Capitals

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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Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Brought up to replace the injured Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek's first taste of NHL hockey will come inside the bubble in Toronto. Not exactly the best of circumstances. 

But Vanecek plays an important role on a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Should Braden Holtby struggle or get hurt during the playoffs, Washington will need its young back-up goalie to keep their team afloat and let his talented skaters take it from there.

That's why NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, during an appearance with The Sports Junkies Tuesday, looks forward to seeing Vanecek play a little bit in the round-robin portion of the NHL restart. Ideally, though, it stops there.

"[Vanecek] probably will get one of these games, [the Capitals] said that from the start," May said. "But I hope he doesn't play once they get to the playoff rounds. I think it would be wise to play him in [round robin] games, it's not the end of the world what the seeding is in this. He's a good size goaltender, I think he's about 6'2, and with the training that he's had, he's worked on the fundamentals of his game, he's gotten his conditioning up. He looks very similar to Holtby in net, He's gotten a lot of good reps in American Hockey [League] just like Holtby did around the same age."

And what's the reason why no Caps fan should want to see Vanecek in the postseason? It's simple really. Because this team's best chance at another title revolves around Holtby being a steady and stifling presence between the pipes throughout the playoffs. 

RELATED: PHYSICALITY THE KEY FOR CAPITALS IN PLAYOFFS

"I think the big thing with this is you really don't want to see [Vanecek] in the net after the round robin," he said. "If they're going to win this thing, it's gonna have to be Braden Holtby getting 16 wins. To me, the most important thing is that Holtby plays in the playoffs, the guy's dynamite, no leaky goals out of him."

This could be Holtby's last playoff run with the Capitals as he enters a contract year. The Caps already committed long term money to Nicklas Backstrom this season, they have an Alex Ovechkin extension to worry about and the flat salary cap certainly won't do them any favors either. Not to mention the presence of Samsonov after a stellar rookie season. 

So if this is it, if this is Holtby's last dance in Washington, he at least looks ready to play his best hockey when it matters most.  

"He looks focused and dialed in, and he wants to make sure if he's going out and won't be a Capital anymore he wants to go home with a victory in his last game."

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With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

Positive reports about Alex Smith's early training camp performance came out over the weekend, and on a Tuesday morning Zoom call with the media, Ron Rivera echoed those reviews.

"He's looked good, he really has," the head coach said. "I'll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far along he is. It's been exciting to watch his progression."

According to Rivera, Smith has been working off to the side with Washington Football Team trainers at the Ashburn facility and is mirroring what Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen are doing, too. Coordinator Scott Turner and QBs coach Ken Zampese are apparently involving Smith as much as they can, and Smith is looking "very fluid" so far.

"It's a tribute to who he is, it's a tribute to his trainers and his doctors who have helped him get where he is today," Rivera said.

That all, of course, is wildly encouraging. The fact that the 36-year-old is in a place where he can check off those boxes and do those activities is astounding. That can't be pointed out enough, either.

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Yet it's also fair to note just how different mimicking a starting signal caller and actually serving as the starting signal caller are. So, is there any real chance of Smith transitioning from that first phase to the second before the season? 

With what he's seen from the veteran so far, Rivera certainly believes there is.

"I can envision it," he said. "The big thing is if he can do the things that we need him to do, that he needs to do to help himself on the football field, he'll be part of the conversation most definitely. He did some really good things last week. He went through all four workout days, had no residual effect the next morning, which is always important because the next day usually tells.

"We'll see how he is this week and we'll go from there."

As Smith continues to rehab and try to make his way off PUP, the challenges are solely physical. Rivera is not worried at all about the veteran having to adjust to a new scheme or dealing with any other mental task; instead, the primary concern is ensuring that Smith can handle the contact that'll come if he makes it back into live action.

"I believe he already knows probably 75-percent of our playbook," Rivera said. "So for him, it's really just a matter of can he do the movements he needs to do? Can he protect himself when he's on the field?"

It feels like every time Smith is brought up, he's taken another step. The next one, however — going from the PUP list to the huddle — is particularly daunting.

But at this point, it's gotten pretty difficult to imagine anything being particularly daunting for Alex Smith. So don't be that floored if he makes it happen. Rivera clearly won't be. 

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