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Random thoughts on the game

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Big Lex

We learned this week that the Fox Network has severed ties with Greg Norman, who served as the network's lead analyst for their broadcast of the 2015 US Open. This news prompted me to think about golf broadcasting and sports broadcasting in general. I think it is time for a change. But before we get to that, I think it's a good idea to look at how much better sports and golf broadcasting is today, compared to how it was just a few short decades ago.

I grew up watching sports in the 1970s. Things were clearly different then. Some of the biggest differences between now and then are attributable to technology. There are more cameras now, so we see the action from many more vantage points than ever before, in all sports. The cameras are better...meaning we see clearer, sharper images, both in real time and in slow motion. Sound is much better. And of course the delivery system and the end-user view are radically changed; anyone who remembers adjusting an antenna or the "tuning" knob on and old TV knows that we are now spoiled with what are, in general, universally good, sharp, interference-free views of sporting events. The icing on the cake had to be large screen televisions, with sharp, colorful displays that we could only dream about when watching Jim McKay on "Wide World of Sports" or Keith Jackson do a college football game.

Golf broadcasts today are a visual treat. In the 1970s and 80s, and even to a degree in the 1990s, there were far fewer cameras covering the action.  We can see action on all 18 holes, and mobile cameras give us close up shots of the lie of the ball, the golfer's perspective, his or her reactions to the shot, etc. Even the camera angles are better: at one time, the target-facing cameraman seemed to always position himself somewhat off to the side of the player, so that every shot looked like it was going dead right. Graphics are better, particularly overhead shots and flyovers where stats about the hole are given, lines are drawn indicating carry distances, etc. And let's not forget shot tracer, a technology that seems universally loved and adds an exciting element to watching a shot in real time.

Yet with all of these improvements, we still hear many, many complaints about golf broadcasting. Many of the complaints are sort of universal complaints that people might have about any live event coverage, i.e., too much advertising time, [insert announcer's name] has an irritating voice, or is stupid, etc. Here  is a critique of CBS's coverage of the 2016 Honda Classic, replete with a laundry list of complaints big and small, many of them quite compelling.  While it would be impossible to make everyone happy with respect to these sorts of complaints, I think there are ways in which golf coverage could be improved.

I think the main problem with golf broadcasting on the major US networks is simply that they talk and analyze too much. It is just the natural culmination of years of "improvements," such as more cameras, more on-course reporters, more tower commentators, more sound, etc. There is a point beyond which any pleasant thing starts to lose its appeal, or even become unpleasant. Like that 20th cigarette your Mom made you smoke when she discovered the pack in your pocket, or the 4th piece of pie you ate on Thanksgiving Day.

They simply talk too much. For any given shot, we might have non-stop talking, beginning with Johnny Miller or Jim Nantz in the 18th tower, to Koch's or Maltby's description of the lie, to a question by Miller about some aspect of the shot, to Maltby's answer, to the filling in of other information (club selection), to the conversation between player and caddie, continuing after the shot to an in-air description of the trajectory, followed by commentary and analysis of the result.

This happens over and over and over, and to me, it's lost it's appeal. In fact, I'm sick of it.

There are so many people, so many voices, that between the shot coverage, the comments on the players' personalities or outside lives, discussions of their swings, witticisms from the various court jesters (Feherty, McCord), the broadcast is a virtual verbal assault with almost no breathing room. They seem to enjoy hearing each other talk.

European Tour broadcasts - perhaps because of a more limited budget - are much more Spartan. An entire shot might be taken without any commentary whatsoever, except for maybe "he'll have that for par to remain on 7 under." The experience is refreshing.

To be clear, I'm not "venting" a dislike for any individual announcer (although I could...there are many who drive me crazy). I think that the overall broadcast formula has evolved into something which detracts from the viewing experience.

Part of the fun of watching sports is the excitement, not knowing what will happen next. When I watch sports, I'm always wondering to myself, what is the player thinking, what is he trying to do, what might he be coping with in this situation? To do this in silence as you watch can make the experience richer, more dramatic. When someone other than the player is constantly talking about these things, it takes your focus off the player, and your own, unique reaction to the experience.

