News & Opinion

Fox’s lack of depth shows in Open marathon

One problem with broadcasting 9½ hours of golf, especially when it’s at a network’s only televised PGA Tour event all year, is that the personnel can’t handle the workload. The best on-air talent can function at a peak level for only so long, so backups are needed. At the U.S. Open, Fox Sports doesn’t have a very deep bench.

As Friday’s second round at Shinnecock Hills began in a morning drizzle, which turned to rain, weaknesses in the network’s lineup were exposed like a cheap umbrella. Veteran BBC analyst Ken Brown is utterly delightful in the Fox mini-feature “Brownie Points,” but as an on-course commentator, he tends to mumble and talk too fast. Factor in his British accent and he can be hard to understand.

Brown replaced Curtis Strange, who had done such a fine job following the lead group (Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas) the day before, and there were some holes. “He’s right on the cusp of something [good] happening,” Brown observed as Woods stood over his second shot on the first hole – his 10th of the day. Woods’ approach landed in heavy grass 40 yards right of the pin. No Brownie points on that one, partner.

Woods would chop his third off the back of the green and make a double bogey, prompting Brad Faxon, who was in the booth with Shane Bacon at the time, to whip out his violin. “I feel so bad for him!” Faxon exclaimed, something that you might expect to hear from your wife or a dues-paying member of the Eldrick T. Woods Fan Club, not from a man paid to provide live analysis at a major championship.

For whatever reason, Fox spent a significant portion of the early telecast on the putting woes of Jason Dufner, who missed time and time again from inside 8 feet.

“This is hard to watch,” Faxon said.

Really?

Tommy Fleetwood was on his way to shooting a 66. Henrik Stenson also was playing well, yet we barely saw either. When Stenson was applying the finishing touches to a round of 70, Fox ignored it altogether to show us Justin Rose’s group begin its day at the 10th.

No scoring ticker, nothing solid regarding cut projections until Joe Buck and Paul Azinger took over at noon. Fox even showed us three minutes of car and phone advertisements after USGA boss Mike Davis informed us that there would be limited commercial interruption. If timing is everything, Fox has, uh ….

Let’s go to the good stuff. When Woods’ problems continued with a lousy chip at the par-5 fifth, lead analyst Azinger cut loose: “To me, that’s the difference. He’s driving the ball as well as he ever has, but around the greens, he’s just become a middle-of-the-pack guy, and that’s not how you separate yourself.”

You could watch a dozen tournaments and not hear better insight. “Brownie Points,” meanwhile, is a pure gem. His featurettes last just a couple of minutes and generally focus on the astonishing level of course difficulty – Friday’s morning segment had Brown rolling an ABA-like basketball up the 18th fairway, then meeting it as it rolled 20 or so yards back down the hill into the right rough.

He returned in the afternoon with an upside-down frying pan and a kooky grin, both of which helped depict the false fronts and sharp edges of Shinnecock’s greens. Brown’s shtick probably wouldn’t work anywhere else, but at the U.S. Open, the mad scientist and his cockeyed takes have become a compact, crucial component to the coverage.

Fox finally debuted its scoring ticker shortly after the 3 p.m. booth change, either better late than never or 24 hours later than one would hope. It disappeared after one rotation through the field, a puzzling decision by a graphics-heavy network that usually loves to bombard the screen with bells and whistles.

Then there are the audio oddities. The amplified sound of a ball rattling around the bottom of the cup is one way that Fox likes to differentiate itself from the other networks. So is the tendency to emphasize gallery reaction for up to 10 or 15 seconds after a shot is struck, which can be a tricky proposition on a Friday afternoon in New York.

Somebody must have gotten tired of all the crowd blather. Fox lost complete audio transmission for about 10 minutes late in the afternoon. I don’t know how many baba booeys you can take, but my limit is one.

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