Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Reading The Greens: The US Masters
What was TV like in the 1950s? Watch golf and find out. And find out how little has actually changed about the medium and sport. For better and for worse.
Aside of an unacceptable remix of the theme tune, and the replacement of Steve Rider in the MC’s chair by another natural-born smirker, Gary Lineker, things change real slow round golf on the BBC. Rather like at Augusta, Georgia, where the most reactionary sports club in the world presides over one of sport’s most patrician events. US Presidents – even Republican ones – are regarded as mere members at Augusta. Women? Aw, hell, if we must. Blacks? One answer to that – two more Old Fashioneds and a Sidecar, boy. Clifford Roberts, Suthun gennulman, banker and the course’s founder, liked to take his holidays in apartheid South Africa. And yes, for all the wrong reasons.
TV once reflexively tugged its forelock to establishment bodies. Attendance at and coverage of Serious Events did not allow for observations on anything but the host’s divinely-ordained infallibility. Astoundingly, Augusta is still treated thus, not as a sporting event that courts telly, but merely tolerates it (a fiction it finds useful to maintain for the snob appeal of its own snob appeal). Gary McChord, a commentator who is one of many witty contributors to America’s golfing media was effectively banned from broadcasting from Augusta for the perceived flippancy of a remark along the lines of ‘they don’t mow the lawns here, they wax them like bikini lines’ and comparing humps along the fairways to body bags. McChord works for CBS, who have been beaming out the Masters for 51 years, but get on the wrong side of these good old boys and they don’t let you forget it. A sub-clause in the BBC’s Augusta contract must surely stipulate the word ‘beautiful’ be used to describe the course at least once every quarter-hour, preferably adjoining the phrase ‘there’s nothing like the Masters’. This is small ‘c’ conservatism at its pettiest and worst, demeaning the dignity of exploiter and exploitee.
It also makes great and entirely fascinating television.
Because of course Augusta is beautiful. Or rather it is ‘beautiful’ in a way that flatters the eye of the irrevocably bourgeois, inviting adjectives like sumptuous and luxurious. Augusta is one of the nés plus ultra of the insufferable snobbery of the South’s aristocracy of planters and slavers and oilmen and ranchers, the desire to legitimise their nouveaux status by aping the estates of the Old World. The old South money’s gone north and west now, but its ignorant airs remain; from people whose Europhilia never extended to intervening in world wars at the right time. Their models were Capability Brown and Henry Hoare, Stourhead’s creator; their ideals were Versailles, Marienbad, Sanssouci, or, for those who disdained the formality of Italianate classicism and/or of Claude and Poussin, there was Rambouillet, Knole, Fontainebleau, Windsor. Reading the likes of Twain and De Tocqueville on the monied Americans of the 19th century, one can almost picture Augusta. Students of the US cultural critic Paul Fussell (Class, BAD) will also find watching the golf here instructive.
Augusta is a superficially dazzling monument to delusion-inducing vanity and wealth, by and for people who who crave prestige so much it blinds them to the vulgarity of calling themselves names like Hootie and thinking that buying Muffy into Vassar confers intellectual achievement. They want to not only tell those old Europe guys that we are as good as you but also stick one on those Yankee and Jewboy pussies, the Rockerfellers and Vanderbilts with their Hampton mansions and yachts.
They try very hard and do a grand job. The perpendiculars of the larch trunks, the birch branches casting Manet shadows across 18 holes in more shades of green than anyone can count, bunkers like little slicks of spilt buttermilk, the sharp contrast of the auburn bark-and-needles rough with the fairways’ manicured malachite. These are badges of old-Europe hauteur, perfecting creation, taming nature, insisting that the owner of this place is in control because he can afford it. There are the kidney-shaped water hazards - here are the brooks that burble to order - over there’s the Ben Hogan Bridge, the stone hop-skip over one of those watercourses and whose lack of a handrail is testament to idealized aesthetic purity as well as to a lack of necessity; no member of the public will ever use be allowed to sully this sylvan bower.
As such it’s a TV dream, a prelapsarian Arcadia made flesh; Augusta can be read as a hack artist’s Romantic idyll, seen best only when devoid of humanity. Who needs people? Especially these people. Up in the galleries, the pink-skinned wannabes and fatsos in their John Deere caps with their fusillades of hollerings (‘get in the hole!’), the style-challenged pros with their heart-on-sleeve God-botheration, their Barbie birds, the caddies in their regulation all-white Augusta uniforms which make the more corpulent bag-carriers resemble Bibendum, Michelin’s cheery mascot.
It’s all about colour. And I don’t just mean skin pigmentation (Augusta, whose reality is actually that of a truckstop shithole, a train junction where mournful whistles chime, is 80% Afro-American; Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh apart, I spotted seven black faces in the whole week, and two of them were wearing security uniforms. Better than the chic of Pullman steward or chain-ganger, I suppose). There is visually chromatic significance in golf that mirrors TV’s view of the world precisely.
The intention of much horticulture and arboriculture is entirely a form of aesthetic oneupmanship; the rhododendrons at the 13th hole are there for a purpose, as significant a statement of identity (I’m rich, me) as Tiger’s red shirt (I’m gonna win, me), which Peter Alliss intelligently remarked on. Bright colours signify consumption, leisure, visibility, and plenty of it all. This is why that despite the notions of Augusta’s grandees and the public imagination, golf’s sprawling spectrum is made for modern colour TV despite the manner of the presenters’ pretence to sacerdotal genuflection to tradition belongs to TV’s distant monochrome past.
The problem for TV at Augusta isn’t a grovelling atavism to outdated notions of the picturesque, or how to present it. There are rumours that Augusta actually dictates the position of cameras to maximise the supposed appeal of the vista, a form of rewriting the theory of the picture window for the 21st century, a media-savviness which display the sheer meretriciousness of the club’s supposed antipathy to modernity. Human interest shots (old hankie-headed dozer in deckchair, chirpy urchin selling golf balls from a makeshift stall in the Turnberry gorse), the province of links golf, aren’t allowed. With all this ordered beauty around, where the creative mind thinks visually, the impression is that the environment is shouting you down.
For there is in golf the aesthetic appeal of the players and their degrees of skill testifying that people do matter in this plutocrat pastoral, and indeed actually enhance the intentions of the course designer. A good golf swing is rendered as pleasing to the eye as a Ronaldinho free-kick, a Federer backhand; one only has to walk the dog on the local range to see the cosmic physical disparity between the Saturday morning hobbyist duffer and, say, Ernie Els. It is comparable to the difference in gracefulness between a grande jétée by Bussell and the present writer slipping on a comedy banana skin.
Fade and backspin are mere concepts to us poor mortals; to these guys, they are a hand-eye lingua franca of their nervous systems. For effective watching, the human agencies of class and economics can bugger with elements like these far less than those of prettified or idealized location. Step forward, Steptoes; Oildrum Lane was no Shangri-la, but you made us laugh.
This is why the sport can, once more contrary to public perception, provide TV with a spectacle that bears out one of the fundamentals of 20th century theatre, that sets and props do not matter if the action’s the thing. Yes, it’s true that golf’s sometimes unbearable tensions unfold with a slowness that should be alien to modern television values, but it’s still on because people keep watching – and there are no sponsors to tell the Beeb to get it off so as to pander to a few more youngsters. Holes can take up to 10 minutes to play, courses four hours. Putts can occupy upwards of two minutes. The bookie-friendly unpredictability of golf, even given the prodigiousness of a Woods or a Nicklaus, is extraordinary. Thus does drama draw us in, agog; climatic quirks and millimetrical margins affect the outcome of tournaments and destinies. Intellectual calculation and instinct combine like Apollo and Dionysus in such circumstances to create champions. Former greats languish in unforgiven humiliation; Severiano Ballesteros’s talent has withered to a degree that makes the word ‘pathos’ sound generous. Yet his smashing a 250-yard drive into a hot dog stand or down the décolletage of Mrs Phil Mickelson also makes for weirdly compelling viewing.
Despite the near impossibility of conveying the perspectival complexities of borrows and cambers and contoured mischief in the design of a course (which way will this putt go? Or that one?) TV handles golf well.
Correction. The BBC handles golf well. For once that deferent cliché nails it. For instance, ESPN Classic, an invaluable little weekend resource for historians of sports TV, showed CBS coverage of the 1989 and 1996 Masters tourneys. Both were slapdash, careless; shots were badly framed, the rake of ball trajectories missed, cutaways were abrupt; there was little feel for drama, palpable even in these necessarily cut-and-paste highlight formats. A hack job, in other words. American broadcasters have voiced their admiration for the BBC’s coverage of the Open, the Ryder Cup, the Wentworth Matchplay, and today’s CBS’s pictures are so much more watchable one might imagine the BBC was in charge.
It’s a shame that CBS’s commentators didn’t get a look in – the plaititudinous fawners are still on Columbia, but Johnny Miller is an unsparing and verbally inventive judge of talent, Nick Faldo a sparkling revelation for those who remember him as the unsmiling automaton of his playing days, rather like Tim Henman waking up one morning in a Gregor Simsa moment to find he is actually Frank Carson.
But as per the Ryder Cup, the Beeb now has a strong team to put a European boot into America. They show their hand with exemplary panache and understatement to the game’s strengths as the equivalent of a bespoke cardie or a particularly well-preserved Humber Super Snipe. This is not unusual – golf commentaries seldom make it into Private Eye’s Colemanballs hall of shame. There is little sense of exclusivity, unusual for golf; there isn’t the third-year dorm ambience of R4’s Test Match Special box, for example. A reactionary he may be, but Alliss is a master of timing and appositeness as well as 19th-hole bonhomie. He does humour with unforced ease, a dying concept in television; introducing his colleague, the excellent Ken Brown, for a mic shift, it was ‘as soon as he adjusts his dress, here’s Ken Brown’. No reason, save maybe a treble Jim Beam too many at lunch.
Aussie Wayne Grady does the Southern Cross proud – he is brief, to the point, and, cued by his peerless compatriot Richie Benaud, never essays the bleeding obvious. Sam Torrance, the obligatory growly Scot, is better than the unbearably oleaginous Alex Hay of unfond memory, but still a mite off the fairway.
Brown, though, is a Faldo-esque rebirth. From club-pro petulance on the European pro circuit, tantruming in the manner of someone who knows deep down he will never be as good as his fantasies, he has become a broadcaster to the manner born. At one point he paraphrased that bard of hackneyed rural lyricism, Wordsworth, to append sufficiently flowery prose to Augusta (he knows the grandees won’t get the irony, they probably can’t spell the word). An audibly amused Alliss teased his co-hack’s little digression for the rest of the day as might the winner of a keen morning twosome. The voices at the mics are those of individuals, not the graduates of broadcasting courses, the Pugatches and Bhasins of this world, the Five Live generation whose demotic is that of headlines and straplines, auditions for bigger and better gigs. Alliss, Brown and Grady are the true heirs of TV’s greatest wearer of blazers, Henry Longhurst.
A lovable strawberry-nosed codger who looked and sounded about 285 years old with jowls the size of Wiltshire, he was a decent and liberal broadcaster, a genial opponent of pretention, who became the sport’s first televisual signifier and its first ‘voice’ (laced as it was with Armagnac, Speyside, Havana, the leather of club armchairs). When first confronted with action replays, Longhurst innocently expostulated ‘my word, he’s done it again’ when a particularly audacious holed bunker shot was played back for a second time.
For a sport which thrives on pretention and bourgeois worship of show, wealth and authority – fancy course design and kit, the didactic mumbo-jumbo of coaches and those people who call themselves ‘sports psychologists’, the words of the Beeb’s foursome are actually refreshing in their plainness, while never affecting man-in-the-street usages.
Yes, of course golf is a sport of reactionaries. London’s outer green belt is now a forest of pin flags, their carparks fat with SUVs like buffaloes at waterholes. The only barriers to ‘No blacks, no Irish’ signs are exposure to a media hungry for PC trivia and that blasted Woods. It is riddled with hierarchies and snobberies. Golf courses’ aesthetics themselves are analogues of capitalist accumulation, command/control and display (nature? Pshaw!). They are manipulative, screwing with our emotions, exercising authority over them, reinforcing those found convenient (order, beauty).
But isn’t this rather like TV itself? Isn’t that what draws us to it, what we worship? That is why the medium and golf are made for each other. The sport is mellifluously visual, a major-key mix of The Eagles and Delius. Sometimes, as in Augusta, whorishly so – and imposes a visual authority upon us, here the inherited dictatorship of an ordained idea of rurality.
But what the hell. Call the Frankfurt School police, the Critical Theory gorillas, see if I care. Golf looks and sounds great on telly, even at this coarsely boskified retreat of racialists. No, more so at Augusta. With the BBC commentary’s subtle and relaxed refusal to take it too seriously, and the infinitely satisfying sculpture of a dramatic sporting narrative from the unpromising clay of poncey blokes hitting a ball with a stick, this is what I call TV worth watching.