By signing with FOX, the USGA showed it was ready to try something unconventional

August 9, 2013

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — There must be a large number of casual golf fans who click to CBS twice a year, for the Masters in April and the PGA Championship four months later. Their way to golf is through Nick Faldo these days, and Ken Venturi in earlier ones. In between those two events, that population turns to Johnny Miller, for the U.S. Open on NBC. For millions of American men, Father's Day is John, in his NBC/Golf Channel technical fabric synergy shirt. But at the end of next year, NBC and the USGA are parting ways. Raise your hand if you saw that one coming.

At Merion, Mike Davis of the USGA was walking the course with various NBC officials. They all looked so happy! (The rain had finally stopped.) But on the eve of the PGA Championship — weird timing but it really doesn't matter — the USGA announced a 12-year deal with FOX to broadcast four national championships, the Senior Open, the Women's Open, the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open. Financial terms were not disclosed. Financial terms surely figured here — they always do.

According to people who might well know, under the current deal, NBC pays $50 million a year to the USGA. FOX doubled that number, $100 million a year for 12 years. On the call round, NBC was said to go to $80 million. ESPN offered about the same, and the promise of four days of ESPN coverage. CBS was never really in the mix, because its highest golf priority would always be the Masters, and that position would be untenable to the USGA.

You can do the math: $1.2 billion. Suggestion to the USGA on how to spend it: find a way to make golf part of the middle-school phys ed curriculum at 10,000 U.S. schools.

Of the quartet of USGA championships, only the U.S. Open is anything like a major TV event, and then only when the sun sets late and the board shines bright. NBC, according to those viewership polls in the golf magazines, does a superb job. Johnny Miller, winner of the 1973 U.S. Open, has been the knowing voice of the U.S. Open broadcast since 1995. The producer Tommy Roy controlled a thousand buttons expertly from some dark place. It was all good. But the USGA wanted change.

And now the most staid of the men's majors, the only one with an 18-hole Monday playoff, is going to FOX, a network one associates with conservative political chatter, NASCAR and, of course, the national pastime, the NFL in all its smash-mouth glory.

Glen Nager, the president of the USGA, who worked on the FOX deal with Davis and another USGA executive, Sarah Hirshland, said on Thursday afternoon that golf wants, and needs, to reach those football fans and NASCAR fans and baseball fans and soccer fans. Sean Hannity fans, no doubt, too. Nager liked the fact that the FOX executives were recreational golfers and not golf experts. The USGA was looking for something else.

"We have golfing sophistication," Nager said. What FOX brought, among other things, was a boffo proposal to promote the U.S. Open, the other championships and to help make golf more of the mainstream sporting culture.

The first and most obvious question is this: who will be FOX's Johnny Miller? The network, and the USGA, will surely want somebody who can help persuade millions of football and baseball fans that it's safe to come into golf's waters. It's a significant responsibility, because among other things, that person will introduce golf to an incalculable number of people. Miller is great at explaining golf to golfers. My guess is that the USGA and FOX will want somebody who can explain golf invitingly to non-golfers.

Phil Mickelson would be ideal in this role, but he's occupied for the next five or ten years, especially in mid-June. Phil's caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, would be even better, but he's Phil's caddie. Annika Sorenstam? Insightful, but too flat. Paul Azinger? An ancient mariner. (He's 53.) Colin Montgomerie? Too British, no majors. David Duval? A possibility, but a distant one. This will not be an easy job to fill. Nager did not rule out the possibility of Miller following the USGA to FOX. Miller's immediate comments, in the wake of the news, would make such a move unlikely. He did, after all, call the news "a bummer," and he wasn't quoting the Dude from The Big Lebowski.

You can always follow the money on these sorts of deals, but I suspect there are other things going on here. Cross-promotion, brand-building, the promise to be more devoted to the other championships can are all, surely, part of it.

But another part of it is that the USGA is, at times, the most hide-bound of organizations. Witness the 18-hole playoff. The banning of the anchored putting stroke. The devotion to arcane rules like stroke-and-distance for out-of-bounds. Here, with this TV deal, it had a chance to swing the other way, to the flat-brimmed crowd, in a really big way. You know what the USGA has done here? It's taken a page from the PGA of America. It made a populist move. When yellow flags wave at FOX NASCAR races a couple years from now, look for that old-timey red, white and blue USGA emblem on them. It's all about cross-promotion, right? Golf is a brand, or the U.S. Open is, anyway.