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Poulter hopeful of shaking off 'turkey' rust

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Poulter hopeful of shaking off 'turkey' rust

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) Ian Poulter was still in the holiday spirit with the Tournament of Champions looming, and he didn't decide until Tuesday whether to open his season in Hawaii. He reluctantly packed his bags and didn't have high hopes for the first tournament of the year.

He playfully told one follower on Twitter to ``save your money'' when he saw odds of Poulter winning at 12-to-1. And when he arrived on the Plantation Course - right about the time the rain returned, of course - he conceded to not be as ready to play as he normally is.

``I figured I might as well knock some of the turkey rust off me and come and play for a few days,'' Poulter said Thursday before his pro-am round. ``I might be a little rusty, but I'm going to play and see how we go.''

With only a 30-man field, he only has 29 guys to beat.

And while it was a big flight over from Florida, what's another 5,000 miles after all the places Poulter has gone the last few months?

After a short break following the Ryder Cup, Poulter's travels took him from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Melbourne to Dubai to Los Angeles to Florida, and then a brief trip to London for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year awards.

But don't think it wasn't tempting to sit this one out. Poulter has a six-week break that starts after Maui and ends with the Match Play Championship.

``It would have been nice to have taken 10 weeks off,'' he said. ``I think that's exactly what Luke (Donald) has done, and there's a couple of others doing the same.''

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HYUNDAI FUTURE: Hyundai is in the final year of its contract as title sponsor of the Tournament of Champions, and its vice president of marketing sounded optimistic that the South Korean automaker would be sticking around.

``We are very bullish,'' Steve Shannon said. ``We don't have anything to announce this week, partially because we are so focused in executive another great event. But we've had discussions with the PGA Tour. They have been great partners of ours. Certainly, our bias is to continue, but we just need to get this tournament behind us and then have some more discussions with them.

``We have done a lot of things each year to improve our involvement, and we would look to do that in the future again.''

The PGA Tour season opens with as many questions about who's not at Kapalua as who is. The top four in the world ranking are taking the week off - Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Luke Donald and Justin Rose. Ernie Els is playing next week in South Africa., while Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson also opted not to come.

Shannon didn't seem overly bothered by that, saying the ``dynamic is what it is.'' Golf has changed over the last several years with more international players trying to juggle the PGA Tour and their home tours. Europeans and Australians, for example, play deep into November.

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FOWLER'S SECRET: Asked to assess his year, Rickie Fowler described a slow start, his first PGA Tour win at the Wells Fargo Championship and then his secret.

He felt a twinge in his lower back at the U.S. Open. He kept playing through the summer, trying to reach his goals of qualifying for the Tour Championship (which he did) and making the Ryder Cup team (which he did not).

Turns out he had inflamed joints in his lower back, the product of slightly bad posture in his swing. Thanks to 3-D video archives at the Titleist Performance Institute, Fowler realized that the angle of his back was leaning away from the ball, a difference of only 5 degrees. But over time, it began causing pain.

He wound up taking plenty of time off to let it heal, missing his title defense in the Korea Open. Even now, Fowler said he's not quite at 100 percent, but he's good enough. And that time off left him excited about playing.

``After the two-month break I had, it kind of fueled the fire a little bit to come back out, and it makes you want to play and compete more,'' he said.

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MASTER CRAFTSMAN MEMORY: Titleist's staff players at Kapalua are wearing gold ribbons on their hats in memory of Jaime Ramos, the master golf club builder at Titleist who died of a heart attack during the holiday at age 58.

Ramos made clubs for 35 years, starting at Cobra Golf when he built clubs for the likes of Greg Norman, Hale Irwin and Seve Ballesteros. He jointed Titleist in 1996 and built the clubs for all of Titleist's' players around the world, a list that over the years included Tiger Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Rory McIlroy.

``He took pride in his job and enjoyed watching the players he built clubs for have success,'' said Chris Tuten, director of tour promotions for Titleist. ``He was a legend among club builders and will be sorely missed by the Titleist family and all those who knew him.''

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NO PANIC IN PARADISE: The last time Charlie Beljan played in a tournament, he suffered a severe panic attack at Disney that caused shortness of breath, spiked his blood pressure and sent him to the hospital - and yet he still managed to win.

It was a remarkable story to end the year, and it made Beljan eligible for the Tournament of Champions. Two months certainly feels like a lifetime ago.

``Feeling much better,'' Beljan said. ``Changed some eating habits. Changed some fitness routines and been working hard on my short game and looking forward to a great week here.''

Beljan figures he will be known as the rookie who suffered a panic attack, but he doesn't mind considering the number of people who might be helped because of the attention he brought to anxiety attacks.

``I'd like to be known as a golfer and a free spirit and a fun loving guy, but at the same time, what I experienced out there and what everybody saw brought a lot of attention to panic attacks and anxiety attacks and what a big deal it is and how many people do face it on a daily basis,'' Beljan said. ``So I've gotten a lot of letters and a lot of emails and stuff like that saying that I've been an inspiration to all.

``It's been pretty neat because I've touched people other than just playing golf.''

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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution

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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution

JUPITER, Fla. -- Police in Florida have charged New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft with misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution, saying they have videotape of him paying for a sex act inside an illicit massage parlor.

Jupiter police told reporters Friday that the 77-year-old Kraft hasn't been arrested. A warrant will be issued and his attorneys will be notified.

