There are many storylines to follow this week at Oakmont. Who wins should be the top one. How Oakmont tests (or tortures) the players should be right there as well. But, if there is an early favorite for the third-most-talked-about story from the week, it may be how it all looks and sounds on television.
With the highly anticipated second year of Fox Sports’ signature golf event coverage, there are many outstanding questions on how the coverage of the season’s second major will improve from a year ago. For Golf News Net, that means a before, during and after analysis of the coverage.
After the critically (and viewer-) panned inaugural effort from Chambers Bay in 2015, the sweeping changes Fox made to its golf coverage for 2016 have been both expected and welcomed. The game of announcer musical chairs, coupled with a minimizing of ancillary programming (more golf, less fluff) has given a 2.0 feel leading up to the coverage this year. Some (expected) highlights:
Paul Azinger in as lead analyst – While this move was anticipated long before it took place, ESPN bowing out of golf coverage last year was the final nudge to make it happen. While Greg Norman has publicly aired his distaste for how his ouster was handled, the writing was on the wall before the cameras were turned off a year ago.
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With Zinger, Fox not only gets a voice that has shown tremendous flexibility in reacting to whatever the moment might be (bear in mind the stark contrast in broadcasting golf at the Masters versus The Open Championship), but also somebody who has experience dealing with the flow of a major telecast. While critics can easily point to Norman’s weaknesses in analysis, opinion and energy, much of his downfall had to do with the logistics of being on the air. Azinger is accustomed to that rhythm, to dealing with voices in his headset and making his peers on the broadcast better as well.
While this change was the most obvious and the most known, it was also the most necessary, and already puts the Fox broadcast miles ahead of the production from last year.
Brad Faxon also in the booth – While he won’t be there permanently, Faxon will spend enough time there to make it feel like there are three voices (along with host Joe Buck). While that can be complicated, it’s better than too many conversations happening from hole to hole, which plagued much of the flow last year. Neither Azinger nor Faxon are overly talkative, and their minds are unique to the game. This has the potential to be a really good supplement to the viewers beyond the images on the screen.
Shane Bacon handling interviews – This is more pro-Shane Bacon than it is anti-Holly Sonders (more on her below), but it was obvious a change needed to be made in this position. It is a testament to Fox’s reputation for being edgier to put Bacon in this position. Golf broadcasting has a history of struggling to incorporate younger, alternative voices (full disclaimer: the author of this piece is a 35-year-old former professional golf broadcaster), seemingly alienating a younger audience who wants to see the game get a little louder and more entertaining.
It may not be the perfect spot for him, but Bacon’s personality should bring more color out of the interviews, and his experience in the sport and covering it year-round should lead to more insightful, prepared questions that go beyond the scorecard.
Holly Sonders in the studio – No awkward hugs with golfers or struggles with the interactive big screen (which is also gone), but Sonders taking over from Curt Menefee (who was woefully unprepared last year) seems like the natural fit. It keeps her on the screen for eyeballs, but also gets her into a more scripted role, with reinforcements around her. She will be anchoring the “intermissions” of golf coverage, so to speak.
The already expected:
Fox’s love of technology – While use of Protracer technology was plentiful at Chambers Bay, reviews were split on its effectiveness. Some loved robots driving down the fairways and drones flying above (not as possible at Oakmont). There was sound from everywhere in 2015. The graphics were a mess early and inconsistent late.
What we know is that the production will be full of things we don’t see every week in golf because a) it’s a major telecast with more resources and b) it’s Fox. Some will work and some will not. That’s okay. If networks aren’t willing to experiment on things to make the broadcasts more entertaining, they aren’t doing their jobs. Sit back and enjoy watching them play with their toys. (Especially when they put grids on greens to show how a putt will break)
A better course – In many ways, Fox got the worst possible venue to lead off its USGA coverage. The barren colors of Chambers Bay made following the ball difficult for camera operators and really difficult to showcase beauty. The disasters on the greens and the back-and-forth defense of them put Fox in a tough position early in the relationship.
Oakmont won’t provide the same drama. It is greener, and it’s toughness doesn’t need to be manufactured much beyond what the golf course already provides. It also has a legendary history that will make the storytelling of the broadcast much easier for all levels of production. Like adding Azinger, simply having the tournament at Oakmont gave Fox a boost long before anybody arrived.
The question marks:
Curtis Strange – Many don’t realize that he came over from ESPN as well. He will have some cameos in the booth while also being the lead on-course reporter during the coverage. This is a departure from what Strange has done in the business, and, while he was in a tower for ESPN at past Open Championships, walking the course and providing quick, usable comments is a different art form. To be in the lead role will be something to keep an eye on.
Strange’s walking mates – Juli Inkster and Scott McCarron will also be on the ground, and, at a place like Oakmont, where the nuances of each hole and how the ball is impacted is vital to the story of the tournament, the on-course reporters have to be sharp. Inkster got better and better all throughout last year. McCarron is still finding his voice and energy. This is where not having a Roger Maltbie, or a David Feherty, or an Andy North can hurt a broadcast. Succinct, passionate descriptions of what players are facing is essential to this tournament.
Joe Buck – America’s favorite play-by-play punching bag took unwarranted grief last year for simply being there. Even he has pointed out that it could have been worse, and he’s right. A captain who is given a ship with holes in it can’t be held responsible for its sinking, can he?
Buck is incredibly versatile, loves golf and is more Dan Hicks than Jim Nantz, which can annoy the traditionalists of the sport. The question mark isn’t about his ability, it’s about if he will be given an opportunity to truly shine.
The USGA – It hasn’t been a great mini stretch for setup, between the mixed-grass greens last year and the scorched Earth of Pinehurst in 2014, although that was considered a win by many deeply ingrained in the sport. The Spieth charge/D.J. collapse of last year’s back nine salvaged what would have been a forgettable week of major championship golf. As was said earlier, it is difficult to mess up Oakmont. The course, seemingly, was built to host U.S. Opens. With heavy rains in the forecast, there may be variables, but if the players are allowed to simply tackle the course in front of them, it should be a great show.
A show that will be watched with a discerning eye. Break a leg, Fox, the world is watching.