Van Cynical: Fox Sports-U.S. Open deal could break the mold for same-old TV golf

August 16, 2013

I do not fault the United States Golf Association. This is a tradition-bound group that has failed to grasp the obvious on so many occasions — metal woods, the far-flying golf ball, square grooves twice (the first time when it got sued, the second time when it reneged on the settlement after the first suit), broomstick putters, and rangefinders, just to name a few.

But the USGA can grasp something truly obvious, apparently, as long as it’s $1 billion obvious.

It was an easy call when Fox Sports offered a deal to buy the rights to televise the USGA package, which includes the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, for $95 million a year over 12 years, clearing $1 billion at the bottom of that spreadsheet. Easy call? Make that the easiest call since Secretariat raced the cast of Golden Girls. Fox’s offer was more than double the USGA’s previous TV contract, and about $15 million a year more than NBC’s best counteroffer. Fifteen million a year, that’s serious jing.

The USGA said yes. Honestly, who would turn down $1 billion?

Well, the knee-jerk hysterics have begun. You may have already heard cringing and wringing of hands. How could the USGA be so disloyal to NBC? What’s a U.S. Open telecast without Johnny Miller? Why go with Fox, which doesn’t cover any golf and never has and surely can’t match NBC’s quality? This is like putting the kids in the kindergarten class in charge, omg! These are the clowns who scar their football telecasts with that gyrating animated robot. This is terrible!

Wrong. (Well, not about the robot.) The Fox Sports deal is not a disaster. With no disrespect to NBC or especially to Miller, this may be the best thing to happen to golf since they figured out how to put that tracer line on players’ tee shots so you can follow the arc of the trajectory. That is cool.

For starters, this is business. NBC wasn’t wronged. It was outbid. NBC lost the U.S. Open because it didn’t want to pay the inflated price, and that was probably a smart business decision. Fox Sports is going to lose a bunch of money on the USGA package. But it’s starting a new sports network and it needs content, high-profile, big-ticket content, to convince cable subscribers to tune in. The U.S. Open will be a loss leader for Fox Sports, a way to get the viewers into the store. That makes the big buy-in price worth it, maybe.

Second, the hallowed traditions of the game are mostly ghostly. They’re gone or about to be gone. What’s sacred? Nothing. The USGA has already gone to split tees in championship play, sending threesomes off the first and 10th tees. Or, in the case of Olympic Club, the first and ninth tees. And how about that Torrey Pines playoff with Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate that was still tied after 18 holes? A round of golf starts at the first tee, right? Nope. The sudden-death portion of that playoff moved instead to the seventh hole, which was closer for the gallery and, oh yeah, the TV cameras. It was merely an odd coincidence that they bypassed No. 1, a hole that Tiger butchered all week.

Pro golf, even the Open and the Masters, aren’t tournaments anymore. They’re television shows. They’re entertainment. So when Tiger inadvertently breaks the rules of golf with an illegal drop when he’s got a chance to win the Masters, a way is found to keep him and all those viewers around for the weekend. It was a friendly ruling, at the very least, but not a ruling from the traditional rulebook.

Here’s why the Fox Sports deal could be good for golf. It’s time to break the mold for televised golf. A lot of people think it’s boring. You know why? Because too often, it is boring. The product is overexposed, which you know if you’ve ever watched a late Thursday afternoon telecast featuring mostly Q-school grads and no-names and nobody on the course even close to the front page of the leaderboard. Less might be more.

There’s a lot of same-old same-old going on in the televised golf business. I like golf a lot and I like watching golf a lot but listening to two analysts debate how the next putt is going to break and how the grain might affect it and whether it’s faster than it looks — honestly, I could care less. Tell me whether the putt is difficult or easy or likely to be holed. I don’t care which way the putt breaks or whether Joe Announcer read it correctly. That’s not interesting TV.

A player’s lie is somewhat interesting and I suppose we need to know the yardage and the club, although it’s probably a 9-iron from 175 yards.

The whole whispering, reverential tone seems straight out of a funeral home. We need a whole new approach to attract new viewers, maybe even to keep the old viewers.

Watching players warming up on the range seems mundane and yet at majors, I find myself slightly mesmerized. It puts you, the viewer, on site at the major. I hated it when Golf Channel first started doing this. Now I think it’s smart. Watching Phil Mickelson sign autographs for 20 minutes after a PGA Championship practice round might have been a bit much but still, the scene puts you there.

Televised golf is ripe for change. Any change. Greg Norman is supposedly the big name Fox Sports is trying to land as its analyst. With this much money at stake, Fox needs to make as big a splash as possible. Norman is a big splash, bigger than, say, Paul Azinger, Brandel Chamblee or Colin Montgomerie.

