"Are you ready for some golf?" Tiger Woods asked in an opening for the "Battle at Bighorn" that was straight out of ABC's "Monday Night Football" telecasts.
But the "Battle at Bighorn," a made-for-TV mixed doubles golf competition held Monday night in Palm Desert, Calif., really was not ready for prime time.
The golf -- pairing Woods with Annika Sorenstam and David Duval with Karrie Webb in an alternate-shot format (one player tees off, his/her partner hits the next shot, and so on) -- was equally embarrassing to each player in the field. Both teams shot 4-over-par 76s in high heat and whipping wind, with the final five holes played under the lights.
Long before the sun had set, however, there were off-line golf balls landing in desert sand and prickly bushes. Shots by their partners required Woods and Webb to extricate themselves by swinging left-handed. And Sorenstam's 15-foot downhill putt on a marble-top green rolled past the cup and did not come to rest until it was 20 yards back out in the fairway.
Woods and Sorenstam mercifully prevailed in an extra playoff hole at about 12:20 a.m. Sorenstam had atoned for her earlier misread by making a 15-footer that had sent the match into overtime at 18. When Duval missed a 12-footer at the 19th after an indifferent bunker shot from Webb, Woods and Sorenstam split $1.2 million; the losers got $250,000 each.
The other minor loser may have been ABC, which yesterday reported a 6.1 national rating and 11 audience share, meaning that only about 6 million TV households nationwide watched (each point represents 1.02 million households). That 6.1 represented the lowest rating in the three-year history of an event that always has featured Woods (against Duval in '99 and Sergio Garcia last year). Woods-Garcia drew a 7.6 and 13 share; Woods-Duval in '99 a 6.9 and 12 share. A share is the percentage of homes with televisions in use.
But few in the LPGA were complaining. The rating still represented the highest number of viewers ever to watch women's golf. That was a major reason Webb and Sorenstam cited for playing in this somewhat bogus event, even if it meant getting far less practice time for the Women's British Open that starts Thursday in England.
After the match in 95-plus degree heat, Webb and Sorenstam flew across the country, then across the pond and were not expected to play a practice round until Wednesday, when both are likely still to be wobbly with jet lag. Still, they said before and after the event that the sacrifice was well worth it because of the attention it focused on women's golf.
"This is one of the biggest days in LPGA history," LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw said yesterday. "That [ratings] number is fine. It can only mean positive things for us because we exposed so many more people to the LPGA who had never really seen our players."
Still, the number of eyeballs might have been even greater if the format had been altered. Wouldn't the show have been far more compelling if it had been the men against the women, using different tees to equalize distance on the first shot and playing from virtually equal distances out of the fairway or desert?
There were preliminary discussions about that possibility, but neither the PGA nor the LPGA was particularly thrilled about it. Both were concerned about the potentially embarrassing impact of a lopsided loss -- by either side.
Sad to say, even now it was felt the women thrashing the men might be viewed as a humiliating blow to the big-bopping men's game. Similarly, some in the LPGA hierarchy were concerned that, for example, a 5 and 4 win by the men could only add to the existing notion that the men's game and its players are far superior.
LPGA officials were confident a blowout loss to the men was a rather unlikely outcome, but the thought was that a worst-case scenario might lead to serious consequences -- fewer LPGA viewers, smaller galleries, lower TV rights money and unhappy tournament sponsors.
That may seem a tad far-fetched, but in the end, the feeling on all sides, including ABC, was why risk it when mixed doubles, especially with Woods, had no risk at all.
For ABC, continuing these kinds of events is a no-brainer, despite the ratings drop. It is summer, when viewing is down, when reruns and reality TV shows like "Fear Factor" are the main competition. There is always the possibility of a decent rating because of Woods's incandescent appeal.
In truth, the show itself was often deadly dull. The players were miked but apparently did not offer much interesting conversation. Woods let out one very audible expletive after a poor tee shot, but we have seen and heard much worse from him and others before.
One would have thought there would have been lively discussion between partners on how to play each shot. But that, too, was a rarity. When Sorenstam asked Woods if he had a preference for where he wanted her to hit an approach to a par 5, he essentially said, "Aah, just get it on up there" and that was that.
In tournament golf, TV producers and directors have a smorgasbord of players they can put on the air. In this format, with only two golf balls in play, lots of time was spent watching players walking, the equivalent of America's Cup racing on land. They tried to add features on each player, but with only four participants, how do you fill time on the other 14 holes?
Easy. Just add more commercials. And so they did.
Clearly though, this was an event in dire need of a little comedic relief, other than putting from green to fairway. It is the only time you will ever hear me wonder in print or aloud, "Where was Dennis Miller when you really did need him on a Monday night?"