Keeping Score

TV analysts struggle to find relevance

The greatest thing about televised sports is the absence of scripted action, the inherently unpredictable nature of live competition and the fallibility of the guys standing at the center of a spontaneous arena.

Yet, somehow, the Presidents Cup matches have turned into the most predictable template since NBC aired the storied, New York-based Law & Order series several years ago – and not just because actor Anthony Anderson, who starred in the show’s final season, handled the player introductions this week at the first tee.

In the long-running series and many of its popular spinoffs, the first 30 minutes dealt with crime and the latter 30 delved into punishment. That fairly describes the sequence of events at Liberty National Golf Club this week, too, over and over.

Each day has begun in similar fashion, including Saturday afternoon’s four-ball session. Former world No. 1 Jason Day jacked his opening tee shot so far left that his ball hit NBC’s TV tower on the 18th hole. Time after time, the overmatched International team sprayed balls all over the New Jersey shoreline during the first three days of play, especially off the No. 1 tee.

The now-predictable start has yielded a rare, predictable end: The heavily favored Americans all but wrapped up their 10th Presidents Cup title in 12 iterations of the one-sided event on Saturday, with NBC forced to shift into severe storytelling mode to make the broadcast even slightly compelling.

Scratch that. Mildly interesting and somewhat entertaining was the best the network could do as the blowout reached historic proportions after the Internationals won exactly one of the first 14 matches and trailed, 14½-3½, heading into today’s nearly moot singles session (scores: http://bit.ly/2xzUKfk).

Armed with a loaded roster of NBC personnel and their Golf Channel cousins, the broadcasters stitched together every bit of embroidery possible to keep fans from switching over to, well, anything else in the weekend sports spectrum. While sports remain the ultimate in reality TV, the outcome at Liberty National was a fait accompli by lunchtime Saturday.

As the Americans pummeled the opposition in the morning session, Golf Channel analyst Jerry Foltz ran into International team assistant Geoff Ogilvy on the course.

“[He] said if it keeps going like this, we might lose the crowd,” Foltz said. “I reminded him that Americans like a rout, as long as they’re winning.”

NBC hopes that Foltz is right, because International team captain Nick Price’s team has been outgunned, which doubtlessly prompted millions of fans to change channels. But given the scope of this disaster along the Hudson, the Internationals would have been sunk even with Sully Sullenberger as captain.

By the time the longest-running anchor tandem in golf took over around lunchtime on Saturday, zero drama remained for Johnny Miller and Dan Hicks to describe.

After Hicks noted that Day was 0-6-2 in his last eight Presidents Cup matches, the Aussie quickly ricocheted a drive from the first tee off the broadcast tower where Hicks was stationed. “You cannot believe how far left it is,” he said.

Those who had been watching all week could believe it. Earlier in the day, on the drivable par-4 12th hole, Day shoved a driver so far right, it was lost in a giant video scoreboard, and teammate Marc Leishman had to take a drop, perhaps 50 yards off the center line of the fairway, from somewhere near Hoboken. 

NBC’s newest hire, former Tour caddie Jim Mackay, added some sorely needed levity: “The greatest caddie in the world doesn’t have this yardage, so when your player looks at you, you go, ‘Trust your instincts, pro.’”

It became gallows humor at times, such as when Peter Jacobsen tried to contribute something positive about the Internationals in the afternoon session. 

“It is hard to kind of pinpoint a star [for the Internationals] at this point,” Hicks said.

“It is, and that’s why I was trying to find some glimmer of hope,” Jacobsen said.

NBC dropped in well-crafted feature segments on Liberty National, which was built on a toxic landfill site at the cost of $250 million, and nearby Ellis Island, which proved to be more interesting than the live golf. Media members in attendance toyed with potential headlines on Twitter, including “Thump at the Dump,” to entertain themselves.

Usually, the use of NBC’s split-screen format during TV commercials is a welcome addition. But the live play was so homely for the Internationals, all it did was ruin some perfectly good ad spots. When play lagged, NBC was quick to display a panoramic shot of the nearby Manhattan skyline or Statue of Liberty.

“It’s a course where you get so engrossed in the action, then you look up and go, ‘There’s the Statue of Liberty; there’s lower Manhattan; there’s the greatest city in the world,’ ” NBC host Mike Tirico said.

At one point, the PGA Tour tweeted a photo of the International coaching staff of Price, Ogilvy and Mike Weir as they stared down at a cellphone. The photo caption could have read, Can we change our flights to get out before dawn tomorrow?

How ugly was it at times? The morning pairing of Adam Scott and Adam Hadwin was 5 over through 14 holes, with three double bogeys on the card, and lost to Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson, 4 and 3. For the Internationals, the scoreboard was more obscene than a Jersey cabdriver’s language.

Fans made their own fun. They cheered Jhonny Vegas with a chorus of “Viva Las Vegas,” which made him smile, at least briefly. After all, his playing partner, struggling world No. 3 Hideki Matsuyama, would have been outplayed this week by Ann-Margret.

There wasn’t much left for NBC but to laud the inevitable winners and apply a tourniquet to the gushing ratings wound.

“This could be one of the great U.S. teams ever,” Miller said in a fit of hyperbole, because six of the Yanks are event rookies. “I think they're there. Right now, they just believe in themselves."

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


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