ESPN passes first-round Open test

Tiger Woods is filmed by a film crew from ESPN during the first round of the the British Open.

I spend far too much of my time watching golf and other sports on TV, and during those countless hours on the couch, I’ve developed something of an ambivalent view of ESPN.

At its best, it has no peer in sports broadcasting, delivering innovative and comprehensive coverage. At its worst, it’s a self-aggrandizing brand populated by self-promoters (e.g., Chris Berman, Dick Vitale) who seem to believe that viewers turn to the channel not to watch an important game, but rather because they want to bask in the sheer stupendousness of ESPN.

Given that history, I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or concerned as ESPN prepared, for the first time, to broadcast all four rounds of the British Open.

If the opening round is any indication, ESPN’s better angels have prevailed at St. Andrews. Like a guy trying to impress a first date, ESPN seems to have spared little expense in delivering a production that was technically sophisticated and sharply analyzed.

ESPN blanketed The Old Course with 90-plus cameras, none more impressive than those at the Road Hole. Thanks to a 72-foot crane behind the 17th tee, the camera aimed down the fairway seemed to be floating, rising from ground level to show what lurked beyond the Old Course Hotel. The effect was more akin to what one might see in a Hollywood production rather than a typical golf telecast. The views were enhanced by a shot tracer that tracked the drives.

“We think it’s a game-changer,” Mike McQuade, ESPN’s VP of production, said of the crane-mounted camera earlier in the week. “It changes the way you cover the sport.

“It shows the depth, the clarity and the overall scope of the venue.”

ESPN also rolled out its Putt Zone technology, which is similar to Golf Channel’s AimPoint, on two double greens (Nos. 2 and 16 and Nos. 7 and 11). Putt Zone illustrates the ideal putting line before the putt has been struck, and also has a shaded cone that shows how far off that line putts can be and still have a chance of dropping, depending on their speed. Use of this type of technology on a widespread basis tends to be cost-prohibitive, but it’s hugely helpful to viewers trying to make sense of the 2-D world on their screens.

The traditional starting time of the broadcast was moved up to 4 a.m. Eastern to show all of Tiger Woods’ opening round live. While Woods was the focal point, ESPN kept the action moving, following John Daly and, later, Rory McIlroy and others as red numbers lined the leaderboard.

ESPN flooded the zone with more than 15 announcers to fill the 11-hour broadcast. All of those voices somehow managed to complement, rather than talk over, one another, though the telecast lost some steam when first-stringers, anchor Mike Tirico and analyst Paul Azinger, took a break.

The commentary wasn’t always as crisp as the pictures, but it was nevertheless compelling. I particularly liked the back-and-forth on Daly’s recent Open blow-ups.

“I’ll give him credit; he does come back,” analyst Curtis Strange said. “When you shoot scores like that, there’s a huge case of embarrassment, and a lot of people would pack up their tent and go hide somewhere.”

His colleagues were quick to challenge that comment.

“Financially, he needs to (come back),” Tirico said. “Let’s be frank about it.”

Azinger couldn’t wait to chime in: “He packs up his tent in the middle of some of those rounds.”

Elsewhere, Tom Weiskopf seemed to be stuck in the persimmon era when discussing the short, par-4 ninth.

“Most of the players probably will respect those two (fairway) bunkers, lay up and then pitch at it,” Weiskopf intoned.

I was waiting for him to add, “And then they’ll pull out their jiggers and play a low pitch to the green.” Sometimes it seems the retired players still don’t get the modern game. Weiskopf’s comment seemed particularly odd given that it was sandwiched between Woods and Camilo Villegas trying to drive the green.

Rocco Mediate, a late addition to the broadcast team, seemed like an unlikely choice to do some morning studio work. He’s fidgety, talks with his hands and doesn’t look terribly comfortable in a suit. But his analysis was concise and pointed. “What protects a links golf course is wind and firmness,” Mediate said when asked about all of the low morning scores. “We have neither one today. . . Every pin is accessible.”

That comment resonated with Colin Montgomerie, who was sitting in the booth with Tirico and Azinger. Monty talked about how the shots and scoring he was watching on the morning broadcast would affect his strategy during his afternoon round.

“Usually it’s patience in a major,” he said. “(But) I’ve got to think about birdies here.”

Metaphorically speaking, ESPN made a lot of birdies Thursday.

Like an Open rookie who shoots 63 to take the first-round lead, the real test will come on the weekend. In recent years, TNT and ABC have seemed far more interested in showing us talking heads and canned features rather than live action on the weekends. ESPN needs to keep the focus on the course.

That said, ESPN passed its initial test with style. A final grade will have to wait for Sunday.

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