Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Dinner with Jim Furyk

I’m a member of a small business group that meets once a month to discuss trends and happenings in Jacksonville. We get together for dinner and usually have a speaker from a charity, a business or a portion of government. And sometimes we step away from our “mission” to have some fun. This was one of those months as one of our members brought Jim Furyk as our guest for the evening.

Furyk is currently the #2 player in the world and just returned from Hawaii when he played the opening two events of the year on the PGA Tour. Our group is pretty informal, with everybody sitting around the table chatting up the speaker while dinner is served. Furyk fit in perfectly with the group with his easy-going manner and his honest, forthright storytelling.

While attendance at our monthly meeting us usually solid and sometimes spotty, this one was packed. Most of the members are golfers, and a chance to hear a former US Open Champion and one of the top players in the world talk about the game, his fellow competitors and life on tour.

Furyk’s an interesting guy because he has a story. Raised in Pennsylvania, his father became an assistant golf pro the year he was born. Furyk always had a passion for the game, but his father pushed him toward other sports instead. “If it had a ball or a glove, I was involved with it,” Furyk said while recapping his youth.

He played football and baseball, but was mainly interested in golf, as early as 8 years old. “My Dad said I wasn’t old enough to play yet, so I asked him to give me an age. He said 12, so when I turned 12, I held him to it and made him let me play.”

Furyk was passionate about the game, in the summer. That’s when he’d play all day during the week at the local muni, taking lessons from his father, “Standing in the kitchen,” at night and on the weekends. He played football early in high school and baseball a little longer until golf took over. “I played in 8 tournaments one summer in high school and won 6 of them, so I figured golf was the sport,” he explained.

Furyk was competitive and a winner in Pennsylvania, but that’s not considered a hotbed of golf. “So I started to play in some junior tournaments around the country and Arizona was the best college situation for me, so that’s where I ended up,” Jim said matter of factly.

“Of course I was interested in getting far away from Pennsylvania at the time,” he added with a laugh.

He might be #2 in the world now, but Furyk has played on just about every mini-tour and shared a social life with other players of his era on the road. So he knows those guys, and they know him. He didn’t hide at a country club or just show up at the US Amateur. Furyk played, and made himself an elite player.

“If there’s one thing about my job that I don’t like, and I’m not really complaining, it’s the travel,” he said when I asked him about “life on tour.” His earnings are in the millions, but Jim isn’t all about luxury. He flies commercially when it makes sense (Hawaii and Europe) and uses the PGA Tour’s personal trainer as opposed to importing his own.

In other words, he’s normal. He’s a pro’s pro, a big sports fan, plays golf with friends and honest with the people he deals with. He’s easy to root for.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators Swamp Buckeyes

It was supposed to be a coronation. It seems like the entire state of Ohio had transplanted itself to Arizona to witness Ohio State’s crowning as the National Champion. Florida was only the cannon fodder for the game.

The Buckeyes were supposed to be having a rematch with Michigan according to everybody who was supposedly in the know. The Gators got into the game on their strength of schedule and how they played in the SEC title game against Arkansas.

But Ohio State was the story.

Heisman Trophy winner at Quarterback, they were on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption: “The Best: Period.” I thought that was unbelievably arrogant, and clearly the Buckeye nation took that to heart acting in Arizona as if their football team had been transformed into some kind of deity.

“Florida ninety-nine, O-hi-o zip,” Kenneth Tookes of First Coast High and the Gators told me on Friday during media day. Kyle Jackson of Fletcher High said the same thing, laughing it up on camera. “Can you play with these guys?” I asked Jackson off camera. “We’ll be alright if we do our thing. They can’t run with us. They’re like LSU but not as good.”

That was the first hint that the Gators knew something was up. I watched the Ohio State/Michigan game with three friends and came away unimpressed. None of the three are from the South so when I said, “Florida or any other top SEC school would beat either one of those teams,” they thought it was just regional prejudice.

But I really believed it.

I even said “Michigan would be 7-4 if they played in the SEC,” on the air and got plenty of hate mail because of it.

I did flinch when Ted Ginn Jr. took the opening kick back for a touchdown but figured if the Gators could answer right away, they’d get their feet under them. Florida’s opening drive resulted in a touchdown and I told my colleague Tom, “This is the team that gave up 39 points to Michigan. They won’t stop Florida all night.” Tom, a big Gator fan, just smiled. You know that nervous smile that says, “I hope you’re right!”

My seat was in the corner of the end zone looking down on the field like watching coaching tape. I was amazed that Ohio State kept trying to run a zone against Florida’s five wide formations. There was no way they could cover that and if Chris Leak were on, Florida’s skill guys would run wild.

