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The Good Life

Golf's TV Heart

A chance meeting with the king of golf led to the creation of the Golf Channel, America’s first one-sport network, which turns 25 this year
By Jeff Williams | From Charles Barkley, March/April 2020
Golf's TV Heart

In a modest neighborhood in the southern part of Orlando, away from the manicured fairways of a golf mecca and the manic machinations of Disney World, sits the warren of offices and studios that comprise the Golf Channel. From the outside, the tan and gray buildings are not all that impressive; they don’t shout of grand ambition and higher purpose. But inside, there is a pulse and very much a purpose. Inside, the world of golf comes together and flows out to the millions who comprise its passionate culture. For 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, tournaments, talk shows, news shows, instruction programs—golf, golf, golf—are available to nearly 500 million viewers in more than 70 countries, in nine different languages. This pioneering single-sport cable channel launched in January, 1995. This year, it’s celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“Somewhere in the world there will be daylight and there will be someone trying to shoot 65 and get paid for it, and we’ll be there,” says Rich Lerner, Golf Channel’s senior commentator and eloquent essayist.

The Golf Channel will air more than 180 tournaments in 2020 (it did a mere 60 back in 1995). The PGA Tour, European Tour, LPGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, NCAA tournaments, Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup and assorted Asian events all find a home on the Golf Channel. And while it’s not the home of golf—we’ll leave that to St Andrews and USGA headquarters in Far Hills, New Jersey—the Golf Channel has very much become the heart of golf.

Lerner, who joined the network in 1997, has a slightly less elegant but spot-on way of expressing that. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, golf made its return to the quadrennial gathering of the world’s athletes and the Golf Channel was there, from dawn to dusk every day of the competition, and then some. When Lerner entered the control center late one afternoon during a break, he walked into a sea of rolling eyeballs and slumped shoulders that were well into the meat of the production. On a monitor there was a random shot of a player on the practice range, just another take that might provide some little piece of the comprehensive broadcast.

“They were all a bit beleaguered at this point, like it was Day 17 of the Olympics,” says Lerner. “So I said to the guys, ‘You know what we do at this network? We cover the shit out of this sport,’ ” said Lerner with a certain learned arrogance. “That became our tagline. We cover the shit out of golf. We cover the game the way people play the game. We’re the passion.”

That passion for the game is everywhere at the Golf Channel, which now encompasses several other business offshoots, including GolfNow, the world’s biggest tee time booking platform, which is connected with more than 10,000 golf courses around the world; GolfPass, a digital membership delivering benefits tailored to a golfer’s lifestyle, including more than 4,000 on-demand instructional videos; Revolution Golf, which provides video instruction and golf improvement products; Golf Academy, a North American network of instructional facilities; Golf Advisor, a source of more than 1 million golf course reviews, built for the traveling golfer; Golf Am Tour, the world’s largest amateur competition; and Golf Business Solutions for the corporate world.

The Golf Channel has an international office and studio in Belfast, Northern Ireland, offices across North America, Europe and Australia and collaborations with Sky Sports. It’s also the media partner of St Andrews Links.

And it all began with a man who wasn’t a passionate golfer, a man who didn’t know all that much about the game. Joe Gibbs wasn’t a regular on the links, but he was very good at building cable networks with his partners across the United States from his base in Birmingham, Alabama. He was also very fortunate to have a certain house guest in 1990 when he offered his home as accommodation for any competitor in the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, outside of Birmingham. Gibbs drew Arnold and Winnie Palmer.

Palmer, known as The King, had seven majors to his name. He missed the cut in that 1990 PGA Championship, but the Palmers and the Gibbs became fast friends based on that brief stay. Arnie invited Gibbs to the 1991 Masters, and it was a revelation. “I did not know programming and didn’t have a lot of knowledge of golf,” says Gibbs in his measured tones and characteristic directness. “Once I had done my initial research and had met Arnold and become friends with him and had seen the enthusiastic response of the world of golf to him, I went to Augusta and saw the sea of jets out there, all the pieces began to fall in place. I said there were 27 million golfers at that time, 12 million core golfers, but the research showed 44 million people who wanted to watch the game that didn’t even play. The numbers made sense.”

Gibbs tapped all his connections through the cable world, then ultimately convinced Palmer, the greatest influencer in the game, to become involved both financially and as the face of the enterprise. Palmer got his mega-agent Mark McCormack of IMG involved. The Golf Channel was launched January 17, 1995.

