News & Opinion

Ryder Cup format alters NBC’s game plan

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Organizers are anticipating the biggest crowds ever for this week’s Ryder Cup, with 60,000 fans a day expected to show up in full voice at Le Golf National near Paris.

Everyone else will be watching on TV – or on a phone or tablet.

The couch-viewing experience might lack the thrill of listening to European fans serenading their golfing heroes with witty songs and of hearing American fans bellow “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

On the other hand, the couch is close to the fridge, and you don’t even have to pretend to be trying to speak French or convert dollars into euros.

Some might even watch while lying in bed, as coverage of the matches starts at 2 a.m. Eastern on Friday (Golf Channel) and Saturday (Golf Channel/NBC) and at 6 a.m. on Sunday (NBC). Replays will air later in the day, of course.

The couch-eye view will be quite different for the Ryder Cup than it is for a typical PGA Tour event, and not just because of the extra decibels, according to fairway foot soldier Mark Rolfing, who will be traipsing for NBC and analyzing for Golf Channel all week.

“The Ryder Cup focus is at the first hole,” said Rolfing, whose first Ryder Cup was in 1991 at Kiawah Island. “The culmination of all activity is at No. 1 whereas at most tournaments it's at No. 18, working backwards.”

The reason is that in match play, no one knows which matches, if any, will make it to the 18th green. Commonly, many end at Nos. 15-17.

And, of course, No. 1 is where tournament organizers have constructed huge grandstands. Massive European crowds are expected to exhort their team to take back the cup, which they lost at Hazeltine two years ago.

“What you’re going to see in Paris more than anything is the grandest arena ever assembled for a first hole,” Rolfing said. “It’s going to be more than double the size of any first-tee setup ever… You’ll have singing, and dancing and chanting… Sometimes it’s so loud you can’t even hear yourself talk.”

Another difference will be how the event is covered compared to a PGA Tour stroke-play tournament.

In a typical Tour event, the director jumps the broadcast back and forth from one hole to another. Viewers watch Player A make a birdie, for example, and the camera immediately moves to another hole where Player B is making, say, a bogey. The two shots are relevant to each other because of how they immediately affect the leaderboard.

In the case of team match play – say four-ball (best ball, as it’s commonly known) – the camera will linger on one group because the shots within that group are relevant to one another.

“In four-ball, you have to show pretty much all four shots to have any relevance to those shots,” Rolfing said. “If you come to the Americans, say, and the Europeans have already hit, you absolutely have to describe to the viewer what the Europeans have already done.”

As it did with the British Open, NBC/Golf Channel will saturate the airwaves with Ryder Cup coverage. The matches will run live Friday-Sunday, but the studio commentators at Golf Central Live from the Ryder Cup already are in full throat, with coverage having started Tuesday. In fact, they’ve already run a three-part primer called Road to the Ryder Cup. If you missed it, you’re 1 down, so it’s time to start paying attention.

“For the players, the Ryder Cup is the most suffocating pressure of any tournament I’ve ever seen,” Rolfing said. “And I would say that for the broadcasters, it’s kind of the same.”

Oh, and Tiger Woods just won his first tournament in five years. Now, that should create some interest.

Barry Cronin, a former golf writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, is media director for the John Deere Classic and head of Cronin Communications. He lives in Park Ridge, Ill. Email: bcronin@cronincommunications.com