Monday, April 13, 2009
CBS’ indispensable David Feherty once said the easiest job in golf is being Tiger Woods’ swing coach. “All you have to do is stand behind him on the range and say, ‘Way to go, Tiger,’ ” said Feherty, whose wit often obscures the clarity of his analysis.
But with respect to Feherty, there is an easier job in golf: broadcasting the Masters.
Hold your calls, CBS and ESPN. You know I’m right. The masterful brand managers at Augusta National have done all the heavy lifting. All you have to do is show up with a lot of cameras along with a van-full of announcers who will participate in the annual hagiography that is the Masters and agree not to engage in any crazy, fireable offenses – you know, like calling the second cut “rough” or the patrons “fans.”
OK, I’m obviously being a bit facetious. But the point is that everything is in place for a great broadcast. Viewers know Augusta National intimately even if they’ve never rolled down Washington Road; they know how delicate the tee shot is on No. 12, and for the love of Greg Norman, don’t spin your approach to No. 9 off the green on Sunday. The club also limits commercials and airtime, guaranteeing viewers more action in a condensed time frame.
The inevitable result is the year’s best week of golf viewing, but one with some head-scratching flaws.
Part of the problem is overkill when subtlety would suffice. It wasn’t enough, for instance, that Anthony Kim made an astounding 11 birdies Friday; his feat had to be embellished. ‘Watch these putts. . . They weren’t going in the edges, they were going right in the center of the hole,” said CBS’ Peter Kostis, as a Kim birdie putt sneaked in the left edge. And when CBS anchor Jim Nantz described Augusta National as “the sacred sanctuary,” his words seemed ironic, even ill-chosen, on Easter weekend.
Nantz’s broadcast partner, Nick Faldo, seemed more self-assured, more animated than we’ve seen recently. At the top of Saturday’s broadcast, he pointedly said, “Tiger Woods has gotten in the way of Tiger Woods for one of the very few times in his career. . . . He’s maybe shot himself in the foot.”
But Faldo disappears from broadcasts for extended periods; he falls into a speak-only-when-spoken-to mode and needs prompting from Nantz or other members of the CBS team. Occasionally, that produces awkward moments.
“What about this putt, Nick?” Nantz asked Faldo as Angel Cabrera stood over his par putt on 18 Sunday.
Faldo: “I don’t know, Jim.”
Neither do we, Nick. Nor can we explain the vast black hole that sometimes seems to swallow players not named Tiger or Phil.
A friend called at 4:10 p.m. Eastern time Saturday: “Is Todd Hamilton in this golf tournament?” Hamilton had been on the first page of the leaderboard since Thursday, but couldn’t buy a second of airtime. We didn’t see him until his birdie putt on No. 18, and not again until he jarred his third shot on No. 12 Sunday. At least Hamilton’s sponsors now know what he has to do to get on TV: hole out a 70-yard wedge shot.
On Sunday, everything gave way to the power pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Fair enough. Those guys started Sunday seven shots off the lead and had virtually no chance of winning, but they pay the bills via the dollars they attract to the Tour. CBS, however, got so caught up in the Tiger-Phil storyline that it often seemed to forget everything else – including the guys who actually had a chance to win the tournament. The irony, of course, is that the Masters only has four minutes of commercials each hour. CBS wasn’t hard pressed for time to show more than just passing glimpses of the leaders. It simply chose, mistakenly, not to do so.
Instead, CBS’s cameras lingered on Tiger during his leisurely stroll through Amen Corner. For two minutes, 16 seconds, cameras were trained on Tiger as he debated his approach to No. 11 with caddie Steve Williams, while Ian Baker-Finch filled time with chatter. “They always talk out every shot,” Finchie said. Minutes later, we waited breathlessly for 2:04 for Tiger to hit his tee shot on No. 12, while IBF continued chattering.
That’s less a criticism of Woods than of CBS’s decision to show Woods tossing grass in the air rather than the leaders hitting shots. (But as an aside, aren’t there rules officials who are supposed to enforce pace of play? But wait, we know the answer to that one: Tiger is bigger than the Tour. He could stand on the 12th tee until sunset waiting for the perfect wind, and no one would breathe a word of criticism.)
For all of the focus on Tiger and Phil, there were moments when the coverage’s quality seemed straight out of the heyday of Jack and Arnie. Augusta National, it turns out, has to take some of the blame for that. The club doesn’t allow blimps that could provide aerial shots because “blimps are often advertorial, and . . . we have an understated approach to corporate visibility,” Steve Ethun, the club’s spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. So when Phil Mickelson hit what we were told was a 60-yard cut to 18 on Saturday or a sweeping hook to two feet on No. 7 – arguably the best shot of the tournament – we didn’t actually see those shots, only the balls trickling to a stop on the greens. It was as primitive as footage from the old “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” shows.
We know the Masters is a tradition unlike any other, but mandating inferior camerawork and graphics is a tradition we can do without.