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Mueller: Has the NFL WR market reached a breaking point? How much is too much?

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Mueller: Has the NFL WR market reached a breaking point? How much is too much?

I’m not one for letting good players walk out the door.

I know from experience that talent is too hard to replace, even with the best-hatched plan, without taking a step backward. So I understand that, at least sometimes, proven teams need to overpay slightly for the sake of continuity.

But recent contracts for NFL wide receivers have forced me to at least question my philosophy. And that tells me that general managers and team-builders around the NFL are no doubt contemplating that question as well.

It’s not because these receivers lack talent. They are all really good players. But the contract numbers are making the team-building equation more complicated than ever.

The dilemma is twofold. First, if you’re going to pay a wide receiver more than $30 million per year, are you sure he’s a difference-maker and not just a guy who fits your system? And second, is it feasible to pay big salaries to more than one wide receiver on your roster?

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Ten years ago, the NFL’s top-paid wide receivers made about $16 million annually, equaling about 12 percent of the $133 million cap. Today, A.J. Brown leads the way at $32 million annually on a cap of $255 million. That’s still just 12.5 percent of the cap. But let’s look closer.

In 2014, the two receivers making $16 million annually were Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, the clear standard-bearers at the position. There weren’t enough top-of-the-heap receivers that every new contract would reset the market. Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones and A.J. Green signed new contracts in 2015, but none exceeded $15 million per year. Fitzgerald’s and Johnson’s deals weren’t eclipsed until Antonio Brown hit $17 million per year in 2017 (a year after Johnson retired), just 10.2 percent of the $167 million cap.

The receiver market has already been reset twice in the past month, and we are on the verge of another jump with Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Ja’Marr Chase and Brandon Aiyuk all up for new deals. All four could plausibly reset the market, so we might be looking at $35 million per year — which would be 13.7 percent of the cap — or more. That leaves the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers with big decisions with implications across their rosters.

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Teams must take a hard look at where this money will come from. How much is too much for a non-quarterback? Does it make sense for a position group other than QB to exceed 20 percent of a team’s cap? How would that affect decisions elsewhere on the roster?

Jefferson is arguably the best receiver in the league, and Minnesota should certainly extend him. But the cost will tighten money to spend elsewhere, like on last year’s first-round pick, 22-year-old Jordan Addison, when his rookie deal ends. Of course, if the Vikings’ assessment of J.J. McCarthy proves accurate, a quality quarterback on a five-year rookie contract might be just what the doctor ordered. If I were running the Vikings, I would pay Jefferson and keep churning WR2 at the end of Addison’s deal.

Jerry Jones and the Cowboys probably need to be much more creative in dealing with Lamb. Jones already has a $50 million-plus quarterback quandary on his hands, with Dak Prescott having all the leverage in an endless game of chicken. As long as Prescott is the QB, the Cowboys’ evaluation skills might be challenged beyond most as they seek value from other receivers to pair with Lamb.

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If I were the Bengals, I would probably sign Chase — who still has two years left on his deal — as soon as possible to avoid resetting the market after Lamb’s and Jefferson’s deals come in. Cincinnati already appears to be planning to let Tee Higgins walk after this season, which might necessitate another high NFL Draft investment at the position next year.

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The 49ers have a more complicated situation than the Bengals, having already paid Deebo Samuel ($23.8 million per year, $28.6 million against the cap in 2024) and with Aiyuk ($14.1 million against the cap in 2024) in the last year of his contract. Both players’ names have been popular in trade rumors this offseason. The Niners hedged their bet by drafting Florida receiver Ricky Pearsall in Round 1 last month, giving themselves options at the position.

My crystal ball tells me this group will undergo a renovation after the 2024 season. Aiyuk and Samuel are set to count $42.7 million against the cap this season. Add Pearsall and tight end George Kittle and that’s more than $56 million against the cap (22 percent) for four pass catchers. Samuel is the NFL’s eighth-highest-paid wideout and might rank third in the 49ers’ position room when it comes to route running and ball skills. Something will have to give.

Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel

Will Deebo Samuel, left, or Brandon Aiyuk be elsewhere in 2025? (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Players deserve whatever they can get — I am not here to dispute this — but even NFL teams with the most creative capologists will eventually be forced to pay for their extensions of credit, just like you and I. So what will they do about the rising costs of receivers?

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When players get too expensive, nothing speaks louder than cheaper options.

Teams selected 35 wide receivers in the 2024 draft. That’s not unordinary, but the total of seven picked in Round 1 grabbed my attention. Sure, it might just have been a year with several special talents available. But it also might speak to a few other factors:

1. With experienced receivers becoming more expensive, teams need more cheap talent.

2. In this era of seven-on-seven competitions and wide-open passing offenses in college, receivers have more advanced skills at a younger age.

3. Good talent evaluators can identify and sequence receivers properly, with smoother projections to the NFL.

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If you can identify the traits — beyond stats, height, weight and speed — that lend to a reasonably high hit rate on prospects, you can find value. These would be my top three traits, which you can find if you watch enough tape, for a receiver to fit any scheme:

• Create separation at the break point and/or change gears while underway in a route.

• See and distinguish coverage with your mind and reactions (or instincts), pre- and post-snap.

• Consistently extend to catch with your hands near defenders, allowing small guys to play bigger and big guys to be great.

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The last few draft classes have been rich in receiver talent. Even in a watered-down free-agent pool this year, there were several good values. In short, you don’t have to pay top-notch to get value at wide receiver.

Some teams, such as the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, have already picked a lane. (Of course, having a talented quarterback makes it easier for them to consider this road.)

The Packers and Chiefs traded Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill before the 2022 season instead of paying them. Adams got $28 million from the Las Vegas Raiders, and Hill got $30 million annually from the Miami Dolphins. The Bills traded Stefon Diggs to the Houston Texans this offseason, two years after signing him to an extension worth $24 million annually.

Though the Adams trade has not exactly worked out for the Raiders, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst has reworked Green Bay’s receivers via the developmental route.

Christian Watson, drafted in the second round in 2022, is a straight-line-fast long-strider who can eat up a cushion, take the top off defenses and catch when he’s covered. His game is similar to that of Jameson Williams, whom the Detroit Lions drafted 22 picks earlier. In Round 4 that year, the Packers took Romeo Doubs, who will make $1.1 million this year after catching 59 passes in 2023. Doubs’ ability to find soft spots and distinguish coverages resembles that of the Lions’ Amon-Ra St. Brown, at least stylistically.

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Last year, the Packers took Jayden Reed (64 catches as a rookie) in Round 2 and Dontayvion Wicks (39 catches, 14.9 yards per catch) in Round 5. Given his acceleration off the ball and out of breaks, Wicks might have more upside than any of the above.

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Sure, it requires conviction in your evaluations, but Green Bay should be lauded for overhauling this group almost entirely with draft picks (none in Round 1), as those four receivers will cost a total of $6.3 million against the cap in 2024. Other teams should try to copy this economic model.

I’m not saying the Lions are wrong, but it’s a useful comparison. They reset the market by paying St. Brown $30 million per year even though he ranked 71st in the NFL in average air yards per target (7.75) and 39th in average yards per reception (12.7) last season. I understand the importance of keeping peace in the locker room and rewarding hard workers and leaders. He fits their system. But that signing might have ruffled a few feathers outside of the Lions’ front office and fans, who think it is money well spent. The Lions did let 29-year-old wideout Josh Reynolds walk, so they have shown they are willing to make tough choices, too.

The Chiefs, no doubt aided by Patrick Mahomes’ presence, have thrived since bailing on the market and going young, like the Packers. The Bills, with Josh Allen, have taken a similar route this offseason, choosing quantity over quality with reasonably priced veterans in Curtis Samuel, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Chase Claypool and second-round rookie Keon Coleman, after trading Diggs and letting Gabe Davis walk.

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Of course, there are still teams on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Seattle Seahawks paid DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett a total of $41.3 million annually (they restructured Lockett’s deal this offseason), then drafted a receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in Round 1 in 2023. The Philadelphia Eagles paid Brown and DeVonta Smith this offseason a combined $57 million annually (22.4 percent of the cap), even after signing quarterback Jalen Hurts to a record deal last offseason.

The Eagles made those investments after struggling to draft and develop receivers, missing on top-60 picks in Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor. I can’t help but wonder: Was paying Brown and Smith a reaction to their previous struggles at the position?

