It was all going smoothly for Fox Sports’ coverage of the 118th U. S. Open until about high noon Saturday. Easily in its best production groove since beginning coverage of the Open in 2015, Fox was humming along at a high level through the first couple days.
All hell broke then. Let’s call it, ‘Bloody Saturday at the U. S. Open.’
Let’s take a look at the highs and lows of Fox’ coverage and the reports aired by ESPN, the Golf Channel and SiriusXM.
- Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of Joe Buck in the anchor role, particularly his whimsical offhanded attempt at golf comedy. It just doesn’t seem appropriate. This said, his energy wasn’t tempered when Tiger Woods, Jason Day, and Jordan Spieth bowed out early. Stimulated perhaps by European Ryder Cup assassin Ian Poulter who shot up the leaderboard on Day 2, Buck got better as the tournament advanced through the weekend.
- Fox lead analyst Paul Azinger was very blunt on Day#2 when Poulter was having an uncharacteristic late round blow up, saying, “Poulter had one unforced error after another.” It is good to see Azinger, the lead analyst, land several haymakers when appropriate. Azinger is growing into the top role much the way Johnny Miller did at NBC when he became its top golf analyst many years ago. Azinger isn’t afraid to be frank. It’s refreshing.
- Another refreshing segment of Fox’ broadcast was Ken Brown’s “Brownie Points.” There was a sequence on Friday when Brown gave viewers a terrific visual of Shinnecock’s “Frying Pan” greens. Golf fans could feel the difficulty the players faced, attempting to hit approach shots into such demanding surfaces. Irish journalist Shane O’Donoghue was also excellent in his role as Fox’ post-round interviewer. His best work came after players trudged off, after difficult 3rd round conditions. Energetic and understated, Shane came across impeccably. Holly Sonders, while still part of the Fox team, handled these duties in the past, but this year she was limited to presenting features. It’ll certainly be interesting to keep an eye on her upcoming assignments.
- A facet of Fox’ production that I had a change of heart on this year was the in-cup microphone. I always thought the sound of the ball dropping into the cup was hokey. My perception changed when viewers were able to pick up a very important conversation between Jordan Spieth and his caddy Michael Greller. Spieth was grinding to make the cut late on Friday when he was faced with a short but tricky putt to stay inside the cut line. Spieth and Greller talked it out giving viewers an inside the ropes look. Even after he missed the putt, the microphone was still picking up a frustrated Spieth muttering to himself. Great Stuff!
- Fox’ sensitive microphones, through no fault of its own, picked up an explicit sexual conversation between two fans that viewers all were easily able to hear. Fox spokesperson Anne Pennington apologized on behalf of the network and said it would work with the United States Golf Association, (USGA) to prevent such things from happening again. Think….7 second delay coming soon?
- OK, time to move on to the defining moments of this tournament and frankly it’s where I felt Fox was at its best. Saturday’s round will forever be remembered for two things; How Shinnecock was out of control due to the poor course setup by the USGA and the Phil Mickelson incident on #13. How Fox handled its assessment of the day would be closely scrutinized.
Curtis Strange, Fox lead commentator on the course, had first post-round dibs at Mickelson for the zany incident in which Mickelson admitted that he wanted to take a 2-shot penalty on #13. Strange, a two-time winner of the event, gave Mickelson every opportunity to apologize for his actions but essentially let Mickelson tell his side of the story. Strange was disappointed but wasn’t hard enough on Mickelson. Perhaps this is where Buck had his finest moment as Fox’ lead on the broadcast. He called out Mickelson and his comments as a “perfect way to justify poor behavior.” David Faye, former Executive Director of the USGA who assists Fox on its broadcast as a rules interpreter got in on the action. He lobbied for Mickelson to be disqualified, saying that had he still been director, he would have pushed the rules committee hard to do so.
Jay Delsing, Fox on-course commentator, with whom we had the opportunity to speak prior to the tournament, http://www.sportsbroadcastjournal.com/fox-commentator-jay-delsing-previews-u-s-open-his-favorite-is-phil-mickelson/, had this to say late Saturday night when we had a chance to speak: “I believe Phil inadvertently crossed the line on what our game is about. Not intentionally meaning to cross the line, but Phil hit his ball as it was moving because he did not want to play it from where it was going to finish. I’m a huge Phil fan but if his ball was headed to a pond and he did that, would 2 strokes be applicable? Not really.
Andy North of ESPN and also a former two-time winner of the U. S. Open showed his disdain for the incident by saying that Phil would never do such a thing at The Masters because he respects that crowd more.
The can’t miss major championship coverage on Golf Channel’s “Live From” was absolutely on its game Saturday evening. Brandel Chamblee, Frank Nobilo and David Duval all took cracks at the USGA and its Executive Director Mike Davis for the course set-up and naturally, the Mickelson incident. In typical candid Chamblee fashion, he summed it up best saying, “This will be a day the USGA remembers for a long time.” Rich Lerner, Golf Channel’s host on “Live From” called Phil goofy, pretty strong stuff from a network that relies on stars for coverage.
- Sirius XM radio does such a tremendous job with its coverage of tournament golf. The U. S. Open was no different. True pros all the way around and you can tell they’re having fun. Fred Albers, former tour pro John Maginnes, Bill Rosinski and Maureen Madill paint such a wonderful and concise picture for listeners. Special mention for Northern Ireland’s Madill. The detailed narrative she provides makes me feel like I’m behind the golfer when he’s swinging and putting. Just a wonderful touch. Sirius also does an outstanding job on its tournament wrap up show each night with Taylor Zarzour and former tour pros Carl and Dennis Paulson.
- Sunday’s coverage across the board was pretty predictable. Course setup was far easier as the USGA wanted no controversy. Strong golf became more of a theme and the question was could Brooks Koepka hold off all challengers and secure a second consecutive U. S. Open title. Solid pickup from Fox, noting Tommy Fleetwood’s early charge up the leaderboard. There was also a focus on Masters winner Patrick Reed as he became a Sunday story. It was clear that Koepka was just in a better and stronger place than most. Fox honed in on it as he continued to make strong par saves on the back 9. An excellent touch having Curtis Strange, the most recent repeat winner in ’88 and ‘89 interview its current resident, repeater Koepka.