WHY I LOVE THE MASTERS: Springtime, Tradition & Pimiento Cheese Sandwiches

Amidst a sea of immaculate green, these colorful ants marched across the TV screen. Roars sprung out of the box on the stand and filled up the room as the little white ball disappeared into the hole.

One old guy was especially conjuring up the echoes through the tall southern pines. I wasn’t sure who he was.

“That’s Jack Nicklaus. He’s the greatest to ever play the game,” my Dad told me.

The year was 1998. The Golden Bear was making a run at another green jacket amidst the blooming azaleas at the ripe old age of 58 – twelve years after his most memorable triumph in 1986. Although Mr. Nicklaus came up a few shots shy of Mark O’Meara and an improbable victory, I was hooked for a lifetime.

How could legends of the past compete with the young guns of the game for the greatest prize in all of golf? This prospect tantalized me. It’s just one of the reasons The Masters is a cut above every other sporting event I know.

Heck, I just watched “The Big Three” meander their way around the Par 3 Contest Wednesday. This is 2014 – 50 years after Arnold Palmer’s last Masters triumph. Is there any other sport out there where we can still see all greats of the game congregate and compete together? Nope.

Not to mention, I love The Masters for its picturesque beauty. The course is full of postcard vistas – my favorite being Amen Corner. If I was ever afforded the opportunity to play on the carpet-like grass at Augusta National, I’d be scared to take a divot. It’s just too nice!

Nothing signals springtime quite like The Masters. To me, winter is not officially over until we take that annual stroll down Magnolia Lane. Oh, and there’s so much more.

The Masters fans are not called fans. And whatever you do, don’t call them spectators. They’re called “patrons” at Augusta. Get it right.

And when the patrons make their way onto the heavenly grounds, they are greeted by refreshments and concessions offered at prices from a time warp of yesteryear. You can start off the day with a coffee or a chicken biscuit for $1.50 before moving on to a $6 lunch of a domestic beer and a BBQ sandwich — both of which are a mere $3. Any vegetarians out there? You can order up a Veggie Wrap for $2.50 or the world-famous Pimento Cheese Sandwich for just $1.50. Go ahead and top it all off with a $2 Georgia Peach Ice Cream Sandwich if you’d like. Don’t mind if I do!

Oh, and another thing. You can leave your cellphone behind before heading to Augusta National. No mobile devices allowed. How about that for tradition? Trust me, it doesn’t stop the patrons from lining up in droves. They don’t mind the day sans a connection with the outside world. After all, it’s easy to get lost in the alternate reality that is The Masters.

And that only adds to the allure and mystique of The Masters. The Augusta National Golf Club and The Masters Golf Tournament manage to master (no pun intended) the art of balance – the balance between timeless tradition and innovative vision.

This year, for the first time, the Club invited some of the best kids in the world for the finals of The Drive, Chip & Putt competition in an effort to grow the game and inspire the youth around the world. The Masters is at the forefront of the game. It’s not backward – just check out the app for the tournament. Trust me, you’ll be impressed with the coverage!

But there’s something about me, and I know a lot of you, that longs for the stability of tradition. And The Masters certainly brings plenty of that to the table. It’s the only major championship played at the same venue each and every year. Even moderate-to-casual sports fans can recognize some of the iconic holes played at Augusta.

What’s more, it’s the little things – like how the tournament still features the old manual scoreboards around the grounds. The anticipation builds as the patrons wait for the scorekeepers to update the golfers’ numbers. You just wouldn’t get that same feeling from real-time electronic updates.

Yes, The Masters will always hold a special place in my heart. It makes me feel like a kid again. I remember my grandpa talking with reverence about this tournament like no other. My household was glued to all the action down in Georgia on Masters Sunday – it’s a holiday. And although I much prefer the college football and basketball seasons to the golf grind, this single event reigns supreme.

This week just excites me like few other weeks can do. What will the storylines be on the back nine on Sunday this year? We know it will be exciting. The Masters always delivers. In our ever-changing culture and landscape, there is one constant – April at Augusta National. So mix yourself up a sweet Arnold Palmer, sit back and experience the warm feeling with me.


