Keeping Score

Fox touts shot tracer to elevate Open broadcast

It’s a course relatively unseen, either on a flat screen or in person. It features blind tee shots, semi-blind approaches and shaved runoff areas that send balls cascading sideways into thigh-high rough.

Erin Hills is situated in the middle of former cattle land in southeast Wisconsin, with nary a tree on the property to aid with sightlines. For nearly as far as the eye can see, it’s blanketed by monochromatic fescue.

So, when Fox producer Mark Loomis promises that the network will use two forms of groundbreaking tracer technology during its broadcast of the 117th U.S. Open, it represents welcome news for anybody watching this week’s inaugural professional event at the sprawling, largely nondescript property northeast of Milwaukee.

For the uninitiated, shot tracers are the colored lines that track the ball’s midair flight, showing viewers trajectory and path as the ball heads down the fairway or veers toward oblivion. And because few of us know the difference as players stand on unfamiliar Erin Hills tee boxes, it should be a godsend.

Why isn’t the technology used more often? The answer is predictable: it’s cost-prohibitive. But for Fox, which broadcasts only a handful of notable golf events per year, it’s an invaluable tool.

“There is a big cost to it,” Loomis told veteran writer Geoff Shackelford and partner Joe House on their weekly podcast, ShackHouse. “I think it’s a hard thing to justify on every shot from a cost perspective if you’re not doing a big event. For us at the U.S. Open, it’s obviously the biggest event we have and one of the majors of golf.

“I think that the tracer has told a story that, forever, you weren’t able to tell. Which is, when the ball was hit, you had a tight shot of the ball in the air and had no idea where it was going. We have, from the start, tried to incorporate it as much as we possibly can. This year, we will have the ability to trace golf balls off every tee shot on all 18 holes.”

Better still, the network also plans to use flight-tracker technology, which shows an aerial view of the shot superimposed over a hole schematic, which gives viewers a better idea of where the ball came to rest relative to the hazards and green.

Given the universal lack of knowledge about Erin Hills, it could be the most valuable trick in Fox’s bag, regardless of the price tag. 

We’ll be skipping Skip: The next time a sports broadcast entity doesn’t use portions of its live TV window to pimp its own wares will be a television first. So, it was hardly surprising that controversial sports talk-show blabbermouth Skip Bayless made an appearance on Fox’s Wednesday broadcast at Erin Hills, because he now has a talk show airing on Fox Sports 1. In fact, today’s first-round U.S. Open coverage will commence with what promises to be a completely forgettable half-hour segment on Bayless’ show at 9:30 a.m. EDT.

The cantankerous Bayless, whose tenure as a host at ESPN could best be described as an acquired taste, professed to viewers on Wednesday that golf is the sport that is “nearest and dearest to my heart,” whereupon Fox noted that he’s a 12-handicap player. Within minutes, somebody on Twitter pulled up Bayless’ computerized handicap page from his private club in Los Angeles. He hadn’t posted a score in weeks.

Fox then aired a lengthy feature segment narrated by Bayless that began with roadside video footage and the booking mugshot of Tiger Woods, gleaned from his recent DUI arrest in Jupiter, Fla. Classy. Just what the U.S. Open needs.

Air to Erin: If you somehow missed the ongoing Phil Mickelson subplot this week, there remains only a slim chance that Lefty will be able to arrive in time for his afternoon tee slot today at Erin Hills. Instead, he will be attending the high school graduation ceremony of his eldest daughter, Amanda, in Carlsbad, Calif.

However, Mickelson has his jet on standby and his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay was at Erin Hills on Wednesday, taking the lay of the land and charting holes, just in case there’s a weather delay in the first round that would give Mickelson a chance to make his 2:20 p.m. CDT tee time. Forecasts suggest that rain is unlikely Thursday.

"Knowing Phil and as much as he wants to play, it wouldn’t surprise me if he left [San Diego] if rain wasn’t forecast," Mackay told Fox. Mackay predicted that if Mickelson gets a clear weather report from Erin Hills while en route, he could turn the jet around and head home. Mickelson has six runner-up finishes at the Open, the only major that he has yet to win.

Added Fox analyst Brad Faxon: “I’ve never wanted it to rain so badly.”

Show up, keep up, shut up: Evidently, the brass at Fox has ordered the network’s taking heads to close their pie holes when players and caddies are overheard in conversation on the course, which ought to make the coverage far more illuminating. There’s nothing more frustrating for viewers than when an analyst talks over the top of a key exchange between a player and his bagman.

Wednesday, Fox’s Paul Azinger was reeling off an anecdote from his playing days as former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and caddie Mark Fulcher were engaged in a discussion about course strategy during their practice round. It prompted Joe Buck to ask Azinger, mostly in jest: “Were you at the meeting?”

A chagrinned Azinger conceded that attended it.

“When player talks to caddie, Paul, we shut it,” Buck said.

So, we’ve got that going for us this week, which is nice.

Media laugh of the day: The U.S. Golf Association announced Wednesday at its pre-tournament press session that it set its annual “time par” for players to complete rounds on Thursday and Friday at 4 hours, 52 minutes. Ahem.

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


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