News & Opinion

Azinger gives Fox shot at gaining respect

When Fox Sports swiped the U.S. Open television rights from NBC back in the summer of 2014, the incumbent network was blindsided by the move – and quite incensed. So agitated, in fact, that a Golf Channel higher-up asked one of its writers to knock out a short rant-and-rave piece on what some in the Peacock partnership considered to be an act of treason.

It took me about 20 minutes to honor the request. When the Angry Golfer shows up for work, the stiletto already has been sharpened.

Anyway, there were plenty of guffaws when Fox’s coverage of the 2015 championship was universally criticized. By coincidence, I spent my week at Chambers Bay in the TV compound, doing an article for Sports Illustrated on Greg Norman’s color-commentary debut. I probably went a little too easy on the Shark, although his new employer didn’t. Norman was fired after just one season of USGA telecasts.

Golf enthusiasts, meanwhile, have been slow to embrace Fox as the official network of our national championships. Many decry the idea that Joe Buck, who happens to be an outstanding golfer, serves as the lead anchor, subscribing to the notion that a guy who does football, baseball and sit-down comedy couldn’t possibly know a thing about the little white ball. Overexposure, anyone?

Never mind that Bob Costas handled multiple-sport roles for NBC over a span of three decades, or that Mike Tirico has performed similarly varied tasks for almost as long. Hey, Jim Nantz is on CBS more than Jim Parsons. Brent Musburger juggled balls for so long that viewers began to think of him as a circus act. Al Michaels, Howard Cosell….

So there is living, seething proof that too much visibility is not a liability, so long as the man in the booth shows up with credibility. Buck certainly is qualified to do U.S. Open play-by-play, but it’s the dude sitting next to him, the man who replaced Norman, who gives Fox the star it needs to turn moribund telecasts into interesting ones.

Paul Azinger is everything you could ask for in a lead analyst. Norman simply didn’t do his homework and transmitted a know-it-all vibe that could grate on one’s sensibilities. Azinger shows up ultra-prepared and always has applied a pragmatic slant to his observations. He puts you inside the golfer’s head without leaning on the “choke” and “nerves” crutches that fuel the reactions of listless Nick Faldo and aging Johnny Miller.

It’s so easy to say a player is barfing on himself when he steers a 4-iron into the pond bordering the 18th green. Azinger is no apologist but rather an independent thinker who always was popular among his PGA Tour brethren despite practicing the fine art of unfiltered insight. He’s real and he’s rare – one of the best American players of his generation but always seeming like a guy who forever will have something to prove.

Honest and modest. Excellent combo. As analysts go, Azinger was a mile better than Faldo when the two were paired on ABC (with Tirico) in the 2000s, and he’s three miles better now. He also gives Fox a chance to earn some needed respect from the U.S. Open viewership, although the reality of the situation over the past few years is fairly easy to see.

Golf fans had grown so accustomed to the presentations of CBS and NBC that any third-party entry was going to jolt the audience. Add the extra mustard that Fox likes to throw on the telecast and you’ve got a mini-mutiny amongst the game’s traditional, leave-it-alone crowd. The new kid in town has gotten better, and that improvement is likely to continue. If you still want to close your eyes and cut off your ears, there’s surely a “Gunsmoke” rerun on some other channel.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: