Network television executives get paid the big bucks to make tough decisions, but this one was a no-brainer. Paul Azinger will become NBC’s lead golf analyst in early 2019, succeeding Johnny Miller, who is retiring in February after three decades of sparring and charring.
Few TV commentators in any sport have grasped the concept of critical candor as successfully as Miller. His sugar-free insight was based on the simple notion that PGA Tour pros should be held to the highest competitive standards, which is precisely what he expected of himself as one of the game’s top players in the 1970s.
To say that Miller, 71, changed the culture of golf analysis, however, would be an exaggeration. Very few of his fellow broadcasters have been willing to impart such an opinionated voice to viewers, although Azinger, 58, hasn’t exactly been bashful during stints in the booth for ABC, ESPN and Fox.
An indication of his value as an analyst is that NBC is willing to let Azinger continue calling USGA events for Fox while serving in his new role. “I’m ready to rack up some air miles,” he told me Tuesday. “It should be a lot of fun.”
Nick Faldo, Azinger’s former colleague at ABC, also holds a dual-network role in calling golf for CBS and Golf Channel, but the similarities between the two men end there. Faldo’s viewpoints often dissolve into non sequiturs; Azinger consistently has demonstrated a knack for concise, independent thinking. Faldo really doesn’t know the people whom he covers and typically conveys his observations with a narcissistic slant.
As one of the most popular players on the PGA Tour and a victorious U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2008, Azinger displays broadcasting sensibilities shaped by knowledge gleaned through those relationships. A successful bout with cancer in 1993 also sharpened his perspective, as did the 1999 death of his close friend Payne Stewart. In a business in which at least 49 percent of the audience is not likely to like him, Azinger shows an ability to share information, translate wisdom and communicate in complete sentences, turning his second career into a vast success.
Perhaps the NBC brass held a couple of meetings to discuss Miller’s replacement, but no discussion was necessary. Not only is Azinger very good at what he does, but he’s cut from the same call-it-like-he-sees-it cloth as Miller. Besides, the Peacock didn’t have anyone on its current broadcasting team capable of stepping into such a crucial role.
Brandel Chamblee, who bats cleanup for Golf Channel, an NBC partner, might have been an option, but Chamblee has limited experience in the booth and is more suited (and valuable) as a studio presence whose edge and demeanor work perfectly in a semi-scripted setting.
Justin Leonard has done a decent job filling in for Miller and handling duties as a secondary analyst at big events, but he’s still growing into the job and seems to lack the introspective vision
necessary to perform in the booth at the highest level. Calling golf tournaments for a few million viewers on the weekend is a daunting task. We’re talking about an audience that is highly educated and somewhat leery of whom they’re listening to.
There is a ton of available airtime over the course of a three- or four-hour telecast, so preparation is an absolute must, which is why Greg Norman was such a dismal failure with Fox. But come late Sunday afternoon, with the game on the line and suspense occasionally reaching a rapid boil, a lead analyst must rely on his instincts to say the right thing at the right time.
He can memorize the statistics, eat a good breakfast and spend the rest of the morning sharpening his diction. On the final nine of the game’s biggest events, however, when some Ben Curtis impersonator sits atop the leaderboard and three of golf’s biggest stars are in hot pursuit, clear thought and articulate spontaneity become precious assets.
Some guys have them; some guys don’t. Miller might not have been the wittiest commentator who ever clipped a microphone onto his lapel, but his reaction to the action always was authentic, his choice of words often quite memorable. In a profession in which a lot of people talk a whole bunch but don’t have much to say, Miller packed a punch.
His blunt discourse infuriated some. He threw a lot of haymakers in his heyday, and there were a fair number of victimized touring pros over the years who wanted to wring his neck, to which some of us could only chuckle. Truth be told, nobody ever has brought more to the booth than the fair-haired Nicklaus lookalike with the bad slacks and the sharpest set of irons the game has seen.
Miller will be missed, but the shoes aren’t impossible to fill.
Azinger had big guts as a player. He’s got big feet as an analyst.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org