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Pass the Remote

More golf on television over the last two decades hasn’t necessarily led to better coverage of the sport

By: Ben Wright

I count it as one of the greatest privileges of my life that I have and will be able to watch and wonder at the sheer, blinding brilliance of Tiger Woods without having to fight the enormous crowds that follow him day in, day out, worshipping in his wake. The tragedy is that Woods has become too big for the game. Because of his colossal effect on television ratings, tournaments wither and die without his presence. I miss most Jack Vickers’ International at the incomparably beautiful Castle Pines Golf Club in Colorado.

To pay for the increased rights fees networks have to pony up in the Tiger era, they have to air more and more advertisements. Consequently, televised golf has become less and less pleasant to watch because of the increasing frequency and duration of the commercial breaks. For the life of me, I cannot understand that if Augusta National Golf Club can agree with their sponsors to limit the duration, why on earth every other sport that relies on the continuity of the action for its appeal cannot do the same. But instead we are forced to invest in TiVo. I prefer the mute button, but using it still threatens to drive me to violence or drink!

The biggest change in televised golf over the past two decades was the birth of the Golf Channel, which has been a boon to golf junkies. But its recent contract with the PGA Tour has caused such a saturation of the airwaves that what little quality remained has been replaced by quantity. Since 1988 tournament coverage has increased more than fivefold—in 2008 there will be more than 2,000 hours of televised golf on the air.

That’s a lot of time to fill. Years ago, CBS producer-director Frank Chirkinian invented Gary McCord and me in an attempt to leaven with humor those cable Thursdays and Fridays when there was absolutely no movement on the leader board. But the Golf Channel plods through every one, and may even do so for the 15-year duration of its contract.

I believe PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem decreed that where possible tour players rather than journalists should be chosen to commentate, which is why so many broadcasts today lack story lines and have become a series of disconnected jottings. Of course there are a few notable exceptions, like Johnny Miller. Former CBS analyst Lanny Wadkins once wrote that I should never have been allowed to commentate because I never had been a good enough player. Henry Longhurst would have turned over in his grave if he had heard that one.

I was once present when the president of CBS Sports ranted at the great Chirkinian: “Frank, I don’t give a damn about the quality of your golf programs. Just get the commercials in them in the right places!” In the decade or so since that terrifying remark, the screen has been cluttered beyond belief, with so many visual gizmos that I often wonder if they will ever get out of the way so that we can just see the ball go in the hole.
Is that too much to ask? 

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