Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars TE Thomas: We can be better

You might think this time of year would be tedious for a veteran like Julius Thomas. But after missing last year’s training camp and trying to get involved with the Jaguars offense as the season progressed, he says these OTA’s for the Jaguars are important.

“This is probably the biggest time of the year for growing and learning” he said after the Tuesday practice. “We have so much extra time. We’re able to look at the film, look at some of the things we did last year and figure out why we weren’t executing at a high level.”

Although Thomas had some critical catches for the Jaguars as the season wore on, he admitted he never was really comfortable with what he was doing. His “feel” for what QB Blake Bortles was doing and what he wanted just wasn’t there.

“The timing has definitely improved,” he explained. “I think that me and Blake have a much better relationship, a much better understanding of each other and most importantly getting more reps.”

With Thomas being part of an offense with Bortles, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqis Lee, Marcedes Lewis, Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon, sounds formidable. Robinson believes having the veteran Tight End for the whole season after last year’s production will be important.

“Extremely important,” he said in the locker room. “I think for the games he got out there last year, he was also important. He made some big plays; some big catches for us, down the stretch. I thought he was important last year.”

And while the Jaguars had some production on offense that turned some heads, Thomas said he saw a lot of missed opportunities to win games.

“[There was] a lot to hang our hats on at the end of that season but also a lot of glaring things that kept us from winning games – ball security, execution, how we executed in the red area, third down. If you want to be an elite team, you have to be good in those categories.”

Coming from a player who’s been on winning teams, that opinion should carry some weight with his teammates. Thomas thinks the Jaguars can get to that elite level. With work.

“We have to pay better attention to detail to hit our spots,” he said talking about the Jaguars issues in certain areas. “You’re not going to get great opportunities all the time but when you get them, you have to take advantage of them. That’s what the great teams do and that’s what we’re trying to build. If we have third and short, let’s make sure we execute.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hale Irwin at WGV: Winners have the heart of a champion

During his time on the PGA Tour, Hale Irwin had a reputation as a fierce competitor. It helped him to three U.S. Open titles but it also meant he was respected and sometimes feared by his peers.

Irwin shot a final round 69 at the Regions Tradition in Birmingham on Sunday, just a few days short of his 71st birthday. He then made the short trip to St. Augustine and the World Golf Hall of Fame to to see the collection of golf memorabilia and artifacts found in the Museum. The current record holder for Champions Tour victories with 45 had not been to World Golf Village in nearly 20 years.

I reminded him he’s been a member of the Hall of Fame for nearly 25 years and 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of his win in the NCAA Championship.

“You want to hear those numbers I guess,” he joked. “It’s better than the alternative.”

But you can tell now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the 20-time winner on the PGA TOUR is appreciative but humbled by the Hall.

“Being a part of the greatest who’ve every played this game is pretty humbling,” he said reverently.

And the World Golf Village has transformed itself in Irwin’s eyes into a “must see” attraction for sports fans.

“It’s interactive, the displays are just fantastic. What people have put in here from their own collections! It’s amazing to see how these people have touched the game of golf or maybe more importantly how the game of golf has touched them.”

I snuck a peek at Irwin’s locker in the Hall where he has one of the first sets of clubs he ever played with as a kid when he was 4 years old.

“Those are very simple. They’re old. Archaic. It’s an old, old bag with cut off clubs I used as a little boy,” he said with a laugh. “But l think you have to get grounded every now and again and it takes me back to my parents, my dad, the little town I grew up in in southeast Kansas and how I got started.”

Those clubs are a far cry from the composite heads and solid golf balls that have changed the game dramatically. But Irwin says the top players of any era could compete across the board.

“Are the players at the top of the game now better than players before? No, they’re just playing in different eras. They have the heart of a champion. There’s more depth in the game but you look at Snead, Hogan, Sarazen, Palmer, Nicklaus, Player. They’d have been able to compete.”

Although Hale did admit when watching a PGA TOUR event these days it’s obvious the players themselves have changed.

“They’re all 6’2″, thin and look young!” he said with a chuckle.

In Irwin’s era on the TOUR players came in all shapes and sizes. But he stayed fit, thinking it was part of playing the game.

“”I’ve been in a lot of sports and I was a college football player and I thought that being in shape was the thing to do. It helped me. I think people now are understanding that when they see golfers they’re not just some guy who jumped up from the bar and went to play. They’re athletes. Most of them are good at something else too.”

On one hand technology has changed how the game is played but Irwin believes the idea hasn’t changed.

“The game is still played with the same idea, it’s just how you go about it. Everything is made to go high and fly far. We watched Jason Day hit that 2-iron (at THE PLAYERS) 308 yards. How is that possible?”

And while the top players are taking advantage of the technology boost in golf, Irwin agreed that the equipment allowing better play for the average player is also good for the game.

“People who are playing the game now might see some more immediate positive results with today’s equipment. That’s what people want to see in today’s society and that’s what you’re going to see.”

While he won three U.S. Opens, none were at Oakmont where this year’s Championship will be contested. Irwin is familiar with the layout and says it’ll take some guile, and brawn to win. I said with all the top players playing well it could be an exciting tournament to watch.

“It will be,” he said emphatically. “I’m going to go out on a branch here and say it’s going to be a veteran who wins this year. You can’t just go out there and bang it willy-nilly at Oakmont. It takes some knowledge of where you can hit it. Not that some of those young guys can’t do it. But I think somebody’s going to step out of the shadows of those young lions to put some heat on them.”

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Jaguars Start OTA’s “Good not great.”

In his fourth year as the Jaguars head coach, Gus Bradley is pretty much done creating a culture.

You could tell from his opening statement after the first OTA of 2016.

“I would say a good start, not a great start,” is how he started. “I thought there were some things, but I kind of like that as far as the first day because the team recognized it. What I saw that I did like is that they’re starting to hold each other accountable from day one.”

Building a roster with a players who have the blend of talent and personality that will fit into Bradley’s culture was a priority for the head coach and General Manager Dave Caldwell. Bradley’s built the core. Now he’s leaving it up to the players.

“We’re not going in and having a team meeting about, ‘Hey, you have to hold each other accountable to a standard.’ Those discussions are over. Those guys know the standard so I like that part of it.”

Much like last year, Bradley was faced with a question about his injured first round draft pick after the first OTA. He didn’t seem overly concerned, relating that he couldn’t tell when Jalen Ramsey was injured during Phase Two of the workouts. ”

“You know what, I’m going to be really honest with you and say it’s hard to see,” Gus recalled. “Both him and I have had conversations about it and you really can’t see anything on tape.”

Ramsey is going to be re-examined this week for a better idea of how much time he’ll miss.

Perhaps the position most in flux for the Jaguars is offensive line. They announced that Luke Bowanko has a hip injury and is awaiting surgery. As expected Brandon Linder lined up at center with Luke Joeckel working at both tackle and guard. Without Kelvin Beachum working in these OTA’s Bradley says he’ll get a good look at several players at several positions. When Beachum returns, (they hope in training camp) that’s when the real competition will begin. But make no mistake, Bradley likes everything about Joeckel.

“He’s another one that I think when you look at Luke compared to the last play of last season to now, I think physically he’s had some changes,” Gus explained when asked about where the former number one pick will play. “He looks stronger, just his attitude and his work ethic, he’s really focused. Seems like a different type of player, not that he wasn’t before, but he’s out on a little bit of a mission it seems like.”

When asked about the difference between guard and tackle Joeckel said, “It’s easier.” And added that he’ll do whatever they ask.

Adapting to the center position has been quicker than expected for Linder according to Bradley. A natural guard, Linder seems to have taken to the nuance of the position in the middle of the line easily.

“I like his leadership. You wonder how long it’s going to take him to get into a routine. It’s not going to take him long from what I’ve seen.”

In an ironic twist, Bradley said if one player has stood out in the last couple of weeks it’s Aaron Colvin. Colvin will be suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s PED policy but can work with the team until then.

It’s no secret that Marqise Lee has fought injuries during his whole time with the Jaguars. That means the team really isn’t counting on him but he would be a real luxury if he can stay healthy. “We haven’t had him in a lot of practices until the end of last year,” Gus said. “Just to see him practice and he can build up and stack up good practice after good practice because he does need some technique work. His issue is not his skillset. His speed is something that we don’t have, and his athleticism. I think just stacking up really good practices.”

Just getting through one practice was considered a victory for 2015 first round pick Dante Fowler. He joked that he completed an entire practice and was glad everybody could stop worrying. The Jaguars are “managing” his time on the field but so far they like what they see.

“Yeah, in phase-two. … It’s all individual drill work,” Gus said when asked about Fowler looking like the player they drafted. “So when you see him go around the hoops and things like that, you see his explosiveness and his skillset. So he’s really done a good job.” And while Bradley would have rather had Fowler on the field last year, he admitted the injury has made the former Gator better.

“Believe me that was tough on him, really tough. I’ve visited with some coaches that say, in the NBA, they draft guys that have gone through some sort of adversity – some sort of injury – to show that they can come back. I don’t know if that’s ideal or not, but I can say with Dante, I think the whole thing has helped him. Helped him to a certain level of maturity.”

“Everybody’s here.” Although these OTA’s are voluntary, the Jaguars head coach was obviously pleased that every player who could be here was present, a rarity when it comes to the NFL.

“Coach called me and said, ‘Gus, don’t take that for granted.” Gus said with a laugh. “You could have 10-15 guys not show up, so I don’t take that for granted, it’s awesome. Our guys are incredible that way. They come, go to work and I appreciate that.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ramsey Hurt: Jaguars Snake Bit?

About the first dozen people I told that Jalen Ramsey had a tear in his meniscus had the same reaction: “Come on! Really? Are the Jaguars snake bit?”

It’s easy to draw that conclusion after last year’s injury to Dante Fowler and the just plain old bad luck the Jaguars have had in the last 12-15 years. And while I don’t think they’re snake bit, I do think revisiting what they’re asking these players to do early on in training is a smart idea.

Last year Fowler was injured on the first day of rookie mini-camp going one-on-one with another rookie offensive tackle. Since the end of the college football season Fowler had been training for the combine, his pro days, team visits and individual workouts. That ends about two or three weeks before the draft, giving the players a chance to exhale. It also means the first extended time off the field since the previous August. Brining the rookies in the week after the draft means most of them have had a month of rest and not intense workouts. Put them on the field against each other in their first foray into the professional world and you can’t expect them to go at it at anything but 100%. Having had a month off, they’re not ready for that but don’t try and tell a 21-year old that. So injuries happen.

And they don’t just happen to the Jaguars. But I do think working these guys back in a bit slower when it comes to the physical aspect of workouts is advisable. Even just a month off has these players at just below their optimum fitness level and they can pay a price. It might be a fluke that Ramsey got hurt but more likely it’s his body is fine tuned to the point where if one thing is a little out of whack, it’s possible an injury will happen. And don’t forget, he had surgery on the same knee in high school.

Here’s the Jaguars official statement: “Jalen Ramsey sustained a small tear to the meniscus in his right knee during phase two on-field workouts. Ramsey is obtaining a second opinion next week. More information will be available when Head Team Physician Dr. Kevin Kaplan and the Jaguars athletic training staff determine the appropriate medical care.”

I talked with knee specialist and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Paul Shirley today who said, “At his age, if it’s a small tear in his meniscus he’ll be back to 100% in 3-6 weeks and will be able to play without any difficulty for the next 10-12 years.”

Shirley has worked with professional sports teams for more than 40 years and wasn’t surprised by the injury. “He’ll be back ok,” he told me.

So next week we’ll have more information but don’t expect Ramsey to see any action until he’s 100%.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Day Wins THE PLAYERS 2016

It might have looked like a calm “walkabout” but Jason Day said it was anything but before the final round of the 2016 Players.

“I told Ellie earlier this morning, this is probably the most nervous I’ve been before a tournament round,” he recounted after finishing at -15 and recording his seventh victory in his last 17 starts, adding THE PLAYERS in 2016 to his resume.

Entering the final round with a four shot lead, Day played the front nine in two over par, including a bogey from 25 feet on the par 5 ninth. He said making the putt there for bogey was the most important shot of the week and kept him focused on playing well.

“I just kept on saying to myself, just settle yourself down. Don’t do anything too drastic and try and chase pins or do anything stupid out there because, other than 9, for the most part — I didn’t play a great front nine, but once I got to 10, I kind of said to myself, you’re still in the game, you’ve still got the lead.”

Day birdied 10 and followed that with another at 12 and one at 16. He said he was still nervous on 17 hitting his 52 degree wedge “But I was close to hitting it in the bloody water there.”

He said he savored the walk down 18 as much as he could, knowing victory was at hand. But despite the winning percentage and the success he’s had, he’s hungry for more.

“I’m trying to extend that lead, so that I stay on top, because at the end of the day, it’s very stressful being the No. 1 player in the world,” he explained. “You’re in the limelight a lot. You’ve got more things to do when you get to tournaments, more things to do off weeks. But I wouldn’t change it in any way because this is exactly where I want to be, and I want to try and stay here as long as I can while I can, because nothing beats this feeling.”

As the runner-up, Kevin Chappell didn’t get the victory he wanted but gained a lot of confidence. Chappell had nines of 29, 31 and 32 and was at 2 over through 26 holes of the tournament. So even though he had a lot of solid stretches, he knows he still needs a bit of work.

“I’ve got a lot of horsepower,” he said. “This horse can run. Got to get rid of some of the bogeys. I really didn’t scramble that well this week, and I feel like that’s been something I’ve leaned on this whole year. Just look at it as an anomaly, and got to get back to work and get at it again at Colonial.”

Finishing with a flourish, a birdie on 18, Justin Thomas’ 65 in the final round of this year’s Players shot him straight up the leaderboard.

“I love this course,” he said more than two hours before Jason Dan walked up 18. “I’m glad to have shot a good score on a championship venue like this.”

When asked if he thinks about what shots he could have saved Thursday or Friday he laughed and said, “Man, that’s golf. I’m thinking about the once I gave away today!”

Thomas admitted he didn’t think he had a chance to win the golf tournament when he came to the course this morning but would stick around to see what Day would do. “Have to,” he said with a smile.

A closing 68 left Adam Scott at -7 and if not for an eight on 18 on Friday, he admitted he was playing well enough to win.

“It could have been a different story for me over the weekend had I not done that,” the 2004 champion explained. “But that’s one of 72 holes I have to play. I hung in there and had a good finish down the stretch. I go away from the week feeling like I’m playing some good golf.”

