Most JLPGA events are covered by Japanese cable channels, so despite having TV Japan through my own cable system, I almost never get to watch the top female golfers in Japan on tv. But NHK, which supplies the feed for TV Japan, does cover the Japan Women’s Open. And the last 9 holes of the final round made it onto TV Japan. So I got to see first-hand the differences between NHK and Golf Channel’s approaches to covering women’s golf.
Give the Audience What They Want. In the U.S., Sunday coverage is all about the leaders and who’s going to win. On NHK, I didn’t see the leader Teresa Lu until 13 minutes into the coverage, and then, only to see her make her 1st bogey of the day when she missed a 20-foot par attempt. I did see a lot of Yun-Jye Wei, who became the co-leader upon Lu’s miss, but that’s mostly because she was playing with the media’s new darling Ai Suzuki, who got the majority of coverage in the 1st 20 minutes, along with 17-year-old amateur Kana Nagai. Apparently NHK’s audience wants to see Suzuki sizing up putts and Nagai walking up fairways, running off greens, and taking her rain jacket on and off, because the cameras followed their every move. We did get to see footage of Nagai’s amazing eagle with a fairway wood on the 428-yard par-4, but instead of recapping their rounds and showing highlights that would help explain how they each got to -6, 2 shots off the lead after Lu’s bogey, they relied on the announcers to set things up and instead focused on Suzuki’s and Nagai’s faces and reactions in the present. Lu had made 6 birdies in her 1st 11 holes to jump out to the lead, but mostly what the camera showed was how tiny and high-energy Nagai is and how Suzuki was reacting to the pressure of trying to win her 2nd major in a row (pouting a little after knocking her 30-foot birdie try 10-feet past, flashing a nervous smile after her par save lipped out). The NHK coverage certainly succeeded in establishing a quasi-intimacy with both young Japanese golfers, but to someone used to following the leaders on a Sunday, it was certainly strange that we saw only 2 shots from Lu and no tournament recap or highlights in the 1st 20 minutes!
What Have You Done for Me Lately? The other thing I’m used to from American golf coverage is a focus on the stars of the LPGA. How many times have we checked in on Paula Creamer over the years even when she’s not in contention? It’s an understatement to note that Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson get plenty of tv time, too. But for all that global golf fans criticize American tv for focusing so much on American stars, Golf Channel and the networks do a much better job of catching us up on all the stars of the LPGA than NHK on Japan Women’s Open Sunday did for even established Japanese stars in the field. The only player besides Suzuki and Nagai to even get mentioned was Mika Miyazato, and that was during an interview with Suzuki. I can understand that Miyazato, Chie Arimura, Sakura Yokomine, Shiho Oyama, Rikako Morita, Misuzu Narita, and Momoko Ueda didn’t have a chance to win, but not even to show a single shot from them in the 1st 20 minutes of coverage was frankly shocking to me. Same goes for money-list leader Bo-Mee Lee, #2 Sun-Ju Ahn, and #3 Ji-Yai Shin. Sure, they were well behind Lu and Wei, but they are the top 3 players on tour and both Shin and Ahn started the day with a great chance to pass Lee on the money list. I mean, Mikan was playing with Lu and Ahn with Nagai, but we only saw Mikan’s approach on 18 just past the hour mark (too bad she went on to 3-putt!) and mostly just caught glimpses of Ahn at the corners or edges of shots of Nagai or her shots until the 18th hole, when she stuck her approach to 12 feet and made the birdie to finish in solo 4th.
Game on! Things got a little better after the 20-minute mark. We saw Na-Ri Lee around 22 and a half minutes into the coverage, who had gotten to -6 thanks to back-to-back birdies to close out the front (which again they chose not to recap for us), leave a long birdie try on 12 well short and make the 6-foot par save right after Suzuki got up-and-down from a bad lie near the green and Wei failed to. We saw Lu’s approach to pin-high on the 365-yard par-4 15th right after she became the solo leader. We saw the 2nd page of the leaderboard for the 1st time. We saw Lee make a 30-footer on the par-3 13th to move to -7. We saw Lu hit her birdie putt through the break. We saw Wei struggle with the wet rough and Suzuki with the green-side bunker’s wet sand as they both bogeyed the 11th. We saw Lu land her approach on the par-5 16th a foot past the pin but bound 16 feet away. We saw Nagai hit the middle of the green on the 15th and Lee barely avoid a green-side bunker on the 14th. We saw Lu just miss the right-to-left sweeping birdie try. And so on. The NHK’s coverage definitely found its rhythm in the next half-hour, although they still spent the most time on Suzuki’s shots and gave the announcers plenty of time to talk about every aspect of her play.
Nice Tech! I liked the bullseye with blue 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10-meter circles they’d superimpose around some of the pins on certain approach shots. I also liked how they’d sometimes show a map of the hole to the left of the player about to hit their drives, or show the exact length of a putt by superimposing a line and the distance in meters on the green, or show arcs from the bullseye on sand shots so we could see how far the player was from the pin and how the terrain and the distance from the hole interacted. It was informative without being distracting.
Down to the Wire! Yes, they spent far too much time on Wei’s bogey train on the back, but as it got down to the wire, Lu and Lee got a lot more coverage. Lu made a great lag on the 406-yard 18th from maybe 60 feet to par out and finish her week at -8, just before Lee left a 8-foot downhill big breaker 10 inches short on the 16th to remain 1 back. They spent a lot of time on the 17th tee as Lee chose a utility club, sized up her shot to the back-left pin, and pulled it into the front of the greenside left bunker–and focused on her face for almost the entire walk up the 180-yard par 3. And they did a fantastic job on her shot from the sand and reaction to the ball going in the hole to tie her for the lead, showing it live and in slow motion twice. Even as she pulled her drive on 18 into the left rough, they spent a lot of time on the green with Nagai (who just missed sinking a 50-footer for birdie and was beaming as she walked off the green) and Ahn (who had a great reaction to making her birdie try). Lee could barely get her approach over the pond 50 yards short of the green and faced a tough uphill pitch from an uphill lie in deep rough. When she failed to carry it to the top tier and the ball rolled backwards to about 40 feet from the pin, she needed a miracle to force a playoff, but her putt was off-line from the start. She did well to save par from 6 feet and finish in solo 2nd.
After the End. At that point, the last 2 pairings still on the course had virtually no chance to force a playoff. How did NHK fill the rest of their air time? With more Suzuki and Wei, of course! But once they failed to get holes in 1 on 17, guaranteeing that Lu would win, the coverage pretty quickly shifted into an interview with Nagai, who had the best finish of any amateur in the history of the JWO. They even showed her her eagle and got her reaction to it at the very end of the interview–very cute! Before going back to Suzuki and Wei on the 17th green, they showed a list of low amateurs in the past 15 years or so and wondered aloud about who would make Team Japan in the 2016 Olympics. They showed Lee leaving the course, Lu hanging around the scorer’s tent, and Ji-Yai Shin and Ah-Reum Hwang putting out on 18. After showing Wei’s and Suzuki’s approaches to 18, they finally went to the tapes, mentioning how Lu won the tournament with 3-straight birdies to start her round and showing how she sank 3 more in a 4-hole stretch as she made the turn, then focusing on key par putts down the stretch. (Apparently Lu didn’t want to be interviewed before the awards ceremony.) So after Suzuki and Wei finished, it was back to Nagai’s eagle and the 1st view of her birdie on 10, along with her best pars coming home, before showing the awards ceremony. After answering the first couple of questions in simple Japanese, she went back and forth between English and Japanese the rest of the interview, but mostly in English. After that, they moved so quickly into face time for their announcing crew and the closing montage that they barely had time to include defending champion Mika Miyazato congratulating new champion Teresa Lu from the awards ceremony in between.
And then, after 2 hours and 15 minutes of the most important women’s golf tournament in Japan, a cute show on cats walking around in an Italian city began. Only in Japan!