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8:52PM

Raiders' defense hasn’t been good for a month

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — The season is coming apart, shredding, disintegrating. To think a month ago they — we — were talking about the Raiders going to the Super Bowl. What a laugh. What a mistake.

Four losses in a row now for Oakland. On Thursday they play the Kansas City Chiefs, who finally lost their first game Sunday, the same day the Raiders dropped their fourth in a row. Nobody this side of the ’72 Dolphins wins them all — and K.C. usually owns Oakland.

What the Raiders own is a 2-4 record. Which is exactly that of the Los Angeles (yes, I keep wanting to refer to them as San Diego) Chargers, who edged Oakland 17-16 on Sunday, on a field goal by Nick Novak with 0:00 on the clock at the Coliseum.

The time remaining is irrelevant. The Raiders' inability to move the ball when necessary, or to halt the Chargers when necessary, is very relevant.

The Raider locker room was full of platitudes. You’ve heard them all. We’re going to keep fighting. We just to correct the little things. We need to take care of the details. We’re better than that.

Derek Carr, starting once more at quarterback, made that last observation. Then after a moment, he suggested, “Maybe we’re not.”

Never mind the qualification. They’re not.

The Raiders have gone from the top, all the preseason predictions, the early season self-assurance, to the bottom. They started out making plays. Now they’re making errors.

Now they can’t get the first down on third and short. Now they can’t stop the other team on third and short. Or long.

Carr, who missed the last two games with a lower back injury, wants to take the blame, and a couple times he was at fault, overthrowing a ball that was intercepted two minutes into the game and then missing Marshawn Lynch early in the third quarter, the ball bouncing off Lynch’s outstretched hands and being picked off by Hayes Pullard on the San Diego 11-yard-line early in the third quarter.

Still, how to do you stick it to one man, if the most important man, when you have the ball almost 11 minutes of the third quarter and score zero points? Or when the Chargers move 78 yards on 11 plays in four minutes for that final, painful field goal?

The Raiders' defense hasn’t been any good for a month now. “Comes down to the end,” said Oakland coach Jack Del Rio. “Which team makes the plays. We had our chances.”

And squandered them, which is what losing teams do, or they wouldn’t be losing teams.

The best player on the field for the Raiders was the punter, Marquette King. He kicked four times and averaged 55 yards. Fantastic. And of little consequence when you can’t keep the other guys from running or passing.         

Well, make that passing. The Chargers rushed for only 80 yards. They threw for 268. Philip Rivers, their quarterback, kept connecting on third and short. And third and not-so-short. Rivers sure is over the hill, isn’t he?

“You get them pinned back,” said Del Rio of King’s punting effectiveness, "we have to get a stop. We didn’t get it done. They milked it.

“They won the game. They earned it. So we’re on a short week.”

Up next are the Chiefs on Thursday night, three days after a defeat. The Chiefs, who inevitably find a way to beat Oakland. Or is it Oakland that beats Oakland?

Hard to knock Del Rio for going for it on fourth and two on the Chargers 41 in the fourth quarter, even if the Raiders couldn’t get the two yards. All that great punting wasn’t worth much, so might as well gamble.

Asked what’s missing from the offense, Del Rio wouldn’t deal in specifics. “Just productivity,” he answered. Well, no kidding. If you can’t gain two yards on fourth down, can’t score a point when you’re controlling the ball most of the third quarter, you definitely are not productive.

On the last offensive series, before King punted 58 yards (whoopee), the Raiders had an illegal formation penalty followed by three go-nowhere plays, including the hook and lateral.

“We’re working hard,” said Del Rio. Our team is a proud team.”

Right now, however, it is not a very good team.

8:27PM

Mickelson, man of the past, talks about the future

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — It’s the past that makes us think of Phil Mickelson, the Masters triumphs, the battles with Tiger Woods, the win in the Tucson Open when he was a 20-year-old student at Arizona State. But for Phil and the golfer who beat him Sunday in the Safeway Open, the talk was of the future.

Even though at 47 Mickelson seemingly is near the end of his career on the regular PGA Tour.

Even though he hasn’t won since 2015.

Phil tied for third in the Safeway. The winner for a second straight year was Brendan Steele, at 15-under-par 273. Tony Finau was a shot back. Mickelson and Chesson Hadley were two more behind, at 276.

