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Custer had an Excuse

By John M. Ross,
Heath Slocum
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Heath Slocum of Australia: One of the great stories from the game of golf. (Courtesy of Matt Muskovac)

This one wasn't quite the same as General Custer's disaster at Little Big Horn - there was no bloodshed. But they will be talking about ABC's made-for-TV "Battle at Bighorn" for some time to come, and a few television suits might be sobbing a little, too.

At least poor Custer had an excuse: there were too many Sioux Indians in front of him. ABC's golf programmers are still searching for the reason for their disaster, but they're not likely to find it.

In fairness, the highly touted ABC special had all the ingredients to make it a memorable TV event. It had an attractive and rarely seen mixed-team and alternate-shot format featuring four of the best-known golfers in the world, including The Man himself, Tiger Woods. And it was in prime time on a Monday night, when many still have weekend golf on their minds.

A producer's dream? You bet! What went wrong? Everything.

It wasn't set up to see if Woods and Annika Sorenstam could beat David Duval and Karrie Webb. There was no championship at stake, although there was a nice $1 million check (with a small slice deducted for charity) for the winning team. Basically, it was an effort to add a little variety to television's heavy golf menu of stroke play tournaments. And, as a side dish, provide a broader showcase for women's golf, focusing on the two who have dominated their world for the past four years.

The ladies were delighted to get the opportunity. It figured to be the largest television audience ever to watch women's golf, and the LPGA was hoping it might up the revenues from future contracts. There is an enormous gap between the $829 million the PGA Tour nets for TV rights and the comparatively paltry sums the girls are able to squeeze out of the networks. But the pressure at Bighorn seemed to take its toll from the very start, and Annika and Karrie appeared to be terrified at the enormity of the task.

The men weren't much better. Tiger hadn't been in good form since early June, and he showed little improvement in the early going. Duval, who had lifted his game so well for an excellent win in the British Open only days before, now struggled to keep the ball in play.

As play continued at an incredibly low level, one of the viewers in our grill room cried out in dismay, "This looks like one of the Saturday Husband and Wives things right here at our own course. Except that we play better than this."

More than a few lifted their glasses to that.

Not only did the foursome play poorly, but they moved at a dull, five-hour pace. When one of the TV analysts noted halfway through the match that the mixed teams were running incredibly far behind the pace of the all-male events of past years, it was a perfect straight line for one of the male chauvinists at the bar. "It never fails," he boomed. "Let the women on the course and the whole thing slows to a crawl."

Big laughs came from everyone except the fellow's wife.

Play WAS slow, indeed, and combined with the almost endless stream of commercials in between shots and holes, it was deadly dull television. There were only five birdies all night from this group of rich super-winners.

All the blame really did not belong on the shoulders of the players. Playing this event in the fleeting hours of July in Palm Springs, California, is risky business. Summers are so hot in the Desert, as they call it, a huge portion of the natives pack up and head for the hills or other cooler locales. The afternoon of the match, the temperature at the Bighorn Golf Club hit 105 degrees, and there was little appreciable relief when the sun reached the horizon and a stiff wind began to whip across the hot sand.

Tournament officials allowed the course to dry out, and the greens became as hard as billiard tables. And, just to make things a little nicer, they positioned the pins in places that invited disaster and that's exactly what happened time and again.

The TV cameras found the players in places that had probably never been photographed before, and often they appeared as pioneer settlers tramping through the desert. On successive holes, Annika, and then Tiger, were so badly entrapped in scrub brush, they had to hit left-handed for escape. And putting on the lightning-fast, severely tilted greens produced some grotesque action rarely seen on TV.

On one 20-footer, Sorenstam's putt scooted some 30 yards past the hole and into the fairway. Webb, on the 17th, had a 25-foot putt that picked up speed as it passed the cup and seemed headed for Los Angeles. It finally came to rest at least 60 feet away. The players were "miked" but luckily it couldn't pick up Karrie's descriptive response.

The match started at 5 o'clock, Pacific time, (8 p.m. in the East) and temporary lights had been put in place for the last five holes. This produced additional problems. The lights gave the course a surreal look, made distance judgement difficult, and created shadows that caused confusion on putting lines. But they did permit the match to reach a conclusion.

If nothing else, there were some touches of drama as the lead flip-flopped along the way. In the beginning, Tiger and Annika got out in front by two holes. It wasn't a case of which team was playing better, but which was making fewer mistakes. In the stretch, Duval and Webb got things working a little better and charged to the front. After 17, they were 1-up, and this set the stage for the high point of the long evening.

After huddling with Tiger on the line, Annika sent a bending 10-footer to the heart of the cup and squared the match on the 18th. It was, without question, the best shot of the night.

Remaining at the 18th for the sudden death playoff, the Duval team wobbled again. Karrie put her tee-ball in a bunker, and Dave hit his second short of the green. Woods reached back for a little extra and put his approach on the edge of the green. Annika's putt was two feet off mark, and Tiger wrapped it up on the next shot.

The Battle at Bighorn, virtually everyone agreed, had a "can't miss" structure. But it did. From a TV ratings standpoint, which is the name of the game in these specials, it was a bust. With a 5.9, it was the lowest of the three matches in the series. The first, which pitted Woods against Duval, hit an 8.4. The next one had Tiger against the young Spanish phenom, Sergio Garcia. It soared to an 8.6, and Sergio's upset victory did much to pump it up.

Undoubtedly, a substantial portion of this year's audience was not around when the match finally ended at 12:30 in the East. Many don't stay up that late for Monday Night Football. And with something as slow and as boring as this one was, many viewers, undoubtedly, were yawning early.

But there were some happy faces, too. ABC network treasurers had an impressive pile of money to bank for all those endless commercials. And even though their girls were less than impressive, women's golf, which seldom gets a rating higher than a 3-plus, had its biggest audience ever and in prime time, too.

And Tiger, eyeing his winning check, was happy, too. "I would like to do this again," he beamed. "Hopefully, we can play a little better next time.

I should hope so.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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