Thursday, April 24, 2014

The 53 - First Look at 2014 Regular Season Schedule for the Green Bay Packers

Besides their usual home and away with their NFC North divisional foes (Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and Minnesota Vikings), next season the Green Bay Packers host the New England Patriots, the New York Jets, the Carolina Panthers, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons in non-divisional games while they face the Seattle Seahawks, the Buffalo Bills, the Miami Dolphins, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints on the road.  The date date and time of when the Packers actually play all of those games was announced last night:

Week 1: @ the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday, September 4th @ 7:30 p.m.
Week 2: vs. the New York Jets on Sunday, September 14th @ 3:25 p.m.
Week 3: @ the Detroit Lions on Sunday, September 21st @ noon
Week 4: @ the Chicago Bears on Sunday, September 28th @ noon
Week 5: vs. the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday, October 2nd @ 7:25 p.m.
Week 6: @ the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, October 12th @ noon
Week 7: vs. the Carolina Carolina on Sunday, October 19th @ noon
Week 8: @ the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, October 26th @ 7:30 p.m.
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: vs. the Chicago Chicago Bears on November 9th @ 7:30 p.m.
Week 11: vs. the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, November 16th @ noon
Week 12: @ the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, November 23rd @ noon
Week 13: vs. the New England Patriots on Sunday, November 30th @ 3:25 p.m.
Week 14: vs. the Atlanta Falcons on Monday, December 8th @ 7:30 p.m.
Week 15: @ the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, December 14th @ noon
Week 16: @ the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, December 21st @ noon
Week 17: vs. the Detroit Lions on Sunday, December 28th on noon
The three most interesting games on the slate to me when you factor in just the time of the year of the game, where the game is being played, and the current rosters for the other team are:

#3) Week 16 @ the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, December 21st @ noon: For years Cheesehead Chick and I've talked about spending Christmas at Mama Cheese and Papa Cheese's vacation home in Punta Gorda, FL.  This year seems like the perfect year to do it, especially if we take Christmas week off so we can make the short two hour drive north to score easy tickets to see the Packers play in the sun in late December and then spend the rest of the week relaxing poolside, hopefully enjoying the fruits of another Packer victory.  There is no doubt that Week 8 @ the Saints and Week 13 hosting the Patriots look like better games right now but there is always one team that struggles the previous year but wins at least six more games the following year.  The Bucs were 4-12 last year but they cleaned house after last season and brought in Lovie Smith as their new head coach, Jason Licht as their new general manager, and Josh McCown as their new starting quarterback.  I am not sold on McCown despite how well he played in relief of Jay Cutler at quarterback for the Chicago Bears the last few years, mostly because filling in for the injured starter is much different than being the starter from day one. Factoring in all the changes for the Bucs, I could see them turn the corner quickly to become a borderline playoff team next season.  Leaving the glorious possibility of spending Christmas in warm weather in Florida aside, I could actually see this game determining whether the Packers or Bucs are playoff bound in 2014.

#2) Week 12 @ the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, November 23rd @ noon: The Vikings are finally building a new stadium to replace The Humpty after they knocked it down following the 2013 season.  Mother nature tried to get rid of The Humpty in 2011 but the Vikings kept playing there for two more years.  Without a new permanent home till (at least) 2015, the Vikings are playing at TCF Bank Stadium, the home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.  Last year Gaber, Nick, Sug, and I sent out The Humpty in style.  The day before, Nick and I got a preview of coming attractions when we saw the Minnesota Golden Gophers beat the Nebraska Cornhusters at TCF Bank Stadium.  Let's not forget, TCF Bank Stadium is where Brett Favre's consecutive games started streak ended at 297 when he took a hard hit on the astro turf at the hands of Buffalo Bills linebacker Arthur Moats.  Despite opening in 2009, the Vikings are still investing money in the field and running beer lines throughout the stadium to make the stadium as modern as possible.  Hopefully Gaber, Nick, Sug, and I can get the band back together to see the Packers beat the Vikings outside at TCF Bank Stadium in 2014, where games should be played in the Midwest.

#1) Week 1 @ the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday, September 4th @ 7:30 p.m: This is clearly the easy one to pick for a number of reasons.  Not only is this the first game of the entire 2014 NFL regular season because the Seahawks won the Super Bowl last year, but this also marks the first visit to Seattle for the Packers since they got hosed in the "Fail Mary" game on MNF of Week 3 of the 2012 season.  The replacement refs botched the call at the end of the "Fail Mary" game so bad in front of a national audience that it actually ended the NFL ref's strike.  The front offices of both teams are intertwined given that current Packer's general manager Ted Thompson used to be a prominent member of the Seahawk's front office while the current Seahawk's general manager John Schnieder worked under Thompson in Green Bay.  One game does not make a season but my expectations are low for this game unless Thompson has a stellar performance in the 2014 NFL Draft so if the Packers could somehow beat the Seahawks on the road, it could go a long way towards making 2014 a special season for the Packers.

I will have a much more detailed breakdown of how I think all of the games will play out once I know how The 53 is most likely going to look following the 2014 NFL Draft.  Speaking of which, make sure to check back over the next few week as I start to roll out my in-depth look at draft for Thompson.

Monday, April 21, 2014

I Went There - Irish Course at Whistling Straits

Cheesehead Chick and I needed some down time given all of the craziness at work the last few months so we planned a weekend away in Kohler, WI over Easter weekend.  We stayed two nights and three days at the Inn on Woodlake, which is the other resort that is part of the American Club Resort.  Despite it being Easter weekend, the resorts were very quiet.  We had some down time on Sunday so I called Whistling Straits to see if I could play either the Straits or Irish course while Cheeshead Chick got a massage.

For the uninitiated, the Straits course runs along Lake Michigan while the Irish course runs inland next to the Straits course.  I really wanted to play the Straits course given that I've played it at least 50 times in Tiger Woods 2013 on PS3.  The Straits course hosted the 2004 PGA Championship (attended practice rounds, Thursday, and Sunday with Papa Cheese), 2007 U.S. Senior Open (attended Sunday with Cheesehead Chick, Mama Cheese, Papa Cheese, and Rosati Cheese), and the 2010 PGA Championship (was not able to attend).  Plus the Straits course is set to host the 2015 PGA Championship and the 2020 Ryder Cup too.  Unfortunately the Straits course was not open for the season but fortunately the Irish course just opened.  Normally it costs $190 to play the Irish course but given that the course just opened, I was able to play for just $70.

