Instead of reporting from the media center at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, I'm covering my 104th major championship from the couch in front of my TV here in suburban Pittsburgh. I’m going to miss those bacon bap sandwiches for breakfast in the media center. Well, not really. I’ve got a bowl of Lucky Charms, a fresh peach and a remote. I’m ready for Open golf.
It’s a sad reality and I’ve written about it many times, but golf tournaments have morphed into television shows. Final proof of that came at the 2008 U.S. Open when the Tiger Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff at Torrey Pines went extra holes and the USGA, the venerable keeper of the game’s traditions, sent the match to the seventh hole. Funny, I could’ve sworn golf courses usually started at a hole called No. 1.
Anyway, my TV show theory was proven correct again when ESPN’s telecast of Thursday’s first round featured an official essay on northwest England’s working-class background. You can’t just, say, show golf. No, no, you’ve gotta have an artsy-craftsy Hollywood history lesson with a somber narrator. (Hey, did somebody forget Peter Allis was available? C’mon, man!)
According to the essayist, the modern world began in Manchester and Liverpool, but he curiously made no mention of Al Gore. It was high-falutin’ commentary and over the top and, I was about to say, almost laughable. Then came a line about playing grinder’s golf—numbing, brutal rounds “passing like graveyard shifts.” The previous generation, the narrator said, “changed the world. Maybe they changed it too much. Now we have ruins of our own” he said as shots of boarded-up and derelict buildings flashed across the screen. All right. That’s actually some good writing. I’ll quit complaining. The essay wasn’t bad.
The first sightings of golf were better because Tiger Woods briefly had a piece of the lead. Adam Scott and Masters champ Bubba Watson were up there, too. I picked Scott to win this thing in SI Golf’s preview last week because I had a dream in which he won the Open a few weeks ago and here he is, vaulting into the lead out of the gate. That’s hilarious. This is a hell of a major championship already and it’s not even pouring rain.
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt hexed Adam Scott when the Australian had a 50-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole and Van Pelt previewed it by saying, “62 is in play here for Adam.” Like this is some tap-in he’s even trying to make? Adam actually made a pretty good run at the putt, leaving short and in the jaws of the hole. Why do I know this comment is going to jinx him?
Ten minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed. Adam yanked an iron shot into the deep stuff at the 18th and maked bogey to shoot 64. But Van Pelt was right to alert viewers about 62, which would’ve been the lowest score ever shot in a major. That is newsworthy and should be mentioned, just like baseball announcers should tell viewers when a no-hitter is in progress and not be held hostage by superstition.
The best part of the early coverage is listening to the old ABC team. Paul Azinger’s wit and insight makes me realize how I miss hearing him on a regular basis. Plus you get Mike Tirico, Curtis Strange and the always reliable (but still under-used) Judy Rankin. Listening to them all is like putting on a familiar pair of old running shoes.
On top of having a great early leaderboard, Tom Rinaldi scored an excellent interview with Tiger Woods, who was unusually cheery. First-round 67s in the Open do that.
Tiger chipped in with commentary like a seasoned pro when Rinaldi showed him highlights of his round. They had a fun exchange when Tiger explained the shot he hit from a sand-filled divot and how he tried to play it, saying he just tried to beat on it and, “I beat on it pretty good, didn’t I?” as the super-slow-motion replay reached its conclusion.
Rinaldi asked Woods about the lack of wind. “Shocking,” Tiger said. And when Rinaldi asked if Tiger wanted the wind to blow, he answered, “Absolutely. It’s a great test. I just think this course presents so many different challenges. I played three practice rounds, had two different opposite winds.”
In other words, Tiger feels like he knows the course in challenging conditions and can take advantage of it with that knowledge. What I really came away from the interview with is a sense that Tiger feels great about how he’s playing, that he has no shortage of confidence—he knows he’s playing well and just like the old days, he expects to win this Open. Nothing else would make him so upbeat.
