2005: U.S. Open - Flat-screen coverage

I have this voice that I can’t get out of my head. It’s the sound of NBC’s Gary Koch saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whooooaaa . . .” as yet another ball rolls off yet another green at Pinehurst.

So it went at the U.S. Open, which annually poses the question: How can so many viewers take such pleasure in watching so few players have so little fun? If our national championship is an endurance test for the players – an “exam,” as the U.S. Golf Association sometimes calls the tournament – its 31 hours of live TV coverage over four days also are a bit of a grind for viewers. The Open seems an almost-perfect reflection of the USGA itself: humorless, severe, somewhat dour. It’s little wonder viewers leapt at the chance for a weekend fling with colorful underdog Jason Gore, if only to add a little levity to the ominous proceedings.

“You just get the feeling we’re poised for a train wreck,” NBC’s normally steady anchor, Dan Hicks, said near the end of the third round, capturing the prevailing sentiment hanging over the Open. Exactly 23 hours later, Hicks reiterated, “You get the feeling there’s a train wreck just around the bend.”

There’s drama at the Open, to be sure, but the compelling viewing is less “Hoosiers” (who makes the winning shot) and more “Papillon” (who makes it off the island alive). If the Masters is exhilarating, the Open is exhausting. You enjoy both, but in very different ways.

Still, to these eyes, NBC’s coverage of this year’s Open fell short of its near-flawless performance a year ago at Shinnecock. Its camera work and graphics were surprisingly flat, and time and again the network’s announcers fell back on familiar story lines. We heard – and heard and heard and heard – about Retief Goosen being struck by lightning, Olin Browne nearly walking off the course at the U.S. Open qualifier, Mark Hensby sleeping in his car, Michael Campbell nearly quitting golf and Gore’s car being robbed.

And of course, this being Pinehurst, we heard about Payne Stewart. NBC’s Jimmy Roberts was dispatched to do a fine feature on Stewart and the other players in the 1999 Open drama. But, while it’s perhaps impolitic to say this, some of the references to Stewart seemed forced, a touch contrived. Stewart was a great champion and a colorful player whose presence is missed, but he was not, as various members of the NBC crew sometimes seemed to suggest, a mystical presence hovering over Pinehurst.

If there was one recurring story line more than any other, it was Pinehurst’s greens.

“I’ve watched this on TV,” Tiger Woods said afterward, “and TV does not come close to doing justice to the slopes of these greens.”

NBC had promised to address that in its pre-tournament preparations, adding a “steady cam,” which allowed a cameraman to walk around the greens and give some sense of the slopes. But viewers benefited little from this. NBC also should have made better and more frequent use of its “Green Grid” animation, which it used to better effect a year ago at Shinnecock, clearly illustrating the slopes of those greens. This year it was employed mainly to show how balls would react if they fell straight from the heavens, which no doubt will come in handy should it suddenly start raining golf balls, but probably has limited value for viewers when the players they’re watching are putting spin on the ball, carving draws and fades, hitting it high and low.

The network also bogeyed when it left live coverage with the final twosome midway through the final round for an interview with Annika Sorenstam from her Lake Tahoe home. The lake views in the background were lovely and Sorenstam was gracious, if unenlightening. But it came across as an ill-timed plug for NBC’s coverage of this week’s U.S. Women’s Open.

NBC’s coverage benefited from its agreement with the USGA to broadcast just six minutes of commercials each hour, even if it seemed like the Levitra chick got so much air time that she should have been on the leaderboard. And this being the national championship, much of the commercial time was devoted to the USGA’s self-reverential, and occasionally delusional, promotional spots.

“Handle with care,” the announcer solemnly intones in one USGA commercial, “so that when someone picks up the game, the game never lets go.” That might come as news to the 3 million Americans who give up golf each year.

There also was much talk about the USGA killjoys possibly considering a rollback on golf balls. (One suspects that if Tour players suddenly began holing 30-footers as if they were tap-ins, the USGA would gripe that balls roll too straight or that green agronomy is too advanced.) The irony of having this discussion at an event where the winner was lucky to shoot even par apparently was lost on almost everyone. Leave it to NBC’s Johnny Miller to lend some much-needed perspective following an interview with USGA executive director David Fay: “The scoring has not changed that much, even though the distance has.”

None of this is to say NBC’s coverage was bad, just . . . flat, somehow lacking in the energy one expects from our national championship. Even Miller, the Id Announcer, given to speaking unfiltered and insightful thoughts, seemed a little off his game.

Like the pre-tournament favorites, Woods and Vijay Singh, the network hit a lot of greens, but didn’t make many putts.

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