Noting that he and Jason have been top 15 players in the world for the past five years, Scott said the state of the game in Australia is good. Standing atop the FedEx rankings, Scott says Day is inspiring kids Down Under to take the game up.

“Jason is going to be inspiring kids like he was inspired by Tiger. That’s really important for the overall makeup of the game down there. It’s nice to see.”

After losing his chance to win the tournament with a nine on 17 yesterday including three balls in the water, local resident Russell Knox called it a “career defining moment” when he came to 17 today.

“I’ve never been so nervous over a shot in my whole life,” the former JU player said. “If I couldn’t get off the tee there today, I was in big trouble. So I was very happy that I hit the green. Even though I three-putted, I beat my score by five yesterday, so pretty solid.” Knox posted a 68 in the final round to finish at five under. Ironically, his only bogey of the day was at 17.

An anticipated run by Rory McIlroy never materialized as he couldn’t ever build on any momentum. At 8 under par after 11 holes the world #3 was looking to make something happen but didn’t convert on any of his chances. He says it’s similar to how he’s played over the last year.

“I’m just not — it’s just not — everything is just not clicking,” he explained. “Hopefully as the summer approaches, everything can start to click and I can go on a run, because I really don’t feel like it’s too far away.

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THE PLAYERS Round 2: Low Scores Again

It was a blistering pace that he couldn’t possibly keep up but it was clear Rory McIlroy brought his ‘A’ game for the second round of THE PLAYERS. Starting on the back nine where he’s had tremendous success, Mcilroy birdied the first four holes and went birdie-eagle at 15 and 16 to shoot 29 on his opening nine holes. That tied the record set just yesterday by Shane Lowry.

“I knew that the course was going to play much easier than it did yesterday afternoon,” he explained in the “flash” interview right after his round. “This course really does play so much differently from morning to afternoon.”

Over the past three years, McIlroy has played the back in 44 under par but is 13 over par on the front. While he didn’t scorch the front, birdies at 2 and 7 put him on the verge of tying or setting the course record. But his lone bogey of the round came at the par five ninth. Rory said he’s carrying at 2-iron this week instead of a 5-wood and that influenced his decision to lay up instead of going for the green in two.

“So I sort of talked myself out of it on the fairway,” he said. “And I laid up and thought, I’ll take my chances from inside a hundred yards from the fairway. I might have left myself a little bit too close. I was trying to get really sort of cute with it, I guess, and I just hit it too easy.”

Coming down the stretch, McIlroy said he was aware he had a chance at the course record and was looking to make a closing birdie to shoot 62. Despite moving back into contention, he admitted his round couldn’t have been lower.

“I’m disappointed, but there’s still two more days to go. But that’s the nice thing; I’m in a good position heading into the weekend. The course will play a little bit tougher this afternoon, but hopefully I’m still not too far behind going into the weekend.”

Starting on the front, Colt Knost moved to the top of the leaderboard with a course record tying 63 in his second round.

“The fairways are running, which kind of makes this place challenging,” he said, “But at the same time it makes it play so short. I’m having so many wedges into greens, obviously I’m one of the shorter hitters out here, but you give us wedges into these greens, you’re going to be able to get aggressive.

Knost shot 31-32 with five consecutive birdies from 5-8 on the front and followed that with four birdies on the back. He came to 18 at ten under but a bogey on the finishing hole cost him the course record. And he knew it.

“Yeah, for sure I knew it. I watch a lot of golf, to be honest,” he explained. “When I birdied 15 to get to 9, I kind of thought, I’m going to have a really good chance at this thing, especially going into 16, and honestly got pretty unlucky on 16 where my second shot ended up, but hit two great shots on 17, and then I knew where I stood on 18, and I also knew I snap-hooked it in the water there yesterday, so that went through the head.”

A driver and a 7-iron left Knost two putts from the record but he couldn’t complete that task.

“It seems like every time you try to two-putt, you leave yourself something a little more than you want. I was nervous over the last putt just because — you know, so many great players have played this golf course and all that, and to be the first one and only one to shoot 10-under would have been really cool.”

Perhaps some familiarity with the course is a bonus as Jax Beach resident Jonas Blixt carded his second straight 67 to finish the first two rounds at -10. Blixt’s 67 included 3 bogeys to go along with eight birdies. It’s not surprising to see Alex Cejka’s name near the top of the leaderboard. Having been the 54-hole leader a few years ago, Cejka is accustomed to going low at the stadium course, backing up his opening 67 with another to finish 54 holes at -10. Bo Weekley continued his solid play following his opening round 66 with a 69 and is at 9 under.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Wilcox Hole In One At 17

For the 13th hole-in-one of his golfing career, PGA TOUR player Will Wilcox picked a high profile spot. A pitching wedge from 147 yards flew straight and true and rolled into the cup at the 17th hole at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course on Friday. It’s the first ace at 17 in 14 years during THE PLAYERS. Miguel Angel Jiminez made the last in 2002.

