Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

TPC Success

Ponte Vedra – Despite the weather delay, the final round of the Players championship provided just what everybody wanted: a dramatic finish, good television ratings, large crowds and a popular champion. The fact that it was Hal Sutton and Tiger Woods didn’t seem to make that much difference. The fact that Tiger Woods was in the final twosome did. It’s hard to believe Sutton could shoot just 71 in the final round with a one shot lead, and still win when Woods was his closest competitor.

That’s why the Stadium Course at Sawgrass is nearly an equal star to the players. Demanding, tough, penal but leveling is how most players described it. The course doesn’t reward a player with one great part of his game, it rewards the player with the whole game. Sutton had it, especially in the last round missing just one fairway, 16, and that was just barely. His driving was accurate, his iron play precise and his putting nothing short of brilliant. More importantly though, the game in his mind was working like that of a champion.

Sutton talked all week about not trying to force the issue, don’t try to use the accelerator all the time when the brake is what you need. That’s easy stuff to say, but actually putting it into practice in the heat of the battle with the best player in the world as your competition, that’s championship character in action. I asked Hal if he would have been able to do that 5, 10 or even 17 years ago when he first won the TPC, he said no, he’s a much better and smarter player than he was then. His personal and professional travails are well known, and unlike Fulton Allem, Sutton was unwilling to go into his problems and count them among the things that make him the player, and person he is today. His solid play over the last two holes showed grit and determination, and a willingness to trust himself to get the job done.

Following his victory, Hal praised Tiger but added, “He’s not bigger than the game.” If you read between the lines, Sutton was sending a message to his fellow PGA Tour players. Stop trying to play Tiger’s game is the message. Play your own game, trust yourself and good things might happen. Too many players are melting at Tiger’s feet, much like they did with Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan, Snead and Nelson. Why is it such a big deal that Jack Fleck beat Hogan at the Open? Because everybody else was falling all over themselves trying to get out of Hogan’s way. That’s how too many players are reacting to Woods. In some ways, it’s understandable. Tiger is so good, so dominating and so able to will himself to success, it destroys the confidence of his competitors. His eagle on 16 Monday is the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen in golf. It seems only Tiger can make it happen when he wills it to happen. Again, he’s an example of a great athlete who is playing golf, the first of what I think is many more to come.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

I miss Payne Stewart!

Orlando – It was warm, balmy even as I was standing on the practice tee at Bay Hill this week. It’s a trip I make every year, a chance to catch up with friends on the PGA tour and do some advance work prior to the Players Championship. Bay Hill is loose, a comfortable stop on tour, hosted perfectly by Arnold Palmer. The players were cordial, jovial even as they prepared for the longest golf course they’ll play this year on the PGA tour.

I love going to Bay Hill each year.
I just loved it a little less this year.

I missed Payne Stewart.

Last year on Wednesday of the tournament, I saw Payne on the practice tee. He greeted me heartily, with a quicker smile than usual. I’d known Payne since the early ‘80’s and noticed the change in his personality over the years. From a brash, self-confident star on the PGA tour, to a maturing father with two major championships on his resume’, Stewart no question had become a kinder person. We walked across the tee together, and he threw his arm around me and asked “How ya doin’ Sammy?” We laughed and I had a good feeling about the length of our friendship. We’re about the same age, with children about the same age, both doing just what we wanted to do, with some success. I saw Payne 4 or 5 times after that, but never in that relaxed setting of Bay Hill, but even in those heavy congested media-blitzes that occasionally followed him around, he’d give a knowing smile when he caught my eye that said, “Catch you later.”

For Payne there is no later, but he lives on in the actions and words of a lot of guys I know around his age on the PGA Tour, and among the media who cover sports and knew him. The explosive growth of the Tour has mirrored the same in the sports world, and the amount of media around it. The last 15 years have been phenomenal, with people chasing dollars, and stories, sometimes without time for reflection. Stewart’s death gave a lot of guys a real jolt. He’s Payne Stewart, US Open champion, master of his domain, he can’t die! But he did, and maybe we all learned from it.

I mentioned how I missed Payne at Bay Hill to a friend of mine in the press corp. He said at Pebble Beach this year, early one morning, he went to the wall that overlooks the Pacific near the 18th green and just sat there for a while, because he missed Payne. This isn’t supposed to happen between the media and the people they cover. It’s supposed to be a detached observation. But it’s not.

I miss Payne Stewart.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Little Tired of Rocking The Boat

Florida – You’ve heard the sayings, spring is a time for rebirth, a time when all baseball teams seem to have a shot, and they’re all in contention. So why are we still talking about John Rocker? His comments, suspension, and subsequent return to the Braves has blotted out all of the good things this time of the year baseball is supposed to bring us. Enough already. I’m now convinced Rocker is getting almost exactly what he wanted. A rep, a larger than life image. His comments to Sports Illustrated were part of this great “persona” John Rocker was trying to expand. The next step past Al Hrobosky, the Mad Hungarian. Crazy, over the edge, dangerous. Boy, are we all scared now. What we know now is Rocker is disconnected with the real world. The fantasy life professional sports can force on any athlete without the brain power to understand it is not the real world has overtaken Rocker’s sensibilities. There is now way anybody with his background actually believes the things he said.

John Rocker’s right to say anything is protected by the First Amendment. No question about that. Our right to ignore him and think he is an idiot is also clear. Baseball’s right to fine and suspend him has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Baseball is not a government agency. It’s a private entity, with rules and by-laws. The same as if a movie star made the same comments. They have that right, but the studio also has the right to not put them in another picture. Imagine your local anchorman saying those things. He has that right, but would be doing it on the street corner and not on the evening news. John Rocker’s right to say those things has been protected, and the fans right to express their thoughts about him is also protected. Rocker might need protection, and a set of ear plugs this season. Thirty-eight saves and a ninety-eight mph fastball, left-handed,aren’tt going to get him out of this personal bases-loaded situation.

The bigger question is: Who cares? Are we so dependent on what famous people say and do to fulfill our own lives that guys like John Rocker can actually have an effect on us? That’s where we’ve gone astray. The more talent you display on a field of play, the more your opinions count. If Kelly Lightenberg were the Braves closer last year, we would have never heard of John Rocker. PGA Tour star David Duval laughs each time he’s asked a question not relating to golf. When he’s ranked #1 in the world, David says his opinion counts. As soon as he’s #2, the questions stop. Are you really going to vote for somebody because an athlete says to? Wear their shoes, sport their clothes, model your game on the field or court after somebody who has had tremendous success, but run the rest of your life yourself.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Who Wants to Suspend a Millionaire?

Jacksonville – Grab a lifeline. Call a friend.
Go for 50-50, then give us your final answer: Who wants to suspend a millionaire? Maybe Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman have seen the popular TV show and answered the question with a firm, I do. Both men were faced with decisions last week that will define their games in the minds of fans, and both seemed up to the challenge.

Darryl Strawberry is an addict. How else could he continually throw his life away with no regard for anyone else, let alone himself? Cocaine is an insidious drug whose lure never abates. Still, because he has never had to pay a serious enough price, hasn’t experienced enough pain, Strawberry goes back on his word, his promises and risks everything again, because he’s gotten away with it before. He’s always found a technicality, an easy way back into the game of baseball because of its silly acceptance of a player’s disregard for the law. Hopefully Selig’s ruling will end Strawberry’s career. At 38 years old, Strawberry is the most celebrated career .259 hitter ever. As the NL rookie of the year in 1983, his potential seemed limitless but his inability to discipline himself away from the things that made him feel good and toward the things that made him be good. It bothers us as fans to see a player who has all the skills, throw it away on selfishness. He gets to play baseball and does this! Perhaps we’ve felt sorry for Strawberry in the past, and even pitied him, but now he deserves neither. Banishment from baseball is fitting. Let’s hope it’s Bud Selig’s final answer.

Gary Bettman’s move on Marty McSorley was also right, but for different reasons. Fighting, and violence for that matter, is part of professional hockey. Right or wrong (a whole different argument) they are a current part of the game. To have any understanding of this, you must see a game in person, and up close. It’s amazing there’s not an all out brawl every time the players skate down the ice.

Checking in the corners, grabbing, clutching, pushing each other to the ice are all things that happen on each sequence, with the understanding that they’re just “part of the game.” A fight occurs when somebody steps over that line and feels like they have to defend themselves. “Sticks down, gloves off, play,” is how part of the game has been described.

Sticks down!

Two men going at it with their fists are tolerated. Hockey even treats that situation with a bit of honor. But use a weapon, and there’s no honor in thuggery. McSorley says he snapped, and immediately apologized, saying he disgraced himself, his team and the game itself.

He’s right.

As a lifelong “enforcer” McSorley has made his living beating on people, protecting his teammates (including Wayne Gretzky) throughout his career. This time though, his actions were a disgrace and this penalty might end his career after 17 years. In fact, if he applies for reinstatement, the league is set to suspend him for nearly 20 more games next year. If there’s one thing that “old timers” regret about the change in the game over the last 30 years, it’s the lack of self-defense. Guys used to take care of themselves, now there’s somebody on the bench sent in to clean up for them.

A stick check to Paul Karia’s face, ending his season in 1998, and a vicious back check on Mike Modano are two examples of going over the line in hockey. The suspensions handed out were not nearly severe enough. The statement made by Bettman in the McSorley case is not a 50-50 proposition. It’s a lifeline for the sport.