It’s time to quit putting golf viewers to sleep and give us something more. You know what I really like? The nightly wrap-up shows Golf Channel does live on-site from the major championships. You see highlights, clips of interviews, a little reporting and insight from a panel of glib experts like Chamblee, Monty and Frank Nobilo. It’s fast-paced, edited and filled with golf nuggets. I’d almost rather watch the recap show than the live golf. I can get the feel of the whole day in two hours instead of six hours. Perfect.

Here are some Golf Channel highlights from Sunday night after the PGA discussing what’s wrong with Tiger at the majors: Brandel Chamblee: “He drives it more crooked, he drives it shorter, he hits his irons worse, he putts worse, he’s more inconsistent. His teacher [Sean Foley] likes to quote a lot of dead people so I’ll speak his language. I think it was Copernicus or Magellan or maybe Winnie the Pooh, I can’t remember, who said, ‘If you’re not lost, don’t stop and ask for directions.’ From 2000 to 2009, Tiger was first in driving an inordinate amount of times. He was first in greens hit. First in putting, first in fairways. Since the accident and incorporating this new move, he hasn’t sniffed playing this kind of golf in major championship. Hasn’t sniffed it. Hasn’t even come close.

“Yeah, he’s had some nice finishes but he never dominated to the extent that he could intimidate or win with less than his best stuff. He’s got to have his best stuff to win now. I picked him to win Wednesday night. Actually, I picked the guy who won Bridgestone. I don’t know who showed up here.”

Rich Lerner: “He’s got five wins in less than a season… two finishes of sixth or better in majors and you’d probably say, he’s building to something and is going to win something meaningful. You’re not buying that?”

Chamblee: “He’s won three times this year in the tournament before a major. So he’s on form. Then he takes a week off and what does he do? He works on all these ridiculous things he’s working on and he comes back and he’s more complicated and corrupted.”

Frank Nobilo: “If we look at the seven biggest tournaments this year — the majors, the Players and the two WGC. Out of the seven events, Tiger has won three. I agree with some of things Brandel says. The only two regular events he played and didn’t win this year were Honda and Memorial. Is the glass half-full or half-empty?”

Colin Montgomerie: “I was talking to Butch Harmon today and he said, Tiger does not hit enough fairways for major golf anymore. Major golf is very tough. Tiger does not drive the ball anywhere near as straight as he used to. … He has to get back to finding the fairway. Every time he brings the driver out of the bag, he has no clue where it’s going to go. … If he’s listening, and he probably won’t be, but if he is, please hit more fairways in 2014, that’s your only chance of winning more majors.”

All right, the guys were discussing Tiger, which is the most compelling topic in golf. More compelling than Jason Dufner or Jim Furyk or the Greenbrier Classic. It was informative and entertaining and good TV.

Maybe what televised golf needs is less “announcing” and more discussion. I’d like to see somebody think outside the box when it comes to golf. Fox might be able to do that. Also, who’s to say it couldn’t lure Johnny Miller over from NBC, the way Fox lured Pat Summerall for football.

There are a lot of possibilities for what Fox can do with golf, not only on TV but on the Internet. Maybe Fox can do for the U.S Amateur what ESPN once did for the College World Series.

Really, could Fox make golf any more boring than any of the other networks? We have nowhere to go but up.

What golf doesn’t need is more of the same old thing. That would be far too obvious.

Greetings from the Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Cynical, What can the Tour realistically do about people that yell junk like SCALLOPED POTATOES and BABA BOOEY after shots?—Rob Rody via Twitter

I favor the use of tasers. All you’ve gotta do is put a disclaimer on the back of tickets telling folks that tasers will be used on people who act really stupid during the tournament. That covers the legal bases. My backup plan is phasers, set on stun. But if you’re asking what’s realistic that can be done, I’d say get their names and email addresses and phone numbers and flash them on the screen so every angry viewer can vent on them.

Vans, Would Darryl Sutter, Bill Belichick and Jacques Martin be in Jason Dufner’s dream foursome?—Dan O’Neill via Twitter

Actually, I was thinking the Three Stooges, but with Shemp, not Curley

GVan, Did you know that together, you and I don’t have the hair that Jason Dufner has on half of his head?—Mitch Laurance via Twitter

Cheer up, Mitch. You’ve still got him beat on overall body hair.

Gary, Now that golf is on Fox, will they put the NFL Robot in knickers swinging a golf club and doing flips for promos?—Derek Lewis via Twitter

I think the Fox folks will think outside the box and go with something funny. Like a tiny Charles Barkley figure performing his famous Golf Swing in Three Parts.

Can anyone besides Tiger and the four major winners get into the Player of the Year discussion by winning the FedEx Cup?—Rick Fisher via Twitter

Maybe if Matt Kuchar, who has two wins, won all four FedEx Cup events. Nah, I’d still vote for Phil. If Tiger wins a sixth time, maybe six wins trumps Phil’s one major win and one regular win (and one European Tour win that we don’t really count but should). I don’t think five does it, though.

Van Cynical, Now that we’re at the end of the major season, how about updating your list of the top ten players who haven’t won a major?—Brian Rosenwald via Twitter

I’ve already done that once this summer, B.R. That list is getting running almost as low on nominees as the World Golf Hall of Fame. There’s almost not 10 worthy major-less candidates. Monty and Bruce Lietzke might make the list now.

Vans, What is Sean Foley’s contribution to Tiger's erratic performance this year? Wasn't he supposed to be the mind guru?—KKMC via Twitter

Some think Foley is overloading Tiger’s brain circuitry with too much info, the old paralysis-by-analysis syndrome. I don’t think anyone is close enough to those two to really know what ails Tiger in majors. There’s clearly a mental aspect and maybe wanting it too much has short-circuited his legendary patience. Or maybe Tiger simply still isn’t comfortable with his latest swing under pressure. Tiger has been nicer this year. Maybe he needs to rediscover his inner mean streak.

Van Cynical, Another missed cut in a major for Luke Donald. No wins since March, 2012. What should he do to right the ship?—Howard Riefs via Twitter

He needs to get his iron game right. He ranks 176th in greens hit in regulation and 160th in ballstriking. His short game is keeping him on tour. Luke needs a lot more makeable birdie opportunities. He’s not hitting enough greens and he’s not hitting it close enough. In lieu of improving his swing, he should at least build up some positive energy by tagging himself with an upscale, exciting new nickname. Like Luke Parwalker. Or LuDo. Or Donny Danger. Just in case it’s mental.

Van Cynical, You nailed the golf parity column, but I can't help think Tiger's going to find another gear again before he's done.—Marvin Beatty via Twitter

Thanks, Marvelous Marv. I don’t disagree about Tiger. I just hope that gear isn’t reverse.

Van Sickle, Finally, someone with the testicular fortitude to wear shorts on a golf broadcast. It wasn’t pretty but it was appropriate.—Derek Lewis via Twitter

Oh, so you were the one who watched our PGA Championship post-round podcast on Thanks! Yes, I wore shorts. As for your assessment that it wasn’t pretty, well, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful. I’ve been told I’ve got skinny legs. The rest of me is so non-skinny, I should wear a T-shirt that says, “I beat anorexia.”

Vans, A more compelling Friday — Tiger’s pursuit of 59 or Dufner’s pursuit of 62?—Bill Rehm via Twitter

Is that some kind of trick question? Here’s another question: A more compelling Sunday — Tiger winning by seven in Akron or Dufner winning by two at Oak Hill? Let’s reduce this problem to its simplest level: Tiger vs. The Duff. I think you know the answer.

Gary, Watching the PGA is more boring than Firesame (Firestone). Lowest rating of all time?—Michael O’Connor via Twitter

Funny you should mention ratings. CBS kept sending me press releases about how much ratings were up. Oh, by the way, last year’s PGA featured a Saturday late afternoon rainout and it was on against the Summer Olympics all weekend. A replay of Sunday’s PGA round as re-enacted by The Muppets would’ve gotten better ratings than last year’s PGA. Hmm, that actually doesn’t sound like a bad show. The Swedish Chef could play Jonas Blixt, Beaker could play Jim Furyk, and Miss Piggy stars as Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Jason Dufner’s role would be played by Gonzo. Dustin Johnson? Animal. Kermit as Phil Mickelson.

Van Cynical, Isn’t it time to face reality and admit that the PGA Championship is not in the same league with the Masters, U.S. Open, the Open? The Players Championship is the real fourth major, isn’t it? The PGA is not a major anymore, come on!—Phil in Ventura via email

One clever editor suggested this as the PGA Championship’s new slogan after it dropped “Glory’s Last Shot” as its tag: “The Real Fifth Major.” I have to admit I’m not in love with the PGA’s future schedule — Valhalla next year (ugh); Whistling Straits; Baltusrol, Quail Hollow and Bellerive. But I’m sticking with the PGA as the fourth major here. If I was the PGA of America, I’d move my event to March. The year’s first major is going to get a lot more buzz than one in August.