Questions loom heading into the golf season

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Questions loom heading into the golf season

From Comcast SportsNetKAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) -- Even without the top four players in the world around to kick off the season, every new year in golf is shrouded in mystery like clouds over Molokai across the channel from Kapalua.Among the most pressing question: What will Bubba Watson serve for dinner at the Masters?"When you show up for dinner on Tuesday night, that's when you'll find out," Watson said.One problem. The press isn't invited."That's what I mean," Watson said.With a wink and a smile, he walked over to the first tee and smashed the first of what figures to be several 400-yard tee shots. There were 67 tee shots that went at least 400 yards last year on the PGA Tour, and 41 of them were on the Plantation Course at Kapalua.There are more serious issues going into 2013. What follows is the front nine of what to look for in the new season.------1. EUROPEAN CAPTAIN: The biggest news in Abu Dhabi later this month won't necessarily be the first showdown between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods. This is where the European Tour traditionally selects its Ryder Cup captain, and the choice became a little more complicated when the Americans went back in time by picking Tom Watson.Watson is beloved in Scotland, site of the 2014 matches. Does that mean Europe needs to answer with a larger-than-life figure for its captain? That has led to suggestions Colin Montgomerie would return as captain, though Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley were said to be next in line. Clarke would seem a better fit when the matches return to America at Hazeltine in 2016, though McGinley might be dwarfed by Watson's presence.------2. RORY AND THE SWOOSH: Players changing equipment companies is nothing new. It's different when that player is No. 1 in the world.Nikeis not likely to announce its deal with McIlroy until he starts his season in Abu Dhabi, and that's when the scrutiny begins.McIlroy givesNikeanother world-class athlete in its stable. But whatever recognition his clubs receive might be akin to an offensive lineman who gets his name called only when there's a penalty. Remember, McIlroy is known to have a bad patch of two. Even last year, when he won five times and swept all the major awards, he missed four cuts in five starts in the summer. When he plays poorly, critics will blame the equipment. And when he plays great, well, he's Rory McIlroy.------3. SHORT SEASON: The PGA Tour season might feel more like a sprint than a marathon this year. The season, in effect, ends with the Wyndham Championship on Aug. 18, the cutoff for qualifying for the FedEx Cup playoffs. And once the playoffs end at the Tour Championship, the 2013-14 season starts in October.That might mean more players competing more often, which could put the squeeze on Q-school and Web.com Tour graduates by limiting the number of tournaments they can play to try to qualify for the playoffs. The motto always has been, "Play better." A tweak might be in order this year. "Play better, now."------4. ANCHORS AWAY: The R&A and USGA announced late last year that anchored strokes used for the belly putter and long putter will be banned starting in 2016. The question is whether the PGA Tour, which has the right to set its own rules, will enact the new rule much sooner.There already is evidence of a stigma attached to those who anchor their putters -- Keegan Bradley said a fan called him a cheater at the World Challenge last month -- and it might be in the best interest of the tour to make the change quickly. But when? At the end of the FedEx Cup, meaning a player can use a belly putter in September but not October? At the start of 2013, meaning the rule would change in the middle of a season?------5. MASTERS INVITATIONS:For the last six years, the Masters has been awarding invitations to winners of PGA Tour events that offer full FedEx Cup points. The Fall Series didn't count, nor did the events opposite a major or World Golf Championship.One problem. Starting later this year, there is no Fall Series. When the tour goes to the wraparound season, there will be an additional six tournaments that under the previous policy would award the winner a spot in the Masters.The concern for Augusta National is keeping a small field -- it has not had more than 100 players since 1966. The question is whether the tour's change will mean an end to tournament winners driving down Magnolia Lane.------6. ALL-MALE CLUBS:Just because Augusta National now has two women in green jackets doesn't mean the debate over all-male clubs is going away. If anything, it might be more intense than ever when the British Open returns to Muirfield. There are no female members in the "Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers," nor are there any female members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club.That received cursory criticism over the years, though most of the scrutiny was on the Masters. Now that the British Open is the only major played in which the host club has no women on their membership rolls, R&A chief Peter Dawson might have some explaining to do. If he's not too busy talking about changes to the Old Course.------7. DISTANCE DEBATE:Those concerned that distance is ruining the game and making golf courses obsolete might appreciate a prediction in Golf Illustrated magazine that if the "carrying power of golf balls is to be still further increased all our golf courses will be irretrievably ruined as a test of the game."That was in 1910, and the game has been evolving since.The R&A and USGA have leaned on their "Joint Statement of Principles" in 2002 when it comes to distance. Even so, Dawson sounded an ominous tone while announcing the ban on anchored strokes."We haven't shelved distance. It's very much on the radar," R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. "Anchored strokes are separate. Just because we're doing one doesn't mean we have taken our eye off the other."Stay tuned.------8. MINORS VS. MAJORS:With the PGA Tour starting a new season in October, the only way to earn a card will be through a series of four tournaments called "The Finals" that will include the top 75 players from the Web.com Tour and the next 75 players from the PGA Tour who fail to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs.Privately, the brass at PGA Tour headquarters is curious to see how the Web.com Tour players will fare against the second-tier PGA Tour players who faced stiffer competition and tougher golf courses all year.------9. TIGER: Woods and Jack Nicklaus were talking about rivalries a decade ago when Nicklaus told him it was important to always be part of the conversation. That's never been a problem for Woods. Even with McIlroy assuming the role of golf's No. 1 player, Woods is part of every conversation in golf.The only difference is the context.Can he end a four-year drought in the majors? Can he get back to No. 1? Will he ever dominate as he once did?The new season should provide some answers.

