Archive for April, 2012

A One Holer in Vinings

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Against all the odds Chelsea produced one of the best defensive performances in the modern era sharing the spoils with Barcelona 2-2 at the Noucamp Stadium. Their performance almost eclipses Nalgo AFC’s 4-0 victory against their stunned opponents Ynysforgan who monopolized the game but conceded four breakaway goals. Chelsea go through to the final on aggregate by a margin of 3-2.

Chelsea’s task of defending a one goal lead against arguably the best team in the world was a daunting one which later became nigh on impossible. Barcelona scored in the 35th minute to level the tie. A few minutes later, bovver boy and team captain John Terry commited a blatant foul off the ball by kneeing his opponent in the back. The referee was unsighted, but it was clearly spotted by his assistant, and Terry was immediately shown the red card.

To make matters worse, Barcelona scored a second goal in the 43rd to take the lead in the tie for the first time and even Chelsea supporters were singing “Good night Irene.” Miraculously Chelsea answered with a fabulous chip by Ramirez to register a goal back on the stroke of half time and level the tie.

Chelsea’s defense was up against it very early in the match when center back Gary Cahill hobbled off after 13 minutes with a pulled hamstring. They returned for the second half with 10 men and the objective was to survive Barcelona’s onslaught. Remember Chelsea’s two first choice center backs had been removed from the game, and they lined up with two full backs, Ivanovic and Boswinga, in central defense.

If the scored remained the same at full time they would go through to the final on the away goal so beautifully executed by Ramirez who provided sterling service in an unaccustomed position at right back.

Naturally, Chelsea emerged in the second half with an ultra-defensive formation: five men strung across the back with four midfield players just in front of them challenging Barcelona to break them down. Even Drogba popped up at left back from his customary central striker position, and it was he who conceded a penalty by tripping a marauding Barcelona attacker.

Lionel Messi, the little master from Argentina, scorer of 63 goals this season, and vying for the title of best player in the world, stepped up to take the penalty, and a goal  appeared to be a forgone conclusion. Remarkably the mercurial Messi slammed the ball against the bar which silenced the stunned partisan crowd.

 Wave after wave of Barcelona attacks descended on the Chelsea penalty area, but the British bulldog spirit would not permit them to breach the defensive wall. I was beginning to hear the first few bars of “Men of Harlech” eerily making its way from Rork’s Drift when Messi fastened onto a through ball from his midfield magicians and he majestically stroked the ball towards the corner of the net. However,  Chelsea’s goalkeeper Petr Cech managed to get his fingertips to the ball and diverted it onto the post where it rebounded to safety. That was only of many world class saves that Cech produced which made him man of the match for me.

Ten minutes from the end Drogba was replaced by the seemingly hapless Fernando Torres who has proved that a fifty million pound transfer fee does not necessarily buy you success. In any event he represented a fresh pair of legs and hopefully a nuisance value. Ninety minutes was almost up and Chelsea were clinging on by their finger nails.

 The fourth official signaled three minutes of additional time when one of Chelsea’s resolute defenders hacked the ball down the field to a waiting Torres who managed to control the ball for the first time. Barcelona had over committed themselves with every outfield member encamped in the Chelsea half.

Torres bore down on the Barcelona goal from the halfway line and who knows what thoughts were going through his head. Would he take the ball to the corner flag and use up the last few minutes, or would he elect to blast the ball high up into the bleachers? Neither. He continued towards the Barcelona goal, skillfully rounded a despairing dive by the goal keeper and coolly slotted the ball into the back of the net. Game over and Torres had repaid the fifty million pounds and quite probably resurrected his career.

Barcelona play the beautiful game and made more than 650 passes during the match confirming their skill on the ball. It was obvious that they had a Plan A in their customary flowing style to defeat Chelsea which on this occasion could not overcome a strong and determined defense. Their failing was not having a Plan B. Sometimes sophisticated tactics and superior skills can be superseded by sheer guts and determination personified by Chelsea’s ten men.

Bayern Munich defeated favorites Real Madrid on penalties in the other semi-final, and they will start favorites as they have the enviable advantage of the final being held at their stadium which is just the luck of the draw. Nevertheless I would not discount Chelsea as the football gods appear to be fondly smiling on them right now.



