Backspin: Inside the changes at Golf Channel

Backspin: Inside the changes at Golf Channel

Unless you’re hooked on the Big Break or infomercials, it has probably been a few months since you’ve watched much Golf Channel, but with the return of the PGA Tour last week, it was once again time to crank the cable box up into the triple digits. What you found when you got there probably looked the same but different.

Last May, Comcast, which owns Golf Channel, brought in Tom Stathakes to run the show. Stathakes, who had been the head of news and programming for CSN, Comcast’s regional sports networks, imported a simple plan, which is hitting the small screen now. “I just wanted to make it better,” he says. “When people think of Golf Channel, I want them to think we’re on the same playing field as the broadcast networks.”

Technologically that means more than 2,100 hours of high-definition programming on a new dedicated HD channel (previously shared with Versus). It also means that the universally applauded Putting Line graphic is joined by Shot Trail, which tracks the ball’s flight in the air, and Virtual Eye, which gives an overhead perspective of the next shot. Behind the scenes Stathakes has brought in a raft of new talent, including Jack Graham, an ABC veteran, to produce the tournament coverage. In front of the camera Frank Nobilo and Brandel Chamblee will join the tournament team to add new views and voices. In the main booth Paul Azinger will sit in for four events, rejoining his old partner Nick Faldo for at least a few of them. That should take the pressure to fill time off Faldo, letting him save his comments for when he’s got something good to say, and it could also turn Kelly Tilghman into more of a traffic cop.

Tilghman, who’s been something of a critical lightning rod, will work 17 of the channel’s 46 Tour broadcasts, and while the rumors of her imminent demise are untrue, all bets are off for 2010. “It’s a big year for our talent,” Stathakes says. “We’re going to assess everyone and see what they can do. We’re not going to rush into anything.” Instead, he says, “We’re going to work with the talent, sit down with them and say, What were you thinking here? Or: Why did you say that there? They’re not used to that here, but I think it’s good. People like to get feedback.” That, after all, is how they do it at the networks.

What’s in a name? If you’re Jesper Parnevik, an awful lot. Parnevik earned the first of his five career wins at the 1998 Phoenix Open and commemorated the feat by naming his only son (born in 2001) Phoenix. Last week Parnevik, who hasn’t won since ’01 and finished 143rd on the ’08 money list, received a sponsor’s exemption to the event now known as the FBR Open. Was his son’s name a factor in the decision? No one’s saying for sure, but it’s tough to turn down a guy who named his kid after your tournament. Maybe Jesper should have dubbed one of his other three children (all daughters) Augusta.