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Roy’s Remarks – “Unfinished Business”

“I think the three freshmen coming in are really gifted basketball players. They know how to win – all three won state championships, and I love that – and I think they’ll really help us. And with the core we could possibly have coming back, I think it’ll be a fun year.”
                                                                                                 -Coach Williams

You know what they say: if it comes easy, it’s not worth striving for. Well, Tar Heel fans, take solace in this adage. We get spoiled sometimes with Carolina basketball. We expect a Final Four experience every year. That’s our barometer.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s a testament to the wild success UNC has achieved for decades. But in this day and age, college basketball is more competitive than ever. The parity is mind boggling. Anybody can truly beat anybody – just take a gander at the NCAA brackets the past few years.

The last four minutes of the Iowa State game were painful. The Tar Heels played their hearts out, but came up empty in the most crucial of moments. The Cyclones, to their credit, ended in an astonishing flurry to stun the Tar Heels. Coach Williams said the locker room was one of the most emotional he’s ever seen in his coaching career. Enough said there.

But all may not be lost – another run at glory may be brewing.

And there’s precedent here. Remember that 2008 team that was absolutely throttled in the Final Four by Kansas in (yes, that’s right) San Antonio? I don’t even need to tell you what happened in 2009. Franklin Street will never be the same.

Maybe there’s symmetry and symbolism in these Tar Heels losing in San Antonio yet again in 2014. And like that 2008 team, it appears nearly the same cast and crew plans to author a new ending next season. Hmmmm…

So, 2014 Tar Heels, channel your inner 2009 in 2015 and you may too be cutting down the nets and hoisting another big banner in the Smith Center. In the end, all these bumps, bruises and obstacles along the way will only make it all the sweeter.

Some say you have to fully experience the lows of bitter defeats to truly bask in the delight of the highs of glorifying success. If that’s the case, these Tar Heels certainly know the lows. Oh, how they do. They have the battle scars to prove it.

They’ve survived the endless P.J. Hairston saga, they’ve taken endless jabs to the academic well-being of their program, they’ve had to exorcise their inner demons at the free throw line, and they’ve suffered excruciating (and even bizarre) losses, in moments Carolina is accustomed to shining through.

But their resolve and determination has a chance to put an end to all that suffering. Marcus Paige has announced his return loudly via Twitter. He said he “never even thought of leaving; we got work to do.” James Michael McAdoo has alluded to his desire to return to Chapel Hill as well.

Likely, only Leslie McDonald has taken his final curtain call. Experience galore for the Tar Heels. Just add in the bevy of McDonald’s All Americans congregating on UNC’s campus this fall and voila! You have a scary good Carolina basketball team.

Next year’s team may not be as offensively challenged as this past year’s squad. And that’s great news for Carolina fans and bad news for the rest of the college basketball world. Roy will have the weaponry he salivates over in his arsenal. Look out!

Close your eyes. I can see Joel Berry and Justin Jackson running the floor now. Theo Pinson is electrifying – making an impact. I can hear the roar of the Smith Center crowd as free biscuits for 100 points becomes a regular thing once agin. Oh wow, just look at the steely determination in Paige’s eyes. I can envision a newly fit and rejuvenated Kennedy Meeks owning the boards and clapping his hands in excitement. Oh, over there, Brice Johnson’s swooping in for another finish at the rim to the dismay of the Cameron Crazies in Cameron. I can see the “track meet” Tar Heels returning, showing little mercy to their winded and exasperated opponents in the NCAA Tournament – running through the field. Can you see it all, too?

Oh yes, Roy, you’re right. What a “fun year” it promises to be.

You can follow me on Twitter @moakes3


Photo courtesy of Todd Melet


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Roy’s Remarks: “Don’t Bury Us Yet!”

“We have had some outstanding wins this year, both in and out of league play, over teams that received some very high seeds in the field, so we know we are capable. But we must play better than we have over the last two weeks if we want to reach our big-time dreams.”
-Coach Williams

Last weekend, Marcus Paige was strolling through the mall when he ran into a TV with one of Duke’s ACC Tournament games on. He watched the end of it, and then it hit him smack in the face. ‘WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING IN A MALL RIGHT NOW!!??!!?”

Yes, the Tar Heels no doubt harbored expectations to be playing on Saturday and Sunday in the Greensboro Coliseum. I am sure it was painful for them to see such meaningful basketball being played without them. But the bottom line is they didn’t really show up to the Coliseum when they were actually there. There were players masquerading as Tar Heels against the Panthers in the quarterfinal round, shadows of their former selves – the ones that reeled off 12 straight ACC victories.

But now? That’s 2 straight rough defeats. The NCAA Tournament awaits.

