Breakin’ It Down: The ACC — FSU and everybody else?

In the first installment of my weekly ‘Breakin’ It Down’ series, I’ll take a gander at the ACC in total.

The ACC football landscape is wide open heading into the start of the 2014 season. Well, if you take out those Seminoles down in Tallahassee. If you remove No. 1-ranked defending national champion Florida State, you have quite a fight for conference supremacy.

For now, it appears barring a miraculous fall from grace or a rash of key injuries, Clemson is the only possible threat to FSU in the Atlantic division. That Sept. 20 showdown will likely be under the lights at Doak Campbell Stadium in primetime.

Sorry Louisville, Boston College, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Syracuse fans – you’re playing for second. But that’s no insult. Most teams across the nation would be relegated to this ugly truth.

With nearly all of the key playmakers returning to a loaded FSU squad armed with a prolific offense led by Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston and a ferociously opportunistic defense, the Seminoles should be a sight to behold. The better question for the ACC may just be can any conference member stay within a couple touchdowns of Jimbo Fisher’s squad?

But as a whole, it’s a great thing for the ACC. Having a dominant FSU back in the saddle reminiscent of the Bobby Bowden teams of the 90’s is a beautiful development.

Having a regular national title contender does wonders for everybody. It attracts attention to the conference, and in turn, the rest of the schools. It’s a trickle-down effect. The top recruits want to play in premier leagues. For years, the ACC was an afterthought in football. But after suffering through the obscurity and doldrums of the mid-2000’s, conference commissioner John Swofford is smiling again.

Well, enough of that. We now who’s likely to have already booked their plane tickets to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game out of the Atlantic division. But what about the Coastal?

As easy as FSU is to pick out of the other side, we’ve got the complete opposite in the Coastal. Pick your favorite team. Heck, draw straws. You’ll probably have just as good of a chance at selecting the ultimate winner out of the parity-ridden and crowded Coastal race.

Although Miami was reluctantly tabbed by the media as most likely to face off with in-state rival FSU in the ACC title game, both UNC and Duke garnered more first-place votes. Try that one on for size. The voting tally highlights how wide open things really are. In fact, numerous veteran ACC reporters at the ACC Kickoff event in Greensboro couldn’t recall a time a division was more up for grabs.

So, in lieu of this, I’ll make a case for four different schools claiming the division championship.

First up, is Miami. Head coach Al Golden has plenty of talent returning to Coral Gables this fall but none more dangerous than stud running back Duke Johnson. Johnson went down to injury a season ago, but now back healthy, look for the Hurricane rushing attack to be humming along nicely. The question mark remains with the surrounding cast at the quarterback and receiver slots. What happens when defenses clamp down on Johnson? Who else can step up at big-time moments in the clutch for the Canes this fall?

Another division title contender is Duke. The Blue Devils are receiving plenty of respect, and deservedly so, after a trip to the ACC championship game in 2013 and a wildly competitive contest against Texas A & M in their bowl game. Head coach David Cutcliffe has transformed the struggling Duke program into a formidable force, capable of pushing everybody in the conference to the limits with their tricky offensive schemes, impressive discipline and uncommon tenacity. Durham is buzzing these days, and not just for hoops. But the Blue Devils lost a couple key veteran offensive linemen who were so vital to the offense’s success a year ago. And what’s more, the news of starters in LB Kelby Brown and TE Braxton Deaver being ruled out for the season due to injuries makes things even worse. Can the confident Blue Devils overcome it all and back up the program’s first 10-win season with another notable campaign in 2014? Quarterback Anthony Boone and top-notch wide receiver Jamison Crowder will certainly have their hands full.

Virginia Tech just hasn’t been, well, Virginia Tech the past couple seasons. The Hokies are used to 10-win seasons at minimum and making their annual pilgrimage to the conference title game. But there’s been a disturbance in the force of late. Bud Foster’s defense has seemed to lose some of its dominant edge, the offense has lacked an elite signal caller, and head coach Frank Beamer just isn’t willing his team to trademark gritty wins like he routinely used to do like clockwork, especially in ACC action. The decline in high-caliber recruits has seemingly caught up to the Hokies. But in a season with no clear-cut favorite, is the time ripe for a VT rem-emergence? Parity is perfect for Beamer ball. One thing is for sure. The Hokies will be riding running back Trey Edmund’s legs as far as they will carry them.

