TV: College golf docuseries brings back memories of 'Friday Night Lights'

Jessica Danser/Golf Channel

TV: College golf docuseries brings back memories of 'Friday Night Lights'

Men

TV: College golf docuseries brings back memories of 'Friday Night Lights'

Five hundred miles separate Permian, Texas, from Stillwater, Okla., but I kept thinking about “Friday Night Lights” as I watched the first episode of Golf Channel’s new reality series, “Driven,” which debuts May 7 at 10 p.m Eastern.

Maybe it was the background music filled with angst and anticipation, or the similarity of the landscapes, or the slow-motion footage of Oklahoma State players working out in the gym or competing in tournaments, or the way that Oklahoma head coach Ryan Hybl channels Dillon Panthers head coach Eric Taylor when he drawls, “‘ppreciate y’all comin’ out” at the end of a team meeting. We just needed the Connie Britton character to walk across the set and greet the players with a lilting, “Hey, y’all.”

“Driven” is a project that has been percolating since Golf Channel began airing the NCAA Division 1 Golf Championships in 2014, according to Mike McCarley, president, golf, NBC Sports. When a crew visited Stillwater last year to survey Karsten Creek Golf Club in preparation for this spring’s NCAAs, McCarley asked them to raise the idea of a reality series with Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder, who used to be the men’s golf coach. Holder quickly suggested bringing in the school’s most prominent former player, Rickie Fowler, who serves as executive producer on the project.

Shooting commenced last fall, when Fowler returned to campus for “Bedlam,” the annual Oklahoma State-Oklahoma football game.

“I thought that football was really important to be a part of this because there’s no better way to show the rivalry that’s so inherent in college sports than a great football Saturday on campus,” McCarley said.

“Driven,” a four-part docuseries, follows arch rivals Oklahoma State and Oklahoma through the spring season. Oklahoma State is the consensus No. 1 this season, but Oklahoma is the defending national champion and defeated the Cowboys by eight shots to win the Big 12 Championship April 25.

“Seeing (OU) win the national championship kind of makes my blood boil,” says Cowboys junior Hayden Wood.

“Driven” probably will draw a lot of comparisons to HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which is the gold standard of sports reality programming. But thematically, the idea of young men competing in a highly pressurized environment against familiar rivals, with the expectation of championships, was reminiscent of “Friday Night Lights.” When Bill Dalke, who played on two OU national championship football teams, quips that his son, Sooner star Brad, “still has some work to do,” he does so in good humor. But I couldn’t help but recall Charlie Billingsley, from the movie version of “FNL,” constantly reminding his son of the state championship ring he never won.

At one point, Hybl stares straight into the camera and says, “That’s what we do here at Oklahoma is win championships.” He informs his team that the hashtag they are to use this season is “Never enough” – whether in golf, training or school.

“There’s definitely some extra motivation with the fact that everyone is talking about OSU right now,” Brad Dalke says. “We all want to make sure we get a little respect.”

Oklahoma State, of course, will have a lot to say about this. The Cowboys won seven consecutive tournaments this season, and the expectations are at least as high in Stillwater.

“The competition here is just huge,” says Oklahoma State senior Kristoffer Ventura, one of two Cowboys players from Norway. “The need to win and be better and be the best version of yourself, I think that’s what hit me when I got here.”

DRIVEN: Rickie Fowler and Oklahoma State (Jessica Danser/Golf Channel)

Football’s grit and violence, its beauty and passion, make it the perfect subject for sports documentarians. Golf can never match those elements. But “Driven” is a timely and important step for the college game and for Golf Channel.

Most of the PGA Tour’s stars come out of the U.S. college system, even if they don’t spend four years there. Yet the game receives precious little attention from TV beyond the NCAAs and some coverage of conference championships on regional sports networks.

My colleagues at Golfweek make their livings telling our readers about the stars, and soon-to-be stars, of the college game. But Golf Channel’s megaphone is infinitely larger, and it’s important that it’s being used to bring so much attention to college golf.

As of this writing, four weeks remain until a national champion is crowned May 30 in Stillwater. A lot of variables could play out as “Driven” unfolds. Sports, as they say, is the best form of reality TV. The teams must navigate regionals, then advance to the final eight at nationals, before we can allow ourselves to contemplate “Bedlam” in golf. But it’s hard to tamp down those expectations.

As Sooner junior Blaine Hale says in the premiere of “Driven,” “I know there’s going to be some serious tension when we get on the first tee and hear, ‘Defending national champions, Oklahoma,’ when we’re at Stillwater on their golf course.”

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