It has been four years since NBC’s Johnny Miller welcomed Fox to the U.S. Open fold with a blistering reaction to the USGA changing TV networks, famously saying, “You can’t just fall out of a tree and do the U.S. Open.”
When Fox officially took over in 2015, it figuratively fell out of a tree at Chambers Bay, with coverage that widely was panned by critics and viewers.
But after replacing Greg Norman with Paul Azinger as the lead analyst before Oakmont in 2016, and with a year of experience under its belt, the operation improved.
Year Three begins Thursday at Erin Hills and lead announcer Joe Buck said the vibe has changed dramatically since that rookie Open.
“I’m the most critical of anybody of things we do, so it felt in 2015 we were like aliens walking around at Chambers Bay; it didn’t feel normal,” Buck said from Wisconsin during a break in preparation. “I can only say that having done all these different events at Fox, last year felt really good. It felt like we had a bit more of a handle on it.
“Obviously we had done, by that point, five [golf] events, but this year I sense no scrambling. I feel like the last two years, certainly the first year, poor [coordinating producer] Mark Loomis, everybody was asking him how to tie their shoes. And now it’s to the point where it’s, ‘OK, I know what I need to do.’ . . . It feels natural now and that’s a good feeling.
“When Johnny Miller said what he said about you can’t just fall out of a tree and do a U.S. Open, well, at some point you have to. Unless [television] rights just stay where they are until the end of time, somebody is going to do their first U.S. Open.
“I’m sure you’ve read that we don’t live in the most forgiving of times. Scrutiny on social media is at its all-time highest. I think we kind of weathered the storm, and we’re on the other side of it. It feels a lot more calm, that’s for sure.”
Buck said Fox has benefitted from a team with extensive TV experience.
“Paul Azinger is a television vet and Curtis Strange is a television vet; he does the Masters on ESPN and has been a main analyst for ABC,” Buck said. “Brad Faxon is just a really talented TV person even though he’s relatively new to being at a desk. It kind of fascinates me how quickly he’s taken to all that.
“Everybody knows how to do TV. Now with this extra level of comfort, you can A, be yourself and B, have a little more fun and know you’re going to cover it, and if we don’t get it right away we’ll get it before we get off the air, and that’s kind of the fun of it.
“It feels now like I do with baseball and football, like we’re not going to go off the air without covering major stories. It’s simple, but that’s a feeling where, OK, we’re tightened up. We’re in a good way. We’re buttoned up, and that’s great.”
Avid golf viewers traditionally are among the most demanding of any sport, partly because unlike, say, football, fans are apt to play the game themselves on a regular basis.
“When you misspeak in golf, people in the golf world that are splitting hairs and parsing every word seem to just freak out,” Buck said. “It’s not normal. The funny thing is that now that you’re in it, I’ve paid way more attention to how other networks do broadcasts, and they make mistakes all the time.
“But because they’re kind of part of the establishment as opposed to us being new, nobody blinks an eye. If we make a mistake, it’s, ‘See, I told you they were going to make a mistake.’ It’s unrealistic to expect to be perfect. It’s never going to happen.”
Buck, 48, brings his own bona fides to the telecast as an accomplished golfer. He said his handicap is hovering in the range of 4 or 5.
“But I played here at Erin Hills three weeks ago,” he said, “and I basically walked off the 18th green looking for a tennis instructor. Time to switch sports. We played from the back; it was blowing. I wanted to just throw my clubs in a lake. Unfortunately there are no lakes out here. I had to take them home.”
It has been quite a stretch for Buck leading to the Open, from calling an instant classic World Series and Super Bowl to the release of his autobiography, “Lucky Bastard,” in November to an extensive guest acting appearance – playing himself – on the IFC comedy series “Brockmire” in May.
“I just don’t know that it could or will ever get any better,” he said of the past eight months. “Egomaniacally speaking, the book kind of sets it all off for me personally. It feels like I finally get to kind of get out there who I am, and without being too dramatic about it, it’s kind of taken a little bit of the pressure off.
“I feel like it’s the best thing I could have done, and it’s really loosened me up to just kind of have fun with the stuff I’m doing. I don’t know why that is. ‘Brockmire’ is kind of a weird example of that.
“But doing the Cubs in the World Series, I think we kind of take for granted now how special that was, only because they were good the year before that and still should be good, although they’re not right now.
“So you get the Cubs [in the World Series] and it hasn’t happened since 1945. Then, man, you get seven games, which is a rarity, and then you get 10 innings in Game 7 and you’re hanging on every pitch. It can’t get better than that, historically speaking, because whether it’s the Indians or before them the Red Sox, at least they’ve been in World Series.
“It’s kind of crazy to even think back. When you’re in it, you don’t really realize it. Looking back you think, ‘My God, they won.’ The Cubs won, dumb as that sounds.
“Then you get an overtime Super Bowl with a team [the Patriots] that was dead in the water and a series of decisions and the presence of [Tom] Brady and they win in overtime. I think the moral of that story is don’t give up on a game . . . We kept swinging away and fortunately a game broke out and I feel like we handled the fourth quarter and overtime as well as we could.
“How can it get better than that for those two sports? I mean, it just won’t.”