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The longest-running sports-talk radio show in the D.C. market doesn’t depend on smack-talking. Neither the host nor his callers bother dwelling on Kobe and Shaq’s soap opera. Barry Bonds and steroids aren’t ever brought up, either. Joe Gibbs doesn’t even rate a mention.
It’s all about golf.
“Now that I think about it, it is strange that we’ve been on the air so long,” says Phil Hawes, who has been hosting Better Golf on WTEM since 1992. “I mean, golf on the radio? Who would guess that would last longer than everybody else?”
Hawes’s run has been about as anonymous as lengthy. Better Golf airs for one hour beginning at 8 a.m. on Saturdays. That’s a time that radio stations used to fill with public-service programs, back when FCC guidelines required such programming. There’s a good reason stations would use the early-morning weekend hours to meet that obligation: Nobody’s listening to the radio.
Except golfers, says Hawes.
“They sell our time slot as ‘golf drive time,’” he says. “A lot of guys who are in their cars on Saturday morning are on their way to the golf course. Those are our listeners, and they must be out there or the show wouldn’t still be on. There’s only so much Redskins you can talk, I guess.”
Hawes says WTEM first came to him when management was looking for somebody in the area who could provide expert commentary on golf events. He didn’t have any professional golf or broadcasting experience—Hawes says he’s “strictly a recreational golfer,” and his career was in golf retail. (His Bethesda store, East Coast Golf & Tennis, remains a sponsor of Better Golf.) But Hawes’s bio offered something far more valuable than a PGA Tour card or mike time: He’d known Bob Snyder, who was WTEM’s general manager at the time, back when they were both growing up in the Boston suburbs. Hawes got the gig.
Snyder left the station in the mid-’90s. But Better Golf has gone on and on. And from Day One, Hawes has been calmly—extremely calmly—breaking down the benefits of graphite shafts, or describing how the species of fairway grass found on this or that golf course will affect play, or, again and again and again, explaining what’s wrong with Tiger.
“I don’t think my show is that different than Click and Clack, the car guys on NPR,” says Hawes, “only people call me to talk about what they think is going wrong with their game, not their car.”
During last weekend’s episode, Hawes interviewed Booz-Allen Classic tournament director Scott Abell and answered phoned-in questions about such topics as the efficacy of having a set of Ping irons refitted (almost always a good idea) and what’s wrong with Tiger (still shoulda kept swing coach Butch Harmon). His delivery, whether asking or answering, was as monotone as, and only slightly less hushed than, that of a TV commentator describing a crucial putt on some Sunday evening.
This is the high holy season for both local golf and the show. First came last week’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, N.Y. And now this weekend, golf lovers in our market can get a close-up view of whatever PGA stars come to town for the only area tour stop of the year, the Booz-Allen Classic (formerly called the Kemper Open).
As has often been the case with the D.C. event, there are precious few big names in this year’s Booz-Allen field. Phil Mickelson shows up quite a bit in TV commercials for the tournament, but he won’t be here come tee time. John Daly, the beer-gutted time bomb and people’s champion, will be here, and he’s by far the biggest name in the lineup.
But even if the stars don’t come out to play, Hawes will likely get his greatest exposure of the year during tournament week. He’ll be broadcasting Better Golf from Avenel, site of the event. He’ll do some television, too: Comcast has asked him to appear as a color commentator for some of its Booz-Allen coverage. And he says WTEM will put him on the air for afternoon broadcasts during the tournament to discuss the action.
Hawes is very aware that he toils in a medium that normally depends on high-volume rants and edgy commentary. Better Golf gives listeners neither. And don’t expect Hawes to turn up the volume or change his act for the new audiences he’ll be speaking to this week.
“We don’t like to make golf a life-or-death thing,” he says. “You don’t need golf to live, just to make your life a little easier.”
There have, however, been some callers who have used up Better Golf’s airtime to vent. Martha Burk’s unrewarded attempt to get women admitted to the Augusta National got a little play. And when Casey Martin, a handicapped golfer, won a court injunction to use a cart while playing on the PGA Tour, a few folks phoned in thinking they might be protecting the sanctity of the game.
But Hawes estimates that the one golfer to rile up listeners the most in all the years his show has been on the air was…Bill Clinton?
Clinton, playing a round in Southern California while in office, picked up his ball rather than putt out a three-footer on the 18th hole. He then announced that he’d shot 79 for the day, making it the first time he’d ever broken 80.
It’s quite likely nobody in the Booz-Allen Classic will need so many strokes to get through 18 holes. But they’re pros. Among the weekend duffers who make up almost all of Better Golf’s audience, the quest to break 80 can be a religious pursuit. So folks who would never consider dialing up the station to discuss Shaq or Kobe or Barry Bonds or Joe Gibbs or even graphite shafts lit up the WTEM board to complain about Clinton’s failure to take that crucial last putt.
“People were upset that the president took a gimme,” says Hawes. “They said he should have putted out, and called in to call him a ‘no-good sandbagger.’ But that was rare for us. There’s not a lot of talking smack in golf.” —Dave McKenna