Given how much I "saved" on the round, I planned to spend that money in the golf shop.  Shockingly, the prices for shirts and hats were higher at Whistling Straits than they were last weekend at Masters so I just got a couple small items.  As I was paying for my round and souvenirs, I found out that you can stay at the resort and play a couple rounds over a weekend in early spring or late fall for what amounts to one night's stay at the hotel in the middle of the summer.  File that nugget away for the future because although the weather can be unpredictable, it seems like a perfect way to cost-effectively play some of the top courses in the world.

Despite it being early in the season, given the rock bottom greens fees, I thought tons of people would want to play.  As it turns out, besides an early morning shotgun, there was only one other guy scheduled to play the rest of the day.  Instead of playing separately, we decided to play together.  The only awkward moment was the fact that my playing partner took a caddie while I decided to carry my own clubs.  Given that I play a slice and usually shot in the 90's, I've always had trouble taking a caddie.  Since we were playing in a two-some, the caddie provided me occasional tips, which was helpful without being intimidating but I didn't have the pressure of the caddied standing over every one of my shots and artificially trying to pump me up on the hopes of getting a better tip.

The Irish course has five tees: red, white, green, blue, and black.  We decided to play from the green tees, which has a slope of 137 and rating of 72.  There is water on almost every hole, which varies from huge lakes to running streams.  Fortunately all of the water on the course seems organic besides the 17th hole, which is Bay Hill-esque given that it was built to ensure the entire course can be watered if they are experiencing an extended drought.

I was very nervous teeing off on the first hole given that I was about to play the best course I've played in my entire life.  Although I didn't catch all of it, thankfully I knocked my drive into the fairway to get the rounds started off on the right foot.  I carded two pars on the front nine on the second (Giants Leap - Par 4, 347 yards, 6th hardest hole) and ninth (Last Gaspe - Par 4, 332 yards, 8th hardest hole) holes en route to shooting a 45 with 20 putts.  The most memorable holes on the front nine for me were the fourth (Sandbanks - Par 4, 432 yards, 2nd hardest hole), fifth (Devil's Elbow - Par 5, 501 yards, 14th hardest hole), and ninth holes.

As we made the turn to the back nine, the caddie told us the back nine is much harder than the front nine.  I started out the back nine with a pair of sevens on the 10th (Shepard's Post - Par 4, 378 yards, 5th hardest hole) and 11th (Lamb Chop - Par 3, 177 yards, 15th hardest hole) holes.  Luckily I settled down and carded three pars on the final seven holes on the 14th (Tullamore Dew - Par 5, 508 yards, 11th hardest hole), 16th (Deep Dye - Par 4, 425 yards, 3rd hardest hole), and 17th (Irish Mist - Par 4, 335 yards, 7th hardest hole) holes en route to shooting a 49 with 18 putts.  The most memorable holes on the back nine were the 13th (Blind Man's Bluff - Par 3, 152 yards, 17th hardest hole), 15th (Frog Water - Par 4, 416 yards, hardest hole on the course), and 18th (Black and Tan - Par 5, 523 yards, 9th hardest hole on the course) holes.

I found the par 4's to be the most forgiving while the par 3's and par 5's were particularly challenging, especially the par 3's on the back nine.  Although we didn't play the blind tee shot on 13, I can only imagine that would increase the level of difficulty from the other tee box.  Putting it all together, the Irish course at Whistling Straits is definitely the best course I've ever played in my life.  Despite just opening for the season a few days earlier, the service was impeccable and the course was in fairly good shape considering it was only the middle of April following the worst winter in the Midwest of the last decade.  Although this doesn't top Sunday at the Masters from last weekend, this does mark the second Sunday in a row that the golf God's were smiling on me.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The 15 - In Giannis We Trust

Welcome to the 4th and final installment of The 15 for the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks.  The 2013-14 season for the Milwaukee Bucks mercifully came to an end following their franchise record 67th loss of the season 111-103 to the Atlanta Hawks at home.  This season has been such a bust that I actually enjoyed my post about how Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond should approach the 2014 NBA Trade Deadline as well as a look at the trade that Hammond actually made much more than my traditional The 15 posts.  If you are a glutton for punishment and missed my first three, make sure to check them out: Walking Wounded..., Forever Young...May You Stay...Forever Young, and All-Star Break Thoughts.

Besides the end of the 2013-14 season, today marks a huge changing of the guard as Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry purchased the Bucks from long-time owner Herb Kohl.  Given that the Bucks have been stuck in neutral for almost a decade, a change in ownership was way overdue.  I am sure Kohl is a nice man but his decree that the Bucks "stay relevant", meaning teeter on the playoff/lottery bubble, is short-sided.  All sports fans but especially NBA fans want a winner, not one with a 0.00001% chance of winning an NBA title.

There are bound to be some bumps in the road over the next year as the new owners exert their influence over the franchise.  Thus if I was general manager John Hammond or head coach Larry Drew, I would make sure that I am checking around the league in case the ownership group decides to blow things up.  We will have months to speculate on how the new ownership group should proceed.  For now, I am going to do my best to put the painful 2013-14 season for the Bucks in the books.

Since I am sure most of you tuned the Bucks out a long time ago, let me quickly catch you up.  The youth movement is in full effect.  Going into the off-season last year it was clear that the Bucks were going through some type of re-build, which is why I thought it made much more sense to hire a lesser known first time head coach instead of a re-tread head coach like Larry Drew.  Thankfully by the end of the season Drew finally realized he had to play the young guys, given that the Bucks were going to lose anyways, too bad he didn't realize that months earlier so that some of the young guys could have more game in-game repetitions under their belt going into next season.

Well with all of that uplifting background out of the way, here are my final rankings of The 15 for the abysmal and injured 2013-14 Bucks:

The 15
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (SG/SF, LR 1)
2. John Henson (PF/C, LR 2)
3. Brandon Knight (PG, LR 3)
4. Larry Sanders (C, LR 5)
5. Ersan Ilyasova (PF, LR 4)
6. Khris Middleton (SF, LR 6)
7. Nate Wolters (PG, LR 7)
8. O.J. Mayo (SG, LR  10)
9. Miroslav Raduljica (C, LR 11)
10. Chris Wright (SF, N/A)
11. Zaza Pachulia (C, LR 13)
12. Carlos Delfino (SG/SF, LR 15)
13. Ramon Sessions (PG, LR N/A)
14. Jeff Adrien (SF, N/A)
15. Ekpe Udoh (PF, LR 14)
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (SG/SF, LR 1): Right now The Greek Freak is the only true franchise player on The 15 with a legitimate shot to make an All-NBA Team, which makes him a no-brainer for the top spot on The 15.  Sure The Greek Freak only posted a 10.8 PER in his rookie season but there were a million endearing moments in The Greek Freek's rookie year on the court (a block followed by a crafty assist & a block followed by a great dunk) and off the court (impressive soccer goal & anecdote about running to a game after sending money to his family). There is no question that the Bucks bought low on The Greek Freak when they drafted him with the 14th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.  The question is whether the Bucks can surround The Greek Freak with another franchise player from the 2014 NBA Draft to give the Bucks a duo worth paying to watch for the first time in almost a decade.

5. Ersan Ilyasova (PF, LR 4): The Poor Man's Dirk turned into the Homeless Man's Dirk this season.  Thankfully Ilyasova has a little fire in his belly, which was evidenced by the fact that Ilyasova punched Sacramento Kings forward Reggie Evans in the stomach.  Unfortunately an ankle injury cut Ilyasova's most forgettable season besides his rookie year with the team short.  The Bucks still owe Ilyasova $7.9 million each of the next two seasons while 2016-17 is essentially a team option since only $400,000 of his $8.4 million salary is guaranteed for that season.  I am a total Ilyasova apologist evne after last season. Sure Ilyasova struggles defensively but with the quality defenders that the Bucks are amassing, in Ilyasova the Bucks have a quality offensive option that is slightly overpaid next season that worst case turns into a great expiring contract the following season.

8. O.J. Mayo (SG, LR  10): I was not a fan of the Mayo signing last off-season, which was even before Mayo reported overweight and ambled through the season.  At times Mayo can score at will, which makes him enticing and frustrating all at once given that he only shows his upside in short spurts as opposed to sustained periods of time.  The Bucks need to decide if Mayo is redeemable, otherwise they are going to hide him all next season until he becomes an enticing expiring contract following the 2015-16 season.  The Mayo contract is just the kind of middle-class NBA contract that the Bucks need to avoid.  I know that the Bucks cannot attract marque free agents.  Instead of overpaying average players, they would be much better off playing out the string with guys signed to cheaper, non-guaranteed deals.

10. Chris Wright (SF, N/A): The Bucks gave auditions during the second half of the season to three guys (small forward Tony Mitchell, shooting guard D.J. Stephens, and small forward Chris Wright) on 10-day contracts.  At first blush, Mitchell looks like the best of the bunch given that he posted an insane 31 PER but keep in mind he only played 10 minutes for the Bucks.  Selfishly I like Wright the most because of how exciting of a player he was at the University of Dayton, which is my Father In-Law's favorite sports team.  Leaving my family bias aside, when I watched Wright in college, I thought he would be a late first round pick.  Wright ultimately went undrafted in the 2011 NBA Draft but still appeared in 24 games for the Golden State Warriors in the 2011-12 NBA season.  Wright went through training camp for both the 2012-13 and 2013-14 NBA seasons but failed to make The 15 for an NBA team to start either of those seasons.  In each of those seasons Wright excelled in the NBA D-League though.  This season the Bucks finally took notice and added Wright to The 15 on a couple 10-day contracts that helped him earn a a multi-year contract with a minuscule signing bonus.  Depending on how the off-season goes, Wright's spot on The 15 is tenuous given that his contract is essentially non-guaranteed.  I keep getting flashes on his athleticism in college as I write this so I am convinced more than ever that if the Bucks keep Write on The 15 next season they are buying low on a guy that could be the 9th or 10th guy on The 15 next season.

One final note, take the rankings of Sessions, Adrien, and Udoh with a grain of salt because their rankings are hurt by their contract situation.  Sessions and Adriens are set to become unrestricted free agents, which drops their value dramatically while Udoh is set to become a restricted free agent.  Udoh has been underwhelming the last couple seasons so no need to discuss him any further.  Unlike Udoh, on talent alone, Sessions and Adriens look like viable NBA players but my guess is that Sessions will be too expensive for the Bucks while Adriens will lose out to the glut of front-court players the Bucks already have on The 15.

Thankfully the Bucks will be able to add another potential franchise player early in the 2014 NBA Draft, which will drastically improve The 15 for the 2014-15 season, so make sure to check back for my detailed thoughts on how the Bucks should proceed to improve The 15 to make next season.

Monday, April 14, 2014

I Went There - Sunday at the 2014 Masters

As you can tell from the title, I got the once in a lifetime chance to attend the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. The CEO of my buddy Sug's company is a member at Augusta National so his work gets amazing tickets to the Masters every year.  This year Sug's company was not going to use some of their Sunday passes with special access so Sug, Uncle Patty, and Sug's older brothers David and John were the lucky recipients of tickets for Sunday of the 2014 Masters at Augusta National.

I found out about the opportunity on mid-afternoon Friday of the tournament so I booked a flight for Saturday to Atlanta.  Despite having a ton of personal and work balls in the air, Cheesehead Chick knew this was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity so big ups to her for not questioning the decision for a minute.  Mama Cheese was in Chicago for the weekend so we went to dinner on Friday.  I was going to hang with Mama Cheese throughout the weekend but Augusta came calling and luckily she was more than understanding too.  After a nice dinner on Friday night, my sole focus turned to the 2014 Masters.

I had an early flight on Saturday morning from Chicago to Atlanta on American Airlines and even got a free upgrade to first class so for once in my life I can actually thank an airline.  It was my first time flying American in years so may be they were trying to lure me back or were just throwing me a bone since I had to book an expensive last minute ticket.  Either way, despite an early flight, the upgrade made the flight painless.  As I made my way around the Atlanta airport on Saturday, the deluge of Masters gear felt similar to being in Green Bay on the day of a Packer game.

After watching the end of the Fulham/Norwich EPL match in the airport bar, I connected with Sug.  Since Sug is a Starwood Points member, we got a room at the Sheridan Gateway Hotel Atlanta by the airport so he could take a nap.  A few years ago they extended Masters coverage online to allow you to watch the featured group, Amen Corner, or the 15th &16th holes.  The weather was so nice in Atlanta that I couldn't justify watching online so I took the free time to catch-up on Masters reading out in beautiful 75 degree weather, which was priceless given the nightmare winter we've had in Chicago.  After a couple of hours outside, I headed to the hotel bar to catch the start of the coverage of the Masters on CBS that is unfortunately still lead by Jim Nance and "Sir" Nick Faldo.

Uncle Patty made it to Atlanta from Austin, where he moved from Chicago at the end of 2013 because he took a new job, midway through Saturday coverage of the Masters on CBS.  It was great to see him for the first time since he left Chicago.  Sug's older brothers David and John flew in from Milwaukee but were not scheduled to land till later Saturday night so Sug, Uncle Patty, and I started the two and a half hour drive from Atlanta to Augusta.  On the ride to Augusta we caught up, hit up Chick-fil-A for dinner, and started to formulate our plans for Sunday.

We got two rooms at a crappy hotel right in Augusta.  Let's just say there was a reason why there were rooms available for $100 a night on Saturday evening of the busiest weekend of the entire year at that place.  Most people that attend the Masters rent a house within 15 minutes of Augusta National, which is what Sug's work did.  It works out great for patrons because it gives them a comfortable way to stay close to the course and it works out great for home owners in Augusta because it allows them to cover a good portion of their mortgage for the year for one week's rent.  Sug's work got a huge place with an amazing back deck where we had a few beers before meeting up with Sug's brothers and co-workers.

Much like our hotel, Augusta bars have to make hay while the sun shines on Masters week.  Both bars we went to were in the strip malls but somehow were able to charge covers.  The second bar had a long line that we were able to skip thanks to Sug's connections.  After grabbing a few drinks to calm the nerves, Uncle Patty and I headed back to the hotel to get some sleep.  It took us at least an hour to finally fall asleep since we were both so excited to actually step foot on the ground of the famed Augusta National.

Gates at Augusta National opened at 8 am but the first player did not tee off till 10:10 am, which gave us ample time to grab some food and walk the course to get a lay of the land.  Words cannot describe how pristine the course is in-person.  Honestly take what you see on television or in video games and multiple it times ten, now you are close to having a feel for how amazing Augusta National is in-person.

We had unfettered access to Augusta National thanks to Sug's work.  After putting down our chairs for the day on the 16th hole (more on that later) we were able to go into Berckmans Place, which is an exclusive area within one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the entire world. Inside Berckmans Place there are shops, restaurants, and a mini Augusta National Museum that tells the story of how the Masters went from just another golf tournament to arguably the most famous one in the world over the last 80 years.

The highlight of Berckmans Place are the the three putting greens that are scaled replicas of 7 (par 4), 14 (par 4), and 16 (par 3).  We played the "green" hole locations, which were all famous putts/shots in Masters history.  As if that wasn't enough, real Augusta National caddies read the putts for us.  We played back-to-front so we started out on 16 with a putt on the line of Tiger's famous chip-in and awkward celebration with his former caddie Stevie Williams.  We moved onto 14 and finished on 7.  Sug came the closest to one putting on 7, which was a lighting quick side winder to the "Sunday" hole location.  Sure we did not putt on the real course but on the ground of Augusta National we had a chance to putt on the scaled replicas of three holes, amazing stuff.  We finished off our Berckmans Place experience with an all-you-can-eat breakfast that Sug rushed his brother John through so that we could head back out to the course to meet the rest of our group.

We all agreed that we had to walk the entire course since this could be our only trip to Augusta National.  With a full belly we started our deep dive into Augusta National by walking the back nine first, which was the front nine for the first Masters in 1934.  On the 10th hole we stopped at the exact spot that Bubba Watson hit his second shot around a bunch of trees off of the pine straw to within 10 feet for a two-put par to win the 2012 Masters in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen.

Standing on the 11th tee, you really get a feel for why it was the 3rd hardest hole in 2013.  Add in that the second shot on 11 is a long one to a green guarded by water and if there wasn't a bail out area to the right of the 11th green, it would be the hardest hole on the course.

Next up was 12, which is possibly the most famous par 3 in the world.  That is the most crowded spot on the course because from one spot you can see the 11th green, the entire 12th hole, and the tee shot on the 13th hole.  Despite seeming like the perfect spot to watch, it is still not the most ideal place to sit for the day because of how far you are from the action since you need to sit behind the 12th tee box.

The 13th, a par 5, closes out Amen Corner.  We stood where Phil Mickelson knocked a 6-iron from the pine straw between two trees and onto the green about eight feet from the hole from over 200 yards out (missed the easy eagle putt but still made birdie) en route to his 3rd Masters in 2010.

The 14th hole looks ho-hum until you see how much players have to shape their drive right to left without overdoing it to give themselves a nice look at the green.  The last of the Par 5's at Augusta National is the 15th hole.  Last year Tiger infamously hit his approach shot off the flag stick and made an illegal drop in the 2nd round that was caught by a television viewer.  Tiger lost the 2013 Masters to Adam Scott by the same margin of the penalty he was assessed on 15.  I feel bad for the spouses of people that call in rules violations, how about they just enjoy watching the tournament instead of helping tournament officials by handing out expensive jaywalking tickets.  We stood about 20 yards back from where Tiger's quest for a 5th green jacket went up in smoke.  In person I can see why that shot is intimidating because television does not do justice to how much the green slopes back to front towards the water.

