Vacuum Tube The commercial-free telecast of the Masters was as pretty as a picture. What was missing was a voice of authority

April 20, 2003

It must have been because CBS's best field reporters were in Iraq.
Surely that explains why the network never once broached the most
controversial issue in Masters history, the story that has gotten
so much press since the club chairman's notorious bayonet charge
last summer. But, then, who really expected anchorman Jim Nantz
to turn the cameras over to Bob Simon out in the field of mud
where Martha Burk was leading the campaign to add a feminine
touch to the Augusta National membership? CBS won't even touch
a golf controversy during the Masters. Airing club issues was
out of the question.

So we were left with another elegiac telecast, one that passed
into our subconscious like the narcotizing fumes of golf opium.
With its gentle music and somber pacing, the show stands in
contrast to all other sports broadcasts, most of which come at
you like a deck of cards hurled into your face. The Masters only
gets slower each year. Even the Westminster dog show has a
rowdier pace.

Something about this approach must be welcome, for the Masters is
always the top-rated tournament of the year (the 2003 edition was
the sixth-highest-rated since 1986), but I wonder if the velvet
fog has legs. At least in the days of longtime analyst Ken
Venturi you had a hard-boiled guy who would level with you and
explain the meaning of what you were seeing. Venturi's
replacement, the abrupt Lanny Wadkins, hasn't found his voice,
and his colleagues stand around talking like funeral directors
deliberating on parking problems, taking solemn understatement to
new depths. Even David Feherty, a great Irish wit, has been
muzzled.

The soothing tempo and the florid tributes might provide relief
for frazzled viewers, but this creme brulee of a telecast
disguises the real nature of the beast. In truth, the Masters is
a puke-on-your-shoes tournament. No other major has so many
episodes of brain lock, of unfathomable shots or wild turns of
fortune, but the only comment to escape the lips of the
broadcasters was a bit of perplexity about Phil Mickelson's shot
selection. All the other flubs and foozles were observed in
chaste silence. Ernie Els dumps a short iron into the water? Let
us draw a thick curtain over the tragic scene and turn away.

Curiously, for a tournament soaked in history, the announcing
team didn't offer much perspective. There was no discussion about
how players of 10 or 20 years ago played particular shots. The
300-yard drives of 5'9" Mike Weir were not worthy of comment, and
neither was last year's massive course lengthening--or the new
strategies demanded.

There was so little talk that only the opening remarks by Joe
Ford, Augusta National's vice chairman, prepared the viewer for
the show's complete absence of commercials this year, and he
didn't really explain anything. You suppose he was going to
confess that the telecast was commercial-free because the club
didn't want its sponsors laid low by protesters? When azaleas
bloom in hell. As an example of how much power Augusta National
exerts over CBS, the network wasn't even able to use the freed-up
four minutes of commercial time every hour to run promotional
spots for Everybody Loves Raymond.

So viewers were confronted with a 4 1/2-hour show with no breaks.
(It appeared as if CBS cleverly disguised bathroom breaks as
Masters Moments.) There was no time to run to the fridge, to grab
a club and take a few swings in the backyard, or to call a buddy
to confirm that Mickelson must've been out of his mind to try
that shot. Clearly, this was a profound reordering of the
universe.

More often than not, the Masters is bathed in absurdly deep
late-afternoon sun, so even with drowsy pacing and the
funeral-cortege voiceovers--and stars like Weir and Jeff
Maggert--something about the Georgia backdrop remains addictive.
Do the lustrous images alone carry the freight? I say no. Some
year soon, CBS will have to bring in a more incisive commentator
to lift the show. There's more going on than you'd guess from the
equanimity of the current announcers. Their studied quiet borders
on indifference.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH THE BACK STORY To get a real feel for the Masters, you had to bethere.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)