Early in the first episode of PGA Tour Entertainment’s new reality series, “Down the Stretch,” rookie Harris English is shown in the fitness trailer at the Honda Classic. It’s Sunday morning, and English trails leader Rory McIlroy by two shots.
“Final day, last group,” English says. “That’s exactly where I want to be.”
As we know, the day didn’t go as English had hoped: He shot 77 and tumbled to a T-18 finish. Long term, that probably will be just a minor blip in an otherwise impressive career.
I mention that moment because it’s one of the few instances where “Down the Stretch,” which debuted on Golf Channel March 5, was able to accomplish its objective. In a press release about the series, PGA Tour Entertainment touted the show as a chance to find out “what goes through a contender’s mind and how he prepares for the final round.”
Great concept, right? I love the idea, and I’m rooting for PGA Tour Entertainment to pull it off. But the producers have taken on a thankless task, and not just because their deadline requires them to have the show ready to air by 11 p.m. Eastern the day after the tournament ends.
If there’s one thing we know about PGA Tour players, it’s that they don’t want anyone interrupting their routines, particularly in the midst of a tournament. (The fact that English provided the most access and shot 77 probably won’t help the cause.) So access to players – which is what this show is all about – is extremely difficult. I applaud the producers for trying to break down those barriers and take viewers behind the scenes, but they didn’t have much luck in the first attempt.
Instead, the producers are forced to rely on various techniques familiar to cinéma vérité. Rather than a close-up of McIlroy or Tiger Woods being interviewed, we see a wide-angle shot that shows the scrum of reporters and cameramen surrounding each man. We see Keegan Bradley eating breakfast alone and marking his golf balls. A camera goes inside the NBC production truck, but that segment offers us only some chatter, without any insight into how the crew members do their jobs. Four minutes are devoted to Woods’ Sunday charge, but good luck getting any insights into his thinking.
We also see McIlroy’s parents watching him play, but don’t hear from them except for a snippet at the end. And toward the end, we see McIlroy in the locker room – getting a snack, signing autographs, thanking the staff – but there’s no audio. (McIlroy did, however, provide a fitting quote to close the show: “I think I’ve got a lot more belief in myself now when I’m going down the stretch.”)
All of this footage gives viewers some perspective of the sights and sounds at the tournament. But players and their handlers are conditioned to hold up a “Stop” sign whenever the media tries to get too close.
In a perfect world, we’d see the tournament leaders eating dinner and talking about the next day, and they would be wearing microphones during play. Instead, we get no closer than a brief stop in English’s hotel room on Sunday morning.
Throughout “Down the Stretch,” there is a variation of a cinematic technique that Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales years ago dubbed “Swing That Camera,” as the camera bounces around, zooming in and out, to foster the sense of reality.
The gold standard for this type of documentary is HBO’s incomparable “Hard Knocks,” which chronicles an NFL team during training camp. Viewers are brought inside team meetings, watch coaches and team executives debate personnel moves, and often are in the room when players get cut. It’s far and away the best sports-reality program in existence, and there’s not a close second.
I’d like to think that “Down the Stretch” eventually could approach that level. Three more 30-minute episodes are planned – at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, airing (March 12) Arnold Palmer Invitational (March 26) and The Players Championship (May 14). I’m going to be watching hopefully and rooting hard for PGA Tour Entertainment to make this show a success, knowing full well that the producers have taken on a near-impossible task.