Mark Whicker

Author's posts

Feb 22

Whicker: Is Rungvisai the next Pacquiao?

SANTA MONICA — He comes from a far country that is rich n boxing, if little else.

His definition of a meal was anything he could stomach. His southpaw stance and his clubbing right hand were the only bootstraps he could seize. Yet he made the trip from nowhere, with no baggage or ETA.

He had a better 2017 than anyone else in gloves, worldwide.

Now he is the headliner on HBO’s Boxing After Dark on Saturday night at The Forum.

He is Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. In case you were wondering if we would ever see another Manny Pacquiao, he’s your man.

Pacquiao slept in cardboard boxes in the parks of Manila. Rungvisai, as the story goes, walked 60 miles to get a job in Bangkok as a security guard and a garbage truck driver. That at least gave him half-eaten food.

Pacquiao started at 106 pounds. Rungvisai is the WBC champion at 115 pounds, and he fights Mexico’s Juan Francisco Estrada on Saturday on the “Superfly II” card.

Pacquiao used frenetic movement and he punched far above his weight. Rungvisai is calmer, but his force clearly demoralized Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, one of the world’s premier boxers until Rungvisai beat him twice last year.

There are differences. Rungvisai is 31. Pacquiao 39. Pacquiao started earlier and went further. There is no chance Rungvisai will be a welterweight as Pacquiao was. And Rungvisai is unlikely to command a pay-per-view audience, even though Saturday night is a massive step for his jockey-sized division.

But when Rungvisai appeared at Wild Card West on Tuesday to work out, he wore a medal featuring a mythical beast called a Garuda. It is the logo of Maha Vajiralongkorn, the king of Thailand. Rungvisai got it from the man itself. Last year, Rungvisai  was voted the top athlete in Thailand.

Nine years ago, Rungvisai wasn’t even king of the street. He was one of hundreds of thousands of Thais who practiced Muay Thai. He would find more money in boxing, but only if he won.

“I went to an ordinary gym,” Rungvisai said, through an interpreter, “and a guy came to me and asked if I wanted to go to Japan to box. I flew there, without the proper training, and I lost two fights. Then I had a fight in Thailand and I told myself if I didn’t win, I would not do it again. Why should I fight if I can’t win a fight?.”

He got a draw with Sean Patavikorngym.

“That gave me the extra power to think I could fight,” he said. “After that fight, my girlfriend (now his fiancee) and I talked. There were two choices. I could be a full-time boxer, or I could go back to being a trash collector. I moved to a new gym, but I was not even dreaming that I would be a world champion. If I could fight on TV in Thailand and maybe get a regional belt, I would be happy.”

Rungvisai began his career 1-3-1. He is now 44-4-1. His first win over Gonzalez was a staggering upset. He had compiled a streak of 13 consecutive knockouts, but all but two of those fights were six-rounders.

He had fought outside Thailand or Japan only once, and that was a technical-decision loss in Mexico to Carlos Cuadras, after Rungvisai had cut him on a head butt.

Now Rungvisai was in Madison Square Garden against the least-disputed champion in boxing. Gonzalez was 45-0. But Gonzalez was also coming up from 112 to 115. Three pounds, on such miniature bodies, is quite a bit.

Rungvisai lost a point for head butting but won the first round 10-8 when he decked Gonzalez. In the end, he won a majority decision, getting a two-point edge on two cards and a tie on the other. A majority of fans and media disagreed.

The rematch happened Sept. 9 at StubHub Center and Rungvisai got his knockout, with two knockdowns in Round 4.

You may see references to a champion named Wisaksil Wangek. That is Rungvisai’s real name. In Thailand, it’s common to use pseudonyms based on gyms or sponsors. There was a WBA minimum-weight champ named Knockout CP Freshmart.

Nobody refers to Walker Smith or Arnold Cream, the birth names of Sugar Ray Robinson and Jersey Joe Walcott. Or Marion Morrison Airport in Santa Ana, for that matter.

Estrada is a brilliant ex-champ who pushed Gonzalez in his prime, losing a decision at the Sports Arena in 2012. But he, too, is coming up to 115.

“I think I will have more power,” Rungvisai said.

Gonzalez suspects the same. He warned Estrada not to stand in front of Rungvisai.

“I already knew that,” Estrada said.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/22/whicker-is-rungvisai-the-next-pacquiao/

Feb 22

Whicker: Pac-12 basketball is a cold ticket, but at ASU it’s suddenly cool

  • TEMPE, AZ – DECEMBER 17: The “curtain of distraction” performs during the second half of the college basketball game between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Vanderbilt Commodores at Wells Fargo Arena on December 17, 2017 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Commodores 76-64. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    TEMPE, AZ – DECEMBER 17: The “curtain of distraction” performs during the second half of the college basketball game between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Vanderbilt Commodores at Wells Fargo Arena on December 17, 2017 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Commodores 76-64. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

  • Arizona State fans prepare to unveil their Curtain of Distraction during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against UCLA, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, in Tempe, Ariz. ASU fans showcase various visual distractions while opponents shoot free throws. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

    Arizona State fans prepare to unveil their Curtain of Distraction during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against UCLA, Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015, in Tempe, Ariz. ASU fans showcase various visual distractions while opponents shoot free throws. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, center, performs behind the “Curtain of Distraction” during an Oregon State free throw against Arizona State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

    Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, center, performs behind the “Curtain of Distraction” during an Oregon State free throw against Arizona State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

  • Arizona State curtain of distraction during the third quarter of a women’s college basketball game against UCLA, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated UCLA 65-61. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

    Arizona State curtain of distraction during the third quarter of a women’s college basketball game against UCLA, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. Arizona State defeated UCLA 65-61. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • Arizona State fans showcase their Curtain of Distraction during the second half of a game against UCLA a few seasons ago in Tempe, Ariz. The ‘fun’ atmosphere at ASU games are one of the reasons the school isn’t facing the disappointing attendance issues some of the other Pac-12 programs are. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

    Arizona State fans showcase their Curtain of Distraction during the second half of a game against UCLA a few seasons ago in Tempe, Ariz. The ‘fun’ atmosphere at ASU games are one of the reasons the school isn’t facing the disappointing attendance issues some of the other Pac-12 programs are. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

  • USC basketball crowd at game vs Stanford at Galen Center Wednesday, January 24, 2018. ( Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    USC basketball crowd at game vs Stanford at Galen Center Wednesday, January 24, 2018. ( Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • USC basketball crowd at game vs Stanford at Galen Center Wednesday, January 24, 2018. ( Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    USC basketball crowd at game vs Stanford at Galen Center Wednesday, January 24, 2018. ( Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • USC basketball crowd at game vs Stanford at Galen Center Wednesday, January 24, 2018. ( Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    USC basketball crowd at game vs Stanford at Galen Center Wednesday, January 24, 2018. ( Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Cheering to some empty front row seats at the USC basketball game vs Stanford at Galen Center Wednesday, January 24, 2018. ( Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    Cheering to some empty front row seats at the USC basketball game vs Stanford at Galen Center Wednesday, January 24, 2018. ( Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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On the single-spaced list of things destined to become cool, Arizona State men’s basketball was on page 22.

The product wasn’t always the problem. The Sun Devils didn’t win consistently but they almost always had a headliner or two, a Mario Bennett or Ike Diogu or James Harden.

It certainly wasn’t the building. Wells Fargo Arena is perfectly fine, with a mid-campus location and even a light rail station nearby.

And it wasn’t the preponderance of snowbirds in the Phoenix area, with no ASU connection. The heartlanders come from basketball areas. They’ve been the fan base at Arizona, the one place where Pac-12 basketball has a beating heart.

But if the fans cared, their feet and their wallet certainly didn’t.

Last season Arizona State averaged a fairly typical 6,500 fans per home game.

This season Arizona State is averaging 10,441. That is nearly 2,000 more than UCLA is drawing and nearly double USC’s average crowd.

This is noteworthy because, in most places, the college game has lost its ability to fascinate.

Football Bowl Subdivision attendance took a 3.3 percent hit in 2017, its largest drop since 1983. Basketball attendance has receded gradually, particularly in the Pac-12, where six schools are in NBA areas. Utah is second in league attendance between Arizona and ASU, but the Pac-12 last year was sixth in crowds, lowest of any so-called power conference.

UCLA was down nearly 3,000 fans per game from Lonzo Ball’s only season at Pauley Pavilion.

ASU used to be a lonely hearts club, with entire upstairs sections closed off. At one point the Sun Devils were averaging 400 students per game.

They were fighting a pro sports glut and two other, powerful factors: The Phoenix PGA Tour event, which draws more than 200,000 on weekends and keeps the DUI industry pulsating, and the specter of spring training.

Assistant athletic director Bill Kennedy remembers the founding of a 942 Crew in 2013, a student group that hoped to stir up some dust.

“They wanted to affect the foul shooting for the other team,” Kennedy said. “The first night they took this big box and put a student in it, and he would pop out when the first free throw happened. Unfortunately it took about 10 minutes for somebody to shoot one. They had to keep checking to make sure the guy was still alive in there.”

You can only pull the student-in-the-box trick once, of course. But eventually this led to the Curtain of Distraction, which opens just as the player releases the ball and shows a different stunt every time.

The Curtain has parted to reveal Michael Phelps, in Speedo. It has featured actor Charlie Day, comedian Brody Stevens (Kennedy’s brother’s former roommate), Diamondbacks’ reliever Archie Bradley, and Indy Car driver Tony Kanaan.

The Curtain has become so distinctive that ESPN sometimes splits its screen to show its handiwork. And for a while it provided entertainment when the Sun Devils couldn’t.

Winning helped, but only to a point. The Sun Devils were ranked in the top five after a superb December, with wins at Kansas and over Xavier. On Dec. 17, a Sunday afternoon with Christmas shopping pressure, Arizona State played host to Vanderbilt. Would people care? Well, 10,797 paid their way in.

When the Sun Devils dried up, enthusiasm did not. ASU is  7-7 in the Pac-12 now, 19-7 overall. It still drew 13,696 for an 8 p.m. Thursday game with Oregon. Kennedy says the Sun Devils will average 1,500 student attendees.

Once upon a time, a live college basketball game was a thing of wonder. The NCAA Tournament wasn’t even televised nationally. Now each and every game is.

Rampant overexposure, ridiculous ticket prices (especially at UCLA), early defections to the NBA, and a less meaningful regular-season have dissuaded fans from making the effort to eyewitness.

Erratic scheduling, too. Back in Pac-10 days, teams played on Thursday nights and either Saturday nights or Saturday afternoons, and the league season didn’t start until January. Fans could plan.

On Dec. 29, a Friday night, UCLA played host to Washington State at 8 p.m. You couldn’t invent a worse time or a worse traffic situation. It’s amazing that 8,089 showed up.

So as the conferences and the networks have mounted this war on attendance, ASU is counter-attacking. Can the other big-city schools learn from this?

Well, winning is the first rule. San Diego State was filling Viejas Arena and had a massive student section known as “The Show.” Now the Aztecs are closing, and the section is more like the No-Show.

But consistent game times, reasonable prices and fun also help.

