News & Opinion

ESPN-CBS marriage works 1 week per year

Justin Rose in first round of 2021 Masters
Justin Rose enjoys something akin to a stroll in the park Thursday as he walks to his tee shot on the 13th hole at Augusta National Golf Club, where he shot 65 for the 1st-round lead in the Masters.

Golf broadcasting’s strange bedfellows complement each other during Masters, with both crews playing to their strengths

At one point Wednesday during its spotty pre-tournament coverage of the Masters, ESPN ran a promo of the show “First Take” featuring the full-screen headline, “Can Tiger Win Again?” It was an embarrassing error by a faltering sports-media empire, yet another example of how the network’s crush on famous athletes basically has destroyed whatever journalistic sensibilities it once possessed.

Even if the promo meant to address the remainder of Tiger Woods’ golf career instead the 2021 Masters, this was simply a mistake that cannot be made. Not by the company which owns broadcasting rights to the first two rounds of the year’s first major championship, a company that otherwise began ignoring the PGA Tour long ago. Augusta National and ESPN aren’t just odd bedfellows; it’s hard to believe the two icons could agree on the firmness of a mattress.

And so we’re left with America’s largest jock-sniffing fan club televising half of golf’s most sacred gathering. Despite the goofy pairing, ESPN has done a credible job with the early rounds since its contract with the club went into effect in 2008. Thursday’s presentation was no exception, primarily because CBS, the host network since 1956, continues to produce the opening 36 holes and use its own on-air talent to call a majority of the action.

It’s a bit confusing, although most passionate fans surely don’t care. They just want to see golf shots with minimal interruption. This is of little interest to ESPN, which makes things only more complicated with its constant shuffling between live segments from Augusta and its usual avalanche of  NBA sludge, right up until the network’s “official” starting time (3 p.m. EDT).

Some of Thursday’s most interesting TV, however, occurred about 25 minutes before the actual telecast. After Bryson DeChambeau’s tee shot at the par-3 fourth settled into the bushes right of the green, a hand-held camera gave us an extended, up-close look at the predicament. The Brawny Brainiac took several minutes to assess his options, leaving ESPN analyst Andy North to remark, “There’s nothing to gain by playing the shot from there.”

North was right. DeChambeau did, moving his ball 3 feet forward instead of taking a drop, then flubbing his chip en route to a double bogey. Although North isn’t the most opinionated ex-player ever to call a golf tournament, he knows the game inside and out, and in recent years, has arrived at Augusta National exquisitely prepared for his “pregame” commentary.

Nonetheless, he’s done by 3 p.m. Other than Michael Eaves, who now handles post-round interviews, Scott Van Pelt and Curtis Strange are the only ESPN guys included in the CBS production. Both do a fine job from their seats in Butler Cabin. Van Pelt’s knack for keeping things moving and interesting is a vastly underplayed asset in the Thursday/Friday product. Strange is better as an on-course reporter than when sitting in a chair, but his diction and phrasing have improved dramatically over the years.

He’s no Johnny Miller when it comes to launching grenades, but then, Strange is precisely what Augusta National is looking for from those who call the Masters. The golf is all that matters. Inform; don’t even think about entertaining. It’s a mentality that makes CBS, staid and all, the perfect TV partner, the same mindset that led to Gary McCord’s ouster from the booth 27 years ago.

There will be no references to body bags or bikini wax at the cathedral. However ineffective he might be every other week from the 18th tower, CBS lead analyst Nick Faldo brings value to the product over the four days in Georgia. His immense course knowledge enlivens the credibility factor one might expect from a back-to-back Masters champion, and with the two ESPN voices added to the early mix, Sir Nick doesn’t have as much time to mutter something inane.

“It’s blowing 8 to 10 [miles per hour] out there,” Strange said of the first-round breeze. “That may not sound like a lot, but at the end of the day, it will dry up this golf course even more and make it firmer and faster.”

Faldo isn’t likely to make such a subtle and worthwhile observation to viewers. Instead, he leans on gut instinct to provide perspective on every mini-crisis a player encounters, which amounts to overstatement on a Thursday afternoon. Still, Faldo’s game-management expertise goes a long way at the one major championship played at the same venue every year. His strength is in the strategy, notably how and why a tour pro should embrace a certain thought process before executing an important shot.

Again, this may not seem like such a huge deal during a first round, but every shot counts, especially at a ballpark as exacting as Augusta National. And especially this year, when that 7,475-yard mattress will be available only in an extra-firm.

Morning Read's Day 1 Coverage from the 2021 Masters:
Augusta National wins Round 1, by Gary Van Sickle
Don't crown Justin Rose just yet, by Alex Miceli
Rory shoots 76, drills father with errant shot, by Steve Harmon
CBS, ESPN play to each other's strengths, by John Hawkins
Round 1 Recap in Pictures
Round 2 Tee Times

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.