Fox shocked both the television and golf worlds in 2013 when it struck a 12-year deal with the USGA that included rights to the U.S. Open, which NBC had carried since 1995.
NBC analyst Johnny Miller summed up the feeling when he called the development “a big bummer” and added, “I feel bad for the USGA in a way that money was more important than basically a good golf crew.”
Then when Fox actually covered an Open, at Chambers Bay in 2015, it received strongly negative reviews, confirming the golf establishment’s worst fears.
But here we are three years later, and as it approaches its fourth Open, at Shinnecock Hills, Fox and its viewers seem to have gotten beyond the “bummer” phase.
“I think people’s reaction to us getting it would have probably been my reaction, too, if I wasn’t involved as much as I am,” said Joe Buck, who has been Fox’s host from the start. “I think people get used to: U.S. Open, NBC Sports . . . But I feel like we belong. We feel a hell of a lot more comfortable now.
“I think going into the first year maybe ignorance is bliss and you don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know until the live action starts what it’s like to actually cover a golf event, which is unlike anything in live sports, in my opinion, because there are so many different little mini-games going on over so many different acres.
“You’re really not watching the live event when you’re calling it, you’re just doing it off TV. That’s so foreign to me, and now it’s not. Not only have we done three U.S. Opens, we’re doing four events a year, at least the main crew is. So we’ve done enough now to where we know what to expect coming in, and it’s become fun instead of daunting.
“I’ve gone from, ‘Oh, my God, this thing is next week!’ to, ‘Oh, my God, this thing is next week and I’m going to be bummed out when it’s over.’ That’s kind of how I feel. You spend all year getting ready for it and then it comes and it goes and you have to wait until Pebble Beach next year.”
Buck’s lead analyst in 2015 was Greg Norman, whom Fox jettisoned after one year, replacing him with Paul Azinger.
From the start, its technical touches, notably how it traces the arc of the ball in the air, have been well received.
“Other networks have talked about the fact that they’ve looked at some of the stuff we’ve done and they’ve used it themselves,” producer Mark Loomis said. “Imitation is always a good sign. I play golf. I go to golf courses and there’s a million people who have an opinion about what you’re doing and I feel good about the feedback I get, both personally and what I read.
“But the reality of it is we go away for a long time and people don’t see us and then we show back up again. People aren’t watching us week-to-week. But I think the shot tracer technology that we’ve used, I read a lot about how people miss it when it’s not there. We’ve obviously been at the forefront of that.
“I think the one thing when we set off on this was to do what we could do in technology in terms of bringing a golf course to life with audio and all those things. I think the thing we’ve been successful with is not doing it because we can but doing it because it makes the experience better, and I do feel good about that.
“It was always going to be a matter of time. I said when we started that we’d be better in 2016 than we were in 2015 and we’d be better in 2017. I think every year we’ll just continue to get better and now people are familiar with Joe Buck and Paul Azinger, Curtis Strange, and all of our people, and it starts to become more familiar.
“One big advantage that we have is we’re kind of a fresh look at it. When Paul Azinger comes up you haven’t been hearing him week to week to week. When we got Paul, I think we got the best guy in the business.”
Analyst Brad Faxon, whose history at majors includes the 1995 and 2004 Opens at Shinnecock, said he can feel the growing credibility of Fox among his fellow golfers.
“We’ve got more repetitions with the production truck and the people there and we have separated ourselves with the technology that Fox has,” he said. “The toughest part of our job is the infrequency with which we cover the Tour.
“We only get one event on the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour and the Senior Tour, and it happens to be the biggest event of all three tours. We don’t get the consistency to know the players, to talk about the players, to remember what they might have done four weeks ago.
“So unless you watched every event and remembered every event, that’s the hardest part. But I think we all have kind of figured out what each other’s role is.”
Fox might be a relative novice in golf coverage, but it has no shortage of people serious about the game. That includes Buck, who at 49 and with infant twins at home has kept his handicap at around 1.5. So far.
“When Joe started doing this years ago people were like, ‘Ah, Joe, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about; he’s not really a golf guy,’” Faxon said. “Well, he is a golf guy. He’s passionate about the game. It’s amazing how he likes to practice and play so much when we’re out there.
“As soon as I tell that to people they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ So yeah, it makes a big difference . . . I’ve had some of the most fun ever playing golf with Joe Buck, because he wants to learn, he likes to play and he plays well.”
Said Buck, “I remember when I really started to follow golf, and what I first knew about Jim Nantz [of CBS] was that he played on that Houston golf team with Couples and with Paul Marchand and all those other guys. It was like, well, the guy plays, so obviously he can talk it.
“I think maybe it does [help] if somebody wants to bother getting on the GHIN handicap system and see that I’m a 1.5 index or whatever I am. But once the light goes on and once you’re trying to put Tiger Woods’ career into perspective or Phil Mickelson’s career chase with all the near misses, even his history at Shinnecock, into short succinct little snippets, none of that matters.”
Buck is more known for calling football and baseball games, but he clearly is enjoying his mid-career detour to televised golf.
“When you feel like you’ve done it enough to where you don’t feel the need to prove how much you know, where you don’t need to prove yourself every time you open your mouth, then it can get good,” he said. “Then it can get fun and you can let it breathe. I think golf is all about that.
“Everything I try to do in other sports I think plays best in golf, because there’s nothing like pure quiet on TV with somebody walking into a shot knowing they have to pull the club back and try to make a score somewhere. That’s the drama in golf. Now I think we’ve done it enough where people aren’t, ‘Can they actually even do golf?’ I think we can play with that a little bit and let it breathe a little more. That’s my goal.”
Loomis played golf at Vanderbilt and said his handicap “has snuck into the 3s. I work hard at it. My son is a freshman in high school and he’s a good player. He’s catching me, so I’m starting to put more time into it. I don’t like to lose.”