Sometimes, less is more. It's true in so many areas of life. They need to understand this when they cover golf. It's ok not to talk. It's ok not to analyze a result. We don't need to hear why the shot went off poorly, or that you think it was the greatest shot you've ever seen. While all of these comments have their place and can have entertainment value, their extreme overuse has robbed them of almost any impact whatsoever.

Take the experience of an important putt. Typically, there is the "what's he got Roger, left edge? Yeah Johnny, I'd say it's inside left if anything, not much there. Yeah Roger but he needs to hit this because it's into the grain...." followed by "this is on a really good line.....!!!" etc. For me, it would be far more dramatic to cut to the putt as the player is in the last few seconds of his preparation, and have the announcer say "from 22 feet, for birdie to take the lead." Then, simply watch and listen. A good camera angle can add much the drama. And the latter is important, too: Great quality sound, catching as much of the gallery reaction, as the putt approaches the hole, as possible.

Some will say "then why don't you just mute your TV....I like the broadcasts the way they are." Fair enough...there is a workaround. But not really. Nobody wants silent broadcasts. Announcers and analysts are important. The issue is that I think the directors are placing too high a value on analysis, and are overusing it to the point of distraction.

To me, the modern golf viewer experience has been spoiled in a fashion similar to how I believe smartphones have spoiled experiences like graduations, childrens' plays and recitals, etc. Being able to record something on a smartphone is a powerful, seductive thing, and few of us can resist it. Yet, when doing it, I find myself coming away feeling as if I missed actually experiencing and feeling the event, because I was distracted by my role as filmmaker. Similarly, when we watch golf, our attention to the shots and the drama of the tournament is diluted by the talking, the analysis, and the descriptions. Yes, we need some descriptions, and yes, the broadcasts would become very boring if all they did was describe results. But I think a significant amount of this chatter could be eliminated and it would improve the experience tremendously.

I hope the TV networks will be willing to take a fresh look at their methods. It's not just a matter of finding the right person for the tower or a clever or funny on course commentator. It's about the golf, and the best way to deliver it to the viewer. I think they have some work to do and much room for improvement.  What do you think?

 

Big Lex

Time

I took up golf when I was 23. I had played some rounds at a pitch and putt as a kid, but I didn't really get hooked on the game until I was already finished with college and engaged in post-graduate studies. It seemed I was always scrounging for time to play. Like most of us, I was hooked quickly and wanted to be a good golfer - a scratch. That made it seem like I needed even MORE time. 

In his autobiography, Jack Nicklaus describes his early to mid-teen years as a virtual gluttony of golf: entire summer days, dawn to dusk, spent at the course....hours hitting practice balls...anywhere from 36 to 63 (yup, he once played sixty-three in one day!) holes, late day short game and putting practice, etc. He says his family never took vacations, and that in those early years, he doubts if he missed more than a day or two per summer of this routine, apart from weather related interruptions. And he did it all on a top-ranked golf course (Scioto CC in Columbus), under the tutelage of an accomplished PGA pro (Jack Grout).

Did he become great because he spent all that time learning the game - simple repetition-based learning - or was it something else? Malcolm Gladwell would place Nicklaus firmly in his category of people who achieve greatness because of special opportunity: How many people have the opportunity to practice golf so much, at so young an age, on such a great golf course, with the financial resources to supplement it with teaching? Not many.

Yet how many people, given those opportunities, would have done as Jack did? For a teenager to pursue ONE activity, to the exclusion of all else, for ONE day? Sure...just about any kid can do that. For a week? A few would drop out. A month, or an entire summer? I'm sure we would be in single-digit percentages at this point, if not lower. 

Golf is a great game, maybe the greatest of all, because it challenges us in so many ways. What is the greatest challenge? Is it to have enough time? Or is it how to use the time we have?

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