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Mar 09

Golf, Cable TV and the Commentators

Golf, Cable TV and the Commentators

Golf in the fifties and sixties was available on television. You couldn’t stay up all night to watch it, or necessarily have it in color, but everything was in order. You worked your five day week and watched the third, fourth or perhaps both, rounds on the weekend. You could even watch the big three duke it out – nice.

Bill Rasmussen Then, modern technology separated the men from the boys, the casual golf spectator from the rabid maniac who needed it all the time. Wikipedia tells me that Bill Rasmussen, a fired commentator from the Hartford Whalers hockey team, got together with son Scott and insurance agent to form the ESP network in ’78 – quite a response to the sting of getting fired. In that day, their location choice, Plainville, CT, wouldn’t allow satellite dishes – wasn’t that quaint? So, they tried an acre or two in Bristol, situated on a dump – cost them $91 (ah, the good old days). Once Annheuser-Busch got involved, it went off like a rocket. Now, I look down the first page of sites, and I see “Golf-ESPN,” “World Championship Golf,” “PGA Tour Schedule,” “ESPN Golf Blog,” “Golf News & Video,” “ESPN Coverage of the U.S. Open,” “Golf Home ESPN” and “ESPN – UK.” Well done, Bill.

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Then it got even wilder around 2007, when Alabaman Joseph Gibbs and legend Arnold Palmer came up with $80 million to launch the Golf Channel. It hardly seems fair, does it, considering that ESPN only cost $91 to incorporate. As of that year, it became the exclusive carrier for the PGA Tour, not to mention broadcasting in high-def almost right off the bat. There was a UK Golf Channel as well, but it folded in the year that the Golf Channel was launched, for want of more live golf.

Certainly, things have moved fast since the ‘70s, especially for an avid golfer from the 50s and 60s, waiting for the school days to fly by so that I could watch some calm weekend golf. As with all great institutions, whether historical or ongoing, faces are needed to drive them. Naturally, ESPN and the Golf Channel have put a series of commentators before us through the years that reflect a wide spectrum of personalities.


American blogger Chris Hibler has offered his choices for the top ten, dealing primarily with the modern age (that is, a decade after we landed on the moon). He begins with Jim Nantz in the 10th spot, crediting his voice and describing him as being synonymous with the Masters – ok, that’s good.

Next comes Stephanie Sparks – Hibler qualifies her as coming from the LPGA, but I wish he wouldn’t sound apologetic about it – no need.

On Ken Venturi, we agree big-time…pure class, pure talent, not afraid to comment on either side of the question. He mentions Roger Maltbie as a “favorite uncle” type, and credits Gary McCord for his colorful on-the-job behavior – no problem there.

David Feherty – meh. I guess so. Johnny Miller ‘s place in commentator history marks the introduction of jalapenos to the dialogue – I guess we needed it. Even in the fifties, sportscasting could get a little bland.

He rounds it out with Frank Nobilo and Peter Aliss, who fail to register on my applause-o-meter entirely, and Nick Faldo as the numero uno of the era.

ESPN 2 I don’t have any particular objection to any of these, and agree wholeheartedly on several. But! If there was a Seniors Tour, A Championship Tour for golf announcers, I would have to object. Bound by mid-century decorum, perhaps, but Gene Sarazen, formerly a great, great player on tour was excellent, and no matter who you dig up, there will never be another Heywood Hale-Broun. Love him, hate him, but there will never be another.ESPN 1

Golf is in the space age now, with everything else that’s current. It will never go back to that quiet weekend spot on one of the three channels, nor will we ever hear the niceties spoken again in the same way, even though some of them obviously wanted to throttle the other, even in the black-and-white fifties.  So, here’s a sigh of reminiscence, and then I promise to move on.

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About the author

G.F. Skipworth

has spent every available moment playing golf or studying the greats since the 60s, in between world tours as a classical musician, Harvard studies in Government or as the author of a dozen novels. Nicklaus and Snead may be the statistical greats, but Skipworth is a life-long devotee of Gary Player, and considers meeting the South African at the Jeld-Wen to be an unforgettable milestone. His driving passion in golf these days is to raise viewer interest in the LPGA.