Low Gross vs. Low Net

Why aren't tour players mic'd up all the time?

Welcome to another Low Gross vs. Low Net debate, pitting two passionate golfers with differing ball flights and opinions on the game: scratch golfer and Golf Digest editorial director Max Adler against 12-handicap and digital editorial director Sam Weinman. Today’s question comes in the wake of two made-for-TV golf events that featured live microphones on players, a feature that either enhances broadcasts or unnecessarily intrudes on professionals at work. Should the tour implement the practice when play resumes this month?

Mr. Weinman shares his view first . . .

LOW NET: Seeing how The Match was such great theater, I think we can all agree golf is most entertaining when competitors are truly exposed, and I don’t mean that in a Henrik Stenson-stripped-down-to-his-skivvies sort of way. Rather I’m talking about Tom Brady living out his golf nightmare on national TV, a shot tracer cruelly chronicling every loose swing, and, yes, a microphone capturing every incredulous reaction.

When the tour returns this week, the shot shapes will improve, but we need mics for the long haul. The issue has been bandied about for years, and frankly, I don’t see what the holdup is. Especially given the absence of galleries for upcoming tour events, broadcasts are going to need new sound to fill the silence. And even when fans return, a TV audience would gain so much more if they’re allowed to eavesdrop on the proceedings. Give me a little bit of everything—muttered swing thoughts, wonky debates with caddies, even the occasional passive-aggressive exchange between playing partners.

I know what you’re going to say, Max: golf is hard, and straddling a cut line is stressful enough without worrying about a television audience deciphering your every syllable. To which I say, damn right: golf IS hard, but the only real way to prove as much is to be provided a window into everything it entails. The anxiety. The self-loathing. The fleeting sense of relief when a ball behaves as intended. I can accept that pro golfers are wired differently when it comes to fast-twitch muscles and touch around the greens. But give their work a soundtrack and it’s apparent the differences end there.

This isn’t about sound for the sake of sound. Put in the hands of skilled TV producers, there’s a way to capture worthwhile elements and then dispense them selectively across a broadcast. But much as I could listen to Jim Nantz read the tax code, I could stand to hear a little less from golf announcers trying to break down a shot and more from the athletes charged with getting the ball in the hole. The great misconception of modern tour pros is they’re devoid of personality. Crank up the volume a bit and that’s one argument we can finally put to rest.

LOW GROSS: The pro tour is a traveling soap opera, and the players are well-paid actors there for our amusement. If this is a halfway accurate assessment of why you tune in, Sam, then I’m not going to waste ink convincing you that today’s best golfers are somehow owed the same sanctity of the competitive moment enjoyed by Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and the whole slew up to now who’ve walked fairways in the same storied championships. To play one’s way into an amphitheater of ten thousand fans being broadcast to millions more, yet retain the solitude of a remark shared with a caddie, a competitor or oneself—I can see why you’d want to deny modern players that. After all, these guys are getting stupid money now. Let’s milk ‘em for every morsel of entertainment value we can.

But before we add slapping on a microphone to the pre-round ritual of gathering one’s tees and lucky ball marker, let’s take a moment to think about what could be lost. Do we really want to introduce a system that promotes and rewards chatter? Might you discourage the strong, silent types—perhaps the next generation’s Ben Hogan—from flowering into their full potential? Figuring out how to execute amid the stage-fright of a big tournament has always been golf’s learning curve, and now you’re adding another dimension of surveillance. A dimension, mind you, that’s unrelated to the essential act. Being comfortable as an ad-lib public speaker has nothing to do with golf greatness, as multitudes of forgettable trophy-acceptance speeches can attest.

Worse than the risk of stifling talent, however, is fueling the sorts of voices we’d rather hear less from. I’d prefer to imagine Patrick Reed is saying something obnoxious than actually hear the words leave his lips to remove all doubt. It doesn’t take a philosopher to know that a thing’s awareness of itself changes that thing. You might think microphoned golfers is giving raw, unfettered access to the action, Sam, but really it’s corrupting it. Mark my words: The trash-talking of the two recent made-for TV events, which oscillated between fun and natural and forced and cringeworthy, will bleed its way into regular events and even major championships given time.

You might say skilled TV producers will edit out the nonsense on the fly, and you’d be right to a degree. But in spirit, you’re nudging golf one big step closer to professional wrestling, and I don’t mean the kind that’s in the Olympics.

LOW NET: Hey, this isn’t about catching guys talking about fluffing their lies or ogling good-looking fans. Give me Phil Mickelson wavering between an 8- and 9-iron and this golf geek is spellbound. If that violates the sanctity of the sport, well, then so do any number of innovations that have made pro golf a bigger, more lucrative enterprise than it was decades ago. As for rewarding chatter, the objective of tournament golf won’t change. Those players who prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves will still do so if it means even one less stroke on the card.

LOW GROSS: Suppose an amateur plays his way into the final pairing of the U.S. Open. Can you in good conscience deny this kid his last sliver of privacy against the crowd? Obviously, those storybook situations will be rare—I'm more concerned about certain blowhard professionals using the microphone as an extension of their Twitter feed. With mics players will begin to act and speak differently on the course, and all we'll have left is an indulgent fiction.

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