Kickoff time! Here are Week 1 picks for our football pool and golf ball challenge

BY RANDY YOUNGMAN

The So-Called Expert is still pickin’ and grinnin’, but this is a new year and a new contest with a new name and a new audience. Thanks to Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club and our generous corporate sponsors, there are great weekly prizes, too.

This is the inaugural week of “Randy Youngman’s Pigskin Challenge,” a weekly online NFL predictions contest against selected readers of California Golf and sister publication Golf News & Travel.

All you have to do to become eligible to challenge the So-Called Expert and be spotlighted in my weekly one-on-one Pigskin Challenge is send in a golf anecdote, golf horror story or golf joke, and I’ll choose the authors of the most entertaining submissions as this year’s 17 guest prognosticators.

That’s what John “J.T.” Thompson of Huntington Beach did to earn the honor of serving as guest prognosticator for Week 1 of the NFL regular season, which kicks off with the Sept. 5 showdown between the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and the division rival Dallas Cowboys.

If Thompson outpicks me – that is, picks more winners for the week – he’ll win a set of Winn club grips, a new Aldila shaft for his driver and five dozen golf balls donated by Bridgestone, Callaway, Nike, Srixon and TaylorMade.

It’s not too late for you to send in your golf story, either — e-mail them to randy@calgolfnews.com — because the guest prognosticators will be chosen on a weekly basis.

In addition, everybody can sign up to join our “California Golf Football Pool & Golf Ball Challenge” and match NFL picks weekly against me and all other contest participants by registering at calgolfnews/challenge. Select a username and a password, and you’re ready to pick the games.

Best record every week will win a $50 Roger Dunn/Golf Mart gift card, a set of Winn grips and five sleeves of golf balls. Best record for the season will win a stay-and-play package for two rooms at La Quinta Resort and Spa, plus five dozen golf balls to use while playing unlimited golf during the three-day, two-night stay.

Tell all of your friends and golf buddies about the contests. You have as good of a chance as anybody to win the prizes or, better yet, humble the So-Called Expert.

Thompson, a longtime Huntington Beach resident and avid golfer, earned the first chance to take me down by relating a story about what happened 10 years ago when a seemingly innocent 25-cent wager turned into a nightmare for one of his golf buddies at Costa Mesa Country Club.

Back then, Thompson and his buddies belonged to the CMCC men’s club and played every weekend. The group included several CPAs, a back surgeon and Thompson, president of Creative Network Services, a Huntington Beach company that sells computers and networks and specializes in data security and virtual IT. (See creativenetworks.net.)

“Each week we would gather and put together a (betting) game of some sort,” said Thompson, now the men’s club president at SeaCliff Country Club in Surf City. “The five of us would rotate the choice of game from player to player to give each of us a chance to think up some goofy way to take the others’ money.

“Keep in mind, we were not rich. Our typical bet was a quarter per person per hole. Even if you had a bad day, you could theoretically only lose $4.50.”

Theoretically. That is the key word.

On this particular day, it was accountant Randy O’Connor’s turn to name the betting game. “It was a new game,” Thompson said. “Each hole would be designated to one of the players, and it would rotate as the game went on. The designated player would be allowed to state what he thought his score would be on that hole, before he teed off.”

For example, if a player said he could make a par on a particular hole, and he did, his four playing partners each would have to pay him a quarter. If he made a bogey, he would have to pay his buddies a quarter. For each stroke after that, the bet doubled – 50 cents for a double-bogey, $1 for a triple-bogey, etc.

It was O’Connor’s hole when the fivesome arrived at No. 8 on the Mesa Linda Course, an innocent 114-yard par-3 with water fronting the green.

Randy announced he would make par on the hole.

“He proceeded to lay sod over his tee shot, “ Thompson recalled. “Kerplunk.”

He tried another shot from the tee, and again it ended with a splash.

