If you look closely, you can still see the faint outline I left in the couch after watching four days and uncountable hours of ESPN’s British Open coverage. The only thing missing is a cordon of yellow tape.
After covering 103 major championships over the past many years, I sat this one out and watched from Stately Wayne Manor (my house in my dreams) in suburban Pittsburgh. Let me say up front that, due to golfing obligations, I had to watch the Open on tape. Also, and this is rare, I had a rooting interest. I had picked Adam Scott to win in Sports Illustrated's preview because I had recently dreamed that he won. That couldn’t be ignored.
Here, then, are my assorted thoughts on the week that was:
Line of the week: The erudite Peter Alliss was in fine form, even though he had to endure the endless yapping of Terry Gannon. (I’m done beating up on Gannon. See my first-round coverage). Anyway, the cameras supplied several crowd shots, and after Alliss duly noted a pair of ladies sharing an umbrella, there was a shot of a woman holding a sleeping baby. Alliss didn’t miss a beat. “Stay sleeping, son,” Alliss intoned. “Someday you’ll be overweight. And out of work.” The noise you then heard in the background was host Mike Tirico laughing his ass off.
The endless summer: I like golf a lot. A whole lot. But even for me, this was too much of a good thing. ESPN’s coverage for the first two rounds started at 4:30 a.m. and went for, well, I lost track. Ten hours? Twelve? On the weekend, the coverage began three hours before the leaders teed off.
I’ve never been a fan of early-morning, pre-contender TV coverage. At the U.S. Open and the Players, it’s absolutely deadly. On the weekend, we were treated to watching a bunch of guys who weren’t in contention, though we did get a lot of Rickie Fowler, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Nicholas Colsaerts, so it wasn’t all bad.
On Thursday and Friday, the shows seemed interminable. It was interesting to watch the leaders and contenders and Tiger and Phil, but all day long? So much coverage made the best parts of the week -- the leaders on the final nine on the weekend -- feel less special.
The Masters was onto something when it nixed front-nine coverage for years. Less is more, especially if it’s less Terry Gannon. (Damn, I really meant not to pick on him again.) You could knock three hours off, edit some highlights and have a better show.
Cliché of the week: Yes, yes, we know, people. Royal Lytham has 205 bunkers. How about finding something else in your production notes to harp on, preferably something that other folks on the air haven’t already said a dozen times? Alliss was the only one I heard mention that the trains weren’t running this week on the railway hole so as not to disturb play.
Ribbons in the sky: Usually I don’t like screen clutter, but ESPN blew away staid old CBS and NBC with innovative graphics. But don’t feel too proud, ESPN -- most of them are still too small. This just in: Not everybody has a 48-inch big-screen TV.
We’ve seen ball-tracking graphics that are similar to ESPN’s Flight Track, but the real-time version was really effective at the Open. I loved it when Brandt Snedeker ripped a big old pull-hook and the blue-ribbon tracer just kept floating left. Tiger Woods hit a stinger shot off one tee and the ribbon tracer gave you a great idea of just how low the ball's trajectory was. But the best moment came Sunday when Graeme McDowell snipe-hooked a fairway wood second shot on the 11th. The ribbon barely got off the ground and darted left like an angry mongoose. Very cool.
It’s probably cost-prohibitive or not realistic to use the tracer on every shot, but I’d love to see it. Often, when the camera follows a shot into the sky, it’s nearly impossible to pick up the ball on the screen. I vote for putting a tracer on every shot in some future tournament as an experiment.
The pop-up graphics that showed where two players' drives landed, along with the distance of the drives and the distance to the pin, was also neat. Why haven’t we seen this before? It’s terrific. Another nice wrinkle was showing a behind-the-tee view of a drive with a pop-up window to locate the flag/green in the distance. Great stuff.
Rules class I: It’s hard to believe Paul Azinger didn’t know one of the basic rules of unplayable lies. When Tiger Woods buried a shot next to the face of a deep pot bunker on the sixth hole Sunday, Azinger was all over Woods for not taking a drop outside the bunker. You can take relief, yes, but only within the confines of the bunker. Apparently ESPN's rules guy from the R&A, Donald Turner, was having a nap or enjoying tea because Zinger went on and on about what a bad decision Tiger was making.
Azinger: “Why would you even hit this? If you’re thinking clearly, you’d take an unplayable lie and drop out of the bunker… This shot could go anywhere.”