And instead of fighting Distractions, provide your own.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/21/whicker-pac-12-basketball-is-a-cold-ticket-but-at-asu-its-suddenly-cool/

Feb 20

Whicker: Diaz, Robles, Gonzalez take to basic training in the ring

BELL — You see the young boxers and they’re almost like watching teenage soldiers, lining up for the airplane to war.

They’re undefeated, most of them. Their faces are innocently smooth. If they’re being promoted correctly, they are fighting people from boxing purgatory, the guys with the 12-11-4 records, the older men who have come back from those wars, without a GI Bill or VA hospital waiting.

The young guys can beat them and learn, with little resistance. They build their records to 12-0, 15-0, 20-0. They don’t call it a zero, they call it an Oh. “I got an Oh and I don’t want to let it go,” welterweight champ Keith Thurman said last weekend.

The process continues Thursday, on a Golden Boy card at Fantasy Springs Casino.

Joseph Diaz Jr. is 25-0. He fights Victor Terrazas, a former champ who lost his belt to Leo Santa Cruz in 2013. Terrazas has won one of his past four fights and is 35.

If “JoJo” wins, he is in line to fight Gary Russell Jr., the WBC featherweight champ. That is a combat zone.

Diaz, 25, has been swearing off the Big Macs to stay at 126 pounds, although he said he’d have one Friday morning. He knows there’s pressure afoot, not just to win but to excite.

Diaz’s past four fights have been decisions. This sport does not operate strictly on bottom lines. It is run by promoters and cable networks. You shoot to thrill. Diaz knows this.

“I tend to be on the defensive sometimes,” Diaz said, sitting on a bench at Azteca Gym, where Julio Cesar Chavez and other Hall of Famers once trained.

“Hopefully my speed will be a factor and I’ll get that late stoppage I want. I need to show I have the power.”

Manny Robles Jr. is 14-0, also a featherweight. His dad is training Oscar Valdez for his fight with Scott Quigg in March. They’re working in Mexico, so the ubiquitous Rudy Hernandez is training Robles for Isaias Martin Gonzalez, who is 24-11 and has been stopped nine times.

Robles grew up in the game.He went to Paramount High and played some basketball. Boxing was his main curriculum.

“Only my really close friends knew I boxed,” Robles said, shaking his head and smiling. “And when they would tell other people about it I just hated it. I’m pretty quiet and humble. I don’t really want a lot of people knowing my business.”

Robles is 23. He said it isn’t hard to be patient. “The way I look at it, I’m in the gym anyway,” he said. “You have to be there. You don’t know when you might get that phone call.”

Christian “Chimpa” Gonzalez is 18-1, with 15 knockouts. He lost his Oh almost a year ago to Romero Duno, who surprised him with a first-round knockdown and finished the job in the second.

“I had to learn to relax,” Gonzalez said. “My mistake was not taking my time, maybe not taking a couple of rounds off. I used to want the knockout all the time. Now if it comes, it’s more than welcome. If not, you go the distance.’

On Thursday, he is fighting Ray Perez (21-9). His older brother is Alejandro “Cobrita” Gonzalez, who won a featherweight title in 1995 over Kevin Kelley and then defended it twice successfully.

“My brother seemed a little worried in the ring after the knockout,”  Alejandro said. “It’s hard to come back from something like that. And he was dominating the round, too. So this fight will tell us where he is mentally.”

Chimpa, 22, has won twice since then. But in 2016, they all had to deal with the murder of Alejandro Jr., who had lost a close title fight to Carl Frampton. His body and two others were found in a pickup truck in Guadalajara, shot and tortured.

Frampton was particularly shaken. After he beat Leo Santa Cruz, he sent Alejandro Sr. the trunks he wore that night.

“We didn’t ask many questions,” said Ricky Mota, Chimpa’s manager. “In Mexico, things can happen. Wrong place.”

“We had a little bond when he was training here,” Chimpa said. “I was coming home from my gym one day when Ricky called and told me. It was tough for all of us.”

Chimpa, like Santa Cruz, has a natural smile that survives clouds. He tries to look mean but it doesn’t work, even in the nose-to-nose staredowns photographers love.

“It’s how I am as a person,” he said. “I always look at the bright side.”

Off to war they all go. May their sides remain bright and their smiles fully toothed.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/20/whicker-diaz-robles-gonzalez-take-to-basic-training-in-the-ring/

Feb 19

Whicker: Close doesn’t count for Patrick Cantlay anymore (if it ever did)

PACIFIC PALISADES — Apparently, Patrick Cantlay wasn’t happy. Which, in the long view, is a sign of health.

It means that it’s not a victory anymore when he is able to strike a golf ball without feeling a steak knife attacking his back.

It is not a victory anymore when he gets through four competitive rounds without keeling over.

It is certainly not a victory anymore when he has the Genesis Open lead after 63 holes and then fades to fourth place, with 2-over-par golf on the final seven holes on Sunday.

Bubba Watson, playing beside Cantlay, won his third PGA Tour event at Riviera Country Club, which no one else ever has done. Cantlay shot even-par 71 to wind up at 9-under, tied with Scott Stallings, three shots back.

Fourth place is not usually a mood-crusher on the PGA Tour. It brings money ($316,800 in this case), FedEx points, Ryder Cup points and world ranking points. Plus, Cantlay led the field in greens in regulation, on a course where every decision turns into a quadratic equation.

But he did not speak directly to reporters afterward, although it was unclear whether it was his choice or just a communication snafu. His comments to PGA Tour media officials were straight out of Dragnet: Just the facts, ma’am.

“I played well overall, I just didn’t make enough putts, and I hit a couple of drives offline today, but other than that I played well,” he reportedly said.

Again, that means the comeback phase from his four-year battle with disk problems is long gone.

Wins, with oversized checks and two commas, are what’s expected.

The moral victories actually disappeared in 2017 when Cantlay, hiding in plain sight, finished 10th, 13th and ninth in FedEx Cup playoff events and thus got into the Tour Championship. A Masters Tournament invitation came with that. Then he beat Alex Cejka and Whee Kim in a playoff at Las Vegas.

Cantlay began Sunday one stroke behind Watson. For the fourth consecutive day the weather was heaven-sent. Any fears that the event would become the Exodus Open, without Tiger Woods, were unfounded. Until Phil Mickelson went on a four-birdie binge in eight holes, the biggest gang followed Watson, Cantlay and Cameron Smith.

The fans were in Bubba’s corner because they know him better, because they love his homemade swing and his flair for possibility. They sense when he’s likely to hole out a bunker shot on No. 14, as he did Sunday to lead by two strokes.

But eight holes before that, Cantlay led by one when he expertly guided the ball off the backboard at the 6th green and sank the birdie putt. Watson was in the trap in mid-green and couldn’t convert.

Cantlay had a 10-footer for birdie at No. 8 and an 8-footer for birdie on No. 10. He missed both. Then he ran into a bad lie in a bunker on No. 12, and another delicate chip on No. 13. Both led to bogeys. By then Watson was at cruising altitude.

Watson has now won the annual PGA tournament at Riviera in three of the past five years. He also won the Masters in 2012 and 2014.

As Watson accepted that first green jacket from Charl Schwartzel in the Butler Cabin, the low amateur sat beside him. That was Cantlay, who had just finished shooting one of the most bizarre even-par 72s in Masters history. It was his first Masters but his second trip to the shrine. As a UCLA freshman, he played at an Augusta State tournament, and the team attended the Masters the next day. The vote to do so was not unanimous.

“I was miserable,” Cantlay said on Thursday. “I wanted to go home. I had played bad at Augusta State, and I felt like I should be playing in the Masters anyway. But I lost in the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur to Peter Uihlein the previous summer, so I didn’t qualify.”

Cantlay then watched Ben Crenshaw and Vijay Singh on the practice green. He noticed Crenshaw effortlessly handling the severe contours and rolling long putts to within kick-in range. Then he noticed Singh, surrounded by advisors and “hooked up to a machine,” hitting his putts uncomfortably short or long.

“I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a way I want to do it,’” Cantlay said. “It looked like Crenshaw must have been doing the same thing for 40 years. That was impressive to me.”

On Friday, Cantlay was still in the lead. Somebody asked him if he’d ever dreamt of winning at Riviera.

“I dreamt of winning everywhere,” Cantlay replied.

That can lead to a lot of rude awakenings. A lot of winning, too.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/18/whicker-close-doesnt-count-for-patrick-cantlay-anymore-if-it-ever-did/

Feb 18

Whicker: A willing Brandon Rios takes one punch too many from Danny Garcia

LAS VEGAS — Until the ninth round it was the same old Brandon Rios.

OK, maybe not enough of the same, maybe more of the old. But Rios. 31, kept wading into Danny Garcia’s free-fire zone, smiling when he got caught, trying to throw two shots to every one he took, doing his job without compromise.

It reminded you of the 140-pound Rios, who loved to make war and loved the fact that people loved watching him. But then Rios became a welterweight, where the weapons of war are seven pounds more lethal.

Like a flash, Garcia unloaded with a right hand against Rios’ cheek. Beautiful and chilling at once. Rios’ head snapped back and he fell like a canned ham off David Letterman’s rooftop.

He did rise at the 8-count, and referee Kenny Bayless looked carefully into his eyes and then asked him to take a few steps. When Rios turned that task into a wobbly undertaking, Bayless stopped it, and Garcia upped his record to 34-1 with 20 knockouts.

“I’m mad,” Rios said. “I hate going out like that.”

Rios, now 34-4-1, had retired in November of 2015, out of shape, out of motivation. That wasn’t a problem in this fight. The problem was the superior skill and accuracy of Garcia, who was coming off his own 50-week layoff but landed 46 percent of his power shots.

Danny Garcia (L) connects on Brandon Rios and sends him to the canvas during the ninth round of their welterweight boxing match at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on February 17, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Garcia won the fight with a ninth-round TKO. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)
Danny Garcia (L) connects on Brandon Rios and sends him to the canvas during the ninth round of their welterweight boxing match at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on February 17, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Garcia won the fight with a ninth-round TKO. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

“He came to fight, I came to box. It was a good nine rounds,’ Garcia said.

Not that Garcia was necessarily enjoying himself.

“He’s a good inside fighter,” Garcia said. “He landed some good uppercuts and he kept going. Once I got the fight into the middle of the ring, I could land some shots. I was just letting my hands go when the punch landed.”

Rios kept coming, even though he wound up winning only two rounds on one judge’s card, and one each on the other two. Maybe his punching volume could exhaust Garcia. It was a plan that crashed as hard as Rios did.

“I was doing good,” Rios said. “Then I got lazy with the jab. I was ready to counter, and that’s what he caught me with.

“But I’m a warrior. I’m still in the game. I think the love from my corner….I know Robert (trainer Garcia) is like my brother from another mother, but I wanted to keep going.”

Beforehand, 21-year-old David Benavidez defended his WBA junior-middleweight title unanimously, and decisively, against Ronald Gavril.

The two had met last September and Benavidez won a split decision to take the championship. However, Gavril had decked him in the 12th round. Here, Benavidez staggered the Romanian in the fourth round, appeared to punch himself out for a round or two, and then closed strong.

He thus remains unbeaten (20-0) and intriguing.

If you’re looking for stars, Benavidez has the swaggering personality and a unique story. The question is whether he can develop well enough to dominate his division. It’s a journey worth following.

Benavidez, who holds his hands low and throws quickly and unpredictably, nailed Gavril with a right uppercut and followed it with a left to the temple in Round 4. A wobbly Gavril took more punishment but got through the round, and carried the war to Benavidez in the next two.

“I just waited for my openings,” Benavidez said. “When I saw the opening I took it, but I couldn’t knock him out. He’s a tough son of a gun. My hands hurt, but I kept going.”

Benavidez came in as the youngest current champion in boxing, and also the youngest champ in the history of the super-middleweights. He never has suffered from career ambivalence.

He was a boxer almost before he could walk. His father Jose was his first trainer. He built a ring in the backyard in Phoenix, and David and brother Jose Jr. trained there.  It even had the capacity for a canvas, just for the two or three days of rain per year.

“We’d spar on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but we’d train every day,” David said.

At 13 David weighed 250 pounds, so an extensive amateur career wasn’t feasible. Besides, his dad wanted him to learn the professional ways. David sparred with Gennady Golovkin and Kelly Pavlik, just to get an idea. He was 16.

So there wasn’t much time for the usual high school rituals.

“I ate and slept boxing, that’s all I did,” Benavidez said. “I didn’t have a childhood. I didn’t have playtime, didn’t have sleepovers. I’d get home from school and I’d be training at 4 p.m. So I didn’t have a lot of close friends. Fortunately my brother was going through the same thing. I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”

The family also saw as many fights as it could. In 2012 Benavidez was at Stub Hub Center when Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado took their sport into unexplored frontiers of savagery. Rios won that in seven unforgettable rounds. “That was the best fight I remember seeing,” Benavidez said.

Most people agree, but the most prudent career course was outlined by Jermell Charlo, the super welterweight champ. When asked who was next for him, he said, “I hope somebody with a bad chin.”

That was a few hours before Brandon Rios learned his own chin had an expiration date.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/17/whicker-a-willing-brandon-rios-takes-one-punch-too-many-from-danny-garcia/

Feb 17

Whicker: Bubba Watson likes the hoops, but don’t forget his day job

PACIFIC PALISADES — Golf and basketball, crammed into the same Friday.

Almost enough to preoccupy Bubba Watson.

“I just hope the car is there,” Watson said, edging his way from Riviera after he shot 1-under-par 70 on Friday morning and got to 4-under through 36 holes at the Genesis Open.

“And I hope I get past the security guard (at Staples Center).”

Watson was heading to the Celebrity Game during NBA All-Star Weekend festivities. As a player.

Considering that every fourth person in America is a celebrity these days, the league didn’t exactly get the Golden Globe presenters.

“Black-ish” actor Anthony Anderson and former NBA players Jason Williams and Nate Robinson were scheduled. So was Sparks star Candace Parker, and Canadian sprint champ Andre DeGrasse, a USC alum.

So was boxing champion Terence Crawford. He was far from the only lightweight.

It brought memories of Jaime Jarrin, the Hall of Fame Dodger voice who peered down at a celebrity game that featured nobody that anybody knew.

“I remember when we had Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. playing,” Jarrin intoned. “Those were stars. These are not stars.”

Or you could ask why the NBA was interested in the world’s 117th-ranked golfer in the first place.

At the end of 2014 and 2015 Watson was No. 4. He won the Masters in 2012 and 2014 and went 64-64 on the weekend to win this tournament four years ago, then won it again in 2016.

Watson was also unmistakable. He had, and still has, a roundhouse lefty swing that would mean a malpractice suit for any pro who dared teach it. He also confessed to mental yips, fears and insecurities and once said he was “scared of most people.”

But at his best he saw shots that never were and said, why not? His recovery shot from East of Eden, on the first playoff hole at Augusta in 2012, will live forever.

And when Watson got within sniffing distance of the lead and was able to fumigate his own head, he was nearly impossible to beat. He still is 5-1 in playoffs.

Last year Watson missed the cut in three of the four majors. In 2015 he ranked seventh in strokes gained on approach shots. In 2017 he was 145th.

This coincided with a drastic weight loss that Watson has only sporadically explained. He has said that he went to smaller, more frequent meals with fewer carbs and snacks, and gave up everything with a taste.

“It’s made me bitter toward the world,” he joked.

Asked about the weight Friday, he archly pointed out that he had been “sick, if you haven’t been listening to what I say.”

He did admit that he felt better, “getting the weight back that I wanted to get back” and that he “loves where I’m at. I’m a golfer, so putts don’t go in, I don’t get any good bounces. All golfers think like that. But my son (Caleb) is reading and writing now, so life’s in a good spot and so is golf.”

For Watson it’s always been about good spots, good vibes, focus and surroundings.

“This course is a blast,” he said of Riviera. “That’s why you put it on the schedule. You get energized and become a kid again.”

Someone asked if it were reasonable, on such hard greens and breezy conditions, to expect a round without a bogey.

“It’s hard, but there was a great champion that got around here on a weekend one time without a bogey,” Watson replied, then laughed.

Beginning on 16 (his seventh hole) Watson birdied five out of six. At one point he had the tournament lead by two. Then his second shot disappeared into the wastelands on 15 and he made double bogey. Still, he will be prominent this weekend, for those patrons stranded by the disappearance of Tiger Woods.

But first: Basketball.

“I know it’ll be fun now that I know Justin Bieber’s on the other team,” Watson said. “I’ll hug him before the game and then I’ll punch him. It’ll be fun, just sitting on the bench at Staples Center.”

His wife Angie played professionally, of course.

“She just said, ‘Don’t get hurt,’” Watson said. “She said if I went into the paint, I’m in trouble. Everybody’s asking me about shots I’m going to take, but there’s other people on the team, too.  I was an assistant captain on the Ryder Cup team, you know. So I’m not afraid to give an assist. I’m just scared of shooting. That’s what I did in high school and it worked out. When i say that, I mean I made one out of 20.”

He’s far closer to a rebound.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/16/whicker-bubba-watson-likes-the-hoops-but-dont-forget-his-day-job/

Feb 14

They took away Brendan Steele’s putter. He lengthened his career

PACIFIC PALISADES — It  was the adopted child in a golf-bag family, the one thing that wasn’t like the others.

It was grotesquely long  It fit snugly into the belly of golfers who don’t really have bellies.

For a while it was the most devastating sword in professional golf.

Then the anchored putter went away.

And golfers started falling on it.

“I wouldn’t have started using one if I’d known they would take it away,” Brendan Steele said at Riviera, practicing for the Genesis Open that begins Thursday.

So how did Steele replace his joystick?

“It was at Travelers,” he said, referring to the Hartford PGA Tour event. “I went to the short putter, shot 62 in my first round, and I finished fifth..”

Some habits can get kicked right out of the park.

Steele, 34, is the UC Riverside alum from Idyllwild who came into the pros with a baseball grip and made his first splash when he played alongside Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines in 2011 and beat him by five strokes.

He now has three wins on the tour. The second and third came at Napa in the first event of this season and last season, which ensures peace of mind.

Trophy No. 3 removes finance pressure for life, unless you’re investing with Madoff & Sons. It means you’re playing for identity, not money.

But all of that could have been sliced and diced if Steele hadn’t survived the amputation of the long putter.

He started using it in 2006 and, faced with a 2016 deadline, gave it up in 2014.

“I had nothing to lose,” Steele said. “I already had my tour status locked up for 2015. It came around at the right time.

“I was confident it would work out. After all, I’d had some bad weeks with the belly putter. It’s a totally different stroke, and if you didn’t have instant success you don’t know what would have happened. I did a lot of work with Chris Mason in San Diego to get the setup right. I was lucky..”

He was luckier than most.

Carl Petterson was a five-time winner on tour. Since the long putter went away he has become an afterthought.

Tim Clark, who suffered from a rare wrist condition that kept him from putting conventionally,  won The Players championship in 2010. He then had elbow problems and hasn’t even played in a major since 2015.

Webb Simpson won the 2013 U.S. Open and was ranked No. 5 in the world. He hasn’t won since and plunged to 74th, although he has now rallied back to 43rd.

Keegan Bradley is a close friend of Steele’s. The two won the Shark Shootout in 2011. Three months beforehand, Bradley won the 2011 PGA Championship, the first major he ever played. He was 10th in the world and is now 74th, with no wins since 2012.

Ernie Els, who joked that he had decided to “cheat like everyone else,” went with the broomstick in 2012 and unexpectedly won the Open Championship, thanks to a collapse by Adam Scott.

But then Scott anchored his way to a Masters title in 2013. Scott has cut back his schedule and won twice with the short putter in 2016, but is ranked 51st today.

One can read too much into this. Petterson, Bradley, Simpson and Scott finished ahead of Steele in strokes-gained-putting last season.

For Steele, the point was controlling an issue before it became a crisis.

Just as important is a five-year association with Rick Smith, whom Phil Mickelson used during his best years. Smith tightened up Steele’s mechanics and taught him more variety, and Steele ranks 10th in strokes-gained-off-the-tee.

Steele and wife Anastassia had daughter Victoria in October. He can plan a want-to schedule, not a have-to. He can reasonably envision bigger moments, maybe major ones.

“My first win (in San Antonio in 2011) was something I didn’t expect,” Steele said. “I never had the lead until the 72nd hole. Then I had a chance at the PGA that Keegan won and I was disappointed in how I played Sunday. That set me back a ways. I had to quit hoping other guys would bogey, quit trying to avoid mistakes and go ahead and focus on hitting good shots myself.

“The first win, I was surprised by. The second took a lot of work. It was wearing on me. I didn’t want the first one to be a fluke. So the second one was relief. And the third was validation. OK, this is what I do. It alleviates doubt. I know I can finish the deal.”

Any sword will do, when made of Steele.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/14/they-took-away-brendan-steeles-putter-he-lengthened-his-career/

Feb 14

Whicker: Haotong Li is showing Chinese golfers the way

PACIFIC PALISADES — In 1949, Mao Tse-tung banned golf in China. The courses were plowed up.

It was considered a useless activity reserved for corrupt capitalists and it took up valuable land resources. As if the Chairman needed reasons.

Without golf, mental health presumably rose and blood pressure presumably fell. The next man to build a golf course in China was Arnold Palmer in 1964.

Subsequent Chinese governments moved against golf because corrupt deals were being made on the fairways and greens. Communist Party members were banned from accepting club memberships. Construction on 111 new courses was halted.

But there was no holding back the ocean.

Haotong Li is playing the Genesis Open at Riviera this week. Last year he shot 63 in the final round of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. That got him third place and a Masters invitation.

Last month, Li birdied 15, 16 and 18, with Rory McIlroy playing alongside and charging, to win the Dubai Desert Classic at 23-under-par, with 30 birdies.

That boosted him to No. 32 in the world and opened the door to the world’s top events.

He is 22. Zecheng Dou is 21. Dou is the first man from mainland China to get a PGA Tour card, and he won a Web.com Tour event last year. Xinjun Zhang, 29, was right behind him. His finish in the Web.com Finals got him on the big tour, after he was banned from PGA Tour China for signing two incorrect scorecards.

