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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

Could Nick Faldobe the next American Idol? I'm not asking. Faldo is. The three-time Masterschamp and current ABC golf analyst has just warmed up by playing a little airguitar and by mimicking Austin Powers--"Shaken, not stirred,baby!"--and now the tall, dark and handsome Brit is networking whileinterviewing celebrities on the 17th tee at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic."I can't dance, I can't sing," he confesses to pop star JustinTimberlake. "Is it a problem?" Faldo then talks up his acting chops torock legends Alice Cooper and Darius (Hootie) Rucker. "You know when theyzoom 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 MatthewMcConaughey. "No," he amends, spotting the chance for a playing lessonwith the former world No. 1. "We should do a walk-around."

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

ABC's decision toditch golf came as no surprise to media analysts. The network paid aTigermania-inflated sum of about $300 million in 2002 for the rights to ahodgepodge of Tour weekends, and the network reportedly lost more than $1million per tournament in 2005, when it telecast 16 events. To golf watchers,however, the news is unwelcome. Some will blot tears with a tissue simplybecause ABC's scaffolds and cranes have been on the golf scene for fourdecades. (Who can forget Jack Whitaker's erudite stand-ups or Bob Rosburg'sinimitable, "He's got no shot, Jim"?) Many more will bawl over thedissolution 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 Cuprivals don't need to read their fan mail to know what the public thinks oftheir impending split. Strangers yell it across parking lots. Waiters serve itto the duo with their morning toast. Playing in the Hope, Azinger was walkingoff the 15th green at Bermuda Dunes when a woman shouted, "We want you andNick to stay together, Paul!"

"Then getsomebody to pay for us," the former PGA champion shot back over hisshoulder, "like CBS!"

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

And if you canfoot the tab, they're available for weddings and bar mitzvahs. After thisseason the only golf left in the ABC cupboard will be the British Open, whichthe network is contracted to cover through 2009. Logic dictates that ABC willcede those rights, but the network has been coy about its intentions. "Welook forward to keeping Mike Tirico, Faldo, Azinger and the whole team togetherfor the British Open," an ABC spokesman said recently, "but it's earlyin the process and we're assessing our needs for '07 and beyond."("Assessing our needs" is corporate lingo for "clear out yourdesk.") The spokesman added that no one on the production side, includingFaldo and Azinger, would be available for interviews at the Hope.

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

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

What had he beensaying?

"That it's acrying shame," he responded. "Mark Loomis took a chance with Nick andme, and it worked. So yeah, we're all disappointed, and I think the viewers aregoing to miss us a bit." Asked about his future in broadcasting, Azingershrugged. "I don't believe I'll be announcing. I don't think there's anyroom for me."

Azinger May havebeen wrong about his prospects, but his appraisal of the situation was spot-on."There's absolutely no loyalty in television," says former Tour starFrank Beard. "It's all bottom line and cover your ass." Beard wouldknow. He endured a similar lame-duck season in 2000 as a course reporter onESPN's senior tour telecasts. In that instance the financial news channel CNBChad been deemed the Tour's curious and ultimately disastrous choice to replaceESPN. For most of the season NBC (CNBC's parent) assured the ESPN crew thatthey would be hired under the new contract. But then the men in suspenderschanged their minds, leaving Beard, Bruce Devlin and Robert Wrenn, amongothers, on the wrong side of the ropes.

"It's not amatter of talent," Beard says of the Faldo-Azinger predicament."There's simply no place to fit in. The CBS and NBC teams are all set, andthe Golf Channel can't pay them enough." Beard's parting shot: "If youwant to blame somebody, blame [PGA Tour commissioner Tim] Finchem," hesays, alluding to the decision to forsake ABC and ESPN. "He's going to killthe golden goose. He's going to squeeze it to the point it dies."

It's musicalchairs. When the music stops--that is, when ABC and cable's USA Network finishtheir Tour contracts this fall--there will be roughly a third fewer seats formiddle-aged golfers with headphone hair. This has people on both sides of thecamera wondering who might be plucked from their perches to make room for theout-of-work stars. One rumor, floated by anybody who owns a TV, has CBS hiringFaldo to replace analyst Lanny Wadkins. (A CBS spokesman declined to comment.)Another has NBC, which will add five tournaments to its schedule under a newsix-year contract, going forward with two announcing teams--presumably becausefour-time Emmy nominee Johnny Miller would balk at doing more than the nineevents he now covers.

This last rumorhad its own spin-off rumor: that Miller and his wife, Linda, committed Mormons,were about to embark on a two-year religious mission. (Three of the Miller'ssix children have served as missionaries, and Miller told SI last year that heregretted he didn't serve as a young man.) "That's not true yet,"Miller said at a recent party for his son Andy, a former PGA Tour player justback from a mission in Mexico. "We definitely are going to do that, butusually you go when you're in your 60s, and I'm 58. I'll probably do two tofour more years of TV." Acknowledging that NBC wants him in the booth forthe big-money tournaments the network picked up in the new contract, Millersaid he'll probably agree to as many as 14 appearances in 2007. "That's ifthey re-sign me," he added. "Everything's copacetic right now, but it'sa scary time for announcers. We have two good [ones] now with no jobs."

If Miller pretendsto be worried, it has to be sweaty-palms time for the off-camera personnel--thefield producers, directors, cameramen, cable pullers, researchers andstatisticians, not to mention the fellow who pilots the Bloomin' Onion blimp.Some of them figure to find work with the Golf Channel, which in 2007 willtelevise the weekday rounds of 33 Tour events and all four rounds of 15 more.There is no guarantee, however, that the Golf Channel--which currently reachesonly 70 million homes against roughly 107 million each for CBS and NBC--willoffer network-level salaries and benefits. "At the Golf Channel," saysone ABC staffer, "we won't be staying at the finest hotels, and we won'tget paid as well."

