Friday, May 27, 2011

NASCAR needs Trevor Bayne

I wrote my column today on Trevor Bayne, who has a chance to be a real NASCAR star but has sat out the past month or so of driving because of a mystery illness.

I covered Bayne's memorable Daytona 500 win in February -- at 20, he became the youngest winner in the race's history -- and was extremely impressed with him, as just about everybody was. His combination of talent, giddy enthusiasm, good looks and aw-shucks Southernness bodes very well for him in the future.

That's if he can stay healthy. As I write in the column, I find it disconcerting that doctors never did quite figure out what was wrong with Bayne.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kyle Busch apologizes in press conference

Kyle Busch answered questions about his “128 mph in a 45 mph” speeding incident on a public road Thursday, and to me he sounded an awful lot like he was running for office.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an athlete take every question in the allotted time – which Busch did – and never say “no comment’ but stick so closely to what had to be preconceived talking points.

In a nutshell, Busch apologized repeatedly for his “lack of judgment” and said he would make this a “learning experience” and then “move forward.” In one way or the other, Busch answered almost every question with those same phrases. It sounded pretty canned.

An example from Busch:

“I’m certainly sorry that it happened.... It was a lack of judgment, all I can do is apologize to the public, my friends, my fans, my sponsors, everybody – I’ll look at this as a learning experience and move forward.”

Busch sounded chastened and not at all like his ornery self (which did occasionally exhibit itself, but only in questions about other subjects, of which there were a surprising number).

Busch also managed to throw in lavish praise to both the police and the military during his news conference. If there had been an American flag nearby, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him wrap himself inside.

The closest thing Busch said that sounded like the way he usually talks came in a response to a question from The Observer’s David Scott, who asked why Busch had called the fancy Lexus he was driving a “toy” to the trooper who issued him the citation.

Busch said the $350,000 Lexus wasn’t a toy, but a high-performance vehicle that was on loan to him from Lexus. He said it was a car that should be driven with caution, which he hadn’t shown. He said that when you see car commercials that note at the bottom that the stunts done were by a professional driver on a closed course that there’s a reason for that and “mine was not that.”

Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson noted later in another interview that owning a high-performance car is a natural temptation, which is why he doesn’t get in them much.

“Everybody who has a high-performance car stands on the throttle at some point,” Johnson said, adding that wasn’t an excuse. Johnson also said he had never been in “triple digits” on a public road.

Busch drives his Sprint Cup car for Joe Gibbs, and Gibbs did address the media shortly after Busch did. Gibbs said this was a “serious issue” but did not specify what punishment, if any, Busch would receive from him.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bruton Smith says Busch shouldn't be suspended

Bruton Smith called me up this morning, wanting to talk about Kyle Busch.
Smith is a Charlotte auto magnate whose Speedway Motorsports, Inc. owns Charlotte Motor Speedway and more than a half-dozen other NASCAR tracks.

Smith disagreed with my opinion – you can see it here – that Busch should be suspended by his team owner Joe Gibbs for at least one race after he was clocked in Iredell County doing 128 mph in a 45-mph zone on a public road Tuesday.

“Let the legal system run its course,” Smith said. “That’s what I’d do if he were my employee.”

We talked about that for awhile, and then about a few other things. Smith, whose son Marcus now runs the day-to-day operations at CMS, also mentioned that the NASCAR all-star race format will likely be altered for 2012. (The 2011 version, which was last Saturday, produced a fine crowd but a boring race that had Carl Edwards leading from wire-to-wire over the final 10 laps. Edwards also led at the ends of segments No.2 and 3).

“We’re going to change that format just a little bit,” Smith said. “I can’t tell you exactly what it is, because it’s not finalized. But those 10 laps at the end may grow to 15, and we will do something to make it harder for the driver who’s got the fastest car in the field to just get in front and just stay there.”

That sounded like inversion – where you put the fastest cars at the back and make them wind through traffic during some segments. Smith said it wasn’t settled for sure.

