Peeking Behind The Curtain
The reality of Golf Channel's Big Break franchise is it's a massive production with spy-grade secrecy -- and an enduring format that you either love or hate
Sure, I watched the first couple of seasons. I figured it was a fad. Gave it a year or two tops. Nearly a decade later, the show is entering season XVI, and Tommy Gainey is contending for the FedEx Cup and Ryann O'Toole just made the U.S. Solheim Cup team. Shows you what I know.
That's why, last May, I found my cynical self standing, pre-dawn, on a cold, dew-soaked fairway about an hour outside Dublin, Ireland. I was there to answer one question: "What's the deal with Big Break?"
Maybe you're a fan. Judging by the show's ratings -- consistently among Golf Channel's highest -- you probably are. Maybe you're a casual viewer ("a grazer") or maybe you're like a pal of mine who finds the show "irrevocably unwatchable." But whether you love Big Break, hate Big Break or don't have cable, I can tell you this: The thing is a beast. Big Break is a logistics, planning and production Everest.
Take 12 hungry coed golfers, add in wind, rain, sleet and a few panes of glass; toss in a flop wall; ship it all across the Atlantic; deprive it of sleep; sprinkle in a dozen or so cameras and more microphones than a U2 concert; do it all on the wrong side of the road; add more wind; freeze till solid; then edit into 10 neat and tidy 43-minute episodes -- allowing 17 minutes for advertisements and promotions; add Guinness to taste; and you get Big Break Ireland. It's a sprawling effort requiring more than a tractor-trailer's worth of equipment, a traveling army of 75 Golf Channel staffers and freelance professionals, a medic, a rules official -- and, of course, a lawyer -- all of whom gather twice a year, like golf Trekkies, to tape their beloved show.
If the logistics are daunting, the hours are criminal. Many of the cast and crew are up at 4:30 a.m. for two weeks straight (until the trip, I didn't even know my watch worked at 4:30 a.m.). Several routinely work until 2 a.m., and the planning behind it all reminds me of those documentaries where the surgeons split the Siamese twins: Every challenge, every camera move is planned in advance with painstaking, sometimes sadistic precision. In fact, a show about how they make Big Break might be as good as Big Break itself.
The Ireland season, which premieres Sept. 20, was shaped primarily by series co-creators Jay Kossoff and Paul Schlegel, as well as producers T.J. Hubbard and Chris Graham. There are dozens of others involved, but these guys are the brain trust. The group not only determines the final cast, they also cook up the famed challenges. As far as I can tell, there's no specific qualification for these jobs, but it probably helps if you're equal parts Roone Arledge, Allen Funt and trick-shot artist Chuck Hiter.
"There's no one way we do it," says Graham of the challenge-crafting process. "It's an ever-evolving thing. Two days ago I had an idea for a challenge and walked down to Paul's office and said, 'Hey what do you think about this one?' That happens all the time. Then there are situations where we have an actual meeting. It's a big collaboration."
It's easy to imagine a coven of bloodthirsty producers rubbing their hands at the prospect of a thoroughly broken contestant, but a Big Break challenge has to balance severity with practicality. "Doable but still interesting," is how Graham describes the mix. "We want a certain degree of difficulty so that when they're under the gun and they've got to hit the shot, there's a chance they're going to screw it up -- but there's also a chance that they're going to hit an amazing shot."
Virtually all of the challenges are tested firsthand by Hubbard and Graham, both of whom are very good players (Hubbard played four years at LaSalle and Graham, who played for BYU and now freelances for Golf Channel, will be competing full time on the upcoming Hooters Tour Winter Series). Typically, they'll take a trip from Golf Channel's offices in Orlando out to a nearby golf course or to the workshop of the show's veteran props man, Marty Rich, and swing away. Recently the team visited Rich's lab to determine whether it was feasible to break three successive panes of glass, each at an increasing height, testing accuracy, power and trajectory all in one shot.