Hawk's Nest: Ryder Cup fallout enters Week 2

By John HawkinsOctober 6, 2014, 5:10 pm

Tom Watson’s open letter read like something crafted by Roger Goodell’s mental coach (how dare we call them shrinks nowadays). You wait five full days for the dust to clear, then take complete responsibility after the fact, which flies no better than the paper airplane people make of it after the confession goes public.

Numerous credible journalists have documented the turmoil surrounding the U.S. Ryder Cup team in the aftermath of the loss at Gleneagles. Watson’s response was predictable and shallow, a tapered explanation to a situation that had already run its course, but there are numerous lingering circumstances still worthy of further examination.

• How could a man so gracious in defeat after losing the 2009 British Open in somewhat tragic fashion (at age 59) be so hard on his team five years later?

• Why would a captain lambaste his squad for its performance in foursomes, a format indigenous only to the Ryder Cup, when a majority of his own strategic blunders occurred in that same portion of the competition?

• How does perhaps the greatest wind-and-rain golfer ever turn into such an accountability-dodging curmudgeon amid a foul-weather team atmosphere?

Of course, Watson grabs some blame now. That’s what people do once they’ve come to their senses.

Almost all of the captain-bashing over the past week was done by anonymous sources, some of which I also gathered over the same period. Just because someone talks off the record hardly means they’re lying, or even exaggerating, and it became particularly clear to me that Watson was especially tough on his younger players.

“Everybody knew he could be a hard-ass coming in,” says Jim Furyk, who has played in nine Ryder Cups. “If you didn’t, or you couldn’t take it, you probably weren’t [appropriately] prepared.”

A devout Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Furyk pointed out that Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll was no picnic to play for, either, and he only won four Super Bowls. One man’s motivational genius is another man’s insensitive tyrant, and pro golf is certainly a very different animal than the kill-or-be-killed NFL.

Even at the recreational level, finger-pointing is almost unheard of when you fall behind in a fourball match or throw away a hole. Watson’s inability to cope with his team’s shortcomings amounts to a much larger and less excusable failure, a catastrophic breach of conduct by a guy who obviously knows better.

“Corey Pavin could be pretty blunt,” Furyk replied when I asked him if any of his eight previous skippers had any Watson in them. “Corey would sort of put his arm around you when he told you what he thought.”

A well-placed source told me that Jimmy Walker was among the U.S. Ryder Cuppers left baffled, perhaps even disillusioned, by the experience, and Walker played a ton of very good golf at Gleneagles. The mere notion that it could all go wrong in such a short period of time testifies to the lack of positive direction within the U.S. camp.

It doesn’t take long for a loaded wagon to lose control once it starts rolling downhill. If justice has its day, Walker and many of his teammates will continue playing well enough to participate in future Ryder Cups. And the trip home won’t be on a paper airplane.

IF A GOLF writer is going to produce some type of year-end piece, now is probably the appropriate time to do it, since the PGA Tour’s latest version of an offseason doesn’t last much longer than a flight across the Atlantic. Camp Ponte Vedra’s wraparound schedule gives a bunch of rank-and-file Tour pros a chance to make a bunch of money before the big boys show up, which is great if you’re married to Mr. Rank or Mr. File, but largely meaningless otherwise.

Almost one-third of the 2014-15 season will have been played before the next premium-field event. Sadly, the West Coast swing has never appeared weaker, but enough negative mojo. Here are five guys in the world ranking top 50 who made the biggest climbs in 2014 – what they did and how they did it.

5. Patrick Reed (73rd to 27th). No one got beat up more by serious golf fans, many of whom belittled Reed’s claim that he was one of the game’s top five players after winning at Doral in March. He would get to no higher than 20th in the ranking and go five months without a top-10 finish. At Gleneagles, however, he was America’s most productive player (3-0-1).

Some guys have excellent statistical profiles and fail to translate those numbers into results. Reed is the opposite – a player who doesn’t stand out in any category but still won twice. In fact, he hit fewer fairways at Doral than at any tournament all season, but to take the next step, he has to drive the ball better. Stars cannot live on mouth alone.

4. John Senden (108th to 50th). Known for years as one of the game’s better ball-strikers, Senden picked up his second career victory at Innisbrook after everyone else in the hunt wilted down the stretch. The perception that he is a poor putter is a myth; Senden ranked 13th on the Tour in strokes gained this past season.

The perception that he doesn’t make putts that matter, however, is very real. Senden was 125th in birdie-conversion percentage, a vital stat in this day and age. If you want to win, you need to step on the gas come Sunday, so to think the likeable Aussie will become an elite player is a reach. Nice guys don’t finish last, but they do wind up T-13 quite a bit.

3. Ryan Palmer (126th to 41st). He finished the year very well and worked his way into consideration for a Ryder Cup captain’s pick, so at this point, the biggest question is whether Palmer can sustain a high level of performance. He hasn’t won since early 2010. He tends to play his best golf at weak-field events, which is what made his late-summer run rather notable.

One thing about Palmer – the dude can really putt. He has finished in the top 25 in strokes gained in each of the last three seasons, and there aren’t many guys on the Tour who drive the ball longer. We’re talking about a player with a high ceiling; my hunch is that he’ll win again in 2015.

2. Brendon Todd (186th to 46th). No one on this list has a more obvious upside – Todd is a talented young player who hit his stride in 2014. A victory in Dallas highlighted a year that featured seven top-10s and just four missed cuts. And while many upstarts vanish for a while after claiming their first trophy, this guy continued playing well throughout the summer.

Looking for a modestly priced bargain in your 2015 fantasy league? Todd is a strong option. He drives it very straight and makes a ton of putts. He gets up and down, having ranked seventh in scrambling in 2014, and though his second-shot long game isn’t impressive, a player who doesn’t give away strokes is a player who eventually will succeed in premium-field tournaments.

1. Kevin Na (233rd to 35th). You were expecting someone else? You’re not alone. He owns one of the Tour’s shortest names and longest pre-shot routines, but just as Na has worked hard to improve his pace, he was able to grind out something of a career revival in 2014: a whopping 14 top-25 finishes in 27 starts after missing most of last season with back issues.

He remains stuck on one career victory in 272 Tour starts, and that was against a weak field in Vegas three years ago. But one of these weeks, Na’s streaky putter and penchant for playing well on tough courses is going to earn him a big-time W. Other than his relative lack of distance off the tee, he does everything well.

His standing atop this list is due primarily to an injury the year before. Twelve months from now? I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Na is hanging out in the top 20.

Getty Images

Inside Attica: Interviewing Valentino Dixon

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


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.

Getty Images

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."

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

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.

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

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.