Golf Channel's 'Spotlight' needs to take more chances

Padraig Harrington punts a football into the grandstands on the 16th hole during the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Padraig Harrington punts a football into the grandstands on the 16th hole during the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

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Some people are meat-and-potatoes guys. And that’s fine. Me? All things considered, I’d just as soon skip right to dessert.

So when Golf Channel produced its first “Spotlight” coverage of the season at the Phoenix Open, I was all in. I love the zaniness of the Phoenix Open, and much of that unhinged vibe emanates from the Thunderdome that is the 16th at TPC Scottsdale. That par 3, and the two holes that bracket it – a reachable par 5 and a drivable par 4 – were the subject of the “Spotlight” coverage. Let NBC do the serious business of covering the rest of the tournament; I could DVR that and watch it later. I wanted dessert.

Those of you who have followed my various rants and ruminations on televised golf coverage over the years know that I’ve long been fond of Keith Hirshland’s work. For years he turned lemons into lemonade on the Nationwide Tour, producing some of the most watchable golf on TV. (One example of his risk-taking: Most golf fans probably had never heard of James Hahn before he did his “Gangnam Style” dance near the 16th green Sunday. But Hirshland recognized Hahn’s intelligence and big personality several years ago and had him serve occasionally as an on-course reporter.)

Hirshland has been off the Nationwide beat for a couple of years, but Golf Channel brought him back to produce the seven Spotlights this season. So I was interested to see how he could improve upon the initial Spotlights done in 2012.

TPC Scottsdale’s closing holes are the perfect Spotlight setting. The holes are thrilling, and the environment is about as close as golf gets to Cameron Indoor Stadium and the wacky Dukies. Watching from home, however, I got the feeling that the production was too tentative. My sense was that Hirshland was like a quarterback who is itching to throw the deep ball, but decided to check it down to the running back in the flat. If I could offer one piece of advice to Hirshland and the Golf Channel execs regarding the Spotlight coverage, it would be this: Bombs away! NBC can deliver the safe, sound coverage; this viewer wants to be entertained.

Part of the problem might be the timing. Saturday’s raucous environment gave way to what appeared to be a more subdued atmosphere on Sunday.

“Jerry, do you see the attitude change as we get later in the day?” anchor Brian Hammons said to Jerry Foltz on Sunday. Foltz: “Yeah, it’s all business to them.”

At events such as Phoenix, where it’s such a unique atmosphere, Golf Channel might want to consider moving up the start of the Spotlight coverage to the early, 1 p.m. Eastern time slot, or even the Thursday-Friday rounds. (The PGA Tour likely would want to weigh in on that idea.) My feeling is, for a few weeks a year, take a few chances. Who knows, maybe we’ll find that some of those latent golfers the industry always says it’s trying to reach might see a different, more appealing side of the game.

Another concern is the Spotlight crew, and I’m not sure whether Golf Channel has the personnel to address this issue. Brian Hammons is a solid, professional anchor, but probably wasn’t the best fit in an irreverent setting such as the closing holes of the Phoenix Open. In another setting, say the Honda Classic at PGA National, he might be the ideal Spotlight anchor.

As for Foltz, he might not be the best on-course reporter in golf, but he’s in the conversation. He’s that good. At Phoenix, however, he was assigned to roam the grandstand at 16 and find fun stories. Given Foltz’s easygoing, personable nature, it seemed like a good idea, but the execution didn’t work well. At times, Foltz was reduced simply to calling play-by-play from behind the tee. Perhaps Phil Parkin, Golf Channel’s excitable boy, would have been better suited for that role. Or perhaps those segments would have benefited from better pre-production work to find more entertaining people to interview. You want such segments to be planned, yet feel spontaneous.

One thing that most definitely did not work is the new Landing Zone graphic used on the 16th hole. I love graphics that help viewers better understand what is happening on the screen. Landing Zone didn’t do that.

In theory, a Trackman launch monitor is supposed to judge the spin, launch angle and other factors, then show where the ball will land while it’s still in the air. Three problems: First, the graphic eats up half of the screen, so even on my mega wide-screen, theater-quality, superduper high-definition TV, all you really see is a white dot being tracked by the camera.

Second, it sometimes was wrong. “Nice shot,” Parkin said as Landing Zone indicated Ted Potter Jr.’s tee ball would stop just right of the hole – when, a second later, we saw the ball hit the right side of the green and kick down into the swale. “It had a little bit of a draw on it just at the end, and as a result it released,” Parkin said. A similar scenario played out on David Hearn’s tee shot a few minutes later.

Third, what’s really gained? Does it add anything that we wouldn’t get from an announcer describing the shot in the air? Even Scott McCarron, who was helping on the Spotlight coverage, joked that he could call the shot in the air just as easily as the Trackman.

Bottom line: I still like the Spotlight idea, and I’m still going to turn to it first on weekends when it’s available. Like I said, I do love dessert. I just want Spotlight to get a little more flavorful.

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