I am having trouble with the backside, mainly because I've been
parked on mine all night. My natural fade is coming into play,
mainly because I haven't slept in 24 hours. The sun is rising
outside my Orlando hotel room, where I am in hour 12 of the most
bizarre assignment of my 12-year sportswriting career. I am
conscious of my own halitosis.
Do a story on the Golf Channel, my managing editor had said.
Hole up in a hotel room and watch it for 48 hours. Take notes.
What I said, "Great idea, boss. It's bold! Visionary!"
What I thought, Should I be updating my resume?
July 9, 1995
I was wallowing in such self-pitying thoughts in the early hours
of a Saturday morning, when a promotion for Golf Today came on.
In the promo, dapper Golf Today host Dwayne Ballen walks toward
the camera, touting his show because it contains "more
pre-tournament coverage than your television can possibly hold."
On cue, a nearby TV explodes, raining golf balls all over the
My skull is on the verge of a similar eruption. It is not so
much a skull anymore as it is a large bucket in which names,
places and random golf thoughts have been jumbled like so many
range balls: yips, chips, birdies, eagles, Eales (Paul), Els
(Ernie), Jeff Gove, Davis Love, Rocky Thompson, Rocco Mediate,
rye grass, Sawgrass, flagsticks, flat sticks, fairway woods,
Tiger Woods, what I would not give to be out of this
god-forsaken room; Aoki, Azinger, and my ordeal had barely begun.
The longest day of my life began with a 7:30 a.m. production
meeting for Golf Today. I'd planned to stockpile some zzz's at
my hotel, wander in around 11, take a few notes, then--after
feigning just the right amount of protest--accept somebody's
offer to take me to lunch. These plans were foiled by the
channel's preternaturally chipper public relations manager, Kyle
Eng, who informed me the night before that he'd secured
permission for me to sit in on the meeting. "Pick you up at
seven," he chirped.
My chair at the conference table turns out to be a ringside seat
for a lively little spat between the show's two analysts, Debra
Vidal and Mark Lye. Vidal makes the point that Nancy Lopez's
career earnings are all the more impressive when one considers
that LPGA Tour players make roughly half what their male
"Well, only half as many people watch [women play] on TV,"
rejoins Lye, the channel's self-appointed Angry White Male.
Of course they get along famously, as does most everyone at the
Golf Channel. They have to. Most of the station's 185 employees
moved here from someplace else. Other than people they know from
work, they have few friends in Orlando. Further bonding the
staff is a shared sense of risk--many left secure, well-paying
jobs to join this outfit. (Just how big a risk they took became
painfully apparent on June 1, when Golf Today got the ax and 15
staffers got pink slips. Ballen, Lye and Vidal--the talent, to
use the medium's odious expression--were reassigned.)
An hour before Golf Today goes on the air, Eng ushers me into
the studio, a 5,700-square-foot room with four different sets.
"This is the jewel," he says, reverently. I have no time to
reply, as a seven-foot, half-ton killer robot nearly runs me
down. It is one of the three robotic-arm cameras gliding
noiselessly around the studio. I half expect one of them to
exclaim, "Danger, Will Robinson!"
No one but me seems to be alarmed that the remote controls of
the robots are being operated by a longhaired high school
student who apparently has sauntered in off the street. Jason
Denny later informs me, a trifle defensively, that he is 25 and
that he came to the Golf Channel from the Home Shopping Network,
where he learned his craft. TGC is peopled by refugees from HBO,
CNN, ESPN and various other cable channels among which I will
soon be yearning, but unable, to surf.
I lower myself in, as it were, at 6:28 on Friday evening. To get
into the golfing spirit I've checked in at The Bay Hill Club and
Lodge, an Arnold Palmer-owned resort. The ceremonial duct-taping
of the remote control is completed just as my maiden Golf
Channel show comes on. It is Profile of a Pro, and this
evening's profilee is PGA Tour player Robert Gamez. The
excellent production values--brisk, montage-style editing,
accompanied by foot-tapping hip-hop--nearly make up for the fact
that Gamez has the charisma of a flour sack.
7:30 P.M. I order room service and settle in for Golf Central,
the nightly half-hour highlights program. It opens with a
sequence of the day's best and worst golf shots. The
accompanying commentary by co-anchors Lynda Cardwell and Brian
Hammons teems with puns and wordplay highly reminiscent of the
opening of ESPN's SportsCenter.
In the golf news this evening: Dave Stockton put two in the
water on a par-3 at the PGA Seniors' Championship in Palm Beach
Gardens, Fla. We see video clips of both splashdowns. Basically,
you get two kinds of shots on Golf Central: balls going in the
hole; balls going in the drink.
My fettucini arrives with too much sauce and without the rolls I
requested. Later when I call room service for a spot of dessert,
a woman named Kate says, "Everything's locked up." I want to be
a credit to my profession, but not if it means enduring this
kind of inhuman privation.
8:00 P.M. Globetrotting takes my mind off my appetite. I am
whisked to the windswept Peralada Golf Club in the north of
Spain, where Ed Asner is our host for a rerun of the first round
of the PGA European Tour's Catalonian Open. I beg your pardon,
the man I mistook for Asner has introduced himself, in a
clipped, British accent, as Renton Laidlaw. After a cursory
review of the leader board, I decide to root for J.L. Guepy,
currently in fifth. If J.L. can take the lead into the final
round, I'll be able to cheer, "Hang on, Guepy!"
11:28 P.M. At the end of a rerun of Golf Central, Hammons signs
off, "Keep it in the short grass." Clever little adieus such as
these are becoming de rigueur around the Golf Channel. Ballen's
last words are always, "Enjoy the golf." In a promo for his
show, Peter Kessler, the stentorian host of Golf Talk Live,
signs off by saying, "Fairways and greens." Everyone has a
signature parting remark, it seems, except Cardwell, the pride
of Hokes Bluff, Ala., who confided in me earlier that day that
she finds her "See you next time" a bit vanilla.
I offered suggestions: "How about, 'See you next time--now get
off your fat ass and go help your wife with the dishes.'" She
smiled but didn't respond. Perhaps she is looking for something
more economical. "How about just plain, 'Get a life.'"
I've got a lot of room to talk. It's 11:40 on a Friday night,
and I'm on the floor of my room, following LPGA veteran Martha
Nause through the stretching regimen which kicks off a half-hour
instructional show called Golf Channel Academy. When Nause
suggests, "Sit on your ankles for 30 seconds," I think, How
about if I sit on my duff for 42 more hours instead?
MIDNIGHT. "Top of the Saturday to ya," says Ballen, introducing
a segment of Golf Today. I am not surprised to hear him sprinkle
SAT words such as resplendent and ubiquitous throughout his
broadcast. His wife, Martina, an associate athletic director at
the University of North Carolina, had told me the day before
that Dwayne keeps a dictionary on his bedside table. He is
renowned around the channel for the opulence of his wardrobe,
the breadth of his vocabulary and the frequency of his
unrehearsed digressions. On April Fools' Day, he looked into the
camera and announced that the Golf Channel had just learned that
Michael Jordan had abruptly re-retired from basketball to devote
himself full time to golf.
Ballen got his first radio job when he was in high school, and
by the age of 32 he had worked his way up to sports anchor at
Raleigh-Durham's WTVD-TV. When the Golf Channel offered him his
current job, he had to think long and hard.
"For a young black man," he says, "a lot of the images golf
conjures up aren't so positive. People tell me, 'You've got to
respect golf's tradition.' Well, tradition means different
things to different people. There are private clubs in this
country where I would be unwelcome on the basis of my face. I
like golf, I play golf, but the game definitely has some amends
3:30 A.M. I conclude, during the second rerun of Golf Central,
that I like Brian's suit--dark brown, pinstriped--though I don't
know that I would go with lapels that were quite so flared. Nice
touch: his crimson pocket square.
7:00 A.M. I would like to unfold Brian's precious pocket square
and garrote him with it. I have seen Golf Central four times,
and must endure four more replays over the next two hours. I am
Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I am Charlie on the MTA.
How twisted is this? I am actually looking forward to coverage
of the second round of the Catalonian Open, which starts at 9:00
a.m. I am really redefining desperation.
I make it maybe halfway through my fifth Golf Central and crash
hard. I awaken after 10:30. Some previously unscheduled pro-am
is on. I rise in time to see Walter Matthau skull a five-iron.
It turns out not to be Matthau, but rather a Scotsman and
Matthau look-alike named Sam Torrance, who is muddling through a
mediocre round in northern Spain. To sum up: I emerged from a
state of catatonia to see a Caledonian at the Catalonian.
After ordering a simple breakfast, I wander to the window.
Blustery though it may be in Spain, it is cloudless in Orlando.
It is not yet 11:00, and the pool, of which I have a
tantalizingly unobstructed view, is already filling up with
children and their forgotten, perhaps neglected, mothers, the
golf widows. As they peel off their wraps, stretch out on their
chaise longues and languorously apply sun-blocking unguents,
some of the golf widows appear to be as bored as I am....
NOON. I hear Martha Nause say, for the third time, "We create
neuromuscular passageways. Our brain tells our muscles what to
My brain is telling my muscles to take a chance, jump off the
balcony and dive into the pool.
1:30 P.M. I cannot help (during round 3 coverage of the Nike
Tour's Tallahassee Open) pulling for the delightfully eccentric
Allen Doyle, a cross between Randy Quaid and Dennis Hopper, who
could easily be the inspiration for Hopper's not-all-there
ex-NFL referee, Stanley Craver. You know what will happen if I
don't start reading the greens better? Bad things, man. Bad
things. Doyle spends so much time on the course talking to
himself that analyst Denny Schreiner deadpans, "A transcript of
Allen Doyle's conversations with himself is available for $9.95."
4:00 P.M. Thank goodness, they're replaying the profile of
Robert Gamez. Upon my first viewing, I'd somehow missed this
Gamezian profundity: "Without my parents, I wouldn't be where I
6:00 P.M. Typical wisecrack heard by Golf Channel staffers in
the days before the launch: Twenty-four hours of golf? What are
you going to do, show grass growing between the hours of 3 and 4
Actually, the channel fills up its programming day by repeating
programs ad (Martha) Nauseam. (I am now seeing Nause for the
fifth time in 24 hours.)
Nause I can take. The reruns that are fast eroding my will to
live are the promos and commercials, some of which I will see
upward of 100 times.
With a touch of smugness, folks at the Golf Channel tell you
they don't accept advertising dollars from just anyone. The ads
tend to be staid, tasteful, soporific. They are meant to be
"familiar and comforting, almost like backdrop programming,"
Gene Pizzolato, the VP of sales and marketing, had told me on
Friday. "Put it this way, you're not going to see the garden
weasel on our air."
After 24 solid hours of David Leadbetter droning on about the
torque stiffness of True Temper graphite shafts; of enduring the
treacly PGA Tour Partners spot that ends, "And remember, keep
your head down and your eye on your dreams" (tongue depressor,
please), I'm ready for the garden weasel. I'm ready for beer
commercials depicting women in bikinis playing volleyball. I'm
ready to have my intelligence insulted.
I am not the Golf Channel's target audience, that's my problem.
The station's programming is aimed at the kind of person who is
apt to liken a golf course to a cathedral; to opine,
straight-faced, "Golf isn't a game, it's a way of life"--the kind
of person, in short, whom I would crawl out a bathroom window to
escape at a cocktail party.
