Is FOX finally ready for prime time?

By Peter Mumford

Any avid golf fan watching the telecast of the US Open on the weekend would immediately sense that something was different from the usual weekly PGA Tour coverage delivered by CBS and NBC.

For starters, it was a different cast of characters. Three years prior, Fox Sports had outbid NBC for broadcast rights to all USGA events, including the US Open. It was a risky move by the USGA, as Fox had no previous experience in golf coverage and didn’t have anybody in their stable that had even covered golf. However, the brass at Fox dangled a huge bag of cash in front of NBC ($1.1 billion) and the deal was done – 12 years at some $93 million per year.

Fox’s first attempt at covering a US Open was in 2015 at Chambers Bay. The network brought in Greg Norman to work with their top anchorman Joe Buck and they had a large supporting cast of current and former players. Anybody who remembers that telecast will recall that veteran broadcaster Joe Buck demonstrated he knew nothing about golf, while Hall of Fame golfer Greg Norman showed he knew nothing about broadcasting. The two delivered one of the all time wooden performances ever seen in sports and after all was said and done, that was the end of Norman.

Last year at Oakmont, Fox added Paul Azinger to the broadcast team, pared down the supporting cast and added a dizzying display of high tech visuals. The results were a marked improvement over the previous year but it still wasn’t the home run that the USGA wanted for their flagship event. Part of the problem was that Sunday’s finale was marred by the infamous Dustin Johnson rules controversy but Fox wasn’t at fault for that, unless you want to blame their high def slow motion coverage of DJ’s ball moving on the green.

With two years of experience together, including US Amateurs and US Womens Opens, Fox and the USGA set some ambitious targets for their coverage at Erin Hills.

First and foremost, the USGA wanted to ensure there were no rules controversies like their previous men’s and women’s Opens. To reduce delays in assessing penalties, they implemented five scoring stations around the course, each equipped with a Rules Official and an iPad.

Second, they needed to showcase Erin Hills in the best possible way. As a new host site for the US Open, there was no history to draw on and most viewers would be seeing the course for the first time. Fox added cameras, cranes and drones to showcase the golf course in a live setting, then added terabytes of graphics to illustrate it digitally from every possible angle too. There wasn’t a spot anywhere on the course that a player could hit the ball that the Fox technology couldn’t reach and explain in extensive detail.

Ultimately, the success of a golf broadcast boils down to two ingredients: the play on the course and the men and women calling the play from the broadcast booth and on the ground. There was nothing Fox could do about the former but they believed they had the right team to handle play-by-play.

CBS and NBC have primarily relied on a two man team to anchor their broadcasts, sometimes rotating the guys in the booth. Fox went with three: Joe Buck, Paul Azinger and Brad Faxon.

Buck still doesn’t know much about golf, even though he is an avid player himself. Covering the professional game requires more than just an amateur’s perspective and it would appear that Mr. Buck hasn’t spent much time studying it.

Azinger is a natural in the booth and has an incredible knack for story-telling. His experience as a player and Ryder Cup captain showed time and time again through insightful comments and little anecdotes. Unlike the veteran broadcasters on the other networks, Azinger brings a fresh approach to his chatter. He doesn’t use all the same old lines and clichés.

One of his best lines was when he was describing the ragged edges of the bunkers at Erin Hills.

“The edges look like the kale your wife makes you eat after you turn 50, all those jagged edges. Hate that stuff.”

Faxon, too, is knowledgeable and entertaining. Always lauded as one of the best putters on Tour, it was quite evident that he had spent considerable time on the massive greens at Erin Hills, studying the breaks and noting where the trouble spots were. Avid golf fans can probably recall every break on every green at Augusta but there’s no history to draw on at Erin Hills so Faxon’s comments were invaluable.

One of the concerns of having three men in the broadcast booth is they might all talk over one another. There were a couple of instances of too many guys yakking at once but fortunately, Joe Buck, who is a very good anchor, usually bowed out and left the stage to the experts.

Speaking of experts, Curtis Strange is at the top of his game for US Opens. Having won two, he can draw on his own experience managing the pressure of being in contention and while it’s unusual to have someone with Strange’s pedigree used as a foot soldier, he seems to relish the role and can help viewers understand intimately what players are thinking and doing on the golf course.

As for other supporting roles, they were a mixed bag and Fox may have to re-think some of them before they get to Shinnecock Hills next year.

