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Spieth, Fowler provide drama in memorable Masters

By Rex HoggardApril 9, 2018, 12:33 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Jordan Spieth’s 8-footer for par at the 72nd hole had just slipped past the hole. As he glanced over his shoulder to climb the hill to Augusta National’s clubhouse his eyes widened.

The player who famously avoids leaderboard gawking was getting his first glance, his first look all day, at that iconic board adjacent to the 18th hole.

“The first time I saw the leaderboard was after I tapped in on 18. Honest to God,” stressed Spieth, whose closing 64 tied for the lowest final round in Masters history. “I could have been in the lead by two and I could have been down four. And neither one would have surprised me. I didn't look once today.”

He missed an epic show.

In Spieth’s defense, he did start the final round at the Masters a full nine shots behind Patrick Reed and correctly figured that even if he was able to conjure some magic around the old plant nursery there was a murderer’s row of would-be champions he’d have to leapfrog on his way to his second green jacket.

“With eight people ahead of me starting the day, to get that much help and shoot a fantastic round was nearly impossible,” Spieth shrugged. “But I almost pulled off the impossible. I had no idea.”

Between Spieth and Rickie Fowler – who set out on Sunday in slightly better position, just five strokes off the pace – they produced an impossibly memorable final round that, with a monsoon of respect to eventual champion Reed, would otherwise have gone down as one of the tournament’s more uneventful finishes.

Reed won with a gritty closing round of 71, but this Masters will be remembered as a frenzied buzzer beater for the American thanks to Spieth and Reed providing an intoxicating mix of inspiration and intrigue.

It’s the secret sauce that makes the Masters different from other majors. Identify the week’s best – sure, all the majors accomplish that to varying degrees – but the magic is to bring together the game’s best, add a dash of hole locations that encourage aggressive play with electrifying results and finish it off with a steady diet of mounting pressure.

Spieth got things started with five birdies through his first nine holes before vanquishing some demons at the 12th hole, where he’s lost at least two Masters already in his young career, with a 22-footer for birdie to move to 14 under and within two shots of Reed.

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Not that Spieth had any idea where he stood.

“To play a disciplined shot, probably the most pressure-packed shot I've ever hit [at No. 12], the Sunday pin at Augusta and I know what I've done, and my history there, to stand in that kind of pressure and hit the shot to the safe zone, to knock that putt in was massive,” Spieth said.

He would convert back-to-back birdies at Nos. 12 and 13 and again at Nos. 15 and 16, the latter to tie for the lead at 14 under and send a low, distinctive roar across the property and all the way to the 11th tee, where Reed was about to hit a wayward drive that would add more intrigue to the proceedings.

Compared with Spieth, Fowler’s heroics were more of the traditional variety after playing the opening loop in 1 under par. The man many consider the best player without a major rolled in 9-footers at 12 and 13 and a 49-foot winding Hail Mary at the 15th hole to move to within two strokes of the lead.

The theater built to a predictable crescendo, with Fowler hitting his approach to 7 feet at the final hole just as Reed stepped to the 18th tee 465 yards back down the hill. From center stage with the world and Reed watching, Fowler calmly rolled in the type of birdie putt that wins major championships.

Unlike Spieth, Fowler didn’t need to glance back up at the leaderboard to check his status. His birdie at the last left him at 14 under, one stroke back and officially on hold while Reed decided the outcome.

“I didn't look at the scoreboards a whole lot today, but I wanted to kind of check in and see where things were at around the turn,” said Fowler, who closed with a 67 to complete a 12-under-par weekend surge. “I saw Jordan was off and running today. To see that was kind of a kick in the butt.”

The assorted charges and cheers that echoed through the pines also served to put Reed on notice. Poised to become the first player to post all four rounds in the 60s after the first three days, the would-be champion struggled early.

Reed bogeyed the first and sixth holes to turn in even par and pushed his drive into the trees right of the 11th fairway on his way to bogey. His lead, which was three shots over Rory McIlroy to begin the day, had been trimmed to a single stroke.

