News & Opinion

TV viewers deserve more than just a lot of talk

Golf Channel misses too many chances at Presidents Cup to educate and inform beyond what audience plainly can see

What we want from television is more than just pretty pictures. Yes, TV is a visual medium, but networks pay a lot of money for people who talk, and it’s imperative that the talkers should do more than merely overstate the obvious, which is what TV does worst.

What they say should mean something, especially in an event such as the Presidents Cup, which has so many moving parts. Golf Channel/NBC had the telecast all week, and while the visuals from Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia were at times stunning, those who talk for a living let too many opportunities pass to educate and inform the viewers in a way that leaves those who watch satisfied with the time they spent in front of the screen.

Paul Azinger is front and center for NBC’s broadcast, and while he is arguably the most fearless analyst in the game, he regularly pulled his punches and ignored some subjects altogether. He was the only person on the telecast who has served as captain for an international team competition, and he was potentially a wealth of information and insight into what goes into the thinking for U.S. captain Tiger Woods and his International counterpart, Ernie Els.

Why did certain pairings work and why did some not? What do you look for in four-ball pairings as opposed to foursomes? Why did Patrick Cantlay-Xander Schauffele stick together? Why was Patrick Reed paired with Webb Simpson? Why did Els break up every one of his pairings on the second day after taking a 4-1 lead after the first day?

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Golf Channel's Steve Sands, interviewing American Webb Simpson during the Presidents Cup, missed a chance to provide readers with more information about the Patrick Reed saga.

Those are only a few questions Azinger could have answered. He did speak out on the third day when Woods sat himself for both sessions, which shocked a number of observers, including his own team.

“Must have been a tough thing to sit himself since the U.S. has been so successful in [foursomes] and he had been playing the best of anyone on the team,” Azinger said about Woods.

Later, he said, “If a captain had sat Tiger out all day, we’d certainly question it.” But he said little else about the captains.

Earlier in the week, when the Americans were down 4-1, he said, “[Woods] doesn’t want to be the guy, the captain who loses this thing.”

Early in the matches, it was pointed out that Els mapped out a specific strategy for Royal Melbourne and expected his team to stick strictly to the plan. C.T. Pan told Golf Channel/NBC's Gary Koch, “We are the soldiers, and [Els] is the commander. He gives the orders, and we follow them.”

Woods, on the other hand, let his team find its own way around Royal Melbourne, which has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies. Azinger had plenty of chances to analyze the differing strategies but mostly passed on the opportunities.

Azinger has been away from competitive golf long enough to be unafraid to criticize individual players. But it seemed as if, because he is a winning Ryder Cup captain, he was reticent to critique fellow captains.

Azinger wasn’t alone. Jim “Bones” Mackay, who is rapidly becoming one of the best course reporters in the game, was the only Golf Channel/NBC announcer who has participated in the Presidents Cup as a caddie, 11 times on Phil Mickelson’s bag.

Mackay is a master at breaking down an individual shot and what goes into a player deciding how to play it. But he came up short talking about what is means to take a big lead in a match or squandering a big lead or fighting in a match down to the last putt. It would have been nice to have that kind of insight into an individual match, which is something that Mackay could provide – but didn’t.

Mackay also missed a chance to provide some caddie insight concerning American Steve “Pepsi” Hale, who used to loop for Keegan Bradley and now works for South Korean Sungae Im of the International team. It would have been interesting to know what it feels like to caddie for a team playing against your own country.

What was also glaringly missing from the telecast was a proper analysis of Royal Melbourne, an Alister MacKenzie design that is considered a masterpiece. What we weren’t told on television was that Royal Melbourne has 36 holes – the West Course and the East Course. Every competition conducted there is played on a composite course – 12 holes on the West and six on the East.

Azinger said more than once that he loved every hole on Royal Melbourne but never once said why. What is it about the routing, the bunkers and the greens that makes it so great? We’re still in the dark about that.

Then, you look at the reporting, which so often comes lacking for television. Golf Channel/NBC brought five course reporters, two interviewers and two people embedded with each team. Every one of them missed the confrontation between Reed and Cameron Smith on the first day.

After Reed was penalized for moving sand and improving his lie in a bunker at the Hero World Challenge, Smith called Reed out for cheating and urged the Australian fans to let Reed hear about it. Reed was leaving the fifth green on his way to the sixth tee and spotted Smith on the sidelines. Reed went straight for Smith and the two bumped shoulders, which Smith later called a “love tap.”

Someone from TV must have witnessed the incident, but nothing was said during the telecast. We had to depend on the print and digital media for that reporting. The same was true for the physical confrontation between Kessler Karain, Reed’s caddie, and a spectator on Saturday. It resulted in Karain being suspended by the PGA Tour for the final-day singles (“Patrick Reed loses 3 matches, 1 caddie in Presidents Cup,” Dec. 14).

Golf Channel’s Steve Sands reported between sessions that there had been an “incident” but didn’t describe it in detail, nor did he report later in the telecast about the result. It would have been the perfect time for Azinger to comment about the unfortunate situation.

Instead, Azinger punted when the Reed-Pan match went off on the final day when he said about Karain, “I guess you have to let them be young people sometimes. An emotional response is never a good one.”

Without a doubt, Karain’s ugly shoving of a spectator and knocking beers from his hands is not the kind of picture that TV golf likes to show. But because words matter, in this case, Azinger’s came up woefully short.