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February 20, 2006
In 2005 ABC upgraded its golf talent. In '07 the 100-person cast and crew will lose their jobs. That makes '06 a season of uncertainty
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February 20, 2006

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In 2005 ABC upgraded its golf talent. In '07 the 100-person cast and crew will lose their jobs. That makes '06 a season of uncertainty

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Could Nick Faldo be the next American Idol? I'm not asking. Faldo is. The three-time Masters champ and current ABC golf analyst has just warmed up by playing a little air guitar and by mimicking Austin Powers--"Shaken, not stirred, baby!"--and now the tall, dark and handsome Brit is networking while interviewing celebrities on the 17th tee at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. "I can't dance, I can't sing," he confesses to pop star Justin Timberlake. "Is it a problem?" Faldo then talks up his acting chops to rock legends Alice Cooper and Darius (Hootie) Rucker. "You know when they zoom in on the guy coming over the hill on the horse?" Faldo asks. "That could be me! I could be Harrison Ford's stunt double!"

The celebs laugh, but they don't scoff. "We should do a sit-down," says actor Matthew McConaughey. "No," he amends, spotting the chance for a playing lesson with the former world No. 1. "We should do a walk-around."

Faldo is not the only ABC employee who is job hunting. After the network bowed out of contract negotiations with the PGA Tour in December, roughly 100 staffers learned that the 2006 Tour season would be their last, unless they found work with CBS or NBC (the two networks still televising Tour events) or the Golf Channel, which acquired 15 years of exclusive cable-TV rights. The lame-duck ABC team, which will telecast this week's Nissan Open, also includes producer Mark Loomis, announcers Terry Gannon and Mike Tirico, analysts Peter Allis, Paul Azinger and Ian Baker-Finch, and course reporters Billy Ray Brown and Judy Rankin.

ABC's decision to ditch golf came as no surprise to media analysts. The network paid a Tigermania-inflated sum of about $300 million in 2002 for the rights to a hodgepodge of Tour weekends, and the network reportedly lost more than $1 million per tournament in 2005, when it telecast 16 events. To golf watchers, however, the news is unwelcome. Some will blot tears with a tissue simply because ABC's scaffolds and cranes have been on the golf scene for four decades. (Who can forget Jack Whitaker's erudite stand-ups or Bob Rosburg's inimitable, "He's got no shot, Jim"?) Many more will bawl over the dissolution of the year-old odd-couple partnership of Faldo, 48, and Azinger, 46--the best thing to hit the pixels since Johnny Miller first uttered the word "choke" into a microphone.

The old Ryder Cup rivals don't need to read their fan mail to know what the public thinks of their impending split. Strangers yell it across parking lots. Waiters serve it to the duo with their morning toast. Playing in the Hope, Azinger was walking off the 15th green at Bermuda Dunes when a woman shouted, "We want you and Nick to stay together, Paul!"

"Then get somebody to pay for us," the former PGA champion shot back over his shoulder, "like CBS!"

They even hear it in Tour locker rooms. "You can probably make the case that they're the best one-two punch in the business," says Joe Ogilvie, a member of the PGA Tour policy board. "Faldo has that dry wit. Zinger is brash and not afraid to say what he thinks."

And if you can foot the tab, they're available for weddings and bar mitzvahs. After this season the only golf left in the ABC cupboard will be the British Open, which the network is contracted to cover through 2009. Logic dictates that ABC will cede those rights, but the network has been coy about its intentions. "We look forward to keeping Mike Tirico, Faldo, Azinger and the whole team together for the British Open," an ABC spokesman said recently, "but it's early in the process and we're assessing our needs for '07 and beyond." ("Assessing our needs" is corporate lingo for "clear out your desk.") The spokesman added that no one on the production side, including Faldo and Azinger, would be available for interviews at the Hope.

A production-side staffer confirmed that the network was circling the wagons. "[ ABC] sent us an e-mail saying we can't talk to the media without authorization," the staffer said. He laughed. "What are they going to do if we talk? Fire us?"

Azinger, in a parking-lot interview at Bermuda Dunes, said the gag order was probably directed at him. "I don't think they like what I've been saying."

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