Smith also said he estimated that CMS sold about 110,000 tickets for last Saturday night’s race (there are 135,000 permanent seats at the track) and that he was hugely pleased with the crowd and the reviews for the world’s largest HDTV in its race debut. He said there would be even more race fans there for the 600.

Regarding Kyle Busch -- who Smith said he hadn’t talked to yet but planned to before Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 – Smith said: “I thought I’d call and rattle your cage a little bit, as the late Dale Earnhardt would have said… First of all, he may not have been going 128 mph – although Kyle apologized in his statement, I don’t believe he admitted to actually going that fast…. I think the punishment, whatever it is, should stay in Iredell County. Let the legal system run its course, and hopefully it won’t run amok.”

Smith noted that Busch might be “the most talented driver we’ve ever had,” as he wins regularly in all three of NASCAR’s top series. He said that if Busch were his employee he would have a long sit-down talk with him, as he felt sure Joe Gibbs would do if he hasn’t already.

Added Smith: “And then I would tell them, ‘Go and sin no more.’ I’m sure Kyle wishes that it never happened. But in different sports, you wouldn’t necessarily be suspended for something like this. Players in some stick-and-ball sports have done much worse and still played while the legal system ran its course. That’s what should happen here.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

No excuse for Busch going 128

When you go 128 mph in a 45-mph zone, there’s really no excuse.

Kyle Busch was test-driving a new sportscar Tuesday – a yellow Lexus, with his wife Samantha in the passenger seat -- and said in a statement he got “carried away.” An Iredell County Sheriff’s Deputy clocked Busch driving 128 mph in a 45-mph zone – a staggering 83 mph over the speed limit.

Put it another way -- that’s almost three times the legal limit.

Busch, 26, is a race driver of stunning talent. And this is a mistake of stunning magnitude. I know no one got hurt, and thank God for that. But please… don’t discount this as “Just speeding.” Getting caught going 68 mph in a 60-mph zone is just speeding.

This was Busch recklessly endangering lives – including his own and the life of his wife. I know he's used to danger -- it's part of his job. But what about those he might have met on that road?

Busch released a statement Tuesday that read in part: “I went beyond the speed I should have been going on a public road. I apologize to the public, my fans, sponsors and race teams for my lack of judgment. I take responsibilities for my actions and I can assure you that something like this will never happen again.”

Now I’m glad Busch is apologizing, but that’s not enough.

Joe Gibbs, who employs Busch as the owner of Joe Gibbs racing, is one of the most decent and honest men I’ve ever met. He needs to make a statement here – that driving 128 mph on a public road can’t and won’t be tolerated.

If I’m Gibbs, I would at least suspend Busch for one weekend of Sprint Cup racing. (A spokesman for JGR told The Observer Tuesday that the organization was aware of the incident and looking into it).

I’d give Busch more than a slap on the wrist. Surely all the relevant sponsors would agree – the driver nicknamed “Rowdy” needs to be made aware that that sort of rowdiness must be confined to the track.

We all know that speed can both thrill and kill. Here’s a teachable moment, ready for the taking. Time for Gibbs to teach not only Busch a lesson, but also to help young, impressionable drivers understand how wrong what Busch did was.

I hope there won’t be a next time, as Busch assures us there won’t be. But that doesn’t absolve Busch from being punished this time.

It doesn’t sound like NASCAR will do it. Even if Busch loses his driver’s license, he is eligible to compete in NASCAR races. So Gibbs must.

For if Busch had hit anybody or anything at 128 mph on a public road, we at The Charlotte Observer wouldn’t be debating the punishment for a speeding ticket right now.

We’d be working on some obituaries.

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Lance, LeBron, Cam and Djokovic

A few sports-related thoughts on a hot Monday:

-- The implosion of cycling as a sport makes me sad more than anything else. Tyler Hamilton's revelations on Sunday's "60 minutes" show -- basically Hamilton became the latest former teammate to try and out 7-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong as a doper -- sound almost too detailed not to be true.
Armstrong, as usual, has launched an impassioned defense of his now-checkered reputation. He's been drug-tested for years -- more than 500 times, according to him -- and never has one come back positive.
Yet what Hamilton says is very hard to dismiss, because I really don't get what he has to gain by offering such "proof" if it's not true. Not quite sure who to believe in this one, but cycling as a sport is just so difficult to imagine as a clean sport that I feel sorry for the cyclists who do it right.

