Why the ShopRite LPGA Classic was a TV show like no other

by | Oct 4, 2021 | LPGA


Michael Bamberger

October 4, 2021

Judy Rankin, left, and Cara Banks at the booth at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

Getty Images

GALLOWAY, NJ – The LPGA landed here, as it does every year, on a gentle, timeless course next to the Seaview Resort, across from a gleaming Atlantic City bay. The sunlight was blinding. Maybe you looked at the Golf Channel. The ShopRite LPGA Classic from 1pm to 4pm and then the PGA Tour. You know, the Sanderson Farms Championship.

Judy Rankin was the show’s senior analyst. An icon of the game, as a player and as a broadcaster. A mentor to dozens of players over the years, and also to a significant number of television people.

Rankin watched veteran Dottie Ardina pound a wedge shot for an eagle on the final hole to make the cut and said, “It’s nice that something good happens to a player who really needs it.” In that one comment you could hear half a century of golfing empathy. Our Judy. Being on TV and in our caves every week or so means becoming a part of our lives.

Next to Rankin was Cara Banks, the host of the show, whose classy south-west London accent comes straight from Jersey. Parkway Exit 41 if you know your Garden State Byways. “The recording of the day on her lawn,” Banks told us as he set up the tape of Ardina’s eagle. “And you can’t get much better.” In fact, you can’t.

Why does golf sound better through the mouth of the British?

Rankin and Banks were both sitting in swiveling black chairs in a television tower that was only six feet off the floor. A trailer, really dark and cool, behind the 16th tee. Late in the Saturday show, a blind was pulled up behind them and through a window you could see the course, the Absecon Bay behind it and on the other side the glass walls of the Atlantic City gaming palaces.

On the pitch, the players played their craft through the wind and dropped balls onto the green as if it were 1921. When you were there you could see a lot – and miss more. What better invention than golf on TV?

To the left of Banks, and out of the glare of the TV, was Katie Szklinski, a production assistant, who handed Banks large index cards one at a time, a series of player and tournament factoids, and the copy provided for this promo and one. In one corner of the trailer sat Paige Mackenzie, the former LPGA player who watched golf on various monitors and prepared to analyze holes and strokes as needed. It’s like playing in the outfield. The ball comes to you. You just don’t know when. So you have to be ready. As needed, as needed.

Nearby, on a table, were bags of Doritos and Cheetos, as well as a lint brush and a tub of Germ-X ​​hand sanitizer. Nobody said it would be easy to broadcast live TV during a pandemic.

Two so-called fairway foot soldiers were on the field with headphones and microphones: Karen Stupples from England and Florida and the winner of the 2004 British Open and Kay Cockerill, a two-time winner of the US Women’s Amateur. They followed Lexi Thompson, Inbee Park, Brooke Henderson, among your other popular favorites.

A good tournament with a bundled leaderboard. The ShopRite tournament offers everything a professional golf event should be – gentle, communal and charming, but also sporty and exciting in its own way. Pieces of fruit lay on the markings.

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Live TV production does not have a needs-based concept, but it could be.

The show was directed by veteran producer Beth Hutter, who sat in an outside broadcast van that was in a barren field about 500 meters from the TV-ready Rankin and Mackenzie and Banks. Various deputies stood next to Hutter, all of them looking at a wall of screens, 15 in total, and other screens in other places. That was Hutter’s show, after all. We saw what she wanted to show us. The digital clocks in the outside broadcast vehicle told you the time to the second, but the countdown to life is human, as it always has been.

“Five, four, three, two and – one.”

Show time.

Live TV is quick and stressful. It has spawned many screaming and mundane producers and directors over the years. Hutter isn’t one of them, not at all. Go over here, go over there; go here, go there. As needed. Her boss, Molly Solomon, Executive Producer of Golf Channel, is not a screamer either.

“Give me a ticket,” said Hutter.

This is not a petition and thank you business not when you are live. Maybe at the end of the show. Banks later said to Greg Thorne, the show’s personable stage manager, “Greg, I’d better put my jacket on.” He helped Banks into her purple blazer, right arm, left arm, not a word spoken.

There was a fleeting joke in the broadcast car about “lozenges,” courtesy of Hutter. You know someone is creating a new way of saying lozenge and the shelf life is forever. During a commercial break there was serious discussion about which fruit was assigned to which tea. Live TV is tense. You do what you can to keep things light. That’s Hutter’s approach.

Celine Boutier won the tournament. Her parents are from Thailand, she grew up in France, she went to Duke and she speaks perfect English with a French accent. Boutier, a two-time Solheim Cup player, won from the clubhouse. She won after a 63rd final when she watched the Gulf Channel broadcast on a television in the locker room.

Television has played a huge role in golf and has been for 65 years. At least three other players could have tied Boutier, but they didn’t. Cockerill interviewed the winner at the end of the New Jersey show, promptly at 4 to make way for the Sanderson. The win was Boutier’s second LPGA title, her first in the US What a finals.

It’s easy to forget when you look at the skyscrapers in the sports landscape this fall – the NFL and college football, baseball making the playoffs – how life changing an event like ShopRite can be. It is a huge event, the most important thing in the world, seen through a certain prism. But also not. Just another week in her life, for the players, the broadcasters, the caddies, the rulers. The traveling circus of professional golf.

The day before the tournament started, Rankin spoke about her Golf Channel family, her Road family. “In our group of people,” she said, “you never, ever have to have dinner alone if you don’t want to.”

On Saturday night, Cockerill tweeted a snapshot of a dozen women – and a little girl with her mother, Hutter – hosting the ShopRite tournament. It was reminiscent of the old CBS gang – Ken Venturi, Pat Summerall, Ben Wright, Frank Chirkinian, Chuck Will – who had their dinner at various steakhouses in different cities in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Part of our female crew having dinner with girls. Thanks to all of these talented, intelligent, and hard working women who televise golf week after week! Kudos to the graphics, features, audio, international, production and camera for doing it every day! pic.twitter.com/iosOg9OKOV

– Kay Cockerill (@KayCockerill) October 3, 2021

Nobody realized then that the broadcast team was all male, and one day it may not be noticeable if the on-air talent for a golf tournament is all female, but right now it is. It happened for the first time at ShopRite . There were a lot of men working on the show, but the five live microphones were all women owned. Story, sort of.

Thorne, the stage manager, was walking through the set on Saturday afternoon handling the talent’s needs when Rankin said, “Greg is a guy among girls – and he likes it.”

Everyone laughed. You don’t need a sense of humor to work on live TV. But it helps.

Before long, the show was over, dinner was planned, blazers were taken off, a PA offered Banks a ride to the clubhouse. “No thanks,” she said. “I will go.” Rankin looked at the fading sun through her signature sunglasses and said, “I’ll go too.”

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Michael Bamberger can be reached at [email protected]

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent almost 23 years as Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated. After college he worked as a newspaper reporter, initially for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He wrote a variety of Books on golf and other subjects, the latest of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in several issues of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a US patent The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016 he received the Donald Ross Award from the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.