So, what are we to expect out of this Carolina bunch in the next call to action? Should we heed Roy’s advice? Let’s take a look:

Why we SHOULD bury the Tar Heels: Easy.

1-Softness. The Tar Heels continue to find it hard to finish at the rim. Kennedy Meeks, Joel James, J.P. Tokoto and company get close range chances right underneath the basket, but frustratingly for Tar Heel fans, they refuse to go up strong to the basket. What happened to the emphatic dunks of Carolina yesteryear? Yes, occasionally we will see some high-flying, highlight reel acrobatics from Brice Johnson and Tokoto. But those are few and far between. No, what the Tar Heels need is that consistent enforcer inside. And it doesn’t appear that they have it.

2-Transition, what? Carolina’s patented up-and-down “track meet” style of play that would have opponents gasping for air, seems to have been forgotten with this squad. These Tar Heels seem to be content to let the other team dictate the pace of the action. That’s a shame, too, because Carolina is not well suited to the half-court, slow-it-down mode of play. Syracuse, Miami and Pittsburgh, anyone? The Tar Heels can play with pace and still have the athletes to beat people down the court. But for now at least, it seems the transition points have all but disappeared. Sad day.

3-Perimeter shooting woes. Yes. There is always Paige. But what about after that? Who do the Tar Heels have who can hit that clutch outside jumper, or heaven forbid, drain it from behind the arc? That’s right. The answer most of the time is…nobody. At the end of the day, in March, you need great guard play. You need guys that can knock down shots from all over the court. If they see daylight, they must be able to knock it down with regularity. What’s that? Leslie McDonald, you say? No way. He’s far too unreliable.

Why we SHOULDN’T bury the Tar Heels: Ok. Let’s give them a break.

1-Defense. After all, if somehow, some way, Carolina taps back into their team defense mantra that had ACC opponents baffled earlier on in the year, the Tar Heels could find themselves in nearly every game in the Tournament despite how they’re shooting the rock. I guess that’s possible. But it will have to be a 40 minute effort, not the 10 minutes desperation crap we witnessed in the ACC Tournament.

2-Marcus Paige. This “tough little nut”, as Roy calls him, is special. He has the ability to take his game to another level in the second half – the money minutes. Be honest with yourself, don’t you just expect every shot to go in for the UNC point guard when the game is hanging in the balance? I know I do. And that kind of moxy and poise is something that can greatly aid in a team’s quest for a deep run in March, where seemingly every game comes down to the wire.

3-Quality wins. You can’t ignore it. As much as I’ve tried to, as Roy has pointed out, these Tar Heels have rose to the occasion in showdowns against a few of the favorites to cut down the nets in April. They took down Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing. That’s miraculous. They bested Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals in a preseason tournament championship game. Granted, those teams are undoubtedly playing a lot better now, but a win is a win. And UL and MSU are now installed as two of the top five favorites to win the national championship by Vegas odds. That’s got to count for something, right?

No matter what side of the fence you’re on as to the NCAA Tournament fate of the Tar Heels, one thing is for sure. It should be exciting stuff to watch. Unpredictability breeds good drama. Will Carolina achieve its “big time dreams?”

I’ll leave you with a superb quote by Coach Williams. It can be applied to any walk of life. In fact. I think I’m going to throw it up on my wall of quotes somewhere.

Be led by your dreams, not pushed by your problems. We’ve all got problems, but this time of year I think you should be really enthused about your hope – what you might be able to do.
-Coach Williams

Ok, Coach. We won’t bury you just yet, but we’ve got the shovels waiting and ready to go – but we won’t complain if we have to wait a little while…


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Roy’s Remarks: “March Madness”

“Generally speaking, kids do get more enthused at tournament time. I’m pretty straightforward with them. I say, ‘Hey, we turned it around, but let’s not look back and say the highlight of our season is a three-to-four-week period in February.’”
                                                                                        -Coach Williams

The Tar Heels have put the regular season in the rearview mirror and now set their sights on a season filled with much higher stakes. Tournament season is special. The “one and done” mantra makes for an unpredictable stretch run that has coaches, players and fans alike overcome with nerves and sweaty palms.

It’s the sudden end to the season, no matter how illustrious or successful the year has been, that makes the NCAA Tournament the most fascinating and exciting tournament in all of sports. Each round, whether you are Kansas, Duke or Wofford, you put your neck on the line for 40 minutes. Any false step could be lethal. And with a loss, your team is left scratching its head, asking itself what happened. What could have been? The exit doors always loom large in this “Big Dance.”

