Without Tiger to extol, TV talking heads just bore viewer

Apr 15, 2008 7:00 PM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein | A great photographer named George Smallsreed worked for me years ago. He loved bright lights and good times, and when I would send him on assignment to remote places far off the beaten track I would worry about him. I would call and ask what he was doing for excitement, and he would tell me, a bit caustically, "I go watch the locals get haircuts."

I thought about George again Sunday, as I do often, as my wife, who never played a round of golf in her life, spent half the day waiting for her hero Tiger Woods to spring back to life, find his short game, and win the Masters.

He never did, of course, so she had to listen to Jim Nantz and associates rhapsodize over Amen Circle; Ike’s Pond; The Big Oak Tree; "There’s Hogan’s Bridge;" South Africa and Gary Player, the country’s only Masters winner before Sunday; and of course the Green Jacket, golf’s Holy Shroud. She did that for excitement for five hours or so, while grown men chased a little white ball all over the windy course of the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.

Outside of baseball, there can be nothing more boring than golf. CBS’s team spent weeks preparing to eulogize The Tiger one more time in the Masters, and when he had a bad hair day they were reduced to scurrying to find something to say, again and again and again, about young Trevor Immelman and the wonders of Augusta. When the guys on the course don’t follow the script, you have to improvise, or "fill" as it is known in the trade. No one is better at it than Nantz, but there is such a thing as being overNantzed, and as good as he is it grew tiresome hearing about how Gary Player was Immelman’s hero and how Trevor had spent every breathing moment of his entire life just waiting for this moment. Knowing apartheid, he must have felt right at home at Augusta National.

At the end, the excited loving family and blonde wife – do any of these guys marry brunettes? – and the little kid, in this instance whining when his mother kept him from joining his father in the official’s scorer’s shack. You can’t smack a kid on national television, so she quickly did the wise thing and carried him out of camera range.

Golf, if you come to think of it, is a stupid game. It is great for doing business, socializing with fellow freaks, but the vast majority of people who play it would be better off spending their time at chess or checkers, or ping pong, pool or poker.

There is only one Tiger Woods, of course, and even though he was far off his game Sunday and still finished second, he has electrified and energized the game, and has drawn new millions of viewers to it, including tens of thousands like my wife who never gave the game a second thought before he arrived on the scene.

He was visibly frustrated and angry with himself Sunday as he saw a promised Grand Slam slipping by, but it is hard to feel bad for a guy who pulls himself together, climbs on his own Gulfstream 450, and jets off to another million or so at the next stop.

If Woods never played another round of golf, he could make more each year doing a dozen commercials than any 20 other golfers on the planet could make, combined, on the course.

One commercial currently playing, showing Woods as an astronaut slamming a drive to earth off the moon, is one of the best executed on television, but the fact that I can remember the execution but not the sponsor says something about the medium. And about me, I suppose.

Turning to more productive pursuits – games that take two minutes to play instead of five hours – television may face the same problem with this year’s Kentucky Derby as CBS did with the Masters Sunday. It may have a bunch of "Who? Horses" racing one standout for the most coveted prize in horsedom.

The Derby drums started beating early for War Pass, who looked unbeatable last fall in the Breeders’ Cup. War Pass finished last in the Tampa Bay Derby last month, then bounced back to run second in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. So the drumbeaters switched to Pyro, who beat a bunch of nags in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. Pyro ran 10th Saturday in a 12-horse Blue Grass field at Keeneland.

This means four hours of Big Brown versus 19 others on Derby Day, At least it will be over in two minutes, when, like the Masters, the analysts can begin second-guessing the result, or extolling the winner as the greatest thing since penicillin.