-- Peter King has an interesting note about halfway through his "Monday Morning Quarterback" column on Cam Newton and the tutoring he's been undergoing from Ken Dorsey, the former Miami Hurricane QB who has worked under the Panthers' new offensive coordinator and is now tutoring Newton some in Florida (with a copy of the Panthers playbook available if needed). Read it here.

-- LeBron James and company look like they have a little too much for Chicago, in my opinion. With Chris Bosh having come alive in this series, that Dallas-Miami NBA finals doesn't seem too far away now to me.

-- I enjoyed my friend Scott Price's story in Sports Illustrated on Novak Djokovic, the startlingly good tennis player from Serbia who has gone 38-0 so far this season while (at least temporarily) surpassing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Well worth your time. Djokovic truly is, as the SI story proclaims, currently the most dominant athlete in the world right now.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Dale Earnhardt Jr on marriage, job security

I'm writing my column for Saturday's newspaper and online on Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I spent some one-on-one interview time with Dale Jr. Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway and also listened to him in a group media session with other reporters.

A couple of the more interesting tidbits (with far more to come in the column, which is now posted here):

-- Earnhardt, currently fourth in the points standings, told me that his on-track performance had been so spotty the past several years that going into this season he was worried about his long-term job security. (He is in the fourth-year of a five-year deal with Hendrick Motorsports that expires in 2012, but it sounds like that deal is going to be extended before long).

“I thought it was kind of a make-or-break thing,” Earnhardt said of this season. “I want to be able to run for a long time. I felt like my lack of success might deprive me of that -- deprive me from the opportunity to be in this sport as long as I want to be.”

-- At age 36, Earnhardt remains a bachelor. I asked him Friday if he thought he would ever get married.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Earnhardt said. “I’m not going to say I know I will, because I don’t. It’s a little bit late in the game for me, but there still might be some hope.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Belated birthday wishes to Choo Choo Justice

Don’t you hate missing birthdays? I missed one yesterday.

If former Tar Heel football star Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice had been alive, he would have turned 87 on May 18th.

Justice, who died in 2003, played for the Tar Heels in the late 1940s and caught the nation’s imagination. He ran, passed and kicked the ball – did just about everything, really, except play defense. Justice told me once that was because he couldn’t play defense worth a darn.

So the 5-foot-9, 165-pound jitterbug from Asheville stayed on offense, making sure the trains ran on time. The Tar Heels went 32-7-2 during Choo Choo’s four years there.

I interviewed Justice in 2000 at his home – it was one of the last times he talked with a reporter at any length. He was a sweet, humble man, married to a fine woman (Sarah) for over 50 years. Although his mind had grown foggy by then, I caught him on a good day, and he happily recalled his time as a Tar Heel.

“Carolina needed a star, " he said. “Everyone had been through a war. Confined. There had been gas rations. The war was over, and people wanted to turn it loose a little. You couldn't get 'em out of the stadium when we played at home.”

Choo Choo’s appeal wasn’t just regional. He nearly won the Heisman Trophy twice - instead finishing second in both 1948 and 1949. He was the the subject of a Benny Goodman song called "All the Way Choo Choo.” Life magazine put Choo Choo on the cover for a 1949 issue and wrote that Justice was “Rudolph Valentino made up as Superman.”

A few other quotes from Choo Choo that came from my interview with him 11 years ago:

On Sammy Baugh, the Hall of Fame quarterback Justice played with in Washington: "He could knock you down with a football. He'd tell you to go down there and do a little buttonhook and you better be protecting yourself because he was going to throw it right at your nose. And if you didn't catch it, you had your head torn off."

On money: "I played for $1,200 a game and played 10 games. Nowadays, they won't even look at you for $12,000."

On golf: "If I had a son today, I believe I'd give him a set of clubs and say, 'Get out there.' In football or baseball, you really can't play that long."