For Carolina, so far, it has been a year of recovery. The disastrous 1-4 ACC start left most observers resigning the Tar Heels to an NIT berth. Yet here we are. And despite the predictable loss at Cameron Indoor on Saturday, where everybody and their mother fails, there are talks of UNC being as high as a three or four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But first things first: the ACC Tournament provides a test or tune-up (however you’d like to look at it) before the final exam next week. Selection Sunday is coming right up. With a conference title, Carolina would be a trendy Final Four pick by droves of national pundits. With a quarterfinal exit on Friday, the Tar Heels would be more likely referred to as the “Tar Holes,” with plenty of vulturine analysts predicting a first or second round ending for Carolina.

It’s a fine line. Roy has said as much throughout the 2013-14 campaign. This year’s squad, he says, has a tiny margin for error. Every facet of the UNC game has to be clicking at a high level to achieve victory. Now that’s a lot of pressure heading into this time of year.

But the Tar Heels have toughness in their arsenal as well. That’s a handy intangible to hold. They also have newly named Second-Team All-American Marcus Paige on their side. Roy calls him “the toughest little nut I’ve ever coached.” One thing is for sure: it should be tantalizingly intriguing to watch this Carolina team attempt to wade its way through the brackets.

But for now, let’s simply rejoice! Yessir, it’s that time of year again: March. The month that the entire country – and especially college campuses across the nation – gets swept up in a frenzy of hoops. There is nothing like it in sports (college football executives, take note as you embark on the new playoff system). Everybody, from all age groups, genders, and walks of life, unites in the confines of their brackets. Students add a second major in bracketology, and professionals aggressively study the science of college basketball.

Office pools, ESPN bracket challenges, Vegas cash, and friendly wagers are all on the line. It captures the hearts and minds of America. Will a Cinderella make a run? Will the goliaths of the hardwood meet in the Final Four? It’s anyone’s guess. But with the major conference tournament games tipping off this week, we are all strapped in for a wild ride.

And yes, our beloved Heels are in the thick of things. Their championship quest begins Friday. Roy is hoping to put the finishing touches on an award-winning script. But for now, slap on your dancing shoes and enjoy the Madness that is March.Image

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Roy’s Remarks: “Winning Ugly”

“I’m tired of winning games ugly. It’s better than losing games ugly. We learned those lessons early in the season, but we’ve let them slip by us this year these last couple of games.”
-Coach Williams

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as enamored by the 12-game winning streak as the next person. But I tend to side with Roy on this one.

These wins are getting more and more rugged as the regular season is quickly drawing to a close. The Virginia Tech game was sloppy at best. The Senior Night Notre Dame contest was adventurous, to say the least. In fact, Saturday and Monday’s contests were the only games in the 12-game run that the Tar Heels failed to score at least 70 points.

Yes, I’m tired of winning games ugly, just like Roy. But then again, so are the players. On Monday night in the locker rooms, Paige, McAdoo, McDonald and the rest of the gang were visibly distressed by the victory. I think I’ve seen them happier after a couple losses this season.

And that’s a good sign for Tar Heel fans. This team is no longer happy with just emerging with more points than the guys in the other color shirts. Nope. That’s not enough. Coach Smith’s philosophy was that he could handle whatever the result may be as long as he was pleased with the way his team played.

McAdoo seems to be taking a page from the Carolina patriarch’s playbook. He told reporters that they treated wins like the one Monday night as losses.

And that’s no disrespect to these ACC teams UNC has been taking down. That’s no small task, but at this point in the season, on the cusp of postseason play, they expect more out of themselves. It’s March Madness, after all – one small misstep can result in a lethal loss. The Tar Heels are well aware of the potential pitfalls of living so dangerously.

It’s not a good time of the season to be trending downward with your play. Have the Tar Heels peaked? Is their best basketball behind them? We’ll get the answers to these questions in due time – try Saturday, for starters.

Cameron Indoor will demand the Tar Heels bring their A-game and avoid any “walk-abouts.” Lapses in focus are as good as a death sentence when you’re facing Duke in Durham.

You think scoring nine points in the first 14 minutes of the second half is going to cut it against Duke, or any other Sweet 16-caliber team for that matter? Exactly. No matter how strong of a defense you play, that kind of offensive inefficiency isn’t going to get the job done.

