OAKMONT, PA—In early 2015, the fanfare tied to FOX being the new broadcast partner for United States Golf Association (USGA) events—most notably the U.S. Open—was nothing less than euphoric with promises of “wait till you see” what we do. The hoopla was akin to a rousing New Year’s eve party. Unfortunately, when the actual telecast eventually took place it became clear the hype was far better than what the product actually delivered. To borrow the long time Texas expression, “FOX was all hat and no cattle.”
FOX touted the involvement of its new “golf faces” with the likes of lead announcer Joe Buck and chief analyst Greg Norman leading the way. Buck is the “voice” for a range of high profile sports covered by FOX with the National Football League and Major League Baseball but his golf acumen was clearly missing at key moments during last year’s coming out party at Chambers Bay just outside of Seattle.
Norman, the Aussie and world former number one player was especially cited as being able to take the traditional role of “analyst” and go beyond what the likes of what such others as Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo have done respectively in similar capacities. Norman did show some glimpses of perceptive awareness but far too often his lack of preparedness often meant long stretches where his voice was silent. More than anything else the main analyst has to be thoroughly engaged—setting the context and providing a good bit of perspective. Norman simply was unable to put forward a sustained sense of really being connected and into the event.
The USGA opted to ditch their previous network partner since 1995—NBC Sports—for the fatter wallet FOX provided. The 12-year contract equates to roughly $100 million per year.
The 800-pound gorilla the USGA provides is its Open Championship. The event symbolizes the national championship of American golf and given its long tradition—the first being played in 1895—is rotated annually to the finest and most challenging golf facilities in the USA.
FOX had never really immersed itself into golf and its lack of previous involvement was clearly visible with last year’s coming out party. Holly Sonders was given a prominent role in doing post-round interviews and frankly her attire was more the headliner than her wherewithal to frame cogent questions that needed to be asked. Watching her attempted interview with last year’s winner Jordan Spieth was painful to endure.
Norman was supposed to be the point person, but Greg flubbed away his opportunity in much the same manner as he tossed away key major events during the height of his time at the top of golf’s pecking order. After the first-year debacle, FOX realized that more than high tech innovations and other such wizardry would not be sufficient without having a person fully capable in bringing to life what was happening during the U.S. Open, but going beyond either the superfluous or vapid commentary. With Norman sent packing the key question was who could change the past storyline and turn a lemon into lemonade.
Enter Paul Azinger.
The former Ryder Cup Captain and PGA Championship winner had demonstrated a very successful record of achievement on the PGA Tour. Zinger, as he is affectionately called, won 12 times on the PGA Tour and with his playing days drifting into the rear view mirror opted to get himself involved with golf broadcasting. From 2005 to 2015 the 56-year-old Azinger became a key force in his analyst’s role with ESPN and ABC Sports. Initially, Paul worked alongside Faldo until he opted to leave in 2006 for his present position with CBS Sports.
Credit FOX Coordinating Producer for Golf Mark Loomis in moving swiftly to change the past storyline of failure into one of potential great promise in getting Azinger to come aboard. Azinger adds stature and credibility but he is only one person and much of how FOX is defined will be best seen on how all the moving parts work. At Chambers Bay, the voices of former PGA Tour players Brad Faxon and Corey Pavin worked well. The same cannot be said of how out of her league former LPGA star and Hall-of-Famer Julie Inkster was at key times.
The real dilemma for FOX is that the U.S. Open is the only golf telecast the network has of pivotal importance. There are no others remotely close to what the U.S. Open provides. Getting it right this year should be a bit easier given how badly the situation was last year. Azinger’s involvement will play a major role and his wherewithal to take clear stands and not shy away when called upon can fill a huge void Norman caused.
The USGA is very much aware that their brand—being the lead golf association here in America—is defined to a large degree in how its marquee event is seen and understood by golfers—both domestically and internationally. Clearly, the folks who run The Augusta National Golf Club are aware of the reach of television and have made it a point to ensure that the telecast of the annual Masters event is always handled in a deft and powerful way via CBS-Sports.
The pressure on FOX is there to show that the initial stage fright from ’15 is yesterday’s news. Having Oakmont as the venue this year and bringing on board Azinger could very well prove to be the avenue by which FOX shows how much smarter and capable they have become.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.