2004: Action drove Open telecast

For the U.S. Open field, Shinnecock Hills became more brutal as the tournament progressed. But for television viewers, the coverage got better and better, reaching a crescendo when Phil Mickelson birdied No. 16 in the final round to take a one-stroke lead.

Mickelson’s subsequent double bogey proved anticlimactic, but didn’t detract from the fact that this is the way a network is supposed to cover a major championship.

The weekend coverage brought welcome relief for viewers – relief from ESPN’s tiresome bullhorn, Chris Berman, who inexplicably is given carte blanche to irritate audiences at every major sports event, and from David Duval’s all-too-public angst. Is it just me, or was Duval more appealing when he was the enigmatic loner behind the Oakleys? Now he seems like a character from a W. Somerset Maugham novel, wandering the Earth seeking knowledge and understanding. Hey Double D, let me drop a little knowledge on you: You’re young, you’re rich, you’ve squandered your talent. Suck it up and call Butch Harmon. (And a memo to Berman and others: It doesn’t take “courage” for Duval to tee it up in a U.S. Open.)

Give NBC credit for displaying remarkable discipline and respect for the event, as opposed to ABC, which annually treats the British Open like the B.C. Open. NBC provided long periods of action interrupted only briefly by commercials – much like the green coats at Augusta mandate during the Masters. And NBC resisted inundating us with promos for its upcoming Olympics coverage or forgettable prime-time lineup.

But one thing viewers of every U.S. Open can count on seeing are the USGA’s feel-good commercials, though some are getting a tad stale. We’ve been seeing the ad of that little kid making a hole-in-one for so many years that he’s now old enough to buy Buds for all the members.

NBC also didn’t subject viewers to all-Tiger-all-the-time TV. When Woods dropped 12 shots behind then-leader Jeff Maggert Saturday, he largely fell off of NBC’s radar screen. The network touched on the catfight between Tiger and Butch Harmon early Sunday, but admirably didn’t dwell on Woods as he headed south on the leaderboard.

Given the ruckus over Shinnecock’s greens, NBC’s “Green Grid,” which shows how balls react when they hit each putting surface, was a welcome addition to the telecast. But the announcers could have offered an obvious caveat that the graphic doesn’t take into account how different shot shapes – a high fade or a low draw – will behave when they hit the green.

On the subject of greens, give USGA executive director David Fay props for acknowledging that the hazardous seventh green mistakenly had been rolled prior to the third round. (That screeching sound you heard Saturday evening was Tom Meeks, the USGA’s senior director of rules and competitions, peeling rubber out of Shinnecock’s parking lot.)

When Vijay Singh’s pitch to No. 10 rolled back off the green on Sunday, NBC’s Gary Koch was ready with a fascinating stat: 78 percent of players had hit that fairway, but only 14 percent hit the green. And Bob Murphy noted midway through the final round that the field had carded more double bogeys than birdies – interesting, though it begged for the actual numbers. But in fairness, the carnage was so plain that one didn’t need an abundance of stats to know that this Open recalled the Massacre at Winged Foot 30 years earlier, when Hale Irwin won at 7 over par.

“It seems like you have to hit a perfect shot just to get a 15-footer,” said NBC’s Johnny Miller.

The golf world is divided into two camps: those who enjoy Miller’s prescience and aversion to vanilla commentary, and those who would like to pummel him with a lob wedge. Count me among the former, though I was grinding my teeth Saturday afternoon when he and Roger Maltbie chattered over Mickelson and caddie Jim Mackay, who were discussing club selection on the par-3 11th – particularly compelling given that Mickelson dropped from a 7-iron to a 9-iron, three clubs less than playing partner Shigeki Maruyama who had hit only moments earlier. Sometimes an announcer’s best choice of words

is none at all.

But that’s nitpicking. This Open was compelling theater, broadcast stylishly by NBC. Wouldn’t it be nice to watch the same treatment next month at Royal Troon.

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