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Golf And College Hoops: The Week In Sports

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: The Super Bowl is in the rearview mirror, time to go to court. Women's college basketball is heating up, and you know there's a dark horse pulling ahead of the usual suspects. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Thanks for being with us, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Who we talking about here? Who are the upstarts?

GOLDMAN: Say hello to the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, Scott.

SIMON: They got a great coach, right?

GOLDMAN: Say hello, would you please?

SIMON: Hello, Gamecocks.

GOLDMAN: Twenty-two and 0, ranked No. 1 in the country...

SIMON: (Laughter) I say that every morning here by the way to our staff. Hello, Gamecocks.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: They look away, but go ahead, yes?

GOLDMAN: For once we're talking about a school other than UConn or Tennessee or Stanford or Baylor at the very top of women's college basketball. The current success began in 2008 when Dawn Staley was hired as head coach. Now, she, of course - excuse me - she's the three-time Olympic gold medalist, a six-time WNBA All-Star. She was a winner as a player, and she has turned South Carolina into winners as a team. They are big and physical. They shine on defense. One of their key players is 6-foot-5 freshman A'ja Wilson. She was a 5-foot-10 guard in high school before a big growth spurt. So she's now a 6-foot-5 player who can dribble and shoot very well - heck of a player on a heck of a team.

SIMON: But the Gamecocks got to play UConn on Monday night, right?

GOLDMAN: They sure do - big road game. UConn, of course, currently rank No. 2, winner of nine national titles, including the last two. It's a regular season game, and we're still, you know, nearly two months away from the serious stuff - the Final Four - where these two teams could meet with a lot more on the line. But it is a litmus test for South Carolina in a so far fantastic season.

SIMON: Shift gears a little bit if we could. Charlie Sifford died this past week at the age of 92, bless him, a groundbreaking name in sports, one of the first great African-American golfers.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. First African-American to play on the PGA Tour, called the Jackie Robinson of golf for breaking the color barrier in the early 1960s. And Sifford once said in a Fresh Air interview the dangers he faced were greater than Robinson's in a sense. Robinson was somewhat distant from racist fans in baseball stadiums, but Sifford was separated by only a rope from people in galleries threatening him and taunting him. But he was said to have handled it with grace and dignity while certainly the people who hated him didn't.

SIMON: You know, I got to follow him around years ago one morning at the Western Open outside Chicago as he was on the senior's Tour - a cheerfully profane man.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: A real crowd favorite. It was a great way to start the day.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

SIMON: Let's stay with golf for a second. Tiger Woods had a very poignant tweet about Charlie Sifford this week.

(Reading) He's a terrible loss for golf and me personally. My grandfather is gone and we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man. I'll miss you Charlie.

A beautiful statement. Tiger Woods has not been golfing well in recent weeks, has he?

GOLDMAN: Oh boy. His back is hurting. He withdrew from another tournament this week. That's getting to be a common occurrence.

SIMON: He's been golfing better than us, but go ahead, yes?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, but I tell you what, the week before at a tournament in Phoenix, he did not look better than us. He's in the midst of yet another swing change, and at times it was embarrassing. He hit some shots near the green that made him look like an absolute duffer. So, yeah, he's in a bad way on the course right now.

SIMON: All these career records that were predicted at the age of 39, do we have to be a little bit more realistic in our assessment now?

GOLDMAN: I think so. He'll never be what he once was, which was breathtaking in his abilities. You know, he's got 14 major titles. His goal always has been breaking Jack Nicklaus' 18. That seems so far away now with a balky back and a balky swing and an aura that just doesn't exist anymore. He doesn't intimidate the other players the way he used to.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: My pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.