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CBS has a big challenge with televising return of PGA Tour golf

Nick Faldo and Jim Nantz on the CBS

Nick Faldo and Jim Nantz on the CBS set at the 2018 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Feb. 10 and 11, 2018. Credit: CBS/Cliff Lipson

CBS is embracing its obligation to keep people properly social distanced this week as the PGA Tour returns to the golf course and to live television.

So much so that analyst Nick Faldo did some quick calculations on Monday about how far he will be from his play-by-play partner, Jim Nantz, during the Charles Schwab Challenge at the Colonial Country Club.

Six feet? Not exactly. More like 6 million feet, roughly the distance from the site of the tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, to the Golf Channel studios in Orlando, where Faldo will watch on monitors.

“So I hope you feel safe,” he said to Nantz on a conference call with reporters.

Faldo was kidding, but CBS is serious as it marks the return of pro golf after a three-month break because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and after two weeks of civil unrest and protest.

Nantz plans to address all of the above in his open on Thursday on the Golf Channel’s portion of the coverage, calling this “perhaps the most important moment in this country in my lifetime.”

After that, though, the focus will be on golf, as the production seeks to navigate a new world. Other sports have returned to action, but there is no sport as complex to cover on television as a pro golf tournament.

The safety precautions will bring that to a new level.

“This is the most complicated production plan I‘ve ever been involved in,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said, “including Super Bowls and Final Fours.”

Nantz will sit by himself in a tower by the 18th green in the company only of a robotic camera rather than the six or seven people usually with him.

He said he will do nothing at the course other than get out of his car, go to the tower directly, leave at the end of the day, go back to his hotel and order room service.

On-course reporters Dottie Pepper and Mark Immelman also will be in Fort Worth, but analysts Faldo, Ian Baker-Finch and Frank Nobilo will be in Orlando, and reporter Amanda Balionis will contribute reports from home.

The production staff has been spread out so there will be nine people rather than 22 in the main unit. Overall, there will be about half as many TV people on-site as at a normal Tour event.

McManus declined to go into detail about medical protocols, but it involves quarantines, testing and an emergency backup production crew.

Production elements will emanate from New York, Stamford, Connecticut, Los Angeles and even New Zealand in addition to Fort Worth and Orlando. Golf Channel will show the first two rounds starting Thursday, CBS the final parts of the last two rounds on the weekend.

In effort to enhance the show, CBS has a new wrinkle called “inside the ropes,” a small tent on a designated hole where it will try to persuade players to stop in to answer one written-out question into an unmanned camera.

The network also is lobbying players to agree to wear microphones to allow viewers to hear their conversations with caddies and fellow players.

“We’ve been talking to the Tour about it for years,” McManus said. “There’s probably a greater appreciation for wanting to contemporize golf coverage a little bit and I think players are beginning to realize they can play a real role in that.”

CBS has no plans to use fake crowd noise for the event, which will be played in the absence of fans.

Speaking of which, how does Faldo think that might affect the players?

“Obviously, I think it’s going to be a very different atmosphere,” he said. “No. 1, they better keep it down the fairway. I’m not sure how many ball-spotters they’re going to actually have, so that could be a significant factor. But the word that I’ve been using is ‘adapt’ and ‘adaptation.’ You’d better learn to adapt to this situation.”

It could be a short-term thing. The Tour hopes to invite fans back for the Memorial Tournament July 16-19.

“Maybe you’re going look back in 2025 and say, ‘Do you remember what we did for a month back in 2020? We all played with nobody around,’” Faldo said. “So I think you have to embrace it.”

He added, “You’ve got to motivate yourself. You could start with six straight birdies and I guarantee your two playing competitors will not be impressed with you. You won’t get any love from then. It will just be you and your caddie. How do you motivate yourself? How do you keep it all going in that atmosphere?”

But Faldo said the players who manage to “get on with it” will recall this as a “weird and wonderful” time in their careers, about which they someday will say, “Wasn’t that crazy what we did for five weeks?”

Like all TV executives, McManus has been studying what sports TV has looked like in recent months, from the NFL Draft to the Turner golf round for charity that featured Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

He praised both but cautioned that the well-received Turner show is not replicable for a Tour event. Don’t expect golf cart cameras or Charles Barkley talking trash to players.

But at last it is time for golf fans to enjoy what those of mixed martial arts, auto racing, boxing and European soccer already have: A return of live sports.

“It’s one of the great challenges I’ve ever seen in my 35 years [at CBS],” Nantz said.

Said Faldo, “Step into the deep end without any water wings. It’s going to be a whole new experience.”

Charles Schwab Challenge TV Schedule

Thursday: Golf Channel, Noon-7 p.m.

Friday: Golf Channel, 4-7 p.m.

Saturday: Golf Channel, 1-3 p.m; Ch. 2, 3-6 p.m.

Sunday: Golf Channel, 1-3 p.m.; Ch. 2, 3-6 p.m.

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