But the Golf Channel has tailored its programming for this kind
of person. Thus must I endure scores of gilded, overwrought
promotions for Golf Channel Classics, featuring "the men who met
in golf's magnificent arena." One promo hypes the Masters as
"the most prestigious and dignified tournament in the
world"--somehow forgetting to include "self-important." Another
flatters golf as "a sport forever enduring and
unchanged"--somehow forgetting that if golf hadn't changed a
little, Tiger Woods wouldn't have played in the last Masters.
8:00 P.M. I am losing the sun, and my focus. I am grateful that
Eng has given me a coffee-table book called Arnold Palmer: A
Personal Journey. I realize, while perusing photos of the
dashing young Pennsylvanian, that in addition to standing for
backside charges, Palmer also stood for well-toned biceps. I
drop and pound out three sets of push-ups. After some sit-ups, I
end up on my back, looking up at the Catalonian Open--a
second-round rerun-where divots fall to a blue ground and return
to a green sky. Putts cruise along and are sucked up into a hole
in the firmament. It is for the best, I think, that my room
contains no minibar.
Palmer is the cofounder and chairman of the Golf Channel, but he
cannot fairly be described as its father. The channel's
gleaming, state-of-the-art headquarters would still be an
abandoned industrial park were it not for the guts and gelt of a
Birmingham-based entrepreneur named Joe Gibbs. Gibbs parlayed a
modest fortune into a obscene one in the 1980s by betting
correctly on cellular telephones and cable television, which is
why I had felt no qualms about accepting his offer to take me to
lunch the day before.
As we waited in line at the strip-mall barbecue joint he chose
for our repast, Gibbs fed me background on his baby. During the
1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, Palmer stayed in Gibbs's
guest house. The pair of heavy hitters became friends. A year
later Gibbs bounced the idea of a 24-hour golf channel off
Palmer, whose initial response, he recalls, was lukewarm.
At one point Gibbs was in a meeting with Palmer and Palmer's
financial advisers. Arnold's people were not keen on the idea of
a golf channel. Then it was Arnold's turn to speak. "If I hadn't
tried to hit it through the trees a few times," he said, "none
of us would be here."
So Palmer came on board, and by May '94, Gibbs had put together
a consortium of six cable companies that together invested $60
million in the Golf Channel, which went on the air on Jan. 17,
1995. It is now available in eight million homes.
10:00 P.M. I am now well into my second helping of the second
round of the Catalonian. I'm only now realizing the extent to
which Laidlaw and Peter Oosterhuis dwell on the wind, which is
gusting up to 30 kilometers per hour in Spain. "Regular viewers
of the Golf Channel will recall that we had some very strong
winds in Portugal," Laidlaw notes.
If winds abated the world over, what would golf analysts talk
about? Winds are befuddling the oldsters at the PGA Seniors'
Championship in Florida; swirling winds are confounding the Nike
players at the Tallahassee Open; high winds in North Carolina
are plaguing the Pinewild Women's Championship. As a gesture of
solidarity--and as a consequence of subsisting on black coffee
and mediocre room service fare for 30 hours in an enclosed
space--I am experiencing wind issues of my own.
11:30 P.M. How great is this? Tommy Smothers makes a cameo
appearance on The Golf Channel Academy, wielding a yo-yo and
touting his proposed golf book, The 27 Most Important Things to
Remember at the Moment of Impact. Smothers takes the yo-yo on
the golf course, he explains, in order to defuse the embarrassed
silences that follow his poor shots in the many pro-ams in
which he plays.
He incorporates instructor John Redman's tips while swinging the
yo-yo at a ball, whiffing repeatedly. Redman and the show's
host, Kessler, look on smiling, but at the same time, it seems
to me, they are slightly uneasy. As I reflect on it, there is
something subversive about Smothers's yo-yo antics. Could it be
that he is making light of this great game, which is really more
than a game, which is actually a lifestyle. I now have a clearer
understanding of why, in the 1960s, CBS threatened to censor the
4:35 A.M. The tiny puddle in a fold in my shirt beneath my chin?
Let's not call it drool. Let's call it casual water.
5:00 A.M. One of Kessler's guests for this morning's rerun of
Golf Talk Live is an older bloke with the formidable array of
chins, Michael Bonallack, Secretary of the Royal and Ancient
Golf Club of St. Andrews. Peter is drawing him out on golfing
legend Bobby Jones, of whom the Scots were apparently quite
fond. "The last time I saw Jones," says Bonallack, recalling a
dinner he and Jones attended at Augusta, "he could only eat soup
through a straw, but his mind was razor-sharp."
My mind is as clear as pea soup. Peter throws open the phone
lines, and I crash hard for close to five hours.
10:00 A.M. Grim news upon awakening: High winds have forced the
postponement of the third round of the Catalonian. Rather than
have Laidlaw and Oosterhuis discuss the wind for two hours--an
assignment they would no doubt relish--the network is
re-rebroadcasting round 2, which I have seen twice and now know
High winds continue unabated: Hurricane Mildred slams ashore in
my room without warning. Mildred, my 40-ish housekeeper, bursts
in without so much as a "fore." As she stands in the doorway
regarding the mess in my room, I feel the need to explain
myself. "I'm working," I say.
She hears in those words, somehow, an invitation to recount her
life's story. "Honey," she says, "tell me about it. When I
finish here, I'm driving to Jacksonville. Got a job there with
the phone company. Got rid of the husband in '86. Raising the
boy by myself. I been whipping him since he was 15. I tell him,
'You can leave your underwear on, all I need is the back of your
thighs.' His grandfather told me, 'He's more afraid of you than
he is of the police.' "
While emptying my wastebaskets, she asks, "What happened to this
Fear stabs me in the gut. During the night I'd accidently
wrenched from its moorings one of the mirrored closet doors
while trying to position it so that I could watch Golf
Central--for the third time--from the bathtub. (It was cool;
everyone was lefthanded.) Now I envision Mildred preparing to
inflict corporal punishment on me, assuring me all she needs are
the backs of my thighs. "It was like that when I got here," I
Mildred is gone before it occurs to me to ask her if she
subscribes to the Golf Channel.
3:00 P.M. The weekend's most poignant moment awaits. Bill
Murchison, a graying, 38-year-old father of eight, strides down
the 18th fairway with the Tallahassee Open in the bag.
Struggling behind him is his caddie, his 14-year-old, 95-pound
daughter, Jennifer. Just off the green we see Murchison's wife,
Karen, boxing out like an NBA forward, using each of her limbs
to hold back the tide of little Murchisons. In a scene only a
greenskeeper could fail to find heartwarming, her husband's
victory triggers a tsunami of Murchisons onto the 18th green.
"After I paid the hotel this morning," Bill tells Kessler, "we
had $300 in our savings. I just really thank God for filling up
I pride myself on my deep cynicism, but I am really moved by
this. It is great TV.
But then it's all downhill for the 3-1/2 hours that remain.
6:30 P.M. My 48-hour sentence is up, and I'm sprung. It is
possible that my exhaustion has made me overly sentimental, but
I am touched that Eng has dropped by to witness my deliverance.
With surprisingly steady hands I pull the duct tape off the
remote, and press the OFF button.
The screen does not go dark. I have merely deactivated the
satellite. Eng and I are now tuned into the local channel 3,
which is broadcasting Baywatch. In this episode Pamela Anderson
has entered a dance competition. Before the contest she asks
David Hasselhoff to "dip" her, to ensure that "everything stays
in place." As Hasselhoff obliges, the camera provides us with a
close-up of the golden valley of Anderson's cleavage. Golf's
magnificent arena has nothing on this.
Eng notes that there is plenty of sunlight left, enough for a
quick nine, if we hurry. But I have a date. I walk down the
corridor, down a flight of steps, out into the warm evening air,
toward the pool.