Two days ago, Mickelson made a bold forecast. He promised he would win. Maybe here, at Silverado Country Club. Maybe in China, where in two weeks he’ll make his next start, at a tournament where he’s twice finished first.

Steele, a southern Californian as is Mickelson, seconded the motion.

“He’s very close,” Steele said of Mickelson, with whom he plays frequently. “He’s been playing really well. I think the only thing that’s holding him back is missing a few fairways here and there.”

Which is what Phil did on the front nine on Sunday, shooting one-over 37. And then, after a run on the back nine, what he did on the little (370-yard) 17th, making a bogey after a birdie at 16 and before a closing birdie at 18.

Missing fairways has always been Mickelson’s weakness, as if a golfer who’s won five majors and 42 tournaments overall can be said to have a weakness. 

What he can do is get the ball into the cup, putting, chipping, blasting, and in golf there’s nothing more important.

You can recover from a shot into the trees. You can’t recover from missing three-footers.

Mickelson shot a two-over 70 the final day of this Safeway, his only round of the week out of the 60s, a score that was a shot worse than those of Steele and Finau.

“When I’ve been home with him,” said Steele, “he’s had good results. He’s trending in the right direction ... I don’t see any reason why he can’t be competitive for a really long time. I’ve always said I think Phil can win at Augusta well into his mid-50s, he knows the course so well. I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon.”

Mickelson won’t slow down over the next two weeks. He will stop, going east to attend parents day at Brown University in Providence, R.I, where the eldest of the Mickelson children, Amanda, is a freshman. Then we will see what happens on the course.

“The game has come back,” he insisted, “and my focus is much better.”

One of the problems for relatively older athletes is a loss of concentration. They perform well for a while, say an inning or two, a set or two, a round or two, and then they fall apart.

The oldest golfer to win a major was Julius Boros, 48, who took the PGA Championship back in the 1960s. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46 in 1986. Subsequently he would return, get in contention and then make bogies.

Silverado played tough Sunday. There was a stiff wind, and the pins were on raised areas of the greens. Mickelson said he liked the challenge and also believed correctly that none of the leaders, including Steele, would get far ahead.

“It was fun to be in the mix,” he said, sounding like a rookie. “It was fun to have a chance.”

The optimism grows from the results.

“It’s just easy to see the ball starting on the right line,” he said. “Iron play’s back, distance control, putting. I’m staying (in the) present and hitting shots.”

What he most wants to hit after four years is the winner’s circle.

1:32PM

The fans still chant for John Daly

By Art Spander

NAPA,  Calif. — His game? Well, John Daly made the cut in a regular PGA Tour event for the first time in two years, didn’t he? His fame? Just listen to those fans. “Daly, Daly, Daly,” they chanted as he walked out of the scoring trailer.

They love him. Still and always. At age 52, perhaps more curiosity than competitor, although since he will play all four rounds at the Safeway Open — and people such as Keegan Bradley and D.A. Points will not — John is far from a relic.

He was given an exemption. He gave the sponsors an attraction.

Daly and Phil Mickelson were the most recognizable golfers in the field at Silverado Country Club. Phil, four back of first-place Tyler Duncan with a round to go, has an outside chance for a win. John has a great chance to keep the crowd engaged.

We know the pain he’s put others through, put himself through, the alcoholism, the domestic spats, It wasn’t that long ago down in Winston-Salem when sheriffs brought him in, although they didn’t charge him. Here, sheriffs from Napa County serve as his protection on course.

Can’t be too careful with your stars. And for better or worse, with that tempestuous history, with those garish (and copyrighted) Loudmouth trousers, with golf still seeking to expand its audience in these post-Tiger days, Daly remains a star.

He may be a regular on the Champions (seniors) Tour. He may have been at the other end of the Saturday groupings, with Ted Potter Jr. and Martin Piller last off the 10th tee. No matter. He was John Daly, winner of the 1991 PGA Championship and the 1995 British Open — and with his reputation and personality, the common man’s links hero.

Grip it and rip it. That was the Daly mantra. Isn’t that what every golfer tries to do? Not a lot of grace or subtlety. Just like John.

