Crash landing

Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee neatly summed up our relationship with Tiger Woods Saturday night on “Live from The Players Championship.”

“We want him to play like Seve, we want him to win like Jack, and we want him to act like Arnold Palmer,” Chamblee said. “We ask for everything out of this guy, and we expect everything. He’s the victim of his own success. Nothing he ever does satisfies us.”

I took Chamblee’s collective “we” to be a reference to golf fans, but he could just as easily have been referring to network executives, whose livelihoods have come to depend on the Big Cat playing, and playing well.

But in this instance, NBC might have had a worse weekend at The Players than Woods. Oh sure, the ratings were fine – up 21 percent over 2008 and the best since 2004. But that was less a reflection of NBC’s work than the fact that while Woods never led, he seemed at least a plausible contender at TPC Sawgrass.

While watching The Players, I was struck by its similarities to the Masters. Both tournaments have permanent homes, fostering viewers’ familiarity with each course’s quirks. Both tournaments have minimal commercials – their biggest plus. And while CBS and NBC undoubtedly would debate the point, neither network blows away viewers with whiz-bang technology at the Masters or Players.

Entering The Players, NBC hyped two technologies – Pinpoint putting animation and Protracer shot tracker – but used both sparingly at TPC Sawgrass. No loss. From inception, Pinpoint has seemed trite when compared with Golf Channel’s AimPoint, and the networks have yet to figure out Protracer’s utility.

So the second-biggest golf tournament on NBC’s schedule became a nuts-and-bolts production. No gimmicks, just lots of action. And of course, lots of Tiger. Nothing wrong with that, except that the NBC crew, like Woods, didn’t bring it’s “A” game.

Golf Channel’s crew performed somewhat better during the opening two rounds, thanks to a budding rapport between analyst Nick Faldo and Brian Hammons, who apparently has emerged as first among equals among the channel’s rotating anchors. Faldo, who sometimes seems to crawl into a shell while working for CBS, brought the kind of energy and insight to the Thursday-Friday shows that’s often been lacking in his work. Faldo’s one-liners still fall flat, but at The Players, he outperformed NBC’s Johnny Miller, generally regarded as golf’s top analyst.

Much of the analysis throughout the tournament, of course, focused on golf’s Messiah.

“We do have some video of Tiger Woods making his way to the back of the range,” Vince Cellini told viewers as Golf Channel’s pre-game show went to break Sunday afternoon. That was followed by shots – taken from a distance, through a stand of trees, as if done surreptitiously – of Woods hitting balls on the range. That footage made the Zapruder film look like an Imax-quality production directed by James Cameron.

Soon thereafter, when Woods found the fairway with his first tee ball Sunday, Hicks said, “So right away, Tiger makes a statement.”

Who knew? I thought Woods simply had hit his opening drive in the fairway. But no, turns out he was making a statement. Of course, the way Woods has been driving the ball lately, hitting a fairway actually might qualify as “a statement.”

As it became clear that Woods would not make a Sunday charge, speculation began as to what ailed the Chosen One.

Was it the knee? That was analyst Peter Jacobsen’s guess. Miller said Woods seemed unhappy: “He’s got the best smile in all of the sports, and he does not smile anymore.” On Golf Channel, Chamblee speculated that Woods’ upper and lower bodies were out of sync. His sidekick, Frank Nobilo, added, “I’ve never seen him so befuddled on a golf course. It was just a look of, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ ”

Miller cryptically offered, “It will be interesting to see if he keeps trying to do what he’s been doing or if he takes another course of action.”

What course of action? Miller didn’t say, nor did his boothmate, Hicks, ask him to expand on that remark.

There would be a simple way to put all of this speculation to rest: Ask Tiger what he’s doing wrong. That, apparently, was out of the question.

In a post-round interview Sunday with NBC’s Roger Maltbie, Woods said he was hitting “spinners.” At that point, I was all but screaming at my TV, “Ask him why, Roger! What is he doing wrong that’s causing him to block it right?” Someone in the NBC production truck should have been screaming the same thing in Maltbie’s ear. But Maltbie didn’t pose the question.

Apparently there’s the fear that asking an obvious follow-up would irritate Tiger. And Lord knows, nobody wants to irritate Tiger.

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