Tianlang Guan won the Asian Amateur and thus qualified for the 2012 Masters. He shot 75 the first day, at 135 pounds and 14 years old. Today he plays at the University of Arizona.

Shanshan Feng won the bronze medal in the women’s golf competition at the 2016 Olympics, has nine LPGA titles and one major, and is the top-ranked woman in the world.

“Golf is going to be a very, very big thing in China,” Li said Tuesday. “I think it’s going to be good.”

Every golfing nation needs a Player or a Ballesteros. Li could be the leader of an immeasurably long march.

One wonders what will happen if Chinese golf gets out of its own way. Despite the governmental ambivalence, there are nearly 500 golf courses in China. Few of them feature municipal greens fees. It’s a game for the rich, just as American golf was.

Only one Asian man has won a major championship. He was South Korean’s Y.E, Yang, who took the 2009 PGA Championship and, in doing so, became the first player to do so in the direct company of Tiger Woods and his heat-seeking gallery.

Li showed the same tunnel vision in Dubai.

“The first few holes I was very nervous,” he said. “But when I made my first birdie, everything was so comfortable and life got easier. I just think something happened that day, you know.”

The precursor was the 63 at Royal Birkdale, when Li birdied seven of the final 11 holes and, for  a moment, thought he might have a playoff shot. The third-place finish earned him enough PGA Tour points for a Special Temporary Membership this season.

“I didn’t realize what a big thing that was for myself,” Li said. “But after a couple of days I knew it gave me a lot of confidence. It just helps me when I play in the same position and just say, oh, if I can finish third in a major I can win anywhere.”

The PGA Tour is mining this lode. As it did in Canada and Latin America, it took over the Chinese tour and branded it, and held out the carrot of Web.com Tour membership for the first five players in its standings.

That is how Li got to the U.S. in the first place. He won three PGA Tour China tournaments and topped the money list. On Web.com, Li didn’t know a word of English, and he had to navigate his way around the Triple-A circuit. He had only one top-10 finish, but he learned the language and went through the same initiation that most PGA Tour pros endure.

“The most difficult part was American bread,” Li said. “It was really tough for me because I ate noodles and rice growing up. It’s very tough, you can’t even imagine. But I learned a lot and made a lot of friends.”

Then Li qualified for the European Tour and won the Volvo China Open in 2016, and then he found another level.

The bread is softer now, and the crumbs are spreading.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/13/whicker-haotong-li-is-showing-chinese-golfers-the-way/

Feb 12

Long time, no see: Danny Garcia finds his way back to the ring Saturday

Danny Garcia took eight months off.

He’s a boxer, not a bicycle rider. When you get back on, sometimes you forget.

“That first day of training, I said, ‘This feels good,’’’ Garcia said.

“Then I said, ‘Damn, this is hard.’’’

Garcia has fought only twice since Jan. 23, 2016. He will meet Brandon Rios at Mandalay Bay on Saturday night.

And you wonder why boxers need to be led into the ring.

Garcia should not singled out for his long life on the shelf, which is not to be confused with shelf life. The man who took away his WBC welterweight title last March 4 is Keith “One Time” Thurman. He hasn’t been seen since, although injuries have played a part.

Errol Spence, the IBF champ, calls Thurman “Some Time.” Thurman, also the WBA champ, has fought four times since Dec. 13, 2014.

Rare is the champion or contender who works more than twice a year. In 1986 Mike Tyson had 11 fights, Granted, nine of them were done in the first or second rounds, but his handlers (and ABC, largely) rushed him back in. They turned him into a serial who punched like a killer, and he became the most watchable athlete in America.

Ray Leonard fought three times in 1980, three more times in 1981. He fought Roberto Duran twice within seven months. He needed only three months to prepare for Thomas Hearns, which was that year’s Fight of the Century and lived up to it.

So even though Garcia is a mountainous favorite over Rios, it’s a chance to actually see him, the boxing version of an eclipse, and you don’t need eye shields.

This is particularly unfortunate because American welterweights are so appealing. Spence is easily a top 10 pound-for-pound fighter. Thurman is smart, funny and powerful. Shawn Porter has a smothering style. Terence Crawford is moving up to take Jeff Horn’s IBF championship. Crawford-Spence could be the new Leonard-Hearns.

Garcia might be as talented as any. The Thurman loss was his first. He defused and confused Lucas Matthysse at his peak, and he’s shown he can dodge and dance when necessary.

He is also 29, so it  might be time to quit circling.

Garcia’s loss to Thurman was a sluggish split decision in which Thurman fought from a safe distance. Now the question is whether Garcia got too attached to the down time

“I was boxing for 20 years,” he said. “I wasn’t sure eight months off were enough. I needed a chance to be a regular person, a dad. I’d go around Philadelphia and everybody still loved me. Until the Eagles won, I was the only champ they had.

“You forget what it was like to want what was yours. I lost that fight on paper. He’s the one who got hurt (arm injury). Maybe I gave him too much respect in the early rounds. But aggressive fighters aren’t getting the respect from the judges that they used to.”

Any Garcia fight is a 2-for-1. His father Angel trains him, scolds him, sometimes fights his fights for him. His chatter may bring a reply in kind from Rios, who can verbally counterpunch with anyone.

But Angel is only brash on the ground. Aviophobia prevented Angel from flying to L.A. on Danny’s promotional tour, and Danny isn’t sure Angel will make an early landing in Vegas.

“You couldn’t get him on a plane if you paid him,” Danny said. “He’s talking about taking three days to get to Vegas by train.

“When he talks trash to my opponents, sometimes I feel like I need it. My whole career has been based on pressure. When I don’t have it, it feels weird sometimes.”

Garcia describes himself as “Philly-rican.” He was born in Philadelphia but Angel, and much of Danny’s fan base, is from Puerto Rico. Danny remembers winning street championships before Angel took him to Harrowgate Gym, remembers fighting on the mile-long walk to school down Frankford Avenue. He says the walk took him through white, black and Latino neighborhoods. Sometimes you had to rumble before you were ready.

“Somebody might try to steal your backpack, somebody might throw bread at you in the lunchroom,” Garcia said. “I was the kind of kid that if you did that, I wanted to fight. But I was a sore loser anyway. In basketball and football I would cry. I didn’t understood why all my teammates weren’t good. Then I started boxing and I knew it was different. I said, this is all me.”

He also warned Rios, “Nobody can get into my head.” At this point boxing fans merely want to see it.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/11/long-time-no-see-danny-garcia-finds-his-way-back-to-the-ring-saturday/

Feb 11

Whicker: Om and Kanthaka bring inner peace (and victory) to Santa Anita

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • A outrider takes a break in the tunnel under the grandstands at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    A outrider takes a break in the tunnel under the grandstands at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om makes his way to the starting gate prior to winning the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om makes his way to the starting gate prior to winning the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Horse racing fans are silhouetted under the grandstands at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Horse racing fans are silhouetted under the grandstands at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Horn Blower Jay Cohen at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Horn Blower Jay Cohen at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat, left, riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat, left, riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Trainer Dan Hendricks in the winners circle after Jockey Flavien Prat riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Trainer Dan Hendricks in the winners circle after Jockey Flavien Prat riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat, third from left, riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat, third from left, riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Fans cheer as Jockey Flavien Prat riding Kanthaka (not pictured) wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Fans cheer as Jockey Flavien Prat riding Kanthaka (not pictured) wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat, left, riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat, left, riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer smiles as Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer smiles as Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, right, smiles as Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, right, smiles as Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om makes his way to the starting gate prior to winning the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om makes his way to the starting gate prior to winning the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Paddock guard John Shear makes his way to the paddock from the press box at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Paddock guard John Shear makes his way to the paddock from the press box at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • A outrider takes a break in the tunnel under the grandstands at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    A outrider takes a break in the tunnel under the grandstands at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (5) weighs in after riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (5) weighs in after riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • The old starting gate on display at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    The old starting gate on display at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Horse racing fans are silhouetted under the grandstands at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Horse racing fans are silhouetted under the grandstands at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Horn Blower Jay Cohen at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Horn Blower Jay Cohen at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat, left, riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat, left, riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (6) riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat, left, riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat, left, riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat, third from left, riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat, third from left, riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Horse racing at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Horse racing at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Trainer Dan Hendricks in the winners circle after Jockey Flavien Prat riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Trainer Dan Hendricks in the winners circle after Jockey Flavien Prat riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Trainer Dan Hendricks in the winners circle after Jockey Flavien Prat riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Trainer Dan Hendricks in the winners circle after Jockey Flavien Prat riding Om wins the Thunder Road Stakes (Grade III) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Paddock guard John Shear makes his way to the paddock from the press box at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Paddock guard John Shear makes his way to the paddock from the press box at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, right, smiles as Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, right, smiles as Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Fans cheer as Jockey Flavien Prat riding Kanthaka (not pictured) wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Fans cheer as Jockey Flavien Prat riding Kanthaka (not pictured) wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    Jockey Flavien Prat (5) riding Kanthaka wins the San Vicente Stakes (Grade II) race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

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ARCADIA — You find inner peace at Santa Anita only before sunrise, when the drone of the trucks that smooth out the track is the only sound you hear.

Then come the trainers and the jockeys and the bettors. Then comes post time, and the hopeful, swelling sounds as the race goes into the backstretch, and the anguished rants and the angry tearing of tickets when it ends.

Something mystical was working on Santa Anita’s tracks Saturday.

Om is a 6-year-old who had not won a race since 2015. Somehow his spirit, and that of trainer Dan Hendricks, found fulfillment. He bolted from the field in the Thunder Road Stakes,seemed to buckle a bit and then hung on to win by a half-length over Bowies Hero, as favorite Blackjackcat finished up the track.

Kanthaka is a 3-year-old who sneaked into  the San Vicente Stakes while the bettors only had eyes for Ax Man, Bob Baffert’s colt who had a lights-out debut.. But Kanthaka was the only horse in the field who had won at 7 furlongs.

As Ax Man faded under a violent pace, Kanthaka swept into the lead and won by 3-1/4 lengths. That keeps him in the 3-year-old picture, which gets clearer with the San Felipe on March 10.

“Om” is often voiced by devotees of yoga, and is one of the most vivid symbols of the Hindu religion. The owner of Om is K.B. Sareen, who managed the San Francisco office of New York Life.

“Kanthaka” was the horse that carried Siddhartha, who became Gautama Buddha, out of his palace to become an ascetic.

Their victories might have provided enough enlightenment for some people to quit putting money on the actions of animals. But probably not.

Om was a 9/2 shot, Kanthaka 11-1.

The other lesson is that your soul is likely to find true fulfillment if your horse is ridden by Flavian Prat, who won with both Om and Kanthaka.

In the winner’s circle, Hendricks sat in his wheelchair (he was paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle crash 14 years ago) and patiently explained why Om hadn’t surprised him.

“Sure, it’s frustrating, because everything today is win-win-win,” Hendricks said. “If you look at his races, there’s been a lot of multiple stakes winners.

