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Golf is back in the Olympics for the second time after a 112-year absence, following a successful return in Brazil in 2016, when England’s Justin Rose captured the gold medal. Rose held off Sweden’s — and then-reigning Open champion — Henrik Stenson. American Matt Kuchar finished third to win the bronze.

None of the three medalists are back this time when the event begins Thursday just outside Tokyo. Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama figures to be among the biggest storylines in his home country, but there are plenty of others, including one that involves a couple of top players who will not participateJon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau.

Here is a look at the tournament.

How we got here

Only 60 players qualify for the competition, based on the Official World Golf Ranking of June 21. A maximum of two players per country can participate, with up to four if all of the players are ranked among the top 15 in the world. The United States had 10 players ranked among the top 15 and is the only country to qualify the maximum of four players.

If one player qualified for the tournament, another player from that country could also participate, regardless of ranking. And if someone from a country withdrew, another player from that country could take the spot, so long as that player qualified within the ranking criteria.

Format

Starting Thursday, there will be 72 holes of stroke play through Sunday, with no cut.

Countries represented

There are 35 countries that have at least one player competing in the tournament.

The venue

Kasumigaseki Country Club is the home for both the men’s and women’s events. The club is a 36-hole facility located about 35 miles outside of Tokyo, with the East Course being used for the competition. Opened in 1929, the club has hosted several high-profile tournaments, including the 1957 World Cup, where Koichi Ono and Torakichi Nakamura of Japan defeated the heavily-favored U.S. team of Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret. It has also been home to multiple Japan Opens, Japan men’s and women’s amateur championships and the 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, won by Matsuyama — earning him his first invitation to the Masters the following year.

The East Course has made Golf Digest’s top 100 courses in the world and underwent a renovation in 2016 by Tom and Logan Fazio. It measures 7,466 yards and features the Japanese dual green system, meaning each hole has two greens, one used for summer play and the other in the winter.

The favorite is out

Spain’s Jon Rahm figured to be a strong bet to win the gold medal, given his recent form that included a victory at the U.S. Open and a T-3 at The Open. But prior to leaving for Tokyo, Rahm tested positive for COVID-19, ending his dream of representing his country in the Olympic Games.

Rahm’s withdrawal — along with that of Bryson DeChambeau, who also tested positive for COVID-19 — means a rocky start for a tournament that expected to see both players figure prominently. This is Rahm’s second COVID-19 withdrawal; he was forced out of the Memorial in June after three rounds of an event in which he led by six strokes going into the final round.

Given his positive test there, Rahm would have no longer been required to test on the PGA Tour for at least three months. The Tour actually had plans starting last week to halt its testing program.

But the Olympics required a series of tests and Rahm is out. Spain will still have two competitors, with Jorge Campillo a late add who will join Adri Arnaus.

The Americans

Dustin Johnson would have qualified, but he announced in March he would be skipping the Olympics. Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele are top-10 in the world and will be considered among the favorites to win the event — or at least earn a medal. Patrick Reed, who is replacing DeChambeau, has fallen to 13th but was ninth when the Olympic cutoff occurred on June 21. He’s the only American to have competed at Rio in 2016, when he tied for 11th. Both Morikawa and Schauffele have Japanese family ties, which heightened their interest in competing.

What will DeChambeau do next?

He won’t be competing in the Olympics, and perhaps an eventful month that included a back-nine blow up at the U.S. Open, a caddie break-up at the Rocket Mortgage and then a dust-up with his equipment manufacturer at The Open (for which DeChambeau apologized), this will be a welcome break. DeChambeau was in need of a re-set anyway, and will get that chance.

Captain America

Reed appears excited about the opportunity that was presented when DeChambeau had to withdraw and will endure quite a few hassles to make it happen. He was required to go through a prolonged testing process that won’t get him to Tokyo until Wednesday, which means he will not have time for a practice round.

Little time to celebrate

Fresh off his Open victory — and second major championship — Morikawa now takes a shot at Olympic glory. He became just the eighth player to win two majors before the age of 25 as well as becoming the first to win two majors in his debut appearance in each.

As for the Olympics, Morikawa was certainly excited about the prospects when he qualified.

