Every weekend, fans tune into professional golf broadcasts with the goal of enjoying a relaxing afternoon in front of the television. And every weekend, a team of a few dozen professionals is responsible for one of the most chaotic jobs in television: broadcasting professional golf.
Golf on television isn’t just an art form, it’s a high-wire act. Dozens of people work in near-perfect synchronization just to get the product on-air in the proper sequence, and dozens more are needed to ensure that product comes across with style, energy, and the appropriate context.
In short, golf on television is hard work, even if the intended result is nap-inducing. Few people know this better than Sean McDonough, the veteran ESPN broadcaster who’s served as the voice behind dozens of big-time events. Golf fans might have been introduced to McDonough at the Masters in the late-90s, or later at the PGA Championship, where he presently serves on ESPN’s coverage — or perhaps they recognize him from Monday Night Football, where he (and his large charts) were the lead play-by-play broadcaster for a handful of years in the mid-2010s.
On this week’s episode of GOLF’s Subpar, McDonough explained why the business of your Sunday afternoon snooze is more caffeinated than ever.
“One of the best pieces of advice I got from anybody in all the time I’ve been doing this now,” McDonough recounted to hosts Colt Knost and Drew Stoltz. “When CBS added me to the Masters coverage in 1996, and the late, great Frank Chirkinian was still in charge of CBS golf, and he invented golf on TV. He said to me, ‘the most important advice I’m going to give you is that we have you on here because we have enough golf people, we need more announcer types. You’re a good storyteller, and I like storytelling, but I’m not going to wait for you to finish your story. Whatever story you tell, you need to be able to finish it at the end of each sentence.'”
What Chirkinian meant, according to McDonough, is simple. It’s hard to speak too fast in golf television, but it’s easy to speak too slow. That’s because unlike other sports — in which there is only one ‘arena’, one ball, and one central location of action — at any one time, golf can have 18 distinct ‘arenas’, 72 golf balls, and dozens of relevant events. Capturing that action means things move quickly.
“That’s part of the difficulty of doing golf, and you have to pay attention,” he said. “As you guys know, a lot of golf coverage on TV is on tape. I don’t know what percentage it is, but it’s a high percentage. It has to be. They’re on 18 holes and there are multiple places on each hole where people are playing. You can’t show it all live. It’s impossible.”
The onus to figure everything out falls upon the folks in the production truck — the individuals whose jobs are defined by their capacity to think and react quickly to the events unfolding in front of them.
“Some of the most talented people in sports TV are the producers the directors and the associate producers,” he said. “Who not only are figuring out what’s live and what’s on tape, what should we show live and what should we show on tape? But then, they’ve got to get it in the right sequence.”
“And they’ve got to make sure, let’s not update the scoreboard until we show the guy putting on tape, even though we know he’s at eight under, let’s keep him at 7 under till we show him making that putt.”
McDonough, whose job is made easier by the capacity of those behind the camera, says their efforts never cease to amaze.
“There’s so much that goes into putting golf on TV, I don’t even know how they get it on the air.”
To hear the rest of McDonough’s Subpar interview, check out the video below.