Friday, June 08, 2007

A little while ago, it occurred to me that I'd been with CBS Sports for almost six years and I still had no idea how the hell we ever get a show on the air without loss of life, or at the very least, someone having a good cry. On the screen, golf is so demure and tranquil that for the average viewer it's impossible to imagine the utter chaos that frequently occurs behind the scenes.

It's kind of like the difference in atmosphere between the dining room and the kitchen of an elegant, five-star restaurant. Out front, the dapper maitre d' might be popping the cork on a nice bottle of bubbly and placing a gleaming Waterford flute on crisp, white linen. But in the back, an Immigration and Naturalization Service official has just broken up a knife fight between the club-footed Guatemalan pastry chef, who found a Lucky Strike butt in his tiramisu, and an Irish dishwasher, who is yelling down the telephone at his bookmaker and refuses to hang up. Happens all the time, I'm sure.

Our restaurant has 18 tables, waited on by seven big-mouthed, attitudinally challenged announcers, and as many as 150 awkward diners, all of which makes the television compound the kitchen from hell. In virtually every other televised sport, there is one arena, one reasonably sized ball, and one story.

With golf, you have at any given moment several tiny projectiles whizzing through the airspace in several different areas, with several different people yelling at them to stop, go, get up, come down, buzz off, or whatever. Someone has to decide which shot to take, which microphone to open, which graphic to insert, and which announcer should be dragged out of his tower and beaten within an inch of his life. That person is Lance Barrow, the coordinating producer of CBS golf.

An announcer has the easiest job in television, unless of course his name is Nantz, but that's a whole 'nother column. Follow the optic fiber out of the tower, through the invisible slits cut into the fairway, under the heavy rubber conduits that straddle the cart paths and service roads, into the television compound, and you'll find the multimillion-dollar, digital 18-wheeler, code named DX6. With its thundering air-conditioning unit sucking the moisture away from miles of wiring, and darkness broken by a mere 200 flickering monitors, this is the nerve center, a place where many a nerve has been shattered.

On the front row, closest to the myriad monitors, is the A-Team. The only difference between us and the original is that we are astonished when a plan comes together. Facing golf's wailing wall, there is the athletic yet strangely chubby Jim Rikhoff, who came from a good family but somehow developed a few ways about him that just aren't right. He is Lance's left eye and ear, and occasionally does nostril duty.

Moving left to right, there's Lance -- 309 pounds of deep-fried, quivering manhood, shaped like some giant, ethereal, Rubenesque cherub on the domed ceiling of an ancient chapel. He wears a constant and undying expression that would suggest he just realized he was about to miss God's last slice of pizza. He's on air, on point, and carrying on board enough iced tea to float Greg Norman's new yacht.

On the course, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods is clearly the best and in the truck, Lance "Rhino" Barrow is equally dominant. To his right is director Steve Milton, legendary son of production great Chuck Milton, who has lately been trying out as a Chippendale dancer in his spare time. Steve is Lance's right eye and right ear, and in times of great tension can occasionally be heard screaming "Uncle!" from under the big man's right armpit.

On Steve's right is Norm Patterson, comatose every minute we're not on the air but with a heartrate of 311 every minute we are. Norm's job is to filter out the screaming, dodge the bitchslapping, and switch to the correct camera at the correct time.

Behind the front row, the rest of the crew of DX6 is tucked away in some dim corner, lurking behind heavy black drapes, or locked behind soundproof doors. It's a mobile mental hospital, inhabited by an incredible bunch of brilliant freaks, none of whom could work anywhere but in television.

We have three machines that play back and record at the same time (a digital concept that reduces my IQ from one to zero every time I try to understand it). They are nicknamed Elvis, Python, and Mongoose. Recently, we lost Big Mike Hoskins, our Elvis operator, who died of a heart attack a couple of days after having his stomach stapled. Mike was big in more ways than one. He was funny, generous, kind. He will be deeply missed and fondly remembered by all who were lucky enough to work with him.

It's Lance's job to produce a show out of all this, and I still don't know how he does it. It must be a conjuring trick. I understand the part about it being a production, but the thought of being responsible for coordinating it is simply too much for me to bear.

Way too many things can go wrong. I don't have enough space in this column, and there probably aren't enough words in the English language to describe adequately the potential for disaster during the course of even one of our shorter telecasts, say a two-hour show, but I'll toss out a few scenarios. Here goes, and for the sake of continuity, I'll start with the second.

2. Getting behind on commercials. The network sells a certain number of commercial slots each hour and if Lance doesn't get them in, let's just say he won't keep his Coordinating Producer of the Month parking space next to the catering truck.

1. Some dolt with a microphone stands on a moving cable. Enough said.

3. All of a sudden, a top player has trouble pulling the trigger. OK, on the face of it this doesn't sound like a total disaster, but the producer of a golf telecast must have a sense of timing and know just how long it will be before a player starts his swing. At any given time, there may be half a dozen players at various stages of their pre-shot routines, and the task of covering each relevant shot without relying too heavily on tape is daunting. We can't exactly put up on the screen, "Coming up next, Between 45 and 60 Minutes."

9. Someone in the Porta Potti. Lance doesn't drink, which, given the nature of his job, is totally mindboggling. He does consume roughly a gallon of unflavored iced tea per show. This brings Porta Potti placement and access right onto one of the monitors. As I mentioned, Lance is a big man and when he has to get out of the truck, down the steps, into the squirtatorium, lose a four-pinter, and get back before the commercial break is over, you'd better not be in his way. Think of that giant, rolling rock in Raiders of the Lost Ark and you get the idea.

2. (again) An announcer's microphone goes down. (Actually, now that I think of it, Lance has never considered this a problem.)

Anyway, you probably have a small idea of just how difficult it is to coordinate all the elements that go into a golf show. Timing is crucial and the pressure is enormous. Lance has always said that we're a family at CBS golf and he's dead right. We squabble, we compete, and we're weird enough, but Big Daddy always covers our backs.

He's kind of like the giant, sweaty captain of a ship designed by Heath Robinson. It's not pretty, and there's no way it should float, but no matter how rough the sea, Captain Barrow will bring her home.

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