Even more stupefying, none of the other golf folks at ESPN -- Bill Kratzert, Judy Rankin, Curtis Strange, Tom Weiskopf, Olin Browne and the rest -- chimed in to rescue Zinger. It was Tiger’s biggest moment in the Open, and ESPN fumbled the ball in its own end zone.
It wasn’t until Tiger was halfway through the next hole that Azinger mentioned on the air that a drop outside the bunker may not have been an option. Then Mr. Turner came on to explain the rule that even most country-club amateurs know.
After the facts came out, Azinger threw an unnamed official under the bus, saying he’d asked a rules official about just such an instance that morning and had gotten an incorrect explanation. That may be, but Zinger was the one who went on global TV and had it wrong.
Rules class II: A few minutes after the Tiger episode, Brandt Snedeker hit his ball left at the seventh hole, into the trees, according to on-foot reporter Bill Kratzert. “They located the ball in the trees," Kratzert said. Snedeker had his caddie check where his provisional went. It was in the bunker.
"Brandt contemplated trying to play the shot (from the trees) but has decided to play the provisional out of the bunker,” Kratzert explained
Key information is missing here. If you hit a ball out of play that may be lost, you can hit a provisional ball. But if you find the original ball, the provisional is no longer in play. The rulesmakers don’t want golfers to have a choice of balls to play. So if Snedeker’s ball really was found, he either had to play it, take a drop or go back and re-tee. So did Snedeker get away with a rules violation when he played the provisional (I doubt it), or did we get inaccurate information? I don’t know, but Snedeker made a double there. How remains a mystery to us viewers.
Rules class III: Adam Scott had a rules incident a short while later, too. (The USGA could use this final-round telecast as part of a test for would-be officials.) But after whiffing on Tiger’s bunker drop options and Snedeker’s provisional, ESPN was all over this one.
Scott made a couple of practice swings near his ball behind the green on the seventh hole, walked onto the green to survey the line, and then returned to a spot near his ball (about 10 seconds after he’d left). He pulled up short and watched his ball roll a few feet down the slope.
“He might have issues here,” Azinger immediately said. He was right about that.
Then the rules expert, Mr. Turner, allowed, “He’ll be deemed to have moved that. That would be my view.”
Great stuff. Things got even better when the official walking with Scott’s group heard the facts and ruled that Scott did not merit a penalty. This time, ESPN and Azinger pursued it smartly, with Zinger trying to pin Turner down. It led to a look at the relatively recent rules change about an outside force (usually wind) causing a ball to move. Players no longer get a penalty for that. And the conclusion after a quick conversation between Azinger and Turner and Andy North and Scott Van Pelt was that Scott was correctly not penalized because he never addressed the ball.
It was compelling TV, though, to have a rules expert in the booth disagree with the man on the course, a fact that Azinger seemed almost gleeful about.
Alliss from the looking glass: When a fan yelled after Luke Donald hit his tee shot on the first hole in Sunday’s final round, Alliss said, “Oh, shut up!” You da man! Mashed potatoes! Yes, shut up, please. How’d those stupid Americans sneak into England?
Best question that could’ve been asked sooner: Bonus points for Curtis Strange for his comment, as Adam Scott warmed up on the putting green before the final round: “If this wind starts blowing as strong as it’s supposed to, how’s that long putter going to be handled?”
Maybe it was nothing but…: After Tiger Woods hit his approach shot at the fourth hole in the final round, he appeared to wince several times. He also appeared to have a brief limp. Nobody noticed or, possibly, I just imagined it.
Exasperated quote of the week: Azinger, on those piling on him on Twitter, apparently because of the bunker rules flap: “There’s a ton of experts on Twitter, I’ll tell you that. Sheesh. What a bunch of clowns.” Seconded.
Thank-you of the week: This goes to Ernie Els. If he hadn’t suddenly gotten into contention, we might never have known Judy Rankin was working for ESPN. She was following Ernie’s group, apparently, and Els was largely absent from the broadcast after the first two holes until he birdied the 10th and snuck into contention.
Most under-used asset: Rankin, again. She’s smart, glib and no-nonsense and she barely got to say more than two words until the last hour of the telecast. It's a shame that Terry Gannon does hole coverage and fills in as host in the early broadcast, while Judy is limited to foot-soldier duty with contributions like, “this is a 6-iron” and “he might be able to get a lot of club on this, his lie isn’t the worst I’ve seen all week.” What’s wrong with this picture? More Judy, please.