There’s not necessarily a correct way to handle the rising costs at wide receiver. If there is, I’m not sure we know it just yet. Many theories are still being tested.

But here is something to consider: Teams will always have to pay great money for good players at positions where there is true scarcity, like quarterback. But I don’t see wide receiver, especially in the modern NFL, as a position of true scarcity. As a result, the sticker shock of recent contracts has given me pause.

I’m still not for letting any good player walk, but with each market-setting deal, the costs are getting harder to justify.

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(Top photos of Amon-Ra St. Brown, left, and Justin Jefferson: Cooper Neill, Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

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The lesson of Scottie Scheffler at this U.S. Open, from the man who taught him

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The lesson of Scottie Scheffler at this U.S. Open, from the man who taught him

PINEHURST, N.C. — Randy Smith saw something that needed fixing, so he went about fixing it. It’s what he does. He pulled a piece of paper out of his desk at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas and scribbled down his idea. A line here. A line there. All the details. He folded it up, walked across the club and handed it to his student.

“This,” Smith said, “will work.”

Tom Landry took the paper.

The Dallas Cowboys coach eyed Smith, then looked down at a page of Xs moving this way and Os moving that way. The key, Smith explained, was putting Roger Staubach into shotgun play-action and allowing Drew Pearson to operate in space. Pure genius, in 1976, at least.

Landry, a Royal Oaks member, studied the play for about a minute. “Randy, I absolutely love it,” he finally said. Smith, then a 27-year-old golf pro and teaching instructor, nodded.

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“Star-right 47,” Landry said.

“What?” Smith asked.

“We already run it,” Landry said. “Star-right 47. That’s the play.”

Turns out, Smith’s design already existed, but with a different pre-snap motion. Nonetheless, the young golf coach from Odessa proved he had an eye for how to play, how to design Xs better than Os, and how to scheme up a win.

Fifty years later, nothing is different, except Smith is now coach and confidant to the current greatest player in professional golf.

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Randy Smith, left, has been working with Scottie Scheffler for more than 20 years. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Smith is the genius who told young Scottie Scheffler it was OK to let those feet fly; the visionary who knew a gift when he saw it. He first met a 7-year-old Scheffler at Royal Oaks around 2004. What was supposed to be a 10-minute youth lesson turned into an hour and 40 minutes. Smith, hand on chin, unblinking, only interjected here and there. “Can you try … yep.” “And how about … yep.” Smith knew immediately that Scheffler was one of one. He had not seen anything like him since a boy named Justin Leonard showed up on the driving range nearly 25 years earlier. Scheffler was somehow better.

And now, in 2024, Scheffler is the best. The hottest player in golf. Winner in five of his last eight events. A visitor from another planet. The 27-year-old can make it six wins in his last nine with a win at Pinehurst this week, where he’s trying for his third career major and first U.S. Open championship. A victory feels oddly inevitable. Scheffler is playing so well, so often, that fellow players are seemingly content to acknowledge their own inadequacies.

“He is the gold standard right now,” Bryson DeChambeau said Tuesday, “and we’re all looking up to him going, ‘All right, how do we get to that level?’”

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It won’t be easy, in part, because no one else out here has been hard-wired by the hands of Randy Smith. The coach is, in Scheffler’s words, “a savant,” and they are now two decades into a lesson that’s proving to have some staying power. It’s all worked because it’s never felt like work.

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“Randy has always been really good at not overthinking things,” Scheffler says.

Which might sound simple, yet is anything but.

Now 72, Smith walked along Pinehurst No. 2’s back nine on Tuesday trying to explain what gets so often confused in golf — that once a player has the basics down, their swing must be their own creation, not someone else’s. This is why, while recent generations of players were told the same four misguided words — “Keep your head down.” — Smith told his young players the opposite.

“The head’s gotta move, man,” Smith said, stressing hard. “That’d be like telling a basketball player to keep his eye on the ball during a free throw.”

Smith still spends more than half of his time at Royal Oaks working with kids and when he does, he first wants to see good contact. Then a good grip. Then a reasonable ability to aim the body at the target. Then comes the interesting part. “You see if they can create.” Instead of tweaking the form, Smith wants to see what’s in the instincts. He hands the player a 7-iron and asks, “How would you make the ball fly really high? How about really low?” He wants to see imagination before imitation.