Who’s that fourth contender for the Coastal crown? That’s the Tar Heels. Head coach Larry Fedora enters his third season at the helm of Carolina football preaching that time is now. A sense of urgency and focus has pervaded the UNC preseason training camp. But do the Tar Heels have the necessary ingredients to make a run? At the skill positions, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. With return specialist Ryan Switzer now doubling as a fully-fledged wide receiver, the electricity inside Kenan Stadium could be at a fever pitch. What’s more, offensive guru Fedora has not one, but two signal callers tailor made for his warp-speed system. Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky may both be shuffled in and out with new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell having the luxury of going with the hot hand. The question marks for UNC remain up front. The defensive and offensive lines took massive hits with the losses of James Hurst and Kareem Martin. Will these holes be patched up enough to allow the potent Carolina attack to shine? Time will tell.

2014 ACC Predictions:

Atlantic: FSU

Coastal: UNC

Conference Title Game: FSU over UNC, 38-21

Keep up with all the latest on ACC and UNC sports by following Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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The Dog Days of Sporting Summers

It’s that dreaded time of the year for sports fans.

What do we really have to hold onto in the middle of the summer? I mean, besides the beach trips, lake days, oppressive heat, outdoor concerts, cookouts and sweet tea. I’m talking sports here. Exactly. We’re usually caught in the doldrums.

This year, at least, we had the World Cup to help hold off our hunger. But let’s be honest, if you are anything like me, the soccer action down in Brazil didn’t really cut it.

It was like being thrown a couple potato chips when you’re ready for steak dinner. Ah, what a tease. Yes, the brief transformation into Soccer America, a country that suddenly found a passion for the biggest global game, was fun and all. But oh, how the fire burned out quickly.

All in all, the World Cup just ignited your ravenous sports hunger that much more. Am I right?

And then what are we left with? Yes, I know baseball lumbers on. But it just doesn’t move the meter enough for most of us. The season is just so dang long.

Oh, that’s right. The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is always a July 4th highlight. Joey Chestnut pounding 60+ dogs is disgustingly intriguing. But that’s a one-hour event.

There are the country club events. Wimbledon is a royal tradition for tennis fans like me, but once again, it doesn’t grab the attention of the masses – especially with the lack of a real American contender in the men’s game these days. And while the the US and British Opens are crown jewels in the golfing world, much like tennis, it’s for a more narrowed audience.

Alas, summers are generally reserved for looking ahead – for hanging out on the back porch, grilling out and talking up your favorite football team’s (college or NFL) chances this fall, for defending your baseball club’s bid to win the World Series, and in this part of the country, even prognosticating and handicapping the upcoming ACC basketball season.

We all maintain bountiful hope in July. It’s your opinion against the guy next to you. Nobody can say you’re completely bonkers. Well, unless you predict the Browns to go and win the Super Bowl or something silly like that…

But overall, the summer represents a painfully long stay in sports purgatory.

However, there’s good news! We’re almost ready to receive that yearly call up to sporting heaven. August is right around the corner.

And that means preseason NFL football. Heck, training camps are already underway. Easy now. Try to contain your excitement. On second thought, don’t. For me, I’m most excited for the return of college football in less than a month from now. For many, college football is a pseudo-religion. You can count me in that pool of people. I’ve always been transfixed by the rare mix of pageantry, rivalries, passion and pride on display on Saturdays. Growing up in the South probably has a lot to do with it!

And so, I am exceedingly pumped up for my return to the cozy confines of the Kenan Stadium press box Aug. 30 when the Tar Heels welcome Liberty to town to kick off a new era – the inaugural season for the College Football Playoff.