“You need to realize two things: He’s a good horse, because he always runs good, and this is just horse racing. I’ve got a full head of hair for a reason. I don’t let things like this drive me crazy.”

In a seven-race stretch Om finished either second or third every time, all in Grade 2 or 3 events. One was a loss by a nose in the Breeders Cup Turf Sprint, at Santa Anita in 2015.

In American Pharoah’s maiden race, he lost to Om. “There was a lot of hype about Pharoah, but we didn’t know he’d be that good, of course,” Hendricks said.

Om’s last previous win was the Mathis Brothers Mile on Dec. 26, 2015. That’s a 12-race non-winning streak. You’re not a loser when you pass the $1 million mark, as Om did here.

“A couple of times he got outrun, and a couple of other times he might have had a ride that was questionable,” Hendricks said “You go down the list of horses that have beat him, and they’re all gone and he’s still here. We call him the Energizer Bunny. He’s great to work with, he’s playful, his ears are pricked up. I can’t say enough about him.”

The members of West Point Thoroughbreds also had a lot to discuss. Kanthaka was their 100th stakes winner..

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who had two other winners Saturday including his formidable filly Unique Bella, thought Kanthaka had a shot when he considered the potential for pace. Sure enough, Mr. Jagermeister took off from the No. 2 hole and pulled Ax Man, on the rail, with him until both of them broke. They went out in 22.44.

“The 2 (Mr. Jagermeister) completely screwed us,” said Drayden Van Dyke, aboard Ax Man. “He had me on the rail and he was done, but he kept me in tight. My horse never got a breather. I would completely throw this race out.”

John Haines, a partner in West Point and an ophthalmologist from Eugene, Oregon, thought about the way Kanthaka escaped trouble to win his maiden here on Dec. 26.

“He’s just an unusual horse,” Haines said  “And speed hadn’t been holding up on the dirt today.”

Does a win like this lead to Derby Fever?

“I think we already have it,” Haines said.

Not so fast, my son. Breathe deeply. Close your eyes …

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/10/whicker-om-and-kanthaka-bring-inner-peace-and-victory-to-santa-anita/

Feb 10

Whicker: Ducks survive a Goliath named McDavid and beat Edmonton Oilers

ANAHEIM — The NHL’s speeding bullet got one assist in his 21:06 of ice time Friday night. No goals.

That qualifies as a mere flesh wound from Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, and the Ducks survived it in a 3-2 victory at Honda Center.

They held down the 21-year-old and also dodged Leon Draisaitl, who sometimes plays on McDavid’s line and almost always toys with the Ducks. This time Draisaitl didn’t score a point.

Of course, the Oilers have taken a U-turn on destiny road. As they took the Ducks to seven games in the  Western semifinals last year, they were considered the inevitable princes of the conference, but the line of succession has been severed this year. They are 23-26-4 and in danger of not making the postseason.

Complementary players have receded, goaltender Cam Talbot hasn’t been as good, and too much of the burden has landed on McDavid and Draisaitl. McDavid, who became the youngest Hart Trophy winner in league history last year, is tied for fourth in the league in points, and presents more sensory overload than any other player. He sets such a different standard for speed that his name probably should be MachDavid.

“If you’re puck-watching, and you start doing crossovers, he’s going to get away,” said defenseman Hampus Lindholm who, with Josh Manson, got a lot of time against McDavid’s line. “You’ve got to keep both feet on the ground, look him in the chest and then obviously you need some help from the forwards to keep him from picking up speed.”

Generally the Ducks have played Ryan Kesler’s line against McDavid. That means Andrew Cogliano, with his own notable speed, can try to cut off McDavid before he accelerates. But there will be times when McDavid comes barreling through the neutral zone, and defensemen have no choice but to retreat.

“It’s a tricky thing,” Manson said. “He’s a really good player. But if you overplay him, he’s going to find other players.”

And, sometimes, even when you don’t. Edmonton cut Anaheim’s lead to 3-2 in the third period when defenseman Kris Russell made a rare foray into the attacking zone and passed to McDavid on the wall. Maybe that captured the attention to the point that they didn’t notice Russell skating in on John Gibson for a goal with 5:05 left.

“You gotta respect his speed when he gets going,” Manson said. “Because, what can you do? There really is nothing. He’s smart, he knows where guys are on the ice. He knows where to put the puck. When he goes wide, he knows there will be guys in front of the net. Everything happens so quick with him.”

When McDavid got loose against the Kings Wednesday night and got past Drew Doughty for a goal, Draisaitl just shrugged. “It’s like he’s from another planet,” he said. “It is not fair, really.”

But Draisaitl was the Ducks’ main antagonist in last year’s playoff, with 10 points in those seven games. McDavid was held to two goals and three assists.

Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl, left, of Germany, works for the puck against Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf during the third period of an NHL game in Anaheim Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. The Ducks won 3-2. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl, left, of Germany, works for the puck against Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf during the third period of an NHL game in Anaheim Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. The Ducks won 3-2. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t pleased with the chances the Oilers got in the first two periods, or the 26 shots on goal they piled up. The Ducks buttoned it up in the third period and held Edmonton to six shots, although Gibson had to rise up to stop Anton Slepyshev at close range after a wayward defensive shift by the Ducks.

Most impressive was the way Anaheim handled the final two minutes with Talbot out of the goal. Edmonton never got to establish the 6-on-5, and the Ducks never iced the puck and got a large faceoff win from Kesler in the final half-minute.

All it did was make the Western Conference standings more congested than Trader Joe’s on the night before Thanksgiving. The Ducks, San Jose and Calgary all have 64 points, and so does Minnesota in the Central Division. The Sharks come to Honda Center Sunday.

The speeding bullet gets two more cracks at Anaheim, on Feb. 25 here and March 25 in Edmonton.

“You always like to have either your strongest defensive pairing or your best skating pairing out there against McDavid,” Carlyle said. “The Kesler line scored two goals tonight. But he still created a lot of chances for their hockey club. He’s a great player.”

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/09/whicker-ducks-survive-a-goliath-named-mcdavid-and-beat-edmonton-oilers/

Feb 10

Whicker: NHL takes the golden moments out of the Olympics

ANAHEIM — A lot of Olympic-watchers weren’t alive for the 1980 Miracle on Ice, but Brian Gionta was.

He is 39. Two other Team USA teammates are 35 or over. James Wisniewski, formerly a high-minute Ducks defenseman, turns 34 before the Games end.

The goalie, Ryan Zapolski, played most of his stateside hockey in the East Coast Hockey League, for the likes of the Gwinnett Gladiators and the Toledo Walleye, before he signed with Jokerit in the KHL. He’s 31.

No one is begrudging them the thrill of wearing the USA jersey, but this is more like Metamucil On Ice.

The Canadian team features Andrew Ebbett, a former Duck, and Christian Thomas, son of former Duck Steve Thomas, the hero of 2003. It contains Maxim Lapierre, just in case things get too harmonious. Again, a fine opportunity, and not a knock on these hockey lifers who thought they’d sung their final note.

But everywhere else in the Olympics you see the world’s best. In 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014, we saw hockey’s best. It was better than anything else’s best.

When Canada beat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime, eight years ago at high noon in Vancouver, there were All-Stars playing on fourth lines. There were Hall of Famers scrumming on the boards, NHL linemates thrust into combat. Every shift was a symphony.

But the NHL withdrew its players from the Pyeongchang Olympics. It did so for money and convenience. If you ever thought its owners and Commissioner Gary Bettman cared to see how high their game could climb, you have been relieved of your delusion.

The league didn’t make money from the Olympics and it had to deal with a two-week hole in the schedule. Somehow those two factors eclipsed the sight of Sidney Crosby coming off the wall and firing in the winning goal in overtime, sending Canadians into gleeful streets across six time zones.

That one Canadian locker room in 2010 held Crosby, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron, Patrick Marleau, Shea Weber, on and on.

And yet Ryan Kesler, Bobby Ryan, Zach Parise, Ryan Miller, Joe Pavelski, David Backes, Ryan Suter, Jamie Langenbrunner and the rest of the Americans took the Canadians beyond the horizon. The U.S. also beat them in a preliminary round.

“Definitely one of the best games I ever played in,” Kesler said. “The atmosphere and the intensity were unbelievable.”

Same way in Salt Lake City 16 years ago, when Wayne Gretzky put together a Canadian gold medalist.

Same way in Nagano four years before, when the Czech Republic’s Dominik Hasek somehow linked gymnastics to magic and blanked Canada.

Imagine today. Imagine Connor McDavid and John Tavares for Canada, Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau for the U.S. Or Rickard Rakell for Sweden and Nikita Kucherov for Russia.

The NHL tried to mollify fans with a World Cup competition, which made its modern debut in September 2016. Canada won, if you’re curious. No one expects you to remember.

But if you want to know what makes Kesler laugh, ask him if the World Cup could replace the Olympics, as someone did Friday morning before the Ducks played Edmonton on Friday night.

“They’re not in the same category,” he said.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be playing in the Olympics. The league doesn’t want to do that, and yet it sends teams to China. They say they don’t make any money, but if you look at the marketing worldwide, they really do. It’s very disappointing.”

“You’re laying it on the line in the Olympics,” said Cam Fowler, who was on the U.S. team in 2014. “Those games are really intense. But I don’t think it made a huge impact on the quality of hockey I could play when I came back. There are a lot of factors that went into that decision and I don’t pretend to understand them all, but it’s unfortunate for the guys who haven’t played.”

The reality is that the Olympics didn’t affect the rest of the NHL season at all. The Kings had Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter for Canada in 2014, Jonathan Quick and Dustin Brown for the U.S. They came home refreshed, and Doughty told Coach Darryl Sutter that he was now sure the Kings would win the Stanley Cup. Which they did.

Six Chicago Blackhawks played in Vancouver. Four months later they were passing around the Cup.

We’ll judge the juice of this hockey tournament by how often NBC lets us see it. Fortunately, the rest of Pyeongchang will be the best: No quarter-pipes, single axels or scrawny slaloms.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/09/whicker-nhl-takes-the-golden-moments-out-of-the-olympics/

Feb 08

Whicker: Drayden Van Dyke prepares for a long ride

ARCADIA — The subject was the young American jockey, and why he is as rare as a rainy morning at Santa Anita.

Who was the last previous prodigy?

“Mike Smith,’ said trainer Bob Baffert, referring to the 52-year-old winner of 26 Breeders’ Cup races.

That wasn’t as facetious as it sounded.

“It’s a tough question,” said Brad Pegram, the jockey agent. “You have to go back a ways.”

Who is the next one? Not as tough a question.

Drayden Van Dyke is 23, represented by Pegram, and will ride Ax Man for Baffert in Saturday’s San Vicente Stakes. He has a more promising future than most DVDs.

On Dec. 26, Van Dyke opened the Santa Anita season by winning the Malibu Stakes with City of Light.