It was a rocky start—the Golf Channel launched to a mere 10,000 households back in 1995, and the network chewed through tens of millions of dollars the first two years—but Gibbs’ business plan finally started to turn the corner in the late ’90s, helped decidedly by the rise of Tiger Woods. Over the years, the Golf Channel has picked up viewers and become a fixture in the homes of golf fans around the United States. The year 2018 was the network’s most-watched year ever, bolstered again by Woods, this time thanks to his stunning comeback. Ratings soared 22 percent over 2017 levels. Last year was another strong one for the network, with an average of 93,000 viewers, compared to 107,000 in that record 2018 year.

Kelly Tilghman came to the Golf Channel in 1996, starting in the library and ultimately becoming an on-air personality, the first woman to anchor PGA Tour broadcasts. She had played college golf at Duke and pursued a professional career without much success. With money running thin, it was time to find a job. When she joined, the Golf Channel was far from a guaranteed success, but there was something about the optimism of the place that struck her, especially on a day in 1997 when Palmer made a visit.

“It was my first time in a room with him, in our tiny little newsroom, no more than 15 by 15 with four television monitors and four cubicles where people logged highlights,” says Tilghman, who retired from the Golf Channel in 2018. “He spoke to, and shook hands with, as many employees as he could. I will never forget when he leaned over and whispered to me ‘I hope you believe in this place as much as I do.’ That struck me. If he believed, why wouldn’t I?”

As Gibbs’ business model began to thrive, the Golf Channel was able to broadcast more and more live events, develop feature programming and embrace all aspects of the game. And it turned into quite the payday for Gibbs and Palmer. In 2000, Comcast acquired a majority stake in the Golf Channel, paying $369 million for 54.7 percent of the company. Comcast kept increasing its stake, and in December 2003 it spent $100 million to buy the 8.9 percent of the company that had been owned by Tribune Co. When Comcast purchased NBC in 2011, the Golf Channel became part of NBC Sports Group.

Gibbs’ vision wasn’t just a financial success and a boon to the game of golf, it was groundbreaking. “He has done more for this sport than any person that has not competed,” says Golf Channel commentator Steve Sands. He also proved that a single-sport channel could exist on its own. The Golf Channel was the first of its kind, predating the networks for other sports by years. “Without the Golf Channel, there is no NBA TV, there is no NHL Network, there’s no NFL Network, there’s no MLB, there’s no Tennis Channel,” says Sands with the controlled passion that courses through the Golf Channel’s veins.

“One of the great things about the Golf Channel, when I first got here, it was much smaller,” says Sands. “Now, it’s become the place everybody turns to for information, the voice of the game. We are the conduit between the audience and the sport that they not only watch, but they play... Our responsibility is to grow the game, to be a caretaker of the game, to be informative, enlightening, entertaining.”

So many Golf Channel personalities have taken their place as the voices of golf—Lerner, Sands, David Feherty, Ryan Burr, Lauren Thompson, Damon Hack, Cara Robinson and Charlie Rymer to name just a few. As the lightning rod of commentary at the Golf Channel, it’s Brandel Chamblee who often captures attention beyond the routine. The former Tour player has been associated with the channel since 2001.

He hasn’t been afraid to get into contretemps with the game’s top players. He’s criticized Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and a whole driving range full of players, and isn’t afraid of their reactions, or of anyone else’s. He’s the channel’s devil’s advocate in a sport than countenances unwavering positivity.

As he prepares for a “Golf Central” appearance in a quiet room off the channel’s now-vast newsroom, he has at the ready a legal pad, one of hundreds (maybe thousands) he’s used and accumulated over the years. They are a testimony to his passion for research, for his penchant for facts and for his conclusions based on the forensic evidence he produces. Whatever you might think of his opinions, they are not flights of fancy, bits of whimsy or shallow summations.

“I have stacks and stacks of notebooks. I keep all my notes from events,” says Chamblee. “I chart every shot that is hit on TV. How far it went, whether in fairway, whether it hit green, how close. So I can talk about a specific shot and about a specific player’s game so that I’m not glowing with praise when it’s not warranted and I’m not extending a cliché that shouldn’t be extended.”

The interview is interrupted briefly when an assistant brings Chamblee a letter. The envelope is already open. “They open them for me so they make sure they don’t have anthrax on them,” he says wryly.

Chamblee believes that being a reporter, a journalist with air time, is fundamental to what he does, and he defends his criticism of the players he covers. “I’ve always said my job is almost incompatible with tour players. I guess I could have a relationship with them, but it would skew my objectivity,” he says. “When I was asked before the Masters whether Brooks had the strongest mind, I said I’m not going to cede that ground to him based on the major championships he won. I was asked what I thought about him dieting for the naked edition of ESPN [The Magazine]. I said it was reckless and self-sabotage.”