On today's NFL: "It's a different world. Pro ball has just gone completely crazy. It's not a sport anymore, it's entertainment. And it's damn good entertainment."

On why he wore No. 22 in Chapel Hill: "They threw it to me the first day, so I put it on."

Toward the end of our interview, Choo Choo paused in the middle of a story to say something else.

“I’ve had quite a life, I guess,” Choo Choo said.
Then his wife gently patted his shoulder.

(Kudos to my former colleague Lew Powell for reminding me of Choo Choo’s birthday through the following well-written blog item, which shows a number of vintage photos of Choo Choo from the wonderful photographer and humanitarian Hugh Morton).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Number 9, number 9, number 9....

The Bobcats didn't move up and didn't move down in the NBA draft lottery Tuesday night, which means they will pick ninth in the June 23 draft, barring a trade of some sort. (And a trade is possible, since they also hold picks No.19 and No.39).

I keep hearing that experimental Beatles song from the White Album in my head when I think about this pick, the one where an unidentified voice keeps repeating "Number 9, number 9, number 9..."

Although I always thought that song was a mess, No.9 really isn't a bad place to be in the NBA draft. As the Bobcats happily note in their press release, notable No.9 NBA Draft picks since 1985 include Tracy McGrady (1997), Dirk Nowitzki (1998), Amar’e Stoudemire (2002) and Joakim Noah (2007). All-stars, all of them.

What the Bobcats don't note -- and I wouldn't either if I were them -- are the misfires at No.9 like Rodney White (who played one year for the Charlotte 49ers before bolting). Or Michael Sweeney. Or Patrick O'Bryant. Or Ike Diogu. All were No.9 picks since 2001, and can you remember anything any of them did in the NBA? Exactly.

You can also get a decent player at No.9, like D.J. Augustin, whom the Bobcats chose in 2008. Augustin has become a decent starting point guard, but not a great one.

Where should Charlotte go with that No.9 pick? I won't pretend to have studied the draft, but if there's a center out there who can help them at all, that's a huge need. A guy like Noah lasting until No.9 -- that's amazing, really, in retrospect, with how much NBA teams value big men.

But wherever Michael Jordan and Rod Higgins go with this one, the pick has to be a starter within two seasons. No ifs, ands or buts. The Bobcats can't afford another Adam Morrison misfire, and what they really need is a home run.

There's a couple of them out there in this draft, even though the draft isn't thought to be particularly strong overall. There always are. But will the Bobcats find him?

Monday, May 16, 2011

My thoughts on Cam's marketability

I read with interest the Sunday story that our Joseph Person wrote about Cam Newton's marketability, which can be seen here if you missed it.

The basic point: Newton, due to his high-profile Auburn success and the fact he is an NFL quarterback, probably has more marketability upside than any Charlotte team sports figure since Larry Johnson. (We're not talking about NASCAR).

But can Cam sell?

Oh, there's no doubt he can. Having been around Newton a little bit now while in New York, watching him get drafted, he can dazzle the cameras when he wants to. He's got a presence about him that plays well on TV. And the fact that he doesn't want to dazzle folks all the time and blows some interview requests off occasionally -- including mine at one point -- is hardly going to be a hindrance to that. I think it's clear that if a company like Under Armour has already signed Newton -- despite the personal baggage and the fact that no one knows if he's going to be a good NFL pro or not -- he's extremely marketable at the moment.

But there's no doubt that marketability gets flushed down the drain pretty quickly if Newton messes up on or off the field to any great extent. In other words, stay out of strip clubs, don't Tweet anything controversial, don't anger your teammates and, above all, play well and win.

That last part is the most important -- he will have to win in Charlotte, and win a lot, to avoid being the flavor of the month and sustain that marketability. As I've written before, I thought the Panthers made the right choice in drafting Newton, given that they were somewhat backed into a corner because of who was available, what their greatest need was and the fact no other NFL team wanted to offer much in a trade.

But Newton caught a break when the lockout was "off" for about 24 hours, just in time to get that playbook. He's got that, he's got a place to work out in Florida and he has, among others, former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke as a tutor (uh-oh).

