21ST-CENTURY GOLF

(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, November 12 & 26, 2003)

With the World Series in the books again, I'm counting the seconds until Opening Day 2004. As an incurable fanatic, I see the first day of the baseball season as the beginning of fresh hopes and new dreams. Who knows? Two thousand four could be the year when the Cubs go all the way, for the first time since 1945. Or the Red Sox might actually win the final game of the Series, which they haven't done since 1918. Of course, the mountains could also crumble and the world might actually come to an end!

Okay, so maybe baseball isn't all that vital to life on this planet, but I do miss the fun of watching 18 healthy young athletes display their skills on a perfectly manicured field. And since no other team sport comes close to the refinements of baseball, I sometimes turn to another game in which players swing a long club at a small white ball on a field of green. I'm talking about golf.

Still, watching golf on TV leaves a lot to be desired. Some of it has to do with the pace of the game, which Mark Twain described as "a good walk spoiled." But while I enjoy seeing golfers ply their trade, network tournament coverage doesn't do much for me. The reasons are simple: a scarcity of graphics and a lack of enthusiasm from on-air staff.

Since the mid-1990s, most sports broadcasts come with a constant display of scores and other statistics. Making data available to home viewers that people in the stands have always enjoyed certainly enhances the experience of watching sports on television, at least for me.

Almost all sports but golf, that is.

The tradition-bound PGA seems determined that everyone pay total attention to every little thing on the screen. (Careful, I think they're going to test us later!) The only difference between watching a golf tournament in 2003, as opposed to the 1950s, is the quality of the bit of graphics they do run. It sure isn't the quantity!

Even if you watch the "action" closely, you still miss a lot of what's going on, since the nature of the game and limitations of reporting mean a lot of detail is overlooked, including most of the contenders in the field. Broadcasters tend to concentrate on a handful of leaders and ignore the rest of the people in the tournament. The few exceptions are the occasional celebrities who've managed to garner headlines beyond their prowess in the game.

For a while, Casey Martin got a lot of attention because of the notoriety of his court case off the links. Now that the Supreme Court has acknowledged his right to use a cart during tournaments, the blush is off the rose, and he only gets screen time when he's up there "in the hunt."

Another golfer who can stir things up, though for very different reasons, is John Daly, who usually manages to grab a lot of camera time, no matter how he does in a tournament. Trouble is, as talented as he is, his scores tend to mirror his infamous roller-coaster lifestyle. You have to give the guy credit for tenacity, but I can't help wondering how much more he might accomplish if he were as disciplined as Tiger Woods or David Duval.

Before his untimely death in a freak airplane accident, Payne Stewart always managed to grab the spotlight, thanks to his colorful clothes and outgoing personality. It was deliberate, of course. He acknowledged that he put on his first pair of lavender knickers and his jaunty tam-o-shanter in a ploy to garner attention in a crowded sport where the only other way to get noticed was to outplay everyone else.

Jesper Parnevik's style isn't quite as offbeat as Stewart's was, but his colorful outfits and pushed-up ballcaps stand out among players who tend to dress, if not conservatively, then very much uniformly. And Parnevik came by his light-hearted persona naturally, since his father, Bo, is a famous comedian in their native Sweden.

With so much style roiling the pot at a lot of PGA events, you'd think people at the network might get the hint and add some pizazz to the mix too. Unfortunately, their announcers and commentators tend to stick with the same sober script and subdued cadence that were the standard back in the days of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, even before Arnold Palmer and his "army," "Golden Bear" Jack Nicklaus and "Super Mex" Lee Trevino injected excitement into the game.

The sport can still boast a bumper crop of new young superstars, but when Tiger doesn't compete in a particular tournament, the ratings reflect it. The latest generation of fans isn't about to watch something without all the bells and whistles available to broadcasters these days. And it sure would be nice for some of us old folks to know a little bit more about what's going on in the tournament.

If the PGA wants to expand their viewing audience, they don't have to keep trying to talk Tiger into playing a few more tournaments. What they could do is kick up those graphics more than a notch and let the "talking heads" do more than comment dryly on the obvious. So in the interest of supporting one of my second-favorite sports, following are a few of my ideas for making golf a lot more watchable for fans of every age.

