This Gang Has Game

The cast members of the latest Big Break have great golf résumés, but do they make good TV?
March 06, 2006

This is what ittakes to capture-or is it create?-reality: eight cameras, four dozen GolfChannel staffers, 30 walkie-talkies, 24 golf carts, one rules official, onemakeup artist, one lawyer, one medic and, not least, two golfers. That was theawesome assemblage of gear and manpower that rumbled down the fairway duringthe taping of the finale of the Big Break V: Hawaii, the latest installment inthe popular reality show that has become an increasingly important part of theGolf Channel lineup. For 17 days last October the Big Break V (Tuesdays at 9p.m. ET) took over the Turtle Bay resort on the North Shore of Oahu, as 800hours of footage were shot of the 11-woman cast. All of this tape was winnoweddown to 14 episodes, the first of which premiered on Feb. 7.

The Big Break isgolf's version of Survivor, and already three contestants have been eliminated.Over the next nine weeks one winner will emerge, thanks to her golf skills andmastery of interpersonal dynamics. SI was given exclusive access to the makingof the show on the condition that we not reveal the results. This backstagepass was a portal into an artificial world in which pasty thighs are coveredwith tanning spray, the sequestered contestants are forced to lie to theirfamilies during monitored phone calls home, and the inevitable catfights areorchestrated by the unseen machinations of the show's producers. But what wasreal about this so-called reality was the surprisingly compelling golf and thepalpable desire among a diverse group of women looking for the break that maylaunch a career.

The BigBreak was born less of inspiration than desperation. From Thursday throughSunday the Golf Channel lineup is chock-full of tournament coverage, highlightsand analysis from all of golf's major professional tours. Finding programmingfor Monday through Wednesday has always been the challenge. The first Big Breakdebuted on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2003, to an uncertain future. The Big Break wasultimately won by a 26-year-old named Justin Peters, who turned out to be anice little story-a career mini-tour grinder and single dad who had taken out abank loan (at 12.9% interest) to chase the dream (see sidebar).

The second BigBreak helped establish in the public's mind what have become the show'ssignature skills challenges: breaking panes of glass with pitch shots andhitting flop shots over a wall. (In most rounds, through a series of knockoutcompetitions, one player is eliminated.) Big Break II drew better ratings thanthe first season's, but, like Peters, winner Kip Henley III lacked that certainstar quality necessary to cross over to a wider audience.

It wasn't untilseason three, telecast in the spring of 2005, that Big Break began to gaintraction. Given the low ratings for women's golf, it was a risky move to gowith an all-female cast, but Big Break III: Ladies Only wound up being amust-see soap opera in spikes. The eventual winner, 28-year-old Danielle Amiee,was a perfect antihero-an emotive blonde with a racy wardrobe and an uncannyability to irk her fellow competitors with colorful trash-talk. The GolfChannel does not release ratings numbers but asserts that Big Break III ratingswere up 140% over previous early-week programming. The Golf Channel milked anextra night of content out of Big Break III by rolling out Big Break: AllAccess, a breezy, behind-the-scenes show that pushed the franchise further froma sterile golf competition toward the realm of popcorn TV. (The current AllAccess airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m.)

Big Break IV: USAvs. Europe recently concluded, its slightly awkward team format redeemed by theglorious Scottish venues, which included the Old Course at St. Andrews andCarnoustie. Even without a compelling hero or villain, the ratings climbed fora third season in a row.

The franchise isnow so well-established that the Golf Channel received several thousand writtenapplications for Big Break V. This group was cut to about 500, and a half-dozenauditions were then set up across the country, at which the applicants were putthrough skills challenges and a series of oral interviews. Once the pool wasreduced to 50, Golf Channel execs selected the final cast, looking for theright mix of backgrounds and personalities.

"The skilllevel is tremendous," says executive producer Jay Kossoff, noting that BigBreak V's cast includes a handful of college All-Americas, a former U.S.Women's Amateur champion and a onetime member of the Swedish national team."This is by far the best group of golfers we've had. These women canflat-out play."

One of themarketing slogans being used to promote Big Break V is "Golf has never beenhotter." How important was physical appearance in the selection process?"It was part of it," says Kossoff. "Golf skill was the primaryconsideration, but being attractive certainly didn't hurt your chances of beingselected. Hey, this is show business."

