TV: Time to pull the plug on the Nationwide Tour?

Signage displayed at the 2010 Nationwide Tour Championship.

In the six-plus years that I’ve served as Golfweek’s television critic, it’s no secret that I’ve carried a torch for Golf Channel’s coverage of the lowly Nationwide Tour. I’ve at times been so fawning in my praise that it’s become a running joke among some colleagues and folks at Golf Channel.

There’s no doubt that I’ve graded the Nationwide coverage on a curve; after all, I’ve never been reluctant to chastise Golf Channel, CBS and NBC if I didn’t like aspects of their PGA Tour coverage. The Nationwide telecasts always have been done with smaller budgets – roughly one-third the size that a network will spend to produce a PGA Tour event, even though the Nationwide tournaments often received comparable airtime. Yet the Nationwide telecasts have been some of the most entertaining I’ve watched over the years, with creative production and a crew that seemed passionate about its product. In short, the Nationwide crew managed to do a lot more with a lot less resources. I’ve always appreciated that.

Given that, I’m not happy to write the following.

If the new, stripped-down Nationwide Tour production unveiled at the BMW Charity Pro-Am is the best that Golf Channel and the PGA Tour can deliver, the two sides should seriously discuss further curtailing the tour’s TV schedule, if not pulling it off the air altogether.

The key facets of this season’s production changes are: fewer cameras and lots more feature stories. The result is that we tended to see the same players and same holes. On Friday, Sam Saunders got the kind of airtime that used to be reserved for his grandfather. Meanwhile, Darron Stiles was leading the tournament that day, playing just three holes ahead of Saunders, but was never shown.

Cameras tended to linger on a featured player’s group – Josh Broadaway on Thursday, Saunders on Friday, Luke List on Saturday. We’d sometimes see each member of the foursome play his approach or putt out, presumably because there weren’t enough cameras to show action elsewhere on the course.

During the first three days of the tournament, I think I saw more of the par-3 11th hole at Thornblade CC than I’ve seen of the 12th at Augusta National over the past decade.

On Friday, Stephanie Sparks did two on-course interviews with actor and occasional Golf Channel host Anthony Anderson. Now, Anderson seems like a pleasant fellow, but that’s approximately two more on-course interviews than I ever want to see with him.

While I like the concept of on-course interviews, there’s a time and place for them. You can pull List aside for a couple of minutes during a slow-moving pro-am, as Sparks did on Saturday. But I didn’t think it was wise for Cockerill to do a short interview with Nick Flanagan after the first playoff hole Sunday. At that point, the competition has to take priority.

Before the BMW Pro-Am, Ty Votaw, executive vice president of the PGA Tour, tried to put the best face on this new format, saying it would allow Golf Channel to do more stories that introduce fans to Nationwide players.

In theory, that’s plausible. But the features we saw seemed designed to be done quickly and with little thought or effort. For example, on Thursday and Friday we saw a new segment called “On Course with Kay Cockerill,” in which Cockerill walked one practice hole with Broadaway and Casey Wittenberg and asked each player a few questions.

It’s the sort of segment that can be shot quickly, but it doesn’t show any creativity and it exposes Cockerill’s weak interviewing skills. And so we got pointless comments such as this one from Wittenberg about his win earlier this season: “It was one of those great weeks. It just came together. I putted well when I needed to. I hit some great shots when I needed to.” Platitudes like that remind me why I’m glad I don’t cover any of the tours. More to the point, it’s the sort of unenlightening quote that should end up on the cutting-room floor, but it gets used if you’re just trying to find a quick and easy way to fill time.

I’m all for doing more features, particularly during the first two rounds, and I suspect there are a lot of good stories to be told on the Nationwide Tour – former PGA Tour players trying to revive their careers, young hotshots just out of college, young Asians trying to make a go of it in the U.S. But it takes time and resources to tell good stories.

During Saturday’s telecast, we saw a clip of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, talking about the “expanded Nationwide Tour” and its increased importance now that Q-School no longer provides access to the PGA Tour. Given that, it’s ironic that as the Nationwide Tour is growing in relevance, its presence and quality on television are shrinking almost to the point of insignificance.

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