Criticism, says Chamblee, is not as accepted in the world of golf as it is in other sports. “It goes down as scandal in golf. I’ve always maintained that golfers are unlike all other athletes, never reprimanded by coaches or teammates. They are lauded by everyone, starting in junior golf. If you try to speak critically, you will get push back.”

For all his hard talk, Chamblee can commiserate with the difficulty of life on the PGA Tour. He spent 15 years on the PGA Tour and won once, in Vancouver in 1998. His job, he says, is “not like a Tour pro where you work all the time and feel guilty about taking a few days off around Christmas... Television gives me a chance to be a normal human being. Tour golf does not. You are gone all the time, you are practicing all the time, you are thinking about it all the time. The world has to revolve you. TV is the team game of all team games. It’s much more of a family environment.”

Frank Nobilo, a longtime Golf Channel commentator who recently moved to the CBS golf team, is convinced of the channel’s mega-impact on the game. “Golf Channel changed golf,” he says. “There are a truckload of Walter Mittys in golf who love the game, male, female, children, adult. It’s a crazy game that deserves 24/7 attention. If you are a golfer, you are a golfer for life.”

Pete Bevacqua has seen golf from every aspect, as a teenage caddie, as a player, as a USGA executive, as the CEO of the PGA of America and now as president of NBC Sports Group, the overseer of the Golf Channel. “I’m amazed at the dedication of people we have at the Golf Channel,” says Bevacqua. “They are tireless in their pursuit of the game, 24/7, 365 days a year. When you walk the hallways there you can feel their love for the game. I think the Golf Channel is the mouthpiece of the game for people in this country.

“It’s a passionate audience, an audience that is growing and becoming to some extent more diversified. It’s a loyal audience. The advantage that golf has over just about every other sport is that it’s a one-two punch. You watch as a spectator and a fan the greatest men and women in the world, but then you also go out there and play it. So the Golf Channel can appeal to the spectator element and the recreational element.”

What appears to be the slowest moving of all sports—no one is tackled, no one runs—the sport of golf is actually one of the fastest when it comes to putting together a coherent broadcast.

“Every other sport is right there in front of you on a court or a field or a sheet of ice,” says Jack Graham, vice president of golf events and executive producer for the Golf Channel, and a 40-year veteran of the business. “This is played over hundreds of acres of property with 70 or so athletes on the weekend basically playing at the same time. They don’t stop for commercials, which every other sport with the exception of soccer does. It’s the most difficult sport for an announcer in some ways. It’s really the only sport where the announcer doesn’t see anything else except what’s put up on the TV screen and has to have a producer tell him what that is before he would know it.

“It’s funny,” he says. “You watch on TV and sit back and relax on your couch and watch a nice quiet walk. It’s the fastest sport I’ve ever done because you are making decisions every 10 to 12 seconds on what you are showing. In football, there are recordings that come post-play. In golf, you are recording two or three shots while you are showing a live shot. You are juggling how you are piecing this together.”

Graham came to the Golf Channel in 2009. He could have been involved from the very beginning, but he doubted the early prospects of a network dedicated solely to golf. “I had conversations with the people that were starting this up in the middle to late ’90s and it was talked about whether I would be the executive producer of Golf Channel,” he says. “I had just been promoted to lead producer of golf at ABC. I thought why in the world would I leave ABC to go to something like that? Who’s going to watch golf 24 hours a day, seven days a week? I said pretty much I wasn’t interested. Shows you how smart I am.”

Smart enough, it seems, to eventually attach himself to a thriving enterprise founded by a smart entrepreneur and golf’s most iconic player. Gibbs is sure of one thing about his role in the genesis of his company: “There may have been a Golf Channel without Arnold’s involvement,” he says, “but I would not have been a part of it.”

“This was Joe Gibbs’ baby but without Mr. Palmer it had no chance of being what it was,” says Sands. “Mr. Palmer thought we made the game better by the way we showed it, and that was a really cool thing.”

It was around 2000 when Lerner knew the Golf Channel had established itself. “We kind of knew we were making it when in the early days we would go to Pebble Beach and want to interview celebrities like Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia and you would introduce yourself and they would say, ‘I know who you are. I watch you guys all the time,” says Lerner. “You got a sense that in those places where there were influencers, we were connecting.”

There is no doubt that network’s connections flowed right through Arnold Palmer, golf’s ultimate superstar. As you enter the Golf Channel’s main building, there is a display of the late titan’s golf cart and golf clubs in the lobby and the facility’s café is named—what else—“Arnie’s.”

The Golf Channel now enters its second quarter-century at the nexus of the game. “Golf Central” really is golf central, and its bevy of hosts and commentators and analysts give voice to the culture that chases a small ball around a grand landscape. Like Palmer himself, the Golf Channel is at the very heart.

Golf

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