News & Opinion

NBC, Seminole shine as PGA Tour stars boost coronavirus aid

Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson prevail against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff on the 19th hole, but the real winner proves to be a golf world yearning for live action on TV and a cause bigger than the day’s play

After two months of reruns, revisions and real-world intrusions, professional golf came out of hiding Sunday afternoon. Three big names, plus a guy who wants to be one, participated in a charity skins game at fabled Seminole Golf Club, where Ben Hogan used to spend his winters digging it out of the dirt.

Hogan didn’t need a deadly pandemic to employ social-distancing guidelines. As for Seminole, always a recluse while the Winged Foots and Oakmonts fancied their reputations and hosted U.S. Opens, southeast Florida’s ultimate playground for the privileged chose an interesting time to emerge from its splendid isolation.

TaylorMade Driving Relief match
PGA Tour stars Rory McIlroy (from left), Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff, socially distant and socially conscious, play without caddies but with a sense of purpose Sunday at Seminole Golf Club in a benefit match for coronavirus relief.

Never has such meaningless golf seemed more significant. NBC and Golf Channel carried Sunday’s telecast, sating the public’s need to watch a live sporting event of any kind. It began with a coronavirus-related disclaimer, followed by a stunning aerial of the Donald Ross layout, which spares no modesty in referring to the Atlantic Ocean as a nextdoor neighbor, then a sharp turn north to anchor Mike Tirico, who handled his duties from his home in Michigan.

Reality to fantasy, then quickly back to reality. It was a theme that refused to budge throughout the afternoon: Four touring pros wearing shorts, carrying their own bags and using rangefinders at an event held to raise millions of dollars for coronavirus victims. The usual splurge of 325-yard drives and missed 6-footers. And the notion that we’re not too far from getting back to normal, although time has a habit of standing still when you least want it to.

The skins battle itself came down to a closest-to-the-hole competition after partners Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson whiffed birdie attempts inside 15 feet at Seminole’s 18th. One swing apiece for $1.1 million. Although Rickie Fowler clearly was the man of the match, piling up eight birdies in a pairing with Matthew Wolff, it was McIlroy’s shot to 13 feet that clinched the decisive payout and a total donation of $1.85 million. Combined with contributions from TV viewers, the event raised $5,503,959 for COVID-19 relief, Golf Channel reported.

Fowler and Wolff weren’t exactly losers, generating $1.6 million for their designated beneficiaries, which will cover a lot of medical expenses for people in need. What made the event interesting was its genuineness. Without spectators or caddies, there was a simple charm to the day, as if four grown men had dressed up as pro golfers and gone out to trick-or-treat on Halloween afternoon.

Next Sunday’s matchup of Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning vs. Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady will draw a lot more swooning from the ESPN crowd. Perhaps the two best NFL quarterbacks ever, teaming with the two best golfers of a fading generation? No wonder four networks are lined up to televise the action – one for each icon. It’s no coincidence that all four properties are owned by the same company (WarnerMedia Entertainment), which has done a lousy job of broadcasting what little golf it has.

Between its barely watchable coverage of the early rounds of the PGA Championship and the disaster that was “Tiger vs. Phil” in November 2018, TNT lacks the devices and knowledge that make for a successful golf production. There were two distinct factors that made the Seminole affair so appealing: the organic nature of the competition and NBC’s expertise in the field.

As one might expect, nobody was particularly sharp when play began. Analysts Paul Azinger and Gary Koch were quick to point out that 4 inches of rain had recently fallen on the grounds, altering green speeds and affecting grain. Once the players adjusted and things began heating up midway into the front nine, both announcers had proved that this wasn’t their first rodeo, so to speak.

That said, it was pretty shocking how poorly the group putted. Fowler had a 30-footer for eagle on the ninth and missed 4 feet to the left. Wolff looked completely perplexed from the outset, but the kid hits the ball so far, he really doesn’t have to worry about making bogeys. And though Johnson’s short game looked like that of a 12 handicap, you can do worse than to have the world’s top-ranked player as a partner.

Through good golf and bad, the real star of the show Sunday was Seminole. Tommy Roy has been producing golf at NBC since 1981, and when I’d spoken to him the previous day, he made a point of saying how the gem in Juno Beach would play such a prominent role in the presentation. The Peacock’s ability to mix relevant information with dazzling visuals is what separates it from the other networks.

You don’t need to tell viewers how beautiful something is when they can see it for themselves, and you certainly don’t need to froth at the mouth when doing it. Of additional note was NBC’s cool little ditty on the 2007 Walker Cup, which featured Fowler, Johnson and McIlroy. Commentator Rich Lerner punctuated the short segment by reminding golf fans that the 2021 edition of the event will be held at Seminole for the first time. Half the folks at TNT probably don’t even know what the Walker Cup is.

The biggest negative to a one-group golf telecast is the massive amount of dead time between shots. This one understandably was loaded with commercials, but the advertising breaks were kept very brief, and the references to charity revenue didn’t approach overkill on the ears. A pair of guest interviews with President Donald Trump and actor Bill Murray felt like tetanus shots. Briefly painful, somewhat necessary.

In five years, or perhaps even five months, this good-cause gathering will be largely forgotten. In the here and now, however, live golf rarely has looked or sounded so good. The reruns, revisions and real-world intrusions will continue. The heavy stuff won’t be coming down for a while, as Murray’s character (Carl Spackler) assessed in “Caddyshack,” but sunshine is in the distance. Nothing’s more important than distance.

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