It's a start. Just the fact you can write a story about Newton's marketability and discuss it seriously -- it shows for certain that the Panthers are far more interesting than they were before he arrived.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Phelps, Berens, Robison and the UltraSwim

Michael Phelps and Ricky Berens both won big events on the final night of the Charlotte UltraSwim -- Phelps to avoid a shutout at the UltraSwim, and Berens to win his first event at the meet in about 10 years of trying.

Those two should be teammates on the 2012 Olympic team -- Phelps of course will make it and Berens will be favored to make it in either the 100 or 200 freestyle (or both).

Phelps had a down meet here for him -- he won only once in three events and, startingly, finished sixth in one of them -- but he's a gamer and surely will improve his stroke when it really matters.

But keep an eye on this name, too -- Scot Robison. He's also from Charlotte. At 22, he's a year younger than Berens, and hasn't been as highly publicized because he didn't make the 2008 Olympic team. However, he has improved to the point where he's on the 2011 U.S. team that will go to the world championships in Shanghai, and he's a definite contender for 2012 as well. Berens and Robison were the only two swimmers to break 50 seconds in the 100 free Sunday night, both going slightly over 49.

Robison went to Virginia, where he was an outstanding swimmer, and will continue to train in Charlottesville as he attempts to make a run for those same Olympics. He's got a shot, as do several members of SwimMAC Carolina's Team Elite (Cullen Jones and Nick Thoman prominent among them).

Bottom line: Charlotte should once again have a strong connection once again to the USA swimming team that represents America in 2012 at the London Olympics.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Steve Smith saga continues

Interesting reading this week in "Pro Football Weekly," which had an interview with Steve Smith. Here's the link to the full story, written by the fine reporter Eric Edholm, who is a friend of mine and has also gotten close to Smith over the years -- the two of them have at times worked on a not-yet-published biography of Smith.

Here are a few excerpts from the PFW story I found particularly interesting as Smith danced around whether he wanted to be a Panther next season or not (he still has two years and close to $15 million remaining on his contract):

-- On the trade "demand": "First of all, have I demanded a trade? I have not demanded a trade. What I have asked for is to be in a competitive situation. I sat down with Marty a lot of times prior to the lockout. I am respected as a veteran amongst the players as well as the front office. So there has been dialogue (about his future in Carolina) prior to the lockout."

-- On his house being on the market and what that means: "I think it's important that people realize I am not packing my bags. As far as why my house is for sale, we built this huge house and we just don't have any business living in it. It seemed like a great idea, and then we moved into this big house.
"We started cringing at all that space we had. For me, it was a little bit vain that I have this big house with this big yard. People saw my house was on sale and said it was me sending a message. Really the message I sent was to my kids: Dad made a mistake. This isn't how we are supposed to live. This isn't what I should be projecting. If we don't do this now, what incentive do I give my kids to reach for? You make a lot of money and then you go blow it? I don't want to be a statistic. I want to be a good steward."

-- On if he expects to be traded (San Diego and Oakland have both been mentioned as possible destinations): "Do I expect to be traded? Really ... to be honest, I am not sure what to expect. That's the truth. Could I see a situation where I stay (in Carolina)? In my mind, I have played out every scenario: I could be moved, I could be cut, I could stay or I could be locked out. Honestly, my family and I are prepared for whatever steps are presented in front of us."

-- On what he wants in 2011 wherever he plays: "The thing that is important to me is that wherever I am (next season), I don't want to go through the mental grind that I have experienced the last two years professionally," he said. "In the last two years, my actions a lot of times have given people the impression that I am disgruntled. That is the emotion that sometimes gives people the opinion that I am volatile.
"What I have been through, really the last two and even three years, I started to doubt my ability. I have been insecure about playing. At times I often have lined up on Sundays — before and during games — wondering if I would be lucky enough to catch more than one pass."

Smith's numbers last season were the worst he has had in a full season since his rookie year (46 catches for 554 yards and only two TDs). PFW reports Smith also played through a quad pull, a left leg injury and a rolled ankle for much of the 2010season.