The 16th hole, the last par 3 on the course, is where we put down our chairs for the day.  Everyone is courteous inside August National, so much so that you can leave your chair in the same place for the whole day and return to watch at your leisure without anyone moving your chair.  The pin was in the usual Sunday hole-in-one location, which is another thing I love about the Masters.  Instead of messing with the players on Sunday in an attempt to show that the "course has teeth" like they do at the U.S. Open, at Augusta National they setup the course/pins to challenge the players but also to reward them when they make a good shot.  The favorable hole location on 16 is a great example of that, which makes it fun for the players and viewers.

The course closes with two challenging par 4's that demand very precise drives to even have a chance to get home in two.  I like the look of the 18th hole a little more than the 17th, especially since this was the first Masters without the Eisenhower Tree on 17, which was claimed by an ice storm earlier this year.  Sure the big hitters can bomb their drives over the Eisenhower Tree but it was always nice to see that flowing loblolly pine on television so too bad that I never got to see it in-person.  Everyone wants to get a spot close to 18 but even if we tried to put our seats down right when we arrived at the course, we still would have had an obstructed view of the final putts on 18.  Standing where players hit their 2nd show on 18 you get a feel for the elevation change that adds another layer of complexity to the famous finishing hole.

With the back nine in the books let's take a stroll through the front nine, which again was actually the back nine at the first Masters in 1934.  The 1st hole starts off with a much steeper drop between the tee shots and your second shot than you can tell from television.  Par is a great score given that it played as the second hardest hole in 2013.  The 2nd hole is a huge dog-leg left par 5.  A right to left drive puts players in a great position to go for the green in two.  We stood fairly close to where Oosthuizen holed out from over 200 yards for a double-eagle in 2012.  Birdie is attainable on the 2nd, especially at the traditional back right Sunday hole location.

We spent a fair amount of time on the 3rd hole, which is the shortest par four on the course.  For the 10,000th time, television does not do just to how hard this hole plays.  If players end up on the left side of the fairway, they still have a tricky shot into an undulating green.  We tried to get close to where Charl Schwartzel holed out for eagle en route to winning the 2011 Masters but it was too far from the cross walk to get a great view.

The 4th hole is a long par 3 and I would say is the first ho-hum hole on the course so far.  Don't get me wrong, it is still an amazing hole but there is nothing that stands out other than the fact that it played as the hardest hole in 2013.  The few groups we watched play the 4th hole really struggled to get the ball to the hole because of the length of the hole combined with the menacing bunkers on the front of the green.

The 5th hole serves as a walkway to the main souvenir shop and Berckmans Place so there was tons of foot traffic across that fairway.  I watched Jim Furyk play the 5th hole right next to his wife and former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swan.  At the Masters you have to at least act like you belong so instead of turning into a giddy school girl when I walked the hole with them, I just nodded to both and said good afternoon.

The 6th hole is a par 3 located right next to the 16th hole, which makes for great Par 3 viewing.  We got our first beer of the day there since they didn't start serving been till 12:30.  The neat quirk of the 6th hole is that you can sit in the gully between the tee box and green.  Balls scream over your head towards the green so it is neat to see them drop onto the green out of nowhere.  The back right "Sunday" hole location is one of the trickiest on the court because it sits up on a shelf.  Much like picking your favorite kid, picking a favorite hole at August National is tough but the unique viewing experience on the 6th makes it one of my favorites.

The font nine closes out with a par 4 followed by a par 5 followed by a par 4.  In my opinion, the 7th hole is the hardest of the three closing holes.  We were able to see a ton of cool shots into the hole location that we putted at Berckmans Place earlier in the morning.  With all the bunkers that surround the 7th, par is a great score.  Moving onto the par 5, it really is a three shot hole when the pin is in the back of the green since the hole is a crazy uphill climb the entire way.  The front nine closes out with a tricky par 4 that looks tame given all the space you have to hit a drive but the angle to the green on your second shot is the key.  We put some chairs down on nine, which allowed us to see how hard it is to get the ball close the hole on that back-to-front sloping green.

I hope you enjoyed the walking tour of Augusta National, again I am not sure that words can come anywhere close to describing how amazing the experience is in-person.  Since we saw each hole at least once, we headed to the member/guest area for an azalea, the signature cocktail of the Masters.  I am almost positive they use vodka at the Masters even though the standard Azalea recipe calls for gin with lime juice, pineapple juice, and grenadine.  For how expensive merchandise can be at the Masters, drinks and food cost the same they did in the 1950's, which is a nice perk.  It honestly feels like you are in the 1950's, in a good way, as you walk the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.  Drinking azaleas while strolling through Augusta National is definitely the best sports/drink combo I've ever had in my life.

Uncle Patty had to leave early to catch a flight back to Austin for a week commitment first thing on Monday so we hit the upscale merchandise area in the member/guest area followed by visiting a few of our favorite holes on the front nine as a I walked Uncle Patty to the exit.  It was a bummer that Uncle Patty could not stay for the entire day but to get to spend any time, let alone most of a Sunday at the Masters is just too good to turn down, so I am glad that Uncle Patty was able to join us.

After bidding Uncle Patty farewell, I met Sug and his brothers back at our seats on 16.  Some of the early groups were making their way to 16 while the contenders were teeing off on the front nine.  From our seats at 16 we had a bird's eye view of three other holes: the 6th green, the 15th green, and the 17th tee shot.  This was not Sug's first Masters rodeo so luckily we were able to capitalize on his course knowledge to get the best spot, sorry Amen Corner, to see tons of action.

After a few of the early groups finished on 16, the final group played the 6th hole.  The last group had Watson and young gun Jordan Spieth.  Both players were tied at -5 heading into Sunday.  Speith birdied two of his first four holes while Watson was even on the day through four holes.  Without cell phones or televisions on the course, the only updates you get are on the Wrigley Field-esque manual scoreboards throughout the grounds.  Spieth stumbled with a bogey on the 5th hole to take a one-shot lead into the sixth hole.  Both hit great tee shots on the 6th hole and both canned birdie putts to send out the 6th hole in style.  The roar after an eagle at the Master is amazing and the crowds at the Masters are smart enough to realize that some birdies are as impressive as eagles so the crowd let out a huge roars when Spieth and Watson carded birdies on the 6th hole.

