News & Opinion

Azinger’s storytelling sparkles for Fox

The groan among the newspaper boys was palpable. Mind you, complaining among the golf beat writers is nothing new, but when I asked Paul Azinger a few years back about his borderline addiction to foosball, other scribes thought it was irrelevant, a waste of valuable interview time.

At the time, Azinger was seated at the dais of the podium as the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., so the writers had a point in principle, because access to captains was limited. But deep down, after a quarter-century in the spotlight, Azinger undoubtedly would deliver a funny story, a one-liner or a self-deprecating aside.

Or perhaps all three.

Paul Azinger
Paul Azinger

Paul Azinger

Azinger grinned broadly and related a hilarious, rollicking tale about his visit that week to a dark, dingy Louisville home where foosball players congregated, which he’d heard about through the grapevine.

“It was like walking into a foosball crack house,” Azinger said as the place roared.

By the time he was done, none of the writers grumbled, underscoring a notion that the Floridian has cemented many times over as his career as a network commentator has ascended: there are talking heads who serve as analysts, and there are storytellers like Zinger. He could call the sack race at your company picnic and make it entertaining.

No question, Azinger is the bedrock member of the Fox coverage crew at the 117th U.S. Open this week, given his background at ABC and ESPN before parent Disney pulled the plug on golf coverage. While evaluating analysts is a decidedly subjective affair for viewers – ask anybody who gets his news through the polarized voices on CNN or Fox – Azinger is indisputably the best reason to watch the live play from Erin Hills.

It isn’t just that Azinger candidly tells it like it is – similar to what his broadcast brethren at Fox News claim, he’s actually fair and balanced in his treatment of players and topics – it’s the way he communicates by using terms that aren’t trite clichés or worn-out bromides.

For instance, as Azinger looked ahead at the growing list of players in contention who have never won majors, he cracked: "I always say, pressure can bust a pipe, man."

Azinger has freely conceded in the past that he probably has ADHD, and if so, it’s too bad it can’t be contagious. The rest of the Fox booth could have used an infusion of color this week. Reviews on social media of their work have been mixed, at best.

As the results on Day One left the scoreboard bathed in blood red ink, Azinger cracked, “It’s like the Bob Hope Classic just broke out at the U.S. Open."

As a player faced a dicey chip shot requiring plenty of backspin, Azinger noted that he needed to “put some Chewbacca on it.”

After major winner Louis Oosthuizen hit a fat shot on Saturday, Azinger quipped: “That sounded like a bag of nickels.”

On Erin Hills’ bunkers: "The edges look like the kale your wife makes you eat after you turn 50, all those jagged edges. Hate that stuff."

It isn’t just that Azinger offers canny analysis and three decades of experience as a player, major champion and winning Ryder Cup captain. He can tell a story like few others in golf’s social circle. Some folks can’t even tell a decent knock-knock joke.

As Fowler warmed up for his third round on Saturday with swing coach Butch Harmon stationed nearby, Azinger dropped in a tremendous anecdote about the famed Harmon coaching family.

“The other day, Butch’s brother, Billy Harmon, was speaking at Winged Foot and said, ‘I don’t understand. Butch is the worst teacher in the family and the best teacher in the world?’ ” Azinger said. “They all got a kick out of that.”

For the majority of viewers, the same can be said for Azinger’s work in the booth this week. As for a few of his peers on the Fox payroll, not so much.

Darren to be different: Another former Ryder Cup captain, Darren Clarke, was integrated into the Fox analysts rotation this week. Although it was difficult at times to understand his Northern Irish accent, he has had his moments, many of them centered on self-deprecating remarks about his brief time attending college at Wake Forest. He lasted about a semester, and found the nightlife more interesting than the classroom.

"The coach didn't like my lifestyle," he said jokingly.

After Fox aired a feature on the nearby township of Erin, founded by Irish immigrants who throw a raging St. Patrick’s Day bash every year, Clarke conceded that he had attended a few bashes on that March holiday himself. "I've been to quite a few,” he said. “Some I can remember, some not."

In a week during which tension tends to mount, the levity was appreciated.

Least-surprising media news item of the day: The blimp that fell from the sky during the first round wasn’t the biggest unplanned dive of the day, as it turns out.

The website Sports Media Watch reported Saturday that the overnight ratings for the first round of the Open aired during prime time on Fox dropped 41percent from 2015, when the tournament took place on the West Coast at Chambers Bay and stretched further into primetime. Last year’s first round at Oakmont was effectively rained out, making the numbers comparatively meaningless.

Fox aired the Open from 8-9 p.m. ET on Thursday and was whipped by three other major U.S. networks, despite the fact that ABC, CBS and NBC mostly aired reruns, TheWrap.com reported. Sports Media Watch reported that “if round one is any indication, the U.S. Open is on pace for another historically weak performance."

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling