Ernie Els had just missed a four-foot putt on the 18th hole that would in the end have gotten him into a playoff for the Transitions Championship on Sunday when Golf Channel’s Steve Sands interviewed him. Sands was only doing his job and Els, while in understandable shock, fulfilled his responsibility by agreeing to the interview. The uncomfortable interview lasted only 30 seconds, but continues to draw all kinds of comment.
In the immediate aftermath, I tweeted this:
It was indeed ridiculous, but not because Sands was insensitive to Els or because the golfer was curt. Neither was the case. It was ridiculous because the interview should never have been allowed to take place. But that’s what producers demand. They think that “reaction” should supersede common sense. We watch as interviewers chase golfers as they leave a green to head for the scoring trailer, just to get immediate reaction. It amounts to shock television. It’s reality television. Producers aren’t looking for insight. They’re looking for emotion. The exercise to me looks contrived, even when the interview is with the winner.
In this case, the interview was awkward and was almost unbearable. Els had played beautifully, and was 14-under par and leading by a shot with three holes to play. But he missed a short birdie putt on the 16th hole, hit his tee shot wide right on the par-three 17th, which led to a bogey, and then missed that four-footer on the last green.
A win would have gotten him into the Masters. He’s 62nd in the world ranking and needs to get inside the top 50 to make it into the Masters in two weeks. He’s played every Masters since 1994. He’ll probably have to win either this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando or next week’s Shell Houston Open to make it to Augusta.
Then again, maybe Augusta National will give him a special invitation. That would be a classy gesture towards a classy golfer. Els, 42, has his putting problems, but he’s still very competitive. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him get a special invitation, either this week or after Bay Hill if he doesn’t win there.
Meanwhile, back to the interview Sands did with Els. The focus shouldn’t be on them, but on the question as to whether such interviews have a place. Why can’t the issue of whether to go ahead with the interview be made on a case-by-case basis? Players rarely say anything of interest anyway. It’s usually one cliché after another, because the player hasn’t had time to think. Of course, the interviews aren’t about thought. They’re about raw, unmitigated emotion.
“It hasn’t hit me yet.” Or, “I’m sure I’ll know what this means when I wake up tomorrow.” Or we see Bubba Watson crying after winning the 2010 Travelers Championship.
I find the 18th green interviews absurd for the most part. Dave Barr, a two-time PGA Tour winner, had a reputation for being hot-tempered when approached for an interview immediately after he finished a round - which Canadian media always wanted. He knew he could be hotheaded and told me once, “I don’t mind being interviewed, but give me a few minutes to cool down.” Television, however, wants hotheaded reaction, not cool afterthought.
I admire those whose job it is to conduct the interviews, especially at such a moment as Sands faced. He shouldn’t be thrown under the bus. My colleague and friend Bob Weeks does a great job as 18th green interviewer for Canadian television, something he does regularly. David Feherty, Peter Kostis: Good for them. But it’s not for me.
I learned this because it was my responsibility to conduct 18th green interviews during some Air Canada Championships in Vancouver. I interviewed Mike Weir after he double-bogeyed the last hole at the Northview Golf and Country Club in 1996 when a birdie would have gotten him into a playoff with Guy Boros. Weir was trying to make birdie, and went for the flag on the last green, where the hole was cut only a few paces behind the water in front. He came up just short.
Weir was playing to win, not for a cheque, and I knew that because I knew his style and approach. But that didn’t make it any easier to shove a microphone in front of his face a moment after he’d finished with a double. I felt more than a twinge of insensitivity.
Three years later I interviewed Mark Calcavecchia after he holed a putt of about 18 inches to win the tournament. Calcavecchia was thrilled, but he was also pretty much shaking because, well, he’d shaken the putt in. He told me he didn’t think he could have made the putt if it were any longer. But it would still have been my job to interview him.
I decided not to interview players in such a way again. I doubt that Sands, Weeks or anybody else who does the interviews on or around the 18th green after players finish enjoy it all that much when the inevitable uncomfortable moments arise. They handle it and they handle it well, although their uneasiness shows. How could it not?
In a world of reality TV, the interview that Sands did with Els is ultimate reality TV for golf. He and others who conduct the interviews are pushed to do what amounts to shock television. Producers aren’t looking for insight. They want players to look shocked, to cry, to fidget, to come apart.
It’s excruciating, but producers want it and, I suppose, viewers want it. They got it, but good, when Sands interviewed Els.
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein