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TV production does its part in limited return to golf

Russell Knox, of Scotland, chips onto the sixth green during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament in Orlando, Fla. Knox plans to drive his RV some 1,000 miles each way to PGA Tour events when they resume. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP)
Russell Knox, of Scotland, chips onto the sixth green during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament in Orlando, Fla. Knox plans to drive his RV some 1,000 miles each way to PGA Tour events when they resume. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP)
By Doug Ferguson Associated Press

Pressure wasn’t limited to a closest-to-the-pin contest for six skins worth $1.1 million that Rory McIlroy won to wrap up the TaylorMade Driving Relief exhibition last Sunday.

Imagine trying to produce the first live golf on TV in two months with only six cameras on the course, using a bonded cellular network to send images 250 miles away, instead of radio frequency to a truck stationed right there at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida.

And if that wasn’t enough, the plane providing overhead shots had to leave at the end because it was low on fuel.

“It was vastly different from any PGA Tour broadcast on network TV,” said Greg Hopfe, executive producer of PGA Tour Entertainment. “And we did this without a single TV truck.”

It could be maddening at times.

Using bonded cellular meant a second-and-a-half delay for the play-by-play announcer (Rich Lerner) and the NBC analysts (Paul Azinger and Gary Koch) to see the video in St. Augustine, Florida. The Top Tracer technology made it impossible to sync, which is why the click of contact was heard when players were at the top of their swings.

TV trucks in the compound have a person who can shade the camera, making it easier to pick up the ball in flight.

“This technology doesn’t allow for it,” Hopfe said. “We were hoping for a blue sky the entire day. When it goes up to a white sky, we struggled to keep it in the frame. That was a big challenge. We lost some golf balls. The good things is we had the plane up there.”

Except at the end.

The plane provided the magnificent overhead shots of Seminole, the fifth star of the match.

“We got to 18, there’s a carryover and we’re about to go to a playoff,” Hopfe said. “I look over at the monitor of the plane and it’s in color bars. It’s running out of fuel. It’s done for the day. I get on the radio and said, `Get a second camera to 17 green.’ We hustled back and got there before the players.”

The telecast ended at 6:33 p.m., unusually late for any brand of golf at Seminole. That, too, was related to the production. With so few cameras – a typical PGA Tour event on network TV has about 20 cameras – players at times were held in place to allow the cameras to get in position.

It all was done with a conservative return to golf, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and keeping contact minimal. There were no caddies, only two rules officials and no fans.

All 51 people who worked the event – 28 at Seminole, 23 at PGA Tour Entertainment offices in St. Augustine – were tested for the new coronavirus. They chose not to build scaffolding, which would have allowed the holes to be seen more easily on putts, because the construction crew would have required tests, too.

“We wanted to keep the footprint as small as possible,” Hopfe said.

The biggest challenge was using bonded cellular, and perhaps the tour has Steph Curry to thank for that.

The tour first tried it out in 2018, the second time the Golden State Warriors guard played a Korn Ferry Tour event outside San Francisco.

The tour later used bonded cellular, which costs less money to operate, for “PGA Tour Live” at six fall events last year and a Korn Ferry Tour event in the Bahamas at the start of this year.

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