News & Opinion

Woods gives NBC a must-see show

It’s different on Sunday. Especially a major-championship Sunday, one of the four days each year when the world’s best golfers are invited to edit their own legacy. Winning a few Five & Dime Classics will make you rich. Winning a British Open makes you matter.

The same premise applies to a final-round telecast. It’s all business, meaning no more tales of lore from the nearby watering hole, no more laughing gas from the nutty Irishman. And when the Sunday storyline features the Dude in the Red Shirt, front and center, any voyage away from the TV is made at your own risk.

Tiger Woods made it worth our while in pursuit of his first major title in 10 years, and for an hour or so in the most compelling stages of the 147th British Open, golf’s story of the year was just waiting on a few exclamation points. It was the man playing alongside Woods, however, who was by far and away the most consistent performer on the final lap around Carnoustie.

So, hold the question mark. Francesco Molinari is Italy’s first major champion. Woods and Jordan Spieth were among the headliners who headed south, as neither could sustain a level of play worthy of a Claret Jug. Numerous others factored into the plot, but this tournament was about the brilliant ball-striker who won it and the two American superstars who didn’t.

Spieth’s attempt to repeat as champion was crushed by an unruly putter. He missed three times from inside 6 feet, and his share of the third-round lead was gone midway into the front nine. Woods, meanwhile, was unable to protect the one-stroke lead he carried to the 11th tee. His first double bogey of the week was followed by a 5 at the par-4 12th. Just like that, the fairytale was in tatters.

Thrilling finishes involving 14-time major champions are the types of scenarios TV people dream of, and as one would expect, NBC applied a perfectly restrained touch to the drama as it unfolded. Lead analyst Johnny Miller awoke from a weeklong slumber and delivered from the opening bell, addressing unsettled nerves and dangerous curves – two of an inexperienced contender’s worst enemies.

As Woods stood in a fairway bunker at the 10th, his slim lead in peril, Miller nailed the bull’s-eye in a mere 10 words. “This is the biggest shot he’s had in a while,” Miller noted, and Woods responded. His soaring 9-iron cleared the lip and Barry Burn with room to spare, leaving no clues as to the trouble he’d encounter just around the corner.

When the third-round leaders began moving backwards and Woods embarked on his surge, Gary Koch carried the telecast for an extended stretch. Koch’s calm, understated style makes him a true gem in a field where diamonds are few and far between. He knows the rules better than any analyst. He never exaggerates the importance of a situation, and he knows the nuances of a golf swing as well, if not better, than most teaching pros.

If things are getting crazy, you want Koch behind a microphone, and if Woods is instituting the mayhem, you’d do well not to get your hopes up. This was the first time he owned the lead on the final nine at a major since 2008 – and the third time this season that he wasn’t able to carry a lead to the house.

As inappropriately giddy as NBC was in the early stages of Woods’ comeback, most of which happened in the spring during the Florida Swing on Peacock air, there wasn’t the slightest hint of partisanship during the final round at Carnoustie. The glass is still half-full, but Woods remains a work in progress. His once-impeccable sense of timing, the hallmark trait of perhaps the greatest competitor of his generation in any sport, has failed to reappear over these last seven months.

He doesn’t look like any other golfer, but he doesn’t look like his old self, either. Neither does Molinari, who long has been one of the best in the world from tee to green but wouldn’t become an elite player until he sharpened up his short game. Mission accomplished. The Italian went 65-69 on the weekend despite missing half of his fairways and a third of his greens in regulation.

With the jug on the line, Molinari bore no similarity to the man who wasn’t exactly money in the bank on a crucial 6-footer for par. He made everything on a day when so many others didn’t, and for that, he has been rewarded handsomely.

His performance capped a compelling British Open and added a touch of suspense to what has been a pretty likable year of majors. NBC walks away happy because the Dude in the Red Shirt, despite another flirt, surely generated enormous viewer ratings for the network. In that context and so many others, it really was different on Sunday.

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: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com