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USGA again gets it wrong at Shinnecock Hills

By Rex HoggardJune 17, 2018, 1:06 am

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – For two days there was harmony at the 118th U.S. Open. The USGA presented a demanding test. Players, however, insisted it was fair.

Thursday was a grind, with a relative par of 76.47 thanks to an exacting golf course and winds that threatened to torpedo the championship’s return to the East End of Long Island, but cooler heads prevailed.

The USGA softened the setup and the collective took a deep breath. Nothing to see here.

It wasn’t until the early groups on Saturday made the turn under bright sunny skies and a building breeze that things began to go wrong. Putts that had been challenging suddenly became impossible and greens that had been on the slower side of the normal U.S. Open threshold began to turn a muted brown.

It was happening again, the ghosts from 14 years ago echoing across the rolling layout like an alarm. It was 2004 all over again.

“They've lost the golf course,” Zach Johnson told Sky Sports. “When you have a championship that comes down to sheer luck, that's not right.”

Replace Johnson with Kevin Stadler or J.J. Henry and it was as if the entire championship had been transported back to the ’04 U.S. Open, when these same rolling greens turned crusty and then cruel.

On that Sunday 14 years ago, Stadler and Henry were the first group off and their adventure on the seventh green added up to a dozen collective strokes and led the USGA to break out the hoses, but it was too late.

USGA CEO Mike Davis called that day a “double bogey” in the association’s history. At last year’s U.S. Open when he was asked about the 2004 championship, he said, “That will not happen again. If it does, I’m retiring.”

Shinnecock Hills hasn’t quite bottomed out like it did in 2004, but it’s close.

“Maybe they got more wind than they thought they’d get,” Brendan Steele said. “The course was fair the first two days, today I thought it was getting sketchy.”

Steele wasn’t alone in his assessment of Saturday’s set up miscue.

“They lost the golf course today, certainly on the back nine,” said Henrik Stenson, who was alone in sixth place at 5 over par.

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Unlike 2004 when the primary concern was the seventh green, on Saturday it was the 13th and 15th greens, which featured hole locations cut on knobs and dangerously close to the edge.

“When you have L wedge in your hand and you hit to the spot you want to and you almost make the putt and it blows of the green 20 yards, it starts to become a point where, 'Did these guys screw up? Did they not see this coming?'” said Pat Perez of his episode on the 15th hole. “The pin didn’t have to be where it was.”

Brooks Koepka, who is 18 holes away from winning his second consecutive U.S. Open, had a similar adventure on the 15th hole when his approach trickled into a greenside bunker.

“I don't have anything nice to say about that green [No. 15] and the pin location, so I'm just not going to say it,” said Koepka, who is tied for the lead at 3 over.

There will be those who say this is nothing more than typical players carping and that the play-for-pay types simply need to toughen up. But that ignores just how bad things got on Saturday and the facts.

The USGA’s own weather forecast called for gusts to 20 mph and warm, dry conditions, and yet the association rolled the dice with what turned out to be borderline hole locations.

“There were some aspects today where well-executed shots were not rewarded. We missed it with the wind,” Davis said. “We don’t want that. The firmness was OK but it was too much with the wind we had. It was probably too tough this afternoon – a tale of two courses.”

Officials made similar comments in 2004 when these same greens became crispy, but by then it was too late. Fourteen years ago play was suspended during the final round and crews were called in to water certain putting surfaces between groups, but the damage was done.

It was a dark moment for the USGA that Davis and Co. have spent the last decade trying to untangle, which makes Saturday’s miscues so surprising. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not again, not like this with the technology officials had available to them.

Unlike in ’04, officials have an opportunity for a real-time mea culpa, a chance to salvage a week that started with so much, but it won’t be easy. Sunday’s forecast is similar to what it was for Round 3, which means the options are limited. Crews were already starting to water greens as the day’s final group made the turn and Davis was clear on how he planned to ease up on the final day’s set up.

“The message was loud and clear to the grounds staff and to our team that handles the agronomy part of it is that let's slow the course down. We must slow the course down tonight, and we will,” Davis said. “That probably means more water applied and just making sure the greens are right.”

There had been a steady drumbeat since last year’s championship, which was won by Koepka with a potentially embarrassing 16-under total, that the championship had lost its way and veered too far in favor of the player. Saturday’s show may have struck a more traditional tone, but at what cost?

“Be careful what you wish for. We've all been asking for a real U.S. Open again. So I guess we got one for sure this week,” said Justin Rose, who is a stroke off the lead.

Maybe this was an over-reaction to what happened last year at Erin Hills or maybe it was simply an unthinkable lapse in judgment, either way the challenge now is making sure Sunday isn’t a sequel of what happened in 2004.

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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.

"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.

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.

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Likely ROY Wise not looking past 'special' East Lake

By Rex HoggardSeptember 19, 2018, 8:05 pm

ATLANTA – Much like the PGA Tour Player of Year Award, voting for the Rookie of the Year Award is very much a rubber stamp this season.

Brooks Koepka is a lock to win the Jack Nicklaus Trophy after winning two majors - the U.S. Open and PGA Championship - despite missing a portion of the season with an injury. Similarly, Aaron Wise, who won the AT&T Byron Nelson, is the only rookie this year to advance to the Tour Championship, which is normally the threshold players use for voting for Rookie of the Year.

“I knew with the rookie class that we had it was going to be tough, and the players still have to vote but it’s definitely something that was important to me,” he said on Wednesday at East Lake. “My focus is just finishing strong this week and giving them a reason to vote for me.”

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For Wise, who had four top-10 finishes this season and begins the week 21st on the FedExCup point list, the chance to win the award is gratifying, but being among the best 30 players on Tour, and securing his spot in all four major championships next season, is an accomplishment worth savoring.

“To win Rookie of the Year you have to have a solid season, but to make it to East Lake, so many guys don’t get this far. You really have to have a special season and this is really special,” Wise said.