What else am I looking forward to keeping tabs on this fall? US Open tennis, Carolina Panthers and Luke Keuchly, FSU and Jameis Winston, Ryder Cup (can the USA finally win it again?), ACC basketball (Duke > UNC?), high school football (my pregame radio show) and a tradition unlike any other–football tailgating.

What do you have your eyes fixed on? There’s a sports lover’s dream out there about to become a vivid reality.

But for now, we must endure. We can do it, because we know what’s on the horizon. We can survive the dog days of summer.20140728-171734-62254070.jpg

Photo courtesy of thehappinesszone.hoop.la

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Across the Pond: British Open Preview

“This Championship is the oldest we have and it’s the most prestigious” – Phil Mickelson

What happened to The Masters, Phil? Those were defending champion Mickelson’s words Monday as he addressed the media before the 12th staging of the Open Championship (AKA British Open) at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, commonly known as Hoylake.

The last time the best players in the world descended on Hoylake in 2006, it was Tiger Woods who delivered a master-class in surgical, strategic golf to walk away with the Claret Jug.

This year, the tournament appears to be wide open. A variety of factors make the British Open one of the most intriguing events in golf – the history, the weather, the fans, the expansive TV coverage that starts in the wee hours of the morning (4 a.m. this year), and the different style of golf that a links course demands from the competitors.

With all this being said, I’m going to take a crack at the top 5 storylines heading into Thursday’s first round of The 1143rd Open Championship:

5) Watson Wonders. You’ll have to pay close attention to the leaderboards this week when it comes to this name. “Watson is within three shots of the lead! But which Watson is it?” It’s always that way at the British Open.

B. Watson is ranked in the top ten in the world, the reigning Masters champ and at the height of his golfing powers. Bubba is one of the most popular golfers in the game today. His ingenious creativity, proclivity for the dramatic, ability to bomb the ball into oblivion and likable personality have resonated with all who follow golf. His performances at Augusta National, along with his victory celebrations with his close-knit family, have left indelible images on the game. What’s not to like about the guy? But it remains to be seen whether he has the acumen to conquer golf’s oldest championship.

T. Watson, on the other hand, rarely plays with the “kids” (as he calls the PGA Tour pros) these days. But when he does, he fits right in. Just a few weeks ago, Watson made the cut at The Greenbrier Classic – the PGA Tour stop in the beautiful mountains of West Virginia. Yes, Tom is a five-time Open champion and truly a living legend, though seemingly approaching the end of his competitive playing days. It’s got to be sometime soon, right? No rush though! Generations of golfers come and go, but Tom is the one constant. That timeless, silky-smooth swing and humble smile have held up admirably – continuing to mark the time as the years roll by. But have the sands in the hourglass finally run out for ol’ Tom?

Links golf (a style many young American pros are unfamiliar with) and the affinity for brutish weather across the pond are great equalizers. That’s the beauty of this tournament. Two golfing greats – one 35 years old, the other at 64 years young – will tee it up with the same goal in mind: climbing into contention on Sunday afternoon.

4) Has the Mickelson magic run out? Phil, The Thrill is about as predictable as a spin at a Vegas Roulette wheel. He’s an enigma. The defending champion seemingly snagged last year’s Claret Jug out of nowhere with an improbable final round comeback aided by a fiery hot putter. But this year, Phil has recorded only one top ten finish. No, that’s not a typo. Phil maintains he’s swinging the golf club well enough to win. And that may very well be the case. But his putter is about as ice cold as you will ever see a professional’s short stick get. I followed him closely at Pinehurst for the US Open. He painfully missed 3-4 routine putts a round. That’s like showing up to a gun fight armed only with a knife.

Unless the 5-10 foot putts start to fall, it’s highly unlikely the insanely popular Mickelson will find himself in with a real shot at going back-to-back on Sunday. But then again, it is Phil…would we really be all that surprised to see the guy battling for another title down the stretch?

