Michael Rand started RandBall with hopes that he could convince the world to love jumpsuits as much as he does. So far, he's only succeeded in using the word "redacted" a lot. He welcomes suggestions, news tips, links of pure genius, and pictures of pets in Halloween costumes here, though he already knows he will regret that last part.

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Postcards from Ireland: Golf, soccer and the good humor of the good people

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated: June 12, 2012 - 11:54 AM

Disclaimer: It's vacation, and the royal "we" is also on vacation. Also, sorry for the length. This is what happens when I don't post for 10 days.

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I almost made the first eagle of my modest golf existence. It was the Par-5 fourth hole at the Westport Golf Club in Westport, Ireland, and there is a metaphor somewhere in here.

The hole was playing at about 480 yards – easy for a robust course that plays nearly 6,500 yards from the forward tees. For once, I didn’t spray my drive to the right. It was center-cut, leaving about 220 to the hole. A three-wood from there needed to be true and split a load of bunkers on either side guarding the hole. Improbably, it did – leaving me about a foot from the front of the green and about 25 feet from the hole.
 
From there, I putted from off the green with the stick in – a decision that would prove to be regrettable. The put was true, near center, with speed but not too much speed. It did not come crashing into the stick. It was firm, but had it not hit the best guess is there was only another 4-5 feet of roll left in it. But it did hit the stick – which would prove to be tilting left on further examination – and kicked out to about a foot away. No risk (pulling the pin), no reward. And no eagle.
 
But maybe it fits the narrative better this way.
 
Traveling in Ireland over the past week-plus has been enjoyable, but it has also been rewarding in a way that vacations (or holidays, as is the custom here) seldom are but should be. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a place in which I gained, at least from my warped perspective, a better sense of the people and the culture around me. This is owed to the way Ireland wears its heart on its sleeve, the expression of which comes pouring out of rarely shy mouths and even less-shy taps.
 
I had never even really considered Ireland as a must-do travel destination, but when the RandBall Better Half had an opportunity to come here for a graduate school program, we decided to make a vacation out of it. I mention that only to note this: I have no discernible Irish blood that I know of. This was not some sort of pilgrimage to a home land. It was a practical decision since the RBBH was coming here anyway, but it was also a bit of a whim – which, as it turns out, is perfect.
 
It is a country where you are better off not having a plan. It is a country designed not for things to go in specific places but for things to go wherever they fit – of streets made with shoehorns, of congestion and vastness, of tourists left to their own devices, but usually with smiles around the corner.
 
We arrived in Dublin last Tuesday, 7 a.m., exhausted from what amounts to the loss of a night with the flight and time zone change. We had no idea what to do that day. All we knew is that it would be hours until we could check into our hotel. Dublin was grey, wet and dead. A fine mist – like a garden hose with a puncture – lingered constantly, except when it rained harder. We dropped off our bags and walked the city like zombies, huddled under a single umbrella, until it was mercifully time to check in. This is how Ireland starts you: On the lowest of lows, wondering if every day will be more grim than the next.
 
As it turns out, every day gets better. In the spirit of not turning this into a 4,000 word post/travelogue, we will only say that Kinsale (south of Cork on the coast) is exquisite and beautiful, while Dublin improves immeasurably with a little sun, a little sleep and a little bit of Guinness at night. I diverted from the RBBH for a couple days in Westport – deciding to go there and making all the accommodations about two days beforehand – while her program started. There, I found more of the same, and then some.
 
The people are first-rate, even as they wrestle with a numbing housing/economic crisis. One taxi driver talked of his home, which was once valued at 500,000 Euros and is now for sale at 170,000. Every coin that changes hands feels like a big deal, a personal favor. When they aren’t talking about the weather, Irish people talk of money all the time – how much this or that costs, where the good values are, etc. One memorable older woman was telling our bus driver about a flight she took. To save money, she bought a bottle of wine and brought it on board with her to drink. The flight attendant scolded her and told her it was against the rules and that she was never to do it again. “The nerve!,” the woman said. “I should have given her a smack – that cheeky little monkey.”
 
That really happened. So did our bed and breakfast proprietor in Kinsale running outside to make sure our bus wouldn’t leave without us. So did my bed and breakfast proprietor in Westport insisting that I take his clubs to play with instead of getting rentals, as well as giving me two unsolicited rides into town. So did meeting five students from Cork at the top of Croagh Patrick, a significant mountain near Westport as well as a strenuous 2,500-foot climb [photo: view from as close to the top as the clouds broke]. I skidded back down on the descent with the group, hearing all about Irish politics and telling them about hot dish and such things before grabbing a pint after.
 
This is a sports blog, though, as some of you mention from time to time. I wanted to do two things in particular while I was traveling solo: play a round of golf and see a soccer match. The former came to fruition, as noted. The latter, sadly, fell prey to a greater good. Because Ireland qualified for the Euro Championships, happening now in Poland and Ukraine, all the local clubs were on break. But it meant I was here for Ireland’s first match against Croatia – a bigger deal than any club match could be.
 
