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Will Tiger Woods figure it out and other big questions

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Since golf returned from the coronavirus shutdown in mid-June, the scores have been low. Only twice has the winner not gotten to double digits under par. Four times the winner has been at least 20 under. At The Northern Trust, Dustin Johnson was 30 under. These guys are making it look easy. Well, the U.S. Open doesn’t do easy. And Winged Foot really doesn’t do easy.

But that’s just one of the big questions heading into the year’s second major. Can Tiger Woods find his way? Does Phil Mickelson have any magic left? Who will surprise and who will struggle? Our experts weigh in:

1. Any chance Tiger Woods emerges from his funk?

Bob Harig: Not sure Winged Foot is the place to find your game. Although the circumstances were completely different, Woods missed his first cut in a major as a pro in 2006 when the U.S. Open was played at Winged Foot, as he had not played since the death of his father, Earl. The similarity is lack of competition. Yes, Tiger played recently in the FedEx Cup playoffs, but a common theme emerged — and inability to put four rounds together. Really, in all four of Woods’ starts since the shutdown, he’s really had just one good day out of four. There needs to be a lot of improvement in all facets of his game for Woods to be competitive this week.

Michael Collins: Tiger is not in a funk. He’s in a place similar to guys at the bottom of the top 125 list or coming off the Korn Ferry Tour. He’s not getting consistent starts, which turns into not getting consistent finishes. Should we expect big things from this week? Absolutely not.

Ian O’Connor: Sure, there’s a chance. If Tiger Woods is upright, he’s got a chance. But it’s more like one of those Jim Carrey “So you’re telling me there’s a chance” chances. I do think Woods will win another major before he’s done, but most likely at Augusta and least likely at a U.S. Open.

Nick Pietruszkiewicz: No. Not at Winged Foot. He has admitted the adjustment to life on the Tour, without fans, has been difficult. But forget that he doesn’t have thousands following his every move — which brings him energy and distracts those playing with or near him — and focus instead on his game. It’s been a rough go since the restart. At one point or another some part of his game has gone missing — tee, short irons, putter. And not having some — or all — of your game sharp is not the way you want to go to Winged Foot.

2. There will be a lot of attention on Phil Mickelson in his return to Winged Foot. So what happens? So-so week? Missed cut? Contender?

Harig: Phil’s lack of form in regular tour events does not portend to being a contender at Winged Foot, where in 2006 Mickelson was fortunate to be in contention, given his inability to drive the ball in play for most of the week. That is still an issue in his game, and 14 years later, it is not likely that he can make up for all the wayward drives with a nearly perfect short game. If the early scouting reports are accurate, Winged Foot will be a beast, with a score around par being the winning number. If Phil can avoid the big numbers, perhaps he has a decent week.

Collins: Missed cut should be the realistic expectation, but will anyone be surprised if some of that old Lefty magic is still left in the tank for two or three rounds. The biggest hurdle for Mickelson will be the first round. If he can get through the first round inside the top 25, he’ll make the cut — which for me is a win for Phil.

O’Connor: As a sports journalist you’re allowed to root for the best available story, but not for teams or individual athletes, right? As much as I’d love to see Phil in contention on Sunday for the sake of the story, I think it’s just asking for too much. I say he makes the cut, makes it a little interesting on Saturday, but then falls off. And I hope he hits a driver on 18 all four days.

Pietruszkiewicz: How much fun would it be to see his name high on the leaderboard late Sunday afternoon? But, sadly, it doesn’t feel possible. His T-71 at the PGA Championship and missed cut at The Northern Trust, which bounced him out of the FedEx Cup playoffs, doesn’t make me feel good about his chances. Sure, he lit up the PGA Tour Champions in his debut to grab a win, but back on the big tour this past week at the Safeway Open, he was ordinary again. Ordinary won’t cut it at Winged Foot — and not with all that U.S. Open baggage coming along for the ride.

3. How likely is it that the players will complain about the setup or that Winged Foot is too hard?

Harig: It is almost inevitable. There is bound to be something that is over the top at Winged Foot, an already stern test that probably does not need much in the way of extra attention to make it difficult. All but one of the U.S. Opens played at Winged Foot has had an over-par winning score, and so there is bound to be some grumbling. If firm, fast conditions hold, it should be quite a wild ride.

