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'Playing Lessons from the Pros' gets you inside the heads of golf's greats

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

The best show on The Golf Channel is "Playing Lessons from the Pros."

"Playing Lessons" gets you inside the minds of those who play the game the way we wish we could.

No talking heads, no pretty young LPGA golfers shaking their moneymakers, no contrived situations with saccharine music.

Better than "Golf Central," the "Natalie Gulbis Show" and "Big Break", in other words.

Just the pros playing golf and talking out loud about why they do the things they do.

I've switched channels from live tournaments to watch this show. Once, I even switched from a particularly dramatic episode of "Becker." I've never watched a single show without picking up a useful tip.

From John Daly talking about his contorted backswing to Jack Nicklaus talking about how he hits long irons, "Playing Lessons" gets you inside the minds of those who play the game the way we wish we could.

It's the most simple of concepts, which usually translates into the best ideas: Find a willing pro to play a relaxed game of golf. Carry along a microphone (with three cameras). Tell him to talk. Prod him now and then.

It's almost like playing a warm-up round with one of the game's greats without paying for it. That's no coincidence.

"The flavor of the show, to me, is it should feel like you're eavesdropping on a practice round," said Dave Kamens, the senior producer of the show and the man who essentially came up with the idea.

Does Kamens tell the pros anything in particular when they start out?

"You don't hear from players when they're playing (in televised tournaments)," he said. "Viewers want to know what they're thinking, what they're going through, so I share that with the players on the first tee: I tell them, 'We're here to play golf. Play your game, speak what you're thinking.' "

To keep it light and maintain interest, Kamens gets a little match going with them. He's a "poor 5"-handicap, so he doesn't have big problems keeping up with most of the pros.

If some of the pros show reluctance to talk, Kamens prods them a little. But most don't require much prodding. The one common mistake some of them make is straying from what they are specifically thinking.

"The only trap some of them fall into is they'll get a little generic," he said. "They'll say, 'This is what we do on the tour,' but this happens rarely. In those cases, I'll say, 'No, what do you do?'"

Kamens said the younger players, being products of the media age, instinctively grasp what the show is after. Yet, when asked to name some of the players who made the most memorable shows, he names mostly old-timers, like Gary Player, Arnold Palmer - playing with his grandson - Tom Kite, Fred Couples, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Tommy Bolt.

"My days with Chi Chi and Fred Couples were super special," he said. "Just telling stories - especially Chi Chi. And Tommy Bolt, I could have played with him all day."

The players are not paid for appearing on the show. They do it because they love the game, as well as the fact the show provides "some value in the marketplace," according to Kamens.

Kamens calls up the pros, and, if they agree, they choose a course to tape the segment on. Usually, the pros like to play their home courses, but sometimes they'll play a course that has special meaning.

When "Playing Lessons from the Pros" taped a show with Calvin Peete, for example, they used the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course, the site where Peete won the 1985 Players Championship.

"As far as where we do it, I don't care, generally," Kamens said. "Ideally, we do it at a venue that means something to the player. In reality, if they asked me to do it on the moon, I'd do it."

The show has gone through changes. At first, Kamens tried to repackage footage from live tournaments that hit the cutting room floor. That didn't work, so they started asking extra questions.

Then they asked Gary Rudd, who won two Nationwide tournaments, what had led to his win.

"This segment stood out - all of a sudden, this player was telling us how he won a tournament from an instructional standpoint," Kamens said. "I just sort of shrugged my shoulders. I had a relationship with some pros, so why not just play some golf with them and ask them how they do what they do?"

Kamens brainstormed on the back porch of a broadcaster named Rich Lerner, who had done similar shows, one with Sam Snead, and the idea for "Playing Lessons" was born.

They started out with three LPGA players on one show, and the program "devolved" from there.

"The show has an easy nature," Kamens said. "We're just strolling. We're playing a great game as it should be played."

It's easy - and instructive - to watch.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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