ESPN delivers workmanlike round on Day 1

David Duval during the first round of the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield. After his round, Duval donned a tie and joined the ESPN telecast.

David Duval during the first round of the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield. After his round, Duval donned a tie and joined the ESPN telecast.

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The first thing viewers saw and heard when the first round of the Open Championship came on the air at 4 a.m. Eastern time was the introduction of Nick Faldo on the first tee. I considered that a hopeful sign that ESPN would keep its focus on the action rather than peripheral matters.

Generally speaking, ESPN did that, though I found the opening-day coverage to be unusually choppy – much more so than early-round Open coverage in recent years. The short bursts of action between commercial breaks made it difficult for the show to find a rhythm. When I watched a recording of the afternoon action later in the day, I always kept the remote in hand, so frequent were the breaks. I don’t recall that being a concern at recent Opens, when ESPN produced some really fine televised golf.

I’d describe ESPN’s opening-round show as workmanlike. When ESPN secured the Open rights a few years ago, I had the sense that its staff wanted to use the event to take the genre of golf production to a new level. And, I believe, they did. Some of the live shows over the past few Opens have been nothing short of outstanding. This year’s first round was merely solid – not as technically sophisticated as we’ve seen in the past. The camera angles were standard stuff, there was no green mapping, and its Virtual Aerial feature – which shows real-time wind conditions – was rarely used. That likely will change if the winds kick up over the weekend.

It was pleasing to hear Mike Tirico and Paul Azinger leading the announcing team. Perhaps I’m just showing some midyear fatigue from the weekly grind of listening to the CBS and NBC crews. But given how rarely Azinger does TV these days, it is impressive how comfortable he seems. I really liked his opening comments on Muirfield’s appeal: “It’s easy to learn, you’re not trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle. But you do look at bunkers and you say, ‘Why is that bunker there? It seems so random.’ And then the next day you’re in that bunker because the wind changes.”

I'm intrigued by whether David Duval will adapt to TV work as well as Azinger did. I did really like his comment after Azinger harped on the need for good player-caddie communication. Duval responded: "Could you argue that there could be too much involvement with the caddie, especially in conditions like this when there's so much feel involved."

I also liked the way ESPN used Tom Weiskopf, an accomplished architect, to talk in more detail about the design of Muirfield. Weiskopf didn’t necessarily deliver any great insights, but it was a good venue for him. In past years, he has been overexposed, leading to a recitation of platitudes. For the most part, ESPN kept Weiskopf under wraps Thursday, though he was trotted out after a feature on Adam Scott. Weiskopf’s take on Scott: “He leaves that past (last year’s Open loss) behind. He is now in a different category. . . . More importantly, now he knows how to win.”

As Crash Davis of "Bull Durham" would say, cliches are your friends.

The entire crew, however, was smart enough to go silent when Phil Mickelson and caddie Jim Mackay were talking about the approach to No. 5 from the rough. Every crew at every network could learn from that.

In the end, I suspect ESPN overthought some of its Thursday production. I’m of the opinion, as I’ve said before, that a producer can never go wrong by showing as much action as possible. ESPN does that better than its competitors, but there’s still some unnecessary noise crowding out the action.

For example, the Ian McShane-narrated introduction was relatively entertaining, but did we really need to see it three times during the first five hours? And do we really need all of the highlights packages? Some are sponsored, helping ESPN recoup its investment. And I’m sure ESPN would argue that many viewers only watch sporadically and need to be updated via the highlights. But the highlights packages are so superficial as to be more of a distraction than a source of information.

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