“Instead of re-teeing again, he went down to the water’s edge to see if he could retrieve his second ball,” Thompson said. Randy couldn’t find it, so he dropped in front of the water to try to pitch his next shot (his fifth) onto the green.

“But it was a downslope in front of the water, and he proceeded to put ball after ball into the water,” Thompson said. “I was counting his shots.”

After O’Connor finally found the green and 2-putted to finish the hole, Thompson asked Randy what he had on the hole.

It was a 15.

“We all had a good laugh and gave him the once-over,” Thompson said.

When they got to No. 9, one of the other CPAs said to Thompson, “Are you going to tell him or am I?”

“Tell him what?” Thompson responded.

“I think he lost over $2,000 on the last hole,” the CPA said.

So they added up the damages. Stroke 8 was worth $4, stroke 9 was worth $8, then $16, then $32, then $64, then $128, then $256 and then $512 for the last putt when O’Connor holed out for 15.

So Randy owed $512 to each of his four playing partners – Thompson, Jep Pickett, Phil McNatt and Bob Ahern – or a total of $2,048.

On a 25-cent bet!

When they told O’Connor how much he owed, O’Connor was flabbergasted.

“That was the funniest part; he had no idea,” Thompson said. “Typical accountant, right? When we sat down (after the round), we started talking about making new car down payments and planning vacations. We were all laughing so hard, we had tears. For some reason, Randy didn’t think it was so funny.”

Fortunately, O’Connor’s buddies only made him buy the beers, but they reserved the right to remind him about his costly 15 on No. 8 at Mesa Linda every time they got together, on or off the course, the rest of their lives. McNatt even framed a newspaper article about the bet and surreptitiously nailed it to the wall of O’Connor’s office.

Thompson says that O’Connor has since moved out of Orange County and has a successful practice in Los Angeles.

Did he move because of all the grief?

“Maybe,” J.T. said, laughing.

The moral of the story?

“Be wary of 25-cent bets,” Thompson said.

And be wary of making your NFL picks public, J.T. Ready or not, it’s time for this week’s NFL predictions, with a lot of golf balls on the line.

Here are the So-Called Expert’s picks, noting the five games on which Thompson and I disagree:

Dallas Cowboys (8-8 in 2011) at New York Giants (9-7 in 2011): Giants. (Thompson picked Cowboys as his Upset of the Week.) I think Cowboys will rebound to make the playoffs this season, but I can’t go against a Super Bowl champion playing at home on national TV in the mid-week season opener.

San Francisco 49ers (13-3) at Green Bay Packers (15-1): Packers. Game of the Week. Hard to believe the Packers didn’t win it all last season after such a dominant regular season. Equally hard to believe the Giants won at Lambeau and at Candlestick en route to the Super Bowl. These two teams could wind up in the NFC title game this year.

San Diego Chargers (8-8) at Oakland Raiders (8-8): Chargers. Flip a coin on this Monday Night Football showdown. In case you don’t remember, these AFC West rivals tied for first with the Broncos last season, but Denver won the tie-breaker (Tim Tebow probably made it up) to advance to the playoffs. Is it really true Norv Turner didn’t get fired? Can you name the Raiders’ new coach, the team’s sixth in nine years? Me, either.

Indianapolis Colts (2-14) at Chicago Bears (8-8): Bears. Stanford star Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in the draft, inherits the impossible task of succeeding Peyton Manning in Indy.  At least the Colts stunk last year, so an improvement is inevitable. I’m still waiting for Bears QB Jay Cutler to become a star. Will this be the year?

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-9): Falcons. (Thompson picked the Chiefs.) Atlanta and QB Matt Ryan are always good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to advance. They’re also mediocre on the road, so don’t be surprised by upset here. Then again, Chiefs aren’t what they used to be at Arrowhead, as attested by 3-5 home mark a year ago.

Philadelphia Eagles (8-8) at Cleveland Browns (4-12): Eagles. Philly is loaded with offensive weapons in QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, but we saw how the “Dream Team” started out last year. I still hold Art Modell responsible for the continuing futility of Browns since he packed up the franchise and moved it to Baltimore.

