A funny thing happened at the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach: Fox Sports got to cover a golf tournament and not a controversy.
In its fifth opportunity as the host network of America’s national golf championship, the folks at Fox finally got to settle into a state of normalcy. There were no “broccoli” greens, such as the ones that overshadowed the network’s shaky debut in 2015 at Chambers Bay. There was no unresolved ruling to cast an ominous sense of uncertainty over the back-nine proceedings, such as in 2016 at Oakmont. There was no general grumbling about another rookie venue not being “U.S. Open worthy,” such as in 2017 at Erin Hills. There was no out-of-control golf course causing embarrassment, such as in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills.
All there was at Pebble Beach during the past week was an iconic venue providing scenic views and scores of birdies, allowing the players to settle it themselves without USGA interference. And despite the storybook scenarios of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson fizzling out early, Sunday provided a big-name shootout that allowed Fox to prove it can handle an actual golf tournament on a major stage.
With a lot of contenders making noise on the gettable early holes at Pebble Beach, Fox’s cameras bounced around seamlessly from shot to shot that provided all the pertinent context any viewer needed to take in the history of the moment. With the leaders on the front of the course as the eight-hour Sunday broadcast headed toward prime time on the East Coast, the coverage was percolating like the second nine on Sunday at the Masters.
The caliber of the golf finally allowed the Fox team to stand out. Fox gradually has ironed out the casting kinks that often muddled the first few years of its Open era. The newest addition of Joel Klatt deftly handling the post-round interviews had a comfortable feel to it, with the players seated on the set and Stillwater Cove as the backdrop. Klatt’s questions and the atmosphere was on point for Pebble and even revealed that Brooks Koepka never had had a hot drink in his life.
Before Sunday’s final-round coverage, the three biggest broadcast highlights of the week had nothing to do with the eventual contenders.
The Fox microphones starred on Thursday, capturing Jordan Spieth’s biting dialogue with caddie Michael Greller on the eighth hole. “Two perfect shots, Michael,” Spieth said. “You got me in the water on one and over the green on the other.” Social media erupted, and Spieth conceded that he “may have looked like the bad guy there.” A day later, mics picked up his grousing about a rake in the grass that made another poor shot from a bunker worse, which didn’t help his good-boss image.
Late Friday provided one of the most exquisite video clips of the year when 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed unleashed a controlled meltdown beside the 18th green, where multiple cameras could catch it in all of its glory. After muffing a chip in the thick greenside rough, Reed snapped and without hesitation did the same with the wedge over his knee. The close-up slow-motion replay highlighted Reed’s form silhouetted cleanly against Carmel Bay. But the wider live view caught Reed’s quick outburst, the crisp steel snap, the toss of the ruined pieces beside Reed’s golf bag and caddie Kessler Karain’s casual and perfectly timed pulling of a new wedge for his boss to grab. As Reed then walked over to pull the flagstick for himself, Paul Azinger finally came up with a response for the tableau presented: “Well, now, there’s a man sitting on a powder keg.”
Saturday’s early coverage temporarily broke away from showing every shot made by Woods and Mickelson to showcase a booth visit from a rival network broadcaster. CBS veteran Jim Nantz was invited live on-air by Joe Buck to walk over from his Pebble Beach home and join the broadcast for a cameo. Nantz graciously accepted, sporting a popped polo collar under a popped quarter-zip collar covered by a U.S. Open vest. Buck was an unabashed fan-boy, eagerly setting up Nantz stories and gushing that one of his broadcast heroes needed credentials to stroll his home course.
By Father’s Day, however, it was all about golf, and Fox finally found its stride in its annual cameo role as a major lead. The coverage hit the right balance between storytelling and showing the relevant golf shots without leaning too heavily on the Tiger crutch. The Buck-Azinger and Shane Bacon-Brad Faxon booth teams proved economical with words and let the play do most of the talking, but everyone was well-versed in the subject matter and made no fumbles. They helped introduce viewers to Gary Woodland’s story while providing the necessary historical context involving Brooks Koepka’s quest for a three-peat, Justin Rose’s chase for a second major and Pebble’s place in the game.
“A group trying to change the course of their career, add to a legacy or possibly make U.S. Open history,” Buck said when he came on the air.
Best of all, the continuity wasn’t shamelessly broken up by incessant advertising breaks the way CBS sullied its PGA Championship coverage last month. The final holes featured uninterrupted coverage, which carried the viewers from Woodland’s massive 3-wood into the 14th green through his punctuating birdie putt to clinch a three-shot victory on the 18th. Considering Pebble Beach lacked the typical U.S. Open fire, the USGA seemed to acquiesce its par-saving nature and provided a shootout setup more akin to a Masters Sunday. The prime-time ratings should reward them despite Woods and Mickelson having checked out too soon.
By the time the focus narrowed to Woodland and Koepka as the last protagonists left standing, viewers could relax knowing that the telecast was in capable hands. Fox Sports had it covered like a veteran.
Scott Michaux is a 10-time Golf Writers Association of America award winner covering golf since 1997 for the Greensboro News & Record and The Augusta Chronicle. Twitter: @ScottMichaux