First, I’ll admit that golf can be a fascinating pastime, especially for participants. But viewing television broadcasts of a golf tournament can be akin to watching paint dry, especially when I don't have a "horse" in that particular "race." What broadcasters need to understand is that the trick to televising such a cerebral sport is to inject the same level of enthusiasm and energy into the reporting and camera work that the players experience on the links. If the networks would do that, they could increase their ratings for most tournaments, even those in which Tiger Woods and a handful of other stars don't compete.

The first thing they need to do is give commentators permission to go a little crazy once in a while. They need to inject some energy into their delivery, be unpredictable, even controversial, at times. Presently, the sideline reporters seem compelled to speak in a subdued voice, ostensibly out of respect for the players, who require total silence in order to concentrate on their shot.

I once read an article that said no such restraint is practiced in Asia, in spite of the fact that golf has been raised to an almost sacred level in that part of the world. According to the article, both spectators and broadcasters in the far east express their enthusiasm as loudly as they can, anytime they feel like it, a practice which tends to rattle visiting players from the west.

Though driven by a similar respect for the game, Americans act as if they're in church instead of on the course. I wonder how much of that attitude is prompted by guilt over the fact that golf is the only game that both professionals and amateurs play on Sunday mornings. This view of the sport as a religious ritual is probably the reason even the anchors back in golf central speak in hushed voices during play, as if the sound of a normal voice will upset the golf gods.

Maybe announcers could put a little more life into the program if they tried taking a generous dose of Jesper Parnevik's trademark Lifizz nutritional supplements before they start calling the action. They could certainly use a nip to jazz up their stiff on-air personas.

After all, golf, like baseball, is still just a game. The folks who announce it should at least act like they're having fun. Then with the announcers shaking things up, the graphics artists can get busy too, so the average viewer will be able to tell what's going on in the competition.

Right now, the only time a golfer's status line appears on the screen is during a few short seconds, usually as he approaches a shot, not enough time for viewers to read anything at all. A lot of information is missing too, or at least hard to catch, such as the player's standing in the tournament. And you have to listen closely to learn the par for the hole or the number of shots the player has already made--if they share those details at all. Then when the ball is holed, the announcer often fails to mention the updated score and it's rarely displayed on the screen.

Every few minutes, they show the first two pages of the leaderboard, with current scores for the top 14 players. If you want to know how anyone else in the tournament is doing, you might be able to catch the full leaderboard every half hour--or not. With the total lack of "shrift" producers give to players number 15 on down, the viewer has to wonder sometimes if the rest of the field dropped out of the tournament en masse.

It's easy to get the impression that networks expect viewers to sit quietly and listen carefully to every little word. But these days people simply don't watch TV like that, even golf tournaments. If producers want a larger audience, they have to cater to popular tastes today.

They might start by displaying each player's current tournament data as long as that person appears on the screen. They can also run the full leaderboard in a constant crawl at the top or bottom of the screen. By arranging this list in alphabetical order rather than tournament standing, the producers can easily make updates and viewers can keep up with their favorite players.

The camera people can do better too. Now they'll focus on the ball as it makes its arc and just as it lands, then they often switch to another golfer without showing the ball's location on the fairway. If they would pan the remaining length of the fairway from the point where the ball landed, viewers could get an idea how far the ball is from the green.

These are a few of the things that might make golf more interesting to watch, especially for all those young people being lured into the game by the new crop of superstars like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie. It's about time the old guard stepped back and made room for a new generation that just wants to breathe life into some of the stodgier traditions.

Meanwhile, I have one more thing to say about updating tradition. During the PGA's rancorous battle to keep Casey Martin's mechanical cart off the pro tour, Jack Nicklaus was one of the most vocal opponents of civil rights for disabled people who happen to play golf well. Now I'm seeing a TV ad Nicklaus made for the company that manufactures the mechanical hip that keeps the "Golden Bear" walking upright so he can compete on the Senior Tour.

It seems to me the only difference between Nicklaus's surgically implanted joint and Martin's electric wheels is visibility. Both appliances help these men move with greater ease on their respective tours.

Though he got his hip two years before the Supreme Court upheld a disabled golfer's right to use a cart on the pro tour, Nicklaus claims the legal decision applies only to Martin and no other disabled person. I wonder what Nicklaus would say if the PGA declared that people who walk with the aid of a surgically implanted device will be barred from playing the game on a competitive level.

Now, that would certainly put the cleats on a different foot!

 


Debbie Jordan