Unfortunately for Spieth, his chance to become the youngest Masters champion ended on the front nine when he bogeyed the last two holes while Watson birded each.  That four shot swing gave Watson a two shot lead at the turn.  It is almost impossible to follow the last group on the course so selfishly it was actually nice that Watson had one arm in his second green jacket as he stood on the 10th tee because it allowed us to sit in our seats on 16 and enjoy the glory of the 15th, 16th holes, and 17th holes.

We saw roughly 20 groups play those holes.  Every player that went long on 15 struggled to chip their next shot onto the green because they were worried about knocking their ball too far and ending up in the water in front of the 15th green. That meant that every player that went long chipped short and ended up on the fringe and scrambling for a two-putt par.  Given how far PGA Tour players can hit the ball now, 15 is a great birdie or eagle opportunity but the severe back to front slope on the green combined with the fact that the green is almost rectangular in shape makes it a very challenging hole if you miss the green with your approach shot.

I am an unabashed lover of all things Steve Stricker.  Obviously the fact that he lives in Madison helps but he is also the most liked player on the PGA Tour because he is one of the last genuine articles in sports.  Stricker struggled on Sunday but almost aced the 16th, which was exciting to see live on the hill left of the 16th green as the crowd jumped to their feet in anticipation of the near ace.

Once Spieth and Watson finished 16, we high-tailed it to the Member/Guest area next to the 1st tee/10th tee boxes and 9th/18th greens.  Sure it would have been neat to watch the leaders play 17 and 18 but we didn't have chairs on either hole so we would have been in the 50th row of people trying to do the same thing.  Instead we got to hear roars of the crowd from 50 yards away as Spieth and Watson hit their second shots into the 18th green while we watched the action on television.  I walked around the Member/Guest area as Watson was putting the final touches on his second win at the Masters in three years with an even bigger grin on my face than Bubba had thanks to all the amazing things I saw over the 10 hours we spent on the ground of Augusta National for Sunday of the 2014 Masters.

I don't often pause in awe of celebrities but there were tons of golfing mukity mucks making their way around the Member/Guest area. After Miguel Angel Jimenez finished an interview with a cigar in his mouth the entire time, we crossed paths and shook hands.  I told him congrats on the 4th place finish and he smiled and winked at me like I was a member of his inter-circle.  I told Watson's wife Angie congrats as she proudly held their adopted son Calieb in her arms, she stopped and actually thanked me too.  Those were just two of many interactions of that nature I had in a Member/Guest area following the conclusion of the 2014 Masters.

There was no sense in rushing to our car and fighting traffic given that we had a two and a half hour drive back to Atlanta so we hung in the Member/Guest area for as long as possible.  Thankfully we had to walk across the entire course to get back to our car.  As the sun was setting, there were less than 100 people left on the course.  We took our time walking because although Sug hopefully gets to return many times, the rest of us knew this could be our last time at Augusta National.  We strolled past the 1st tee, in between the 9th and 18th green, through the 8th fairway, past the 2nd green, through the 3rd and 7th fairways, past the 16th green, and back to the 16th tee box for one last look at the course.

In a crazy end to a whirlwind week where Cheesehead Chick and I went under contract on our first condo together, a crazy stroke of luck thanks to Sug got me to Augusta National for the final round of the 2014 Masters.  It felt like a whirlwind 48 hours getting to the Masters.  Despite Tiger Woods missing the entire tournament due to injury for the first time since 1994 and Phil Mickelson missing the cut for only the second time in his career, the 2014 Masters will no doubt go down as my favorite Masters of all-time.  It will also mark the second of many green jackets for Watson. Honestly the trip was painless and totally worth the effort to get to see Sunday at the Masters in-person.  If you ever have a chance, you should go because there is no question that Sunday at the Masters was the coolest sporting event that I've ever attended.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Building The 53 - The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly 2.0

The 2014 NFL off-season is turning out to be one of the most active of Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson's tenure.  Thompson followed up the Julius Peppers signing last week by adding another former NFC North foe when he signed former Minnesota defensive tackle Letroy Guion to a one-year, $1 million contract with $100,000 guaranteed.  Slowly but surely Thompson is building the defensive portion of The 53 to be the most versatile of his tenure.  Here is my second look at Thompson's performance so far this off-season.

The Good
Despite the fact that Thompson is spending money like a drunken sailor compared to previous off-season, the Packers will always be predominately built through the NFL Draft.  The NFL recently awarded the compensatory picks for teams that lost free agents following the 2012 season for the 2014 NFL Draft.  The Packers got an extra 3rd round pick (98th overall) for losing wide receiver Greg Jennings to the Minnesota Vikings (signed a five-year, $45 million deal with $17.8 million guaranteed) and a 5th round pick (176th overall) for losing outside linebacker Erik Walden to the the Indianapolis Colts (signed a four-year, $16 million deal with $8 million guaranteed).  I would say the Packers won big-time by letting both guys leave because not only did they both sign what look like a above market deals relative to their skill sets but the Packers can use the salary cap space that would have been allocated to overpaying both guys to invest in better, younger players.  Even better, Thompson gets two extra picks in one of the deepest drafts in the last decade for showing fiscal restraint.

I seem to be in the minority with this viewpoint but as the market for pass rushers continues to shake out, I continue to think the Peppers deal looks like a steal.  The Packers only committed $7.5 million in guaranteed money to Peppers while the Bears signed former Viking Jared Allen to a four-year, $32 million deal with $15.5 million guaranteed.  The Peppers contract is worth a maximum of $26 million over three years not $30 million as was originally reported.  Given the versatility that Peppers gives the Packers to play defensive end or outside linebacker, I would much rather have Peppers than Allen despite the fact that Allen is a few years younger than Peppers.  That is even before you compare the money and years committed to each player.  Although the Packers are scheduled to pay Peppers slightly more on an annual basis ($8.67 million for three years) than the Bears are paying Allen ($8 million for four years), the Packers have much less guaranteed money invested in Peppers than the Bears do in Allen.  Clearly Peppers is not the second coming of Reggie White but he does give the Packers a defensive weapon they sorely lacked last season.

