Just before heading out to the course to shoot two hours of PGA Tour action at the BellSouth Classic last week, NBC cameraman Mike Wemberley offered up a confession.
Musing on whether TV golf crews ever lose sight of a golfer's shot, Mr. Wemberley came clean with a sly grin.
"Sometimes we do lose it," he said. "And when we do, we fake it. People at home say, 'I never saw it [on the screen], but [the cameraman] had it, and the ball landed on the green.' So, yeah, sometimes we do fake it."
For Wemberley, a 27-year sports TV veteran whose specialty is golf coverage, such moments of panic and subterfuge - hoping the ball lands on the green so he doesn't look bad - are rare. His boss at NBC, producer Tommy Roy, says Wemberley and the rest of his 20-man camera crew are as relentlessly consistent carrying out their duties as the professional golfers they chase up and down fairways, across the greens, and into the bunkers.
"There is more skill than you can even imagine," Mr. Roy says. "It's really hard. From 200 yards away, to keep [the shots] in frame, zoom in and out, follow the ball, keep it focused. In my opinion, our camera guys are every bit the athletes the golfers are in their own way."
These unsung heroes will again go unnoticed as golf's major championship season tees off this weekend with CBS's coverage of The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. After that, NBC returns with the US Open in June.
In some cases, the camera wizards are the same no matter the network. Most members of any broadcast crew are comprised of freelance contractors such as Wemberley, who is manning a camera at the No. 13 hole during the Masters. He'll also be at the US Open.
Just as the players feel added pressure at the major championships, so, too, do the TV crews, which are almost double in size for such prestigious events. Yet Wemberley all but whistled while he worked (the golfers would have frowned upon extraneous noise during their swings) while chasing the likes of Retief Goosen and winner Phil Mickelson during last week's BellSouth Classic, a modest event when compared with Augusta.
Even so, the workload is similar: lugging a 20- to 35-pound camera, traipsing after each golfer for close-ups of swings and reactions and then getting in place for the next shot - all without causing a stir or disrupting the players' concentration.
"It comes down to experience and practice," says Mark "Gomer" Bowden, who shoots golf for ABC/ESPN and CBS, among others. Mr. Bowden has helmed the signature Par-3 No. 12 green at the Masters since 1992, where he is again stationed this week.
A lot to do with the craft comes down to judging the light, admits Bowden. Most camera viewfinders display images in black and white. Operators in the production truck adjust the lenses to make picking up the ball easier for cameramen, reducing the amount of light the lens allows in.
Hand-held cameras often track the swing and reaction, with fixed or "hard" cameras at set locations in TV towers capturing the incoming flight of the shot. In the fairways both hand-held and fixed cameras can be used for locating tee shots.
Still, no matter how unobtrusive camera crews are, they still get noticed by the golfers. ("Rule No. 1 is, don't bother the players," Roy says.)
Last year at Augusta, Bowden was joined at his No. 12 perch by two-time US Open winner Ernie Els, who was seeking an alternate vantage point during a delay in the action. "Ernie was on the 13th tee and came and sat in the tower with me," Bowden recalls. "He said, 'Mark, you've got a great spot here.' "
At other times, former Masters champion Fred Couples has jokingly asked Bowden to come down from the camera tower and putt in his place.
Bowden has yet to take up Mr. Couples's offer, but, like fellow cameraman Wemberley, he isn't above drawing on more than just years of practice and expertise. Asked what he and other cameramen do to avoid the panic of losing tee shots, Bowden laughs and acknowledges frequent entreaties for divine fairway interventions. "Usually, you have an idea of the trajectory, but some guys do fool you," he says. "Then you act like you do have it and hope it falls in there."
Anything else? "We pray a lot."