3) How will Hoylake hold up? The venue always takes a starring role at the British Open. Mainly, it’s how the adverse conditions (howling winds and bitter rain) will affect the playing conditions. So much of the courses on the Open rotation are dependent on Mother Nature in order to stand up to the world’s best, especially these days, with everybody smacking it 300+ yards off the tee.

Hoylake can play fiery fast, like it did back in 2006, or it can get slow and saturated if the heavens decide to open. Both scenarios present worthy challenges to the players.

The seaside holes will likely put up more resistance than those further inland. Variable mounds and higher winds whipping off the sea will present a level of doubt that could befuddle many of the more inexperienced competitors in the field.

This week, Hoylake’s par-72 layout will stretch out to 7,312 yards.

The winning scores in the last five Opens staged at Royal Liverpool have been all over the map. Tiger finished at -18 while the 1947 champion, Fred Daly, ended up at +21. There isn’t much to go on there. But depending on the conditions, I think it’s safe to say too expect a winning mark somewhere in between those two extremes. Posting a -3 to -6 in the clubhouse on Sunday would sound mighty good to most all of the players right now.

2) Tiger’s major championship return. Woods will compete in his first major of 2014 when he tees of Thursday morning with fellow playing partners Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson. Talk about a marquee grouping! But the former world No. 1 remains a mystery. What can we expect from a guy that is battling back from injury and has played so few competitive rounds of golf this season? We all know his trademark fighting spirit will be there, but the rust is bound to be in his clubs as well. After all, Tiger missed the cut in his first tournament back at Congressional a few weeks ago. One thing is for sure, all eyes will be on the 14-time major winner as he looks to get back into contention again at a major championship – the only thing he is still playing for these days.

1) Can Justin turn up ‘Roses’ in his home major? Absolutely. There is no player hotter in the world than the Englishman right now. Rose is coming off an impressive win last week at the Scottish Open and took the title at Congressional a few weeks before that. His game is squeaky clean with his irons dialed in and his putter in fine form. When he’s striking the ball as cleanly as he has been, there’s nobody better. The oddsmakers are placing Rose as the favorite this week, but wait, before you go placing your bets…there’s one minor problem.

He needs to reverse an ugly 15-year trend. That’s right, Rose has never even finished in the top 10 at the British Open since turning pro back in 1998. In that year, he finished in the top five at the Open, but he was playing as an amateur. Maybe there’s too much pressure on him? Or maybe it’s just an aberration. Either way, it should be fascinating to watch this weekend.

***NOTE: I didn’t even mention our dominating US Open winner this year, Martin Kaymer…I do that at my own peril…there’s just so much to look forward to.***

20140714-190805-68885241.jpg 2013 champion Phil Mickelson

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Pinehurst Opining: Closing Finalities

Well, it’s all over with. But what a memorable week of US Open golf at Pinehurst No. 2 course. Technically, the world’s eyes will still be on the North Carolina sandhills this weekend as the women take on the restored course. But my US Open journey, along with many others, ended Sunday. With that in mind, here are my top 5 takeaways from the tournament:

5) Soak it all in. The US Open is a special event. When you’re fortunate enough to hold tickets to our national championship, please, take advantage. From the moment the first ball is struck, in the early hours of the morning with the dew and fog still enveloping the course, the action is electric. And you never know when lightning is going to strike. Take, for instance, Saturday afternoon. I was following Phil Mickelson around the course. A couple of my friends, however, shot a few holes ahead to take in a bunch of groups as they came through on the back nine. They were immensely rewarded for their efforts. They witnessed Kenny Perry, the oldest player in the field, hole out for eagle from over 200 yards away from the green. It was the shot of the tournament. They couldn’t stop taking about it. I must admit, I was a bit perturbed I missed it. It’s a moment that those who witnessed it will never forget. And it’s those kind of indelible memories that make big events like these worth the price of admission. The snapshots we remember often come from the most unexpected places, too, so keep your eyes open and go off the beaten track. You don’t necessarily need to follow your two or three favorite golfers all day. You won’t get the full flavor of the US Open that way.

