For Roberts’ new show, storytelling is ‘In Play’

Jimmy Roberts' new show "In Play" premieres on Golf Channel March 12.

Ever since the great essayist Jack Whitaker retired after a long career with CBS and ABC, there has been no obvious candidate to fill the yawning void he left behind. There has been no bard of Whitaker’s magnitude, someone who makes viewers stop whatever they’re doing to watch him spin a yarn.

Over the years, lots of talented people – Jim Huber, Tom Rinaldi, Rich Lerner, Jimmy Roberts and many others – have tried to fill the role that might best be described as golf’s storyteller. In the process, a lot of good work has been done, but no one could fairly be described as Whitaker’s true heir. I’m sure part of that is due to the fact that Whitaker was just so doggone good that it has been difficult, at least in my mind, to elevate any of his successors to his pedestal.

Now along comes Roberts with a new monthly series called “In Play,” which premieres at 10:30 p.m. March 12 on Golf Channel. It’s one of the best examples to date of the symbiosis between NBC and Golf Channel.

Roberts always has seemed like a likable fellow, and I’ve enjoyed his work over the years. I’ve just wanted to see more of it. During an important tournament – say, the U.S. Open – we might see him do a short essay or two, but usually he’s the guy with the thankless job of interviewing players as they come off the course. I’ve literally cringed some weekends when I’ve surfed past Roberts doing the two-minute sports updates. Isn’t that a job for one of NBC Sports’ twenty-something strivers rather than one of its most seasoned voices? With “In Play,” Roberts finally has a forum for long-form storytelling.

(A sidebar: Perhaps Roberts has done some great work on NBC’s Olympics coverage, but I can’t speak to that. I haven’t watched more than five hours of Olympics coverage in the past 20 years.)

The first episode opens with the story of Valentino Dixon, an inmate at Attica (N.Y.) Correctional Facility. Dixon is a gifted artist who spends his days drawing famous golf courses. Dixon, imprisoned for a 1991 murder in Buffalo, has drawn more than 130 golfscapes in recent years despite the fact that the game is completely foreign to him.

“For hours on end,” Roberts tells us, “(he draws) pictures of places he has never seen and a mysterious game he’s never played.”

If the story ended there, it would just be an interesting feature. But Roberts, while acknowledging that “prisons are filled with the innocent,” explores questions as to whether Dixon was wrongly convicted. With appeals still not exhausted, one suspects we’ll hear more about this case, perhaps in part because of the attention brought to it by Roberts’ reporting.

In the second segment, Lerner spends time with Arnold Palmer in the warehouse where golf’s greatest hoarder stores everything from old golf clubs to mementos that probably couldn’t fetch a buck at retail. We learn this interesting tidbit: Since 1966, Palmer has saved every letter he has received.

“If you had a life as great as Palmer’s,” Lerner says, “wouldn’t you want to save and remember every last little bit of it?”

The shows ends with a Damon Hack interview with Christina Kim, who discusses dealing with depression – much of which she traces to her declining golf game – and thoughts of suicide.

There’s nothing groundbreaking in the first episode – Dixon’s story has been told before in print, as has Kim’s – but all in all, it’s a solid first attempt for Roberts and “In Play.” It was good enough that I’ve programmed my DVR to record new episodes – an honor I don’t bestow lightly on any show – and hope that the storytelling continues to get better.

Because, Lord knows, I love a good yarn.

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