The charge comes amid a widespread crackdown on sex trafficking in the area surrounding Palm Beach County. About 200 arrest warrants have been issued in recent days and more are expected.

The Patriots won the Super Bowl earlier this month in Atlanta. The team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Update: A spokesperson for Robert Kraft issued a statement, denying Craft's involvement. "We categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity," a spokesperson said, via Michael Del Moro. "Because this is a judicial matter, we will not be commenting further. 

This is a developing story. Visit NBC Sports Boston for the latest Robert Kraft news and updates. 

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Radio silence from Bryce Harper hasn't quieted Mark Lerner's confidence in Nationals

Radio silence from Bryce Harper hasn't quieted Mark Lerner's confidence in Nationals

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Fans on the sidewalks at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches are held back by wire fence, just a few feet away from players clicking past in spikes on concrete. It emulates two priorities: access and the idea the team’s managing principal owner, Mark Lerner, had when he was a kid at spring training.

“You want to be able to see your favorites,” Lerner said Friday.

When Lerner, 65, comes to West Palm Beach, he still does that. He stops in the clubhouse to distribute handshakes and hugs. Running into Anthony Rendon on a crosswalk near the fields really lit up Lerner, who is still using a cane following an amputation of his lower left leg in 2017 necessitated by the diagnosis of spindle cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.

Not in West Palm Beach is a player Lerner had a close relationship with. On the day Manny Machado was introduced in San Diego, Bryce Harper remained, to the astonishment of many, unemployed. 

Lerner last addressed Harper’s free agency when he sat for radio interviews, Dec. 10, the day Patrick Corbin was introduced. He said the Nationals were no longer in the mix for Harper. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract which had an expiration date: when free agency began, it would be retracted. Harper declined, vaulting the baseball world into a months-long saga filled with tension, misinformation and growing exasperation.

“Nothing’s certainly changed on our end; we’ve moved on, as I said back then,” Lerner told NBC Sports Washington. “We had to. There was no way we could wait around. Bryce I’m sure will make his decision, hopefully in the next few days. But, we filled out our roster and like I said, we wish him nothing but the best. There’s always that -- the door’s cracked a little bit. I have no clue at this point what they’re up to. I mean, we really haven’t heard from them in a couple months.”

The prospect of a wait was of prime concern before the season ended. Washington used its personal window to negotiate with Harper, producing a lucrative baseline offer, with the aforementioned end date. Not long after, Corbin received a six-year, $140 million from the organization, which stood throughout the offseason as the benchmark in both length and total value prior to Machado’s decision. If Harper accepted the Nationals original offer, they would not have been able to pay Corbin, according to a source.

The organization moved forward plugging holes at catcher, second base and in the bullpen. It deemed the current outfield foursome as more than satisfactory. Also looming was the possibility of another year over the competitive balance tax, something that prompted the team to start shuffling finances late last season when it was clear the playoffs were not an option.

“It’s a pretty severe penalty if you go over and it’s been our goal all year to stay under that,” Lerner said.

Which complicates the future. Anthony Rendon is entering the final year of his contract. Rendon and the team are open to an extension, which has been discussed here and there for 18 months. Rendon reiterated his position when speaking with reporters earlier this week. Lerner turned his visual affection for Rendon into words Friday. 

“We love Tony to death,” Lerner said. “He’s certainly one of the greatest players in the game today. He’s an even finer person. His activities with the youth baseball academy back in D.C. are phenomenal. He does it under the radar. It’s very important to him. Just a great example of the way a professional athlete should conduct himself. Like I said, he’s one of my favorites for a reason.”

Washington rose perennial losers upon coming to Washington to an organization with annual prominent expectations. It chose not to retain manager Dusty Baker, instead hiring Dave Martinez in an attempt to push the team beyond the first round. Martinez’s arrival came with the edict that something more than division titles and first-round bow outs were now necessary for the team. The Nationals finished 82-80 last year during a season filled with injuries, under-performance and often mediocre fundamental baseball. Lerner suffered through with the irritation of a typical fan.

“I have my routine [following losses]. I go into a closet and scream a little after,” Lerner said with a laugh. “No, no. That’s one thing that’s good about baseball. You’re going to play the next day. But I go home. I’m totally depressed. I won’t turn on the sports news or anything and get up the next morning, it’s a new day, get up and go after it again today. When I’m sitting down there, I’m very passionate as a fan. I’m yelling at the umpires like everybody else. I want to win. I hate losing exhibition games let alone regular-season games.”

Enter 2019. The Nationals are amid the favorites in a taught National League East. Short-term fixes frame the team’s mainstays. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin possess the three long-term commitments in the clubhouse. Rendon may be next. The Nationals want to retain that talent level, avoid the tax and put together a team with a chance to win the division or more. Harper’s talent made that possible when here. His price made it difficult going forward. They decided to try it without him. 

“Our goal every year is certainly to make the playoffs,” Lerner said. “In reality, we look back where we are in the world and where our needs are. It’s not just…certainly, we don’t want to go crazy with free agency. But we said when we first got the team, we’re going to build up the minor leagues, we’re going to get to a point where we can start to dabble in free agency, which we did with Jayson Werth, and when we find a need or a special player, we’re going to go after that player if it makes monetary sense for us. Our philosophy has never changed but, certainly, our goal is to make the playoffs and hopefully deep into the playoffs.”
 

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