Another zinger: Azinger on the duck-hook Graeme McDowell hit from the 11th fairway: “He hit that right on the neck. That was almost a top. That probably makes everyone at home feel better.”
Scott Van Pelt was on his best behavior, but I’d love to see him turn loose his wacky sense of humor (or maybe his Seve impression) in the oh-so-serious golf booth, which could use some lightness. Anyway, Van Pelt said this about McDowell when he got a lift from a rules official to go back and replay that lost-ball shot at the 11th: “There can’t be a worse feeling in the game. You’re trailing by five. You’re in a cart. You’re going backwards.”
Azinger: “A lot of guys can make a fine living hitting one type of shot. Guys who can separate themselves -- like Tiger or Zach Johnson or Rory McIlroy or Luke Donald -- can flight the ball.”
Curtis Strange on Tiger: “He’s just not the same player we knew years ago, clearly… He’s won three times and also missed two cuts. Watching this week, Adam Scott has been the best player here, without a doubt.”
Strange after Tiger hit into a pot bunker at the 13th: “To quote our old colleague, Bob Rosburg, 'That is dead.'”
Mike and mike: One of the best aspects of ESPN’s coverage was its use of eavesdropping microphones. It might have been one of the best weeks for sound men in golf history.
When Woods was about to try that ill-fated bunker shot that led to his triple on the sixth Sunday, we heard caddie Joe LaCava telling him he could get it out because Thorbjorn Olesen, the Dane they played with on Saturday, played a similar shot.
On another tee after an errant shot, Woods chided himself: “Oh, Tiger, for god’s sake!” Luckily he went with a clean version that time.
With Ernie Els angling for a line-of-sight drop in the fescue because a temporary tower was sort of in the way, a rules official talked to another official over the radio on Sunday. They were trying to determine exactly where Ernie’s line would be. “Hang on a second, this has got to be accurate,” the official said into the radio with Els standing next to him. “It’s quite important.” That drew a laugh from the nearby gallery and Els. It was amazing that it was picked up on the mikes.
Countdown to Adam Scott: The ESPN crew seemed pretty confident that Scott was going to hang on. Some quotes that were timely and on the mark at the time proved not to pan out, though.
Van Pelt: “Seems like only a matter of time now for Adam Scott.”
Azinger, after Els chipped to 10 feet at the 16th hole: “Adam has one hand on the trophy now.”
Van Pelt (after Scott’s perfect tee ball at 17): “If he was nervy, you might have seen it there. No indication at all.”
Azinger, after Scott bogeyed the 17th to fall into a tie with Els: “Ernie Els has one hand on the trophy now.”
Sunday’s telecast was largely a four-man show. ESPN focused on Woods, Snedeker, McDowell and Scott. The first comment from anyone to suggest that Scott might not win was made when Els was about to hit his second shot at the 18th. “This tournament is still very much up for grabs,” Azinger said.
Unforgettable, almost: As host, Mike Tirico does it all and often has to keep talking while producers are giving him info through his earpiece. On live TV, you can’t think of everything, but as he filled time before the awards ceremony, Tirico talked about the strange finish: “It’s uncomfortable to see the runner-up, the man who came so close, standing out there. It’s hard to remember a time in the last decade when it was this uncomfortable.”
How about when Stewart Cink won in a playoff over crowd favorite Tom Watson? That award ceremony was downright funereal. That was way, way back in 2009.
Best shot that you won’t remember: The putt by Ernie Els on the final green will be the stroke du jour of this Open. But a crucial shot came on the 16th hole when Els ran a chip between two treacherous greenside bunkers onto the green and saved par. You didn’t realize how impressive the shot was until ESPN replayed it from its blimp camera. Then it looked super cool.
Up close and personal: The camera shots were terrific all week. There was a great moment when McDowell, his caddie and a bunch of fans and officials were picking through the gorse looking for his lost ball at the 11th hole. The cameraman was right in there with them and caught MacDowell reaching in, then pulling his arm back and yanking a gorse pricker out of his finger.
Roving reporter Andy North offered the punch line on the search area: “Nothing’s been in there but rabbits.”
Overall, it was a great-but-rather too-long week of televised golf. My couch has stretch marks. But I can honestly say that after watching ESPN’s coverage, I don’t feel like I missed a thing by not being there, except for the bacon bap sandwiches and bottles of Lilt, my favorite non-American soft drink.