I can't lie: I was disappointed to see a shift-change at 10 a.m. Zinger, Tirico and the gang were replaced by Terry Gannon and Hall of Famer Peter Alliss. Gannon likes to use as many words as possible and jam in as many stats and factoids that he’s memorized as he can. It was a jarring switch. The telecast went to Luke Donald right away on the opening hole and Gannon went on at length about how long it’s been since Donald shot an opening round in the 60s in a major. Alliss said simply, "He’s struggled a bit.” In four words, he covered it perfectly while Gannon prattled on at length.
Gannon seems to be trying to be the color commentator and the play-by-play guy. Every golfer who appears on the monitor, he tries to make a comment on their recent history or their performance in last year’s Open or something. He’s a bull in a china shop, always has been, and after five minutes, I’m trying to figure out a way to fast-forward through the part where Gannon talks so I can get to the good stuff I want to hear—Alliss, who immediately enlivened the show by saying, “I’m surprised how ordinary much of the golf was this morning under perfect conditions… This isn’t a links course at all. Bears no relation to a links course not just because of the housing round about—weeks of rain, very green conditions, holding greens, medium-paced greens, and it should be 25 miles inland. You don’t often get courses as easy this.”
I’m betting that after a couple of hours of Gannon’s chatter, the delightful Alliss was pulling out his hair. I would if I had any.
I did my best to tune out Gannon and revel in Alliss. When Luke Donald hit an approach shot at the sixth hole, Alliss noted, “I've never seen him hit a shot off-balance. He always finishes as if he’s waiting for a photographer to take a photograph.”
A simple point, beautifully said.
It was good news when another shift-change happened and Gannon left the host’s chair after an hour, replaced by Van Pelt. Sadly, Allis also departed but he was replaced by Tom Weiskopf, who always delivers smart commentary.
These guy arrived just in time for some of Thursday's signature moments—the struggles of Phil Mickelson. Mickelson laid up badly into the fescue on the par-5 seventh and seemed unusually angry. Foot-soldier reporter Bill Kratzert reported that Mickelson had words with a rules official walking off the seventh tee, apparently upset about the cup liner being incorrectly placed in the cup on the previous hole, causing his ball to nearly pop out of the cup. It had also happened on the first hole, Kratzert said.
That set up the next scene as Mickelson and caddie Jim "Bones" McKay debated taking an unplayable lie on the next shot. It was great work by the sound technicians who picked up the conversation. It was also great that Van Pelt to keep quiet so we could listen in. Phil was in a whiny mood. (And we knew why, thanks to Kratzert.) “I could be in here forever if I don’t take an unplayable,” he told Bones. When the caddie assured him he could hit it out, Mickelson said, “I don’t want to hurt myself, though.”
Finally, Mickelson slashes a wedge shot out sideways, only to see it bounce across the fairway and into the fescue on the other side. “Are you kidding?” he says angrily.
That’s the small moment that British Opens are made of.
The next time we saw Mickelson and Bones, they were with several marshals on hands and knees searching through the grass for his ball. We didn’t see his second shot but he hit it just above the pot bunker and the ball burrowed into the deep fescue. It looked as if he was going to suffer a lost ball on a shot that didn’t travel more then 30 feet.
Kratzert, again, was on top of the situation, which was invaluable as ESPN scrambled to find a replay of the shot it hadn’t shown. A ball was found, Mickelson marked it and picked it out and identified it as his. The rules official informed him that there is no relief from an embedded ball in the fescue. “Oh, there’s not?” Phil said. He had to take an unplayable lie.
By this point, a replay was available and ESPN showed the slo-mo replay and you could see the ball burrow into the grass about the bunker face. Weiskopf pointed out that the embedded ball rule applies only to closely-mown areas. Van Pelt than questioned whether Mickelson allowed his “nerve and his cool” to get away from him. Eventually, Mickelson made a mid-length putt to save bogey.
At some point, Curtis Strange chimed in with this gem: “He’s just throwing the tournament away right now. Not intentionally, he’s just not playing very well right now.”
I had no idea watching from a couch at home was this exhausting at a major. I gotta take a break. So where did I stash that box of Lucky Charms, anyway?