A Day at the Races

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

On the day of the Grand National staged at Aintree Racecourse, England where two horses lost their lives at the legendary and infamous Beacher’s Brook fence, my wife and I attended the 47th Annual Atlanta Steeplechase. Probably the only vague similarity in the two events would be the presence of horses.

The event was held at a 435 acre farm near Rome, Georgia and drew a crowd of nearly 25.000. Young ladies and their beaus arrived suitably dressed for a day at the races. Ladies were decked out in their lacey, flowery spring frocks supporting big hats of various creations and colors. Some of the gentlemen made you questions their sexual preference adorned in blue and white pinstriped jackets with polka dot bow ties and pink trousers! Maybe one or two had been reading Brideshead Revisited and were confused by the prose.

No alcohol was sold at the event but you were permitted to bring your own provided it was not in a glass container. Plastic glasses were allowed which can rapidly take the edge off early shots of mamosas.

Entrance to the event was via a long and winding (aka Paul McCartney) drive which began its journey from a Georgia Highway. There were several Budweiser advertisement hoardings to pass before being ushered into the parking lot and there were warnings supplementing the Budweiser signs encouraging you to delegate a designated driver. What do you do if you can’t find a designated driver, turn around and go home?

Thank goodness it hadn’t rained in Georgia for several days because car parking was provided in a field which had more furrows than my forehead. We gingerly pulled our cooler across the rough terrain and returned for our lounge chairs and table. We finally set up camp along the rail on the back straight; eagerly anticipating our first beverage.

There were five horse races arranged during the event each of which comprised two laps of the track over a series of hurdles.  The public address system was completely drowned out by our young neighbors playing their music loud enough for everyone to enjoy whether you wanted to or not.

On course betting, and for that matter any form of gambling, is not allowed in Georgia which really takes the gloss of staging the races in the first place. I’m not a gambler normally, but a few little wagers would have spiced things up.

The advertising blurb in the local paper strongly advised that patrons (sorry it’s a hangover from the Masters) should arrive early to enjoy all the other attractions that the event had to offer.  Around mid-morning the organizers had planned an air show and skydive demonstration: fiction. We were subjected to a model airplane that resembled a demented mosquito: fact.

Apparently there were supposed to be camel rides on offer, but they had obviously got the hump or two and failed to make an appearance. The parade of the Bear Creek Hounds on the itinerary caught our attention, but they comprised approximately a dozen mutts wearing bored expressions.

Despite my negativity, we had an enjoyable day. The weather was glorious, our picnic hamper and alcoholic accompaniments were superb. The rare glimpses of thoroughbred horses cantering down the back straight to the finishing line were also worth the price of admission.

We took our leave in late afternoon to avoid most of the traffic. As we slowly snaked our way to the highway we noticed a sign positioned a couple of hundred yards before the exit: “Caution: random sobriety tests.” Tally ho!

Pot Shots

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

I normally look forward to the Masters tournament at Augusta, but I’m beginning to detest the elitism that accompanies the event. Why do they have to refer to spectators as patrons and the ‘rough’ is labeled the second cut? Why does the premier commentator on CBS, Jim Nantz, need to whisper on the airwaves when he is ensconced in a soundproof booth and refer to me as his friend?  Why is the Chairman of Augusta National, Billy Pain, (real spelling Payne) such a pompous ass?

The issue that ladies are not admitted as members of Augusta National was a major talking point at the insidious Chairman’s press conference and he was asked: “I note your concerns about the growth of golf around the world, and that Augusta National is a very famous golf club. Do you not think it would send a wonderful message to young girls if they knew that one day they could join this club?”

Pain replied: “Once again, that deals with a membership issue, and I’m not going to answer it.”

Another journalist followed up: “It seems like a mixed message, Billy. You’re throwing a lot of money into growing the game and yet there’s still a perception that certain people are excluded.”

The Atlanta Braves opened the new season with four successive defeats which has not happened since the 1988 season. Long suffering Braves fans should not be surprise because this is basically the same squad of players who inexplicably lost 20 of their last 30 games to miss the playoffs.

