Tiger, Mickelson both need this U.S. Open

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Tiger, Mickelson both need this U.S. Open

From Comcast SportsNet
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- There's a 14-year-old playing in the U.S. Open, as if Phil Mickelson needs a reminder about youth, time and wasted chances. He's had more than his share of the latter in the 21 times he has played this tournament, and all he can hope when he turns 42 on Saturday is that his birthday present is a late tee time among the leaders. It's not that Mickelson hasn't won major championships. He's got three green jackets and his name on the PGA Championship trophy, enough bling to satisfy most golfers in an era dominated by one golfer. He's done having to explain why he was the best player never to win a major, something that to Mickelson seemed harder than talking about how he was going to save the Social Security system. No longer does he have to wonder privately if he was ever going to get his breakthrough win in one of the tournaments that matter most. That unpleasant task now belongs to guys like No. 1-ranked Luke Donald or Lee Westwood, who once held that ranking himself. Both great players, both short of the one win that will stamp them forever as great players. "Maybe I'll never win one. Maybe I will," Westwood said. "I've got no answer to that. Keep working hard and trying to get myself into the position. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't." Winning majors is never easy, if only because there are only four of them a year and they tend to bring out a strong field. Winning the brutal test that is the U.S. Open is even harder. Someone will emerge Sunday with the trophy, though getting there may not be pretty. The Lake course at Olympic Club, with its sloping fairways, slippery greens and thick rough, penalizes every wayward shot, every mistake. Perched on the side of a sand dune, it might be called a thinking man's course, though some of the thoughts won't necessarily be for public consumption. History suggests almost anyone -- save for the qualifiers like teenager Andy Zhang or club pro Dennis Miller -- can win the Open here. Jack Fleck did it in 1955, beating the great Ben Hogan, and Scott Simpson beat Tom Watson to win his only major championship at Olympic in 1987. Whether for career or psychological reasons, though, some need a win this week more than others. Mickelson would be near the top of that list, simply because he's getting to an age where winning such a penal tournament becomes problematic. Unlike the last time the Open was played on the West Coast, Lefty brought his driver along this time, proof that for once he may not be overthinking this one. Not that he would entertain the idea that he's a favorite. He's been down that path too many times, at too many majors where he was supposed to win. He might have won the Masters this year if he hadn't aimed for a bunker instead of the green on the fourth hole of the final round. He could have won a few Opens by now had he not missed some short putts or pulled out his driver at the wrong time, most notably on the 18th hole of his epic collapse in 2006 at Winged Foot. So many near misses, so few Opens left to finally correct them. "I feel like I've developed a good game plan as to how I want to play the golf course," Mickelson said. "I feel that I should be able to play to that game plan and post a number that I feel will be competitive. I don't know if it will win." Perhaps no one needs this Open more than Tiger Woods. He's coming in off a high, winning the Memorial two weeks ago with a chip-in that took its rightful place among his more iconic shots. After a debacle at the Masters, where he screamed at shots, kicked clubs and generally acted like a spoiled brat, he seems to have gotten his game and his act together in time for the official start of the summer major season. He was once thought of as a lock to break the record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, but he's been stuck at 14 since winning the Open four years ago at Torrey Pines in what now seems like a lifetime ago. But he's yet to prove he can win again in the only place it has ever mattered for Woods -- in the majors. "I think even if I do win a major championship, it will still be, You're not to 18 yet' or When will you get to 19?' " Woods said. "It's always something with you guys." As if Woods needed a reminder, Nicklaus was in the media room Wednesday reminiscing about his four Open titles and how he won them. He was introduced as the greatest player of all time and he will always be, until someone wins more of the tournaments that really count than he did. Woods once talked about finishing his career early and moving on, but the harder winning has become for him, the longer his sights are set. "Well, Jack did it at 46, right? So I've got 10 (years)," Woods said. "Watson almost pulled it off at 59. It can be done. We can play for a very long time." With each passing major, though, that time becomes shorter. There have been 15 majors since Woods last won at Torrey Pines, and he's no closer to his career goal of passing Nicklaus than he was the day he beat Rocco Mediate on one leg in a playoff. Unlike Mickelson, Donald and Westwood he's got three Open titles in the record books. That doesn't mean he's not just as desperate to win this one as he was his first.

Noise around QB Mark Sanchez misses bigger, far more important goal for Bears ’17 offseason

Noise around QB Mark Sanchez misses bigger, far more important goal for Bears ’17 offseason

The tumult around the Bears quarterback position this offseason – signing Mike Glennon, cutting Jay Cutler, not signing Brian Hoyer, now signing Mark Sanchez – was to be expected. (Well, not all the brouhaha around Sanchez; if there has ever been more hyperventilating around the arriving backup quarterback, it’s escaping my recollections of a quarter-century on the beat.)

All of that, and a lot of the noise around Mike Glennon is really missing a larger point. A couple, really.

GM Ryan Pace established fixing the quarterback situation as a top priority, something it has been just about since Jim McMahon left, with the exception of a few Jay Cutler years. Doing that to any meaningful degree with the castoff options available in free agency or via trades wasn’t ever going to happen. What Pace has done with the quarterback situation, however, is more than a little intriguing.

The quarterback additions and subtractions, coupled with also suggest a draft plan far from locked in on a quarterback. The signings of Glennon and Sanchez don’t mean the Bears have solved their quarterback position, but it does mean the Bears have positioned themselves with the distinct option of NOT taking a quarterback – this year.

But here’s the bigger point.

Even with the optimum quarterback solution unavailable – Pace arguably did go best-available in his and the coaches’ minds with Glennon and Sanchez, all derision aside – Pace’s goal needs to be building a team that can reach a high playoff level regardless of quarterback.

Meaning: defense. And while the 2017 free agent and draft classes did not offer must-have quarterbacks in most evaluations, there are those elite-level defensive talents, and every indication is that the Bears will look there, in the draft, and should be. It had that feeling when the Bears, with ample, money to spend, backed away from day one free-agency runs at a couple of pricey defensive backs. The Bears simply think they can do better for less in the draft.

A perspective: With a defense at its levels during the Brian Urlacher era, the Bears could reach the NFC championship game with what they have at quarterback now. They did, twice, with Rex Grossman and with Cutler. Sanchez got to AFC championship games in each of his first two seasons. The Bears reached a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as their quarterback. They went 13-3 in 2001 with a solid-but-unspectacular Jim Miller as their quarterback. They reached the 2005 playoffs with Kyle Orton as their starter most of that year, and should have been in the 2008 playoffs with him as well. The Bears reached the NFC championship game in 2010 with Cutler.

There is a common denominator in all of these situations, and it is within Pace’s grasp, and that was an elite defense. Rex Ryan had one with the Jets and Sanchez, Grossman and Orton and Cutler had theirs with Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Mike Brown, Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, etc.

Forget the quarterback situation for now. Nothing anyone, including Pace, can really do anything about it (other than land possibly Deshaun Watson, based on their turnout at his Pro Day).

But if Pace and his personnel staff do this right, they can lay in the foundation for something elite on defense that will transcend the quarterback, or at least allow the Bears to play more than 16 games in a season even if they do not have a great quarterback. With the Urlacher core defense, the Bears went to postseasons with four different quarterbacks.

The prime directive now for Ryan Pace is to create precisely that model again.

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Perhaps the best thing about the Johnny Oduya trade back to the Blackhawks, for both parties involved, was that Oduya wasn't needed immediately.

It's not that the Blackhawks didn't want the veteran defenseman, who helped them win Cups in 2013 and 2015, back in the lineup as soon as possible. Oduya was coming off an ankle injury, one he re-aggravated and missed about a month when he was with the Dallas Stars. He needed time to fully heal and with the Blackhawks in good shape in the standings and with solid depth at defense, he could.

Now with the playoffs right around the corner, Oduya is feeling more like himself.

Outside of missing two games that were the second halves of back-to-backs, Oduya has been playing steadily since March 9. Oduya's minutes have ranged from around 16 to 21 in games. He said he's now 100 percent healthy from his injury and he's feeling the difference on the ice.

"It makes a big difference," Oduya said on Thursday, prior to facing the Stars for the first time since his trade back to Chicago. "I mean, obviously sometimes you get more or less lucky, depending on what you get and the style of play and what you do or not. Skating is a part of my game I try to use as much as possible to get in good position and try to take away time from the opposition as much as possible.

"Even with battling and things like that, of course it's nice to feel more confident," Oduya added. "In any situation, you're in you want to feel confident on the ice."

The Blackhawks have seen that confidence in previous postseason runs and are looking to see it again in Oduya. Coach Joel Quenneville considers Oduya, "Mr. Reliability."

"You look back at what he delivered for us, not just the regular season, but he's been solid and reliable in the playoffs. He's assumed some important matchups and important minutes," Quenneville said. "Last year, we didn't have him on the back end and watching him this year, it was the perfect fit him coming back."

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The Blackhawks' defensive group hasn't changed much since Oduya's first stint here. The system probably hasn't been altered much, either. Still, Oduya's not taking anything for granted and is trying to get back on the same page quickly.

"Same as the last time I came into a great hockey team and I really just want to get up to speed and up to date as quickly as possible," Oduya said. "Little things that may have changed. I want to fit in as well as I can. That's the idea anyone has coming in late in the year. The guys here make it pretty easy; the coaching staff is familiar with the way I play and helps speed up things a little more."

The Blackhawks are trying to be their best heading into the postseason. So is Oduya. He needed a little extra time to get back to health and he may still need a little time to get back to speed, but he's just about there. 

"I feel pretty good. Of course it's a lot easier when you have guys around you you've seen before, a coaching staff," Oduya said. "It's a work in progress, anyway. I want to be better, I want to evolve with the team and want us to be better, too. It's a work in progress."