Currently the best front seven defensive players signed for 2014 are: outside linebacker Clay Matthews, Peppers, defensive lineman B.J. Raji, defensive lineman Mike Daniels, middle linebacker A.J. Hawk, defensive end/outside linebacker Mike Neal, and middle linebacker Brad Jones.  The Packers also have some interesting backups in defensive lineman Josh Boyd, Guion, defensive lineman Datone Jones, outside linebacker Nick Perry, and defensive lineman Jerel Worthy.  There is no question that the Packers have a number of versatile pass rushers, which hopefully will allow them to pressure the quarterback and create turnovers that were borderline non-existent last season.

Sometimes the deals you don't sign are the best deals of all.  The Cincinnati Bengals signed underwhelming guard/tackle Marshall Newhouse to a one-year, $805,000 contract with $50,000 guaranteed.  The Newhouse signing feels a little bit like when the Bengals signed former Packer tight end Donald Lee.  Let's just say the Packers did not miss Lee one iota, which I already know will be the same feeling for Newhouse given how much he regressed last season.

Same goes for defensive lineman C.J. Wilson.  I was very high on Wilson at the beginning of 2013 but as the season progressed, Wilson's playing time diminished.  Ultimately former Packer front-office member and current Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie signed Wilson to a one-year, $795,000 contract with $65,000 guaranteed.  It makes senses to let Wilson leave because he would have been one of the oldest defensive lineman on The 53, yet he would have been no higher than 7th or 8th on the depth chart.

Moving onto another underwhelming former Packer.  Even though safety M.D. Jennings started all 16 games for the Packers last season and was a restricted free agent, the Packers decided not to tender him.  Before the Packers signed Peppers, the Chicago Bears signed the much maligned Jennings to a one-year, $745,000 contract.  For most people Jennings will always be remembered as the guy that helped end the NFL ref lockout thanks to the Monday Night Football "Fail Mary" in Week 4 of the 2012 NFL season but I think of Jennings routinely missing tackles or getting beat deep.  You can surmise that I am actually happy Jennings signed with a divisional rival because it will allow the Packers to exploit him if he actually play meaningful snaps for the Bears  The one-year deal Jennings signed with the Bears is a pittance in NFL terms but with how much Jennings struggled last season, I would rather see the Packers draft Ha-Ha Clinton Dix or Calvin Pryor if they are available in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.  If the Packers fail to land a quality safety in the draft, they should give Micah Hyde a look at safety but also make sure Chris Banjo and Sean Richarson are ready as well.

The Bad
Besides Wilson, McKenzie recently signed two other players with ties to the Packers.  McKenzie signed wide receiver James Jones to a three-year, $10 million contract with $3.7 guaranteed in 2014 but nothing in 2015 or 2016.  After McKenzie signed Jones, he signed cornerback/safety Charles Woodson to a one-year, $3.5 million contract.  Woodson is one of my favorite Packers of all-time and while my affinity for Jones is not as high, I do appreciate the toughness he gave the Packers despite his occasionally shaky hands.

The Packers look to have a fair amount of depth at wide receiver in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Jarrett Boykin but all three are due new contracts sooner rather than later given that Boykin is a restricted free agent after 2014 while Nelson and Cobb are set to become unresticted free agents after 2014.  Hopefully Thompson is going to allocate the money that could have gone to Jones to locking down that trip long-term.

Following last season cornerback Tramon Williams, the only member of the secondary over the age of 30, said the defense needed to add some veterans.  That seemed very unlikely given Thompson's desire to choose younger guys ahead of older guys.  Thompson veered from his usual strategy when he signed Peppers and could have continued to improve the defense by adding Woodson.  Instead Woodson resigned with the Raiders for what could be his last season in the NFL.  Ultimately the decision not to bring back Woodson is even more curious than letting Jones go, especially given that Woodson would be a perfect mentor for the young Packers secondary.

Thompson passed on Jones and Woodson but signed oft-injured running back James Starks to a two-year, $3.25 million contract with $750,000 guaranteed.  I know that Starks was instrumental in the playoff run that resulted in the Packers winning Super Bowl XLV but the Packers did not have the running back quartet of Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Franklin, DuJuan Harris, and Michael Hill on The 53 in 2010.  Sure Franklin and Harris are coming off serious injuries but everyone besides Hill are borderline locks for The 53 so I am shocked that Thompson invested that type of money in Starks.  The Starks signing leaves the Packers with more NFL caliber running backs than wide receivers.  Instead of signing Starks, I wish Thompson would have allocated that money to Jones or Woodson.

Thankfully the Starks signing did not dissuade Thompson from resigning fullback John Kuhn.  Thompson signed Kuhn to a one-year, $1 million contract with $100,000 guaranteed.  There is no question that Kuhn brings a ton of intangibles to The 53 given that he has a such a positive locker room presence.  I've been critical of Kuhn in the past but more of that was due to the fact that the Packers overpaid Kuhn $7.6 million from 2011-13.  In terms of on-field contributions, not only is Kuhn a quality special teams contributor, but he made the two biggest blocks of the 2013 season: Lacy's 60-yard run against the Cowboys and Rodgers-to-Cobb to beat the Bears.  When you put it all together, Kuhn is finally cost-effective member of The 53 at $1 million in 2014.

The Packers did not make a strong strong push to resign 2013 starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith so it looks like they are going to give JC Tretter the first chance to win the starting center job in 2014.  Recently the Packers hosted veteran center/guard Mike McGlynn.  Ultimately McGlynn signed a modest two-year, $2.7 million contract with just $200,000 guaranteed with the Washington Redskins.  I am fine with giving Tretter a chance to winning the starting center job but given how cheap it was to sign McGlynn it seems foolish that Thompson did not sign McGynn as a cost-effective insurance policy as a backup guard/center.

The Ugly
Last week tight end Jermicahel Finley worked out for the Seattle Seahawks and apparently failed his physical.  Later reports surfaced that Finley will not be ready for football action for "months", which is after the 2014 NFL Draft.  The Packers have a number of tight ends under contract for 2014: Brandon Bostick, Andrew Quarless, Jake Stoneburner, Ryan Taylor, and Raymond Webber.  When healthy, Finley is the far and away the most dangerous receiver of the group just discussed.

