News & Opinion

CBS takes viewers inside golf’s Frat Pack

The emotion was obvious, audible and heartfelt.

In fact, during a week mostly filled with golf-inflicted pain and suffering, as Justin Thomas walked off the 72nd green with his first major championship all but assured, he ran into a familiar face who seemed more overcome by the moment than was the winner.

Seconds later, the squeaky, gleeful, near-falsetto voice from Jordan Spieth conveyed the day’s importance more than any televised shot or pithy tidbit offered by a network analyst.

Dressed in street clothes and a backwards ball cap, Spieth shook Thomas’ hand, gave him a hearty hug and squeaked in an octave they doubtlessly used as prepubescent pals on the junior golf circuit: “That’s the way to go. That is so awesome.”

In a week during which three days of drudgery was capped by a scintillating five-way fight down the back nine for the title, CBS was at its storytelling best during the waning moments of the 99th PGA Championship on Sunday night in Charlotte, N.C. The network didn’t so much save the best for last, but after the last, so to speak.

CBS never has been the best in broadcasting at wading into controversial topics, such as this week’s incredibly penal course setup, or rocking boats by emphasizing controversial moments, such as the 10-second count on Thomas’ cliffhanger putt to open the back nine. But Sunday reaffirmed that Jim Nantz and Co. can tell a story like nobody else. 

So, when Thomas finally claimed his first major, at last stepping onto a Grand Slam pedestal like longtime running mate Spieth, CBS was ready with reams of backstory context about their friendship. In TV terms, Thomas was little-buddy Gilligan to Spieth’s more dominant Skipper.

Despite playing for most of the past four years in Spieth’s considerable shadow, Thomas has done nothing but cheer on his best pal on tour. Now they’ve won consecutive titles at the British Open and PGA, and both were waiting behind the 18th green as the other walked off with the victory.

“I’ve admired his last few years how much he has been supportive of the other 20-somethings, particularly his good friend Jordan Spieth, who has gone ahead of him and won three majors,” Nantz said. “And he has celebrated with him every step of the way. Even with the three wins already this year, you always had the feeling that [Thomas] was a little bit in the shadow. 

“Now this has the makings of his coming out.”

More like busting out.

While four others who claimed a share of the lead on Sunday eventually folded, Thomas played the brutish last three holes at Quail Hollow Club in level par to lock down his first major title and fourth victory of the 2016-17 season. In fact, the bigger picture didn’t escape CBS, either.

“You might be looking at the player of the year,” Nantz said. “He’s the first one to win four, and he has a major in the mix.”

The network was ready with the details of the Thomas family DNA, too. Justin is the third of three PGA members. Grandfather Paul played in a few tour events, including logging some rounds alongside Arnold Palmer, and father Mike runs Harmony Landing Golf Course in Goshen, Ky. Justin joked during the awards ceremony that he has been running around the PGA Championship family hospitality area since age 7, when he watched Tiger Woods win the 2000 PGA in a memorable playoff against Bob May at Valhalla.

CBS caught all of the compelling moments, such as when Thomas hoisted the beastly winner’s trophy, the Wanamaker, turned to PGA officials and cracked: "I'm not strong enough to hold this thing up."

Spieth wasn’t the only notable player whom the CBS camera captured waiting behind the final green, either. Rickie Fowler and Bud Cauley, two other tour players from Thomas’ proximal peer group, also waited to slap his back in congratulations. 

For some fans, the dynamic of the Spieth/Thomas posse feels a bit foreign. After years of watching Tiger Woods grumble at everybody who dared threaten his reign, these guys go on spring-break vacations and boat around the Caribbean together, sort of like the real Skipper and Gilligan. 

“It’s a cool thing we have going on right now with the young golfers, and we’re all rooting for each other,” Thomas told CBS afterward. “If we can’t play well, we want the others to play well.”

As for the play-by-play coverage, CBS was solid, but not superlative. Perhaps the event’s defining moment came on the 10th hole, when Thomas left a 6-footer dangling on the lip. He waited several moments, walked away from the hole and began to pout.

About 12 or 13 seconds after the ball seemingly came to rest, depending on whose watch was being used, the ball toppled into the hole.

“Obviously, it just kind of snuck up on the hole,” Thomas said. “I kind of acted like a child and threw a little tantrum over there, and all of a sudden, it went in, so I didn’t look so dumb.”

CBS essentially whiffed by failing to adequately address the rule regarding the amount of time a player is allowed to wait while a putt is poised on the lip of the cup. In fact, it appeared that Thomas was debatably on the cusp of a violation that CBS never bothered to explain. Unlike with the TBS coverage all week, there apparently was no rules official on standby in the booth. Broadly speaking, the player is allowed 10 seconds after the ball stops moving (Rule 16-2, “Ball Overhanging Hole,” http://bit.ly/2vA4SBc).

Thomas’ ascent has transpired far more quickly, with few pauses. Nobody broadcasts more golf events than Nantz’s wingman, Nick Faldo, who also works a full schedule for NBC/Golf Channel. Faldo was quick to underscore something that Thomas said in January, shortly after shooting 59 en route to a victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

“At the beginning of the season, he said, ‘I’m ready to win the Masters,’ and I thought, Excuse me?” Faldo said. “But look at this. Four majors later, it looks like he’s in the driver’s seat.”

As for Fowler, who made a frenetic back-nine run to finish three shots back in T-5, he hugged Thomas behind the 18th and said, “Good playing, brother.”

No question, their group has become a semi-familial force. If their health holds up, they could be piling up major titles for two decades. After all, Spieth and Thomas were born three months apart, are both 24, and have amassed a combined career Grand Slam already. 

“That little group, who is going to be next?” Faldo said. “Rickie Fowler is maybe the next one on the list.”

That would surprise exactly nobody, and when it happens, you can bet that CBS will be ready with the intricate, interwoven, personal details.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling