This weekend, millions will tune in to CBS to watch Tiger Woods try to win his fifth Masters title. In a 2003 piece, reproduced below, Alex Heard explained that there's a science to watching golf on television. "Be not ashamed of yielding to televised golf's soporific power," he explained. "Stay keen to the drama, but don't be shy about letting the commentary and pace waft you to lotus land during those slow, four-hour Saturdays and Sundays when the also-rans are stumbling by and the announcers are still trying to get excited. Some of my fondest golf-on-TV memories involve me waking up with a startled slurp thanks to a roar from the gallery."
There are two ways to watch the Masters. You can be a slug and plop in front of the tube at home, a beer always within reach as you "check out of life" for a weekend. Or you can make the not-inconsiderable, not-inexpensive effort to go to Augusta National to experience, in person, the most storied golf tournament of them all, there to hear the glorious snap of flags in the Georgia breeze, to smell the springtime bounty of grass and azaleas, to thrill to the timeless dramas at Amen Corner.
The choice here is obvious, and given the late date—the Masters starts Thursday and ends Sunday—you probably have urgent questions about logistics: What size television will I need? Should I lie on a couch or stay upright and alert in, say, a wing chair? And the one I hear most often from golf-watching newbies: I don't like beer. Can I smoke pot instead?
Sure you can, buddy! The beauty of watching golf on television is that it's fun, flexible, and requires little in the way of infrastructure or prep. It's as easy as watching a soaring, hard-hit tee ball—not quite being able to make it out against the backdrop of blue-white sky—and tensing with anticipation as the announcer warns: "Uh-oh, that's going left."
I got serious about watching "the sport of Pings" in the mid-'70s, when I was a skinny teen-ager making an effort to switch summer pastimes from tennis to golf. I sucked, but my flailings were a valuable apprenticeship for being a fan. Like many a disappointed non-athlete, I redirected my energies into a damp, Billy-Crystal-esque appreciation of the game's philosophy, history, and lore—with valuable help from Golf and Golf Digest, magazines that specialized in baroque tips ("When hitting approach shots, think of yourself as a thirsty Bedouin … and the green as your bubbling oasis"), maudlin homages to past greats like Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, and Byron Nelson, and major-tournament previews that made the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA sound like do-or-die military crusades.
During that formative period, I saw only one golf tournament in the flesh—the 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., won by a workmanlike Hubert Green—a valuable experience in terms of cementing my bond to the televised game. Make no mistake, seeing golf live is worth it, at least once. Watching the pros do their thing up close is as revelatory as seeing a UFO disgorge a platoon of pot-bellied aliens. They hit the ball so much harder and better than you can imagine—or than television's flat two-dimensionality can convey—that you will never again make the mistake of dismissing golf as "not a sport."
But in every other sense, television is better. Physically, going to a tournament is a pain. You'll swelter, get sore feet, spend $200 on Cokes, and wait in line forever to enter skanky port-a-wees. As the action unfolds, you'll either try to follow the leader, which means spending the day looking at the back of some guy's head and smelling a Very Large Array of armpits, or you'll "stake a claim" to a particular spot on the course and watch the same shot get played 100 times. Distant cheers and cries of "You de man!" serve as a constant taunt that something great is happening—somewhere else.
On television, you are wherever the action is, and when the action isn't—which can be often—you get to snooze. Snooze? Yes. Be not ashamed of yielding to televised golf's soporific power. Stay keen to the drama, but don't be shy about letting the commentary and pace waft you to lotus land during those slow, four-hour Saturdays and Sundays when the also-rans are stumbling by and the announcers are still trying to get excited. Some of my fondest golf-on-TV memories involve me waking up with a startled slurp thanks to a roar from the gallery. I was snoozing on my parents' green-gold shag carpet in Kansas when Jerry Pate hit his historic 72nd-hole five-iron to win the 1976 U.S. Open. I watched Tiger Woods nail down his first Masters victory in 1997 while napping on the floor of a mildewed ski house in Upstate New York.
Note the "I"—I was alone for these moments, and the most important question you face as a TV golf fan is whether to watch solo or with friends. I happen to fly Lindbergh; you may desire a group scene or even (gasp) a sports bar. All that matters is that you think through your choices. I've watched golf with others, but I tend to get irritated easily, especially by PC comments about Augusta National (yes, it's run by rich white blowhards—get over it), riffs about the color-commentary clichés (these people know the game and explain it well—you should thank them), and wisecracks about clothing styles, à la: "Hey, where are the plaid polyester pants?" (Hyuk hyuk. Try 1975, dumbass.)
Beyond that it's all a matter of attitude. Appreciate the fact that some of the greatest players who ever lived are whapping the pea in your living room. Thrill to the news that, this year, the Masters' overlords have made the course longer and harder to keep up with golf's muscle-strapped youth and 22nd-century equipment. And get ready to put in some serious hours: For the first time, CBS will offer wall-to-wall, ball-to-ball 18-hole coverage on Sunday. It's going to be a wonderful, dramatic, and drowsy afternoon.
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