The USGA shocked both the golf and sports television worlds when it signed a deal with Fox in 2013 to take over coverage of the U.S. Open for a dozen years starting in 2015, succeeding tried and true NBC in that role.
Then the actual ’15 Open at Chambers Bay unfolded and did little to ease skeptics’ concerns, as Fox was hit with criticism from many angles, both on social media and from professional critics — me included.
Now it is time for Take Two, this time with a new star analyst in Paul Azinger in place of one-and-done Greg Norman, with a year of experience under its belt and with a far more familiar and conventional course in Oakmont.
Before moving forward, though, lead announcer Joe Buck had a few thoughts he wanted to share with critics of last year’s coverage.
“First of all, I’ve never been more proud of an event that I’ve covered on television,” he said on a conference call with reporters last week, “and I’ve been lucky enough to have done 18 World Series and four Super Bowls. I’ve done a game to a television audience of over 110 million people, and there aren’t a lot of people on this planet who can say that.
“Going into last year’s U.S. Open and coming out of last year’s U.S. Open, I’ve never been more proud of an event that we’ve covered at Fox, period. I refuse to come on here and apologize for 2015; that’s ridiculous. The critics who were unkind, that’s not a news flash, that’s kind of the way of the world, and when you start, you’ve got to earn your position. And until you’ve done it, you have no idea what it takes to do that.”
Later, he added, “To go back and say, my God, I want to beg for everybody’s apology for 2015, I will never do that . . . It was a great high-wire act and I’m glad we made it to the other side of the wire, and that thing could have fallen apart 50 different ways, 50 different times and it didn’t.
“And we had the right winner at the end and we had drama down the stretch and we were disciplined enough to be quiet and let the natural sound and let Jordan Spieth talking to himself and talking to his caddie come through on your television at home. I’m not sure we got the credit for that. It takes a lot to be quiet, a lot of confidence to not talk.
“I thought our group did a hell of a job with laying out and letting that natural sound from the cup mics transfer over to a television audience, stuff that they had never heard before. I’m proud of everything we did and I know that for whatever we did in 2015 it will be markedly better in 2016. You don’t know until you do it once. We’ve done it once and I can’t wait to get there this year.”
While some criticized Norman for not providing enough analysis of Dustin Johnson’s collapse on the putting green on the final hole on Sunday, just as stark were the holes in Fox’s journalistic approach after the fact.
Buck did acknowledge that he could have done a better job of seeing the bigger picture of the event and not getting caught up in scoreboard updates as he navigated the tournament. Many in the sports TV industry consider golf the most complex sport to cover, something Buck discovered last June.
“So what do I take out of ?” Buck said. “Besides the satisfaction, I think where I failed most of the time last year was injecting the heart and soul into what these guys were trying to do. I was completely caught up in managing the scoreboard — going from one green to the next, and back to a fairway, and to a tee and back to the green where we just saw somebody hit out of the fairway.
“There are a lot of moving parts in golf and you make the mistake of thinking going in that it’s going to be slow. It’s actually the opposite. It’s by far the fastest event when you’re sitting in the [lead announcer] chair. And until you sit in the chair you don’t know what it’s like. Prior to 2015 I had no idea what it took.”
Buck said he will spend more time tapping into the expertise of analysts such as Azinger and on-course reporters such as Curtis Strange.
“Their experience in a venue like this and on this specific course at Oakmont will be invaluable,” he said. “That’s where I will grow most, in being able to take a step back in knowing I know the mechanics of doing a major championship.”
Fox drew generally good reviews for its technical touches, particularly with audio and also with its tracer shots illustrating the flight of the ball.
Buck said a favorite element is the yardage estimates from the ball to the hole, something that is difficult to gauge when watching on television.
“That, to me, is invaluable, and it takes the pressure off the guys calling it,” Buck said.
Said Azinger: “In the end, isn’t it our responsibility to let the picture be descriptive? Well, the picture is going to be the most descriptive it’s ever been. And then that leaves us to be informative — what the player thinks, how the player thinks, where to try to get the ball, just the stuff we can enhance, because the picture is pretty descriptive.”
One of the biggest challenges last year was out of Fox’s control: the relentless beige of the course, which made identifying the ball difficult.
“I’m excited for green grass and a white ball landing on green grass,” Buck said of Oakmont.
Azinger, who will join Buck and Brad Faxon at the 18th hole, noted that in fairness the players were having as much trouble seeing the ball as the Fox cameras were.
Strange said this year’s event would be a completely different television experience. “We’re at an old friend,” he said. “We’re at an established U.S. Open, tough, traditional golf course, versus last year it was a great, great unknown.
“For me as an announcer, I wasn’t part of it and I watched a lot of it, there was no familiarity at Chambers Bay. So everything is going to be better, not only production-wise, but because we’re at a grand, old place to play golf.”
Coordinating producer Mark Loomis said it was no surprise that last year’s coverage was a work in progress.
“We went into this knowing that the experience from last year and what we did last year, we would just build on that,” he said. “When I sat here 12 months ago I really didn’t know what we were going to be. And when we were done you have a starting point and we were much different by the end of the summer than we were at the beginning of the summer and we’re much different today than we were then.
“I knew that going in. It wasn’t like we were going to magically show up last year at Chambers Bay and say, ‘Here’s our team for the next 12 years.’ It was always going to be a process.
“We have different people on this [media] call than we had. I’m excited about adding Paul and Curtis. I’m looking forward to that. From a technological standpoint, we did a lot of things last year at Chambers Bay. This year we’re probably doing a few less things, but we’ll probably be better at it.”
Later, he said, “There was such an unknown at Chambers Bay last year. We were kind of trying to prepare for everything. We hadn’t seen it before. Now, we haven’t done the U.S. Open ourselves at Oakmont, but I’ve seen it at Oakmont. I went back and watched 2007, so I have a really good feel for how the course is going to play, what’s important and the things we’ll need to show off.
“This year, I know exactly how we’re going to use highlighting the greens and bring those to life. I know how we’re going to use our tracers and our yardage posts. I’ve already walked around the golf course a month ago and picked out all the bunkers we’re going to highlight and put yardage posts on.
“One of the people who is working with us is [Oakmont director of golf] Bob Ford. Nobody knows that golf course like Bob Ford, so he’ll be invaluable for us in terms of helping bring that to life. He and [golf course architect] Gil Hanse every morning will help us set up the golf course. With all of the things we have at our disposal this year, we know what’s coming with Oakmont. We’ve already been through it once, so it’s a much easier thing to plan for than a year ago.”
Fox will carry 22 ½ hours of live coverage, with an additional 14 on FS1 on Thursday and Friday and additional digital coverage on Fox Sports Go.