2001: Preferred - What secrets are kept by TV’s hush?

The best line I ever heard about golf on TV came from a ballerina. She had no interest at all in the game, but loved to have it on during weekends while she vacuumed. “I love the sound of those men whispering,” she explained. “It’s as if someone is telling secrets in the background.”

Well, no one is ever going to reveal a secret in the tight, in-bred world of golf and television, but when it comes to the mysterious hush, the average golf broadcast can deliver the sort of quiet time that seems 50 fathoms deep.

CBS, in particular, has perfected the art of smooth intimacy. It became clear, listening to the reverent CBS crew over the last few weekends, especially during the marathons of the PGA Championship and the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational, that this is a crowd of men who are straining to suppress the inner tough guys. If you have been around them, then you know these announcers are in reality some very competitive men, and yet they adhere to a mandate that requires an elegant broadcast. Let the rest of television descend to the level of a Tijuana cockfight, a golf broadcast must always retain its arch dignity.

But is the level of dignity perhaps too contained? While golf fans surely don’t want sardonic, wised-up motormouths in the booth, do we really want the soporific, semi-narcotic state induced by these ingratiating smoothies?

Anybody who has stood in a bar with Ken Venturi, for instance, knows he is a fast man with a mordant put-down. Yet lately he seems so gentle. You hear him and think about Bill Russell in his final year as a basketball analyst – you love and respect his old-fashioned values, but pity his frailty and repetitiveness.

Is Lanny Wadkins being groomed for the lead analyst’s position – or being gelded? Just what happened to Lanny the Lip? Where’s the caustic smart-ass? Whenever he is let out of the cage now, he makes a statesmanlike observation about rules or protocol and then retreats, adjusting his tie.

These announcers are like the repressed characters in a Swedish movie, utterly unable to reveal their volatile feelings. Any player on the range knows, for instance, that Bobby Clampett has a head full of outlandish ideas, but on CBS he wants nothing more than to be a resonant voice of authority. Teacher/course commentator Peter Kostis sure keeps a tight choke-hold on his, um, more pungent convictions. And Verne Lundquist keeps his considerable vocal power at quarter-throttle – probably confining his rage that he’s a bit player while this bloviating charmer Dick Enberg gets to march right into the PGA broadcast and deliver editorials! Having Enberg provide the Jim McKay-style scene-setter makes no more sense than Jesse Ventura calling Bingo numbers. But at CBS, sweet and winning is the order of the day. For all their congenial reassurances, the reliable pros Jim Nantz and Peter Oosterhuis could be clergymen visiting a cancer clinic. They help you believe that, darn it, we can face up to this struggle, after all.

At CBS, it is up to court jesters David Feherty and Gary McCord to open things up – and God knows they’ve probably had pistols put to their foreheads and ordered to watch the ribaldry. Feherty, stomping around the course with headphones on, generally is priceless. At the PGA on one hole he wondered if Shingo Katayama’s club selection was between “a hard 11-wood or a cut 9-wood.”

So CBS makes a very pleasant broadcast, but what is missing besides jaundiced wit? A sense of history, for one thing.

During the endless, seven-hole playoff between Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk at the NEC, for instance, there was little to be said about playoffs, about Woods’ established history of grindingly slow playoff behavior, about course architecture, or the astounding straightness of the new golf ball that is producing all these amazing shots. There was nothing about the forthcoming Ryder Cup (which has the bad luck of being on another network), or even about the changing venue for next year’s NEC, which will be conducted at Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash.

The match was ephemeral, taking place in a vacuum. At times like this I cannot help but miss that old foreboding voice of doom, Ben Wright, the banished Brit who once brought a bit of perspective and language savvy to CBS.

Wright, significantly, was a reporter with newspaper training. The replacement Englishman, Oosterhuis, is reasonable and astute and can quite succinctly explain why players on an uphill lie likely will fade the ball. But his nonthreatening conviviality reveals him to the club pro he once was. In brief, there is no place at CBS now for a gravel-voiced humorist like the late Bob Drum. What the network should consider is the recruiting of some chain-smoking old fart like Gay Brewer to get in the booth and disturb things.

Somebody needs to aggravate the march of bromides. Right now it’s much, much too polite. No matter what the ballerina thinks, these diverting realities within our game are not all that secret.

– Freelance media critic Chris Hodenfield has plied his craft at Turnstile’s Golf & Travel, Golf Digest and Rolling Stone.

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