"Did I lose a step?" Smith asked in the interview. "Anyone would lose a step when you're playing on one leg. I just tried to play through it, and ultimately I looked slow. Instead of 31 (years old), I looked 41. Instead of coming out and gathering myself and taking a backseat, I tried to play through it — and it backfired."

Smith also said the changes the Panthers have made in the offseason were "foundational" and that he "wasn't upset" about them.

So where does all that leave us?

Not much farther down the road, I guess, but at least with a better sense of what Smith is thinking. And, still, with no idea really whether he has played his last game for the Panthers or not.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

That's one big ol' honkin' TV ya got there

I wrote my column for Wednesday's newspaper about the new high-def TV screen at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which in true speedway style is apparently the biggest one in the world. It's 200 feet by 80 feet, or 16,000 square feet, and since it's 30 feet off the ground to begin with that means the whole thing is 11 stories high.

The screen itself weighs 165,000 pounds, so more than a couple of folks would be needed to carry it up the stairs should you decide to get one. Cost? Undetermined, but the Dallas Cowboys Stadium video screens (2 of 'em, but each about 30 percent smaller than this one) cost a total of $40 million.

It's really, really cool, and I'm not that much of a gadget guy. But this will change the way people watch races at the speedway, forever. DO NOT ever buy a ticket where you can't see that screen -- and there are some -- because your experience will be diminished for it.

I also proposed in the column that if the TV is ever non-operational that everyone in the speedway should get at least a 20 percent refund on the cost of their tickets. Because once they see that screen in action, they aren't ever going to want to watch a race without it again.

One note: The screen won't simply broadcast the TV feed of the race (the big ones this year are the all-star race May 21st and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 29th). It will have access to that feed, but it will also have access to a number of other in-house cameras and will be going from one thing to another. The sound won't be the TV feed, either -- at least not usually. It will still be the vroom of the cars.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Why would Newsome leave Butler for Kannapolis?

Let’s say you’re a high school football coach. You went 31-0 the past two seasons, winning two straight state championships, with some of the best talent not only in North Carolina but in all of America. You won your last state championship game in a nailbiter – 44-0.

Why would you leave that job for another head-coaching job in another North Carolina town?

Because that town is Kannapolis, and that school is A.L. Brown.
What Mike Newsome is doing today – leaving the "31-wins-in-a-row" Butler dynasty to take over at A.L. Brown, which is a smaller school in a smaller place – may not make sense to outsiders but makes perfect sense to me.

If they filmed “Friday Night Lights” in North Carolina, they would film it in Kannapolis. Newsome, 39, told me Monday night he had never actually been to a Friday night football game at A.L. Brown, because he was always coaching in one. "I've only heard about it," he said. Well, he's in for a major treat.

Bruce Hardin knows this. The legendary high school coach now coaches Providence Day, but he spent 11 glorious years at A.L. Brown before leaving in 2000.

“The football game is the social event of the week there,” Hardin told me Monday afternoon, “and I say that in a very respectful way. People absolutely loved it. Everyone pitches in to really make the program work.”

Although the textile mill that long nurtured the town is now closed, Kannapolis retains that small-town, 1950s feel. In the late 1990s, I wrote a four-part series for The Observer about the A.L. Brown program, spending hours with the team and in the town. I left Kannapolis each time feeling a little like I had emerged from a time capsule when I got back on Interstate 85 and headed out – the whole place felt a little like the land that time forgot.

“There would be times,” Hardin said, “where I’d be putting out the padding on the goalposts at about 1:30 p.m. on a Friday. I’d see people already up at the gate, which was locked. I’d ride up there and say, ‘Folks, I’m sorry, but we’re not open, and I won’t have anyone here to open the gates until 6 p.m. They’d say, ‘That’s OK, coach, we just want to be the first ones in.’”

Sure, the Butler-Independence rivalry is big-time, but for my money A.L. Brown vs. Concord surpasses it in terms of sheer fan fervor.

In terms of sheer talent on the field, no. In terms of passion? Yes.

“People really care about football there, and that’s all the time,” said Hardin, who during his 11 years at A.L. Brown and also coached his twin sons Justin and Blair (now coaches) to very successful football careers. “Mike will need to feed that, and I’m sure he will.”