Collins: It’ll be the same percentage as people who claim the earth is round. (That’s called a joke grenade — wait 3 seconds, then it hits.)

O’Connor: There will be some typical USGA griping, but hopefully not too much given the venue. Winged Foot is such a storied place, it deserves better than that. Do you go into Yankee Stadium as a visiting pitcher and just complain about the short right-field porch? Or do you say, “Wow, I’m pitching in Yankee Stadium?”

Pietruszkiewicz: This is pretty much guaranteed. Only once in the five times the place has hosted the U.S. Open has the winner been under par, when Fuzzy Zoeller shot 4 under in 1984. The last time this championship was here, in 2006 when Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie melted on the 72nd hole, Geoff Ogilvy won with 5 over. The USGA enjoys inflicting pain. It will inflict pain this week. And the players will not like it — at all.

4. We all know the favorites. Who is your sleeper pick this week?

Harig: Matthew Fitzpatrick. He’s quietly put together a nice record since the return to competition in June. While he’s missed three cuts, he also has four top-15 finishes, including three top 10s. His third-place finish at the Memorial was the result of a final-round 68 in some very difficult conditions. Plus, he was the only player to shoot in the 60s that day. Fitzpatrick seems to have the ability to grind it out when it is not easy.

Collins: Michael Thompson. If you remember way back in the day, Thompson had the U.S. Open lead for a minute at Olympic Club (the one Webb Simpson won). A more seasoned and battle-tested man could surprise a lot of people this week at Winged Foot.

O’Connor: I would have thrown a Scottie Scheffler at you if not for his unfortunate withdrawal because of a positive COVID-19 test. And I don’t think Webb Simpson qualifies as a sleeper, although you can make a nuanced case for it. I know there’s absolutely no reason to pick Justin Rose, since he’s missed four cuts in his past six starts. But the U.S. Open requires toughness above all, and Rose, who beat Phil at Merion, is a tough golfer. He’s my gut-feel sleeper.

Pietruszkiewicz: Well, I am picking Viktor Hovland to win the thing, so does that count? He plays well at USGA events, that much is clear. He won’t be daunted by the challenge presented at Winged Foot. And already this year we’ve had youth served, with fellow 20-something Collin Morikawa winning the year’s first major by taking the PGA Championship in dramatic fashion at TPC Harding Park.

5. Who among the top 10 in the world should we be worried about this week?

Harig: Bryson DeChambeau. After so much fanfare, Bryson is suddenly in a bit of a rut, finishing 50th at the BMW Championship. His 72-hole score would have been 25th out of 30 at the Tour Championship. The latter week was especially intriguing as DeChambeau eschewed the driver often in an effort to find more fairways and still struggled. Will he unleash the driver often at Winged Foot? There’s a fine line between distance and having to get out of the rough at a U.S. Open. It seems as if it could be a tough week for DeChambeau.

Collins: Collin Morikawa. His win at the PGA Championship was only his second start in a major. He did finish T-35 in his other major start — last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. But that’s the problem. This time Mother Nature won’t tell the USGA what to do. It will be looking to brutalize golfers. Morikawa will have never seen what’s coming.

O’Connor: DeChambeau. It wasn’t long ago that we were wondering if he’d win only one of the three majors being played this year. But DeChambeau missed the cut at the Northern Trust, placed 50th at the BMW and finished toward the bottom at the Tour Championship, leaving me to believe this could be a tough week for him. He certainly has the game to win the U.S. Open, but I’m thinking it’s more likely Winged Foot brings out his hot temper.

Pietruszkiewicz: See if this sounds familiar: DeChambeau. I don’t like the long game at this venue — or any U.S. Open, for that matter. Sure, if he swings for the fences and keeps it in the fairway he has a huge advantage. But if he doesn’t, he’s going to get frustrated very, very quickly. And if he gets frustrated, that’s when the big numbers tend to arrive. This doesn’t feel like the right major for him to breakthrough and, instead, could be a short week for him.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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