News & Opinion

CBS plays it low-key, with good reason

It was billed as potentially the most exciting Masters in years, and when that happens, television first and foremost attempts to adhere to a phrase normally reserved for doctors: “First, do no harm.”

It’s especially true at the Masters, where CBS has held forth since 1956. The network’s announcers are hushed and reverent – mostly at the behest of Augusta National – and CBS depends on its pictures to do most of the talking. Since Augusta National is easily the most picturesque major-championship course, it’s a philosophy that lands safely in the middle of the green every time.

But sometimes that edict is briefly cast aside, seemingly at Verne Lundquist’s hole: the par-3 16th. Sunday afternoon, when Jordan Spieth holed a 20-foot putt for birdie to tie Patrick Reed, Lundquist shouted, “Yes!”

That was a signal to viewers that the game officially was on. Until then, CBS had tried to create a renewal of the rivalry between Reed and Rory McIlroy, who played each other in the leadoff singles at the 2016 Ryder Cup. When McIlroy faded from view, Spieth shot up the leaderboard and was 9 under for the day and briefly tied with Reed.

But when Spieth’s tee shot at the 18th hit a tree and dropped down no more than 150 yards from the tee, Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo, who inhabit the 18th-hole tower, were rendered practically speechless. And they appeared to fall into mourning when Spieth’s par putt narrowly missed.

CBS announcers couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for Reed, appearing to prefer the story to have been McIlroy, Spieth or even Rickie Fowler, who made a birdie at the 18th to get within one shot of Reed. When Reed made par at the final hole to win, even the emotional Nantz gave Reed a fairly lukewarm, “Captain America captures Augusta.”

Announcers at the Masters are hamstrung with what they can and cannot say. The crowd is the “patrons,” the rough is the “second cut” (the fairway, presumably, is the first cut), and instead of front nine and back nine, it’s “first nine” and “second nine,” which kind of ruins the timeless phrase, “The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.”

But there aren’t enough rules to prevent Faldo from talking. Whether it’s because he has three green jackets or because he knows every undulation at Augusta National, 18th-hole analyst Faldo seemed to dissect every hole with every other CBS announcer. Some would say that’s too much Faldo, but that’s up to individual taste.

As for the rest of CBS’ announce team, the best addition has been Frank Nobilo, who covers the 11th and 12th holes. Nobilo, who hangs his hat at Golf Channel, was hired in 2015 to do a handful of events for CBS, including the Masters. Nobilo was his usual even-handed self at Augusta but clearly deferred to Faldo for any analysis of his holes or the players who were playing them, which is a shame because when Nobilo speaks, you know more about the game than you did before.

Technically speaking, there weren’t any innovations CBS can use to enhance the broadcast, probably because the network isn’t allowed to do so. Toptracer was used for the tee shots on Nos. 9, 10 and 15, but many of us are in the Curtis Strange camp who wish that Toptracer were available on every hole.

What viewers miss at the Masters are the club selections for the players. Because the Masters doesn’t allow any media – even CBS – inside the ropes during play, there are no on-course commentators walking with the players. The yardage for almost every shot was provided, presumably by ShotLink, but viewers didn’t know what club the players were using except for the par 3s, where someone on the tee fed that information to the CBS truck. Occasionally, Peter Kostis got the clubs for the second shot on his hole, the par-5 15th.

Since 2008, ESPN has broadcast the Thursday and Friday rounds, produced by CBS and with CBS announcers in the booths. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, a Golf Channel alumnus, and the steady and knowledgeable Strange were the hosts. They were party to perhaps the most compelling pictures of the week.

The Par 3 Contest on Wednesday is broadcast live, and in this year’s version, Jack Nicklaus’ grandson, Gary Nicklaus Jr., known as G.T., made a hole-in-one on the ninth hole. The crowd erupted in one of the biggest roars of the week, and the elder Nicklaus erupted in tears.

Before and after each day’s telecast, along with Monday through Wednesday before the tournament, Golf Channel’s “Live From The Masters” filled five or six hours ahead and two hours beyond with a large cast of characters. The best of the bunch was Mike Tirico, who is in the NBC family after years at ESPN.

Tirico normally led the group that included Brandel Chamblee, David Duval and Justin Leonard and was the perfect facilitator, getting the ball to each of his teammates in equal measure, while smoothly and evenly keeping the hyperbole to a minimum, which can’t be said for the other hosts.

Strangely, Chamblee and Nobilo were separated in the Golf Channel run-up to the network broadcast. Maybe Nobilo had to be present for meetings and rehearsal for his CBS gig, but when Chamblee and Nobilo are on the same set, the potential for something incendiary is ever present.

Perhaps they will save that for “Live From The U.S. Open,” in June at Shinnecock Hills.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter@mikepurkeygolf