The reigning MissMinnesota had been selected for the Hawaii lineup but, sadly, she had to dropout to concentrate on the Miss America pageant. Among the cast members sure tobe popular with the Golf Channel's overwhelmingly male audience is 27-year-oldNikki DiSanto, a va-va-voom M.A.W. (model-actress-whatever) from Los Angeleswhose lack of meaningful playing experience was obvious when she was ousted inepisode three; Kristina Tucker, 25, a leggy Swede with an adorable smile; andKim Lewellen, a 34-year-old mother of two with the kind of six-pack abs usuallyseen only on late-night infomercials or the cover of Shape.

Given theupgraded babe factor and the tropical setting, it was probably inevitable thatthe competitors were compelled to participate in the first-ever Big Breakswimsuit photo shoot, ostensibly for a promotional calendar. Jessica Schwartz,Big Break V's makeup artist, spent the better part of two days applyingspray-on bronzer to disguise the competitors' telltale golf tans. SaysSchwartz, "The goal is to keep it clean and respectable, and showcase theathleticism of the competitors."

Kossoff had otherideas. "Don't worry, we still got a few girls on their knees crawlingaround in the sand," he says. "It'll be great for All Access."

Among the mostobnoxious aspects of the reality-TV genre is the naked motivation of theparticipants: either to win a lot of money or, for the truly shallow, simply tobe famous for a minute or two. The nice thing about Big Break is that thecompetitors' hearts seem to be in the right place. "I'm pretty sure none ofus care about being on TV simply for the sake of being on TV," says25-year-old Becky Lucidi, the 2002 U.S. Women's Amateur champ who toiled on theFutures tour last season. "This is an amazing opportunity to advance ourgolf careers."

To the victor ofBig Break V goes some significant spoils: an invitation to the LPGA's SafewayClassic; exemptions into the final 12 tournaments on the Futures tour schedulefollowing the Big Break V season finale, on May 9; reimbursement by the GolfChannel for all travel expenses to these Futures events; an equipment contractwith Bridgestone; $10,000 in cash and merchandise from Golfsmith; and aChrysler Crossfire convertible. The prizes are certainly nice, but it is thesimple opportunity to play that drew these women to the Big Break.

While a junior atIdaho, Julie Wells was the Big Sky Conference player of the year, but in threeyears since turning pro she has barely been scraping by on various mini-tours.To pay the bills Wells, 25, works at the Oregon Golf Club in "outsideservices," a euphemism for cart girl. Shining clubs for tips had Wellscontemplating the end of her playing career, but Big Break V changed all that."Being selected for the show is the first good thing that's happened to mein a long time, golfwise," she says. "It has me super fired-up to getafter it again."

Lewellen was anAll-America at North Carolina in the early 1990s but put her career on hold toraise her two children and coach the men's and women's golf teams at TheCitadel. Her motivation for coming on Big Break V? "To show these kids thatI can still play a little," she says.

Maybe the easiestplayer to root for among the Big Break V cast is Divina Delasin. If the namesounds familiar, it's because her older sister, Dorothy, is a four-time winneron the LPGA tour. It was Divina's sacrifices that helped launch Dorothy'scareer. Divina, 24, was an accomplished player as a junior golfer, but when herfamily fell on hard times, she dropped out of high school to work multiplejobs, supporting her sister and parents. Now teaching at the First Tee of SanFrancisco, she came to Hawaii determined to seize the opportunity. "It'sfinally my turn," Divina says.

A typical day onthe set of Big Break V went something like this: breakfast, skills challenges,lunch, elimination matches, shower, makeup, individual interviews, dinner, bed.Every moment of these long days was subject to being filmed, including meals.At breakfast one day the players sat elbow-to-elbow at a circular table, ringedby cameramen and producers and support staff. As they picked at their food, thecompetitors lazily swatted away gnats, but they just as easily could have beenshooing the large boom mike that hovered overhead. The topic of conversationthat morning? The Apprentice. It was a postmodern moment: reality-TVcontestants talking about reality-TV contestants while the cameras rolled.

Throughout thefortnight in Hawaii a regular conversational touchstone was Big Break III. Theplayers often referenced their predecessors, and one contestant appeared toknow a little too much about previous Big Breaks. Ashley Prange, a 24-year-oldfrom Newport Beach, Calif., who played at North Carolina, is a hyperconfidentyoung talent who did little to disguise her desire to crush the competition. Itall depends on the editing, of course, but Prange is poised to follow inAmiee's footsteps as a polarizing love/hate character. Says one fellowcompetitor, "There's no doubt Ashley studied Big Break III-not only thechallenges but also the psychological aspects. She's gotten under the skin of acouple of girls, and I don't think it's an accident."

