News & Opinion

TV networks’ lovefest with PGA Tour cheats viewers

Jon Rahm faces media at PGA Tour event
Jon Rahm – shall we call him ‘J.R.’ or ‘Rahmbo’? – prepares to field a few softballs on Golf Channel earlier this season.

Why should you care? Because all of that syrupy sweetness in place of objective commentary and analysis leaves golf fans searching for truth … which is just how PGA Tour wants it

You can't do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can't believe in it. Things aren't that way.” – Ernest Hemingway

Things are particularly chummy these days in televised golf. The airwaves are thick with collegiality. PGA Tour players are called by their first names or nicknames, as if it were the third flight of the club championship.

Jim Nantz’s “Hello, friends,” has become his CBS trademark, but at the same time, the circle of friends has expanded from strictly the viewers to include all players and Tour officials, as well. Nick Faldo is an insufferable homer when it comes to the English players. And Ian Baker-Finch is so sugary sweet that viewers need a glucose monitor. Frank Nobilo, to his credit, says as little as possible.

On NBC, and by extension, Golf Channel, it’s significantly worse. Paul Azinger, who once was the best – and most honest – analyst in the game, has morphed into an overenthusiastic cheerleader, as has lead announcer Dan Hicks. And the nicknames: Hicks is “Danny”; Azinger is “Zinger”; Steve Sands is “Sandsy”; Todd Lewis is “T-Lew”; Tour caddie John Wood, who has done a bit of NBC work, is “Woody.” Jim “Bones” Mackay gets a pass because he’s been Bones for more than 30 years.

David Feherty’s immense talents are being ignored and wasted. His interview show on Golf Channel was canceled, and he appears to be lying low and trying to stay out of trouble until he retires.

It makes you wonder whether someone told Johnny Miller what was coming so he could get out of television just in time.

If you’ve noticed, it should concern you. If you haven’t noticed, you should. No one ever accused television commentators of being journalists. But there was a time when they at least made an effort to appear objective. No players are critically analyzed. Anything negative is on the penalty side of the white stakes.

What’s wrong with being positive? Nothing, unless that’s all you get.

Dottie Pepper of CBS had to practically bite her tongue during the final round of the RBC Heritage and speak in code to say (or not say) that Stewart Cink’s extensive discussions with caddie/son Reagan – or maybe it was the other way around – were taking way too much time and gumming up the works where pace of play was concerned. Cink was put on the clock at least once over the weekend. Instead, all we heard from the announcers was how beautiful these father-son moments were while in contention to win a big championship.

No one can deny it was, in fact, heartwarming and a great narrative. But any veteran PGA Tour caddie would tell you – in private – that the performance was over the top, and if Reagan were a regular looper, Cink would insist that he hold the conversation to a minimum. That’s not being negative; it’s telling the whole story.

Which, apparently, the PGA Tour doesn’t want you to know. In late 2019, the Tour renewed its rights for live programming with CBS, NBC/Golf Channel and ESPN for about $700 million, according to Variety. It was a 70 percent increase from the previous TV deal. Golf Channel was forced to take a big chunk to be the Tour’s cable partner because it had no choice.

But it meant two important things: About half of Golf Channel’s 800 employees were let go, according to The Athletic. And, more importantly, the PGA Tour now controls the content.

Chatter is always bubbling near the surface about the possibility of a PGA Tour Network, in the same vein as Major League Baseball and the NFL. Such a venture would cost a fortune, which the Tour has, and there’s already a template in place.

But to keep CBS, NBC and Golf Channel at arm’s length, the Tour has taken over production of the telecasts, which is to say, the pictures. In that sense, the Tour controls what you see and, more importantly, what you don’t see. And now the Tour overwhelmingly appears to be in control of what the announcers say and, more importantly, what they don’t say. See no evil, etc.

As golf journalism shrinks, the PGA Tour’s influence – and control – over the content exponentially expands. Jaime Diaz, one of the game’s best-ever print journalists, joined Golf Channel as an on-air commentator in 2018 after long stints with The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and the now-defunct Golf World. Geoff Russell hired Diaz when Golf World was going down the tubes. Russell, a senior vice president and executive editor at Golf Channel, is a former editor of Golf World and is married to Molly Solomon, the network’s executive vice president of content and executive producer. Neither of their jobs was eliminated.

Long known for his ability to tell the whole story and unafraid to ask the hard questions or report the hard answers, Diaz in the past few months rarely, if at all, has uttered a negative word about the Tour or any of its players.

And he’s far from the only one who’s been largely muzzled. Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, who does as much research as any golf television commentator, was famous for his informed – and fair – criticism of players when it was deserved. His volume has been turned down to a murmur.

Jobs in golf media are scarce and hard to get, especially those that pay as well as television does. So, there’s no incentive for anyone to stand on principle and try to do what’s right. The path of least resistance is to smile till it hurts, be painfully upbeat and keep depositing the checks.

Viewers, in the meantime, might be better off simply by hitting the mute button.

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