Shortly thereafter, a sign was posted in the media dining area in front of the cooler saying Will would like to buy the media a beer to celebrate his hole in one. And to top it off, Wilcox and his caddie came by after his second round 71 (he’s -5 for the tournament) to literally have a beer with the media.

“Eleven years old, 7 iron, 134 yards,” Wilcox said when asked about his first ace. With 13 of them on his resume, he said he really couldn’t remember his last but “I’ll always remember my first.”

When I mentioned to Wilcox that the last guy who had some success on the Stadium Course with a colored golf ball was Jerry Pate, he said, “He’s a ‘Bama guy, sort of.” (Pate attended the University of Alabama.)

Wilcox is from Birmingham and played college golf at UAB before going on the Web.com tour and graduating to the PGA TOUR. Easygoing and friendly, he was honest when asked why he plays a yellow ball.

“Because Srixon likes it,” he said with a smile. “And that’s good enough.”

With the pin position in the back, Wilcox was as surprised as anyone that he made the first hole in one in 6,300 tournament swings at 17.

“When we got there yesterday I said to the guys in my group, ‘Oh with that pin position, (up front) somebody will knock that in,'” he explained. “So with it back today I was just hoping to not chunk it in the water.”

As he and his caddie packed up and headed home for the night he turned to the dozen or so of us left and waved, “Let’s do this again tomorrow.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Play Suspended At THE PLAYERS in Rd. 2

There’s not a hard and fast rule on when to stop play because of weather on the PGA TOUR but they do have parameters. Tournament officials who are on the road each week at the various TOUR stops work with the on-site meteorologist to decided when to stop play.

“It depends on the speed of the storm and the lightning involved,” one TOUR official said when play was suspended at THE PLAYERS at 4:08 EDT on Friday.

“We’re looking at how long it would get the number of fans off the golf course safely as the weather comes in,” he explained.

The TOUR has an evacuation plan in place for the players on course with vans put in place in what they call “Phase Two” of the preparations. They preposition the vans in case the weather does come in quickly so they can get the players off the course quickly and safely.

They’ll play in rain but lightning “in the general area” causes the TOUR to suspend play immediately.

Today was no different as the PGA TOUR posted weather-warning signs throughout the Stadium Course alerting fans that a weather delay was imminent and to take appropriate action.

Once the single horn sounded, players were allowed to mark their ball on the course and were hustled off to the locker room.

Jason Day is -3 today through eight holes and -12 for the tournament. He has a two shot lead over Jonas Blixt, Alex Cejka and Cameron Tringale.

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Spite A Favorite, And Not Just For Golf

As I was walking by the front door of Sawgrass Country Club, I noticed Jordan Spieth sitting in his PGA Tour courtesy car, working on his phone. That’s when former player and current PGA Tour caddie (for Webb Simpson) Paul Tesori came up with his wife Michelle and their son.

“Say hi to Uncle Jordan,” Michelle exclaimed, as she handed the 2-½ year old boy to Spieth.

“He buddy,” Jordan said as he lightly kissed the young Tesori on the cheek.

Spieth was at Sawgrass CC today in support of Tesori’s foundation (Tesori Family Foundation.) With a special needs sister, Jordan was more than glad to help raise the awareness for Tesori, whose son has Down’s Syndrome.

“You’ve all heard of Jordan’s exploits on the course as a golfer,” Tesori said in front of the assembled crowd. “But I want to talk about him as a man,” he continued. “At 22 years old he’s wise beyond his years, compassionate, helpful and here despite having an early tee time tomorrow!”

Tesori’s passion for helping kids and families touched by Down’s Syndrome is evident. Spieth has looked to Tesori for some guidance on Tour.

“Pauly is one of the most special people I know,” Jordan said after finishing with pictures with the participants. “He down to earth, fantastic man. Anything he needs, I’m there for him.”

Spieth’s commitment to his sister has been well documented and he admits the group of people involved in helping special needs children is a tight knit group. “There are a lot of similarities in families that have special needs kids and adults,” he explained. “It’s kinda cool to always meet them and share stories of who we are because it is very different.”

Earlier in the day the two-time major champion played 18 holes in a practice round with Colt Knost, Troy Merritt and Ryan Palmer. It appeared they had a friendly game going where holing out was important.

Not sure who walked away a winner, but Spieth was pleased with the golf course, calling it one of his favorites.

“It’s very pure,” he noted. “This is one of my favorite courses in the world. Pete Dye did a great job here, and I enjoy playing his courses in general. You’ve got to strike the ball extremely well. It plays narrower than it seems.”

While the 22-year old is a favorite almost every time he tees it up, he’s expecially comfortable on the Stadium Course because of the accuracy it demands.

“It’s kind of a spot-to-spot type of golf course that requires working the ball both directions and controlling it in the wind,” he explained. “And obviously the closing stretch takes some nerve.”

