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Monday Scramble: Let Tiger mania resume

By Will GrayNovember 27, 2017, 4:00 pm

Tiger Woods gets set for his return to competition, President Donald Trump makes (quick) time for golf during the holidays, the governing bodies float out the idea of diversifying the ball offerings and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

In a week where most of us spent time scarfing down leftovers and sharing reasons to be thankful, the golf news cycle rolled right along with two prominent names at the top.

A normally quiet stretch of the season, with the PGA Tour beginning its longest hibernation of the year, still received plenty of attention because of the presence of Woods and Trump.

The fact that the two men intersected for a leisurely round together without breaking the internet shows that we are in a quiet portion of the calendar, but it's still a testament to the interest in both that golf became a discussion point this weekend around turkey, stuffing and football.

Amid this season of reflection and giving thanks, one thing is certain in golf media: with Tiger and Trump making headlines, there will always be something to talk about - even when the sport makes a rare attempt at having an off-season.

1. We start with Woods, whose return to competition this week is somehow being greeted with as much, if not more, anticipation than the same scenario a year ago.

Last year he made his first competitive swipes in more than 15 months at the Hero World Challenge, where he finished 15th out of a 17-man field. This time he'll be teeing it up for the first time since early February, less than two months removed from comments where he entertained the notion of never playing competitive golf again.

It's a remarkable course correction, one whose Zapruder film intrigue has shifted from Twitter videos to first-hand accounts of Woods' game.

He's more than four years removed from his last win, almost 10 years removed from his last major and staring down birthday No. 42 next month. But based on the interest and speculation surrounding Woods, it might as well be 2008.

2. Quickly becoming an annual fall tradition akin to pumpkin pie, the eyewitness accounts of Woods' on-course progress are rolling in at record speed.

After Rickie Fowler explained earlier this month that Woods was hitting it "way by" him at Medalist, Jason Day told reporters in Australia that Woods is currently "the best he's ever felt in three years."

Then came Brad Faxon's detailed account of their round together over the weekend, where he shared that Woods hit it past world No. 1 Dustin Johnson on half the holes.

It all adds up to brimming optimism surrounding Woods' return, a four-day harbinger of what might be in store for 2018 and beyond.

3. But nothing quite matches hearing from the man himself, as Woods' presence in the Bahamas meant that Hero tournament week started a full day early.

Woods zipped around Albany in a cart, with caddie Joe LaCava along for the ride. Afterwards, he explained that "life is so much better" following his lumbar fusion surgery in April.

There's sure to be rust this week as he rounds out a star-studded field amid the sandy fairways at Albany, but the thought of an optimistic Woods holding his own for 72 holes - and more importantly, remaining healthy for more than a couple days at a time - is enough to merit a quick peek at the countdown clock to the Masters.

4. While Woods played over the holiday weekend with Faxon and Johnson, the fourth in the group just happened to be the leader of the free world.

President Trump took to Twitter to explain that he would (quickly) be pegging it with the current and former world No. 1s. The round continued a year in which the commander-in-chief has made frequent appearances on the course, and it was the second time that he and Woods had played together since Trump's election.

According to Faxon, the best-ball match ended in a tie with Woods and Johnson tipping out Trump International around 7,600 yards while he and President Trump played the blue tees at 6,500 yards.

5. One day after his round with Woods, Trump shifted gears by playing with the only golfer ever to win more major titles.

Jack Nicklaus teed it up with the president Saturday at Trump's course in Jupiter, Fla. Nicklaus has worked together with Trump on course projects and was vocally supportive of his potential in the White House, both before and after the election.

"I like what Donald has done," Nicklaus said last year. "I like that he's turning America upside down. He's awakening the country. We need a lot of that."

No word on how that particular match ended up, but it's hard to think of a better 36-hole itinerary than playing with Nicklaus and Woods in the span of two days. Then again, when you top the organizational chart in Washington, D.C., you can sometimes get the tee sheet to bend in your favor.

6. A change to the rules is far from imminent, but the USGA and R&A appear willing to at least consider an equipment option that might restrict some of the eye-popping distance numbers top players continue to uncork.

The two governing bodies are researching the topic together, and last week USGA executive director Mike Davis went so far as to say that the recent uptick in distance has "horrible" implications.

Davis' remarks weren't tied to the 400-yard drives themselves, but rather to the ripple effects they cause. Longer shots mean longer courses, which means expanded footprints and ultimately increased maintenance costs and environmental impact.

"I don't care how far Tiger Woods hits it," Davis said. "The reality is this is affecting all golfers and affecting them in a bad way. All it's doing is increasing the cost of the game."

It's an intriguing angle with which to approach the situation, and Davis' comments signal the powers-that-be might finally be willing to listen to calls for change.

7. But make no mistake, the possible introduction of a tournament ball won't go down without a fight from equipment manufacturers - specifically Titleist executive Wally Uihlein.

In the wake of Davis' comments, Uihlein wrote a stern letter to the Wall Street Journal questioning some of Davis' claims and insisting, among other points, that the motivation for longer "championship" golf courses was simply to sell more houses along the fairways.

As one of the leading ball manufacturers, Titleist could potentially have the most to lose from any effort to curb technological innovations, even if a reduced-distance model were offered to complement - not replace - consumer options. It seems like the seeds have been planted for what could become an intriguing power struggle within the game.

8. The groundswell to "do something" about the ball certainly did not start at the USGA offices.

The chorus of players adding their voice to the issue has included Woods and, more recently, Geoff Ogilvy. The former U.S. Open champ is one of the most thoughful players with a microphone in his hand, and last week in Sydney he compared the distance craze to the use of aluminum bats in baseball.

"We’ve completely outgrown the stadiums," Ogilvy said. "So do you rebuild every stadium in the world? That’s expensive. Or make the ball go shorter? It seems relatively simple from that perspective.’’

9. There was some actual tournament golf played last week, including an almost-perfect homecoming for Jason Day.

The Aussie was making his first start Down Under since 2013, and he carried a one-shot lead into the final round of the Australian Open. But the birdies dried up in a difficult final round, where he fell back into a tie for fifth as 22-year-old Cameron Davis surged to victory.

It was great to see Day back in Australia playing in a top-notch event. The finish, though, was another example of just how frustrating the year has been for a player who was ranked No. 1 as recently as February but now sits outside the top 10.

10. The defending champ didn't exactly challenge, but Jordan Spieth still left Oz with reason to smile.

With caddie Michael Greller back home with a newborn, swing coach Cameron McCormick took the bag and helped Spieth to an eighth-place showing in an event he has won twice before.

Lifting the Stonehaven Cup proved to be a predecessor for Spieth's major triumphs in both 2015 and 2017. Next year he'll look to show that it's not a requirement as he tries to track down major No. 4.

Move aside, Steph Curry.

After the two-time NBA champ exceeded expectations with his appearance at the Tour's Ellie Mae Classic in August, now it's country superstar Jake Owen's turn to try his hand against the world's best.

Owen is an avid golfer and regular partner with Spieth at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he'll play in his hometown at the Nashville Golf Open in May. His 3 handicap is pretty stout compared to most amateurs, but it's also a far cry from the 0.8 Curry currently posts.

Owen is almost certain to miss the cut, and likely won't be as competitive as Curry was with rounds of 74-74. But before the "he's stealing a start" crowd gets riled up, remember that both Curry and Owen accepted unrestricted sponsor invites. Even two rounds in the 80s will bring attention and media to a circuit that often struggles to gain traction, and that's never a bad thing.

This week's award winners ... 

Officially Expecting: Gerina Piller. The former Olympian and Solheim Cup hero announced that she'll miss the start of the 2018 LPGA season because she is pregnant with her first child, due in May.

Still in Shock: Cameron Davis, who appeared beside himself after hanging on to a one-shot win at the Australian Open. The win vaulted Davis - who had won at Royal Sydney as an amateur only two years prior - from No. 1494 to No. 229 in the world rankings.

Better Late Than Never: Wade Ormsby. The 34-year-old Aussie finally broke through at the UBS Hong Kong Open, holding off a group that included Rafael Cabrera-Bello for his first European Tour win in 264 career starts. To the resilient go the spoils.

On the Mend: Davis Love III, who is back to rehab following hip replacement surgery. The 53-year-old has targeted the Florida swing in March for his return to the PGA Tour.

Ko 2.0: Jin Young Ko, no relation to Lydia, who announced her intentions to join the LPGA tour before guiding a group of Korean LPGA Tour stars to victory in a team event against LPGA pros from South Korea.

Packing for Scotland: Former PGA Tour winners Matt Jones and Jonas Blixt, who along with Davis, qualified for The Open at Carnoustie based on their finishes at the Australian Open in the first of 15 Open Qualifying Series events.

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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.