Kaufmann: New 'Morning Drive' digs, but same ol' schtick

From left, Holly Sonders, Gary Williams, Damon Hack, Charlie Rymer and Matt Ginella on the new set of the "Morning Drive."

From left, Holly Sonders, Gary Williams, Damon Hack, Charlie Rymer and Matt Ginella on the new set of the "Morning Drive."

First, a confession: I’ve never much cared for Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive.” Part of that is simply because it doesn’t fit my morning routine. As Jason Statham growled in “The Transporter,” “I like it quiet in the morning.” So it’s not just “Morning Drive”; I’ve never cared for any of the morning shows where the talent often leans back in a comfy chair and chats about the day’s news, as if they’re old friends who just happened to drop by your house for coffee. Over the years, none of the fixtures of morning TV – neither Matt nor Katie, and certainly not George or Soledad – have ever been welcomed inside the gates of the Kaufmann estate for morning coffee.

That’s pretty much a blanket policy.

My job being what it is, however, I sometimes – OK, honestly, very infrequently – felt obligated to check in on “Morning Drive.” Invariably, it seemed to embody much of what exasperates me about television these days: It typically featured two guys, whose opinions I don’t value, debating and prognosticating on matters about which I have little or no interest.

The objective was to fill time cheaply. And that’s sort of the point. The beauty of studio shows is that they’re low-cost, high-margin products. They don’t require much more than a few cameras, a couple of on-air voices, and an anchor to serve as referee. I’m simplifying, but only slightly. Consider ESPN: For all of its live programming, nothing generates more profits than its relentless stream of studio shows. So purely from a business standpoint, it’s not a bad model to emulate.

Last week Golf Channel relaunched “Morning Drive” with some cast additions and a new, vastly improved studio. (“It’s like I’m in a warehouse now,” Ian Poulter joked during a visit to the set on Tuesday. “It used to be a cupboard.”) Against my better judgment, I felt obligated to spend the past week watching the new format so that Golfweek’s readers wouldn’t have to. You can thank me later.

Let me start by saying that I think there’s an inherent problem with a sport-specific show such as “Morning Drive.” Other staples of morning TV – think “Today” or “Good Morning America” – usually are carried by the news of the day (the economy, war, severe weather, cultural kerfuffles, etc.). There’s always something to discuss. So news divisions can be marshaled to cover those stories and interview the relevant newsmakers. Those shows can round out the schedule with, for example, interviews with authors pitching new books or celebrities touting new movies.

In golf, however, there isn’t a lot of news. On Wednesday, “Morning Drive” led with a discussion of Vijay Singh’s use of deer-antler spray, a story that had broken the previous week. Several LPGA players visited during the week, but there was no particular rhyme or reason for Stacy Lewis, Sandra Gal, Azahara Munoz and others to drop by other than the fact that they had free time before starting the season.

“Morning Drive” did do well in landing a phone interview with Davis Love III on Saturday, a day after he had neck surgery. And a Tim Rosaforte interview with Brandt Snedeker on Sunday was timely, though clearly had been in the can for a while. My guess is that when the PGA Tour comes east and the LPGA gets under way, there will be more opportunities for timely interviews.

One might have thought that the “Morning Drive” crew would want to make a splash with the relaunch. Maybe it would be a big newsmaker interview or some sort of enterprise story – something that says the show is determined to get noticed rather than merely being background noise in the pro shop. Instead, we just had talking heads, only more of them with the expanded cast.

When the men of “The View” – er, “Morning Drive” – are seated in their comfy chairs, it would be nice to think they’re just four buddies swapping stories and opinions. But it often seems so scripted: On the “Front 9” segment, for instance, Holly Sonders poses a question to the guy to her left, who then talks to the guy to his left, who talks to the guy to his left, who talks to the guy to his left, who kicks it back to Sonders. I’m sure they’re sharing their own thoughts, but it’s so structured that it sometimes feels as though they’re speaking their lines. A little more spontaneity would be nice.

While there is a big cast, there’s no compelling voice who will make viewers put down the morning paper to listen. (As an aside, does every guy on “Morning Drive” have a sweater endorsement deal? It was 80 degrees last week in Orlando, but the guys were bundled up as if they were broadcasting from Oak Hill in the dead of winter.) The de facto star is the voluble Gary Williams, who seems to be likable, diligent and well-prepared. He even seems to have a good sense of humor, though it rarely manifests itself on air. He noted at one point, “Levity in moderation is a good thing.” It would be nice if he gave us some in more than just drips and drabs. In baseball, Williams would be referred to as “the kind of player every team needs.” He’d be the guy who gets the bunt down, advances runners, never makes a mental error. But he’s not a Cy Young candidate or a middle-of-the-order bat. The same is true of Damon Hack and Charlie Rymer.

Some of the new crew additions are just odd choices. John Cook always has seemed like a nice fellow, but placid almost to the point of being phlegmatic. You might need to switch from decaf to espresso if you spend too much time watching him. Ahmad Rashad serves as the foil, with other crew members needling him about his rounds with celebrity friends at famous courses. (A graphic established Rashad’s bona fides: 3.2 index and 158 rounds in 2012.) I'm not sure he brings much to the show, but don't be surprised if he lands the occasional interview with pals such as Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. (Rashad did make me laugh when someone used a 50-cent word. “I thought this was Golf Channel,” he quipped.)

Viewers saw the difference in quality of talent when Brandel Chamblee came on the set Saturday. The energy level instantly soared, the mood lightened and he became the focal point of the discussion. Chamblee might have been a marginal player on Tour, but when he’s in the studio, he’s Golf Channel’s unquestioned star. Unfortunately, he’ll be only an occasional contributor to the show.

And, it goes without saying, I’ll be only an occasional – very occasional – viewer.

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