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“You know, the body moves in response to action,” Smith said. “Most people say, ‘You have to make the body do this to create this and this.’ That’s bulls—.”

Smith picked up an imaginary baseball.

“I’m gonna throw this ball right at Scottie’s ass,” he said, pointing across the green at Scheffler.

Smith shifted his hips, cocked his arm and made a throwing motion.

“See, there were 42 things going on to make that motion,” he went on. “No one told me to shift my weight into my hip or use 30 degrees of knee bend or tilt my shoulders to the angle or the throw or … ”

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The point: A swing need to be a product of instincts and action. This is how Smith sees the game and keeps kids interested in playing. Then, little by little, “I sneak up on ’em with the technique stuff.”


Scheffler has won five tournaments in 2024, including last week’s Memorial Tournament. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

When Smith is dealing a player who’s struggling, he’ll take him or her out to the course, stick ‘em behind a tree in a fairway, point to a green in the distance and say, “You gotta slice this sucker 40 yards to get to that target. Figure it out.” Lo and behold, the student stops thinking and instead creates a swing to shape the shot.

“But if they’re out there 170 yards, middle of the fairway, staring at the pin, they’re thinking about all kinds of other stuff,” Smith said. “You gotta get that out of there.”

No wonder Scheffler swings how he swings, thinks how he thinks. His game was shaped by Occam’s razor.

Perhaps that’s the secret to what is, in golf parlance, a heater, turning into something much bigger. Scheffler is turning into this era’s greatest player with a recipe that can seemingly fit on a single page. All the fixes are uncomplicated. All the solutions are straightforward. In April, at the Masters, when Scheffler felt he escaped the first round with a 66 despite a swing that “felt like I was using all hands,” he spent five minutes with Smith on the driving range.

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“He gave me a little tip with my grip,” Scheffler said Tuesday. “I hit a couple shots, felt exactly what I needed to feel. Then it was over, from there.”

Scheffler won by four shots.

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Now it’s the U.S. Open, where Smith is by Scheffler’s side, like usual, and keeping everything simple, like usual. On a week that should present extreme tests and stressful shotmaking, such a disposition feels like a cheat code. When Scheffler inevitably paints a masterpiece one of these days, and builds his lead, and looks like he’s playing a different game than everyone else, it’ll be worth remembering that nothing is by accident.

Walking around Tuesday, Smith studied Pinehurst’s rolling fairways and turtleback greens. The old coach was drawing up some Xs and Os.

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“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent is here,” Smith said, pointing to his left, “There,” he said point to his right, “What shots to hit and where. How about here? Maybe there. Where to hit it low. Where to hit it high. That’s uphill. That’s downhill. Where is the false front? Where’s the best way to access this pin, that pin?”

Smith stopped, then raised his hands.

“But nothing here,” he said, forming a grip, “And nothing there,” he said, bringing that grip to impact position.

Smith paused, then called a play.

“Target, feel, create.”

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(Top photo: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

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U.S. women's basketball Olympic roster breakdown: Experience leads hunt for another gold

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U.S. women's basketball Olympic roster breakdown: Experience leads hunt for another gold

The U.S. women’s basketball roster was officially announced Tuesday, and in six weeks, the 12 players will go after a record eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal. With seven players who’ve already appeared on Team USA (and an additional two who were on the three-on-three team, known as 3×3, the last time around), this is an experienced group that enters the Games as the favorite.

Experience and maturity are only heightened considering the roster skews toward players in their late 20s; the youngest players are 26 and Diana Taurasi at 42 is the oldest. Unlike previous iterations of Olympic rosters, no recent college grads were included. Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark’s exclusion from the roster has been the subject of much debate, and reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston also wasn’t selected.

With 12 versatile, slightly older players, coach Cheryl Reeve has plenty of flexibility with lineups and rotations, similar to how the defensive-oriented coach operates with her Minnesota Lynx squad. She is known for getting the most out of her players, orchestrating the Lynx’s run in the 2010s to four WNBA titles in seven seasons. This will be Reeve’s first time at the helm of the national team at the Olympics. She was named the head coach for this cycle in 2021 after being an assistant for both Geno Auriemma (2016) and Dawn Staley (2020).

