Summer of ’76, the newest documentary from Golf Channel/NBC, is terrific. There’s no other way to describe it. After a couple of 10-handicap efforts at documentary filmmaking, the network finally got the win and set a new course record.
The scene is the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, in July of 1976, a time when the country was celebrating a bicentennial, President Gerald Ford was fending off a primary challenge from California governor Ronald Reagan, Studio 54 was the hottest spot in Manhattan and Johnny Miller and Seve Ballesteros, who could have passed as GQ models, lit up a course that already had caught fire, literally, earlier in the week (you’ve got to watch).
What makes this documentary so different for Golf Channel is the Spartan use of narration, a tribute to writer Rich Lerner, who has been with the network for years and understands the value of letting pictures tell a story. Lerner allowed the interviewees, vintage video, still images and the soundtrack to put you in a different time. And not just at a golf tournament. Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Peter Frampton and Harry Wayne “KC” Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band make appearances, and there are as cameos by Sam Snead and Laura Baugh.
“When you get into a project this you realize you have all this rich material, enough to do a four-hour documentary,” Lerner told me as he was walking out of Sir Nick Faldo’s 60th birthday bash in Birkdale. “So, we really decided early on to be minimalist with the narration because we had all these great voices – Johnny, and Roger Maltbie, and Peter Jacobson, and (The Post’s) John Hopkins, guys who were there, who could paint a word picture far better than I.”
Lerner also took Golf Channel places they’d never gone before, to discos and the set of The Gong Show, on the tee with Jackie Gleason and Glen Campbell with David Bowie blaring in the background.
“We decided early on to move outside golf a bit and paint a picture of the times,” Lerner said. “The idea we kept coming back to was: Let’s make sure we have the feeling all the time that we’re in a convertible Mustang with the 8-tracks cranking. We had fun.”
And you’ll have fun watching it. Summer of ’76 airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT on Golf Channel, and certainly will be replayed often.
Hats off to Lerner for a magnificent job. And here’s hoping the network does more original programming like this one.