Braves skipper Freddy Gonzalez claimed the team’s meltdown had been thoroughly aired and dissected and it was time to move on. So Braves fans stick your head in the sand with the manager, hold hands and sing a few choruses of kumbya, and we can look forward to another under whelming season.

I’m afraid the team has no spark or personality and in short is an incredibly boring product to serve their fans that deserve better.

Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has placed himself between a rock and hard place. The team reached the play offs but were defeated in the first round which mirrored the previous season’s elimination at a similar point. It is quite clear that the team needs reinforcements. Unfortunately they have no draft picks until late into the second round and they had 17 free agents on the books which don’t give the franchise a lot of options in hiring new players.

In last year’s draft, Dimitroff traded four draft picks to sign Julio Jones who admittedly has the potential to be a great receiver. But the team has glaring weaknesses on the offensive and defensive lines which should have been addressed first.  Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and punt return specialist Eric Weems have signed for other teams only to be replaced by journey men.

A franchise tag was placed on Brent Grimes which means he will be paid a minimum of $10 million for next season. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a good athlete but at 5’8’’ is on the small size for a corner back and is not good value for the money.

Bobby Petrino the Arkansas Head football coach who four years ago abandoned the Falcons after 13 games has recently confirmed his status as one of the sporting world’s low lifes. Yesterday he was fired by the college having lied to his family, the police, the media and his employers by initially refuting the presence of a leggy blonde assistant on the back of his motor cycle which ran off the road in rural Arkansas. He is evidently a road hog rather than a razor back.

Barely four weeks ago Swansea City had almost secured their position in the premiership for at least another season. However four successive defeats clearly reveal that the job is not done. Statistics don’t lie and one goal scored and ten conceded in the last four games is genuine cause for concern.

I am aware they have received plaudits for their passing style of football even to the extent to be ludicrously compared to Barcelona. It’s all very well producing pretty passing patterns rather than resorting to the long ball, but it disturbs me when most of the passing is confined to the defensive third of the field.

According to those pesky statistics, Leon Britton has produced more passes than any other player in the premiership, but how many of his passes have been defense splitting passes? The loan signing Icelandic midfielder is the only player adding to the meager goal count at the moment. They have become very predictable and need to be very careful not to be sucked into the relegation battle.

Congratulations to Bubba Watson for proving good ‘ol boys can win the Masters and not be intimidated by phony southern charm presented in the mantra of the reptilian Billy Pain. It was refreshing to watch a player comfortable in his own skin and unique style and not stereo typed by the coaching gurus and swing masters. His deliberate hook shot from a gap within the pine trees that landed on the green to effectively set up the win was unforgettable for its ingenuity and bravery.



Jimmy, Samantha and Me

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Sorry to disappoint some of you, but this is not a sordid tale of a ménage les triose. On the contrary this is an account of my friend Jimmy and me spending a weekend playing some of the golf courses on the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama. Samantha is the affectionate name for my GPS of which we are indebted for guiding us around the highways and byways of the Crimson Tide State. .

Robert Trent Jones designed golf courses are typically long, undulating, and punishing while maintaining an understated elegance and natural beauty. 430+ yard par 4s and 3-tiered greens are just some of the common elements of an RTJ course.

Atlanta had enjoyed 8 straight days of glorious March weather with the temperature climbing to 80 degrees when we set out on our trip on early Friday morning. The weather forecast for Alabama was not very promising. The weather channel was forecasting severe thunderstorms all day with a 60% chance of rain and a little improvement for Saturday.

We left the friendly confines of Metro Atlanta accompanied by lightly overcast skies, but ominous black clouds lay ahead as we tentatively made our way west to Alabama. It was spitting with rain when we arrived at our first course, Silver Lakes in Aniston/Gadsden, but we decided to proceed with our tee time of 9.30am.

In April 2011, the golf course was ravaged by the tornado which tore through Alabama, and most of its mature trees were ripped away. The course was re-opened in September 2011 taking on the persona of a parkland course with wide open, undulating fairways. There are three sets of nine holes individually named the Mindbreaker, Heartbreaker and Backbreaker course. The Starter sent us on the Heartbreaker, but following completion of six holes; the siren was activated indicating that lightning was approaching from over the Appalachian foothills.