“People were awesome,” said Daly about his trip around the course. He shot a one-under 71, his second straight sub-par round, and is at a cumulative two-under 214.

“I got a lot of offers to have a beer.”

John is the guy next door, except this guy next score can hit the ball more than 300 yards and, when things go right, display a putting touch that belies his size (uhm, is 320 pounds a fair estimation?) and helped him birdie the 18th hole Friday to make the cut on the number, one-under 143.

He’s never been qualified or chosen to make America’s Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup teams, which in the selection process may be more intent than oversight. Golf people have not taken kindly to Daly’s lifestyle — although they love the way he brings in spectators.

Daly is a cottage industry. His web site advertises “Daly’s Deals,” offering everything from those flowered trousers to Smith’s Workwear flannel shirts to trucker caps with the slogan “Grip it N Rip it” that cost $19.99. That’s a deal?

A musician of sorts, singer and guitar player, Daly the other night took part in one of the concerts that in the evening follow the golf at the Safeway. “Someone said they thought I was pretty good,” confessed Daly.

His golf used to be very good, and when he was younger it was hard not to muse about Daly, who at one time had such a great future. Now it's hard not to wonder, had he kept his life in order, what might have been.

That’s a game so many of us play, speculation. And true, Daly possibly could have done much, much more. Still, he’s playing golf effectively enough to make the cut against people a generation younger and hear appreciative fans chant, “Daly, Daly, Daiy.”

That’s no small achievement for big John.

 

9:22PM

Maverick in 'the coolest office in the world'

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — The issue is less one of ambition than it is of inevitability. Greatness must not be denied. Which is why a half century ago, the big guy from Ohio — Jack Nicklaus, by name — turned pro despite proclaimed intentions of remaining amateur, selling insurance and playing golf for the joy and glory of it.

Which is why Maverick McNealy, who also had so many reasons to stay amateur, made that 180-degree turn you just knew was coming. And, with KPMG on his cap (like Phil Mickelson) and Under Armour as his attire (like Jordan Spieth), suddenly was playing as a pro.

Nicklaus, arguably the greatest player of all time (yes, Tiger Woods supporters will be allowed to disagree), idolized Bobby Jones, who as an amateur in 1930 won the Grand Slam.

So, thought Jack, maybe he could repeat the accomplishment. But the Grand Slam — the U.S. and British Opens and U.S. and British amateurs — has changed, with the PGA Championship and Masters replacing the two amateurs.

Golf also has changed. Like baseball, football, soccer, basketball and hockey, only the very best find room at the top. Nicklaus couldn’t stay amateur if he wanted to conquer the sport. Nor, five and a half decades later, could McNealy, the young star (age 21) from Stanford.

The Safeway Open this week at Silverado Country Club is McNealy’s first tournament since becoming a pro, though not his first pro tournament, since he has competed in the U.S. and British Opens and several other events. Two rounds in after Friday, McNealy is doing well enough, five-under par 68-71—139, seven back of the leader, Tyler Duncan.

McNealy had been high on the leader board, seven under par after his 16th hole, the 350-yard 8th since he played the back nine first. But he botched the drive and after taking a penalty shot for an unplayable lie and five more shots including two putts, McNealy had a triple-bogey 7. Stirred but not shaken, he birdied the par-5 ninth.

“I made a mess of No. 8,” agreed McNealy, “but I did a good job of staying level and not getting out of my rhythm. And it paid off with a good birdie on the last hole.”

The kid is very much under control, even if an occasional shot might not be. Asked if in the 80-degree weather on a course surrounded by vineyards and history he was having a good time, McNealy quickly responded, “Yeah, this is the coolest office in the world.”

It was 46 years ago, 1971, when another golfer from Stanford made his pro debut at Silverado, which is located some 80 miles north of the campus.

Tom Watson had earned his PGA Tour playing card — something McNealy hasn’t had the chance to do — a few days earlier in Florida, then zoomed back to California to enter what was called the Kaiser International Open. Watson made the cut and in the following years, winning five British Opens, two Masters and the ’82 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, made his mark.

Watson’s father went to Stanford. So did McNealy’s, as a graduate student in the M.B.A. program. From there Scott McNealy became a dot-com billionaire with Sun Microsystems. He also became a fine golfer, down to a 3-handicap, if not as fine as his eldest son.