St. Louis Rams (2-14) at Detroit Lions (10-6): Lions. Rout of the Week. A year ago, I predicted both perennial patsies would make surprising runs to the playoffs, so at least I was half-right. Rams made a great move in hiring Jeff Fisher as coach, but how quickly can he turn around the team? Last time Rams made the playoffs was 2004. Enough said.

New England Patriots (13-3) at Tennessee Titans (9-7): Patriots. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have dominated the AFC East in the past decade, and their offense continues to put up huge numbers, so expect another season of 11 or 12 victories — and then another playoff upset. Did anybody else enjoy watching the Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl again? At least Titans will be more interesting with Jake Locker at QB.

Buffalo Bills (6-10) at New York Jets (8-8): Bills. My Upset of the Week. (Thompson picked Jets.) I know that exhibition games don’t mean a lot, but Jets went 0-4 and were the first team in 35 years to go three exhibition games without a touchdown. Are Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow suddenly going to turn that around? That’s why I’m going with upset; it’s not an endorsement of Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) at Minnesota Vikings (3-13): Vikings. Do I have to pick a team to win this game? Blaine Gabbert vs. Christian Ponder?  Ponder that QB matchup. Ugh. Jacksonville RB Maurice Jones-Drew had a long hold out, and Minnesota TB Adrian Peterson is coming back from serious knee surgery. Ugh. Just let me know who wins.

Washington Redskins (5-11) at New Orleans Saints (13-3): Saints. Despite the fact the Saints have virtually all their important players back from the offense that broke NFL records for passing yards and total yards last season, there eventually has to be some fallout with Coach Sean Payton suspended for his role in “Bountygate.” Redskins are banking that rookie QB Robert Griffin III will stop the bleeding. At least he should be fun to watch.

Miami Dolphins (6-10) at Houston Texans (10-6): Texans. Will Houston be able to take the next step after making the playoffs last season for the first time in franchise history? Yes, if their skill players (QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster, WR Andre Johnson) all can remain healthy, which, of course, didn’t happen a year ago. All you need to know about Dolphins is that rookie Ryan Tannehill is starting QB.

Seattle Seahawks (7-9) at Arizona Cardinals (8-8): Cardinals. (Thompson picked Seahawks.) Both teams made surprising decisions about their starting quarterback: Seattle signed Packers backup Matt Flynn to big contract in the offseason and then chose rookie Russell Wilson as starter; Arizona gave up a lot of to acquire Kevin Kolb last season and then decided to go with John Skelton as starter. Seattle’s Pete Carroll is 14-18 in two seasons since leaving USC, so his job is on the line this season.

Carolina Panthers (6-10) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12): Panthers. A year ago, rookie QB Cam Newton made Carolina competitive. This year, he could turn them into winners. A year ago, Tampa Bay plummeted in the standings after a 10-victory season, resulting in many offseason changes, including the firing of Coach Rahim Morris and hiring of Greg Schiano. We’ll know a lot more after the season opener.

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) at Denver Broncos (8-8): Broncos. (Thompson picked Steelers.) This is the way I look at it: if the Broncos can upset Pittsburgh in the playoffs with Tim Tebow under center, they certainly have a chance to repeat the feat in the 2012 season opener with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning at QB. We don’t know how Manning will hold up after so many surgeries, but we also don’t know if Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger can keep playing through nagging injuries.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) at Baltimore Ravens (12-4): Ravens. Were it not for receiver Lee Evans dropping a touchdown pass in the end zone and kicker Billy Cundiff subsequently missing a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime, the Ravens – not the Patriots – would have been in the Super Bowl. Will they have enough to get in position again? Probably not. Will the Bengals make it back to the playoffs after a Cinderella season led by rookie QB Andy Dalton? Probably not. I like Ravens big in this Monday Night Football matchup.

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