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Limited Commercials During the Players Were Great, But Why Can't the PGA Tour Have That Every Week?

Golf broadcasts with limited interruptions are ideal, just like at that tournament in Augusta, John Hawkins writes. And if the ads are entertaining, all the better.

It deserves a seat at the table of golf’s most precious three-word phrases, right there with “absolutely perfect morning” and “nice putt, #@&*&!,” but every time Dan Hicks mentioned “limited commercial interruption” during last week’s Players Championship, it sounded like a contradiction of pure fiction. We’ve heard such promises for years. The Masters was the first tournament to lighten up on sales pitches with its weekend coverage on CBS, as if to acknowledge that running a McDonald’s ad on Sunday’s back nine was like spraying graffiti on St. Peter’s Basilica.

Tacky. Intrusive. Just plain dumb. Most of today’s 30-second spots, which always come in bunches, are unimaginative attempts to sell you a new phone or change insurance companies, one of which decided that a promotional campaign with the Statue of Liberty displayed prominently in the background is something other than an exercise in poor taste. And you thought those national pizza chains had cornered the market on unappetizing fare.

Hicks wasn’t kidding, however, and NBC’s presentation of the Players was a notable step forward in the endless quest to make pro golf easier to watch and harder to bellyache over. It was a superb telecast from start to finish, anchored in fine form by Hicks and Mike Tirico and augmented considerably by contributions from newcomers Brad Faxon, Curt Byrum and Smylie Kaufman. Scottie Scheffler and 17 were the obvious stars of the show, but it was the absence of commercial clutter that separated this event from the usual PGA Tour procession.

Baseball, basketball and football all have competitive breaks built into the product. While the players chill, mobile phones turn into megaphones as a conduit to blare their message to the public. Lizards and ostriches represent companies spending zillions on encouraging you to bundle your home, auto and whatever else allows them access to your pocket. Commercials are the proverbial necessary evil, an irreplaceable source of income to the leagues that govern pro sports and the networks that televise them. They fill those pauses in the action and give us an excellent reason to use the bathroom. They’re irritating and unstimulating, but like cockroaches, they’ve been around forever and won’t be leaving anytime soon. Unlike cockroaches, they serve a purpose.

Golf doesn’t have a halftime or teams moving from the field to the dugout every half inning. It remains in constant competitive motion, and while that motion is extremely slow by nature, there are dozens of balls in play all the time—the other sports use just one. However inconsequential an overwhelming majority of those shots might be, every swing of the club contributes to a galaxy of athletic substance that forms the product as we know it. That’s why we turn on the TV.

During and after last year’s U.S. Open, NBC and USGA were roundly criticized for stuffing way too many commercials into the broadcast of one of the game’s biggest tournaments. It was an unseemly method of prioritizing financial profit over viewer interest, and much to his credit, USGA bossman Mike Whan publicly vowed to do better in 2023. We’ll see if he makes good on his confession. Until then, that’s another good reason to applaud the Tour’s handling of the Players.

Camp Ponte Vedra knows how the formula works in its optimum form. You strike deals with two or three money-management empires (how ironic!) and designate them as exclusive partners of the tournament itself. They’re not title sponsors, so nobody gets to splatter their name on the shingle, but they are given every commercial spot allocated to the telecast that week—under the clear premise that NBC won’t be heading into a four-minute break every seven or eight minutes.

Limited interruption, minimal disruption. No Flo from Progressive, no Lily from AT&T. It really is a more enjoyable viewing experience when somebody isn’t jamming a handheld device down your throat five times per hour.

Not only that, but several of last week’s commercials were new and quite appealing. The best came from Grant Thornton, which launched a series of ads featuring Rickie Fowler, Nelly Korda and Tony Finau. Korda has that certain something that doubles as an essential ingredient to star power. Confidence with a dash of defiance, a presence that suggests she could probably kick your ass and help you to your feet immediately afterward.

Although L’il Rickie doesn’t make as many par putts as he once did, he sure can carry a corporate tune, proof that some things never change. Grant Thornton’s spots were subtly funny and hip without trying too hard, and when you see them only a few times over the course of an entire afternoon, they’re not as likely to send you back to the refrigerator in search of a fifth Budweiser.

In the final stages of TNT’s 28-year tenure as the early-round carrier of the PGA Championship, the commercial gluttony got so awful that even the heartiest golf fan might have been inclined to skip the telecast altogether. It’s easy to lose sight of the greater good in a capitalist culture, but for every TV executive who got into the business to generate income for the network and himself, there are a million sports fans who deserve better.

How hard would it be to make the final hour of every final round on the PGA Tour commercial-free? How about limited diversions on Sundays altogether? If the greencoats in Georgia were smart enough to do it years ago, any network and every title sponsor could do it now. Count your blessings, fellas. Not your money.