The jury is still out on Stoneburner and Webber.  Taylor is a special teams standout but has not shown much on offense.  That means the Packers have high hopes for Bostick and Quarless.  Thompson just resigned Quarless to a two-year, $3 million contract with $350,000 guaranteed.  Of all the tight ends just mentioned, Bostick has the most potential to be a Finley-esque tight end but needs to stay healthy long enough to validate the so far unfulfilled promise.  Fortunately everyone besides Quarless is on essentially a rookie minimum contract so the Packers do not have that much money invested in the position.  The Packers hosted former Wisconsin Badgers tight end Owen Daniels for a visit but allowed him to sign with the Baltimore Ravens for a one-year, $1 million contract for 2014.  Despite having so many tight ends under contract and Finley's status up in the air, I expect Thompson to use a fairly high pick on a tight end in the 2014 NFL Draft.

That leaves the Packers with six unrestricted free agents that were members of The 53 in 2013: Finley, quarterback Matt Flynn, linebacker Robert Francois, defensive lineman Johnny Jolly, defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, and quarterback Seneca Wallace.  If Finley can prove that he is healthy, he is the only guy that will command an expensive long-term deal that I totally support the Packers offering.  The rest of the guys are one-year, veteran minimum guys at this point so here are my rankings for most to least important: Flynn, Jolly, Pickett, Francois, and Wallace.

Since Guion (Vikings) and Peppers (Bears) were cut by the team they played for in 2013, they will not factor into what compensatory picks the Packers receive for the 2015 NFL Draft.  As it stands right now, it looks like the Packers are in line for a few late-round compensatory picks since so far this off-season they've lost EDS, Jones, Newhouse, and Wilson.  If I had to guess right now, I see the Packers getting a fifth and seventh round compensatory pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

No matter what happens between now and the 2014 NFL Draft, I plan to roll out a huge "preview" of how I would approach the draft if I was Thompson at the end of April and the beginning of May.  I still see a few moves on the horizon for Thompson ahead of the draft, if Thompson does in fact make any moves, make sure to check back for full coverage

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Building The 23 - USMNT 2.0 for 2014 World Cup

Yesterday the United States Men's National Team tied Mexico 2-2 in a friendly played at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  The USMNT jumped out to a 2-0 lead as cheers of Dos a Cero Chants rang through the stadium.  Unfortunately the USMNT sputtered in second half conceding two goals so it ended up being Dos a Dos.

Although the United States and Mexico are bitter CONCACAF rivals, ultimately the scoreline is meaningless given that it is only a friendly and thus simply a means to help prepare for the 2014 World Cup.  This match could carry much more symbolic significance though.  Landon Donovan and Julian Green both got subbed into the match in the second half at the same time.  Donovan will likely go down as the most successful USMNT player of all-time while the 18-year old Green has limitless potential that could make him the next Donovan for the USMNT.  The USMNT are lucky to have Green in the fold given that he had the choice to play for Germany or the United States and choose the United States.  Since Green plays for Bayern Munich's youth team it was a bit of a surprise that he choose the United States since Green choose the United States, he has a much better chance to go to the 2014 World Cup.  If Green choose Germany he would have no chance of going to the 2014 World Cup and an outside chance of appearing for Germany in the 2016 European Championship.

I gave my first look at the 23 players I thought USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann would take to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil the day after the United States was drawn into the "Group of Death" with Germany, Ghana, and Portugal.  As I said in that post, Building The 23 for the USMNT is similar to what I do with Building The 53 for the Green Bay Packers, Building The 25 for the Milwaukee Brewers, and Building The 15 for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Just to reiterate, the breakdown of The 23 is usually 3 goalkeepers, 8 defenders, 8 midfielders, and 4 strikers.  Besides goalkeeper, some of the players drawn into defense or up front could also slide into the midfielder so those are not hard and fast numbers.  Here are my updated thoughts about the players Klinsmann should select for The 23.

Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, and Nick Rimando.
Starter: Tim Howard
Analysis: This is the most solid spot on the entire squad.  Guzan would start for at least half of the countries in the World Cup but absent injury will have to serve as Howard's understudy.

Defenders (8): DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, and Fabian Johnson
Dropped (1): Steve Cherundolo
Added (1): Fabian Johnson* (treated as midfielder last time)
Starters: DaMarcus Beasley (LB), Matt Besler (CB), Geoff Cameron (CB), Fabian Johnson (RB)
Analysis: Unfortunately Cherundolo is just not fit enough to play in the 2014 World Cup, which opens up the right back spot for the first time in essentially a decade.  Besler was a revelation a year ago but his star has faded slightly but the lack of depth at central defender for the United States, I still see Besler as a virtual lock for the starting lineup.  That leaves seven guys fighting for three spots.  I honestly could see almost any of those seven starting across the back for the USMNT, so it will be interesting to see what there can separate themselves from the group.

Midfielders (8): Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Brad Davis, Mix Diskerud, Landon Donovan, Julian Green, Jermaine Jones, and Graham Zusi
Dropped (2): Fabian Johnson* (treated as a midfielder last time but moved to defender this time) and Brek Shea
Added (2): Brad Davis and Julian Green
Starters: Kyle Beckerman (DM), Michael Bradley (CM), Jermaine Jones (CM), Graham Zusi (LW/RW)
Analysis: The USMNT is in a unique spot because Beckerman and Jones look to be redundant central midfielders that can allow Bradley to push forward.  Given Klinsman's affinity for Jones, I could see him playing all three as central midfielders since he likes to see his outside defenders push forward.  That leaves Zusi as the only true winger unless the other midfielders that I currently have on the bench can separate from the pack.

Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Aaron Johnannson, and Chris Wondolowski
Dropped (1): Eddie Johnson
Added (1): Chris Wondolowski
Starters: Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey
Analysis: It will be interesting to watch the competition for the fourth striker spot given that Altidore, Dempsey, and Johannson look like locks.  Over the last two years Wondolowski has scored some important goals for the United States, which is why I added Wondolowski instead of Johnson.

Klinsman will announce his provisional 30-man squad in mid-May.  Those 30 players will participate in a two week training session that includes a couple exhibition matches before Klinsman must winnow his roster down to The 23 by June 2nd.  Make sure to check back in mid-May for my thoughts on Klinsman's provisional 30-man squad.