Todd Frazier's late single lifts White Sox over Mariners

Todd Frazier's late single lifts White Sox over Mariners

The White Sox offense showed a bunch of late life on Thursday night.

Todd Frazier had two hits with runners in scoring position, including the game-winner, as the White Sox topped the Seattle Mariners 7-6 at U.S. Cellular Field. Frazier’s one-out single in the ninth inning off Nick Vincent scored Adam Eaton as the White Sox won for the fourth time in five games. Frazier’s game-winning hit was his first since June 2015 and the fifth of his career. It and a game-tying, two-out, two-run single in the seventh helped Frazier shake off a game in which he struck out three times in his first three at-bats.

“You learn something,” Frazier said. “You take the last at-bat and throw it away and just keep on going. Unfortunately, it took me three times to do that. To come up clutch today felt pretty good.”

Frazier leads the club in home runs and RBIs.

Similar to his teammates, however, Frazier has lefty plenty of chances for more damage on the table. He entered Thursday hitting .159 with runners in scoring position for a team that ranks 18th with runners in scoring position (.255).

While Frazier struck out with runners on the corners in the first inning, he succeeded in his next two tries. He picked up Jose Abreu in the seventh after the slugger struck out against Steve Cishek. Frazier sat on a slider and ripped a 2-0 pitch into left field to drive in Eaton and Tim Anderson, whose one-out RBI double made it a 6-4 game.

Then in the ninth, Frazier came through again. Eaton’s bloop single to center got things going before Anderson bunted him over. Vincent walked Abreu to get to Frazier, who singled to left again.

Frazier was previously 17-for-17 with five doubles, four homers and 42 RBIs with runners in scoring position.

“These are the best ones,” manager Robin Ventura said. “You can't rely just on the homer. There's more to his game than that. You have to be able to knock in runs when you're not hitting them over the fence. He can use the other side of the field. I think he can level it out somewhat and get some hits. Just put it in play more because you don't know know what's going to happen.”

[MORE: Rick Hahn denies rift in White Sox front office, holds off on plans for 2017]

David Robertson found that out in the top of the ninth inning when his outing was delayed for several minutes by a trio of fans who ran onto the field. Robertson worked around the delay and a one-out walk to keep the score tied at 6.

Down 2-0, the White Sox scored three times in the first inning to briefly take the lead.

Abreu and Avisail Garcia both singled in runs and Dioner Navarro had a bases-loaded sacrifice fly.

White Sox starter Anthony Ranaudo pitched well after a slow start and then ran into bad luck in the sixth inning. What looked to be a surefire double play ball kicked off Ranaudo’s glove and combined with an Anderson throwing error led to a three-run inning that put Seattle ahead 6-3.

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Ranaudo allowed six earned runs in 5.1 innings.

The White Sox were 6-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

“That’s just part of it,” Robertson said. “I guess that happens some times.

“Everybody played hard. They didn’t give up at all tonight. We pitched well enough to win and had timely hitting. A few things went our way, a couple errors that really ended up giving us a few runs. A few things went our way and it was great to pick up a win.”

Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game

Jay Cutler, Dowell Loggains face deepest test yet in Bears' third preseason game

Third preseason games come with added significance simply because it is the one practice game in which the starters play the closest to a full game prior to the start of the regular season. But for the Bears, Saturday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs is potentially far more important for another reason.

The Kansas City game looms as something of a new tipping point in the one relationship that must function above all others for immediate success of the franchise:

The working relationship/bond between offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterback Jay Cutler.

