One Doozy of a Week for Sports Fans
Sports fans could not ask for a much more delicious smorgasbord of exciting activity than the spread that was served up for us from just after dinner on Sunday, April 4, until dinner time on Sunday, April 11.
It all began at Fenway Park Sunday night, April 4, with a typical Yankees-Red Sox ding-dong battle that was the major league’s season-opening game. The Red Sox eventually won the nearly four-hour ESPN telecast that was just a teaser for what was coming up in the next few days.
The week of fun and games on diamond, court, rink and course ended excitingly when Phil Mickelson won the Masters for the third time, as he executed a few spectacular shots on Saturday and Sunday, April 10 and 11, in what was supposed to be Tiger Woods’ grand and victorious return to the PGA Tour.
Between the Red Sox’ only victory over the Yanks in a three-game season-opening series and Mickelson’s Masters heroics, there were Duke’s and Connecticut’s victories in the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championship games, two pitching triumphs by the Philadelphia Phillies’ newly acquired ace, Roy Halladay, and Boston College’s second NCAA hockey championship in three seasons.
Possibly the most exciting time of the week came that Monday night when Duke outlasted Butler, 61-59, in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, a half dozen miles from the Butler University campus.
This marked only the fifth time in the 72 NCAA basketball tournaments that two private institutions have met in the championship game. There may be something about an all-private final that creates a very gripping encounter.
The last time two non-public institutions played for the title was just 25 years ago, when a pair of Big East Conference teams met. Coach Rollie Massimino’s eighth-seeded Villanova turned in a major upset by beating Coach John Thompson’s top-seeded Georgetown in a thriller, 66-64, for the 1985 crown.
Butler was seeded fifth in its bracket to Duke’s No. 1 seed.
The other three all-private NCAA basketball championship games were: 1942, Stanford defeated Dartmouth, 53-38; 1954, LaSalle defeated Bradley, 92-76; and 1955, University of San Francisco defeated LaSalle, 77-63.
Following Butler’s close encounter with the Blue Devils, the Bulldogs’ coach, Brad Stevens, was courted by Oregon and other big powers, each of which was willing to pay him millions of dollars to coach its basketball team. But before that week of interesting sports activity ended, the enthusiastic, 33-year-old Stevens signed a 10-year contract to remain at Butler for less money, to the great delight of Butler fans and those who still believe there are some values that trump the big bucks.
Another coach who has been courted by both men’s and women’s basketball programs is Geno Auriemma, coach of the Connecticut women’s team for the past 25 seasons. He isn’t going anywhere. The 56-year-old, Italian-born, naturalized American has three more years to go on an $8 million, 5-year contract.
There were some moments of serious concern during that Tuesday night, April 6, in San Antonio, when Stanford led Connecticut 20-12 after a strangely and poorly played first half by both teams. Those dozen points tied the lowest halftime score ever posted by Connecticut’s women.
Auriemma must have given his gals a real harsh locker room dressing down, because they came out for the second half filled with either fear of the coach or a new resolve or both. The undefeated Huskies returned to form and eventually beat Stanford 53-47 for their 78th straight victory, second consecutive NCAA championship and seventh national title under Coach Auriemma.
Boston College’s rather easy 5-0 victory over Wisconsin, Saturday, April 10, kept the NCAA hockey championship in Boston for the third season in a row. Boston University won the title a year ago and Boston College, the strongest college team during the last decade, won the NCAA title in 2008.
The Eagles also won the NCAA hockey championship in 2001 and have now won that national crown four times. Who ever thought the basketball happy Atlantic Coast Conference would have the nation’s leading hockey powerhouse among its members?
The first week of the major league season rarely proves anything about the final outcome of the longest season in professional sports. But Roy (Doc) Halladay’s first week with his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies, might be some indication of what this 2006 American League Cy Young Award winner for the Toronto Blue Jays will do with the Phillies.
Since there is no designated hitter in the National League and Halladay no longer has to face the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, considered by some as the two best teams in the majors, the big right-hander may have a chance to win as many as 25 games in a season with these slugging, high-scoring Phillies, who have won the National League pennant the last two seasons.
On page 72 of the April 19 issue of The New Yorker magazine, there is a timely cartoon showing a woman intently watching the television screen while explaining to her husband, “Are you kidding? I’m not watching golf. I’m watching Tiger.”
CBS, Masters officials and the PGA Tour were hoping that would be the case for millions of viewers who stopped watching golf telecasts when Tiger Woods took his five-month hiatus from the tour to try to straighten out his adulterous life. They wanted Tiger fans to return in large numbers to get those lagging TV ratings back up. In the process, they rather optimistically predicted a record viewing audience for Sunday, April 11, after Tiger got into contention during the first two rounds at Augusta National.
But in one of the biggest surprises of the 74th Masters, the TV viewership for Sunday was 16.7 million persons, which fell far short of the previous Masters record of 20.3 million persons who watched in 1997 when Woods won the first of his four Masters titles.
Those who watched the Masters on TV saw some excellent and exciting golf and some different Augusta National greens. Those who were intent upon watching Tiger may have been disappointed by his behavior once again.
Foremost among Mickelson’s highlights were his back-to-back eagles on Saturday at 13 and 14, and then his one-of-a-kind shot at the par-5 13th Sunday when he hit his second shot over 200 yards off of loose pine straw, between two huge pine trees and over Rae’s Creek to within a dozen feet of the hole. That was the big one as Lefty got through Amen Corner at 2-under par on Sunday, a winning formula for the final round.
Mickelson deserved to win as he went out there and took it. Nobody slipped back to give it to him.
But it might be that in any other year, Mickelson or other golfers could not have done what Lefty did because the Augusta greens appeared softer than I can remember ever seeing them. Balls with back spin not only dug deep pitch marks on those huge greens, but backed up as if someone shifted into hard reverse. That is how Mickelson’s ball rolled back a few feet to drop in the hole for the eagle at the 14th on Saturday.
Normally, balls hit Augusta National greens from on high and bound far and wide as if they hit a sidewalk. Some balls this year came down on the green at the par-3 12th hole and stayed right where they landed. That is not supposed to happen in the Masters.
I imagine those greens will be hardened considerably for the 2011 Masters. After all, there was a boatload of eagles during the tournament this year, including a record-tying four eagles by Woods.
But Tiger has work to do on his promise to behave on golf courses. More than once he was heard cursing again and again after hitting slightly off-target shots. He may have gone to a sex clinic to cool down his overactive testosterone. Now he needs to attend an anger management course.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com
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