News & Opinion

Masters broadcast tiptoes into 21st century

The nostalgic feeling that envelops fans as they saunter onto the manicured lawns of Augusta National Golf Club is as carefully cultivated as the course itself.

There are no corporate tents, logos or signs in view. Concession prices seem frozen in the 1990s. Scoreboards are updated by hand. Ticket holders are searched at the gates to prohibit potentially disruptive cellphones.

The Masters Tournament, by choice, largely remains an analog production in a digital age. From the antebellum-style wooden clubhouse to the club’s genteel vibe, the Masters offers a viewing experience akin to stepping into a time warp.

Mostly, that’s an undeniable part of the event’s charm. Yet when it comes to the Masters television broadcast, which remains rooted in minimalist technology, less surely isn’t more.

Plenty has been written about the tournament’s tiny broadcast window when compared to the all-day coverage offered at the three other major championships. For instance, coverage of the Masters’ first and second rounds on ESPN doesn’t begin until 3 p.m. ET. But that’s hardly the only instance in which the event remains encamped in the 20th century.

Sure, because of the limited commercial time – four minutes per hour – set aside for advertising, the broadcasts represent a breath of fresh air for many viewers. But an intentionally stripped-down approach with regard to cutting-edge graphics and technical toys leaves fans at home hankering for more.

This year, adding an element that has been popular on week-to-week PGA Tour broadcasts for some time, the Masters finally will allow the broadcasters at ESPN and CBS to use hugely popular shot-tracing technology on five of the last 10 tees. It had been used in the past in Masters online coverage, but never on TV.

“We’re trying to blend in the technology with our traditional coverage,” said Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports.

Here’s a vote for far more of the former. The addition of shot-tracing, which leaves a colored arc across the TV screen to trace the ball flight, was met with universal applause from the broadcasters themselves.

“The tracer technology showing up at Augusta is the greatest thing since, whatever, sliced bread,” ESPN’s Curtis Strange said.

Speaking of slices, imagine watching the majestic arc off the driver of Bubba Watson as he carves a left-handed power fade around the corner of the par-5 13th, a hole that seems perfect for the shot-tracing device.

Strange recalls his reaction upon seeing Tiger Woods play recently in the Valspar Championship.

“He hit a tee shot, and there was no tracer on it, and I was dumbfounded,” Strange said. “I've been addicted to it. I think it's fantastic.

“Seriously, I want to know where the ball is going now on the air, and especially when the guy hits it off line. I mean, it was invented for a guy like Bubba Watson.”

The tracer will be used on the tees at Nos. 9, 10, 13, 15 and 18. As CBS Sports’ McManus put it, those are “holes that will really showcase the strategies of how the players are playing those holes.”

The five holes feature doglegs or fairway undulations of varying degrees, so the shot-tracing device should deliver some significant broadcasting eye candy.

The Masters brass, of course, manage the tournament with an iron hand, dictating terms that cannot be used by broadcasters – e.g., patrons, not fans; second cut, not rough – and restricting the network in other areas. With the top-rated golf broadcast of the season, year in and year out, Masters officials have the leverage to force the networks to sign off on any stipulation. It’s a broadcasting pre-nup, and with regard to the rights owned by CBS, the contract reportedly is renewed only on an annual basis.

Perhaps, slowly, they are emerging from their anti-tech cave … and appeasing those watching from our broadcasting man caves.

“You know, it's their court and their ball, and they do what they want to with it, and I think it's good,” Strange said. “It's really good for the viewer, because the viewer that watches golf every week has come to not only accept, but embrace, this new technology. And they expect it.”

Truth be told, golf should be using any technological wrinkle it can find to attract and retain viewers, right?

“When you're watching it, just like with the first-down line with football or with a score bug that's on the screen, we become so used to technology that enhances the viewing that when it isn't there, it's noticeable,” ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt said. “Shot tracer has become this sort of ubiquitous thing, and Augusta National hasn't just gone headfirst into the idea of technology and availing themselves of everything that they could.

“But I think that this is a move towards what you're talking about, the understanding that this enhances the viewing and people have come to expect it.”

Rightly ranked among golf’s greatest courses, Augusta National doesn’t need much enhancement, really, but the advent of shot-tracing technology has made it a baseline expectation for viewers. Sure, fans on the Augusta grounds might happily agree to leave their phones behind as a condition of admission, but those watching at home shouldn’t have to make technological sacrifices for no reason.

While the tournament often has been out front in terms of its online and cellphone offerings over the years, it still lags in other areas. For fans, it’s as maddening as it is inexplicable.

“I think you are slowly seeing them move in that direction,” Van Pelt said. “And as we know, they're going to move at the pace at which they're comfortable.”

Steve Elling, who first reported from the Masters in 2001, has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling