Odds are: U.S. Open favorites

By John HawkinsJune 12, 2012, 5:56 pm

When I asked my editor who he liked at this week’s U.S. Open, he quickly replied that he could feel a first-time winner looming on the not-so-distant horizon. As much as I like to disagree with those who get to put their hands on my copy, I had a hard time finding fault with his reasoning.

One veteran PGA Tour player told me years ago that The Olympic Club rewards mediocrity. Loosely translated, that makes it a hard golf course to score on – some monster venues chew up the average players but reserve a few 66s for those who earn them. With showers in the forecast for the first two rounds and clear skies/relatively light breezes on the weekend, we could see a kinder, gentler Olympic, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

However much this U.S. Open seems geared toward crowning an unlikely champion, my list of a dozen pre-tournament favorites has no room for a Steve Jones-type mystery guest. Until further notice, I’m counting on greatness rising. Then again, what goes up must come down. It’s all a matter of when. And how far.

Luke Donald – A terrific hard-course player and the world’s best putter, it’s something of a mystery as to why Donald hasn’t performed to his usual standards at the majors. Preparation? Nerves? At some point, the guy will figure it out. This tournament has a right-place, right-time kind of feel to it. Odds: 12-1.

Tiger Woods – The Memorial victory reminded us who wears the pants in this household, but Tiger’s return to premium form has been stunted by a lack of consistency. There’s no substitute for big-game savvy. That said, nobody will win at Olympic from the right rough. Odds: 15-1.

Hunter Mahan – He still flies under most radars, but with a pair of wins in 2012 and some awesome ball-striking stats – 12th in driving accuracy, fifth in greens in regulation – I find it very hard to look past the guy. As always, Mahan’s short game will determine his level of success. Odds: 18-1.

Matt Kuchar – He hits fairways, hits greens and avoids bogeys, which won him The Players and could make him a serious factor here. Kuchar has the perfect temperament for this championship: even keel with an accent on smiling. Don’t think that doesn’t matter in this grindfest. Odds: 18-1.

Phil Mickelson – A career full of U.S. Open heartbreak isn’t likely to get a kind bounce from Olympic, which has killed the popular storyline at each of its four previous turns hosting this event. History does have a way of surprising us, however, and Mickelson obviously has all the tools. Again, he can’t play from the high stuff. Odds: 20-1.

Dustin Johnson – Heaven forbid you should win the week before the U.S. Open, but the St. Jude triumph certainly doesn’t hurt Johnson’s chances this week. Is he trending north in a hurry or did he merely conquer a mediocre field in Memphis? My guess is, a little of both. Odds: 25-1.

Lee Westwood – They play golf on grass, not a computer screen, but it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Westwood finally picks up his first major title. His much-maligned short game will become too big a detriment at Olympic, where hitting two-thirds of the greens may prove too much a task for anyone. Odds: 25-1.

Rory McIlroy – A strong showing in Memphis (T-7) bodes well, but the Irish Lad still doesn’t look quite right to me. According to my untrained eye, McIlroy is swinging harder than before, costing him the rhythm and fluidity that made him so good. Just can’t see him defending his title. Odds: 28-1.

Justin Rose – The British version of Kuchar, a player who avoids mistakes and grabs opportunity when it arrives. What bothers me about Rose is his putting – 123rd on the PGA Tour this year. If the lead stays around even par and he doesn’t have to hole 20-footers to stay alive, this guy could factor deep into Sunday. Odds: 30-1.

Bubba Watson – The tree-removal project that occurred shortly after Olympic hosted the ’98 U.S. Open could help Watson, figuring that more breeze will increase the value of length off the tee. Distance didn’t matter at all 14 years ago – David Duval was the only long hitter in the picture. Gotta make those 8-footers, Bubba. Odds: 40-1.

Jason Dufner – His recent binge of superb play earns him a spot on this list, but for all the high finishes, which include a pair of victories, Dufner still ranks 95th in putting. Maybe we’re splitting hairs, but when a round of even par can move you 10 spots up a leaderboard, you’ll have to save par, sometimes outside your comfort zone. Odds: 40-1.

Sergio Garcia – Go ahead and laugh, but Sergio is quietly having a decent year and comes off a T-3 in Europe. His U.S. Open history is pretty strong, albeit a winless one, and through thick and thin, he has continued to drive the ball exceptionally well. Of course, if he’s standing over a 5-footer to win his first major, I might have to look the other way. Perhaps this one time, fate won’t. Odds: 45-1.

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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.

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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.