Drayden Van Dyke is congratulated after City of Light's victory in the Malibu Stakes race on Opening Day of Santa Anita Park's winter meet Dec. 26. (Sarah Reingewirtz,/SCNG)
Drayden Van Dyke is congratulated after City of Light’s victory in the Malibu Stakes race on Opening Day of Santa Anita Park’s winter meet Dec. 26. (Sarah Reingewirtz/SCNG)

He won the Eclipse Award as the best apprentice in 2014. He has 13 wins in this meet and his mounts have won nearly a million.

The San Vicente is part of the triage process that will cull the 3-year-olds to the 15 to 20 who will enter the gate at Churchill Downs on May 5.

Van Dyke and Tyler Gaffalione, another 23-year-old who rides back East, figure to be part of that for years.

So why has race riding become the almost exclusive province of France and Puerto Rico?

“I just think people nowadays are naturally bigger,” Van Dyke said. “ I know a lot of people who would like to ride, but they get too big and wind up being exercise riders.”

Van Dyke didn’t have that problem. “But the first thing I wanted to be was a pro basketball player,” he said, smiling.

He reproduces those dreams at fitness-center gyms, scoring 22 points in a jockeys’ game a few nights ago.

“You don’t often see a kid that small who is that athletic,” said Tom Proctor, a trainer who became Van Dyke’s uncompromising mentor. “He has a lot of patience.

“When I see someone that young who’s comfortable on turf, I know that’s unusual. A lot of old jocks never learn to do that.”

Van Dyke has a teenage face, a street-smart manner, and a lot of real-world mileage.

Early last year he suffered a compound fracture of his forearm when a horse named Tawny broke his ankle. Van Dyke missed five-and-a-half months.

His dad Seth also rode. Drayden lived in Hot Springs, Ark., but would spend Christmas holidays and the summers in Kentucky with Seth.

Drayden came to Del Mar and Santa Anita and impressed Smith and Gary Stevens. He was living at Smith’s place in Del Mar one August day in 2014 when he got a call from Proctor. Seth, an exercise jockey and a jocks’ room valet at the time, had taken his own life.

“It was an odd time, late in the afternoon,” Drayden said. “I had just got out of the shower. Tom told me that my dad had died but he was so emotional, he had to hang up. I just went back to the room and sat there on the bed, and it started hitting me stronger and stronger.”

“I was in Chicago when someone called me,” Proctor said. “I got weak-kneed and almost went down to the sidewalk. I called Gary and told him to get over there and I called Mike before I called Drayden. Then I told him I was flying out there.”

Drayden was still in elementary school when Proctor noticed him hanging around the track. “He was always messing with me,’ Van Dyke said. “I was quiet but I would give him some smart remarks.”

When Van Dyke won his first race in 2013, aboard Money Clip at Hollywood Park, Proctor met him at the winners’ circle and told him to cool down the horse at the test barn.

And when Van Dyke was late to work out horses at 5 a.m., Proctor pulled him out of Smith’s house and had him live in the tack room for the rest of that Del Mar meet.

“He was tough on me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Van Dyke said.

Proctor laughed at that. “It’s not like I was making him bale hay or anything,” he said. “I just tried to teach him there’s more to this than riding a horse. You have to be a professional.”

For instance, Proctor told Van Dyke he needed to buy a suit. At a subsequent dinner, Van Dyke showed up without one.

“I bought one but it’s being tailored,” he told Proctor.

“Tailored?” Proctor repeated. “You could go to Kids R Us and get one.”

Then Proctor advised him he should buy a tuxedo, mindful of the awards ceremonies that were coming. Maybe two.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/08/whicker-drayden-van-dyke-prepares-for-a-long-ride/

Feb 06

Taft’s Kihei Clark is a well-grounded point guard

WOODLAND HILLS — He is slight and cherubic and not the first player you would pick for your team at the rec center.

Not until after the game.

Kihei Clark is 5-foot-10 in your program. To paraphrase Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, he’s never been anything else.

“Looking at my parents, I don’t think I’m going to grow a lot,” Clark said.

Instead, he grows on you. A year ago he committed to UC Davis, the best alternative among his suitors. Now he has committed to Virginia, the No. 2 team in the nation. Not to disrespect the defending Big West champions, but that is quite a growth spurt.

“Whatever the level of competition has been, he’s been able to rise to it,” Derrick Taylor said. “If he was two inches taller he would have been recruited a lot sooner.”

Taylor is the basketball coach at Taft. He has developed Jordan Farmar, Larry Drew II and Spencer Dinwiddie. Clark is his point guard and Taft was 23-7 overall and 7-1 in league, heading into Tuesday night’s game at Birmingham.

The City Section playoffs are imminent and the Toreadors hope to get through their division and play either Westchester or Fairfax, with Clark averaging 21.3 points, 8.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds. Only one other senior starts. This is his show, but there’s nothing showy about it.

“I used to watch Steve Nash, Chris Paul,” Clark said after Friday night’s win over Cleveland, in which he drained four 3-pointers in the first quarter.

“I don’t want to go out there and try to do things I can’t do. The guys know I’m a point guard. I don’t like to score that much necessarily, just take care of things and be there at the end.”

Inevitably Clark will be compared to London Perrantes, the sleepy-eyed Crespi guard who took his unhurried game to four starting seasons at Virginia and got a cup of Gatorade with the Cleveland Cavaliers this season..

“I hope he becomes as good as London,” said Malik Clark, Kihei’s dad. “London might have been a better shooter at the same age. I think Kihei can put it on the floor better, maybe has a little more wiggle.”

Clark was being pursued by Georgia Tech and Gonzaga, with a late run from UCLA. His choice reveals him. Virginia is not a one-and-done pit stop to the NBA. The Cavaliers play intricate defense, move the ball around, and they don’t usually produce the Play Of The Day. You’ll find them on clinic videos instead.

“I just loved it there when i visited,” Clark said. “Sharing the ball, the winning atmosphere. The screens, the flares, the way they play, it’s something I can’t wait to get involved in. And, yeah, I know I’ll have to be stronger. They’re going to send me a plan for the weight room.”

Kihei was named for the town on the western shore of Maui. It’s where his dad proposed to his mom, Sharon. Fortunately for him, the proposal didn’t happen in Walla Walla.

Malik went to Birmingham High and played basketball at Hawaii-Hilo. Now he runs a construction and trucking company.

His oldest son was interested in soccer and martial arts but, when he was eight he committed to basketball. The process began.

Kihei worked out regularly with his dad and with Derryck Thornton, the point guard who signed with Duke and then transferred to USC. Another boost came from Adam Mazarei,  the former Redlands point who became such a renowned talent developer that he joined the staff of the Memphis Grizzlies.

“He went from working out young players to working out Mike Conley,” Malik said. “He was a very big part of what Kihei’s been able to do.”

Everything Clark encountered stretched his game. He learned to accept that nothing would stretch him.

“I was undersized, too,” Malik said. “I told him not to worry about it. Whenever you’re undersized, there’s always a stacked deck. Even now with the success he’s had, there are doubters. You never stop proving yourself.”

“There’s always a size factor, the eye test,” Kihei said. “I always go through it. But I always thought I could compete on a high level.”

He got his chance last summer when he played for the Oakland Soldiers, a renowned AAU program that featured Taeshon Cherry, the 5-star recruit who is headed for Arizona State, and two UC Santa Barbara-bound players. Clark ran into some of the nation’s best and came out unscathed.

Suddenly UC Davis, Boise State, Santa Clara and others of that ilk realized that Clark wasn’t their little secret anymore. But they probably knew it was inevitable, like gravity.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/06/tafts-kihei-clark-is-a-well-grounded-point-guard/

Feb 05

Whicker: NFL isn’t broken, but here’s how to fix it

We’re told millions of Americans swore off the NFL this season.

A mid-morning attempt to find a parking place at any grocery store Sunday indicated those disgruntled folks have been replaced.

So did the hand-fighting along the shelves, although most offenders claimed they were going for the chips and the contact was incidental.

Brace for doom-and-gloom over Super Bowl ratings, which receded by three percent from last year. Actually the game drew 95.17 million viewers. The next highest-rated show, from 7-10 p.m. Sunday, was “60 Minutes,” with 3.05 million.

The NFL tried to goose the excitement with an unannounced Super Bowl ban on offensive holding penalties. That might explain (1) 18 plays of 20 yards or more; (2) no punts by New England and one by Philadelphia; (3) a Philadelphia score on its final five possessions; and (4) an all-time record for yards gained in any NFL regular-season or playoff game. Tom Brady threw for 505 yards and three Patriots had 100-yard receiving games, and New England still lost.

It was a statistical classic. It also was sloppy and disjointed, particularly by New England. Whomever ordered that Dion Lewis/Rex Burkhead gadget kickoff return might not have a job left to do.

But the Super Bowl also vaulted a coach who was at a Shreveport, La., high school nine years ago and a quarterback who wasn’t given the time of day by the 4-12 Rams last year.

Doug Pederson and Nick Foles dealt a blow to the imperial quarterback/coach myth. They converted 12 of 18 third and fourth downs against a defense that bases its identity on denying them.

So the NFL dominates sports and television yet again.

That will only continue to do so if it entertains major changes.

Like these:

— Targeting the head absolutely has to stop. One-game suspensions and 15-yard penalties don’t cut it.

When Malcolm Jenkins went helmet-to-helmet Sunday, he likely affected Brandin Cooks’ life and definitely deprived New England. He wasn’t even penalized.

Intent isn’t the issue. Drunk drivers normally don’t intend to kill people. Negligence is.

The NFL should institute a penalty shot. Specifically, the team victimized by targeting should be given a chance at a 25-yard field goal. Then it should resume possession, with penalty yardage included.

If an offensive player is called for targeting, the defensive team gets a chance at that field goal and the offensive team will get the ball back on its 20, regardless of prior field position.

This also would not remove the possibility of supplemental discipline. But if you start messing with teams on the scoreboard, they will listen.

— If the receiver gets the ball in his hands and lands without the ball touching the ground, it’s a catch, regardless of what happens in between. Is that so hard?

— Defensive pass interference is the most punitive infraction in sports. It also is the most difficult call in football, and it is not reviewable. If DPI is called in the end zone, it becomes first-and-goal from the one-yard-line. In college, it’s 15 yards. Go to the college rule

— It is still possible to lose in overtime without getting the ball. If you score a touchdown on the first possession, the game’s over. In college, each team gets a crack from the 25-yard-line. Again, use the college rule, but start the possession on one’s own 30-yard-line, which means you’d have to gain 35 yards for a reasonable field goal.

— Teams dress 53 players, which makes them vulnerable to attrition. Guards wind up playing center, etc. There is also a 10-man practice squad. Those players should dress for games, too.

— If you’re a basketball player, you can go to Europe. If you’re a baseball player, you can play Triple-A. If you’re a football player, it’s the NFL or nothing.

There’s enough money to start a developmental league — and enough markets, like Omaha, Orlando, Sacramento, Portland, etc., to support it.  (Almost said Cleveland, but that would be wrong.)

Each of the four-team divisions could stock a 48-man roster with 12 players from each team. That would create an eight-team league.

The coaches would be hired by the NFL and would run their own systems. This would train coaches (and officials) and give NFL clubs the chance to call up deserving players.

— Best of all, those minor-league games could be shown Thursday night. Which would replace those outrageous NFL games Thursday night.