As expected there were questions about Spieth letting the Masters slip away last month, something he talked about easily, giving Danny Willett credit for making putts when he had to but also admitting that it was tough playing 18 knowing he’d have to slip the Green Jacket on somebody else.

“I obviously knew that that was going to happen when I was teeing off on 18 tee box,” he added. “So I had that entire hole to play and the time after to kind of figure out my emotions. Just like three years ago, when I watched Bubba get the jacket on the 18th green, it’s motivation for next year.”

Will his failure to close out his second Masters have and effect if he gets into contention again?

I don’t think I have anything to prove,” he said. “I think I’ve already proven what we’re capable of doing when the pressure is on. But yeah, I mean, it’s behind me. I’m ready to move on and work back into contention. After a month off, it felt like a bit of a off-season, so it’s almost like a new year starting this week.”

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Day Early Leader At THE PLAYERS

On a day full of low scores perhaps it’s no surprise that the world’s number one player Jason Day grabbed the first round lead at THE PLAYERS, tying the course record at nine-under 63.

“The temperature was hot, so the ball was going a long way, and when the ball goes a long way, you’re coming in with shorter clubs if you hit the fairways,” he explained right after his round.

Day was so dominant in the opening round that he had a birdie putt on every hole and didn’t have a par putt longer than two feet. (By the way if you play golf, read that sentence again.)

“I can’t really recall the way that I hit the ball as well as I did today and then also putting as well as I did,” he said matter-of-factly.

In the run-up to this year’s tournament a lot of players thought the golf course was softer than in the past and would be receptive to low scores. Day agreed that he believed something significantly under par would lead after the first round.

“We thought the greens were sticking and a lot of guys could attack the pins that we had out there,” he added. “But shooting 63 was great today and there’s a lot of guys at 7-under par right now and a lot of guys that are going off the afternoon tee time that can definitely shoot that score as well.”

That might be the case, but birdies popped up for Day at some critical times, including on 17. The island green hole was playing 124 yards and Day said he was trying to hit it 130 but hit it “a little bit less.”

“And you still get nervous over that shot. Doesn’t matter if you’re hitting a pitching wedge or you’re hitting a sand wedge or lob wedge, it’s still tough to try and hit that shot.”

Although he played the back nine first, the reigning PGA Champion said it’s still exciting, coming to the finishing holes at the Stadium Course

“Especially when you’re coming, playing that back side,” he added. “You come into 16, you start to walk to 16 and you start hearing the crowd, you start getting a little bit nervous on trying to hit that tee shot. But good to get a birdie there.”

Starting his round on the 10th hole, Day birdieing the first three and number seven to make the turn at -4. He birdied one and two, number four and seven to get within one of the course record held by four other players with two holes to play.

His second shot on the par-5 ninth found a greenside bunker but out of the sand Day hit it to 18 inches for a tap-in and a 63. Pretty good for a guy who shot 81 in the second round of THE PLAYERS last year, his last round on the Stadium Course.

“I was really displeased with how I played last year, considering I was coming into that week feeling pretty good about my game and I just didn’t really play great in the second round.” With his current mindset and the confidence he has, the first round leader could put Greg Norman’s tournament record of 24-under in jeopardy.

“I’ve shot scores lower, but I think from tee to green and then on the green and then being patient and everything kind of just clicked today and I shot a good score.”

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First Round Players Notes

Here are some notes from the first round:

Jason Day joins Greg Norman (1994) Fred Couples (1992) Roberto Castro (2013) and Martin Kaymer (2014) as a record holder for lowest round ever at the TPC Stadium Course during THE PLAYERS. Norman and Kaymer won the years they shot 63.

Day’s previous low round at THE PLAYERS was -4 68. His low round on tour is -10 61 at the 2015 BMW Championship where he won.

Norman and Tiger Woods (twice) are the only #1 ranked players in the world to win THE PLAYERS while being world number one.

Six first round leaders have won on the PGA TOUR this year.

Day has held or shared the first round lead 8 times in his career. Twice as the solo leader after 18 holes he’s gone on to victory.

Justin Rose went eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie on 16 -17-18-1-2 to match the streak Fulton Allem set in 1999. Six under on five holes.

Rose’s best finish at THE PLAYERS is T4 in 2014. He’s a seven-time winner on the PGA TOUR.

Cameron Tringale’s -7 is his lowest round ever at TPC Sawgrass. Same with Shane Lowery who also posted a 29 on the back nine. Bill Haas also shot 65, his lowest round in 29 tries at the Stadium Course.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Formula To Win THE PLAYERS? None

In succession the number one player in the world, last week’s winner on the PGA Tour and the 2016 Masters Champion all stepped up the podium to address this year’s Players Championship.

“This is the toughest field we have all year, It’s a big even and it’s getting bigger and bigger,” said world number one Jason Day.

“To me it’s similar to Augusta, every hole is special. Every hole you can make 10 or make 2,” said last week’s winner in Charlotte James Hahn.

