The orange army at the NCAA finals (OSU Athletics photo)
The new reality in college golf is that it’s a game played in front of television cameras. That’s a good thing for a lot of reasons – chief among them the exposure it brings to the sport – but for a team that isn’t used to that, well, it can take some getting used to.
That won’t be an issue for Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Auburn or Alabama. They share a common thread: All four men’s teams have known the microscope of a college-golf reality TV show. Thank a few successful past players for that.
The second season of Golf Channel’s docu-series Driven
premiered last week as the network gears up for end-of-month NCAA finals coverage. The next two segments air at 9 p.m. ET on Monday, May 13 and Monday, May 20 on Golf Channel. The fourth and final segment, an hour-long recap show, airs Saturday, June 29 at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.
The show, executive produced by Rickie Fowler with help from co-executive producer Justin Thomas for this second season, highlights the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama. Driven
also follows Oklahoma State (where Fowler spent two years) in the season after winning the NCAA Championship on its home course. Last year’s kickoff season focused on the rivalry between Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
With the production of the second season came the message that this is a concept with staying power. College coaches saw something else, too.
“Both Oklahoma State and Oklahoma told us that last year by the time they got to the NCAA championships, they felt like their teams were better prepared for the spotlight that they were going to have put on them at the NCAAs because they were used to cameras being around,” said Mike McCarley, president, Golf, NBC Sports.
With that came requests from college coaches to find their way into a project like Driven
. The advantages are obvious when it comes to showcasing a program and a school’s facilities, and just generally getting a team’s name out there. But the spotlight-under-pressure factor is also significant.
Fowler and Thomas were very hands-on in producing the show, then again they remain hands-on with their respective college programs, in general. It was important to highlight what goes on off the golf course – that’s the part that fans don’t often see.
“Everyone knows what a good 7-iron looks like and you can only show so much golf so, a little bit more of just a day in the life of a college golfer,” Fowler said. “…Getting to know and see these kids go through college and potentially guys that are going to be stars in the future.”
There’s an art to that, and Fowler and Thomas played a big role. One area of debate over both seasons centered around team workout scenes – they figured heavily into last week's opening episode of the second season. Produce Ollie Stokes, who also produced the Mayweather-McGregor series for Showtime, made them feel intense, which sparked a few jokes but also some healthy conversation among producers.
“(Stokes) makes these work-out sequences when you're going from Auburn to Alabama to Oklahoma State – you feel like you're watching Rocky,” McCarley said, “and I think there's an art to that but then there's also a checking in with these guys to making sure that this is remaining authentic.”
Fowler felt the show resonate on the PGA Tour in a lot of ways. Other pros with college ties reached out (hint: that will be a theme in the second episode, as several familiar faces make on-camera appearances) to say how many memories Driven
“We got a lot of great feedback from not just Tour pros that played in college but some of my other teammates that played in college, some of my other buddies that played college golf and may not play now, just saying it brought back a lot of memories from their college days,” Fowler said. “It showed a different light on college golf.”
Fowler and Thomas only spent two years at their respective school, and neither is terribly far removed from that experience. They also interact with their former coaches and current players enough that diving in for a project like Driven
didn’t come with a whole lot of surprises. Not much has changed in college golf, except the kind of attention that the two of them are bringing.
Both men had turned professional by the time the NCAA Championship was broadcast for the first time in 2014. Thomas, however, had played in the final match of the previous two national championships with Alabama. As a freshman in 2012, he was part of the the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide team that faced off against No. 1 Texas, a team with Jordan Spieth in the lineup (in fact, Spieth defeated Thomas, 3 and 2, in the day’s marquee match-up). Even though Texas won, there was a common thought pattern.
“We were like, ‘Can you imagine how many people would watch this if they could?’ It wasn't a thing back then. So it's very, very cool that they're televising all this now.”