The Quandary of Golf on TV

Golf is the most boring sport on television. A recent poll judged our game to be more boring, even, than darts. Darts!

We should give a damn, I think, at least a small one, because television is the gateway drug to more participants, and more players improves the health and wealth of every aspect of the game, from architects to cup cutters to the people who make those black bristle brushes inside ball washers.
Improving the TV presentation will be tricky, of course. Golf has always been the most difficult sport to televise, given its massive playing field, its scores of spread-out competitors, and its lack of a shot- or game clock to provide a bit of urgency. Moreover, the game’s essential dignity doesn’t lend itself to visual fireworks. Golf’s conflicts are internal. It is action that is punctuated by long walks. It counts as an exciting moment when a rules official drives his cart to the scene of a procedural problem.

“Drop it there,” Solomon said, gesturing with the antenna of his walkie-talkie. Add the droning tones of certain announcers, and you wake up an hour later when the cat sits on your face, and then your phone rings, and it’s someone asking you about the most and least exciting games on the tube.

Broadcasters have recently added technological spice to the recipe. The red electronic lines of Shot Tracer show the flight path of the nearly invisible ball: that’s a good thing. Readouts of driver hang time, roll and distance are amusing. From years together, and a cultural mandate for its announcers to occasionally shut the hell up (more on that below), the CBS crew is as smooth as a group of veteran infielders turning the double play. Also good. But then the Konica Minolta BizHub Swing Vision Camera sprays you with Ambien. The Konica Minolta BizHub Swing Vision Camera is what Dan Jenkins would call a rally killer. It portrays a golf professional’s swing in slow motion, with the most jargon-filled narration possible. The slo-mo swinger during the presentation of the Waste Management Open was eventual winner Gary Woodland. We were asked to consider his down cock. Now I gotta worry about my down cock.

Despite all the obstacles of actually showing it, we all know from personal experience that hardly anything in life is more involving or as quietly dramatic as a bet on yourself in a game of golf. Much more than money is always at stake. How to bring that out on television? Telenovela-style serial close-ups won’t be enough.

The solution to the perceived dullness may be contained in the advice from the greatest of all hole announcers, Henry Longhurst, to his student and successor, Ben Wright. Both were newspaper writers from the U.K., and intellectuals. Late on an April day in 1973, Wright had just made his debut calling the shots on the 15th hole at the Masters. The younger man was keen to know how he’d done, but “Longthirst,” an enthusiastic tippler, would not say a word until Wright had driven a cart to the base of Henry’s aerie, the tower towering over the 16th green, and from there taken him to the Augusta National clubhouse, and bought him a glass of gin. One gin became five. Or was it six?

“You were perfectly dreadful,” Longhurst finally said. “You prattled on like a drippling tap. Remember, my boy: we are only caption writers in a visual medium.”

Wright received identical advice in a different package from his boss, the loveable, irascible Frank Chirkinian. The producer of CBS golf broadcasts, nicknamed “the Ayatollah,” insisted on long periods of silence from his commentators. Silence, taught Chirkinian, heightens the drama.

“Frank would say, ‘Shut the f up. Let it play itself out,’” Wright recalled. “And if you spoke in redundancies, or observed something that was very obvious, your job was in danger. ‘Isn’t that amazing,’ he’d say. ‘Ten million people can see that for themselves.’”

Wright can remember only one time in his 27 years of announcing golf for CBS that he didn’t attend to Chirkinian’s quiet voice in his ear bud. It was 1986, the Masters, fourth round; Jack Nicklaus had just rolled in a 10-foot putt for eagle on 15, and the resultant exultant crowd noise blocked out the producer’s stage directions. Wright didn’t say much, and he worried that he should have said more.

But at their tournament-ending cookout a couple of hours later, while drinks were drunk and Tom Weiskopf turned the steaks, the Ayatollah told the talker he’d said just enough: “You were absolutely f’ing perfect.”

Nowadays, Wright engages only one sense when he watches a golf tournament on TV. “I douse the sound,” he said. “Are they paying announcers by the word now? Are they broadcasting for the blind?”


Curt Sampson is the author of 15 books, including the bestsellers “Hogan” and “The Masters.” His current book is “Furious George,” with NBA coach George Karl.