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A View From the Couch: ESPN British Open Telecast a Home Run

GOLF.com at St. Andrews: Sunday Recap
Jeff Ritter and Alan Bastable break down the third round of the 2015 British Open and predict who will lift the Claret Jug on Monday.

My view of The Open from the couch this week:

The dominoes just keep falling into place for Jordan Spieth. Some of them are by his own hand, some are by others. Spieth needed 36-hole leader Dustin Johnson to not run away in the third round. Johnson complied and crapped the bed with a 75 in easy scoring conditions. Spieth needed to play a really good round. He did, posting a 6-under 66. Now he’s one shot off the lead and the final round may feature rain and wind. Nothing that’s happened so far leads me to believe that Spieth isn’t going to win the third leg of the Grand Slam…

Suddenly, I’m disappointed that the Open is leaving ESPN in 2017 and going to NBC. This has been the best ESPN golf production I’ve ever seen. A lot of it has to do with having Mike Tirico and Paul Azinger in the tower most of the day. Tirico is a pro’s pro and never forgets that he’s the host and not the color analyst, unlike some other hosts. Azinger, meanwhile, re-established that he’s the most entertaining analyst in golf. Johnny Miller is the best and most insightful in the game but Azinger is Johnny’s slightly-more-contemporary equal but more conversational and irreverent and funnier. Nick Faldo at CBS? He can’t even caddie for Zinger in the booth. Fox Sports? Well, Greg Norman is supposed to be the heavy artillery but Brad Faxon did most of the talking at Fox’s U.S. Women’s Open telecast even though Faxon was stationed at the 17th hole and not in the big booth with Norman, Joe Buck and Juli Inkster. Neither is any match for Azinger…

Azinger and Curtis Strange were the first to question the R&A’s decision Saturday to resume play and continue it even while the 11th green was unplayable in the gusty winds, and then finally halt play.

Azinger quickly pointed out that some players, notably Spieth and Johnson, had to play eight shots in the wind while some of the groups stacked up at the 11th never played a shot. He questioned the fairness of that and Strange also wondered how it was fair for play to stop on one portion of the course—the 11th green—but continue on the rest of the course. Shouldn’t everyone stop play at the same time?

An R&A rules official, keeping in radio contact with the officials making the decision, kept ESPN informed on each latest development. He made a good defense, pointing out how the R&A had someone taking wind measurements and testing putts on the 11th green for 45 minutes before play began and there wasn’t a problem then. He also argued that while the 11th green was unplayable, the rest of the course wasn’t and therefore play continued.

It was a good controversy and great TV and Azinger and Strange, coming from a player’s point of view, nailed it with their honest criticism…

In fact, there were no weak spots in ESPN’s talent lineup. Judy Rankin, who is never heard enough, was on board. So was Dottie Pepper, who smartly pointed out that the Saturday pin positions were mostly on high ground in anticipation of potential heavy rain and therefore were even more vulnerable to Saturday’s winds.

Scott Van Pelt and Sean McDonough are really good at what they do and McDonough earned a place in my Hall of Fame when he had the you-know-whats to mention on air that Henrik Stenson lost around $12 million in the Ponzi scheme perpetrated by former PGA Tour tournament sponsor Allen Stanford. That’s skeleton-in-the-closet stuff that never, ever, ever gets mentioned on PGA Tour telecasts. McDonough was laughing when he added, “And now he’s in jail,” because he probably already got a DefCon 4 alert from a producer via his headset on that comment.

Van Pelt, normally one of the funnier humans alive, shows a lot of restraint on his rare forays into golf and is very deft at passing the ball to the experts. He’s not afraid to be self-deprecating, either. After showing a replay of Daniel Brooks making a hole-in-one at the 11th, ESPN dragged out a replay of Tom Watson making an ace in the 2011 Open, as McDonough commented on it.

When he was done, Van Pelt joked about McDonough finally getting to call that ace on camera and told a story about how, even though McDonough was assigned to that hole in ’11, Van Pelt said he stupidly kept talking right over it and never let McDonough jump in. Candor on TV? It always works.

Andy North, given a bigger role, has never been better. He and Azinger weren’t afraid to criticize Dustin Johnson at various points. When the left-over second-round play began Wednesday, North immediately noted that Johnson’s decision to chip over the false front at the 14th green instead of putt was a bad idea, and North called it. Johnson fluffed the chip so it barely got to the top of the rise, way short of the hole. With the wind howling, either North or Azinger noted that Johnson should be hustling up to his ball to mark it. Johnson wasted time being disgusted at his failed chip and he was just about to put his marker down when a gust of wind blew his ball back down the slope not far from where he’d hit his previous shot. “That’s just carelessness,” Azinger rightly said.

