All this fawning over Tiger Woods in recent months has become a terrific source of amusement among those of us who call ourselves journalists. Understandably, millions of golf fans are stoked about Woods’ competitive re-emergence. Many of the people who cover the game on television, however, are expected to maintain a certain level of impartiality when calling live action or delivering a report from the studio.
Not in 2018. Drool rules at ESPN, where “SportsCenter” anchors and talk-showboats cannot contain their glee over Woods’ comeback. This from a network that televises just two rounds of pro golf the entire year, which is why the official sultans of saliva work for Comcast partners NBC/Golf Channel. Woods doesn’t just drive the game’s TV ratings; he pulls into the parking lot, buys all the groceries and cooks Thanksgiving dinner.
He’s great for business, whether he’s challenging for the third-round lead or pumping one out-of-bounds on the back nine Sunday afternoon. Woods has two top-10 finishes in nine PGA Tour starts. He ranks 99th in greens in regulation and couldn’t make a 4-footer at the Memorial, but hey, let’s not allow the facts to interfere with a good cheerleading routine.
One might figure Fox Sports would grab the pom-poms for its presentation of his week’s U.S. Open, but that definitely wasn’t the case Thursday. Woods killed all the joy before it had a chance to start, opening his tournament with a triple bogey from the middle of the first fairway, which featured a clearly audible F-bomb after a flubbed third shot and another choice expletive when his fourth failed to reach the green.
“You cannot go long here,” warned Curtis Strange, who was following the group for Fox. Woods went long, then he went ballistic. As Woods stood over his 8-footer for a double bogey, Strange added, “I know it would be hard for him to believe it now, but this is a big putt. At the end of the day, they all count.”
So, Woods had a rough liftoff, as did the Rolex countdown, a little advertising gadget assigned to inform viewers how much time remained before the afternoon’s featured group (Woods, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas) teed off. At 12:40, Woods was shown walking to the range in preparation for a 1:47 start. The countdown, however, said his round wouldn’t begin for more than two hours, proof that Rolex is still on standard time and that irony has a sense of humor.
Woods wishes he would have gone at 2:45. “Tiger’s start was shocking for all of us,” said lead analyst Paul Azinger, an understatement if hadn’t spent the previous 90 seconds talking about how difficult Shinnecock was playing. Thursday’s TV star was none other than Strange, a longtime fixture in the booth who now truly excels as an on-course reporter. His no-slobber approach made him the perfect choice to follow Woods, and when disaster struck immediately, his voice of reason carried a sage-like quality.
“When something like this happens, you just wanna make a few pars and get back on the train,” Strange said. After a bogey at the second, Woods hopped onto the locomotive. His opening 78 was nothing to gush about, and he finished the day nine strokes off the lead, which is within shouting distance if you have strong vocal cords and a megaphone (scores).
Since dumping a ton of its excess talent flab and reducing its coverage team to 12, Fox has gotten better at televising golf, but there are still too many holes. Irishman Shane O’Donoghue handles post-round interviews – he’s not nearly as good as those who perform the task at other networks. Ex-Golf Channelette Holly Sonders is the studio host, but in the Fox scheme, she’s basically a seldom-used sideline reporter and adds little to the presentation.
Shane Bacon appears to be an excellent choice as the backup anchor. He’s paired with Brad Faxon, who is no Azinger, although he does have his moments of divine insight. While discussing the value of pre-tournament preparation, Fax completed his thoughts by quipping, “As my ex-caddie Joe Grillo used to say, I’ll take execution over knowledge any time.”
There is no scoring ticker and very limited use of scoring graphics – you wouldn’t have known Jason Day was 9 over par until his round was almost over – but there wasn’t any Tigerdrool on Thursday, either. “That’s really not good,” Strange said after Woods came up 6 feet short on a 40-footer for birdie at the 13th. Woods missed the next one. And the next one. Forget the Rolex countdown. The count was only going up.
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: John@HawkGolf.biz