The tensions werehardly confined to the golf course. The contestants were forced to bunktogether in pairs assigned by the show's producers. The down-to-earth, crunchyLucidi and the glam, high-maintenance DiSanto spent much of their stay inHawaii getting on each other's nerves. At one point Lucidi buttonholed a GolfChannel staffer and asked, "Do you hate me? Are you punishing me?"

Not exactly, butthe Lucidi-DiSanto tiffs were not unwelcome. "We knew those two wouldn'tget along," says Kossoff. "We're trying to create tension, and it hasworked beautifully."

The players'cabin fever was understandable, given how little contact they had with theoutside world. Each woman signed a confidentiality agreement pledging not toreveal any details of the show, even to loved ones. To help maintain the codeof silence, the players were allowed to phone home only in the presence of aneavesdropping Golf Channel staffer. After winning a new car in a skillschallenge, one competitor called her significant other, who promptly informedher that back home her car had conked out. "I was dying not sayinganything," says the flummoxed contestant. "It's so frustrating not toshare what you're going through. You have just been part of this amazing,intense competition, and then you call home and it's like, 'Hi, honey, how arethe cats?'"

The one place theplayers could let down their hair was the so-called Losers' Suite. Onceeliminated, the contestants (for purposes of secrecy) still had to hang aroundHawaii for the full 17-day shoot. To pass the time they snorkeled, biked,hiked, shopped, took surfing and hula lessons, went to the spa and generallygoofed off. Every evening the eliminated would gather in the suite to welcomethe newest loser. The general vibe was sorority girls run amok. In the suitethe TV was usually tuned to Fox News, though one night the women happened upona soft-core porn movie, and much hooting and hollering ensued. Strategicallypositioned throughout the suite were buckets of beer, not-so-subtle productplacements for one of the show's sponsors. As time went by the product inquestion disappeared at an ever-increasing clip.

When watching BigBreak at home, the viewer sees what looks like slickly packaged entertainment,as the golf action is set to jazzy music and continually interrupted by quickcuts to the taped interviews. But when you're on-site the challenges and,especially, the elimination matches have the tension of real golf. Even thejaded Golf Channel staffers get into it. As the final match is winding down,contestant coordinator Laurie Gannon stands on the edge of a green, dabbing ather eyes. "These are not simply characters on a show; they're real people,and their lives are changed forever," she says.

Yet the onlycompetitive ripple a Big Break contestant has made came last fall, when BigBreak IV's Tommy (Two Gloves) Gaines won the Tour Championship on somethingcalled the U.S. Pro Golf mini-tour. "Our job is to create a compelling TVshow, and what happens after that is out of our control," says Kossoff,"but it would certainly enhance the reputation of the show if one of ourcontestants won something big. I think this is the group that will breakthrough."

And if not?

"There'salways another season," he says.

At one point Lucidi buttonholed a Golf Channel stafferand asked, "DO YOU HATE ME? ARE YOU PUNISHING ME?" Not exactly, but theLucidi-DiSanto tiffs were not unwelcome.

The general vibe was sorority girls run amok. In thesuite the TV was usually tuned to Fox News, though one night the WOMEN HAPPENEDUPON A SOFT-CORE PORN MOVIE.

PHOTOPhotographs by Mark Ashman/The Golf Channel CASTINGCALL
The golfers in Big Break V-- (clockwise from left) DiSanto, Delasin, Prange,Tucker, Katie Ruhe, Dana Lacey, Wells, Jo D. Duncan, Lucidi, Lewellen andJeanne Cho--were sequestered for 17 days while filming the show.
PHOTOPhotographs by Mark Ashman/The Golf Channel ROCKSTARS
Part of the challenge for the competitors was managing their relationships withone another.
PHOTOBILL FRAKES (PETERS) FINALFOUR
Past winners (from top) Peters, Henley, Amiee and Holtby play on.
THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by Mark Ashman/The Golf Channel [SeeCaption Above] THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by Mark Ashman/The Golf Channel SETPIECES
Host Marty Wilde (top) hung loose while DiSanto (right), Lucidi (above left)and Prange hit and missed.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Mark Ashman/The Golf Channel RAP ANDWRAP
Hosts Stephanie Sparks and Vince Cellini (below) have become Break fixtures, ashas the last-day bash.
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)