Sunday, July 29, 2007

Watching Golf Live

Today I did something I had never done before - went to watch a PGA Tour event live. I chose the early part of the last day of this year's Canadian Open Golf Championship. I enjoyed my time, but am watching, as originally planned, the end of the day's action on television.

So let me explain that first. While it is not clear to me that golf is one of the best sports to watch on television, it is one of the sports that is spectacularly better to watch on television than live! So note the distinction - curling is just about the best television spectator sport (up there with billiards/snooker, and poker, and I am not joking), because everything that happens can be arranged to happen under a camera in the normal time for a watchable sport (a couple of hours). But watching curling live is almost as good as watching it on television because, normally if you are watching it, there is a whole lot more going on than television will show that you can actually see from your seat in the arena. This is almost as true for the case where only one match is going on but in most televised bonspiels, one match is being televised, but others will be going on simultaneously for viewers in the arena, so the economics are very different.

So watching golf live, you are stuck at any moment in one place. From that one place you might be able to see a couple of groups on neighbouring holes, but totally inaccessible to your eyes is almost all of what is happening, and things happen at a very leisurely pace where you are. That really matters near the end of the tournament as scores may be changing all over the last several holes - you are stuck in one place and will find out retroactively only, and will certainly not see what happened in anything close to real-time (perhaps golf courses used on the tour will develop truly gigantic or ubiquitous Jumbotrons in the future to address this).

But there are many other problems I found today, which will affect any future decision to try such an experiment again.

a) I could hardly ever see the shots. About the only place I found I could pick up the ball from was right behind the hitters; I found I could get such positions on par 3s, which were the holes I least needed the help on, but I never found it possible on a par 4 or 5 to get behind the tee-off area and try to pick up the shot. My other success was picking up approach shots from behind a green. The TV cameramen appear to have such positions - they always pick up the shot; I also assume they have great skills and are selected for them.

b) Depending on your strategy for watching, this can be a pretty strenuous experience. Mine was a bit of walk around and try to follow what is interesting approach - wears you down in hot weather on hills. It is a lot easier sitting in the stands in a curling arena or at a tennis tournament.

On the other hand there were lots of good things about it.

a) At least today it was fun watching all the Monarch and other butterflies - I also saw a sandpiper and other animal life (more on some of it later). The course is also a bit of a wildlife refuge and if you are attentive that can be fun.

b) There is a ton of interesting technology at these tournaments - I was never sure which parts of it were for what but I spent a fair bit of my time near some people manning some devices at the expected ball landing area in the tenth fairway. I assumed these were GPS devices, which allowed recording the length of drives and remaining distance to the pin (Mike Weir left a 330-yard drive just short of a bunker in front of me!). This I learned by eavesdropping. (And now I just heard Ian Baker-Finch on the CBS broadcast refer to his IBM shot-length tracker - this makes sense.)

c) The people are fun to watch - the retirees come out early and in many cases just settle somewhere smart and watch the groups go by. They are very savvy and I found I learned a lot by listening to them chat about what earlier groups had done - like, "everybody who comes in on that line rolls away right" - making me think smart people would hire them as consultants. Several had weekly passes, and their advice might remain useful even with the tricky movement of the pin placements. Meanwhile, as I left, I noticed everyone arriving looked a lot cooler than the people I had spent my last hours with. Those arriving were coming to see, as best they could, what would be better presented on TV. Why? I have no idea.

d) Sort of like the last point, the demographics were fun. When I arrived it was hundreds of men in polo shirts or t-shirts and knee-length shorts (as was I), occasionally accompanied by a woman; they were more variously dressed (not more colourfully - the women seemed to like white and black - this may be like avian conditions, with their dull browns). Later I noticed many pairs of women, and, even more amazing to me, pairs of parents pushing strollers, as well as occasional families dragging reluctant children about. In only one case though did I see a teenage daughter with a parent!

e) The players can be fun, and some of this you would never see on TV. On one early hole, I had positioned myself with the technology in the first-shot landing area as Billy Andrade and Corey Pavin were playing the hole. Their drives landed close (as is so often the case), but we spectators and marshals noticed a Garter Snake working its way slowly to Andrade's ball as the players came up the fairway. Andrade's caddy noticed it first (we were all watching but not helping) and put a hand up in front of Andrade, who jumped back quickly when he saw it. At that point the fans said, "Ah, it is only a Garter Snake", and Andrade responded, "I am not going anywhere near it". Meanwhile Pavin, living in Texas, helped chase the snake back into safety in deep grass. Thinking of the scorpions and fire ants I have met in that state, I could see why he might have been so casual. I stuck with that group for a while, and the players and their caddies seemed very companionable. This was decidedly not true at all for several pairings I watched.

So how might I do this if I did it again?

a) I would not go on the weekend. I would go on the first two playing days - they are cheaper, and the groups are larger, so the idleness factor drops, and you won't have to worry in most tournaments about missing better TV coverage.

b) I would probably try more consistently to follow one or two groups OR just stay in one place. It is a hard balance. At my age, it is NOT easy to move between sitting down on the grass and keeping moving, as there is a cost to getting down and getting up.

c) I might try to smuggle a camera in. One of my original reasons for going was that I thought there might be nice pictures to get (and there would have been), but the terms and conditions on the tickets prohibited a camera. Many people had them.

Anyway still some thought needed on this. I had a great time.

And by the way, there are sports that are surely far more awful for their live spectators. I would pick the Tour de France as a classic, and forget all the drug problems. Imagine sitting for hours in the middle of nowhere waiting for these guys to zoom by, and they zoom by at 40 miles an hour in a gigantic anonymous pack, and that is it. You think you saw something, but you certainly did not see your hero standing within five feet of you scratching his earlobe; I had such experiences today, watching them scratch earlobes, for many players I have enjoyed watching, like Corey Pavin, Mike Weir, Stephen Ames, Briny Baird, Steve Jones, etc. So I would surely never watch the Tour de France! (Well, actually, as I work through my vacation photos, I have some small confessions to make in a later post.)


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