For players and partisans such as John Updike, golf is neither a hobby nor mere sport--"Golf is a trip." For nonplayers, golf is a trip without muscular movement. Yesterday was such a day for an endless, vicarious stroll.
Burning only as many calories as it takes to adjust the vertical hold, viewers took a 7,000-yard walk through the beautiful, quirky course in Oakmont, Pa.. Through the boscage and greensward, past ponds and patches of sand, the feet were still while the camera did all the heavy work and the air-conditioner cooled the dampened brow.
Watching golf on television is the ultimate in lazy afternoons, made all the better this weekend by ABC's comprehensive, even elegant coverage of the U.S. Open. It hardly mattered that a rainstorm suspended play with Tom Watson on the 14th hole and Larry Nelson on the 15th. Surely boredom is as much a part of golf as it is of baseball. Nobody melts from the rain or the slow spots.
Those who do play golf say it is thrilling to watch a close match. A shot like Watson's chip in last year's Open was a feat equal to an inside-the-park home run or a double-dip dunk shot, they say. They say it is fascinating to see how the masters of the game--slender or pot-bellied--negotiate the course. The club choices, the nearly invisible turns of the wrist, the "courageous" shot selections--it is all a source of fascination to the legions who patronize their local courses.
Yesterday's broadcast was no doubt sufficiently expert for the weekend hacker. Two former players, Dave Marr and Peter Alliss, provided viewers excellent analyses of various golfing nuances without getting too technical. The mix of Marr's folksy chatting and Alliss' dramatic, English whispering (every network has its British whisperer, but Alliss is the best) worked as a fine counterpoint to the solid work of ABC's professional broadcasters, Jack Whitaker and anchor Jim McKay.
Both Whitaker and McKay have excelled with other sports, and both are honest and without hype, a rarity in sports broadcasting. McKay can sometimes make a hopelessly banal comment (On Seve Ballesteros: "How do you worry in Spanish"), but his ability for the most part to stay engaging is extraordinary. His knack for sustaining interest while rain was flooding the fairways deserves the admiration of the old vaudeville emcees who specialized in "holding off the crowd."
The low points of the otherwise fine production were the puffy features, especially one narrated by Bob Rosburg on Ray Floyd. Rosburg, or whoever wrote the feature, wanted us to somehow empathize with Floyd's less-than-stunning decision to be not only a golfer but a golfer who has a family. Nice for Ray Floyd; sort of dull for us at home.
McKay and the others were especially vigilant in their description of Watson's achievements on the front nine. They gave explanations that were complete and interesting of his terrific approach shot on the second hole and his near-perfect drive off the eighth tee. Once in a while Alliss or McKay would lapse into monologues that made putts and chips seem as though they were landings on Normandy Beach, but a little overenthusiasm never hurts when it comes in small, earnest measure.
Equal to the announcing was the technical handling of the show. A seemingly endless battery of cameras--hovering above the course, to the side of the golfers, along the fine nubs of grass near the cup--caught every angle and particular.
Perhaps because ABC realized that the star of this year's Open was the course as much as any one player, the camera lingered lovingly on the lush terror trap and considered its every death grip. We saw those "church pews" on the third and fourth holes that bewitched more than one golfer. We saw greens that seemed as easy to play as a tilted sheet of glass. We saw grass cut as high as the width of two dimes. And, sadly, we saw the Pennsylvania Turnpike cutting through it all like an environmentalist's worst nightmare.
Golf is as aristocratic as British royalty and about as essential. It is nice caring a little about something so vestigial. And on Father's Day, it was nice remembering how at least one viewer used to watch the royal ceremonies: with the Kid napping on the rug, with Dad half asleep in the big black chair. Golf on television was, and still is, the purest leisure.