“It’s going to be one of the best things of my life,” he said. “To think back that I was an amateur two years ago, literally two years ago, and to be on this team and heading to Tokyo puts a smile on my face. I’m really excited.”

The local favorite

A lot of attention will be focused on Matsuyama, who became the first Japanese male golfer to win a major championship when he captured the Masters in April. Matsuyama, who won the 2009 Japan Junior Championship and the Asia-Pacific Amateur at the same course in 2010 (and then defended his title a year later in Singapore), has had little success since his victory at Augusta National. He tested positive for COVID-19 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, which caused him to skip The Open. Rikuya Hoshino, ranked 76th in the world, is the other Japanese player in the field.

Keeping gold in Great Britain

Justin Rose is not in Tokyo to defend his Gold from Rio, but fellow Englishmen Tommy Fleetwood and Paul Casey are determined to keep the medal for the United Kingdom. Both players have come across as more than eager for this opportunity, spurred on by the joy shown by Rose.

“What came from that was the surprise of how proud Justin was and the emotions he felt from winning,” Fleetwood said. “He spoke to me about it a lot. I just think it was really cool seeing his face light up and hearing him talk about how he felt about not only competing in Olympics but being an Olympic gold medalist. It was very, very cool seeing him and watching him talk about it.”

Fleetwood added that “you’re not just playing as an individual, you’re playing for the nation. I don’t know that we would see that as pressure. We would see that as a proud moment and something that we’re, really, really excited about. It is fantastic that we’ve had a gold medalist for our sport, and I’m sure we would just absolutely love to keep that going.”

Growing the game

Juvic Pagunsan is the sort of player golf’s leaders had in mind when they began pushing for inclusion in the Olympics more than 15 years ago. It wasn’t all about the top names; part of the plan was to inspire Olympic participation in countries where golf might have otherwise been underserved.

Pagunsan is 43 and from the Philippines. He has played most of his golf on the Japan Tour, where earlier this year he won his first title, the 2021 Gateway to The Open Mizuno Open. He used only 11 clubs and had to carry his own bag due to COVID-19 restrictions, which did not allow caddies. That victory got him into The Open but he elected to skip the tournament at Royal St. George’s in order to prepare for the Olympics.

Team Norway

Viktor Hovland and Kristian Krogh Johannessen will represent Norway at the Olympics. They have known each other for years. Johannessen has been somewhat of a mentor to Hovland, who played college golf at Oklahoma State and has won twice on the PGA Tour. They partnered at the 2013 European Boys event.

“We have a very rich Olympic tradition,” Hovland said. “Now, with golf being an Olympic sport, I think it would be great for people back home to just get into the sport.”

The ultimate pressure

How important is the Olympics to Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim? The South Koreans are both prominent players on the PGA Tour. Each decided to skip The Open in order to be better prepared for the Olympic tournament. And it’s not just the medals they covet: Earning a spot on the podium means an exemption from military service.

Both Im and Kim are subject to compulsory military duty called conscription in South Korea. Males ages 18 to 28 are required to serve at some point. Sangmoon Bae was on the International Presidents Cup team in 2015, his last professional event before his mandatory service. He came back to golf and won on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour. But it has been a struggle to regain his place. Bae barely played during his two years of service.

The way to avoid military service? Win an Olympic medal.

The perks

Gold, silver and bronze medals are the obvious prizes for Olympic glory. There is no prize money.

For those competing in the tournament, world ranking points are being offered. But it appears that the Olympic competition will have a strength of field that offers fewer than 50 world ranking points to the winner, a number that was decreased due to the loss of Rahm and DeChambeau. That would put the Olympics in line with a tournament such as the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Those points can be particularly important to those players farther down the list.

The tournament is also considered an official event on the European Tour and a victory would offer full status there. The winner of the tournament will also receive a one-year exemption into the major championships and the Players Championship, while the medalists are exempt from local or first-stage qualifying for the U.S. Open.

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SMU-UCF moves to Wed. in 2nd hurricane delay

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SMU-UCF moves to Wed. in 2nd hurricane delay

UCF‘s home game against SMU in Orlando, Florida, has changed dates for a second time because of the damage caused by Hurricane Ian this week. The Knights will now host the Mustangs on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the schools announced.

The game had originally been pushed back from Saturday to Sunday because of the threat of the impending storm, but the flooding and general havoc caused by the hurricane that swept across Florida on Wednesday led to the contest being moved again.

Both schools had a bye on the weekend of Oct. 8, allowing for their American Athletic Conference opener to be pushed back.

At least nine people have been confirmed dead in the United States as a result of the hurricane — a number that is almost certain to increase as officials confirm more deaths and search for people. More than 2 million people in Florida have lost power this week.

UCF enters the game 3-1 after defeating Georgia Tech on Saturday. SMU comes in at 2-2 after back-to-back losses at Maryland and to TCU at home.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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The biggest regular-season series in a decade? Why Mets-Braves showdown could shake up October

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The biggest regular-season series in a decade? Why Mets-Braves showdown could shake up October

The fact that there is a division title hanging in the balance as the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves meet this weekend might come as a surprise for anyone who was watching the National League East standings earlier this season. What was once a 10.5-game lead for New York in early June and still as large as seven games on Aug. 10 has turned into a down-to-the-wire battle, with both teams chasing 100 wins in one of the best division races of the wild-card era.

But while Mets fans are likely a tad stressed by this stretch run, their star first baseman begs to differ.

“This is fun — this is really, really fun, being in a race like this,” Pete Alonso said Tuesday after a Mets loss and Braves win briefly tied the teams for first place.

Luckily for baseball fans, the two teams square off for one final series this weekend in Atlanta that will start with New York a game up in the standings. Due to the unknown aftereffects of Hurricane Ian, the exact schedule could change, but an improved forecast makes it seem more likely they’ll play all three games this weekend.

Rain delayed or not, the series sets up as the biggest of the 2022 regular season, about as big as you can get in this new 12-team postseason world — and, arguably, the most important regular-season series since at least 2012 (more on that in a minute).

Watch: Mets-Braves on Sunday Night Baseball, 7 ET

Yes, both teams have clinched playoff spots, but given the ramifications of winning the division and receiving a first-round bye compared to having to use your best starters out of the gate in a best-of-three wild-card series — where anything can happen — both teams desperately want to win the division, and which one does will shape the shape the entire MLB postseason.

“The hope is to have a good series against New York this weekend,” Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. said Tuesday. “The division is on the line.”

One advantage for the Mets: They lead the season series 9-7, so they need to win only one of the three games to clinch the season series, which would give them the tiebreaker edge and the division title if the two teams finish with the same record (tiebreaker games have sadly been eliminated). Both teams have their rotations lined up, with Chris Bassitt, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer scheduled to face Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Charlie Morton, although the Braves will be without Rookie of the Year candidate Spencer Strider, who is on the injured list with a strained oblique. The Mets have also are calling up their top prospect, catcher Francisco Alvarez for the series.

Outside of eliminating the risk of having your season end three days into the playoffs, the biggest key in avoiding the wild-card series is what it does to your rotation for the next round — especially since there are fewer off days in this year’s postseason after the schedule was condensed because of the lockout. The best-of-five division series, for example, will be played over a potential six days rather than seven.

Here’s how the Braves playoff rotation lines up if they don’t win the division:

Friday, Oct. 7, WC Game 1: Max Fried

Saturday, Oct. 8, WC Game 2: Kyle Wright

Sunday, Oct. 9, WC Game 3: Charlie Morton

Then if they advance, in the division series:

Tuesday, Oct. 11, NLDS Game 1: Bryce Elder/Jake Odorizzi or Morton

Wednesday, Oct. 12, NLDS Game 2: Fried

Friday, Oct: 14, NLDS Game 3: Wright

Saturday, Oct. 15, NLDS Game 4: Morton or Elder/Odorizzi

Sunday, Oct. 16, NLDS Game 5: Game 1 starter

Now, the Braves are holding out hope that Strider can return in the postseason, although given the nature of oblique injuries, that feels a little ambitious for at least the first couple of rounds. But you can see the impact: If you have to play in the wild-card series, and are fortunate enough to move on, you’re going to end up using your No. 3 or 4 starter twice in the division series if it goes the distance. That’s an even bigger deal for Atlanta if Strider is sidelined and it’s the rookie Elder or the struggling veteran Odorizzi making that extra start instead of Fried.

The Mets have a deep rotation as well, but they would certainly prefer deGrom lined up to start twice in the division series:

Friday, Oct. 7, WC Game 1: Jacob deGrom

Saturday, Oct. 8, WC Game 2: Max Scherzer

Sunday, Oct. 9, WC Game 3: Chris Bassitt

Then in the division series:

Tuesday, Oct. 11, NLDS Game 1: Taijuan Walker/Carlos Carrasco or Bassitt

Wednesday, Oct. 12, NLDS Game 2: deGrom

Friday, Oct: 14, NLDS Game 3: Scherzer

Saturday, Oct. 15, NLDS Game 4: Bassitt or Walker/Carrasco

Sunday, Oct. 16, NLDS Game 5: Game 1 starter

The one caveat here is it’s possible the Game 2 starter could come back and start Game 5 on three days of rest. That’s rarely done these days, however, and even last postseason when Morton broke his leg in Game 1 of the World Series the Braves elected to give starts to Tucker Davidson and Dylan Lee rather than pitch anybody on short rest.

Playing in the Wild Card Series isn’t necessarily a sentence to an early exit. The Nationals won when it was a single game in 2019 — in which they used both Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg — and ended up going all the way. (It did help that the NLCS was a four-game sweep, giving their staff a few extra days of rest heading into the World Series.)

But there’s another incentive to avoiding the wild-card series: which side of the bracket the division runner-up will end up in. The division winner will be the No. 2 seed in the National League and play the St. Louis Cardinals or the third wild-card team (most likely the Philadelphia Phillies or Milwaukee Brewers) in the NLDS. The division runner-up gets the No. 4 seed, would have to play the San Diego Padres (the likely No. 5 seed) in the wild-card round — and then the 107-win (and counting) Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, having just used their top two starters to get there in the first place.

Winning the division also delays starting the clock on the fatigue factor for your pitching staff. While you will hear some mention that the days off between the end of the regular season and the start of the division series can hurt a team — this year, that would be five days — there is no evidence that’s the case. But giving at least your top two starters one fewer start and some extra days off? That sounds like a very good thing in today’s max-effort pitching world.

Look at what happened to the Dodgers last season: They lost that epic NL West race to the San Francisco Giants and started Scherzer in the wild-card game, which meant he couldn’t start again until Game 3 of the NLDS against San Francisco. With the Dodgers down 2-1 in the series, Walker Buehler started Game 4 on short rest and then they used Julio Urias and Scherzer in relief in Game 5.

You can debate some of Dave Roberts’ choices there, but after starting Game 2 of the NLCS against the Braves (two days after his relief appearance) and lasting just 4⅓ innings in a game the Dodgers lost, Scherzer came up with a dead arm and was unable to start Game 6 of the series — which Buehler started again on short rest and pitched poorly as the Dodgers lost and went home.

Bottom line: The less scrambling you have to do with your staff, the better — and, again, this year’s schedule makes it more difficult to do what the Dodgers tried to do last year anyway, which was use their three healthy starters and bullpen their way through the fourth spot in the rotation (or use somebody on short rest).

Which team would benefit more from the bye week, allowing some extra rest for their pitchers? I’d probably say the Mets, given the health issues deGrom and Scherzer have had this season. Plus, deGrom is coming off his worst start since 2019 with the lowly A’s tagging him for five runs in four innings. This is an extremely small sample, but note his ERAs this season:

4 days of rest: 4.15 (three starts)

5 days of rest: 3.52 (four starts)

6+ days of rest: 1.00 (three starts)

Scherzer has good ERAs at all three levels, but check out his OPS and strikeout-to-walk ratio:

4 days of rest: .602 OPS, 4.36 SO-to-BB

5 days of rest: .533 OPS, 8.33 SO-to-BB

6+ days of rest: .460 OPS, 33.0 SO-to-BB

Seems like getting them a little extra rest could be a big deal in how far the Mets go.