In late 2016 and early 2017, Maverick was No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. In 2015 he became the third from Stanford, along with Tiger Woods and Patrick Rodgers, to win the Haskins Award, presented annually to the best male collegiate golfer in the country.

So many trophies. Now so many expectations.

Asked what he learned as a collegian that will carry him to success as a pro, he said, “I think there’s so much you learn about yourself from being in those situations. I played some of my best rounds ever when the heat is on in the final round.

“Obviously these guys are really good. But being in the mix in tournaments is something I’m very familiar with from college.”

But in a sense he’s graduated, to playing the very best, the pros. It was inevitable.

6:50PM

No Spieth or Thomas, but the Tour restarts with the Safeway

By Art Spander

NAPA, Calif. — No Jordan Spieth. No Justin Thomas. No real separation from the end of the last schedule — wasn’t that 10 minutes ago? — to the start of the next, which was Thursday. No problem for the PGA Tour?

Well...

Yes, the Safeway Open is here, smack in the middle of wine country, and so is one player everybody from Torrey Pines (where he grew up playing) to Turnberry knows, Phil Mickelson; a couple others who most know, two-time major winner Zach Johnson and defending champ Brendan Steele; and a great many the Tour hopes we’ll come to know.

Among the NFL and college football games, the baseball playoffs and the beginning of the NHL season — good lord, did the Sharks really play the Philly Flyers on Wednesday night? — perhaps you didn’t notice.

But that’s not your problem, that’s golf’s.

Golf follows the sun, and unlike the past two years, there’s a great deal of that and 80-degree temperatures at Silverado Country Club for the Safeway. Golf no longer follows the calendar.

We know it’s a spring and summer sport (in some minds, the Tour starts with the Masters in April and concludes with the PGA Championship in August). But the guys who haven’t picked up the big trophies and checks want to play all the time. And the PGA Tour wants to keep them playing.

So a little sleight of hand is required. Instead of making the fall events, the ones after the Tour Championship, seem like add-ons, the Tour wants us to believe that the year starts in October, right now, and not in January. OK, but it still hasn’t persuaded most of the big guns.

Golf and tennis, other than the top events such as the Masters, Wimbledon and so on, require individual stars. If you’re trying to get attention against the Raiders or 49ers, you need a Spieth. Or a Rory McIlroy (who played this tournament two years ago when it was the Frys Open). Or a Brooks Koepka. Everyone on Tour is an excellent golfer or he wouldn’t be on Tour. Only a few are excellent box-office attractions.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling stories. Maverick McNealy, the best amateur in America, the Stanford grad who said he wouldn’t turn pro, is playing his first tournament as a pro at the Safeway (he shot 68). Sang-Moon Bae won this tournament in 2014 as the Frys and then had to spend two years in the Korean military (he shot 73). Chris Stroud is among the leaders of hurricane recovery efforts in his hometown, Houston (he shot 76).

It’s just that as in music and acting, some, through success and style — usually both — are ahead of the rest, making the world stop and check them out, even the part of the world that doesn’t really care about acting or singing. Or golf.

They may be one of many — there are dozens of fine golfers on Tour — but really they’re one of a kind. Tiger Woods could fill a gallery. Still can, even though his best golf is someplace in the distance. Just the name —Tiger Woods — gets us to stop.

Long ago, when Arnold Palmer was the man, those involved in tournaments would tell the media — actually, in those days it was the press — “Write about some of those other guys so the public will find out how interesting they are.” But legends are not invented, they develop. Tiger, Arnie, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and, yes, Mickelson earned their status.

Phil had one of the later tee times Thursday, and unsaid, you understood that was for The Golf Channel, which is showing the Safeway. He finished around 5:40 p.m. PDT, near sunset in California, some viewers home from work; at prime time in New York, just before Thursday night football.

Mickelson, with a 69, may not have been the leader — Steele, Tyler Duncan and Tom Hoge were in front with 7-under 65s — but he was the anchor. The TV schedule was proof. And Phil only was here because the agency that represents him, Lagardere, is running the tournament.

Whatever works. Or in the case of Jordan Spieth or Justin Thomas, whatever doesn’t. Fore!