News & Opinion

Streaming adds to Masters moments

Who needs TV?

Not the folks at Augusta National. After Thursday’s opening round of the Masters, the same might be said by a few hundred thousand viewers, too.

Long-suffering fans have been acutely aware for years that the TV window for the Masters is the most maddening topic in golf broadcasting. Over the first two days, the broadcast on ESPN was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. ET, by which time the three other major championships would have been on the air for hours.

But on Thursday morning, at least for those with broadband access and a hankering to track the season’s biggest storyline, none of it mattered for once. With most of golf fandom starved for images of a revitalized Tiger Woods as he played his first Masters round in three years, the club delivered the goods in completely different fashion.

Stylish fashion, at that. In high-def, azalea pink.

Yes, Woods teed off in the morning wave, and his round was three-quarters complete before ESPN came on the air with live coverage. Thankfully, though, some wise head at Augusta National realized that the streaming coverage online represented the perfect bandage for a self-inflicted media wound.

Online offerings at the majors are nothing new, nor is the selection of feature groups for Internet coverage, but too often the designated groups have been the subject of ridicule and anger. Fans deserve to watch the key players, not some mostly irrelevant trio.

When the club announced Tuesday that Woods would play in one of the online feature groups during Thursday’s first round, excitement was evident. Mercifully, there would be no veritable blackout of the most eagerly anticipated round, by any player, in years.

Amazing, huh? Being competent enough to select the right feature group made all the difference for thousands of us. As it turns out, the online feed was even better than a traditional TV feed, because there were no commercials and each of Woods’ 73 strokes was piped into computers, tablets and phones across America.

Maybe online fare represents the future of sports-content delivery. You can’t go a week without reading some semi-obituary addressing the drop in cable-TV subscribers, or the declining revenues at ESPN and other cable-dependent outlets. Perhaps establishing their own delivery pipeline will prove to be prescient.

Whatever it portends, the streaming coverage was a solid, steady effort on Thursday, thanks to PGA Tour veterans Davis Love III and Bill Kratzert, who supplied color and analysis, and Andrew Catalon, who served as the primary host. They were a little light on helpful embellishments, such as individual stats and event context, but that’s a minor nit to pick.

In some ways, the understated tone was refreshing. Given the subdued mood on the course compared to most regular PGA Tour events – where far too many loudmouths are tolerated – microphones picked up plenty of conversation between players and caddies. Unlike their network counterparts at times, none of the guys on the streaming broadcast walked over the verbal comments of those playing the course.

For the bazillions following Woods during a lackluster round, there was an accidental bonus that made the Augusta brass look downright brilliant. Marc Leishman, who played in the trio with Woods, held the lead for most of the day and showed everybody how it’s supposed to be done, finishing with a 2-under 70.

Augusta has been ventilated repeatedly and rightly for its truncated network broadcast window compared to the other majors, and for refusing to expand the host networks’ on-air hours. But in a way, online streaming of feature groups can result in better fare for fans, assuming the right players are selected.

Every shot, live, with Shot Tracer technology on some holes, free of charge. Limited commercial interruptions at the Masters? There were no commercials whatsoever in the online feed.

Before everybody gets too giddy, though, let’s see whom the club singles out for the featured online groups in the second round. Hopefully, for all of our sakes, this wasn’t just a happy accident.

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