TNT and ABC bogey British Open coverage

It’s taken me several years of contemplation, but I’ve finally hit upon the best way for American television viewers to enjoy the British Open broadcast. Fly to Scotland and watch the tournament on the BBC. Sure, it will be more expensive than sitting at home, but it will be far less aggravating than trying to watch the tournament on American television.

TNT and ABC were handed a wonderful storyline in Tom Watson’s quest to make history. And like Watson on the 72nd hole, they bogeyed it.

The coverage got off to a bad start on TNT and steadily degenerated. The central problem was one I’ve harped on when writing about coverage of past Opens: the networks seem almost uninterested in airing live action.

The most egregious example was TNT’s wrong-headed decision to interrupt live coverage during the third and fifth hours of the first two rounds to air a modified studio show called “At the Turn.” Let’s hope that TNT exacted a king’s ransom from sponsor ING for these segments, because it’s otherwise incomprehensible that the network would desert live action for four 25-minute stretches. TNT used the segments to air highlights, interviews and uncompelling interplay between Terry Gannon and Ian Baker-Finch, such as when Gannon asked IBF: “When you play here, can you sense the history?”

We missed live action for that?

There was some live action during Friday’s “At the Turn” segments, but that’s only because Tiger Woods was on the course. TNT’s coverage became as simple as a nursery rhyme: See Tiger walk to first tee. See Tiger wait on first tee. (Quick cut to Watson’s approach on No. 4.) See Tiger hit his opening tee shot. See Tiger walk down the fairway. See Tiger ponder his approach shot. (Quick cut to Watson’s chip on No. 4.) See Tiger hit his approach. See Tiger walk to the green.

And so it went.

TNT also trotted out Jim Huber to serve as a poor man’s Jack Whitaker, the late, great CBS essayist. Huber’s folksy, avuncular manner obscures his weaknesses as an interviewer, which is his chief job at the Open. Actually, Huber doesn’t ask questions so much as make brief statements, which typically are followed by awkward moments as players try to discern whether they’re supposed to respond or await a question.

Huber to Stewart Cink Thursday: “An awful lot of low numbers out there today, yours included.”

Cink nodded like a bobblehead doll with a bemused expression on his face, then realized that no question was forthcoming.

Huber’s informal style also allows him to get away with posing manifestly banal nonquestions. On Thursday he said to Camilo Villegas: “I can’t imagine coming from Colombia that you would have much experience with links golf.” I suspect Villegas was at least as prepared for links golf as the young Americans who were new to the U.K. including Steve Marino, who was tied for the lead Friday night after just his fourth-ever round of links golf in Scotland.

Come the weekend, I knew from past experience that I could sleep in. TNT’s Open broadcast might begin at 6 a.m. Eastern, but it starts about as well as a ’79 Pinto that’s been up on blocks for a few years.

On Sunday, TNT opened and closed its broadcast with bookend 16-minute stretches in which it didn’t show any live action, though it did find time to replay a weak Huber piece on Turnberry’s history as a military airfield. In the 88 intervening minutes, TNT showed 63 golf shots. Of those, 44 were putts, including 15 tap-ins. In two hours of the final round of arguably the most important tournament of the year, TNT aired just 19 full shots – that is, drives and approach shots.

Nineteen.

In two hours.

Difficult as it was to fathom, ABC’s coverage got off to an even worse start. We didn’t see a live shot from ABC until an astounding 33 minutes into Sunday morning’s broadcast, when amateur Matteo Manassero holed a birdie putt. ABC instead chose, foolishly, to start its weekend coverage with what amounted to half-hour pre-game shows, while competitors near the top of the leaderboard played in obscurity.

On Sunday, ABC aired a Tom Rinaldi story about Turnberry’s history as – bet you didn’t know this – a military airfield. (Hmmm, haven’t we heard that story somewhere before?) And ABC ran a segment with Gannon interviewing Curtis Strange and Tom Weiskopf, the latter of whom sagely advised: “You have to avoid the bunkers. You must avoid disasters off the fairway. . .”

If that sounded familiar, it’s because on Saturday morning Weiskopf had told Gannon that players must “avoid the bunkers at all costs . . . avoid deep rough. . .”

That’s not so much a knock on Weiskopf, whose work on those rare occasions when ABC was airing live action actually was pretty good. What’s Weiskopf supposed to say when he’s asked to name the keys to the tournament? It’s a simple game. Every player is trying to do the same thing: hit fairways and greens and make a few putts.

It is, however, a criticism of ABC’s ludicrous format. In the first hour Sunday morning, ABC showed viewers just 10 golf shots – eight putts, including one tap-in, and two full shots.

Two!

Two!!! In the final round of the British Open!!!

ABC finally turned its focus to the tournament on the back nine Sunday, but by then it was too late to rectify its earlier mistakes. American viewers never did see players like Richard S. Johnson, Soren Hansen and Thomas Aiken, all of whom finished just three strokes off the lead.

Having stewed over TNT’s abysmal performance for four days, I wasn’t exactly lamenting the fact that that network was playing out the string as broadcaster of early-round Open coverage. But are things going to get better next year when ESPN, part of the ABC family, takes over full four-round coverage?

There’s no evidence to suggest it will.

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