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Miles to Go

My local gym features two things in abundance: middle-aged white guys and high-definition TVs. Four widescreens hang from the ceiling in the cardiovascular area, as if a multi-visual diversion might shorten the distance between where my waistline is now and where I want it to be. Sometimes, two inches equals 300 miles.

Bubba Watson
Bubba Watson reacts to his second career PGA Tour win. (Getty Images)
At 3:30 Sunday afternoon, the final round of the PGA Tour stop at Torrey Pines is not one of my four options. I’ve got a Winter X Games replay, some “Meet the Press” knockoff on one of the 24-hour news networks, VH-1 and the NBA. When Kevin Durant buries a jumper from the top of the key to push Oklahoma City ahead of Miami with 35 seconds remaining, several in the room take notice and halt their workouts to watch the final two possessions.

The Heat wins, and the real world is coming to pieces in Egypt. I suppose I could have asked the slackjaw behind the counter to switch one of the TVs to CBS, knowing it was judgment day at one of the best tournaments of the early season – a leaderboard featuring Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods at least participating, all of which plays nicely to the sweaty-aging-male demographic. Then again, who am I to stump for Treadmill Row?

As tiny reminders go, this episode packed a punch. Pro golf can be a tough sell beyond its core constituency – even with mainstreamers who look, talk and smell like serious fans. Although it’s nothing like the NBA, which some won’t watch because guys take four steps to the basket and don’t play hard until the final few minutes, our game also must deal with some misguided stereotypes. Still, there is no denying golf’s glacial pace, especially on Sundays. When you’re playing for $1.2 million, perhaps you’re entitled to look at putts from all 11 sides.

To hardcore golfheads, this represents the slow build to high drama. To others, it’s a good reason to watch Shaun White in the half-pipe. You won’t find a better example of the turn-on/turn-off factor than Sunday at Torrey Pines, which ran 20 minutes past its allotted time but concluded in thrilling fashion – a finish worth waiting for because Bubba Watson went out and won the thing instead of having somebody hand it to him.

Mickelson was there to the very end, and with Jhonattan Vegas playing the role of loveable spoiler, the product offered several intriguing storylines down the stretch. At one point late in the chase, however, the telecast came out of a commercial break to show Vegas hitting a drive and Bill Haas chunking a bunker shot. Cue the music, head to the blimp shot. Time for more ads.

The game moves slowly enough. Golf fans know more about what they're watching than do viewers of other sports, but they also represent a niche within the niche. To find them, you need an extra-strength magnifying glass and an updated sales pitch. Bubba was a great big grouch when he first reached the big leagues in 2006, blowing off a lot more people than he should have, especially as a raw commodity. In the last couple of years, however, Watson has changed his ways. He’s easier to reach and definitely capable of generating a couple of laughs – and a teardrop or three when the moment calls for it.

To those of you who don’t like crying champions, get over it. Real emotion never goes out of style, particularly in a game frequently accused of not emoting enough. Woods carried pro golf to the mainstream, and for a while, it seemed to prosper there, but now he’s not showing up on Sunday afternoons, leaving us to ponder what kind of product we have and where it’s headed.

The competitive landscape is changing, with potential stars emerging and the top tier diverging, but more often than in other sports, golf’s fresh young faces wind up in the most obscure places. Like a middle-aged man looking to lose a few pounds, you have to keep going if you want people to notice the results.