentino Dixon


"You are eligible for release today," the judge said, igniting applause and shouts from courtroom supporters.

"Mr. Dixon is not an innocent man. Don't be misguided in that at all," Erie County District Attorney John Flynn told reporters after the hearing. He described Dixon as "an up-and-coming drug dealer in the city of Buffalo" at the time of the shooting and said Scott was Dixon's bodyguard.

"Mr. Dixon is innocent of the shooting and of the murder for what he was found guilty of," he said, "but Mr. Dixon brought the gun to the fight. It was Mr. Dixon's gun."

While behind bars, Dixon rekindled his childhood passion for drawing, often spending 10 hours a day creating vivid colored pencil landscapes, including of golf courses, while imagining freedom. Articles in Golf Digest and elsewhere have drawn public attention to Dixon's case. NBC Sports' Jimmy Roberts spotlighted Dixon in a 2013 segment for his "In Play" series on Golf Channel.

“I’ve worked in this business for close to 40 years, and this is the most consequential thing I’ve ever been a part of," Roberts said after learning of Dixon's release. "I’m a sports reporter, but we helped get a man out of prison. I’m humbled and dumbstruck.”

Georgetown University students made a documentary as part of a prison reform course last spring. The class worked with Dixon's attorney, Donald Thompson, to have the conviction overturned.

"It went so far beyond reasonable doubt that it's pretty outrageous that he would have been convicted and it would have been upheld," said Marc Howard, director of the university's Prisons and Justice Initiative. Howard taught the course with childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who also spent years wrongfully imprisoned.

Dixon said he will keep drawing, while working on behalf of other prisoners.

"If you don't have any money in this system, it's hard to get justice because the system is not equipped or designed to give a poor person a fair trial," he said. "So we have a lot of work ahead of us."

His daughter, Valentina Dixon, was a baby when her father went to prison. She brought her 14-month-old twins, Ava and Levi, to court from their Columbus, Ohio, home.

"We're definitely going to go shopping and go explore life," she said. "I can't wait to get him a cellphone and teach him how to Snapchat."

Dixon's mother, Barbara Dixon, said she was in shock after relying on her faith while fighting for his release.

"We're going to Red Lobster," she said when asked what was next. "And everybody's invited."

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Thomas donating to hurricane relief at East Lake

By Jason CrookSeptember 19, 2018, 9:20 pm

Much like in years past, Justin Thomas is using his golf game to help with relief of a natural disaster.

The world No. 4 announced on Twitter Wednesday that he’d be donating $1,000 per birdie and $5,000 per eagle at the Tour Championship to a charity benefiting the victims of Hurricane Florence, which ravaged the Carolinas last week.

At a fan's suggestion, Thomas, who has averaged 4.35 birdies per round this season, also pledged to donate $10,000 for a hole-in-one.

Hurricane Florence made landfall on Friday just south of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and has left much of the area flooded and without power. At least 37 people have died in storm-related incidents.

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Rose realizes his No. 1 ranking is precarious

By Rex HoggardSeptember 19, 2018, 8:18 pm

ATLANTA – Asked how he would like to be identified when he was finished playing golf, Justin Rose didn’t hesitate – “major champion, Olympic gold medalist, world No. 1.”

He’s had only a week to enjoy the last accomplishment, but the Englishman is aware of what it means to his career to have finally moved into the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking.

“It's a moment in your career that you always remember and cherish,” said Rose, who overtook Dustin Johnson with his runner-up finish two weeks ago at the BMW Championship.


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Rose said he took some time last weekend with family and friends to relish the accomplishment and will play his first event this week at the Tour Championship as the world’s best, but he also understands how tenuous his position atop the ranking is at the moment.

“I accept it's really tight up top. It could easily switch this week,” he said. “I just feel that if I go to [No.] 2 or 3 this week, if Dustin and Brooks [Koepka] both play well, I have an opportunity the week after and British Masters, and going to China and Turkey, there's going to be opportunities to get back there.”

Johnson, Koepka and Justin Thomas could unseat Rose atop the ranking this week depending on their finishes at the Tour Championship.