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ESPN finds meaning beyond Tiger Woods at Masters

Golf Channel analyst Jim Gray said, “This was one of the greatest days ever.”

Round 1 of the 2010 Masters, greatest day ever?

Maybe.

Tom Watson, age 60, and with his son Michael on the bag — one shot out of the lead. Same as Phil Mickelson, who has been gracious in sharing how his wife and mother are doing as they have battled breast cancer.

The leader with 66? Fred Couples, age 50, with an achy back, shoots his lowest round ever at Augusta. The roar when he birdied the 17th? It seemed the loudest of the day.

Louder than anything for Tiger Woods? Maybe.

Thankfully, so many stories were compelling Thursday that ESPN was able to offer something other than all-Tiger-all-the-time coverage of Round 1 in its continuous window from 1 to 4:30 p.m. (ESPN carries the tournament Friday, with CBS picking up the final two rounds).

Earlier this week, John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president in charge of program acquisitions and strategy, said that whatever was meaningful at the Masters would be the story line.

Wildhack was mostly true to his word.

At first it didn’t seem that way. ESPN was able to offer what it called “live look-ins” once or twice an hour until 1. After Woods teed off at 10:42 a.m., those look-ins were Tiger-centric and we saw the much-debated Nike/Tiger/Earl Woods 34-second commercial in an endless loop.

Adam Hanft, chief executive of the New York-based advertising and marketing firm Hanft Unlimited, said the ad was being shown too often. “I would have done one spot one time,” Hanft said. “Maybe it would have more weight. Now this ad, over and over, is just a constant reinforcement of crass capitalistic behavior. It just reminds people how much money Nike and Tiger have invested in each other.”

But once the big window of tournament coverage began, there was no more Nike ad. The Masters allows only four minutes of commercial interruption per hour of coverage (you will normally see eight minutes during a PGA event.) There was lots of Mickelson talking about the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy that he and his wife, Amy, endorse. There was no more of Woods staring silently at repurposed words spoken by his deceased father. It was a good trade.

When ESPN began its full-time coverage, we saw Zach Johnson on the 11th hole. We were told how Watson was leading, were soon shown that Couples was three under, then four under. Reporter Tom Rinaldi did say solemnly, “You couldn’t hear a single word of discouragement or disparagement,” when Woods teed off.

We didn’t hear much about a couple of less complimentary messages, including one airplane banner that tweaked Woods’ stated intention to return to his Buddhist roots: “Tiger: Did You Mean Bootyism?”

There was a moment when it seemed ESPN should have been more critical of Woods. On the 14th hole after he had hit a bad approach, Woods dropped his club in anger, said “God,” and then another word we couldn’t quite make out. Woods had pointedly said Monday that he was determined to control his temper on the course.

But mostly the 3 1/2 hours of straight golf coverage was all about golf and thank goodness, because the golf was worthwhile. And having Woods among the leaders can only make ESPN and CBS ecstatic. No need to jazz up the coverage. Let the golf shots talk.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin


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