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Collier, 27, was the 11th or 12th player on the Tokyo roster, but for this Olympics, she’s a probable starter alongside Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. Her game has continued to evolve (which is no surprise considering Reeve is her coach with the Lynx) — she’s shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers this WNBA season. Collier showed in an Olympic qualifier game earlier this year that she potentially can become a statistical leader, after tallying 23 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals in a tightly-contested game against Belgium.

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Copper, 29, is playing the best basketball of her career in her first season with the Phoenix Mercury, averaging 24 points a game while shooting 39 percent from long range as a high-volume 3-point shooter. Unlike many other players on this Olympic roster who came up through the youth system, Copper’s first time in the Team USA pool was in 2021, and her game has only gone up. Her versatility is accentuated on defense, where she can guard multiple positions, both matching up with larger, more physical players and keeping step with perimeter guards.

Gray, 31, has yet to play this WNBA season after suffering a leg injury during the 2023 WNBA Finals. However, Team USA said it had been in regular communication with Gray and her medical team and feel confident she’ll be able to compete in France. Assuming that holds true, Gray will be the team’s best passer and its engine. For the Las Vegas Aces, she has been a dynamic scorer-facilitator, but if her role from the 2022 World Cup repeats, expect Gray to settle in more as a primary facilitator, especially because there’s not another pure point guard on the roster. Reeve will need a high-assist, low-risk floor general, and that’s Gray.

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When Griner, 33, returned to the U.S. from her 10-month detainment in Russia, she said she’d only go overseas again to play for her country in the Olympics. Now, that’s happening as Griner makes her third Olympic roster. She recently returned to the floor in the WNBA after recovering from a toe fracture, but even in two games, she looks great, averaging 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 blocks a game (in 30 minutes of play). She started all six games in Team USA’s 2021 run in Tokyo (averaging 16.5 points and over 7 rebounds a game while shooting nearly 70 percent). At 6-foot-9, she’s the tallest player on the roster, providing Team USA an instant mismatch against any opponent.

Napheesa Collier

A young role player the last Olympic cycle, Napheesa Collier now steps into a more prominent position for Paris. (Dirk Waem / BELGA MAG / AFP via Getty Images)

Ionescu, 26, is another potential backup ballhandler who likely will split responsibilities with other guards, but her versatility as a scorer and rebounder will come in handy. Like Alyssa Thomas, Ionescu can go off for a triple-double. With her long range and quick release, she could be used off the bench to help build a lead, or in close games, she could be inserted for her reliable free-throw shooting (over 90 percent for her WNBA career).

With no true backup point guard on the roster, Loyd, 30, likely will be called into some backup ballhandling responsibilities — a task Team USA probably will take on by committee. Loyd could be considered for the final starter, a spot that remains a bit of a question mark and might be determined by game-specific matchups. She’s a tried-and-true scorer and an excellent rebounder who can get Team USA out on the break and either distribute or score. One of the many perks of this roster is the number of players who have shown they can catch fire even after a slump, and Loyd is one of those.

A member of the inaugural 3×3 squad, Plum, 29, could find herself in that starting two-guard spot, or she could be a burst of energy and instant scorer off the bench. She’s a high-volume 3-point shooter for the Aces, but she can also get downhill and finish through contact. With Gray out, the Aces have shared facilitating duties, and Plum is averaging nearly 5 assists a game. Her familiarity with Wilson, Gray and Jackie Young is an important benefit for potential playing time, and that unit could be used as a “reset” at times, especially early in pool play, when Team USA needs to get on the same page.

Breanna Stewart, F

At 29, Stewart will play in her third Olympics. In tandem with Wilson, Stewart provides versatility and steadiness on both ends of the floor. Her 3-point shooting has been down this WNBA season, but Stewart is a three-level scorer with a knack for making defensive plays. Expect Stewart and Wilson to start regardless of the matchup as Reeve uses them as centerpieces and builds out from there.

Diana Taurasi, G

This will be Taurasi’s sixth Olympics. Her first came in 2004 in Athens, where at 22 she was the youngest player on the team. Her eldest teammate that year? Then-34-year-old Dawn Staley, who — 16 years later — would coach Taurasi at the Tokyo Olympics. Taurasi’s deft passing and sharp shooting will be helpful, but her experience is irreplaceable compared to any other player in the Team USA pool. “We knew Diana’s basketball ability would be clutch for us in so many moments, but we also knew that her leadership was something this team didn’t have,” U.S. women’s national team committee chair Jen Rizzotti said.