The most jarring images from the weekend were the segments featuring former PGA Tour pro Steve Flesch and current Fox Sports hottie Holly Sonders, formerly of the Golf Channel. Both of them clearly looked out of place – Flesch was dressed in an ill-fitting suit while Sonders looked like she was clothed and coiffed for a charity gala. Couldn’t they just put them in golf clothes?

For a long time, golf telecasts have delivered someone with a British or Australian accent to add gravitas to the proceedings. For years, people like Henry Longhurst, Peter Alliss, Ben Wright and more recently Ian Baker-Finch and Nick Faldo have weighed in with their observations and occasional opinions. Apart from Baker-Finch, who is clearly addicted to happy pills – every shot is fantastic, every player is wonderful – the foreign commentators have spiced up the broadcast and are a welcome addition.

In keeping with that tradition, Fox brought in their own trio of foreigners. First off, Ken Brown was air-freighted from England to Wisconsin for this year’s US Open to reprise the role he played so well at Oakmont. In his playing days, Brown was perhaps best known for being one of the Tour turtles. Despite his reputation as a human rain delay, Brown offered quick, informative commentary on the group he was following and brilliant analysis. His “Brownie Points” proved that he knew the course and what the players could expect when they found themselves in trouble spots or on the wrong side of a pin.

One segment had Brown dropping golf balls all over the 14th green to show what would happen if a shot or putt got too close to the edge. It was really informative, yet still highly entertaining. The man clearly has a sense of humour that needs to be heard more often.

Another foreign accent belonged to Darren Clarke with his Irish lilt and unrelenting good nature. Unlike David Feherty on CBS, whose humour often seems forced, like he feels he has to perform all the time, Clarke is more of a natural funny man on camera, as well as off.

One of my favourite Darren Clarke stories is from some long ago World Match Play around the time a much toned Tiger Woods was dominating golf and everybody was trying to keep pace with Tiger’s workout regimen. Asked if he had a workout routine, a very corpulent Clarke, with a large cigar in hand, said, “I went to the fitness trailer once but there was a line-up so I went to the pub.”

Like Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger, Clarke is a major winner and long time Ryder Cup player. He’s also a terrific story-teller but was under-utilized at Erin Hills. Note to producers: use Clarke more on future broadcasts.

Irish broadcaster Shane O’Donaghue filled in well for Buck on the anchor desk when called upon.

The addition of architect Gil Hanse to the broadcast crew was another welcome addition. He added valuable information about the design and playability of Erin Hills. Not sure if that would be required on more traditional layouts where the open has been before but it worked this year.

Probably the most anticipated aspect of the Fox telecast was the technical wizardry they had touted for weeks leading up to Erin Hills. More shot tracers, more technical analysis, more camera angles and so on. According to some media analysts, this is a prohibitively expensive package which is why you don’t see it every week on the PGA Tour.

However, for one week a year for the US Open, Fox is able to pull out all the stops. And it certainly is impressive.

The split screen showing Rickie Fowler hitting his tee ball on one panel and the adjacent panel using the shot tracer to show the ball’s flight over a graphic of the hole is far superior to a camera shot of the ball suspended in mid air before falling to the ground. When Fox was able to overlay the scene with graphics showing clubhead speed, launch angle, ball speed, carry distance and total distance, it must have been like a drug to stats junkies.

The added use of microphones to pick up conversations between player and caddie was brilliant and even better when it was used on the range to hear instructor Butch Harmon with Rickie Fowler.

Technically, Fox scored a home run against NBC and CBS.

But did Fox get the home run the USGA wanted?

Unfortunately, the championship itself didn’t live up to typical US Open standards. Too many stars were gone by Friday night, wet weather softened the golf course and what was supposed to be a stern test of golf, turned into a birdie fest. Justin Thomas broke Johnny Miller’s 44 year old scoring record and more players broke par in more rounds than any US Open in history.

Still, it was the US Open, they did award the trophy to Brooks Koepka who played brilliantly, and the Fox people by and large kept things entertaining.

I thought the crew did an admirable job, even though some people tell me they watched with the mute button on. Listening to Azinger, Faxon and Strange was like listening to three old buddies discuss a round over a couple of pints – lots of great stories and a few laughs. When you compare that to the droning chatter and formulaic presentation we get each week on NBC or CBS, I’ll take the Fox package any day.

In fact, I can’t wait for 2018 and Shinnecock Hills.

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