Considering everything that conspired against the 2020 PGA Championship, CBS pulled off a big-time event. And ESPN+ and ESPN put on a good early show, too
Well, that’s a wrap on golf’s first major of the season. Moreover, the PGA Championship that just concluded will be the only major of the 2019-2020 season. Remember, the PGA Tour season is like a “Black and Tan” beer, begins one way, finishes another.
That is, the U.S. Open set for Sept. 17-20 and the Masters scheduled for Nov. 12-15 officially will be part of the 2020-21 season. Having trouble? Think of Tom Brady ending his career with the Bucs; doesn’t seem right, but there it is.
The 102nd PGA was extraordinary in many ways. Golf has taken the point in sports’ expedition through COVID-19. The PGA Championship in San Francisco was the first major to test the mask-covered waters. The first major with no grandstands, no poise-crushing galleries, no charities, almost no access … total TV.
Before making any critical observations, or confusing Nick Faldo with any innuendo, let’s be clear that these are unusual times. Television, golf administrators, players, announcers, volunteers and even parking-lot attendants are trying, doing the best they can. The fact that any golf is available is a benefit to all who are pleased to watch.
No question, many are. Since golf returned, its ratings have spiked across the board. The only thing more popular than Tiger Woods is Tiger King. A grain of salt should be ingested, methinks. The playing field isn’t quite level. The numbers say less about the quality of the product than the product itself. After all, they had no trouble selling bootleg liquor during Prohibition.
Until the recent reboot of hockey and staggered start of baseball, golf was pretty much all you had. “Game of Thrones” is only eight seasons long. The nutty spontaneous antics on “Malcom in the Middle” grow thin. Even “SpongeBob SquarePants” gets old … it takes a while, but it does.
Watching golf in these unconventional times is like watching Neil Armstrong on the moon. How he walked was less important than the fact that he was walking. The major championship at TPC Harding Park last week was one small step. Whether it was a giant leap is another question.
Frankly, the lack of access, even on TV, had to be frustrating for many. If you were on the East Coast, if you didn’t have a viewing package that included ESPN+ or ESPN, you didn’t see divots fly until 4 p.m. On Thursday, you didn’t get to see Woods, or most of the leaderboard’s first-round top tier.
To be fair, you could have seen the morning rounds if you had the proper channels. But isn’t that a little like having to pay a cover charge to your own wedding reception? To quote a presidential candidate, “C’mon, man!”
This was a major championship played in America, an audience grappling with a livelihood-killing, spirit-draining virus. You can watch an Open Championship from Great Britain before you’re out of your pajamas in the morning. But you had to pony up to see this American major before midafternoon? “Ridiculousness” already had a time slot.
Once it was on, this PGA Championship had the same visual and audio properties as the PGA Tour events preceding it. You could have taken the same cameras and crew to a PGA of America section tournament, and it would have looked the same. The generic, dispassionate stroll in the park might have suited some. I wouldn’t think that Patrick Reed missed the hecklers, and I can’t imagine that those playing near Woods longed for the chaos.
But the lack of energy and explosion made the major much like the Memorial and the other post-pause events. If not for names on the bags, you could have been watching the Korn Ferry Visit Knoxville Open.
Fortunately, to suggest otherwise, there was CBS anchor Jim Nantz, the undisputed voice of golf. Nantz is to the sport what Bob Sheppard was to Yankee Stadium, Vin Scully to Dodgers baseball, Morgan Freeman to … well, to anything. The Nantz voice is instant credibility.
And alongside was Faldo, living proof that golf color commentary is a dish best served with British accents. Say nonsensical things, make up words, speak in tongues … doesn’t matter. If it is done with a charming lilt and “received pronunciation,” it’s gold.
For those who watched the “expanded” coverage on ESPN, there was the straightforward authority of Andy North, the interview chops of Tom Rinaldi and a lot of others. No really, a lot of others, who did lots of talking, lots of swing analyzing and lots of belly-rubbing references. No cliché, no chicken-soup narrative, no lesson-tee thought went unspent. But, hey, that’s golf.
The weekend provided a highlight when Phil Mickelson took a spin behind the mic. Not a serious threat in the championship, the 50-year-old Mickelson demonstrated that he is an analyst in waiting, slipping the aforementioned innuendo past Faldo while providing playfulness and insight.
Based on the audition, coupled with evidence provided earlier in “The Match,” a network would be wise to team Mickelson and Peyton Manning in a booth, and have Justin Thomas on the course. Then again, Manning has “Peytonville” to run, Mickelson is busy with “Phil Kwan Do Calves,” and the 27-year-old Thomas, ranked No. 1 in the world, might prefer to keep playing. Maybe a free subscription to ESPN+ would be convincing.
In the end, the complaints and second-guesses aside, this Pandemic PGA was what everyone might have hoped for: a good show. Things that were missing did not overpower the one thing that couldn’t be missing: top-shelf competition. Without peripheral excitement, without volume, even without an annoying “Baba Booey,” the players delivered.
The leaderboard was tight and intriguing, and apparently hard to fit on one screen. To be sure, spectacle was missing, but a Wrestle Royale finish was not. Top guns, young guns and old guns came down the stretch, flirting with headlines. Twists were followed by turns and emotions swung moments apart.
The drama wasn’t fabricated or force-fed; it was genuine. It even included a signature moment. Collin Morikawa’s tee shot at No. 16 and a championship-clinching eagle. Morikawa, a 23-year-old California kid who played college golf at nearby Cal, was a perfect winner, golf’s newest star.
This was an extraordinary major championship. But if you’re the USGA or Augusta National, it also was a reassuring one. Not your father’s PGA Championship, just the next best thing.
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