So we’re set up for a big series. Now back to my statement of the biggest regular-season series in a decade. I went back to the start of the wild-card game era in 2012 and checked out the tightest division races each full season (no, wild-card races don’t count) and the records heading into the final series those teams played against each other. Here are the closest comparisons.

2022 NL East

New York: 98-58
Atlanta: 97-59

Date: Sept. 30-Oct. 2

2021 NL West

San Francisco: 85-49
Los Angeles: 85-49

Date: Sept. 3-5

An epic race, but the final matchup came early in September — the two didn’t play each other in their final 25 games.

2018 NL Central

Chicago: 83-59
Milwaukee: 82-62

Date: Sept. 10-12

This was the season we ended with two division ties, as the Dodgers and Rockies both finished 91-71 in the NL West. The Brewers won their final eight games (including the tiebreaker) to finally catch the Cubs, but the two clubs last played Sept. 10-12.

2016 AL East

Boston: 85-64
Baltimore: 82-67

Date: Sept. 19-22

The Red Sox were three up on the Orioles when they started a four-game series on Sept. 19. The Red Sox took all four to essentially wrap up the division.

2015 NL Central

St. Louis: 98-58
Pittsburgh: 95-61

Date: Sept. 28-30

St. Louis and Pittsburgh did meet in the next-to-last series of the season. The Cardinals won the first game and then after a rainout they split a doubleheader, clinching the division for St. Louis.

2014 AL Central

Detroit: 84-68
Kansas City: 83-69

Date: Sept. 19-21

The Tigers took the first two games of a three-game series and held on to win the division by one game.

2013 NL Central

Pittsburgh: 81-58
St. Louis: 80-60

Date: Sept. 6-8

The Cardinals swept a three-game series and never relinquished the lead, winning the division by three games.

2012 AL West

Texas: 93-66
Oakland: 91-68

Date: Oct. 1-3

Finally, a series to rival this Mets-Braves matchup — although the two clubs weren’t quite as strong. They met in Oakland for the final series of the season and the A’s took all three games to capture the division.

So there you have it. This Mets-Braves series tracks as the important regular-season series since at least 2012 — and since these teams are better than the A’s and Rangers, it feels even bigger than that one, even if both teams have another series to finish the season.

There are big names and big stars slated to pitch. It involves two of the top franchises in the sport. The implications also go beyond just New York and Atlanta — like, to Los Angeles, where the Dodgers probably aren’t too anxious to face deGrom and Scherzer in a best-of-five series. Alonso is ready. I can’t wait to see how Acuna and Austin Riley and Michael Harris II perform in these big moments. This is baseball at its regular-season best.

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Toronto out and Detroit in? Teams most likely to rise and fall in the playoff race

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Toronto out and Detroit in? Teams most likely to rise and fall in the playoff race

In hockey, it’s hard to go from the outhouse to the penthouse, because playoff contenders refuse to move out.

Of the 16 teams that made the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, 12 of them were in the midst of multiyear postseason appearance streaks. If you include the COVID-19 bubble qualification series in 2020 — when the NHL allowed 24 teams to advance to the postseason — the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs since the 2005-06 season, when Sidney Crosby was a rookie. The Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators have eight-season streaks. The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs have qualified in six straight seasons.

The Colorado Avalanche (5), Tampa Bay Lightning (5), Carolina Hurricanes (4), St. Louis Blues (4), Edmonton Oilers (3), Florida Panthers (3) and Minnesota Wild (3) all have streaks going. The only postseason newbies last year: the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers. And the Stars played for the Stanley Cup in 2020!

Meanwhile, take a look at the 10 worst teams at the end of the 2019-20 season. Only two have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs since then: the Montreal Canadiens, who emerged from the all-Canadian North Division to play for the Cup in 2021 before spiraling into a rebuild; and the Kings, who made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2017-18.

Yet every year, there’s hope — that one of the “sure things” falls down the standings to open up a playoff spot for an upstart. That one of the lottery teams is suddenly ahead of schedule on its rebuild and surprises with a playoff berth.

Here’s a look at the most likely candidates to miss the playoffs — and the most likely to leap into those open spots — in each division for the 2022-23 season.

How to watch the 2022-23 NHL season on ESPN networks — including 103 exclusive games and the out-of-market package (over 1,050 games)

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