News & Opinion

Fox’s Open coverage hits ‘Undisputed’ low

Maybe it was part of an ingenious plan by the U.S. Golf Association to steer eyeballs toward its streaming online options, or effectively force fans to read the stories posted on the organization’s website.

Whatever the back story, the folks at the USGA and Golf Channel should send bouquets of roses to Fox headquarters in Los Angeles after the network brass elected on Thursday and Friday to kick off its onsite coverage of the 117th U.S. Open with the sports-talk show “Undisputed.”

There was no disputing the show’s effectiveness as a lead-in to the day’s live coverage on Fox Sports 1. Listening to co-hosts Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe debate golf was like watching a swordfight between two one-eyed, drunken pirates on the deck of a rolling, sinking ship.

Rightly taken aback, aficionados tuning in before the live on-course coverage surely started looking elsewhere in favor of more enlightening coverage on USGA.org or Golf Channel, which offered live, daylong analysis from Erin Hills.

From a golf context, Fox’s new talk show was closer to Unwatchable. So, then, why did we subject ourselves to such misery? So that you didn’t have to.

Fox golf analysts Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange, both major champions and broadcast professionals, tried mightily to inject expertise into the show during on-set appearances Thursday and Friday, respectively, though Strange looked as though he were suffering from gastronomic distress at times. Hey, we can relate.

The tone-deaf show didn’t do much to change the widespread notion that selling the U.S. Open broadcast rights to Fox was a poor idea. When the controversial USGA deal was announced in 2013, it was quickly noted that Fox had no experience broadcasting majors, the most-watched events of the year.

Apparently, the network still doesn’t understand its audience. That said, the USGA should have protested when “Undisputed” was green-lighted as the tournament lead-in. For those familiar with the show, the result was all too predictable.

Bayless is a longtime ESPN employee known mainly for bombast, while Sharpe is a former NFL star who admittedly was out of his element discussing golf. For instance, Sharpe all but conceded Friday that he never had watched “Caddyshack.” Talk about heresy.

The unscripted banter on the set was mostly insufferable.

Sharpe: “I got Slick shooting, like, 69.”

Bayless: “Who’s Slick?”
Sharpe: “Rickie Fowler. He’ll be decked out all in orange. His name’s already engraved on the trophy.”

Viewers were just as confused, and the tone of the show was tantamount to a cold shank on a warm morning. Bayless' on-camera shtick of yelling, interrupting others, waving his arms overhead and slapping a hand on the table as a point of emphasis doesn’t work in a golf context, especially during breakfast.

As usual, the show touched on other sports topics, such as the NBA and the NFL, before wandering back to golf. During the final minutes, a video featuring Fowler, walking hand in hand with his new girlfriend, fitness model Allison Stokke, was aired.

"I can see why he’s playing so well,” Sharpe said. “Look at her, Skip. Rickie got this.”

Cerebral stuff, huh? As the leader heading into the second round, Fowler was rightly the show’s primary topic of conversation. As distinguished from the topic of analysis, mind you.

Sharpe: “That man deserves a nickname.”

Bayless: “He's got one: Rickie.”

Sharpe: “What's his real name?”

Bayless: “I don’t know. Ask your researcher.”

Oh, that witty repartee.

Sharpe might have some decent golf instincts. Before the week began, he picked Fowler to win, prompting Bayless to belittle the player as “Little Rickie” and characterize him as too short to win a major. Yep, even the playful jibes mostly lipped out.

Sharpe promised viewers that if Fowler wins, he’ll wear orange pants on Monday when the show next airs.

To coin a phrase, golf fans will surely Skip it, whatever happens.

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