If Fox Sports were to tap a spokesman for its U.S. Open coverage, I’d nominate Rickie Fowler for the job.
Think about it. Like Fowler, Fox is flashy, having brought some great technical innovations to its productions in its first three years as the U.S. Golf Association’s television partner. Fox has plenty of talent; I could quibble with some of its hires, but its crew is plenty good enough. And like Fowler, Fox is on the verge of having that one magical week when everything clicks and even its naysayers finally acknowledge: Yes, it’s worthy of the big stage.
Just as I root for Fowler, I also root for Fox, because I want to enjoy watching golf rather than feel, as I often do, that it’s an obligation. Competition and new ideas should elevate the medium.
It was a bad old idea, however, that offset some of the good things Fox did during the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. The shows felt top-heavy as Fox seemed determined to show all the experts it has assembled.
That hit me early Sunday when I saw four men in the 18th tower – Shane O’Donoghue, Darren Clarke, Curtis Strange and Gil Hanse – and only one reporter (Juli Inkster) on the course. My first thought was: The math is wrong. I’d rather have one or two people in the tower and three or four on the course. If Clarke and company were dazzling viewers with their insights, perhaps you could rationalize all of the pundits in the tower. But no golf announcer is that interesting; so get more people on the course to tell the story.
The more pressing concern was this nagging sense that I felt oddly disconnected from the action on course. Fox has taken pains in other sports – particularly motorsports – to bring viewers closer to the action. But its crew configuration at the U.S. Open prevented that. Far too much of the action was called from the 18th tower.
The problem is that those announcers are, in a sense, no closer to the action than you or me. When Joe Buck or Paul Azinger are calling a shot from the tower, they’re watching it on a monitor, much like viewers at home. Yes, they know the course and the players better than viewers, but they’re not down there among the action.
Fox needs to do a better job of integrating its on-course reporters into its coverage. That would do at least two things: bring more voices and a more conversational flow to the live shows and, more importantly, provide real-time information on course conditions and players’ attitudes. It also would relieve Azinger and Brad Faxon of play-by-play duties, where their enthusiasm often seemed manufactured and excessive (for example, Faxon referring Sunday to Fowler’s “un-be-liev-able birdie putt,” which, to these eyes, looked like a straightforward, uphill 12-footer on No. 1).
Analysts should talk a little and say a lot. No one has been better at that in recent years than Azinger. But in Fox’s configuration, Azinger and Faxon had to carry way too much of the load.
When we did hear from on-course announcers, it too often was Inkster, who’s prone to saying cringe-worthy things such as this about Stephan Jaeger: “He’s been moving up the ladder, going to these different, you know, sites to play different golf, and he’s doing really well right now.”
Atmospherics also didn’t help Fox. Buck felt obliged to tell viewers that the persistent drone of planes overhead was not something the network could control. And there was no intimacy to the setting; the fans rarely were near the action and roars seemed tepid or dispersed across Erin Hills’ vast landscape. It also didn’t help that the biggest stars – Phil, Rory, Dustin, Jason, etc. – weren’t factors in this Open.
For a time, Fowler seemed ready to step into the void and collect his first major. But in the end, his execution wasn’t quite as sharp as it needed to be. The same could be said of Fox.