Golf on TV: Fox crew drowns out the drama at Pebble

Viktor Hovland and Devon Bling in the 2018 U.S. Amateur Championship final. (Chris Keane/USGA) Chris Keane/USGA

Golf on TV: Fox crew drowns out the drama at Pebble

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Golf on TV: Fox crew drowns out the drama at Pebble

The U.S. Amateur annually ends with golf’s most intimate weekend of the year. There are no more than four players on the course, announcers and cameras are in close proximity, even the small gallery is following along on the fairways.

This past weekend at Pebble Beach Golf Links, the heightened atmospherics of thick fog Saturday and crashing waves and seagulls squawking throughout the weekend intensified the sense of what it was like to be there. All of the conditions were in place to bring television viewers as close to the action as they’ll ever be, short of actually being on Pebble’s fairways with the players.

And yet, ironically, this viewer felt as disconnected to the action at Pebble Beach as I would have been had I been watching a PGA Tour event with 144 players throwing darts on a sterile, nondescript track lined by thousands of fans.

What we witnessed this past weekend was the tyranny of modern golf announcing taken to its logical extreme. We had twice as many announcers as players Saturday – four in the booth, two on the course and Holly Sonders and David Fay waiting in the wings – and three times as many Sunday. That math makes no sense, even given the uninterrupted coverage of U.S. Golf Association championships this season.

Viktor Hovland and Devon Bling in the 2018 U.S. Amateur Championship final. (Chris Keane/USGA)

Viktor Hovland topped Devon Bling in the 2018 U.S. Amateur Championship final. (Chris Keane/USGA)

I will say this for the Fox Sports team: They had no problem filling all of that airtime. They wore me out. The incessant chatter was exhausting. Even though there were no commercial breaks, I kept flipping to other channels just to get short breaks from the constant yakking.

The bigger problem was what was lost amid all of that chatter.

Capturing on-course audio supposedly has been a Fox priority, and for the most part the network has done a decent job on that point. Not this past weekend.

We were nearly two hours into Saturday’s semifinals before we could clearly hear a player (Cole Hammer) and caddie discussing how to hit a shot. We should have been hearing those conversations on every hole of every match. Yet there was a complete breakdown in discipline by the entire crew.

Time and again, various Fox announcers talked over player-caddie conversations. I could have cited examples on every hole. I have a hunch that if the Fox crew watches a replay of the coverage (and they should), they’ll cringe at what they see and hear.

This is a shame because the quality of golf, particularly during the semifinals, was quite good.

“This is A-plus golf here at Pebble Beach,” Fox’s Shane Bacon said.

“A fabulous match, I have to say,” Fox’s Ken Brown said later as he covered the Devon Bling-Isaiah Salinda match on 17. “The standard’s been wonderful.”

“The level of golf in that match was just phenomenal,” anchor Joe Buck said after Victor Hovland closed out Hammer, 3 and 2, on 16.

What we witnessed this past weekend was the tyranny of modern golf announcing taken to its logical extreme. We had twice as many announcers as players Saturday – and three times as many Sunday. That math makes no sense.

While the Fox team was talking too much, they were using shot-tracing technology too infrequently.

“Our Lexus Tracer, and never has it been more important than on a day like this,” Buck said as the marine layer hovered over the course midway through Saturday’s coverage.

For some reason, however, Fox only used shot-tracing sporadically. That’s odd, because innovative use of this technology has been a staple of Fox’s golf coverage. (During Saturday’s matches, I emailed a Fox spokeswoman to ask if there was a reason the shot-tracing technology was not used regularly. There was no response by the Sunday night deadline.)

One smart thing Fox did Sunday was put Brown out ahead of the Hovland and Bling match to demonstrate some of the challenges they would face. Brown, for example, showed how fast the eighth green runs from back to front, and that gave viewers a better appreciation of Hovland’s challenge on his third shot from the back fringe.

Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.

Televised golf is in a better place now than what it was five years ago, thanks to the decision by the USGA in August 2013 to sell its television rights to Fox Sports. New competition is almost inherently a good thing, and Fox’s entry into golf has forced CBS, NBC and Golf Channel to become more aggressive in their use of technology – particularly shot-tracing from tees and fairways and live tracing of drives over graphic representations of holes.

Moreover, the USGA and Rolex deserve credit for a partnership that provides viewers with a commercial-free format. It’s not clear what long-term impact that will have on the rest of the industry, but you have to think it’s going to be a positive one.

I don’t want to let one exasperating weekend at the U.S. Amateur obscure those advances. That said, I’m glad Hovland closed out the final with five holes to spare. I just couldn’t take any more of the coverage. Gwk

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