For today's must-see TV, tune in to Golf Channel

June 11, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

So what are you going to watch today? The French Open men's final? The Arena Bowl? This week's Formula One race? The Pocono 500? The warm-up for the U.S. Open?

Or what might be 16-year-old Michelle Wie's first professional victory - in a major, to boot, less than a week after she made a strong bid to qualify for that aforementioned U.S. Open?

Well, if you want to watch one of the most compelling athletes of our time, a true prodigy, make history up at Bulle Rock golf course, you'd better hope your cable system carries The Golf Channel. It's showing every round, including the final today.

Network TV has those other events. By letting the LPGA Championship get away, the networks - specifically CBS, which had aired that major for years - shanked one right into the trees. Nobody could remember the last time a major, men's or women's, was left completely off the network schedule.

"I'm very surprised," said Morgan Pressel, another of the teen phenoms on whose backs the LPGA is building its future. "I don't think that a major should be on The Golf Channel, not with what the LPGA is trying to develop."

Pressel has not been shy about expressing that point this weekend, and even after her game fell apart in the third round yesterday, she felt strongly enough about it to keep talking.

"It's nothing against The Golf Channel, but it's a major tournament," she said. "We can't be stuck on cable."

Oh, these kids today. These record-breaking, world-shaking kids today. These ignored-by-the-big-networks kids today.

The Golf Channel officials don't like to think viewers are "stuck" with them, but they understand. They're also cashing in: They were there to catch the LPGA event when CBS let it fall from its hands, and now they're in position today to carry a momentous occasion in sport and culture.

Nobody, not Steve McNair or Jason Grimsley or Shaquille O'Neal, has been in the forefront of sports news across the country and around the world as much as Wie has this past week, and she enters the final round one shot behind co-leaders Pat Hurst and Ai Miyazato.

The most marketable name in her sport and one of the biggest on the planet is poised for her breakthrough today. This is Tiger Woods winning the Masters, Venus and Serena Williams winning Wimbledon, LeBron James winning the NBA title (which hasn't happened yet).

"We'd be happy with Annika [Sorenstam, the three-time defending champion], whoever wins," said The Golf Channel spokesman Jeremy Friedman. "But with everything that Michelle has gone through this week? That would certainly be a nice resolution to that week."

It's not as if nobody saw this coming. For one thing, Wie hasn't exactly sneaked up on people. For another, she has been in the running in four of the past five majors, dating to last year's LPGA. Despite what has been shouted about for so long, it's not a matter of if she'll win a women's tournament, but when.

Now, all the elements are coming together for a big finish here - the five players within a shot of the lead, Wie being among them, and a handful of flukes in weather and scheduling allowing The Golf Channel to air extra hours of coverage for three straight days, including an additional hour and a half today.

It all came about, said tournament co-founder and chairman Herb Lotman, because CBS told him in March that it wanted coverage of the final round to wrap up at around 2 p.m., some five hours earlier than usual for a televised tournament. Supposedly, the idea was to make room for another tournament in the later, more lucrative time period.

"It caught me off-guard, and we were very upset," Lotman said. "You don't go out and make a deal with another organization without telling the ones you have a contract with, and that's what they did. That's not how you do business.

"I told CBS, `You sold us out,' " Lotman added.

Now, over-the-air TV is frozen out. CBS is the one airing the tape-delayed British Grand Prix auto race. The other events will have, in all honesty, niche audiences. The Golf Channel, even though it says it is in 100 million homes, is by definition a niche network. But circumstances have turned it into the sports destination of the day, at least until the NBA Finals game tonight.

This is, in fact, an abnormally busy weekend, with lots of events around the world competing for our attention. If Wie wins the LPGA today, she blows everything else off the front page and out of the highlight shows.

She also shames at least one major network for being pathetically short-sighted.

So, watch everything you thought you knew about sports, gender and age potentially get flipped on its head. But if you can't, call your cable operator. david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

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