News & Opinion

Only thing super about golf on TV: The superlatives

Kiawah Island's Ocean Course 18th fairway with clubhouse
The seaside view of the 18th hole at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course needs no hyperbole for this week’s 103rd PGA Championship, but that fact isn’t likely to stop the networks covering the event.

Expect ESPN to hype PGA before handing off to CBS, which will raise bar for breathless excitement on a game that is anything but

Former “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney once said, “Anyone who enjoys watching golf on television would enjoy watching the grass grow on the greens.”

An element of truth lies in the sentiment. Some might even say the “on television” qualification is unnecessary. They would insist that a proper hypothesis would include anyone who enjoys watching golf.

Those who regularly watch would take umbrage with the conclusion. Snow melting, maybe. Paint drying, yeah, possibly. But the line gets drawn at grass growing.

That said, if we’re all being honest – including golf writers – we have to admit the game does not scream dynamic spectating. Someone puts a little ball on a pedestal, hits it with a club, walks to where it lands, hits it again and continues the pattern until the ball disappears in a hole. 

No one hits it back; no one tries to keep it from being hit; no one is trying to catch it or pass it to someone else. No adversarial component is involved. Golf is a competition like the SAT exams. If television sports were an office, golf would be piped-in music, playing in the background. 

The late Rooney was a humorist, and his observations were tongue-in-cheek. But it’s something to remember when watching golf on television with a critical eye. All kidding aside, the game has a few more attention-capturing characteristics than growing grass, but only a few.

Let’s also say up front that a back nine on Sunday, with marquee names in the hunt, with every stroke mattering, deserves better treatment. When it comes to emotional, dynamic television, it can be as good as it gets.

But in the days and hours prior, golf can linger just behind bowling and slightly ahead of “Little House on the Prairie” reruns in the Unofficial World Nap-Inducing Rankings.

That status, along with sentiments such as Rooney’s, explains the personality of golf on television, especially a major, especially a PGA Championship, and especially when networks such as ESPN and CBS share the duties. The late Billy Preston captured the essence of this disposition in a 1974 song“Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’ … you gotta have somethin’, if you wanna be with me.”

With all the walking, book-referencing, green-reading, caddie-conversing, practice-swinging – and waiting for partners to do the same – golf features a lot of “nothin’.” The spatial, serene and slothful qualities are endearing to a practitioner, not so much for a television producer. For TV, George Costanza’s vision notwithstanding, you gotta have somethin’.

So, action and intrigue are manufactured, with multiple cameras interspacing multiple hits, with graphics and statistics, interviews, context and perspectives. And the adhesive resin that brings it all together is hyperbole.

Magnification, exaggeration and embroidery is the lifeblood of golf commentary. When the PGA Championship hits the airwaves this week, ESPN will bat leadoff, and it almost certainly will bury the needle.  

For one, the PGA Championship, unfairly but unquestionably, is considered the runt of the major-championship litter. In that regard, one might speculate that commentators, consciously or otherwise, feel especially compelled to validate the championship, as well as their presence. 

And when one network – such as ESPN – has to pass the baton just as things are getting interesting, you’d best believe its on-air talent is going to get its money’s worth. ESPN commentators handle the first two days, then air during brief early windows on the weekend before their CBS counterparts take the key 1 p.m.-7 p.m. EDT slots on Saturday and Sunday. The concept of less is more goes out the window. 

That is why they will remind you that they are at the PGA Championship … on the Ocean Course … at Kiawah Island … on the shores of the Atlantic … in South Carolina. In case you are confused by the seagulls, the previous and frequent mentions – or you thought you were watching “Knot Right Kayak Fishing” from Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo. – they will set the scene by ending almost every other sentence with it. 

They will talk, incessantly, sometimes two and three strong. They will tell heart-tugging stories about players, caddies, agents, coaches, pets, recipes and skincare. They will have ironic anecdotes about family members, neighbors, kindergarten teachers, short-order cooks and parish priests. They will do it all in front of a Claude Monet backdrop, with waves crashing and ocean breeze blowing.

They will “break down” everything: the swing, the course, the architect, the grass, the sand, the ocean, the dining-room staff, the kitchen cabinets … everything. With “off the cuff” exchanges and playful banter, they will establish themselves as insiders. They might even address one another directly by name, leaving you out of the conversation. You are not an insider.

They will err on the side of amplification, sometimes wildly so. They will describe a player’s position as impossible, handicap his options as dire and suggest that he will be lucky to make bogey, or keep his ball on the green. And when he chips the ball to 3 feet, certifying the circumstances were overstated, they will declare, “How good is that?” Who’s to say otherwise? 

When a long spiraling putt settles close to within 8 feet, they will suggest, “He couldn’t have done any better,” when in fact he could have. He could have gotten it closer, could have made it altogether. By all accounts, either would be better. 

So, if you’re watching, and you commiserate a bit with Rooney, be prepared. The drama will be pushed at Kiawah the way syrup is pushed at Waffle House. In measured voices and muted tones, the commentators will overstate the significance of each look, each shot and each challenge.

Often, they will be wrong, sometimes ridiculously so. But it will sound good at the time, and for television golf, that’s the bottom line. No one is keeping score, and each moment trumps the next … at the PGA Championship … on the Ocean Course … at Kiawah Island ... on the shores of the Atlantic … in South Carolina.

But if you get annoyed or start to nod off, keep in mind one other aspect of watching golf. There will be no political statements on T-shirts, no gestures or protests, no Hulk poses or self-promoting outbursts of that nature. 

There will be golf, with people talking golf to people who like golf. That is, people who like golf so much that they are watching despite the absence of Tiger Woods.

Ultimately, the personality of television on television is about comfort and tradition. Just as the game has exasperating rules and imposing protocols, it has a long history of taking itself seriously. Nowhere is it taken more seriously than on television, a platform that is used to pictures telling stories instead of stories explaining pictures.

For a good portion of the audience, the hyperbole is acceptable, even expected. The melodramatics are encouraged and coveted, like the well-worn recliner in front of the set. Remember when Fox came in a while back and shook things up, offered a new look and a different style? It was like Mike Tyson hosting “Jeopardy!”

Andy Rooney was a witty guy. But seriously, the people who will enjoy watching the PGA Championship probably wouldn’t enjoy watching grass grow on the greens.

At least not all of them.

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