Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Del Rio’s First Draft

Jack Del Rio stepped to the podium on the day he was introduced as the Jaguars’ Head Coach, it didn’t take long to realize he was a presence. He commands attention and is a force in whatever he’s doing. He was that way as a player, as an assistant coach, and now as a Head Coach. His first foray into the selection process known as the college draft confirms Del Rio’s “in charge” status. He’s not pussy footing around, he’s making decisions, and following his ideas without worrying about politics, what people think or who’s toes he might step on. Mark Brunell might be an icon to some Jaguars fans, but Del Rio, and Personnel Director James Harris know he’s a football player with a certain amount of value and a limited shelf life for production on the field. They thought they needed a quarterback, so they got one, Byron Leftwich from Marshall in the first round. “Shack is a pretty good poker player,” Owner Wayne Weaver said after the selection. Harris passed on giving up an extra pick to the Vikings to ensure the Jaguars got Leftwich, instead banking on Minnesota and Baltimore not having time to get the deal together before the clock ran out. Harris was right, and the Jaguars rushed to the podium when they were on the clock, turning in their selection card with Leftwich’s name on it. “He’s the player we wanted all along,” Del Rio said while answering questions during the Jaguars fan fest on the field at the stadium. “Was he the top rated quarterback on your board, better than Palmer,” I asked from the cow pen set up for reporters. “I’d rather not get into that,” Del Rio said with a smile, “Yes he was,” he added somewhat sotto voce, to the delight of the crowd.

Do the Jaguars need a quarterback? It depends on what your definition of need is I suppose. I’ve said all along that they couldn’t go wrong in the first round, unless they took a quarterback with their first selection. But what they’ve done is put their own stamp on this team, given a new face to the Jaguars in just 24 hours, and that face is a smiling quarterback from Marshall. “He was just too good a player to pass up,” Harris said during his time in front of the fans. What they’ve told Mark Brunell is that he won’t finish his career in a Jaguars uniform, unless he decides to retire after the next season or so. “We expect Mark to be a mentor to Byron,” Weaver admitted, “We have our quarterback situation solved for the next ten years.” How much longer Brunell will play is anybody’s guess, but he won’t be on the Jaguars roster past next year, if that, because of his bonus and salary cap number.

There were no “reaches” in the Jaguars first four picks. Leftwich can play, and it’ll be only a matter of time before he’s a starter. Rashean Mathis will find a spot in the defensive backfield either next to Donovin Darius, or replacing him if the Jaguars move Darius through a trade. They picked up an offensive lineman, a tight end and a running back to fill immediate holes. They’re not dealing with sentimentality; they’re dealing with reality. “We’re not in the message business,” Del Rio has said more than once, “we’re in the business of putting together the best football team we can.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Playing Augusta

I’ve always said I’ve gotten to do things throughout my career that I never would have come close to if not for the job I have. Playing Augusta National is one of those things and near the top of the list. I’ve played Augusta several times, including last Monday as an invited member of the media. Actually, I won a lottery spot after throwing my name into a basket with several hundred other members of the media.

The last time I played Augusta as a member of the media was 1980 and was told it was a “once in a lifetime” thing. And I believed them. I bought new shoes and an Augusta National shirt, I worked on my game and ground out every shot from the back tees. I’ve played there since as a guest, but never again as a member of the media, until last Monday. I joked with the Masters PR director Glenn Greenspan for years about a “10, 15 or 20-year rule” after covering the tournament for more than two decades. “Sorry, Sam,” was Glenn’s reply, “you know, once in a lifetime.”

My friend and Senior Sports Photographer Kevin Talley even wanted proof one time that “The National” kept up on such things. The year he was selected, 1997, he asked to see if I could play again. “Kouvaris?” the smiling woman behind the desk inquired. “Let’s see,” she said as she reached under the desk for an old strongbox with 3X5 cards filed inside. Under the “K’s” she pulled out an old, yellowed and faded card, looked at it and read, “Sam Kouvaris, 1980,” put the card back, closed the box and slid it under the desk, with a smile.

Last year in the credential request form, a notification announced that as a member of the media, you were now re-eligible to submit your name into the lottery every seven years. “Every seven years?” I asked Glenn on the phone in early January. “Yeah, just call it the Sam Kouvaris rule,” he chuckled. Glenn and I have a long professional and personal relationship. He was the original Media Director for the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls in the early ’80’s. We forged a friendship then that has lasted through my tenure here and his stops with Georgia Southern, the PGA Tour, Gary Player and now Augusta National.

So there I was, lined up to play on Monday at Augusta National. Sunday pin placements, perfect 72 degree weather, a caddy, and another new shirt. Without boring you with the details, suffice to say I didn’t play as well as I would have liked, but I wasn’t horrible either. I didn’t make anything over 5 feet (including four birdie chances) and had my share of three-putts and doubles. I was determined not to be score oriented, and grind away, but rather enjoy the experience, if only for how beautiful a walk it is. But it did give me an appreciation for how hard the golf course is, how small the margin for error is, and just how exacting you have to be to score well.

I had parred one and two, and was down the middle on three, 109 yards to the front and 114 to the hole. I hit my “gap” wedge, caught it a little heavy, and as it was in the air, thought it might be a little short. “Just get up a little,” my caddy, Brandon said while the ball was in the air. It landed in the fringe, 108 yards from where I hit it, and instead of hopping forward to set up a birding chance, it spun back 25-yards down the slope away from the hole. Now I have a nearly impossible shot (for someone of my limited talent anyway) and end up making six! So playing there was a thrill and it accomplished just what I had hoped: a confirmation of the PGA Tour’s slogan that I repeated more than once that day. “Boy, those guys are good!”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hooties Comments

Sometimes when you read the things you’ve heard said, they look very different in print. Sometimes without the impact and subtleties and sometimes more harsh than intended. Hootie Johnson, Chairman of Augusta National and the Masters golf tournament has suffered from both cases for the past ten months. He’s been characterized as a Neanderthal and as a progressive. He’s been lauded and vilified for his comments regarding single-gender rights for private organizations. And each time, his comments, when read, seem well thought out.

Today in his annual question and answer session with the media at the Masters, Johnson reiterated the club’s policy on membership in an opening statement and said he wasn’t going to take any questions about that issue. Some of the assembled media worked their way around that, and others decided to ask anyway. Johnson relented after admonishing a reporter for lecturing him. His comments, in print, were well crafted as he cited the Girl Scouts, sewing circles and the Junior League as examples of women-only private organizations. But how he made those comments won’t win him any friends.

When asked about Tiger Woods’ comments saying he believes that there should be a woman member at Augusta, Johnson said “I won’t tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn’t tell us how to run our private club.” Kind of a funny line if made in an off-hand manner, but from the podium of the pressroom at Augusta there wasn’t any humor in it. Johnson seems to be a paradox to many people. A father of four daughters and a champion in many cases against discrimination, he’s been whittled down to a small-minded man who is a brute by those who want to make this a right or wrong issue. His record for supporting so-called progressive causes in the state of South Carolina is well documented. He has fought against discrimination in very public ways. But he doesn’t see this issue as discrimination.

“Single gender is an important fabric on the American scene,” Johnson responded to a question today. “There are thousands and thousands all across America. Both genders. Health clubs, sewing circles, Junior League, Shriners and we should not and we’re not discriminating. And we resent it very much when that accusation is made against us.”

Johnson was asked about his daughters’ thoughts on the issue and he recounted a story about his wife’s recent birthday. ” . . . And my wife and the four daughters wanted to go to the lake place to celebrate her birthday. And they let me know that the really didn’t want me to come along with them. And they didn’t want their husbands to come along. We congregate there all the time, but they were going to do their thing. It’s just a natural thing. And I don’t know how to articulate that or how to explain it. But it’s just been going on for centuries and centuries that men like to get together with men every now and then and women like to get together with women every now and the. And that’s just a simple fact of life in America.”

Research seems to back Johnson up, as a vast majority of women don’t think the gender membership policy at Augusta is an issue. I’m with them. It’s not an issue. It’s a private club that can set their own rules. They give money to charity and strive to put on the best sporting event they can every year. I’ve always had a rule I follow: I don’t go to any parties I’m not invited to. Why try and shoehorn myself somewhere where they don’t know me or possibly they don’t want me to be there?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Augusta 2003

Plenty of people have been to Augusta National. Thousands stream here every year for the practice rounds, holding their tickets as if their admission to the site of the Holy Grail. Up until about five years ago, you could just show up in Augusta, walk to the gates of Augusta National and buy a ticket to the practice round. For the par three tournament one year, so many people showed up, the membership decided it was literally unsafe for the spectators and decided to go to a lottery system and limit the number of tickets made available.

At the Masters, your ticket is good for one particular day in the practice rounds, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. What’s called a Series Badge is good for the tournament days only, Thursday thru Sunday. The change in the crowd is dramatic. Practice rounds have patrons moving about the course in a frantic pace, trying to get everything in during their one day. They’re dressed in golf clothes, with the names of clubs from all over the country emblazoned on their chests. Starting on Thursday, the crowd is smaller, quieter, and older. They take up positions all over the course, watching the parade of players come through, acknowledging their skill with polite applause. They’re dressed is a more demure fashion, khaki jackets, floppy hats and sensible shoes.

This year, those shoes need to be waterproof, with rain falling on the course throughout the beginning of the week. The wet conditions have also changed the golf course, again, making it even longer. They’ve redesigned the fifth hole, moving the tee behind the fourth green, giving it some more length, and they’ve added two, huge, gaping bunkers on the left side of the fairway. “I’m not going in there,” Davis Love said yesterday after a practice round. “I’ll go into the trees right before I go in there. It’s so steep David (Duval) said he wouldn’t snowboard down it, so you know it’s bad.” Duval doesn’t necessarily like the changes, saying they’ve taken some of the drama away from the tournament. The two-time runner up added, “There aren’t as many birdie holes, you have to pick your spots. The back nine isn’t there for the taking anymore, even the par fives. If you had a two shot lead going to the back on Sunday, you might take nine pars and feel pretty good about your chances.”

“You can tell by the roars,” 1979 champ Fuzzy Zoeller observed. “It used to be you could tell what was happening by the roars coming up the hill from all over the course. Now, there aren’t so many ’cause guys are trying to scratch it out, trying to make pars.” One concensus is that length is essential. Fred Couples was amazed how long you have to hit it to just get into position. “From what I saw out there today, I’m not going to say you can’t play the course if you’re not long, but it’s definitely a bomber’s paradise.”