“I knew someone else was going to go post a number early. Did I think they were going to post that type of number [Spieth’s 64]? No,” said Reed, who would birdie the 15th hole and play the rest of his round in even par for a one-stroke victory over Fowler.

“But just to see kind of how he was playing and see every time I looked at a board, they always threw up a number and it seemed to always get closer and closer to me; it was kind of nerve wracking. I was kind of glad he ran out of holes.”

After one of the most memorable finishes in Masters history, he may have been the only one who wanted this magical day to end.

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As Tour heads to NJ, legalized gambling comes into focus

By Rex HoggardAugust 15, 2018, 4:42 pm

It was New Jersey and then-Gov. Chris Christie who began the crusade to make sports betting legal beyond the confines of Las Vegas, so it’s no surprise that the Garden State would be the pointy end of the gaming spear.

In May, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which had made sports wagering unlawful for the last 25 years, there was no small amount of interest among states to pave the way for a market that could be worth billions in revenue. Less than a month after the court’s ruling, New Jersey approved a bill legalizing sports gambling.

About an hour’s drive south from Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., site of next week’s Northern Trust event, Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., was one of the first to open a sports book – generating an eye-catching $8.1 million handle in just 17 days after opening in mid-June – and the PGA Tour’s return to New Jersey for the first playoff tournament is sure to generate interest at the newly-minted book.

But as sports, and particularly golf, wade into the betting pool, don’t expect a wholesale change just yet. Although New Jersey was among the first states to embrace sports betting, wagers are currently limited to a few casinos and racetracks.

“I wouldn’t say the gaming would be any different than what’s currently being offered in Las Vegas or elsewhere, win bets and that type of thing,” said Andy Levinson, the Tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, most professional leagues, including the Tour, came out in support of sports betting, but they did so with a few important conditions. Many professional leagues, which have been speaking to state legislators across the country for months about any potential betting legislation, wanted to safeguard the integrity of the competition.

The leagues also wanted to have a say in the types of bets that will be allowed – with the Tour looking to avoid what are called negative outcome bets, like a player missing a fairway or a green or making a specific score on a hole – and assure that sports books use official data generated by the leagues (in golf that would be ShotLink data).

And the leagues also have proposed “integrity fees,” which would likely be 1 percent of the handle from betting operators.

Last month, the NBA announced a partnership that made MGM Resorts the league’s official non-exclusive gaming partner, a move that could become the template for the Tour as the sports betting market matures.

“With the NBA deal it’s nice to see an organization like MGM is committed to integrity and sharing specific betting information with the NBA. To see a gaming operator make that commitment is very positive,” Levinson said. “If it included those protections and had that balance between fan engagement while protecting the integrity of our competition, that’s a positive deal for the NBA.”

For the sports leagues, the NBA deal is less about what kind of betting MGM will allow at its various casinos than it is a snapshot into what many see as the ultimate endgame. Part of every league’s plan is a robust online gaming element, which is seen as the only way to end illegal or off-shore betting.

“When we are speaking with legislators across the country one of the important elements includes mobile betting in legislation. The vast majority of sports betting takes place online. The current black market in the U.S. is almost exclusively online,” Levinson said. “One of the goals in creating a legal sports betting market is to eliminate that black market. If it’s not easily accessible, people will continue to use that online service.”

Other than New Jersey and Delaware, which are already developing guidelines for online sports betting, most states are taking a more measured approach. In fact, Levinson explained that since most state legislative sessions have already ended for the year it’s likely that they won’t begin to develop guidelines for sports betting until mid-2019.

 The Tour also has a few hurdles to clear. Under the circuit’s current regulations, players, partners and the Tour itself are prohibited from partnering with casinos or betting institutions. Before the circuit could move forward with any type of deal like the NBA and MGM agreement that regulation would have to be changed.

“We are in the process of evaluating that category,” Levinson said. “We are looking at a wholesale evaluation of our endorsement policy. That’s for the Tour, players, networks, other constituents.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling may have potentially opened vast new markets for the Tour and created an entirely new way to engage with fans, just don’t expect things to change yet, even as the circuit arrives on the front lines of the sports betting transformation next week in New Jersey.

