Whether or not you know a mashie from a brassie, you'd better learn to enjoy golf. Before 1975 is over, the three networks will have broadcast 23 major golf events, and last week they all announced increases for 1976. Beginning early in January, when all those guys who look like Barbie Doll's boyfriend Ken tee up at the Tucson Open, television sports fans will be bombarded with a minimum of 30 tournaments. And this will not be a brief phenomenon; the majority of the new contracts cover two or three years.
Ever since a bunch of crooners named Bing and Dean and Andy and Glen invented golf a few years back, the game has been appearing on television sporadically. But in 1976 it will be served up on both Saturdays and Sundays nearly every weekend from Jan. 10 through May 30. Then after a week's break so the players can have their alpaca sweaters cleaned, the sport will return and linger into the fall. This makes it possible for even the game's most ardent devotees to become overgolfed, and indicates that the bidding war for tournaments among the networks has reached the stage where quite a bit of money is at stake.
"The rights fees for some of the tournaments have jumped by as much as 25%," says Bill Hyland, vice-president and treasurer of the independent Hughes Television Network, which will carry six tournaments this year and probably none in 1976. "The Westchester Classic is a tournament we will do this year on Aug. 2 and 3. It cost us $200,000 for the rights fees. We would have gone to $225,000 for next year, but when it went above that we said no. The cost of producing the Westchester can run as high as $500,000. How are you going to get that kind of money back?"
It may be impossible. In the past some advertisers have considered golf a prestige sport and were not concerned about the low ratings of the telecasts. But a vastly increased TV schedule is certain to make some of those sponsors take a more businesslike approach. Compared to major team events like the Super Bowl and the World Series, golf's prime attractions are not competitive in the ratings. The 1971 Bing Crosby National pro-am drew golf's largest television audience—28.9 million viewers. But it had Arnold Palmer battling for the championship and came on immediately following a Super Bowl which had pulled in an audience of 60 million, a fortunate set of circumstances indeed.
Ratings experts believe that the early part of the PGA schedule—during the winter—is the best time to put golf on TV because "the hut levels are high." Come spring and those huts get pretty empty. This year's Sunday round of the Crosby was seen in 10.1 million homes, very large for a golf audience. But the Saturday round of the Byron Nelson Golf Classic in May was a ratings disaster; it was viewed in only 1.9 million homes. True enough, ratings cannot measure how many people watch golf in country clubs after finishing an afternoon's play, and some sponsors believe a lot of affluent folks do just that. It is one of the "prestige" elements that has made golf less dependent than other sports on the ratings.
Those who have followed golf telecasts this year have been rewarded by two exceptional shows, the Masters on CBS in April and the recent U.S. Open on ABC. Produced by Frank Chirkinian, the Masters presentation was a blend of excellent golf and fine coverage of the Augusta course and its crowds. "There was an aura about this year's tournament that raised it above being just another Masters," says Chirkinian, referring to Jack Nicklaus' dramatic fifth victory. "It was golf as excellent theater." It was also broadcasting without the unctuousness that still accompanies too many golf shows. That welcome change was largely the result of expert, understated reporting by Vin Scully at the 18th hole.
"Covering golf has changed tremendously since I did the PGA Tournament in 1958," says Chirkinian. "Back then we covered four holes with seven cameras and a crew of about 30. At this year's Masters we did 10 holes with 22 cameras and 215 people."
ABC's Open telecast covered even more holes (13) and required more equipment (24 cameras) and people (300) than the Masters. And it also had its theatrical moments, although most of them were absurd. The Sunday show, which lasted for 3½ hours, caught all the frustrations of Frank Beard, Ben Crenshaw and Nicklaus as they bumbled their way around Medinah. And it included a shot of Arnold Palmer throwing a club, which is likely to linger in the minds of the Army for years. Chuck Howard, who produced it, covered Nicklaus' demise almost perfectly. He was less successful with the innumerable switches from hole to hole and golfer to golfer on the last round, but it must be conceded that he had a particularly difficult problem: the list of possible winners kept changing and included many players in the Who's He? category.
ABC enhanced its telecast by showing golfers' swings from behind, giving anyone who plays the game a genuine feeling for the shots. Another asset was Englishman Henry Longhurst, who also had been a member of CBS' Masters crew. Longhurst is most economical with words and brought a welcome tone of restraint to a broadcast on which the American announcers tended to pronounce every drive "great" the moment the ball was struck. In fact, Longhurst even called some shots "wretched," and we all should be thankful for that.