ESPN shows off muscles with Open telecast

Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland celebrates victory on the 18th green during the final round of The 140th Open Championship at Royal St George's on July 17, 2011 in Sandwich, England.

Random thoughts on ESPN’s coverage of the British Open:

•••

Mike Tirico and Paul Azinger don’t get many chances to call golf anymore, and that’s a pity. They are, to these ears, at least as good as their 18th-hole counterparts at NBC, CBS and Golf Channel. Tirico’s work reminds me of a gifted point guard – let’s say Steve Nash or Chris Paul – who controls the flow of a game and dishes out assists like treats at Halloween, keeping everyone on his team happy.

And as I’ve written in the past, Azinger might be even better now, as the only analyst in the booth, than he was when he was teamed with Nick Faldo. He’s concise and thoughtful. I liked Azinger’s description Thursday of how Royal St. George’s fairways repel drives. “It’s kind of like Gore-Tex,” Azinger said. “When you pour water on (it), the water just beads off.”

And he had a wonderfully succinct explanation of the difference between the top players and the also-rans: “The great players have the ability to hit their long irons high and their short irons low.”

That said, it was disappointing to see them absent from the telecasts for extended periods. No one can expect them to call all 22 hours of live coverage on Thursday and Friday. But we also don’t want to see them disappear for three hours at a time, as sometimes happened.

Viewers who didn’t know better might have assumed that Scott Van Pelt and Curtis Strange were ESPN’s lead announcers. When Strange is overexposed, he’s prone to saying things like this: “If Phil Mickelson is going to make a run, he needs to start it right here.” By that time on Sunday, Mickelson already had made his run, going six-under through his first 10 holes. Or this from Strange Thursday on Jason Day: “Here’s a man that you didn’t hear his name mentioned a lot before the tournament, but I liked him.” Given that Day finished second in the year’s first two majors and is ranked eighth in the world, I don’t think he was flying under the radar.

Also on the subject of announcers, Tom Weiskopf is much better talking about architecture – his feature on links golf Thursday was excellent – than competition, where he offered nothing beyond platitudes.

• • •

It recently was suggested to me that ESPN might make a play for the U.S. Open rights when they become available in a few years. NBC currently holds those rights and does a good job on the Open broadcasts, with ESPN airing the first two days of competition. But ESPN has made dramatic upgrades to the British Open telecasts since it began broadcasting all four rounds last year. ESPN has taken control of the broadcasts rather than relying on the BBC feed, and is producing shows as sophisticated as anything we’ve ever seen. I doubt that fact has been lost on U.S. Golf Association officials. When you combine ESPN’s production abilities with its even greater ability to market the living daylights out of even the most obscure sports events, that would have to be a pretty attractive combination for the USGA or any other sports property.

This is pure speculation; I have no idea what the USGA’s thinking is on the subject. But if I were to guess, I suspect one strike against ESPN, should it make a bid for the U.S. Open, might be its choice of announcers. If it’s Tirico and Azinger, I can’t imagine the USGA would raise any red flags. But if ESPN chooses Chris Berman, whose contract apparently dictates that he be the lead announcer on ESPN’s early-round Open broadcasts, the USGA might be less enthusiastic. Can you imagine the Blue Coats’ reaction if Berman goes into his “back back back” shtick late on a Sunday afternoon of a tightly contested U.S. Open?

Again, pure speculation, but something to keep an eye on.

• • •

When it comes time to build a true man cave in my house, I just might call the people who designed ESPN’s Open sets. They looked fabulous, especially the one off the first tee that housed Tirico and Azinger. I was tempted to call up ESPN and ask who does their interior decorating.

• • •

I’d like to interrupt this blog for some Pacific Life highlights.

How many times did we hear some version of that during the Open? I don’t have any objection to sponsored highlights packages that break up the pacing, show key shots and, not coincidentally, allow a network to recoup some of its production costs. But I do have to question ESPN’s frequent interruptions of play for highlights sponsored by Pac Life and ING. For example, at 10 a.m. Eastern on Thursday, ESPN cut away from live coverage for nine minutes to air an “Open Championship Right Now” package sponsored by ING. After a commercial break, ESPN showed a few live shots, then cut to two-minute Pac Life package on Rory McIlroy’s round at 10:17 a.m.

It’s hard to justify cutting away from live action for nine minutes, then breaking from live action a few minutes later. That scenario played out too often during the Open. ESPN might rationalize that by noting that TNT, which broadcast the early-round coverage through 2009, sometimes would break away from live action for highlights packages lasting as long as 25 minutes. But let’s face it: TNT set the bar pretty low.

The frequency and length of these highlights packages diminished the viewing experience. Beyond that, I’m not sure how effective they were for the sponsors, whose brands were not always evident during the segments.

• • •

This will sound counterintuitive, but the Open broadcasts actually benefited from Tiger Woods’ absence. Don’t get me wrong, when Woods is on his game, he’s fascinating to watch. But he’s the elephant in the room, dominating telecasts even when he’s not in contention. (I probably receive more complaints from readers about this than any other issue related to televised golf.)

At the 2010 Open, ESPN showed little live action early on the weekends. Instead, it effectively turned the broadcasts into studio shows, airing extended shots of Woods on the range and putting green as commentators assessed his prospects. With Woods absent this year, ESPN kept the focus largely on golf.

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