Turns out, Leak was much more than on, he was sharp and made great decisions, taking what the defense was giving and just grinding the ball down field and demoralizing Ohio State. You could see it in their body language. The Buckeyes had rolled through their schedule undefeated and did it the same way every week. But now that what had worked during the regular season wasn’t working; they didn’t have anywhere to go.

They were stunned and in didn’t have a Plan B.

Florida, on the other hand, was just rolling. It seemed that they could do no wrong and their speed was dominating. Troy Smith couldn’t believe that guys like Ray McDonald and Jarvis Moss could run him down in the backfield. Nobody in the Big 10 can do that.

The difference is, everybody in the SEC can.

So Florida’s speed advantage wasn’t just at the skill positions, it was all over the field. Defensive linemen were faster than the offensive guys trying to block them, faster than the backs trying to elude them. You did have the sense that the Buckeyes would eventually get something going, but it never materialized. Their fans sat in a stunned silence.

“We were embarrassed,” one told me on the plane. “This will take a while to get over.”

A lot will be made of Urban Meyer winning the National Championship in just his second year but perhaps more should be made of the Gators return to national prominence, probably a year early.

“I’m happy about the National Championship,” Tom told me after the game, “but I’d rather beat Tennessee, Georgia and FSU every year.”

And that’s how it is.

The competition at home is just as, if not fiercer than on the road. Which is why Gators are smiling today.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Five Days in Glendale

I’ve been in Arizona for the past four days covering the run-up to the National Championship game between Florida and Ohio State. With the game set for Monday night, the fans have started flowing into the “Valley of the Sun” this weekend.

I’ve been to Phoenix a few times, but this is the first when the distinct difference between the suburbs has been so delineated. I’m actually staying in a place called Paradise Valley. Not Phoenix, not Scottsdale, not Tempe and not Glendale. And don’t mess that up or the locals will get on you.

Scottsdale is kind of “upscale” but a strip mall with cactus in front of it is still a strip mall. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice, but there really aren’t any landmarks to outline your trip or to use for reference. It’s all by roads and luckily they’re laid out North/South and East/West.

Our live location is at the stadium where they’ll play the game in Glendale. They’re very proud of what’s going on in Glendale, especially with all of the new construction. “We have a very active city manager,” one of the smiling “Glendale Ambassadors” told me. “He’s constantly selling Glendale and the City Council has faith in him and goes along with it.”

They built the Glendale arena for the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL and they’ve now completed a $680 million football stadium to house an active and extensive bowl game schedule as well as the Arizona Cardinals. It’s a palace, no question with a retractable roof and a retractable field. They move the field out side into this big concrete pad in order for it to get some sun and they’ll put the water on it. The roof goes back in 20 minutes; it takes the field 1 hour and 15 minutes to roll out side.

It’s an engineering marvel, and it’s in the middle of nowhere.

It sits like a spaceship in the middle of the desert and they’re using it to attract businesses, restaurants, hotels and the like out to Glendale. There’s a huge “lifestyle” center next to the stadium with movie theaters, restaurants and shops. Where the people come from, I’m not sure, but they drive in like bees to a hive. It’s kind of like that scene in “Close Encounters.” The ship is there and the people just flock to it.

One thing they have is plenty of land. As far as you can see, they can expand. It’s just a matter of getting water to where ever they are.

I’m staying at the Camelback Inn, and old destination spa that’s on 125 acres hard against one of the “mountains” in the Paradise Valley/Scottsdale area. All the buildings are adobe style; one story and the rooms are called “casitas.” Each room has a sundeck and feels very remote from anything else.

President Eisenhower, Bing Crosby, Arthur Godfrey and other stars of that era used the Camelback Inn as a base in the Southwest. There’s plenty of golf around and the higher you go into the hills the more spectacular the homes.

The Camelback has a running route mapped out through the neighborhoods next door and up into the hills. For a flatlander like me, it was tough to negotiate those hills during a 40 minute run! Perhaps you can call it a run, it was more like a plodding march. I came up behind a couple walking up one of the hills and said, “I might not pass you.” They laughed, but I was serious!

I can also tell you that as warm as it gets during the day have no bearing on how cold it gets at night. It’s’ been in the 70’s during the day and easily in the mid to low 30’s at night. I can see where you’d like it here and a lot of people from the mid-west are picking Arizona over Florida for retirement.

The Phoenix area has the largest Ohio State Alumni club in the country. Most Gator fans I’ve seen say they’re outnumbered, for now. The Buckeyes have been here for 4 of the last 6 years and know the drill. In fact, most of the concession stands are over run with Ohio State gear, with some Orange and Blue sprinkled in.