ESPN recovers from sloppy early rounds with Sunday drama

Tiger Woods was caught by microphones offering up a couple of cuss words after a poor shot early in his round.

Tiger Woods was caught by microphones offering up a couple of cuss words after a poor shot early in his round.

Prior to the Open Championship, Mike McQuade, vice president of event production at ESPN, noted that the channel would deliver more than 37 hours of live action. This is sort of like dog years, only in reverse. When a TV guy says you’ll see 37 hours of coverage, that means you’ll get about 20 hours – if you’re lucky.

Much of ESPN’s early-round Open coverage was, frankly, a mess. The shows had no rhythm or pacing. Short action sequences were squeezed between frequent commercial breaks. Too often, canned features and sponsored highlights packages crowded out the live action. And don’t even get me started on ESPN’s announcing crew. In a recent column, I questioned whether announcers were being paid by the word. Which raises this question: How much do we have to pay the ESPN crew to stop talking? It’s like an assembly line of Chatty Cathys.

But if the first 33 hours or so of ESPN’s coverage were often exasperating, the final four hours were exhilarating. It was as if ESPN sent two production teams to Scotland – one to handle the first three and half days, and another to oversee the coverage once the leaders were on the course Sunday.

There were moments on Sunday morning when I literally caught myself holding my breath – not because I was rooting hard for any particular player, but because I was so enthralled by the coverage and the drama that was playing out.

Sometime Sunday morning, ESPN apparently hit upon this completely wacky, totally off-the-wall idea: It decided to show the golf tournament. Having purged itself of all of the nonsense, it finally let the action carry the story. It was wonderful. Even its loquacious announcers were almost tolerable because the rest of the golf-centric coverage was so good. When I sat down to write this 90 minutes after the tournament ended, I flipped on the replay on ABC, just hoping to recapture that high I felt during the final few hours of coverage.

That feeling really wasn’t tied to the outcome. In the Tiger-Phil debate that has defined the modern PGA Tour, I’ve always come down in Mickelson’s camp. But as I told a friend earlier in the week, I would have been thrilled to see Lee Westwood get his first major. So as a fan, I felt some disappointment that he played poorly. But as a viewer, I was mesmerized by the final few hours of coverage.

Here are some of the elements of ESPN’s coverage that worked particularly well:

• I really respected the discipline that ESPN showed in its handling of Tiger Woods’ final round. Woods was in the penultimate group, but when he slipped to 2 over, ESPN kept its focus on those who had passed him. I almost forgot Woods was on the course until he was shown tapping in for birdie on No. 14. That’s a good lesson for other networks: Follow the story, even if Tiger isn’t a part of it.

• Analyst Paul Azinger, far and away the strongest voice on ESPN’s crew, said this of Woods after he air-mailed the 11th green: “This is not the Tiger Woods we’re used to seeing, but maybe it is the Tiger Woods we’re getting used to seeing.”

• ESPN’s microphones picked up Woods yelling a profanity on No. 5. Actually, you could probably hear him screaming all the way over in Edinburgh. Anchor Mike Tirico handled this deftly. “We hear that all too often . . . unfortunately,” Tirico said. Viewers subsequently overheard Mickelson blaming himself for a poor approach to No. 8, leading Tirico to provide some welcome perspective. “That’s some of the frustration that people have with Woods, understandably, and some of the joy they have with Mickelson,” Tirico said. “Woods is cursing and unhappy after a bad shot, (and) Mickelson is blaming himself.” Well stated.

• ESPN had some terrific graphics. I loved the box that showed the distance a drive carried, the roll, and the distance to the pin. One problem: It was rarely used. Similarly, ESPN touted its Virtual Aerial, which shows real-time wind conditions, but didn’t use it nearly enough. The landing-zone graphic also was helpful, lending definition and perspective to the browned-out landscape.

• To keep the focus on the action, ESPN did something that I’ve long advocated: It ran the scores in a scroll along the bottom of the screen, both by score and alphabetically. Great move. There’s no reason to stop covering live action to show a leaderboard.

• Tom Rinaldi’s short feature, “The Turn Home,” packed tremendous insight into our perspective on winners and losers. Interestingly, it seemed to borrow, thematically, from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Now, here’s what didn’t work:

• Final-round play started at 2 a.m. Eastern time, yet when ESPN came on the air at 6 a.m., it was more inclined to fill time in the booth than show live action. Tirico talked about the need to hash out “storylines,” while co-anchor Scott Van Pelt said the crew would spend the morning “setting the table for you.” That’s TV talk for: We’re not going to show live action. So we got three segments during the first two hours in which not a single golf shot was shown. And we got a two-shot of Tirico asking Tom Weiskopf, “If the wind does pick up, who’s a player we should keep an eye on?” Apparently needing to fill a gap until the commercial break, Tirico then asked, “If those winds pick up mid to late afternoon, you think that will test the ballstriking of these players under pressure because of a little heavier wind?” Those of you who slept in Sunday morning are probably feeling pretty smug right about now.

• Two hours into Sunday’s show, Tirico said, “I hope you’ve been with us this morning watching (amateur) Matthew Fitzpatrick.” Uh, Mike, we can’t watch him if your producer is only showing him hitting a handful of putts.

• ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski said this of Adam Scott’s caddie: “Steve Williams is going for his 15th major today.” Yeah, Wojo, it was good of Stevie to carry that slacker Tiger Woods all those years.

• On the hole after Woods’ tirade noted above, he drove into the fairway bunker on No. 6. That prompted Andy North, who always has been overexposed on ESPN’s golf coverage, to remark, “I would think even Tiger Woods could lose his patience at this point.” Huh?

• After a pre-round interview with Hunter Mahan, Rinaldi said, “Enjoy your Sunday. Thanks a lot, Hun.” It could have been worse, I suppose. He could have called him “Hunny.”

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