“One,” Masters Champion Danny Willett said when asked how many times he’s played golf since winning at Augusta.

Just ask a question to any of these players, currently among the most recognizable on the PGA Tour, and you’ll get different answers about the course, their state of play and life in general.

Hahn revealed that the five hour drive from Charlotte to Jacksonville was accompanied by a crying baby in the car only to be overshadowed by the number of times he and his wife said, “Two-Time PGA Tour Champion.”

When asked if he’s changed more “nappies” (diapers) or signed more Masters pin flags in the last month, Willett chuckled “I’ve changed a few nappies, but there’s been a lot of signing that’s had to be done.”

And Day explained that his world ranking at number one gives him more confidence than ever being here.

“Yeah, I think it definitely feels different,” Day explained. “Obviously I haven’t had the greatest finishes here at THE PLAYERS Championship, but with that said, I feel a lot more prepared this year than I ever have in my career coming into this event. So I’m hoping that is a little bit of a different result this year.”

And as the top ranked player, Day says getting a Players win is on his list.

“It’s a golf tournament that you really do want to win and have it on your resume at the end of your career because it’s such a huge event. This is one of those tournaments where, if you’re on the border of getting into the Hall of Fame, this could kick it over and get you into the Hall of Fame.”

Wow. THE PLAYERS making the difference of getting into the Hall of Fame or not. That’s a first.

And Hahn says looking at the future and not the past, visualizing success and making it happen helped him overcome eight straight missed cuts and win last week in Charlotte. Even making a 10 on #16 at TPC can be a positive thought. Because the golf course can get in your head.

“I play every hole with a different mindset. I think it’s one of the toughest golf courses that we play all year. There’s not one hole where you can take for granted and say this is an easy par hole or an easy birdie hole. There is trouble everywhere. Hole 16 is very special to me. I had made, I think, a 10 on it last year and it was the best 10 I have ever made. I could have been a lot worse.” Whatever it takes!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Fowler Still “Likes the Vibe”

You’ve probably seen the commercials for The Players featuring the defending champion Rickie Fowler where he talks about “Jax Beach, Ponte Vedra and going to Taco Lu.” Having spent time with Fowler since the beginning of his career I can tell you he’s authentic when he says stuff like that. His comfort level at the TPC facility is only ramped up by how he likes coming here. As he said, “I like the vibe.”

“It’s definitely special to be back,” Fowler said opening up his press conference this afternoon. “Feels like coming back home. I was here just over a month ago for media day and I got to spend a little time around 16, 17 and 18, and it was fun to go out there and get around the course for the first time since last year.”

In contention last week in Charlotte, Fowler hit two balls in the water coming down the stretch on Sunday to fall a few strokes back. Much different from last year where he played the lights out on the back nine in the final round to force a playoff and then win it.

According to the defending champ, that’s golf.

“If it was an easy game, there would be a lot more people competing at a high level. But I think it’s just like any other professional sport in a way; at the highest level it’s such a fine line between playing great golf and being just off.”

Playing the same golf course for the same championship only happens every year at Augusta at the Masters when it comes to the Majors. Fowler thinks the TPC Stadium Course is demanding and thinks driving the ball accurately is one of the most important parts of posting a low number. World number one Jason Day said he hits a lot of 3-woods off the tee here to try to be accurate. Fowler took us through his thought process standing on each tee:

“Driver 1, 2, 3-wood on 4, driver 5, 3-wood 6, driver 7, driver 9, 3-wood 10, driver 11, 3-wood 12, driver 14, 15, 16, 18. And we shot 67. We’re off to a good start,” he recited going through all 18 holes. “And we shot 67. We’re off to a good start,” he deadpanned to laughter among the assembled media.

Perhaps you remember during last year’s players that a poll was published calling Fowler the “Most overrated” player on the PGA Tour. It was laughable then and winning THE PLAYERS made it look silly. He followed that up with wins in Scotland, Boston and Abu Dhabi, opening the floodgates for success. Is it because he put more pressure on himself to win? Actually it’s a question of being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.

“I don’t think you put more pressure. I think you have the expectations. I know after this win last year, just I talked about having more confidence and the belief when I was back in kind of in contention at the next events, just how comfortable I felt, and it was a lot more fun being back in that situation because I knew what I was up against. I knew I could take care of business,” he explained.

“It’s fun winning out here. It’s a lot of fun when you get to spend some late Sunday nights in the media center, so I don’t know if it’s any extra pressure, I think it’s just that expectation and you want to get back in that position again.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Mayor Curry To Run Gate River Run

As a politician, Mayor Lenny Curry is used to looking for a way to win. For the Gate River Run on Saturday he’ll have find a new definition for the word victory.

“The streets are lined with people, I remember seeing beer stands last year,” Mr. Curry told me before a training run in his neighborhood this week. “There’s a little it of something for every body. If you want to be competitive you can, if you want to just run and enjoy the day you can do that too.”