And I know something else: shooting sub-.500 from the free throw line is not going to cut it. No way, no how. Carolina went only 10-22 from the charity stripe against Notre Dame, to the groans of the Smith Center crowd.

It was the fifth occasion this season the Tar Heels shot under 50 percent in free throws. But the difference this time? Carolina won this one. The four previous dreadful foul shooting outings all ended in defeat. Credit the Tar Heels. They’re finding ways to win the close ones in the clutch, despite how painful it may appear at times.

But the debacle from the line has to be addressed, or UNC will find itself on the wrong end of one of these nail-biting games somewhere along the line in the NCAA Tournament. It’s inevitable.

The magic and “luck” (as Roy described in his most recent postgame press conference) will run out at some point, if the foul shots don’t start finding their mark.

Finishing issues have reared their ugly head again for the Tar Heels, as well. They continue to outrebound their foes, but that’s not always translating into points. UNC is struggling mightily to complete the play around the basket – wasted opportunities add up.

Luckily, playing with fire hasn’t burned Carolina yet. But if you play around enough, well, you know what happens.

I guess you can get picky about the way you’re winning when you go on a run like the one the Tar Heels are currently on. Still, there are some red flags popping up. Carolina needs to batten down the hatches and regain the focus and intensity they’ve lost if they have any designs on a deep postseason push.

So, folks – close your eyes, hold your breath and wait for the “all clear” signal to be given.

But let’s be honest. This “winning ugly” thing – it’s a nice problem to have.

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Talkin’ ACC Hoops

Always great to chat on-air with the guys down at ESPN 730! This time, we talk Carolina-NC State showdown, ACC landscape, Coach of the Year and NCAA Tourney projections.

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Roy’s Remarks: Home Stretch

“It’s a long season. You can’t just say, ‘Oh gosh, let’s catch our breath. That’s really good.’ Bottom line is, it’s near the end of the season, and we’ve got to keep playing.”
                                                                                                -Coach Williams


Four more. The finish line is in sight for Roy’s boys. But the run of nine straight victories isn’t satisfying enough for this team. Roy’s not allowing it. The players don’t mind.

Granted, these battle-tested Tar Heels were understandably hobbling Saturday following the Wake Forest game, their fourth win in eight days. Physically, that is. Mentally, it was another story altogether.

Their minds were as fresh as ever – pointing to the future with determined vigor. Surprisingly, the players weren’t basking in the glory of their recent accomplishments. Heck, I wouldn’t have blamed them if they did.

The Tar Heels had an all-star week worthy of the highest praise. A stunning rally in Tallahassee. A winning fight for Tobacco Road. A glorious, revenge-minded rout of an in-state rival.

It was a stunning span. But nope. These Tar Heels were looking to the future with clear, excited eyes.

These young men are doing it in myriad ways out on the court. But for now, the end result is appearing secure – a win.

The confidence of the sprinting Tar Heels is rooted in toughness (I refuse to say that phrase “sense of urgency” any longer, forgive me) and a deepening faith in defense.

We’ve all heard the old adage- “the best defense is a good offense.” Well, for this year’s Tar Heels, it’s flipped – the best offense is a good defense.

“Coach stresses that we just got to keep toughing through things. If offensively we don’t have it, we’re always going to have it defensively. I think that’s where most of our offense comes from,” sophomore J.P. Tokoto says.

UNC vs. Duke 054

Never was this philosophy more on display than in the Duke contest last Thursday. Carolina was trailing by double digits to a No. 5 ranked Blue Devil squad with prolific perimeter shooters to boot.

Carolina couldn’t buy a basket for extended stretches, and couldn’t even hit a free throw to save themselves, to the groans of a Smith Center crowd desperate to work themselves into a frenzy.

Well, the frenzy would come. The defense delivered it to the fans and took it to Duke. The Tar Heels dug in with a stone-wall determination that was a sight to behold, stymieing the Blue Devil attack.

But defense aside (and maybe even more significantly), it has become increasingly clear that this Carolina squad isn’t ready to cash in on their success. No, they want to keep all their chips out on the table. They’re hungry for more, ravenous even. Just ask Marcus Paige.

“It’s a happy locker room right now. I think the fact that we are winning is making us hungrier to continue that. We’ve got a little taste of continued success. We want to keep that going,” Paige says.

Carolina has rounded the final turn. The finish line is within sight. Their eyes are fixed on the prize. The pace is quickening. But the Tar Heels are resolute. They know the job is not done. They know they’ve still got some competitors to pass on the home stretch.

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