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi, a staple of the U.S. national team for two decades, will go for her sixth Olympic gold medal. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Alyssa Thomas, F

Known as “The Engine” in the WNBA, Thomas, 32, is a triple-double threat every night in the league. She’s not the tallest on any court, but she might be the strongest 6-2 player in the league. The common storyline for commentators about the 10-year vet is that Thomas has two torn labrums (cartilage in her shoulders) so she uses an unconventional shooting form. However, that hasn’t stopped Thomas from being so effective that Reeve actually asked her to return to the Team USA player pool before the 2022 World Cup after Thomas spent several years on the outside looking in.

A’ja Wilson, F

The two-time WNBA MVP has been successful in Olympic and international play. As an Olympic rookie in Tokyo, Wilson was a standout, averaging over 16 points and 7 rebounds a game while playing for Staley, her former coach at South Carolina.  She’ll again have a comfort level in France from being surrounded by three of her Aces teammates. She also has added a 3-point shot to her offensive arsenal. Wilson — and Stewart — are the new faces of Team USA in a changing-of-the-guard era, a new challenge for both. Wilson, 27, has handled that same responsibility on and off the court for the Aces, and she appears primed for the occasion.

Jackie Young, G

Young, 26, was a member of the Tokyo 3×3 squad. She was called into preparation at the last minute after initial 3×3 team member Katie Lou Samuelson tested positive for COVID-19 before the team’s departure. Young has been one of the most improved players through the most recent Olympic cycle, becoming a more prolific scorer and passer. She’s a tough perimeter defender and reliable scorer who, like the other guards on this roster, could find herself filling Gray’s shoes when she’s not on the floor.

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(Photo of Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum, A’Ja Wilson and Sabrina Ionescu celebrating their gold-medal win at the 2022 FIBA World Cup: Kelly Defina / Getty Images)

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The two Pinehursts have not always seen eye to eye

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The two Pinehursts have not always seen eye to eye

PINEHURST, N.C. — It can trick you, this place. It’s all so charming and whimsical, Mayberry turned golf mecca in the sandhills of North Carolina.

You stroll along the brick walking paths through the village, passing the two-story brick buildings filled with cute shops and quaint pubs. More than a million people travel here each year to this Disney World for idyllic golf-themed getaways.

It can trick you into thinking you stumbled onto a golf oasis. Trick you into forgetting this place is a juggernaut, a resort, a full-on corporation with luxury hotels and cottages and 10 courses designed by renowned golf architects. Yes, it may have started with a pharmacy chain owner offering tuberculosis patients a chance to recover in a haven designed by the same man who designed Central Park. But the reasons a place begins are very rarely the same reasons that keep a destination thriving.

Now, Pinehurst Resort calls itself the cradle of American golf. The USGA announced it as the first of its new “anchor sites,” which will host U.S. Opens every 5-6 years for the next 30 years, beginning this week.

Pinehurst brought back the World Golf Hall of Fame. Its relationship with the town is strong and it’s a bucket-list destination for generations of recreational golfers. It is, for the foreseeable future, a central focal point marrying the casual and professional golf worlds.

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But it wasn’t that long ago this place was climbing out of $70 million in debt, that it was at war with the people of this town and embroiled in countless lawsuits focusing on issues ranging from predatory management strategies to members feeling cheated.

And it wasn’t so long ago that a private detective who called himself “the Fat Man” had a poster of Pinehurst’s owner on a chair in front of his desk with a simple mission: “I just want this guy nailed to the wall.”


There’s a mantra Robert H. Dedman Jr. repeats at will: “Always Pinehurst, but always better.”

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But progress doesn’t always go in a straight line. What began as a company town turned into something else when James W. Tufts hired Donald Ross as golf pro and formed Pinehurst No. 1 before completing his masterpiece — Pinehurst No. 2 — in 1907. Ross finished his fourth Pinehurst course before 1920 and the resort had become a premier golf destination with three inns. The town and the resort were so intertwined that resort employees were paid during the Depression in scrip redeemable only at Tufts-owned businesses. And it started its entry into pro golf circles, hosting the 1936 PGA Championship and 1951 Ryder Cup.