The two-plus quarters that Cutler is expected to play will be the longest yet trial by fire for his trust in Loggains. The latter has been a coordinator previously in his career, but with less time and success in the position that most of Cutler’s previous list of coordinators.

And few of those relationships survived, let alone flourished once Cutler lost faith or belief in their messages, whether under an avalanche of sacks, poor play selection or design, or whatever.

Cutler put up the best season of his eight-year career in 2015 with Loggains as his position coach. Adam Gase was the coordinator, Gase came in with credibility from having worked with Peyton Manning in Denver. The credibility traced to not necessarily what Gase might have taught Manning, but rather because of what Gase undoubtedly LEARNED from Manning.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

Saturday’s test will be far short of the ones the regular season holds, when Loggains’ offense has been scouted and schemed for. But after a stretch of “quizzes” for Cutler-Loggains, this is a “test.”

Buy-in with Loggains?

Loggains has traction with Cutler – for now. Cutler was consistent in his compliments of Loggains last year, but it was Gase ultimately in his ear on game days. Indeed, the entire offense believed in Gase: “When I’m in the huddle…and we get a play call,” offensive lineman Kyle Long said at the time, “there’s never a time where we look at each other and think, ‘Oh [darn].’”

The NFL reality is that Loggains, who has stressed an even stronger commitment to running the football (Long and associates love that), has to earn, or re-earn that gut-level trust.

Most of all, from Cutler.

The lurching start to the preseason – the Bears’ 22-0 home loss to Denver, in which the offense with Cutler netted 13 yards in 10 plays, two of them ending in sacks of Cutler – was test No. 1. The Cutler-Loggains relationship appeared to emerge intact.

“We talked,” Cutler said. “We talked a lot about that game. I think the major point for us was, ‘Let’s not panic. Let’s not hit the fire alarm and put guys in a panic.’

“Because it was the first preseason game and we watched the film and a lot of the stuff that went wrong was because of mistakes… . So it was a matter of just kind of cleaning that stuff up and just going back to work. Which I thought we did a really good job of offensively [at New England]. Hopefully we can do that this week, too.”

Tough warm-ups

NFL schedule-makers did Loggains and the Bears no favors. Their first three preseason opponents – Denver, New England, Kansas City – were all top-10 run defenses. Meaning: The Bears are working to establish Loggains’ run-based offense right into the teeth of three of the NFL’s best at stopping that.

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The Bears want to run. But just consider: What if they can’t run against a monster Chiefs front that includes Jaye Howard and Dontari Poe and which held the Bears to 3.3 yards per carry, tied for their second-lowest of 2015, in their meeting last season?

Which then tasks Loggains with getting the offense to the right solutions, and those traditionally have not been – and should not be – solely found in Cutler’s right arm. The Bears streamlined and simplified Cutler’s decision-making last year, by design, and it was the right strategy, minimizing a Cutler weakness.

But now Loggains is front-and-center in those decisions. And Cutler has never appeared to suffer from an excess of patience through his career, even the new, more mature Cutler.

And not only WHAT Loggains tells Cutler, but also HOW he tells him, will matter. Gase was generally quiet; that worked. Loggains is very expressive, which Cutler said he now appreciates.

“He sets the tone every day,” Cutler said. “There’s never a gray area. He sets the tone, sets the standard, and if you don’t live up to that, meet those expectations, he’s going to be vocal, he’s going to let you know.

“As a player, that’s all you can ask for: A coach telling you how to do it, and when you don’t do it, you expect him to push you and help you achieve those goals.”

Preseason game No. 3 will be the biggest test yet for the synchronicity that is there now but needs to stand up to inevitable failures.

Illinois lands Huntley DE Olalere Oladipo

Illinois lands Huntley DE Olalere Oladipo

Illinois added another important in-state piece as Huntley three-star ranked defensive end Olalere Oladipo (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) announced his college decision Thursday night to the Fighting Illini.

"Illinois has a great staff, is close to home," according to Oladipo. "Illinois felt like a nice fit for me."

Oladipo is also the second verbal commitment Illinois added Thursday as the Fighting Illini added a commitment from Miami (Fla.) Central four-star ranked wide receiver Carmoni Green (6-foot-1, 178 pounds).

Oladipo is now the sixth in-state verbal commitment for the Fighting Illini Class of 2017. Oladipo joins St. Rita OLB Marc Mondesir, Auburn OT Verderian Lowe, Marian Catholic QB Cameron Thomas, Chicago Brother Rice WR Ricky Smalling and Bolingbrook ATH Kendall Smith.

Illinois now has 11 known verbal commitments total in the Class of 2017.