News & Opinion

NBC rolls with twisting plot at Birkdale

Imagine the scene, just for laughs.

In the now-mythical videotape library in the bowels of Golf Channel’s headquarters in Orlando, Fla., some low-level staffer stands in front of the stack of archived material, wearing a confused look. Why? 

They don’t have a place on the shelves for fiction.

In perhaps the most farfetched finish in 146 stagings of the British Open, the crew at NBC Sports on Sunday delivered the goods for millions of stunned viewers, even when words and images barely could convey the story.

For the sake of posterity, let the record show that runner-up Matt Kuchar played a crucial string of four back-nine holes in 2 under, yet somehow lost three strokes over that stretch to Texas conjurer Jordan Spieth, who became the second player in history to win three legs of the career Grand Slam before age 24.

We intentionally chose the term posterity, because clarity was far more difficult to achieve, requiring NBC to perform at the top of its storytelling game as Spieth wobbled and nearly handed the fabled Claret Jug to Kuchar, 39.

With a couple of hours left, as Kuchar and Spieth slogged around Royal Birkdale without doing anything memorable, NBC’s Dan Hicks lamented that although the day didn’t remotely resemble last year’s epic Sunday showdown between Phil Mickelson and eventual winner Henrik Stenson, it might prove memorable. You know, maybe.

“This could be just as entertaining, in a different way," Hicks said, hopefully.

Try unforgettable, and Hicks was right in the middle with David Feherty, Johnny Miller, Roger Maltbie and Peter Jacobsen along for the almost indescribable, careening ride. 

In an instant classic, the improbable plot twists started shortly after Spieth hit an ugly, rolling hook into the gallery on the par-3 12th and escaped with a fortunate par. On the next tee, he sliced a driver so horribly off line, it took several minutes to locate the ball. It was, by far, the two most shocking shots in succession that anybody on the leader board had hit all day.

Said Miller, in a rare understatement: “That was an amazingly poor drive.”

The next 30 minutes featured triage and triangulation as Spieth took an unplayable-lie penalty after his ball was found on a hopelessly steep slope, about 100 yards from the fairway. He meandered among equipment trailers, shadowed the rules officials and ended up taking a drop on the driving range, from a spot where nobody could see the green.

Spieth directed fan traffic as NBC tried to set the chaotic scene. GPS would have come in handy. The network aerial shots proved to be a necessity.

“It would be hard to get a yardage from there,” cracked former PGA Tour looper Jim “Bones” Mackay, who joined the NBC crew this week.

NBC left the microphones open and caught snippets of several Spieth conversations, including his waving folks out of the way.

"Y'all, would you mind moving back, just for your own safety?" he said.

No kidding. He’d already conked at least five spectators during the week. Meanwhile, NBC kept flashing shots of Kuchar, who already had hit his approach onto the green, and was sitting on a towel in the fairway, perhaps 150 yards away.

It took roughly 30 minutes, but Spieth finally took the drop, hit a sloppy approach and eventually made an 8-footer to salvage a bogey, losing the lead for the first time all week.

Said Jacobsen, who was never better as the tumult erupted: “Spieth makes bogey, but it felt like a 12 or a 13."

On the next tee, Spieth mounted the craziest, 11th-hour comeback in recent major-championship history, a 180-degree flip from his fold job at the Masters last year, when he tanked a five-shot lead on the back nine to lose.  

Though he hadn’t made a solid full swing in nearly an hour, he laced his tee shot on the par-3 14th to within inches of the hole, cheekily twirling his club on the follow-through. He made a birdie.

On the next hole, he knocked two huge shots onto the green and canned a 48-footer for eagle as NBC cameras caught him brashly pointing at the ball in the hole and telling caddie Michael Greller, “Go get it.”

Said Jacobsen: “This guy’s just got a bag full of savvy and guts. I’m speechless and really impressed with how he has been able to gather himself after that terrible tee shot at 13 and play the next two at 3 under. Just magnificent.”

He birdied the next two holes, too. Kuchar tried to keep up – recording two birdies in the same, fateful four-hole stretch – but lost three shots to the unflappable Texan, who played the string in an incomprehensible 5 under. It was left to NBC to make sense of the madness.

"He has to be wondering what the heck he has to do to win this tournament," Feherty said of Kuchar. "He could wait until Jordan is asleep and hit him with a 2x4, and still not win.”

It was the most riveting finish at the British Open since Jean Van de Velde butchered the final hole at Carnoustie in 1999. And nobody had to take off his shoes and socks this time.

Tweeted Jack Nicklaus, the only other man who amassed three legs of the Grand Slam before turning 24: “Is Jordan Spieth something else?”

It was a rhetorical question, unlike the one I posed Sunday morning to the golf Twitterazzi. In a decidedly unscientific poll that drew more than 500 votes, Golf Channel/NBC came away as the winner when respondents were asked to name their favorite broadcast outlet for golf. NBC garnered 55 percent of the tally, with CBS (35 percent) and Fox (10 percent) finishing comfortably back. A few hours later, NBC validated the vote.

As Spieth walked toward the scorer’s hut to sign his card, Hicks said: "It's just hard to describe what Spieth showed the golf world today." 

Actually, the NBC crew just had. Quite well, too.

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