We reluctantly headed for the clubhouse, and five minutes later torrential rain engulfed the golf course. Staff members assured us that the storm would blow over in a couple of hours, and we decided to take an early lunch. The rain eased a little, but the fairways were saturated and we opted to take a rain check and headed for Oxmoor Valley, Birmingham approximately 88 miles away.

Tee times were pre-arranged for the Ridge Course and Short Course at Oxmoor Valley for the following day, but we had no objection playing it on Friday afternoon providing the weather improved. Ironically the rain subsided ten miles from Gadsden and Oxmoor Valley was bathed in sunshine when we arrived at the course.

We kicked off at 3.20pm which meant darkness descended before we could play the 18th hole. Needless to say we were grateful to play any golf in light of our inauspicious beginning earlier in the day.

We stayed the night at a Comfort Inn on the outskirts of Birmingham. The hotel was a little frayed around edges and in need of a makeover, but it was modestly priced and relatively clean. Following a recommendation from one of the golf course attendants, dinner was partaken at The Dreamland Barbecue which originated in neighboring Tuscaloosa. Their specialty are slab ribs served with slices of white bread. I much prefer baby back ribs but it’s always an experience to sample the local delicacies.

We rolled up for our tee time at 7.30am on Saturday morning on the 18 hole “par 3” short course; delighted to learn that we were the first golfers on the course and not paired with anyone else. The short course offers severe elevation changes and almost every hole plays downhill which makes for exciting shot making.

 It was a clear blue sky overhead, the sun was beginning to make its presence felt and the early morning dew was shimmering across the fairways. The flags on the greens were barely moving, and coupled with the magnificent landscape of the course, it proved to be a serene and tranquil setting for two and half hours of golf. It was a bargain at $22 with cart included.

A sterner test lay ahead on the Championship Ridge Course but buoyed by our early round, we teed off again at 10.30, but this time paired with a father and son from Montana. The Ridge course comprises a series of rolling hills, meandering tree lines, lush fairways, and occasionally three-tiered greens to test the amateur golfer’s psyche.

The signature hole of this course could possibly be the par 3 eighth which is downhill and all carry over water. Believe me it’s an exhilarating feeling when your tee shot remains dry and finds the green. Some of the holes are quite intimidating; none more so than the par-4 6th. The dogleg left hole measures 447 yards from the tips and requires a massive carry over a ravine. The fairway slopes left toward the ravine and it is impossible to tell from the tee where the fairway comes out to save an errant ball. If you manage to avoid the ravine, one of those dastardly three tiered greens is eagerly waiting to test your resolve.

The Ridge course is not for the faint-hearted, and we trooped off the 18th green bowed but not broken. Our new friends from Montana invited us to visit them for a spot of fly fishing, but they forgot to give us their number. Anyway we pressed onto our next destination Opelika, approximately 122 miles to the south where we had reserved a room at a Microtel. Opelika doesn’t exactly boast a night life but the hotel receptionist recommended a Creole restaurant appropriately name Jimmy’s.

Jimmy’s was not what we expected. I envisioned a step up from the Popeye fast food chain, but it turned out to be a “fru fru” (look it up it’s in the dictionary) establishment and a wee bit pretentious for our purposes.

 Sunday morning  and a tee time for 8.00am was reserved at the Grand National course a couple of miles away from our hotel. Oddly enough we teamed up with another father and son combo, but on this occasion from Alabaster, Alabama. Visually, this was my favorite course. The complex comprises 54 holes, 32 of which drape around 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee. We played the Links course which provided majestic vistas for nearly four hours. The par-four 18th is considered to be the strongest finishing hole on the Trail. The drive must carry a corner of the lake, while the approach is played to a shallow pedestal green shored up by boulders. At least it wasn’t a confounded three-tier green. Nevertheless it proved too much for my shattered confidence.

Neither of us had brought our ‘A’ game, and in some ways playing the courses was a humbling experience. The number of shots rattled up so quickly that we elected to abandon recording our scores and merely enjoy the magnificent surroundings while savoring the few good shots that make hackers want to return.

The staff at all three courses were friendly, courteous and helpful except for one obnoxious starter. There’s always one isn’t there? I would thoroughly recommend the Trail to anyone that enjoys the game of golf and has a penchant for masochism.