It won’t be the first time the Mayor has run the Gate but it’ll be the first time a sitting Mayor of Jacksonville has stepped into the crowd to run after some welcoming remarks. He’s been suitably fast when he’s run the race before but says the hardest part will be remembering his age (45) instead of how old he thinks he is (30).

“We sort of have a little competition going on in the house as to who can finish the fastest,” the Mayor’s wife Molly said as she prepared to join in on the training.”

“You’re just throwing that in there now,” Mr. Curry asked with a laugh. “That’s the first I’ve heard of that.”

This year the Mayor will run with his wife and his son Boyd, so he’s not going to be looking at his watch, but rather enjoying the day, the crowds and the course.

“Last year I pushed myself the first three miles out of the gate and felt like somebody had punched me in the gut,” he recalled.

As Mayor, improving the fitness of Jacksonville’s citizens is one of his goals. He’ll be rolling out a walking and running initiative in the coming months because he believes in the benefits.

“For me it’s like brushing my teeth,” he said. “It’s that important. It’s not only good for the body it’s good for the mind.”

This year is the 39th edition of the Gate River Run with a record number of participants expected. The start is at 8:30 by the stadium with live coverage on News4Jax beginning at 7 AM.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Furyk Returns Optimistic At PLAYERS

Forced out of action last September with a wrist injury, Ponte Vedra’s Jim Furyk thought he’d be back on the course before the first of the year. But on February 1st, still struggling to get healthy, Furyk announced he’d miss another three months because of surgery on his wrist. “This has been frustrating for me to this point,” he said announcing the surgery, “But I am focusing on an aggressive rehabilitation program.”

Today it was a bit surprising to see him at the Stadium Course after starting his year last week at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.

“I feel alright,” Jim said this afternoon. “I wish I would have played better last week. I knew I’d be rusty, I’m not quite 100% but the only way to get stronger is to play.”

Although he lives a driver and 5 iron from the TPC at Sawgrass, Furyk’s time on the road doesn’t allow him to be that familiar with the Stadium Course.

“It’s not a place I’ve had a lot of success in the past, I probably enjoyed starting in Charlotte a little better since I’ve won there,” he explained.

But the fact that one of the most significant tournaments of the year is played in his backyard isn’t lost on the 17-time PGA Tour winner. “It’s nice to be at home this week. I’m in familiar surroundings, in my own bed. I’ll practice at my normal facilities the way I normally do.”

At 45 years old, Furyk has a routine he follows each week, so being at the event site on a Monday was quite a bit different for him. “I’m rarely here on Monday,” he said as he headed to the range. “In a perfect world I’d have made the cut in Charlotte, played four rounds and had today as a day off. But having a weekend off I wanted to hit some balls, stay loose and see how the golf course is playing. How are the greens? I haven’t seen the golf course in months so I’m anxious to see how it’s playing.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

More Players At THE PLAYERS On Monday

For years, Monday was a moneymaking day on the PGA Tour. Not in competition, but rather at corporate outings, appearances and making money for charity. With the amount of money available each week at the regular Tour stops, some of that has disappeared.

Monday’s at major championships are full of practice rounds and arrivals and that’s becoming the norm at the Players.

“Some weeks I am, some weeks I’m not,” Brandt Snedeker said as he made his way to the putting green. “But it’s such a big event for us, I’m out here today, which is something I normally wouldn’t do.

More and more you hear players putting more emphasis on The Players, invoking the dreaded “M-word.”

“I’m treating this like a major championship,” the 8-time PGA Tour winner explained. “I’m going to play some golf today, hit some balls. I’ll amp up for tomorrow, and Wednesday will be kind of a light day to get ready for Thursday. You want to be prepared and give yourself every opportunity to play well.”

While he didn’t call it a major, Jacksonville Beach’s Matt Every said he was here today to get some work in because it’s in his hometown.

“Normally I don’t go to the golf course on Monday. Since I’m here, I might as well come and get some practice in. And it’s a little bit bigger week, this week means a little more so I’m trying to fine tune as much as I can.”

If there’s one thing that raises the profile of The Players, it’s the significance the competitors place on the tournament. Many of them remember watching it on television, fascinated by the golf course.

“Got a lot of family and friends out here,” Every, the former Gator explained. “I remember coming out here as a kid. Brings back a lot of memories so it’s a big week.”

And as far as Snedeker is concerned winning here is a big bump on your golfing resume. He’ll start the competition with Danny Willett and Justin Rose at 8:10 on the 10th tee Thursday.

“This is a huge week for us. It’s our flagship event on the PGA Tour. We view this as a major championship, the best field in golf. The course is in great shape, hopefully it brings out your best golf.”

Also going off the 10th tee Thursday with Webb Simpson and Ernie Else at 7:48, Every, a 2-time winner on tour says the Stadium Course should get your attention immediately.

“Accuracy off the tee is big,” he explained. “Grinding out here is big. If you get caught going through the motions here it can be a long week. Just make sure your brain is turned on all week.”