North also questioned Johnson’s decision to leave driver in the bag on one back-nine hole Sunday that he’d driven earlier in the week. Good point…

ESPN did a great job of shutting up so viewers could hear the conversations between players and caddies. The best example came on the 18th tee Sunday when Sergio Garcia was going to tee off first even though Jordan Spieth had the honors. Spieth wasn’t going to say anything and interrupt Sergio’s mojo but someone else did, and then they wound up having a laugh about it. They both parred the 17th hole, Spieth told Sergio, “But yours was prettier.”…

It’s Sunday afternoon and I still don’t know why ESPN had a revolving TV booth built. That had to have cost a fortune and for what? It didn’t even improve the viewer’s experience one iota. But hey, it’s their money. Van Pelt had fun with it in one segment when he was hosting and had been given the controls. He pretended (maybe) to be terrified as he set the booth to turning and claimed cohort Andy North kept telling him “to floor it,” which he wasn’t going to do…

The ESPN cameras were everywhere. There were half a dozen leaders at one point during Sunday’s round and ESPN kept up with each of them. Van Pelt and McDonough seemed to be enjoying the circus-like nature of so many players within one or two shots of the lead and were frequently caught chuckling about it, and that fun transmitted to the viewing audience.

The cameras even caught Spieth after his big Sunday round on the range with agent Jay Danzi and caddie Michael Greller. They were having a contest, apparently trying to throw a range ball at some unseen target. Greller flung one, then Spieth threw one lefthanded and began celebrating, claiming he’d holed it. It was beautiful footage of an unguarded moment that showed Spieth is just another normal guy who’s having a blast and isn’t sweating this Grand Slam stuff at all…

I watched every hour of the first four days and was shocked at how few notes of criticism I wrote down. There just wasn’t anything to nitpick. Well, Azinger reminded us that he’s not much of a rules expert. Remember when he criticized Tiger Woods at the Open for not taking an unplayable lie in a bunker and dropping the ball back on the grass, only to learn from an army of Tweeters and an R&A rules official that you can’t do that? Saturday morning, Azinger rambled on about the harshness of the penalty for a player whose ball moves when he’s addressing it with the putter.

Oops again. The R&A rules guy explained to him that rule has been changed—it was dubbed the Padraig Harrington rule last year after passage, since Harrington wound up being a particularly sorry victim of it—and that if the player is deemed not to have moved the ball by anything he did, there is no penalty. “That’s good news,” said Azinger, who clearly had no idea. Strange, on the other hand, seemed fully informed on the topic. It was probably Azinger only teeny-tiny miscue for the week.

The best thing ESPN did was show golf shots. Does that sound too obvious? You’d think so but other networks fall in love with irrelevant crap like celebrity swing analyses and lame canned features and instruction tips. The Open telecast was wonderfully free of that. Just golf, the way a major championship should be…

One thing Fox Sports got right was its pacing. At the U.S. Women’s Open, it wasn’t afraid to jump around from hole to hole and show shot after shot after shot after shot instead of players tediously lining up putts or walking to the greens. It gave the golf a noticeably faster pace. I’d wager that Fox’s ratio of shots shown per minutes easily beats CBS, NBC and ESPN…

When there was a canned ESPN feature from the Open, it was good. Gene Wojciechowski did a wonderful piece on the Old Course Hotel constantly being pelted by hackers’ errant shots year-round and how the folks who work in the offices there put up with the jolting noise. There was also really cool before-and-after views of the wall that golfers see from the tee. In the before, the sign was pockmarked and dented. It was all replaced for the Open, and is temporarily shiny and new before the tourists start hammering it again next week…

I loved the promo spot with the official big voice announcer talking about the history of St. Andrews University and the tradition of making sure not to step on a certain sidewalk marking lest a student fail his or her final exam.

Then, as a trio of pedestrians walked right across it, the big voice said, “Well, not these morons.” There was a dramatic pause and he delivered an unexpected punchlines. “Ah, they’re probably Yanks.”

You were expecting just another stuffy, aura-of-St. Andrews piece of baloney and you got comedy instead. Brilliant…

Here’s one big tip of the cap to Tom Rinaldi who faultlessly handled the player post-round interviews. He kept his questions short and sympathetic and smart and seamlessly drew out meaningful answers from all his subjects (well, straight-laced Robert Streb may be a lost cause). Rinaldi carefully pushed all the right buttons in a session with Tom Watson after Watson’s emotional late-night farewell to the Open. With Jimmy Roberts out of the picture, Rinaldi is far and away the reigning best post-round interviewer in golf…

One other good ad-lib worth noting: As a camera showed amateur Paul Dunne walking off the 18th green Sunday as a co-leader of the Open and pulling out his mobile device, host Tirico quipped, “How’d you like to turn that cell phone on right now?”

There would be an avalanche of messages, no doubt. ESPN delivered a big one this week and it’s a bit surprising: It can do golf as well, or maybe even better, than anyone. Well done.

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