But in 1971, the Tufts family sold Pinehurst to Diamondhead Corporation, a real estate project owned by Malcom McLean that took a place rooted in tradition and lined the courses with condos and attempted to modernize the look of Ross’ design. Sacrilege. The prestige of the resort declined, as did its quality, and it compiled $70 million in debt by the time Diamondhead had to hand Pinehurst over to a consortium of eight banks in 1982.


Spectators are turning out in droves to watch Tiger Woods and the rest of the U.S. Open field at Pinehurst this week. (Andrew Redington / Getty Images)

In came the savior, a moniker that became a point of contention for many.

Robert H. Dedman Sr. was the founder of ClubCorp, a Dallas-based corporation that made a killing buying distressed private golf and country clubs and rebuilding them. They eventually owned more than 200 properties around the world, and Dedman Sr. was a billionaire often named by Golf Digest as one of the most important people in golf. He was a charming, self-made man from Arkansas who successfully branded himself as something between a capitalist and a romantic.

“The first time I stood in front of the clubhouse and looked out on all those ribbons of fairway, I got tears in my eyes,” Dedman Sr. told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “I had always venerated Pinehurst for its place in the history of golf, and when I finally saw it I knew instantly that we would take this fallen angel and make it not as good as it was, but better than it had ever been.”

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Always Pinehurst, but always better. But better usually comes with costs. Capitalism is a game of winners and losers, and progress often leaves others behind.

Pinehurst was the crown jewel of ClubCorp’s empire, and Dedman Sr. made good on those dreams by restoring tradition and returning Pinehurst to its rightful place in the sport. In fact, he elevated it.

Fifteen years and $100 million after buying it, the 1999 U.S. Open came to Pinehurst. Dedman Sr. died in 2002, but Dedman Jr. (known as Bob) was running much of the company by the 1990s. It hosted the U.S. Open again in 2005. The Dedmans sold ClubCorp in 2006 but kept Pinehurst as their baby, and after a successful restoration it made history by holding the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks in 2014. The men’s tournament went 10 years without returning, but with its new anchor site designation Pinehurst has successfully cemented its place at the forefront of American golf.

That build, though, came with pushback. Starting in 1991 and carrying on through 2000, as much as 55 percent (more than 3,000) of Pinehurst members contributed to legal funds for a lawsuit claiming the club brought in too many outsiders, denied them agreed upon access to tee times and improperly raised membership fees.

In 1990, ClubCorp sold its stake in nearby Pinewild Country Club to Japanese cookie maker Tohato Inc. with a deal for Tohato to pay ClubCorp to manage it. By 1996, Tohato sued ClubCorp because it felt hoodwinked, claiming the latter used Pinewild as inexpensive overflow courses for guests paying to stay next door at Pinehurst Resort. Tohato officials also claimed ClubCorp tried to purposely mismanage the property to force Tohato to want out and sell back to Pinehurst at a fraction of the original cost.

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Things turned dramatic when Tohato hired the celebrity private detective William Graham to help with the case. Graham was an eccentric who appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “20/20” and was in talks with studios to produce a movie about his life. Graham pursued ClubCorp so hard they ultimately sued him for libel. And in the meantime Graham caused the Dedmans constant headaches.

In 1997, Graham sent out faxes across the country detailing 33 alleged “civil and criminal violations” against ClubCorp. He was quoted in South Carolina’s The State newspaper calling Dedman Sr. and his company, “a bunch of backstabbing, corkscrewing, double-dealing, lying, cheating, stealing (SOBs).”

All of this ClubCorp of course used in its libel case, which was folded into a seven-figure settlement paid by Tohato to ClubCorp. But those faxes led to major outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times investigating and publishing large pieces painting ClubCorp in an unflattering light. In the two years before the U.S. Open, at least seven of the company’s 70 country clubs were involved in lawsuits against ClubCorp filed by either members homeowners or a co-owner, per the New York Times. (ClubCorp eventually pulled out of its management arrangement at Pinewild, telling members in a letter it had “been placed in a position that makes it impossible to do our job.”)

So when Pinehurst hosted the 1999 U.S. Open — what was supposed to be Dedman Sr.’s crowning achievement — he instead sat with Sports Illustrated for a profile on how such a beloved figure was suddenly disliked by so many around the club.