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Nadal checks phone for Tiger update after match

By Grill Room TeamAugust 15, 2018, 3:04 pm

Even the greatest athletes in the world were captivated by Tiger Woods' Sunday run at the PGA Championship.

After winning his match on Sunday to capture the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Rafa Nadal turned his attention to Woods. Cameras focused on Nadal scrolling through and surveying his phone. He then revealed that he was trying to get a Tiger update from the PGA Championship, where Woods made a spirited run to solo second place.

Woods has often been seen at tennis events, watching Nike buddies Roger Federer (no longer primarily sponsored by Nike) and Nadal. Woods and his children watched from Nadal's box during the 2017 U.S. Open and Nadal was on hand at the 2017 Hero World Challenge, when Woods made his return from back surgery.

For the record, Woods has 14 major wins and Nadal has 17 Grand Slam titles, both second all-time in their respective sports.

Check out the video below as Golf World's Anna Whiteley talks to Nadal about his love of golf in the 2016 interview.

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U.S. Amateur playoff: 24 players for 1 spot in match play

By Associated PressAugust 15, 2018, 1:21 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Cole Hammer and Daniel Hillier were tied at the top after two rounds of the U.S. Amateur, but the more compelling action on Tuesday was further down the leaderboard.

Two dozen players were tied for 64th place after two rounds of stroke play at Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill. With the top 64 advancing to match play, that means all 24 will compete in a sudden-death playoff Wednesday morning for the last spot in the knockout rounds.

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They'll be divided into six foursomes and start the playoff at 7:30 a.m. on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach, where Tom Watson chipped in during the 1982 U.S. Open and went on to win.

The survivor of the playoff will face the 19-year-old Hillier in match play. The New Zealander shot a 2-under 70 at Spyglass Hill to share medalist honors with the 18-year-old Hammer at 6 under. Hammer, an incoming freshman at Texas who played in the 2015 U.S. Open at age 15, shot 68 at Spyglass Hill.

Stewart Hagestad had the low round of the day, a 5-under 66 at Pebble Beach, to move into a tie for 10th after opening with a 76 at Spyglass Hill. The 27-year-old Hagestad won the 2016 U.S. Mid-Amateur and earned low amateur honors at the 2017 Masters.

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Hammer in position (again) to co-medal at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2018, 10:37 pm

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Cole Hammer is in position to go for a rare sweep in this summer’s biggest events.

Two weeks ago, Hammer, an incoming freshman at Texas, was the co-medalist at the Western Amateur and went on to take the match-play portion, as well.

Here at the U.S. Amateur, Hammer shot rounds of 69-68 and was once again in position to earn co-medalist honors. At 6-under 137, he was tied with 19-year-old Daniel Hillier of New Zealand.

“It would mean a lot, especially after being medalist at the Western Am,” Hammer said afterward. “It’s pretty special.”

No stroke-play medalist has prevailed in the 64-man match-play bracket since Ryan Moore in 2004. Before that, Tiger Woods (1996) was the most recent medalist champion.  

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On the strength of his Western Am title, Hammer, 18, has soared to No. 18 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He credited his work with swing coach Cameron McCormick and mental coach Bob Rotella.

“Just really started controlling my iron shots really well,” said Hammer, who has worked with McCormick since 2015, when he qualified for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay as a 15-year-old.

“Distance control with my wedges and all my iron shots, playing different shots, has become really a strength in my game. I’ve really turned the putter on this year, and I’m seeing the lines and matching the line with the speed really well. I think that’s been the key to my summer.”

A two-time New Zealand Amateur champion, Hillier is ranked 27th in the world. He said that, entering the tournament, he would have been pleased just to make it to match play.

“But to come out on top, it’s amazing,” Hillier said. “Cole is a really good golfer and has been playing well lately. So, yeah, I’m in good company.”