Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Sports Waves

Finding Faldo's Perfect Pairing

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 10:35 AM

Johnny Miller paid a visit to The Golf Channel booth at The Players Championship last Friday, joining analyst Nick Faldo and play-by-play broadcaster Kelly Tilghman for some of the best moments of the network's first year as the exclusive early round broadcast network for the PGA Tour.

Miller, who handled the commentary for NBC's weekend coverage of the tournament, was only there for about ten minutes, trading jabs with his pal and fellow Hall of Famer Faldo and offering up some delicious must-watch televised golf. At one point, with Miller going on and on about some arcane point, Faldo actually picked up a scissors and held up the wire to Miller's microphone, pretending for a moment that he was about to literally cut the cord to get him to stop jabbering.

Minutes later, after eventual champion Phil Mickelson blasted a bunker shot way past the hole, Miller said his club must have hit a stone in the sand, because the ball came out with absolutely no spin. Faldo was incredulous, insisting that the pristine sand in the traps at the Sawgrass course couldn't possibly have any pebbles in them, playfully implying that the only rocks on the premises were lodged in Miller's head.

(By the way, Mickelson later confirmed that he had NOT hit a pebble, just merely misplayed the shot. Score one for Faldo, and pass the muzzle on to Miller.)

When Miller eventually left the set, it finally dawned on me what's often been missing from The Golf Channel's booth so far this year -- a true foil for Faldo, who also was at his very best in 2006 in the ABC booth working with just such a sidekick, veteran PGA Tour player Paul Azinger.

This is no knock at Tilghman, an earnest and accomplished broadcaster trying to make the switch from the studio, where she's done some outstanding work for many years past, to handling play-by-play for the network for the first time. Clearly feeling her way as the first female ever to handle such a high-profile position in any major American sport, she needs some time to grow into the role, and she deserves a fighting chance to get it.

For starters, she'd be wise to stop relying on so many clich?s. Rory Sabbatini, for example, was "clicking on all cylinders" in his first round last Thursday, and there have been too many more. Occasionally, Tilghman just plain talks too much in relaying what viewers have just seen for themselves on their screens. Painting word pictures is fine for the radio, but on television, sometimes simple silence is all that's necessary.

Nevertheless, she clearly has promise, what with an authoritative voice and seemingly impeccable preparation. According to a recent story in Sports Illustrated, she and Faldo have worked diligently to create some on-air chemistry between the 37-year-old former Duke University golfer and the 49-year-old Englishman who once dominated the game as a six-time major championship winner.

According to the magazine, after Faldo signed on with TGC, they sat courtside at an Orlando Magic Game, and often socialized with other network staffers at cookouts at Faldo's Orlando home. During their first event, the season-opening Mercedes, they hiked in the Hawaii hills and Tilghman tried to teach Faldo how to surf. Occasionally they even work out together, even bonding in crunch time, so to speak.

Though his reputation was well earned as Nasty Nick for many of those years, anyone who had ever listened to several of his post-match press conferences back then knew the man had a rapier wit and a delicious sense of humor, even if he did once win a British Open and crudely thanked the media in his victory speech on the 18th green "from the heart of my bottom." Maybe the fans watching the trophy ceremony laughed that day, but no one was smiling in the press tent.

Still, when Faldo was paired with Azinger on ABC, the camaraderie definitely seemed genuine and the yuks flowed freely. That has not often been the case so far with the still slightly forced Tilghman-Faldo pairing.

So here's a suggestion for the historically somewhat penurious people who pay the bills at TGC: go out and spend a little more money and throw a third man/woman in the booth.

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