2002: Media - Morning, noon or night, TGC is OK by me

If you’re reading this at 3 o’clock in the morning, then you are my kind of golf fan. There is nothing quite like deep reflections on golf to unshackle the mind from the tensions of the day. And of course, the days we live in are amped up to the max. Like those guitarists in that movie Spinal Tap, the volume knobs are all cranked up to “11.”

When my father-in-law talks about office life in the 1950s and ’60s, he recalls a riotous epoch of three-martini lunches and hazy afternoons. How can I explain to him the modern habits? How can I elucidate the importance of the Starbucks Grande chased by three Diet Cokes? If I did, it might explain to him why I find myself watching The Golf Channel in the wee, wee hours. Heck, if it’s 3 a.m., you’re not reading me, you’re watching that channel, too.

And we are not alone in this endeavor. Not long ago, in a major appreciation in Sports Illustrated, author Frank DeFord noted – with an arched eyebrow – that Bill Russell, the all-knowing, all-conquering

basketball great, often falls to sleep at night to The Golf Channel. Then, recently, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, surely the most important foreign-affairs writer in America, confessed that watching The Golf Channel is much preferable to staring at CNN or any of the painful-to-watch news shows. And this wasn’t just a passing reference – it was a whole damned column devoted to The Golf Channel, awarding it the same psychological weight he would give to a new Saudi peace initiative.

The Golf Channel, or TGC, was extensively derided when it first appeared in 1991, but it has grown into a much-loved institution. It has been clasped to our collective bosom. It’s a member of the family now, and its eccentricities are no more offensive to us than some brother’s bizarre choice in neckties. And, critically, it has achieved this popularity by remaining true to its local origins. Many of the announcers moved over from local TV stations. The sheer hominess of the broadcasts provides a lovely relief in a digitally scorched landscape.

The channel does not broadcast from studios overlooking Times Square, with anxious New York executives upstairs clutching the overnights and thundering downstairs to shake things up. There is no upstairs at The Golf Channel. Its studios are to be found in nondescript one-story office park in suburban Orlando, Fla. The location might be a clue to the low-key, wandering sense of fun that projects from the station night after night. And most news broadcasting these days is, of course, anything but low-key. The rip-saw razzle-dazzle production values of most news shows now may, in fact, be the reason people are turning them off. While network golf broadcasts have largely kept to the old-fashioned minimalism, you can see the modern hyperthyroidal news style in all its edgy glory on something like the Tour’s own half-hour production, “Inside the PGA Tour.” With its assaulting background music and jumpy split-screening of smearing images, it is, I guess, supposed to appeal to the wired new fan.

But tune in to The Golf Channel late at night and it’s like having some favorite old uncle get out his 78s to find you his favorite version of “Roaming in the Gloaming.” You don’t know Elmer Feldkamp and the Hotel Commodore Orchestra? Buddy, stir up your Ovaltine and sit down to the sweet sounds of old times.

If your day has been excruciatingly tense and you are in dire need of a serious television tranquilizer, then just hope that The Golf Channel is broadcasting a PGA European Tour event hosted by Renton Laidlaw. This is serious medication, mister. This is a broadcast pharmaceutical ranking with the sternest of psychotropic drugs. In my world, Laidlaw delivers the knock-out drops.

I’ll never forget the dawn broadcast a few years ago when I awoke, got my coffee and turned on The Golf Channel. Laidlaw was puttering about with his observations, but he was more distracted than usual. He was seriously out of it. Then, while the camera trained on a British player, Laidlaw mused that the fellow seemed to be bearing up well, considering that he had just lost the mother of his next king.

That was how I found out Princess Diana had just died. I changed channels instantly and was bombarded with the news of the tragedy.

Now, whenever I hear Laidlaw’s bemused head-scratchings, I find myself wondering what enormous news he might be withholding from us.

If the sky is dark and the hour is grim, be grateful we’ve got that old channel.

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