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By Scott Jacobs

tvgolfcoverI used to think you could never get enough golf. The slowest moving sport in America is relaxing to play, even more relaxing to watch on TV. I can’t count the number of Sundays I have fallen asleep watching it, confident that no matter what hole the players were on when I drifted off, they would still be playing when I woke up.

There is in the television version of the game a remarkable sameness to every hole. From the tee, the camera drifts hypnotically up in the air following each drive and the ball slowly falls back to earth about 300 yards later, a little to the left of the fairway, a little to the right, or maybe in an aptly named sand trap. Then everyone gets a second shot, some of which sail off into trouble while others land on the green and backspin to the hole. Finally, the competitors gather on the green where one putt or two usually spells the difference between winning or losing a hole.

This happens, more or less, 18 times in the course of each player’s round. With 156 players entering most tournaments (and roughly 60 making the midway cut), that means golf viewers can watch about 7,776 holes of golf of in a typical four-day tournament on television.  Broadcast 50 of these, like television did last year, and you have more than 375,000 holes to snooze through on the Lazyboy.

The Tiger Woods Effect

13GolfWoods.spanBecause golf tournaments run over a Thursday through Sunday schedule, the barometer of who is winning or losing is the leaderboard. A white erasable board that used to be carried around on a pole at major tournaments is now a slick TV graphic overlaid on some verdant shot of idyllic repose just before they cut to a commercial. Since there are only around 200 golfers with PGA touring cards, the names we see there don’t change much week to week. But the one we always look for is Tiger Woods.

Even before he turned professional in 1996, Woods, then only 20, was a golfing phenomenon. He entered the field with a $40 million endorsement contract from Nike and $20 million from Titleist. Eight months later, he won his first major tournament––The Masters––by a record 12 strokes. Over the ensuing years, Woods has gone on to win 71 titles on the PGA circuit (including 17 majors), 37 victories in the Europe, and 18 other tournaments around the world.

It is more than a play on words to say Tiger Woods has changed the face of golf. Yes, he was one of the first African-Americans in a sea of white competitors, but he also plays the game with a balance of skill, determination and daring that makes his every round compelling viewing.

Since Woods joined the pro tour, the number of hours of golf on television has more than doubled. There’s nothing like a star to attract attention. But credit for golf’s rise in popularity belongs equally to a man who never broke par in his life –– and a back of the napkin idea he called The Golf Channel.

The Golf Channel

Joe Gibbs was a cable TV operator in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1990 when the PGA brought its tournament to nearby Shoal Creek Country Club. As was the custom at the time, Gibbs was one of the local businessmen who offered his guesthouse to a visiting pro. Ben Crenshaw was slated to occupy it. When he found other accommodations, Arnold Palmer moved in.

Over several dinners in the next four years, Gibbs and Palmer conspired to create a 24-hour cable channel dedicated exclusively to Golf. Palmer and his management firm IMG put his name and $80 million behind the venture. Gibbs, meanwhile, went about signing rights to tournaments on the European golf circuit and building a state-of-the-art digital studio in Orlando, Florida.

The Golf Channel launched in January 1995 with tee to green coverage of the Dubai Desert Classic. Today, Golf Channel reaches 120 million viewers and broadcasts 2100 hours of tournaments, golf news and original programming to cable golf channels in the United States, Great Britain, Japan, Canada and 56 other countries. Through a 15-year agreement signed with the PGA in 2007, it is the exclusive provider of Thursday and Friday coverage for 30 PGA tournaments and full coverage of 13 others (not including the 37 tournaments it broadcasts from the European circuit and other events in Asia and the Middle East.)

How Many Cameras Does it Take To Cover a Golf Shot?

The singular focus on one sport has all but transformed the experience of watching golf on television. Golf Channel doesn’t just cover a tournament, it overwhelms it. Typically, it will bring 22 cameras to a tournament. For the recent President’s Cup, it had 36. During The Masters, it will have over 50 cameras on the course.

With commentators spread strategically across the course, it can switch seamlessly from a drive on the 18th to a chip on the 12th to a putt on 13 as fast as a baseball director switches cameras to cover a double play. This speeds up the game at home considerably, allowing commentators to inject a dramatic narrative into the action that the players (who are just thinking about their next shot) often don’t know is going on.

Central to golf coverage these days is the control room truck. When The Golf Channel started broadcasting, TV networks had to be careful about laying cable to remote cameras so they would not interfere with play. Studio cameras on platforms around the critical 17th and 18th hole still rely on cable runs. Most of the cameras on the course today, however, are wirelessly connected to the truck on radio frequencies.

With the advent of high-definition television, the bandwidth required is robust enough the networks now bring in a company in advance of each tournament to construct a radio tower onsite. The signals transmitted are strong enough that the company must notify the FCC and local radio stations (and sometimes the nearby airport) what frequencies it is using.

Golf Graphics

TorreyPines1To be approved as a PGA tournament site, a golf course today must by contract supply to the PGA a digital topographical map of its course. The Golf Channel uses this, as do CBS and NBC, to create digital graphics showing the trajectory of a drive off the tee or a landing pattern for shots that hit the green.

The digital maps are part of a larger database the PGA keeps called “Shot Link” that provides the golf commentators a plethora of information about each player. Ever wonder how Johnny Miller knows this is only the 5th green V. J. Singh has missed in regulation in the last three tournaments? It’s not memory. “Shot Link” is the proverbial Ask.com of golf: Fingertip facts for those long fairway walks.

All of the networks are very proprietary about their graphics. Although it is not unusual for The Golf Channel to hand off its cameras and crews to a network for weekend coverage, CBS and NBC will take over the control truck and install their own graphics package. CBS is particularly proud of its “trickle of balls” map showing how balls will land on a green. CBS also has “SwingVision”, two high-definition cameras that capture a player’s wing at 40,000 frames per second with a shutter speed of 1/50,000th of a second so analysts can break down every nuance of a shot. The Golf Channel, for its part, has “Trackman” for the tee shot trajectory and “AimPoint”, a 3-D modeling program that predicts how a putt will break along the contours of a green.

Wake Me When Its Over

Golf’s latest technology was on full view recently in the marathon broadcast of 20 hours of golf from the President’s Cup in San Francisco, and it only went to prove golf is only as interesting as the players. Tiger Woods won all five of his matches, leading the United States team to a 19 1/2 to 14 1/2 victory over an array of international rivals. The only memorable thing about the event, however, were the dorky team sweaters the golfers donned so you could tell one team from another.

The President’s Cup is not a marquee event on the PGA Tour. Coming after the last Fed Ex cup event, it is notable for two things: 1) no prize money, only a charitable contribution to the winning golfers’ favorite cause and 2) a dizzy array of formats and point scoring that changes every day.

On Thursday, six foursomes play off against each other in a best ball contest where teammates alternate shots around the course. On Friday, the six foursomes each play their own ball, with points for a hole going to the team with the lowest score. On Saturday, five foursomes play both best ball and four ball matches; and on Sunday, individual golfers from each team square off against each other in twosomes.

The ten hours NBC devoted to the tournament on Saturday (11 am to 9 PM EST) may have set a record for golf on television, and it still left me confused about which rules applied to which round. But golf is a relaxing sport, and even this juggernaut hodge-podge of a tournament allowed me a few hours in the Lazyboy to relax my way through it without even breaking a sweat.


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