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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Why I watch golf on TV
Confessions of an unlikely addict
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For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Matt Mignanelli

Me, a sports fan? The odds were against it. I'm a terrible athlete. I'm gay. I'm bookish. My earliest sports memories involve 1970s football games at the University of Tennessee, my parents' alma mater. In Knoxville, the spectacle that is college football is bigger even than the Madison variety, but amid 90,000 screaming fans, I was the little kid silently reading Beverly Cleary.

So why, Sunday after Sunday, do I watch men's professional golf on television? I blame Bob Hope.

When I was in my early 20s, a friend and I liked to watch schlocky TV, any kind would do, and make fun of it. He introduced me to what was then called the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, a winter tradition. The Bob Hope tournament was a pro-am, meaning Hollywood celebrities and other bigwigs golfed alongside the professional athletes.

I watched as, under sunny Southern California skies, people like Richard Dreyfuss and Leslie Nielsen wore country club attire and golfed, usually badly. I was transfixed. It was a whole new kind of entertainment.

I began to watch the Bob Hope every year, as well as the Pebble Beach pro-am, in which Bill Murray still makes funny annual appearances. The Bob Hope is now called the Humana Challenge, and its celebrity figurehead is an entertainer named Bill Clinton.

A funny thing happened as I laughed and watched Alice Cooper and Joe Pesci hit very bad golf shots. I noticed that the pros hit very good golf shots. And that these were pleasing to see. And that a round of pro golf on a Sunday afternoon can make for riveting, suspenseful television. The golf season is well under way, with tournaments every week, and the year's first major, the Masters, is coming up on ESPN and CBS April 5-8. I can't wait.

I'm hooked. I plan weekends around watching golf on television. I plan vacations around watching golf on television. I root for my favorite golfers, and I razz the ones I don't like. There aren't many of those. Mainly it's Rory Sabbatini. I can't stand his hats.

Watching the broadcasts, I'm like any sports fan. I yell, I applaud, I groan.

Okay, sometimes I doze off. It is, after all, golf on television.

Televised golf has a reputation for tedium. Watching it frequently means looking at a man as he does very little for a long, long time. He squints. He looks at the ground. He looks at the sky. He squats down. He gets back up. He throws a tuft of grass into the air. He squints again.

I find all of this mesmerizing. The pace of TV has gotten much faster since I was a kid. Watch an old Emergency! rerun if you don't believe me. Golf feels like a throwback to a different, calmer time.

And sometimes, between acts of tuft throwing, golf can be very exciting. There is triumph. I still shiver to recall a 21-year-old Tiger Woods striding up the 18th green on his way to winning the 1997 Masters, his first victory at a major. Or to recall a 32-year-old Woods winning the 2008 U.S. Open - with a broken leg.

There is agony. In January, at the Farmers Insurance Open, newcomer Kyle Stanley led by three as he began the final hole, but he triple bogeyed and lost the tournament in a playoff. It was hard to watch. But it was delicious.

There are surprises, including the elusive hole in one. At some tournaments, golfers tee off next to a new car parked right on the course. If they ace the hole, they win the car. Sometimes the car is a Honda. The athletes are multimillionaires. Maybe they could use it as a station car.

I know these moments can't compare to the thrills of other professional sports, but for me, those sports are almost too exciting. I'm delicate that way. I lived in Chicago in the 1990s, when the Bulls won all those NBA championships, and I watched a lot of those playoff games on TV, with friends. But I watched them with my hands over my eyes. For the sake of the city's happiness, and the happiness of those beautiful men on the team, I just wanted to skip ahead to the victories. The games were overwhelming.

I'm never overwhelmed by golf. It's quiet, serene. The telecasts are stunning to look at, especially on a big, high-definition screen. I like the announcers' calm voices, though I'm not entirely sold on the team at NBC, whose star is 1970s golf sensation Johnny Miller. His go-to analysis is, "That was a bad shot," or, alternatively, "That was a bad golf shot." I find he's best with the sound turned all the way down.

I love the announcers on CBS, whose team is English, Irish and Australian, as well as American. That cosmopolitanism reflects a PGA Tour that's increasingly international, like tennis. This is something else I appreciate. Americans have won only seven of the last 20 major tournaments, and that makes some commentators worry. I say the trend heralds the coming of international peace and love, one wicking shirt at a time.

