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.
Azinger would be the most logical choice, but he has said he's not all that interested right now. He wants to keep playing on the PGA Tour, and at the moment, he's in his first year as captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team for the 2008 matches and wants to focus on finding a way to get the Cup back to American soil.
Faldo is the European captain, seemingly a far less pressurized post and seems comfortably confident he can handle a nearly full-time broadcasting gig. Judging from the Euros constant pounding of the Americans in that competition in recent years, Prince Charles could probably captain the European side and their team would still smoke our boys in red, white and always blue.
Other options? Veteran American golfer Peter Jacobsen is a very funny fellow himself, but says he'd like to clean up first on the senior Champions Tour. David Feherty and Faldo would be a stitch together -- they often are in their occasional faraway tower-to-18th hole by-play on CBS, Faldo's weekend day job -- though that's not likely to occur in an American television network's three-person booth.
Greg Norman is probably too busy squiring Chris Evert around and making mega mogul deals to tie himself down to any sort of regular TV work, and Fuzzy Zoeller would be a particularly politically incorrect choice going all the way back to his offensive Tiger Woods comments in 1997.
So maybe the best answer would be for The Golf Channel to work with what it's got, though here's one more thought. Dottie Pepper, who works for TGC and NBC and was a fine and frequently feisty player for many years on the LPGA Tour, might be worth a look. She's always been known as a somewhat colorful, outspoken character who had no qualms in speaking her mind. And wouldn't a two-woman-out-of-three booth attract a few more females to the set, and make some more golf and broadcasting history, as well.
Johnny Miller, obviously, is unavailable unless NBC happens to be handling weekend coverage and he shows up for quickie sessions similar to last Friday's serendipitous cameo appearance. Miller remains the most provocative television analyst of any major sport on network or cable television. He also is a huge fan favorite, though a recent Sports Illustrated poll indicated the players prefer Faldo by an 80 to 20 percent margin.
One veteran player told me last week in Jacksonville that many of his peers aren't particularly thrilled when Miller calls them out for dumb shots, bad decisions or just plain choking, but that's not why so many truly dislike his work. Rather, he said, they're bothered more by Miller making comments they believe are just plain wrong, and he used Mickelson's non-pebble blast from the sand as a prime example.
Still, at least last Friday, Nick Faldo had the gumption to call Miller out on it, just as Azinger used to do all the time to Faldo, and vice versa, when they were paired with play-by-play man Mike Tirico. A company of three worked fabulously for Faldo last week on The Golf Channel, just as it did at ABC. And no scissors to cut the cord were ever necessary.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail or Badgerlen@aol.com.