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Presidents Cup picks both logical and questionable

By Rex HoggardSeptember 6, 2017, 9:35 pm

Headlines will focus on Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker’s decision to burn a captain’s pick on a 47-year-old now four years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, but the truly curious news won’t elicit nearly as much interest.

While Stricker’s call to pick Mickelson may be the sexy topic, it likely won’t impact the outcome of the Presidents Cup. After winning the last eight matches, good-guy Stricker could have picked his pal and assistant captain Tiger Woods, whose golf activity is currently limited to chipping and putting, and the U.S. would still be the heavy favorites to make it nine consecutive wins.

No, the most curious portion of Wednesday’s announcement was how Nick Price, the three-time captain of the International team, put the final pieces of his eclectic team together.

For Price, this year’s picks weren’t that much different than previous matches, a zero-sum game of filling in holes and shoring up alliances, either real or perceived.

For the outspoken International skipper, it’s turned into a biennial chess match featuring vastly different cultures and languages. The International squad will take the field in three weeks at Liberty National in New Jersey under one flag, but in reality Price’s team will include players from eight different countries who speak five different primary languages.

While Stricker was able to fixate primarily on how his potential picks were playing, Price had to look beyond the scorecard and consider the best way to fit his global puzzle together.

Team records: Full U.S. Ryder Cup roster

Team records: Full International Ryder Cup roster

Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo was an easy choice. The second-year PGA Tour player was 11th on the points list and finished the qualifying process with a tie for 22nd on Monday at TPC Boston that was greater than the sum of its parts.

Not only did Grillo have the pressure of qualifying for Price’s team hanging over him, he also needed a solid week at the Dell Technologies Championship just to secure his start at the BMW Championship.

“The first pick, Grillo, was pretty comprehensive. All of the guys, the captains and players, agreed. This guy was someone who was on our radar for last year and this year,” Price said. “We’re so happy he’s going to play on our team.”

Grillo also would seem to be a good partner for Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas. The two share a common language and many dinners together while out on Tour.

Not so obvious was Price’s decision to pick India’s Anirban Lahiri, who is arguably one of golf’s most genuine and enjoyable people. But camaraderie and team room hijinks don’t win matches.

At the 2015 matches in South Korea, Lahiri was the only player on Price’s team who failed to win even a half-point, and his play this season hasn’t exactly been a study in consistency.

Although he has two top-10 finishes on Tour this season, the first came nearly a year ago at the CIMB Classic in October and the second came in June when he finished runner-up to Jason Dufner. In his last six starts, Lahiri has three missed cuts and his best finish is a tie for 28th.

“He brings a lot to the team room. He’s got a very positive personality,” Price said of Lahiri, who was 16th on the International points list. “There were many reasons, but the big reason for us is he plays full-time on the U.S. tour.”

But beyond his pedestrian play, the bigger issue for Price is who he plans to pair Lahiri with during the team sessions. In ’15, he lost matches paired with Thongchai Jaidee, who didn’t qualify for this year’s team, and Adam Scott.

On paper, there is a flow to Price’s team. The Australians – Jason Day, Scott and Marc Leishman – would be interchangeable partners, as would the South Africans, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace.

 Perhaps Lahiri could fit with Canada’s Adam Hadwin or South Korea’s Si Woo Kim, but what of Hideki Matsuyama, the International’s side top-ranked player and the most crucial element of any potential upset.

If Price’s team, which pushed the U.S. side to the final hole of the final match in ’15, is going to win they will need a big week from Matsuyama, and yet there’s no obvious choice for a partner.

Some suggested Japan’s Hideto Tanihara, who finished 12th on the points list, was a likely pick for just this reason. Tanihara and Matsuyama get along well, and the 38-year-old proved this year at the WGC- Dell Technologies Match Play his potential worth.

Tanihara upset Jordan Spieth, 4 and 2, in Round 1 and added victories over Paul Casey and Ross Fisher after advancing out of group play before dropping a close match in the semifinals, 1 up, to eventual champion Dustin Johnson.

“We looked hard at Tanihara,” Price said. “He played well at the Match Play, but outside of that he hadn’t really played well this year. That was sort of the one time he did play well in the Match Play.

“Hideki is such a versatile player, he can play with anyone. I felt that it was the wrong way to make a pick [based on being a countryman], I wanted to pick a guy on merit.”

Price may see something in Lahiri that’s not in the statistics. After his sub-par performance in the last matches, there will certainly be a desire to redeem himself and Lahiri is a popular addition to the team room.

But in the global Jenga game of getting 12 players to play for one flag, picking Lahiri appears to check off one box while leaving a collection of unanswered questions.

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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.