4) Patriotism is alive and well. This tournament wasn’t even close – not by a long shot. But it didn’t matter. The roaring chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A!’ provided plenty of excitement Sunday as relative unknown Erik Compton and Rickie Fowler, both Americans, attempted to mount a charge at unflappable Martin Kaymer. At No. 8, Compton had closed to within four shots of the leading German. The crowds were insane. With the aid of beer, liquor, and good old-fashioned American bravado, the galleries voiced national pride with reckless abandon. If only Compton could have kept it going. It would have been a frenzy. But alas, his putter let him down.

3) Phil’s Last Shot. I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched Phil Mickelson three-putt for bogey on No. 12 – would he ever be back at Pinehurst – the place he famously finished runner-up to Payne Stewart in 1999? The answer is probably no – at least to play for a US Open title. It was tough watching Phil seemingly come to grips with that reality himself as his shoulders slumped down and his normal galloping pace slow considerably to a crawl. This was a man who wanted off the course and desired to spend the rest of the Father’s Day with his wife and kids. And who can blame him? But still, a part of me and the rest of the gallery in attendance, had to wonder was this Lefty’s last go-around at No. 2? The answer, seeing as the US Open venues have already been scheduled through 2020, is most likely an unfortunate ‘yes’.

2) No. 2 blends the old with the new. It’s a little bit of a case of back to the future at Pinehurst No. 2 now. There were nothing but rave reviews on the restorations from the players all week long. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – cheers to you! But it’s more than just a trip back in time to Donald Ross’ masterpiece of yesteryear. This layout is the way of the future. Water is the top threat to the game of golf. Cutting back on irrigation will be a necessity in the years ahead. Why not let the golf course play in their natural environment and save valuable water in conservation efforts at the same time? If it’s good enough for Pinehurst, it’s good enough for me, and it should be good enough for a heck of a lot more renowned course nationwide. I think we’ll see a new trend in golf course management only further strengthened by Pinehurst’s shining example on the world stage this week.

1) Martin Massacre. This is the story of the tournament – no contest. The former No. 1 player in the world and PGA champion came into this year’s US Open under-the-radar. But that didn’t take long to change after his opening round 65. That was a headline in itself. But what did the methodical German do for an encore? He followed it up with another magical 65 to sit at 10-under par heading into the weekend – a US Open record through 36 holes. Two days later, Kaymer had polished off one of the most dominating performance in US Open history with a wire-to-wire victory by a whopping nine shots. Somehow, the machine-like German was able to split fairways and land greens with surgical precision while the rest of the field stumbled its way through, hitting it all over the track. Is Kaymer the new dominant player in the game? We’ll see soon enough. But regardless, he put in a performance for the ages at one of the grandest venus in golf. I won’t soon forget it.

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Pinehurst Opining: Snapshot of a Saturday

They call Saturday “Moving Day” out here on the PGA Tour – chance for guys to make their run up the leaderboard with a low score and set up a prime chance at the trophy on Sunday.

But at Pinehurst in the US Open, “Moving Day” takes on a whole new meaning. Quite simply, the players head in the wrong direction. I’d rather like to call it “Survival Saturday”.

The bogeys were more plentiful than bunkers around the grounds on this day. And that’s saying a whole lot on this sandhills classic.

One in particular, Japan’s Toru Taniguchi, was having a nightmare round put on display for all to see. He was hacking from one side of the green to the other like he was playing tennis. Wrong sport, sir. But in his defense, Pinehurst was showing its teeth on Saturday.

But I prefer to stay on the lighter side of a major championship if at all possible. The first tee is a ceremonial celebration on days like these. So naturally, I wanted to take in the scene.

Even early in the morning, the atmosphere was building. There was a sense of anticipation in the air as the golfing duos strolled from the driving range over to the sequestered putting green for a few last rolls of the golf ball and a couple last exhales and collection of thoughts before the commencement of battle.

What an idyllic setting – the calm before the storm. Straddled by a packed clubhouse porch with rocking chairs in full force and members peering out to view the proceedings. Everything is in order. It’s a swell sendoff.

I hung out for a while as the USGA announcer introduced the competitors to the throngs of fans crowding around.

Sergio Garcia and Boo Weekly were a popular twosome. Garcia, the wily Spanish veteran, must have been trying mightily to block out the humiliation his country went through Friday when the defending World Cup champs were smacked around by the Netherlands in Brazil. He couldn’t draw his inspiration from there.

But for a while Saturday, Garcia was the only man under par on the golf course. He could wave the Spanish flag proudly.

Boo Weekly is another animal all together. The dip-spitting and beer-bellied guy from the South is a symbol of the common man. People like this dude. I know because they affectionately yell, “Boooooo!” after he strikes a shot. That’s his calling card.

Ernie Els’ silky smooth swing graced the crowd with its presence on the first teebox. “The Big Easy” as he’s called, was paired with talented up-and-coming American, Harris English.

Bill Haas received a nice ovation. The son of PGA pro Jay Haas, Billy is making a name for himself. But he’s yet to claim his maiden major title. He was alongside Stewart “the man who beat Watson” Cink. The lanky and wiry Cink famously outlasted the ageless 59-year-old Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009 to claim the British Open and with it, the Claret jug.

Kenny Perry, at 53 years young, was playing with Billy “the kid” Horschel in the group just ahead of Phil Mickelson – always a difficult position to be in with the swarming galleries.

Perry striped it right down the middle of the first fairway with his distinctive slingshot swing while Horschel, not surprisingly, bombed it past the aging Perry.

Next up was the main event: Phil and Webb. Phil is a big enough draw on his own, but with former US Open champion and North Carolina boy Webb Simpson in his group, the crowds were simply unbelievable.

The clubhouse veranda was packed as everybody wanted to catch a glimpse of this powerhouse grouping.

The dynamic duo strutted down the fairway followed by 20,000 of their closest friends and slowly, but surely the sea of humanity that painted a speckled picture through the Carolina pines, disappeared from view deeper into the course. Order was restored once again to the first tee as ‘Phil’s posse’ vanished.

Saturday at a US Open is a fascinating event to experience. There’s no doubt about it. But it’s all just setting the stage for what’s to come. Sunday awaits…

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Pinehurst Opining: A View From No. 6

Birds were chirping an angelic song as the morning sun began to peer through the thin cloud cover blanketing the region. The morning dew was kissed by the rays of sunlight that cast shadows through the towering Carolina pines and magnificent magnolias that surrounded the idyllic setting.

Where was I?

Friday at Pinehurst, I spent a majority of the day camped out in the grandstands behind No. 6 green.

But don’t let the picturesque conditions fool you. This was no stroll through the park. This wasn’t a hit and giggle. No way. There was carnage here. Lots of it. A diabolical green flanked by gnarly bunkers awaited the golfers a full 245 yards away at the tee box. That’s not a typo – 245 was its length.

The USGA officials must have been smiling and nodding with a sinister delight as they watched the world’s best players struggle to hit the surface of a par-3 that really could have easily been labeled a par 4 on the scorecard Friday.

I watched as 15 groupings came through. That’s 45 elite players. I never saw a single birdie. What’s more, there were only two groups that escaped without a bogey. Getting through this brute unscathed requires a monumental effort that heck, it’s hard for me to explain. I have no visual proof that it can even be done.

To begin with you have only small fraction of the green to aim for. The rest of the shortly mowed stuff is merely a mirage. Vicious runoffs bookend the front and back of the putting surface. The false front rudely rejects any short balls that don’t make it up to the top shelf.

But if you fly it a couple yards to far past the pin, you don’t have a prayer either. Your ball will come careening off the back edge to make for a difficult chip.

I saw more than a few players get a taste of both sides of the green – missing short only to watch their pitch make the agonizing trip back down the other side of the surface.

And even the machine-like German Martin Kaymer, who has been hitting greens with surgical precision all week long, failed to get it on the dance floor on No. 6. Of course, he did manage to get it up and down from the bunker for a magical par.