Football has problems. Disenchantment among Americans, at least right now, is not one of them. Not until the avocado counter comes open, down the middle.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/05/whicker-nfl-isnt-broken-but-heres-how-to-fix-it/

Feb 04

Whicker: UCLA is riding Thomas Welsh’s senior tour

  • UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh (40) fights for the loose ball against the USC Trojans in the second half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. UCLA Bruins won 82-79. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh (40) fights for the loose ball against the USC Trojans in the second half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. UCLA Bruins won 82-79. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh (40) scores against the USC Trojans in the second half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. UCLA Bruins won 82-79. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh (40) scores against the USC Trojans in the second half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. UCLA Bruins won 82-79. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • USC Trojans guard Jordan Usher (1) drives to the basket against UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh (40) in the first half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    USC Trojans guard Jordan Usher (1) drives to the basket against UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh (40) in the first half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • USC Trojans forward Chimezie Metu (4) shoots against UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh (40) in the first half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    USC Trojans forward Chimezie Metu (4) shoots against UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh (40) in the first half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • UCLA Bruins head coach Steve Alford and center Thomas Welsh (40) smiles as they walk off the court after defeating the USC Trojans 82-79 during a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    UCLA Bruins head coach Steve Alford and center Thomas Welsh (40) smiles as they walk off the court after defeating the USC Trojans 82-79 during a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

  • UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh against the USC Trojans in the first half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

    UCLA Bruins center Thomas Welsh against the USC Trojans in the first half of a NCAA Pac 12 basketball game at Pauley Pavillion on the campus of UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

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LOS ANGELES — He was born one day after Groundhog Day, so Thomas Welsh turned 22 Saturday.

Which means he’s seen this movie before.

Trauma and drama, bubbles that burst, bubbles that cleanse. Two of Welsh’s three UCLA teams have reached the NCAA regionals. They don’t hang banners for that, not at Pauley Pavilion, but it’s something.

Now Welsh is a senior, after a couple of chances to play for money, to maybe shiver on the end of a bench in Milwaukee, or play in front of scouts in Fort Wayne.

This is the final lap for a 7-footer who has meant more to this program than anyone ever thought. Welsh calls the coming valedictory “bittersweet.” But Saturday was pure ambrosia.

UCLA and USC were tied 77-77, two imperfect teams turning  desperation into high entertainment. They swapped the lead 18 times, neither good enough to sustain anything, both good enough to keep coming.

With 52 seconds left, Welsh stood at the top of the key, a rare launching point in his first three years. Now he had thousands of 3-pointers in his bank from his summertime work all around the city. He swished this one, and the Bruins went to win, 82-79.

His dad Pat had texted him beforehand, suggesting he might score a point for each year. Welsh came up one short, with 21, but had eight rebounds and no turnovers. He never went to the free throw line until :11 remained, and he made both of those. He survived an early assault from USC’s Chimezie Metu, who was intent to deal him some fouls. He played 35 minutes. Aaron Holiday played 40. The two had 44 of the 82,.

Coach Steve Alford praised GG Goloman and Alex Olesinski for pushing forward when Welsh was on the bench. “We didn’t have any slippage when we rested Tom,” Alford said.

How about resting Holiday? “I don’t have any plans to take him out, I really don’t,” he said.

Welsh and Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton are the only Pac-12 players averaging more than 10 rebounds. He is sixth alltime at UCLA in rebounds, third in blocked shots. That happens when you play four years, but not automatically. To see Welsh broaden and lengthen his game while he finishes up his economics degree is to recognize that the athlete-student bargain works more often than we think.

“He’s just really good,” Alford said. “He’s a hard matchup. He can pick and pop. He used to be a 12-15 foot guy, and now he’s making threes. Then you can put him in the paint and put him on the free throw line. He was smart today defensively, he didn’t foul, he made guys go over the top of him.

“He’s getting double-doubles and he’s wearing a mask (after taking a shot to his nose at Stanford).”

Welsh outplayed Metu and Holiday outplayed Jordan McLaughlin. The Bruins’ zone kept McLaughlin from penetrating and never let him visit the free-throw line.

Bennie Boatwright didn’t start, with a bad foot, and probably shouldn’t have played. With all that, the Trojans got big shots from Elijah Stewart, strong paint play from Nick Racocevic, and  led 69-60 with 8:09 left.

Holiday gobbled up most of that with two 3-pointers, then split a double-team and hit Welsh for a go-ahead layup at the 4:42 mark. USC didn’t score in that span. December’s Bruins were defenseless receivers. Now they’re holding conference opponents to .422 shooting.

UCLA is 67th in the regular RPI ratings and 60th on Ken Pomeroy’s more metric-based list. Lots of work remains. Only two more home games do. So these are all play-in games for the Bruins, as they were in 2014 and 2015.

“It’s special being a senior,” Welsh said. “Being an L.A. kid, having my parents come to the games….it’s been a great ride. I really take a lot of pride in it. Different people have different paths. I’m just lucky to have taken this path. But it’s a weird feeling, being this close to being done.

“It’s just nice to be able to see all that work on my 3-point shot come through. My teammates have a lot of confidence in me now.”

At the end, UCLA officials brought out ropes to keep students from celebrating on the court. Yeah, after beating USC. Such a thing would surely have turned the stomachs of Jamaal Wilkes, Lucius Allen and Mike Warren, dynasty soldiers, all of whom came to Pauley on Saturday.

On the other hand, the sight of a four-year player, seeing it through, probably warmed their old-school hearts. Now let’s see if Thomas Welsh can get six more weeks of basketball. At least.

 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/03/whicker-ucla-is-riding-thomas-welshs-senior-tour/

Feb 02

Whicker: Usher is helping USC find its voice

LOS ANGELES — He has two box-office names and enough juice to light up a valley.

Jordan Usher gets only 13.7 minutes a game to spend what’s bottled up inside. He is saving the rest.

“The coaches told me that they’re going to work with me on my pace this summer, on my offensive game,” Usher said. “But for now they just want me to play like I’m playing. This is what I do best.”

Usher is a 6-foot-7 freshman who comes in and puts USC games on a different turntable. He is shooting 46.7 percent from the 3-point line, but the numbers can’t catch up with him. The Trojans are a fairly placid group within the 94-by-50 confines. Usher plays beyond them.

“I remember when teams didn’t have him highly rated,” said Mario Mayes, the assistant coach of his Wheeler High team in Marietta, Ga. “I said, that’s OK. Just come back and play like you normally do, like an animal.”

Usher was not supposed to be the most influential newcomer on a veteran team. He got there by playing at game speed during practices. He and Derryck Thornton, the Duke transfer who was hurt earlier, have given the Trojans depth and flexibility that they lost when DeAnthony Melton was ruled ineligible. Usher gives them personality, too. When he comes in, you watch him.

USC goes to UCLA on Saturday, to Arizona State on Thursday, to Arizona on Saturday. Its NCAA tournament chances will be clearer after that. The Trojans are 8-2 in the Pac-12 and 17-6 overall, numbers you might have expected in October, but they’ve driven through potholes to get there.

This year, college basketball is a senior tour. Virginia, Villanova and Purdue, the top three teams at the moment, didn’t lose “one-and-done” players and don’t have any now. They win on maturity and continuity. As does USC. But each team needs a teenaged disrupter.

“I’ve always been a little underrated,” Usher said. “I don’t have a mix-tape, I don’t have a pretty game. But I’m really good at all the little stuff that matters, slapping at the ball, diving on the floor, getting the loose balls, yelling….I want the other team’s best scorer to realize that, ‘Hey, Jordan’s going to be up in me the whole game.’”

Verbiage is a weapon. Usher says a lot of players don’t know how to trash-talk. “You have to know the stuff that really hurts a basketball player,” he said. “Like, ‘Hey, you know you’re 1-for-7 now.’ I can be frustrating to play against.”

Metro Atlanta has become a basketball conservatory. Usher played on the Atlanta Celtics, a legendary AAU team once graced by Dwight Howard. Jaylen Brown, who plays on the real Celtics, still watches their summer games.

That summer propelled Usher into a different level. “Before, I was down to Arizona State and Nebraska,” he said. The SEC got more interested, but Usher was an easy sell for the Trojans.

“Hey, it’s L.A., it’s nice,” Mays said, laughing. “But they showed him what opportunities he could have.”

Usher also got feelers from Harvard and Yale. His mom Karen didn’t hover, but she stressed the academic priorities. “She’d check with me,’ he said. “Moms always know when you’re lying.”

Karen was the basketball inspiration. She is 6-foot-3, an office manager at Cox Communications, and she played one year at Florida. She and Jordan would shoot around at a nearby church gym, and he developed ambition. Kentucky’s John Wall was a lodestar, and Usher had Kentucky rugs and posters in his room.

He spent three high school years at Sequoyah and transferred to Wheeler, where Brown, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and J.J. Hickson once played, Usher’s fellow starters were Jordan Tucker, E.J. Montgomery, Darius Perry and Kenny Anniye.

Tucker signed with Duke and transferred to Butler, Perry is at Louisville, Anniye is at Stetson and Montgomery is still at Wheeler, being recruited by heavyweights. Usher is putting in a word for USC.

So far L.A. hasn’t been a problem. “I can’t find sweet tea everywhere,’ Usher said, “and it’s harder to stay in touch with loved ones because of the time difference. Mostly I’m in a six-block radius. I might go to LA Live to watch a movie, but I’m back in my room studying and playing video games.”

Mostly he looks to March. Collin Sexton will be there. Sexton is a likely one-and-done at Alabama, an ebullient talent from Atlanta who has drawn swords with Usher for years.

“Dog-eat-dog, alpha-male stuff,” Usher said.

There is a chance their brackets will intersect. Usher says he would like that “very much.” Sexton might, too, except for 13.7 minutes.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/02/whicker-usher-is-helping-usc-find-its-voice/

Feb 01

Whicker: Clippers aren’t tearing down the house, just replacing the window

Windows don’t close. They slam.

From the moment the Clippers took a 19-point, late-third-quarter lead over Houston and turned it into an 0-18 run and a 12-point loss, they have shot the ball with bruised fingers. Ask the Buffalo Bills, ask Ben Howland’s UCLA Bruins. When it is your time to win, you’d better. This isn’t three-shots-for-a-quarter at the county fair.

That Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals, and a similar blowup in Game 5 of the 2014 West semis in Oklahoma City, led slowly but directly to Monday.

Blake Griffin was packed off to Detroit, just six months after he signed a five-year $173 million contract and after Chris Paul was traded to Houston.

It was also 2015 when Griffin, Paul and other Clippers basically held DeAndre Jordan hostage in his Texas home until he backed out of his decision to sign with Dallas. That was viewed as a franchise-saver, a lifeline to future playoffs.

Through high-def hindsight, we know Jordan should have been allowed to leave. The Clippers might have used the money to modernize their club. Instead, they have little interest in re-signing Jordan, who is still an offensive afterthought and is averaging an 8-year low in blocked shots. The Clippers are finding it difficult to trade him before the Feb. 8 deadline.

Are the Clippers racing for the bottom? Probably not.