Unlike Hardin, who was both football coach and athletic director at A.L. Brown, Newsome will concentrate on coaching football and teaching science. He won't be the AD.

"That's fine with me," Newsome said. "I'll have plenty to do."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Clemson dominates at Wells Fargo

It was pretty cool to see the Wells Fargo Championship turn a vibrant shade of Clemson orange Sunday evening, as two former Tiger teammates and close friends fought their way into a sudden-death playoff – and then found themselves facing each other.

Lucas Glover and Jonathan Byrd played college golf together for three years at Clemson. Before that, they had played junior golf against each other in South Carolina. But while they have played hundreds of rounds together, they had never battled in a PGA Tour playoff until Sunday.

The bearded Glover won with a four-foot par putt on the one extra hole they played, No.18 at Quail Hollow Club, shaking his left fist at the sky as the ball found the cup.

Byrd had made a dramatic birdie at the same hole 20 minutes before to force the playoff – a birdie Glover had correctly predicted in an interview during the CBS telecast.

When Byrd dropped the 14-foot putt to a thunderous roar from the sellout crowd to force overtime, Glover said simply: "Told ya."

But Glover – who had not won a tournament since the 2009 U.S. Open – stayed tranquil. He gave Byrd a hug shortly before the playoff. Then he striped his drive down the center of the fairway, while Byrd hit his into a fairway bunker and never could recover. Glover parred the lone playoff hole, Byrd bogeyed it and that was that.

Glover won $1.17 million for his victory -- his first since the 2009 U.S. Open. Byrd got $702,000 for second place. So that's a whole lot of green for both of them -- and a whole lot for the folks clad in orange to be proud about.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Racing, Revolution and the Ron Greens

I have been remiss in not posting the links to two columns I wrote earlier in the week. One was on the renaming of Revolution Park Golf Course for Charlie Sifford, which officially happened Tuesday. Sifford, 88, joked that the greens fees would be going up the following Monday.

The other was on Mucho Macho Man, a Kentucky Derby horse who runs Saturday. Jim Culver, who lives in Hickory and is in the horse business, owns 10 percent of the horse and is in Churchill Downs hoping to catch "lightning in a bottle," as he says. The Derby is Saturday. Mucho Macho Man is 12-1.

I'm at Quail Hollow today, intending to write a column on the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship. It is a testament to our outstanding lead golf writer, Ron Green Jr., that when I was at Revolution doing the story on Sifford this week, I was three times mistaken for Ron. I understand.

The thing is that people always expect Ron to be at anything important that happens in golf around Charlotte, and since I bear a passing resemblance to him, that sort of thing will happen. I'm sure it will happen at Quail Hollow, too.

When they start asking about how my dad is, though, and I know they mean esteemed longtime Observer columnist Ron Green Sr., I tell them he's very well but then I have to break the news to them that I'm really not Ron, I'm Scott.

Their faces almost invariably fall at that moment.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A BIG May ahead in sports

While the NFL draft is over (and the players remain in limbo because of the re-instituted lockout), we've got quite a May coming up in the Charlotte-area sports world. May is one of my favorite months on our local sports calendar, as it includes more variety than almost any other month.

For instance:

1) The Wells Fargo Championship runs Thursday through Sunday -- here's an excellent story from Ron Green Jr. about the preparations.

2) The Charlotte Checkers -- one of the few successful pro sports franchises in Charlotte in terms of win-loss record -- are in the playoffs. You can get ticket info here.

3) The UltraSwim, which once again will feature Michael Phelps and also this time a unique "duel in the pool" between two Olympic-level swimmers who live in Charlotte, runs May 12-15.

4) The Kentucky Derby is Saturday. Not a local event, I know, but it has a Hickory connection this year. Watch for my column on that in Tuesday's newspaper and online.

5) Last but not least, Charlotte Motor Speedway will host its two biggest races of the year in May -- the all-star race May 21st and the Coca-Cola 600 May 29th. NASCAR's induction of its second hall of fame class also comes this month.