We are just days away from the beginning of another LPGA Tour season. As a golf fan, I am very much looking forward to what this new year might bring… Will there actually be a rivalry between Lydia Ko and InBee Park? Will Michelle Wie come back happy and healthy? How many events into 2016 will it take Stacey Lewis to win again? How exciting will the West Coast Majors be at Sahalee and CordeValle? Those are just a few of the questions on my mind. Most of these will be played out on television screens thanks to the production team at the Golf Channel and if the past is any prelude to the present my expectations are that the coverage provided by the all golf network won’t look any different than its coverage over the past few years… and that’s a shame. I sat in the producer’s chair for LPGA events for decades and if I were in that chair heading into 2016 here are a few of the things I would propose to make the coverage more compelling.
1. Give Thursday and Friday back to the players
Once upon a time the LPGA Tour, by virtue of professional, personal preference or names being randomly spit out of a computer in Daytona Beach, put groupings of competitors together for the first two rounds of a 72-hole golf tournament. Somewhere along the way, after I arrived on the scene in 1990, television producers began taking responsibility for who played with whom on Thursday and Friday. Our process was simple, I merely asked Barb Trammell, Janet Lindsay, Jim Haley or the tour official responsible for groupings if Beth Daniel, Dottie Pepper, Nancy Lopez, Betsy King, Patty Sheehan, Meg Mallon and later Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Lorena Ochoa could somehow, someway wind up playing together in subsequent groups right in the middle of our broadcast window. Amazingly they did!
We all thought it was a great idea because viewers would be treated to seeing the best players in the game play together for the first two rounds of an event. As a producer it made my life easier because I always had a “bail”; a recognizable, name player I could show regardless of her score at the time. What I realize now, as a viewer, is what it actually creates is a “Champions Tour” viewing experience on the much more interesting, far more diverse, LPGA Tour. What I mean by that is we end up seeing thesame players featured on almost every single broadcast because Inbee Park, Lydia Ko, Michelle Wie, Stacey Lewis, Cristie Kerr and Lexi Thompson (the players the current Golf Channel producer requests for the TV window on Thursday and Friday) are almost always in the mix on Saturday and Sunday when TV shows the leaders.
Here’s my simple suggestion for a change in 2016… Butt Out! Give control of the early round groupings back to the Tour. I would add that maybe TV folks could consult with Tour folks about a system that might include a telegenic, exciting, rookie or a particularly compelling sponsor’s exemption or a group that includes players that finished in the top ten the week before as part of the mix but give the power of picking the groupings back to the people at LPGA HQ. Let the computer spit out the names and the groupings and then manufacture a broadcast around what you get, not what you want.
2. Jettison the in-booth “hole” announcer
Nobody benefits from another announcer on the broadcast, particularly one who is assigned holes from which he or she isn’t actually broadcasting. Instead, get a player, ideally one who just finished her round, and station her on the tee box of a back nine hole to give viewers information, insight, and a more than occasional interview. Most times there is a hole that during a tournament generates a backup (a difficult par 3 or a reachable par 5) and when that happens competitors are available to talk. In my experience other than the guys on the Web.com Tour the pros on the LPGA are the most engaging and cooperative in sports. It’s a win-win for viewers. We stop having to listen to extraneous babble from the booth and get to see one player, each day, in an outside the ropes environment and still get to hear potentially valuable insight from her and her fellow competitors. There will be times when players refuse or tee times and broadcast windows make this impossible but it’s still a win for the viewer because the extra announcer is gone. By the way, this does not mean Terry Gannon gets to talk more!
3. Give us a “Facts and Figures” Friday
I have long written and lamented that golf broadcasts lag behind other sports telecasts in USEFUL statistical information. For the most part, the Golf Channel has smart people in charge of their graphics operations on site so why not put them to work doing something more than “for birdie”, “for par” and regurgitating twitter handles. Every Friday the broadcast could concentrate on one fact or statistic and make that a theme throughout. One week it could be total yards driving the golf ball, another could be feet in putts attempted and a third could be number of times each club in the bag was used. To make things more manageable, you would keep this information contained among the six or nine players in two or three featured groupings. There are dozens of informational tidbits that could be incorporated including A SHOT CLOCK! Wouldn’t that be cool? During live shots put a clock on each competitor to document exactly how long it takes for players in the broadcast window to pull the trigger. Is that time consistent or does it change when players have to hit a certain shot, putt for birdie or double bogey, and are, or aren’t, in contention? Are certain players consistent clock offenders or do situations actually determine time management? I think this would be fascinating and if it’s controversial, all the better.
4. Hire college students who fluently speak appropriate foreign languages
There are few things better on a broadcast than listening to player/caddy conversation concerning strategy or conditions. Golf Channel, thanks to Jerry Foltz and Karen Stupples, does a decent job in letting us hear a good deal of it. The network could, in my opinion, always do more. A dilemma arises when the player and caddie are speaking a language that isn’t English. So instead of listening to a Korean speaking player speak Korean or a Norwegian go on and on in Norwegian we get to listen to Gannon or Judy Rankin or Tom Abbott talk over them and say something stupid like, “I have to brush up on my Korean,” or “I believe they like the 7 iron instead of the 8 iron ha ha” Again my idea is an improvement and it’s simple! Most LPGA Tour stops are somewhere near institutions of higher learning containing students who are fluent or well on their way to becoming fluent in several foreign languages, including Korean, Spanish, Japanese and Norwegian. Put a headset on some of those students and get them on the broadcast, then we’ll know exactly what Suzann Pettersen, Azahara Munoz and Ai Miyazato are saying. The producer will know on Wednesday which languages will be needed and if some preliminary legwork has been done a week or two in advance the student could be available for the broadcast.
5. Last but not least – The LPGA needs to enlist another broadcast partner
Competition makes everybody better and right now there isn’t any when it comes to putting the LPGA on TV. The Golf Channel can give us whatever product they want because, except for an event here or there, they are the only game in town. We don’t get a vote and our only form of protest is to not watch. But we LIKE the LPGA and we don’t WANT to turn it off.
I don’t know if any of these ideas would enhance your LPGA viewing pleasure but I’d love to see the powers that be try any or all of them. It sure would beat the same old, same old.
Keith Hirshland’s experience has taken him all across the country, covering sport’s most famous athletes and television’s most interesting and charismatic personalities. Having worked at both the local affiliate and national network levels, Hirshland was on hand for the beginning stages of ESPN2 and one of the first forty people hired at the Golf Channel when the world’s first niche sports channel began its preparations in 1994. For years, he was part of the production team for golf’s nationally televised Skins Game. Hirshland has worked alongside sports television’s most iconic figures and his book ‘Cover Me Boys‘ features great behind-the-scenes stories from more than 30 years in the sports broadcasting business.
You can follow Keith Hirshland online at his excellent Cover Me Boys blog.
Also by Keith on womensgolf.com:
A Tour of Women’s Golf in the USGA Museum
It’s Michelle Wie’s World, I Just Lived in it for a While
Rivalries and Dominance in Women’s Golf
Why I Love Playing Golf With My Wife
The 2015 Solheim Cup Was Great, Now Let’s Change It