Fox Sports has broadcast 16 days of U.S. Open coverage over the past four years since assuming the U.S. Golf Association’s television rights.
This has been largely a thankless task for the network. Fox Sports broadcasts eight USGA championships annually, but the U.S. Open is the one that offers some hope of justifying the network’s $1 billion investment. So it’s important to get it right.
To date, the USGA has handed Fox venues that could charitably be described as dismal (Chambers Bay) and dubious (Erin Hills). In between the USGA nailed the venue (Oakmont), but botched the finale (the Dustin Johnson penalty fiasco). Moreover, Tiger Woods, whose presence dramatically skews TV ratings to the upside, has played in only four of those 16 rounds, making Fox’s investment in golf seem even dodgier. (Sports Media Watch reported that the first round earned the highest rating since 2015 – not coincidentally, Woods’ last appearance in the Open.)
This year, as in 2016, the USGA brought the Open to a great venue – and almost made a hash of it again, despite assurances we would not hear any echoes of 2004.
“When will the USGA get it right?” Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner wondered. “It’s been a tough few years.”
Like baseball umpires, the governing bodies – the USGA, PGA, R&A, etc. – should never be the story. Augusta National understands this. The Green Jackets might gripe about the distance the ball flies, but in the end, they’re putting on a TV show, and they’re happy to supply the fireworks.
The USGA, in an apparent effort to reinforce its “ultimate exam” brand, almost turned what is arguably America’s greatest championship venue into a parking lot. We heard far too much over the first three days about the USGA and its CEO, Mike Davis, because of more questionable setup decisions. And by extension, we heard a lot about Phil Mickelson – too much, in my view. Maybe “he snapped,” as Fox’s Paul Azinger said. Maybe Mickelson just wanted to make a statement. Maybe he did a quick cost-benefit analysis and decided that an act of defiance wouldn’t wipe out more than a quarter century of goodwill.
We awoke Sunday morning to hear Golf Channel’s Ryan Burr asking, “Can this U.S. Open be saved?” Burr quizzed his Golf Channel panel on whether the integrity of the championship was in question because of the sharp shift in playing conditions Saturday afternoon.
Davis and his USGA staff, all thoughtful people who want the best for the game, should make a resolution: Never again will golf fans wake up on a weekend and hear an announcer question the integrity of our national championship.
Fortunately, the answer to Burr’s question was: “Yes. Yes, it most definitely can be saved.”
Rickie Fowler’s early 65 Sunday was followed by Tommy Fleetwood run at the Open scoring record, settling for a share at 63.
“To shoot 63 and be disappointed, I think he might be,” Azinger said as we watched Fleetwood in the scoring tent.
Fleetwood might have been dejected when his birdie putt slid by the hole on 18, but suddenly we had just what we wanted: a bunched-up, blue-chip leaderboard on a course that seemed perfectly calibrated for the moment. Suddenly the issues that had served as a drag on the championship evaporated, and we were in the midst of a wonderful Sunday afternoon at the U.S. Open.
Finally given a day worthy of our national championship, Fox was up to the task of presenting it. In its first three years broadcasting the Open, Fox has served a valuable role in dragging the industry forward through the innovative use of shot-tracing technology and microphones. (Some of the player commentary captured on the greens, particularly from Dustin Johnson, helped tell the story Sunday.)
Fox seems to have settled on a crew of analysts, led by Azinger, Brad Faxon and Curtis Strange, who have the chops to tell the story. The decision this year to flip-flop the Shanes – Bacon and O’Donoghue – worked out. Bacon seems most comfortable in the anchor seat, where he gives Joe Buck a breather, and O’Donoghue’s easy Irish manner works well in the interview chair.
For the first 15 U.S. Open rounds that Fox broadcast over the past four years, we spent too much time talking about needless problems. What we saw Sunday made all of those headaches seem like distant memories. Gwk