Pro golf is much better on television than in person. True, a day at a golf tournament can be pleasant, like a day in the park. Unlike other pro sports, golf is played in almost complete silence, which is appealingly meditative, and different from, say, the last time I went to a football game at Camp Randall. Everyone around me was shouting obscenities. Rah?

Going to a golf tournament means you can get right up close to very famous people. At the one I attended, the 2007 BMW Championship in Lamont, Ill., Tiger Woods, then at the height of his pre-ugly-scandal powers, walked right by me. So did Sergio Garcia. I was close enough to Aaron Baddeley to see the Jesus fish on his golf bag.

But at a live golf tournament, it's hard to tell what's going on. When you hear cheers coming from somewhere else on the course, you know something's happening that's more interesting than what you're watching. Viewing at home, you always see what's interesting. If throwing tufts of grass is interesting.

I take it back. I was overwhelmed by golf one time. In 2009, it looked like 59-year-old Tom Watson might win the British Open. He would have been the oldest major champion by far, and as he teed off at 18, he led by three strokes. But he staged a colossal meltdown and lost. A great golfer whose best days were 25 years behind him, Watson was poised to do something extraordinary. Then he fell apart. It was searing television. I wept.

Later I wrote about this on Facebook. The replies were dismissive. Friends pointed out, more in sorrow than in anger, that Watson is...a Republican. It was a classic Facebook moment. Facebook poster: I like something! Facebook commenters: Here is why you shouldn't like it!

I don't care what Watson's politics are. Still, the game has unsavory aspects. Tiger Woods was supposed to usher in a new era of diversity, but 16 years after his debut, the U.S. game remains overwhelmingly white. Some years back there was a big, nasty fight over the fact that Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters, doesn't admit women as members, and bitterness lingers.

But golf is hardly the only sport that has known scandal, and sometimes there are inspiring moments. When the white South African Louis Oosthuizen won the 2010 British Open, he dedicated the victory to Nelson Mandela, who was celebrating his 92nd birthday.

In golf, players honorably call their own fouls, as Webb Simpson did at the 2011 Zurich Classic, when the wind moved his ball on the putting green. (Yes, that was, oddly, a foul; the rule has since been changed.) The penalty probably cost him the tournament. On or off the golf course, do you call your own fouls?

There's one other reason I watch golf. The guys are often cute, and they often wear flattering clothes (see sidebar). Yes, I watch PGA Tour golf for the same reason many people, I suspect, watch the Olympics, which I also adore. It's an opportunity to look at attractive, physically fit people. True, not all golfers are fit. I like that there's a place in professional sports for the hefty Zimbabwean Brendon de Jonge, who is magic with a driver.

It wasn't long after I came out as a gay man that I watched the rugged Swede Jesper Parnevik win the 2001 Honda Classic. I gazed in wonderment at his two-tone shoes, his neatly tailored plaid pants. Later I read that Parnevik collaborated on his outfits with the fashion designer Johan Lindeberg, and then I knew this really was the sport for me. Couture is involved.

I'm not the only one checking out the dudes. On Feb. 5, the week after Kyle Stanley's collapse at the Farmers Insurance Open, I watched as he redeemed himself by winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open. I kept an eye on Twitter.

As Stanley marched to victory, a woman tweeted, "I appreciate @kylestanleygolf's 'European-fitted trousers.'"

"This Kyle Stanley is a fine looking man," I tweeted back at her.

"Yes," she replied. "Yes, he is."


Three golf hotties
I watch golf because the play is exciting. And because there are attractive men in tight pants. Here are some of them.

Ryan Moore
Fuzzy-faced Moore showed great potential when he won the U.S. Amateur title in 2004. He hasn't lived up to it, with just one PGA Tour victory in eight years as a pro. But he wears cute little neckties.

Martin Kaymer
A strapping German, Kaymer won the 2010 PGA Championship right here in Wisconsin. I wish I had invited him to the Essen Haus for celebratory polka and schnitzel.

Gary Woodland
Woodland is a strutter. When he sinks a putt, he struts off the green like jocks I knew in junior high. Back then, part of me was bemused at the sight of a strutting jock. Another part of me wanted to hold hands with him at the movies.

Photos of these hotties are provided in the gallery at top.

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