“Just because we have a great reputation, people think that if they make a few grandiose statements we’ll cave in and pay their blackmail,” Dedman Sr. told SI. “We can’t afford to do that. We have had people go to obnoxious lengths to try to get a settlement. We have zero tolerance for that behavior. Our philosophy, to quote one of our former Presidents, is millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

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When Pinehurst hosted the 1994 U.S. Senior Open the No. 2 course barely resembled Donald Ross’ original design. It’s been since restored. (Gary Newkirk / Allsport via Getty Images)

But the public relations issues for Pinehurst really took over when the battles started with the townspeople. In 1995, a Pinehurst resident named Edmund Dietrich wrote a letter to The Pilot, the local paper in Southern Pines, saying tips given to resort employees were being withheld. Dietrich was sued for libel, though ClubCorp later dropped it. Then, ClubCorp reportedly threatened local businesses for using Pinehurst in their names, citing trademark infringement. It claimed Pinehurst was only the name of the resort and facilities, and that the town was the “Village of Pinehurst.”

ClubCorp lawyer Stephen Trattner famously said: “I don’t believe there is a Pinehurst, N.C. You may call it that, and the mail may get there that way, (but) you don’t live in Pinehurst. You live in the Village of Pinehurst.”

Dedman Sr. had created an environment in which members and guests were treated like royalty, with staff remembering their favorite cocktails and making sure to use their name at least four times a trip, but the people who lived in the town — a town founded to help people get healthy — felt alienated. Pinehurst Business Guild became the Village of Pinehurst Business Guild. Companies like Pinehurst Interiors had to change their name to Village Design Group, which still stands today.

If Dedman Sr. was the charming personality who could light up a room, Bob Jr. was the hard-nosed, forward-thinking CEO who, his father admitted, was a more organized executive. But if at the time Dedman Jr. was labeled as a bottom line executive pushing for growth, he’s also been the one overseeing its public rehabilitation.

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GO DEEPER

U.S. Open Big Board: After Scottie Scheffler, how does the field stack up at Pinehurst?

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Another funny thing about progress is success tends to mend most wounds. Pinehurst has become more and more of a powerhouse in the world of golf, bringing millions and millions of tourism dollars to the area each year. Dedman Jr. founded a local Boys & Girls Club chapter in Pinehurst in 1999 and now receives local hospitality awards. While the mayor back in 1999 was calling his father arrogant and a bully, former Pinehurst mayor Nancy Roy Fiorillo (2011-2019) raved about all the good Dedman Jr. does and how great Pinehurst Resort is for the town.

“Bob Dedman Jr. is Doing All the Good He Can” was the headline of a story in The Pilot last week. Similar pieces have been written by Global Golf Post and PineStraw Magazine. Maybe some of it is from the ClubCorp sale — it’s far easier to be magnanimous proprietors when you’re running one iconic club and not a conglomerate fighting for every little margin.

What’s clear is Pinehurst is now thriving. More than 12 million Americans have traveled to play golf each of the past two years, up about 20 percent over the historical average, according to the National Golf Foundation. Pinehurst attracts a large chunk of that.

Every resort is trying catch up to it, a place that can boast both incredible history with everyone from Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods having played here, mixed with constant innovation and new courses. The restoration of No. 2 by the architect team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw took the already famous course to new heights by removing rough and leaving tough, sandy areas off the fairways. Gil Hanse’s redesign of No. 4 has boosted it in significance. All of the top designers of past and present have contributed to one course or another.

And the resort keeps pushing itself off the course, turning an abandoned steam plant into a brewery and refurbishing the clubhouse with lush new digs for members. They expanded the Deuce Grill, restored one inn and renovated another. All of that on top of the USGA’s new Golf House Pinehurst and the World Golf Hall of Fame, which returned from St. Augustine, Fla.

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The Dedmans tried to ensure that it was always about Pinehurst but always making it better, and they’ve continued to push and push to a point it seems unstoppable going forward. And now, the conversation of the week is entirely about the course and how great it will be to watch. Not the issues of the past.

They couldn’t pin the Dedmans to the wall.

(Top photo: Tracy Wilcox / PGA Tour via Getty Images)

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