Ireland was playing in its first major international soccer competition in 10 years. In this proud country, even qualifying meant so much. Our initial cab driver from the Dublin airport, a woman about 50ish, started immediately talking about the Croatia match, which at that point was still five days away. She talked of past Ireland glories, of what the qualification meant, and this would be a common theme. Newspapers devoted 6-8 pages daily to the buildup, with the key figure being Ireland’s coach –  Giovanni Trapattoni, the 73-year-old former Italian national team coach.
 
Ireland under “Trap” is all about defense -- keeping the sheet clean and taking its chances with counterattacks or earning scoreless draws. Nobody can argue with the merits, as it earned the country its berth. But the writers and fans alike, even as the Croatia match drew near, were itching for a less conservative strategy now that the big matches against better opponents were here.
 
Still, the days before were filled with a mix of cautious optimism, hopeful predictions and, perhaps, the overvaluing of the local lads. It is what the underdogs do, and it reminded us so much of how Vikings fans react to big games that it left us shaking our heads. Predictably, then Ireland was routed 3-1 Sunday as we watched on from a packed pub. Some inauspicious refereeing, called out by team members and fans alike, only added to the local parallel – as did the complete 180 folks have done with that outcome in the rearview mirror. There are two group games left (admittedly very difficult tasks vs. Spain and Italy), and victories in both would send Ireland through.
 
Cautious optimism, though, has been replaced by the term “snowball’s chance,” which we heard more than once on our way out of Westport. The team’s captain is being savaged in the press, and players who were praised just days ago are suddenly rubbish.
 
At the very least, everyone would probably be satisfied if ol’ Trap let the boys loose for 90 minutes against Spain on Thursday. Go down fighting or maybe, just maybe … No risk, no reward.
 
As I write this from the train back to Dublin, it’s just started to rain rather significantly. The man across from me just looked out the window, rolled his eyes and shrugged. You don’t go to Ireland for the weather, as about a thousand people have told me here, though they are always watching the skies like a hawk, hoping the good will stay or the bad will pass.
 
I’ve already forgotten countless things that made me smile, laugh or shake my head – but I will leave you with a fresh memory from Tuesday, garnered before heading to the train station. The proprietor at Lavelle’s (not to be confused with E-III) and another customer there rank among the more memorable characters in a memorable country.
 
My introduction to the proprietor was as he worked away with bright markers to make a sign advertising that night’s two Euro matches, to be shown at the pub in HD. He asked what colors the participating team wore, so he could match them to the markers. When nobody really knew, he improvised. “Will blue do for Poland?” he wondered. It was generally agreed that blue would do for Poland.
 
As for the customer, the introduction was him walking in at 11:50 a.m. The standard, I gather, is that drinking generally doesn’t start until noon. He sat down, looked at his watch and said, “How about a pint of the black stuff. What’s 10 minutes between friends?”
 
Eventually, the topic turned to my travels and what I had been doing while in Westport. I mentioned the round of golf. The proprietor roared with approval, saying he would play seven days a week if he could, while the customer scoffed and invoked the Mark Twain expression about a good walk wasted.
 
“I tell you what I would do if I was on the course,” the customer said.
 
“Yeah, I know what you would do,” the proprietor sighed, knowing the customer was going to say it anyway.
 
“I would drop me trousers and leave you a special [redacted] present,” he said. “And I’d make sure I had 40 pints of Guinness the night before.”
 
This was not a bar on any special map, nor had it come recommended. It just became part of the random, roundabout way of Ireland. I’ll reiterate that the journey is the reward, something I tried to remember halfway up that mountain, but mostly, I just wanted to write a little of this down before all of it became too blurry.

Even with controversial free drop, Tiger Woods likely to miss cut at Wells Fargo Championship

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated: May 4, 2012 - 3:03 PM

Tiger Woods is NOT BACK.

In fact, he is slated to miss the cut for just the eighth time in 266 career PGA Tour starts, finishing at even par through two rounds at Quail Hollow in the Wells Fargo Championship -- one below the projected cut line.

But it wasn't for a lack of trying -- on his part, or the tour. Per ESPN.com's story on Woods, who started on the back 9:

All of this occurred despite a fortunate ruling for Woods at the par-5 fifth hole, where Woods hooked his second shot to the left of the green -- and nobody could find it. A lost ball would have meant a penalty stroke and going back to the original spot to hit again, but witnesses told a PGA Tour rules official that they saw the ball land and that a spectator must have picked it up. Woods got a free drop and made par.

"It was a very unusual situation, but based on all the evidence ... where else could the ball have been," said PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell. "It was like being lost on the floor right here."

None of that mattered, however, when Woods wasn't able to birdie any of the closing holes. He had a 5-footer at the par-4 eighth that might have put him on the cut line but missed it.

The ruling could have very well been correct, but some golf writers on the scene weren't convinced. Some on Twitter said eyewitness accounts of what happened to the ball conflicted. And there was this fun Twitter exchange:

Too bad nobody asked Bubba Watson about Augusta's policy on women after his Masters victory

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated: April 10, 2012 - 12:23 PM

 

Maybe it wouldn't have been the right time or place. Maybe it would have been awkward to ask Bubba Watson for his opinion on Augusta's policy of excluding women shortly after he won his first green jacket.

 

But it would have made for great theater -- not just because it is a dicey subject that came up again this year, but because of what Watson likely would have said based on what he has previously stated.

As noted in a few different places -- including Golf.com -- there was a Golf Magazine survey that went around in 2011 asking various players different questions about the Masters.

One of the questions was "Does it bother you that the club's membership excludes women?"

Well, 90 percent of the players reportedly responded, "no." One of the anonymous answers: "It's their club. They can do as they like."

But 10 percent said it did bother them. And the example answer given was from Watson -- in fact, it was the only answer in the entire survey that had a name attached to it. The answer read: "'Yeah, I care, and you can quote me on it.' — Bubba Watson."

As Golf.com notes, Bubba was never asked in his post-victory press conference. Wrong time? Wrong place? Perhaps. But it would have been awfully interesting if a Masters champ had re-iterated his stand with millions watching.

Monday (The Twins and Bubba Watson -- somehow tying them together) edition: Wha' Happened?

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated: April 9, 2012 - 9:31 AM

We probably should have recognized it as an omen, but at the time we just thought it was funny.

While flipping back and forth early Sunday afternoon between the Twins and the Masters, we were struck by a recognizable song playing in the stadium background as catcher Matt Wieters walked to the plate for the Orioles. It wasn't your standard country, rock or hip-hop song -- the three genres from which 99 percent of walk-up songs are chosen -- but  instead was ... no, it couldn't be ... it was!

"The Golf Boys," the ridiculous song (and accompanying video, below) put together by four PGA players, led by Ben Crane, was Wieters' walk-up song yesterday (corroborated, it seems, by CBS golf writer Steve Elling). When we did a Q&A with Crane a few months ago, and he described the dancing thusly: "It took us a long time to learn a few simple moves, but we hung in there because we’re such great athletes, and we got it done."

The three other golfers in the video? Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler and ... wait for it ... Bubba Watson. All four golfers not only made the cut but had top 30 finishes. Mahan tied for 12th (albeit after a disappointing final-round 74, Crane tied for 17th and Fowler tied for 27th. Watson, as you might know, won the whole thing -- punctuating a remarkable round with a fantastic save from the pine needles on the second playoff hole.

The Golf Boys had a great day as a group. And the Twins? Well, they couldn't fend off that kind of omen. Wieters took the collar at the plate, but he once again must have called a masterful game. Minnesota couldn't even muster a hit until the 8th inning.

All we know is this: The Orioles are 3-0 -- three games ahead of the Yankees and Red Sox -- and Watson just won his first major championship. Oh, Oh, Oh, indeed.

 

 

Friday (Luke Donald's near-DQ and golf's ridiculousness) edition: Wha' Happened?

Posted by: Michael Rand Updated: April 6, 2012 - 9:11 AM

 

Golf's obsession with making the simplest things ridiculously difficult was underscored again yesterday -- and it nearly cost the No. 1 golfer in the world a chance to compete in perhaps the most prestigious tournament in the world.

 

What happened? Per ESPN.com:

Luke Donald avoided disqualification from the Masters on Thursday when it was determined his first-round score was improperly entered in the tournament's scoring system because a fax machine produced a smudged number.

Donald, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, shot 75 in the opening round at Augusta National, but tournament scoreboards had him for a 73 because his score was improperly read after it had been faxed to those recording the scores.

Had Donald really signed for a 73 when shooting a 75, he would have been disqualified. The error occurred at the par-4 fifth hole, where Donald three-putted for a bogey 5 and acknowledged as much after the round. But the score went down as a 3 in the scoring system because officials read it as a 3 -- not the 5 that Donald told them was written on the card.

Could there possibly be a dumber way to record scores in a sport?

Per golf's long-standing tradition, players are required to essentially keep score for themselves. They are beholden to know what score they had on each hole, and their round is not official until they sign their scorecard. Failure to do so -- or signing, accidentally or not, for a score lower than what a golfer actually achieved, has resulted in disqualification in countless tournaments over the years.

While we understand the noble ideas of accountability, fair play and sportsmanship which go into this concept, we've still always found the scorecard rule in golf to be insane. Can you imagine a football game result being overturned because a head coach forgot to put his signature on the final score? Can you imagine NBA players having to keep track of their own point totals? At a tournament like The Masters, it should be the job of an official -- not a player -- to keep track of the score.

But even if we can at least see the principle at play with golf's tradition, how on earth does it make sense to then send the score via FAX MACHINE to someone else, who then records the scores? A fax machine? Seriously? Was it too inconvenient to make a photocopy, seal it up in an envelope and mail it? Did Augusta run out of tin cans connected by strings? This is 2012. Data travels faster than a downhill putt. Even if using such an antiquated type of technology fits the overall philosophy at Augusta National, there absolutely should not be faxing -- thus eliminating the chance that there would be smudges on said faxes.

Seriously, stories like the Donald situation make golf look silly. Until we read something even more ridiculous -- "Carrier pigeon error reverses result of NHL playoff game; Flyers advance" -- golf will be alone in its shame.

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