Tobias Harris is 25, a proven 3-point man who is averaging 18.1 points in 32.6 minutes. Avery Bradley, when healthy, is a superlative defender and dangerous shooter. Both will start.

There is a danger that Detroit will start winning, with Griffin joining Andre Drummond, but the Clippers don’t seem concerned. They got the Pistons’ first-round pick in the deal. It would disappear from the lottery if the Pistons make the playoffs. If they don’t, it could go as high as No. 5.

The Griffin trade also opens salary-cap room for the summer. But nobody should print any “James 23” jerseys with the LAC logo.

If LeBron James really has palm-tree fever, he will more likely choose the Lakers.

The Clippers, and perhaps more teams that we know, are mindful that James is 33 with more than 43,000 minutes played. His superpowers have done little to stop Cleveland’s mid-season slide. He is also eligible to make more than $40 million per year into his late 30s.

The Clippers see other avenues. They might wait until the summer of 2019, if Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving become free agents then.

The 2018 draft has possibilities up top. It’s difficult to imagine going wrong by picking Duke’s Marvin Bagley, and Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton is a grown-man 6-foot-11 freshman who can shoot free throws. Oklahoma’s Trae Young is the modern shoot-and-pass point guard. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson, Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Slovenia’s Luke Doncic will beef up the lottery.

If the Clippers do end up with two lottery picks, they might package them with other players and try to move into that high ground. They are starless at the moment, or will be if high-scoring sixth man Lou Williams signs elsewhere next season.

What to make of Griffin’s years? The Clippers had 50-win seasons and won a few playoff series. He and Paul removed a stigma.

But Griffin remained unfinished. He was always hurt, or hurting somebody, a pattern that dated to his college days at Oklahoma. Coach Doc Rivers wanted him to catalyze the offense, but couldn’t do that when Paul was there. The big-game meltdowns involved Griffin as much as anyone, and it was unclear if he and Rivers were simpatico. The Clippers will be younger and definitely more flexible without him, and the Pistons needed a name to lure people downtown, from the suburbs where they used to play.

This is when you wonder why the Clippers gave Griffin all that money in July.

It’s because they envisioned a 2017-18 playoff team that never got to the floor.

With Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley joining Jordan and Milos Teodosic, the Clippers won their first four games. The ball was moving, the perimeter defense was salty, the bench was bountiful.

But Teodosic played two games, Gallinari eight and Beverley nine before they got hurt. Griffin and Austin Rivers followed. Injuries are part of any NBA season. Plagues are not. Sixteen different Clippers have started games. This season will forever be a theory, an interesting blueprint that never broke ground.

In a league where James, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson wore multiple uniforms, the Griffin trade shouldn’t be a seismic event. This is a remodel, not a teardown.

With new windows.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/31/whicker-clippers-arent-tearing-down-the-house-just-replacing-the-window/

Jan 29

Whicker: Dustin Johnson turns Riviera into his launching pad

Dustin Johnson revisited Riviera Country Club Monday. Much to his surprise it was still there.

He turned it into Ground Zero last February, or at least Ground 17-Under.

In his fourth round Johnson birdied No. 6 and got to 20-under. He throttled it down and won the Genesis Open by five strokes over Scott Brown and Thomas Pieters.

In his five previous trips to Riviera he’d finished second three times, third and fourth, with a playoff loss in 2015 to James Hahn.

This Genesis victory made Johnson the No. 1 player in the world, a title that has spooked some players, inspired others. Johnson, who could easily win a PGA Tour decathlon, used it as another long jump. He won two World Golf Championship events and remains No. 1 today, despite a pratfall at his rented Augusta house that cost him a chance at the Masters and hampered the rest of his 2017.

Four weeks ago at Kapalua , Johnson cruised to an 8-shot win that will be remembered for his near hole-in-one at the 13th. His tee shot stopped maybe four inches short of the cup.

Side note: It was a 433-yard par-4.

This is why Johnson has tantalized most fans and irritated some purists. By no means is he the only beneficiary of club-and-ball technology advancements. But Johnson symbolizes a wrecking ball that is laying waste to traditional golf courses. They keep running, longer and longer, and the pros keep chasing them down.

In 1991 the same fears were sparked by John Daly, who led the Tour with an average drive of 288.9 yards and bludgeoned his way to a PGA Championship. Last year Rory McIlroy averaged 317.2 yards, but that wasn’t as unsettling as the average drive on tour. That was 292.5.

The four major champions in 2017  (Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas) ranked fifth, 24th, 32nd and 56th on tour in driving distance.

That doesn’t mean the short hitters are disqualified. Patton Kizzire, Billy Hurley and Wesley Bryan have won tournaments over the past two years and all ranked 163rd or worse last year. But “short” has gotten longer. Kizzire, for instance, averaged 279.8.

Most tour courses have responded by adding yards. Riviera measured 7,322 at last year’s Genesis. When Ernie Els beat Tiger Woods in 1999, the course was 6,946. But length alone is a poor deterrent.

Last year Erin Hills threw a 7,711-yard haymaker at the U.S. Open field. By Friday it was bleeding birdies. Adam Hadwin birdied six consecutive holes, Thomas shot a 63, seven players shot 7-under-par 65 or better for the first time in Open history, and Koepka became the second man to go 16 under to win an Open.

Si Woo Kim won the Players Championship at 7-under on TPC Sawgrass, which has never measured over 7,189. Bunters like Tim Clark and Fred Funk have won there. So have rocket men like Greg Norman and Fred Couples.

And when the 2013 U.S. Open came to Merion, at 6,996 yards, grown men wept over the coming carnage. Instead, Justin Rose shot one-over-par and won by two.

When clubs decide to welcome tournaments, they don’t just do it to make golf history. They also know they can make money. The price of renovation is apparently worth it, Besides, the members’ tees are unmoved.

Pinehurst stretched itself by over 400 yards, between the ‘99 and ‘14 U.S Opens, but also took out its rough and let the bad shots roll into the pines. In ‘99 the winning score was 1-under and in ‘14 only one man surpassed it. Granted, that was Martin Kaymer, who won by eight.

The point is that weather and intelligent design and putting determine who wins, not just length. The other point is that Johnson has not won 17 tour events with his bare hands alone.

He has become a much better wedge player and, even at Riviera last year, he kept his driver in the bag when it was prudent. He also has won at Oakmont, Pebble Beach and Chapultepec,  courses that demand negotiation. Last year he came to the brain-teasing tenth hole at Riviera, mapped out a plan and parred it all four days.

Those who mourned the ruination of golf when Johnson nearly aced that par-4 should chill. The hole was significantly downhill, there was a 12 mph wind behind Johnson, and the the fairway was like a moving sidewalk.

There are arguments for and against the lively golf ball and all are worth considering. But when you see the way talent bursts out of Dustin Johnson, why restrain it?

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/29/whicker-dustin-johnson-turns-riviera-into-his-launching-pad/

Jan 29

Whicker: Tiger’s spirit is willing, at least

  • Tiger Woods hits his second shot on the 11th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

    Tiger Woods hits his second shot on the 11th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • Tiger Woods hits his second shot on the 12th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

    Tiger Woods hits his second shot on the 12th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • Tiger Woods reacts after missing a putt on the 13th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

    Tiger Woods reacts after missing a putt on the 13th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 12th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

    Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 12th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • Tiger Woods makes his way towards the 14th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

    Tiger Woods makes his way towards the 14th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

  • Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 11th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

    Tiger Woods watches his tee shot on the 11th hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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SAN DIEGO — He beat Jon Rahm, Phil Mickelson, Brandt Snedeker, Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler.

He made his first cut since August of 2015 and played on a weekend that counted.

He had thousands following him in the chill of 8:15 a.m. They were still on the trail in the hot winds of lunchtime.

That is not how Tiger Woods defines success.

He always said second place stunk, approximately. No need to ask him to describe 23rd.

But Woods didn’t expect his first start in a year to bring definition. Not after his fourth back surgery, on top of his fourth knee surgery. Those are cuts that he doesn’t miss.

He left the Farmers Insurance Open with scores of 72-71-70-72, long before Alex Noren and Jason Day staggered through a 6-hour round, then went through five playoff holes and couldn’t beat the darkness. They resume at 8 a.m. Monday.

If you thought Woods could win before you saw him this week, you must feel he still can. If you didn’t, you might want to keep an open mind.

Tiger’s week seemed pain-free, if one judges by the grimaces and the stretches and the discomfort that nobody saw. But it wasn’t a parade.

On the par-5 13th Sunday, Woods was drawing back the putter for a 11-footer when a fan yelled out the odious “Get in the hole!” just a little early. Woods guided the putt right and settled for par. He was upset, although not necessarily at the fan.

The other fans took care of that, chanting “Throw him out!” and berating him face-to-face. “I’d like to beat you up personally,” one marshal told him before the befuddled man went on his way.

There is a suspicion that fans would be just fine if Woods stayed dormant. A writer in Golf World claimed “Tiger Fatigue Syndrome” and openly hoped the comeback fails.

It was hard to find anybody at Torrey Pines who agreed. His galleries were almost as big as before. They just had less to celebrate.

On the par-4 17th Woods jerked his approach out of a trap, but his shot from the rough got to within 15 feet. He was prepping for a fist pump when the ball did a full, teasing 360 and stayed out, for bogey. At one point Woods was sitting 20th and only six shots off the lead, but heroics only spring from the short grass, and Woods was rarely there. After Thursday, only nine of his tee shots found fairways.

He counteracted that by sinking more than 56 yards of putts on Saturday and Sunday. He called his play “gross” on Saturday. He took the long view Sunday.

“I fought hard for those scores,” he said. “It wasn’t like one of those yawners. Sometimes those are more pleasing than the boring rounds. I fought my tail off and it was good stuff.”

It’s difficult to fight when you’re wounded. It’s also difficult to embrace of two weeks of practice before the next event, at Riviera. “I have to work on everything,” he said. It didn’t sound like an obligation.

“I was able to play four rounds like this, under the heat again, on a totally different grass than we have at home (Jupiter, Fla.),” he said. “I was putting on poa annua instead of bermuda and I was hitting the ball out of rye grass. I haven’t done either of those things since last time I was here. There’s nowhere in Florida to test all that, and we don’t have any rough there, so I had to test it here in game time. Which is not exactly easy.

“On top of that the greens were hard and dry. I thought I did well. I had some good shots out of the rough this week. Unfortunately I put myself there in the first place.”

To return to the top, Woods must beat braver, fitter, stronger players, not all of whom are familiar. Noren, a Swede, played at Oklahoma State with Fowler and has nine European Tour wins. He matched Day putt for putt in the playoff, which Ryan Palmer exited after the first hole.

The wind and the tension kept anybody from shooting lower than 68. If Woods had shot the 65 he envisioned, he would have been in the playoff, too.

As the leaders demonstrated, PGA Tour Sundays are like ninth innings, full of  their own tight-throated problems. In the old days they caught up with every golfer but one. “I can grind it out with the best of them,” Woods said, as if he’d seen a faint path toward becoming, again, the best of them.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ocregister.com/2018/01/28/whicker-tigers-spirit-is-willing-at-least/