The fans seated around me were liking the struggles. And hey, I’ll admit it, a part of me was enjoying watching their misery as well. After a while, we knew what to expect before it happened.

You could tell off the club’s face whether the ball had too much speed to stick on the bowl-shaped green. But each time, it was exciting. Perhaps that’s what makes the US Open so validating for fans.

It makes us feel better about our own games. Given, none of us would be able to break 100 on No. 2, or most other US Open set-up courses, but still, we see shots and results that we’re used to from the best players on the planet. There’s something comforting about that.

A par on this hole was a birdie. And it didn’t take me long to figure that one out. But I didn’t mind it one bit. To spend a day out by No. 6 at Pinehurst No. 2 is to watch a microcosm of what the US Open is – a fight for survival.

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PHOTO CRED: WRAL SPORTSFAN

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Pinehurst Opining: Phil ‘The Anti-Thrill’ Feeling The Love

Something was brewing. The crowds were growing. The pace was quickening. The roars were rolling through the towering pines. Phil’s group was approaching.

The atmosphere is just different with this guy. I navigated the full 18 with the legend Thursday. Watching him interact with his throngs of supporters Thursday was a real treat. He smiles, tips his cap, and occasionally, even slaps fives with excited fans.

After the round, Phil acknowledged he could sense the emotional support the galleries supply him with around Pinehurst.

“It’s been great. The people out here have been wonderful. It’s a special place for me, got a lot of great emotions and memories from ’99. To come back and feel the support is really special and cool,” Mickelson says.

The emotional will and investment form the crowds was almost palpable. You could feel people trying to will the ball in the cup. Gasps were audible with every errant shot and “Come on, Phil’s!” were yelled with insatiable fervor by grey-hairs and young tots alike.

But something was different from Phil ‘The Thrill’ this time.

When following Phil Mickelson around the course at the US Open you’re all but assured of some fireworks along with the rollercoaster ride, but Thursday’s morning round had none of that usual spark.

It was a rather ho-hum day. No disasters, but no electricity either. It was methodical – nothing flashy. Phil’s even-par round of 70 was a solid score on Pinehurst No. 2 – at pretty much any US Open venue for that matter.

Sure, there was plenty of buzz from the fans. They’re always engaged. But the man they want so badly to win this week wasn’t up to normal up-and-down antics. You’re usually asking yourself the question – what will Mickelson do next?

Don’t get me wrong, he played well. His driver, most notably, was on point. He routinely outdrove his playing partners, defending champ Justin Rose and U.S. Amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, by 30-40 yards. And what’s more, Phil was finding the fairways.

But the truth of the matter is that Lefty didn’t make any putts. And I mean zero. He set himself up for makeable birdies on countless holes. But frustratingly for the massive galleries, two putts were the theme of the day.

As Phil himself said after the round, he was hitting it well enough to go much lower.

“I had a chance to get 3, 4, 5-under today had I made some makeable opportunities,” Mickelson says.

But no harm, no foul. You know the old golf adage. You can’t win the tournament on day one, but you can certainly shoot yourself out of it. Well, Phil is right in the hunt.

Phil got some good news from off the golf course after the round as well. He was reportedly cleared of a portion of the investigation into his alleged insider trading. Phil has maintained he’s been scot-free since the allegations were made. Now, it seems, the dark skies are parting just in time for a possible sunny weekend.

But Phil would rather focus on his performance on the golf course. And so we will oblige him.

He says one of the things he likes about Pinehurst is that he doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate, much like another of his favorite courses, Augusta National.

“I do feel that this tournament gives me a great chance on this golf course, because I don’t feel like I have to be perfect. I can hit a ridiculously bad iron shot, like I did on 2, and I can still get up and down,” Mickelson says.

With that being said, crazy heroics weren’t all that necessary in round one. Thursday was a grinder’s round, not a trademark Mickelson ‘grab your popcorn’ round. But they say those boring kind of rounds are what win US Opens. It’s just one day, but heck, maybe this is the type of change that can lead Phil to the promised land on Sunday?

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