ABC's Loomisrefuses to panic. "I've put no thought at all into what I'm going todo," he said recently. "We have 11 more shows with Nick and Paul, andmore than 20 tournaments overall [including Tour events without Azinger andFaldo, plus unofficial and senior tournaments]. We're focused on having a tonof fun and doing this [final] year as well as we can." Loomis conceded thathis situation was less dire than others'--he also produces college football andbasketball for ABC--but he didn't think his announcers should worry. "Theseguys are really good," he said. "They'll all be successful, whetherit's with us or CBS or NBC."

The cynical viewerwill cross his arms and pout. Isn't it just like television executives to puton something appealing, like Joan of Arcadia or Sports Night, and then yank itoff?

"That'ssomething that we at the production level can't control," says Mike Pearl,ABC golf's executive producer. "But you're right; it was magical the firsttime we put this group together." Miller, from his NBC perch, agrees:"Faldo and Azinger were a breath of fresh air at ABC, and Judy Rankin, tome, is a Hall of Fame announcer. She has to be picked up."

The lame duckers'status doesn't seem to have affected their chemistry. During the final-roundtelecast at the Hope, announcer Gannon and the chair-bound analysts snacked onfruit and cheese in ABC's roomy 18th-hole booth, slipping in the occasionaldroll comment or put-down. ("You're such a knucklehead," Baker-Finchmurmured during a commercial break, eliciting a grin from his target, Azinger.)Hearing that Chrysler had signed up for another four years as tournamentsponsor, Azinger told America, "I heard a talk-radio guy say they weren'tcoming back. Another expert who doesn't know squat."

Faldo, not takinghis eyes off his monitor, shook his head and smiled. "That's anothersugar-coated opinion from my partner in crime here," he intoned.

Well, as MaryPoppins said, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Faldo and Azingerexpect to break up their act in November after the Tour Championship. Azingerwould welcome another TV gig, but he hasn't given up his day job as a full-timeTour player. ("I have to play to keep my card," he said at the Hope,where he finished 19th.) Unemployment apparently holds no terrors for him:"I look forward to lying on a white sand beach and drinking out of a bamboocup with a pink umbrella in it."

Faldo, by way ofcontrast, is taking a page out of the Sammy Davis Jr. bio, Yes I Can! OnSaturday at the Hope, startled spectators and TV viewers found the once-dourBrit running a margarita stand next to the 17th tee. Flanked by the three HopeClassic lovelies, Faldo showed his range. First he was a leering Sohostrip-club barker. ("Want to come to my bar? Come and meet my girls!")Then he was a cocktail-pouring dandy from a Noel Coward play. ("This islike working for the BBC--a gin and tonic at four o'clock.") Playing to thegallery as much as to the TV audience, he picked up a prop tip jar and chasedafter comedian George Lopez, who dropped a couple of coins in the can, making aloud rattle. Walking back to the tee, Faldo affected a forlorn look."Golly," he jested of show-biz folk, "they're all the same, aren'tthey?"

ABC's Pearlwatched on an outdoor monitor, cupping his hands to shield his eyes from thesun. "Nick's a natural," he said. "I've been around a long time,and there are few people I can name who could simply step in front of amicrophone and do it."

The next day atthe end of the telecast, Faldo stood up to reveal that his shirt was untuckedunder his network blazer. "I'll give anything a go," he said of hisfuture, stuffing a few possessions into a carry-on. "I have no idea what Ilooked like yesterday, but I had a good time. I figure if I'm having a goodtime, the people will too." He smiled. "I do know mylimitations."

Faldo turns 50 inJuly 2007, making him eligible for the Champions tour. "Golf will become mypriority again," he said. "If other stations want to talk to me, great,I'll sit down with them. But for now"--he nodded toward Azinger andBaker-Finch--"we have to entertain. We still have 11 more shows."

And when the stagelights finally dim? Will Faldo, like Azinger, settle for a white sand beach anda piña colada? Or will he turn up on some reality show sharing toothpaste andairtime with wrinkled legends and B-list celebs?

The stunt-doublewannabe smiled rakishly and dodged the question. "My only goal is to walkout the door knowing I enjoyed myself," he declared. And with that, Faldopicked up his bag and walked down the stairs into the desert sunshine.

Note to castingdirectors: He nailed the exit on the first take.

As Azinger walked off the 15th green at Bermuda Dunes,a fan shouted, "We want you and Nick to stay together, Paul!" SaidAzinger, "THEN GET SOMEBODY TO PAY FOR US, LIKE CBS!"

NBC's Miller, who intends to work for two to four moreyears before going on a religious mission, says, "IT'S A SCARY TIME forannouncers. We have two good [ones] now with no jobs."

"Nick's a natural," says ABC executive producerPearl. "I've been around a long time, and there are few people I can namewho SIMPLY STEP IN FRONT OF A MICROPHONE AND DO IT."


Photographs by Todd Bigelow/Aurora

OVER AND OUT After this week's Nissan Open, ABC (from left: Faldo, Azinger and Gannon) will air 14 more Tour events.


Photographs by Todd Bigelow/Aurora

NEXT MOVES Azinger (above) might play more in '06, while Rankin (center) and Faldo could work for other networks.


Photographs by Todd Bigelow/Aurora

BIG PICTURE When the ABC and USA contracts expire, there will be roughly a third fewer jobs in golf television.