ESPN severs U.S. Golf link; Fox set to take over for ESPN, NBC

bgillespie@thestate.comJune 19, 2014 

LAST WEEK at Pinehurst No. 2 marked the end of an era for the U.S. Open Championship and its broadcast coverage. Understandably, given the long relationship between the U.S. Golf Association – which starting in 2015 will have its major events aired by Fox Sports – and its immediate past TV partners, there was sadness and nostalgia and more than a bit of disappointment. Tears, even.

If you watched until Sunday’s end of Martin Kaymer’s dismantling of the rest of the Open field, you saw NBC’s Johnny Miller wiping his eyes, and on-air partner Dan Hicks comforting the longtime lightning-rod analyst and 1973 Open winner. NBC rightly had reason for emotions, having covered the USGA’s centerpieces for the past 20 years, since 1995.

Perhaps overlooked, though, was a longer history that ended Friday. At the conclusion of the second round (by which time, arguably, the tournament was already decided), ESPN wrapped up its own U.S. Open stint – one that, at 33 years, dwarfs the NBC link – with a heartfelt, if not tearful, goodbye from Chris Berman.

While ESPN’s live coverage ended each June at tournament midpoint, the sense of loss – and even betrayal – was as strong for Berman, Scott Van Pelt and the rest of ESPN’s team as it was for Miller et al. Most of the media sympathy for that loss, though, has been heaped on NBC.

I know, I know: Berman, many say, fit the sedate U.S. Open atmosphere like a banjo at a piano recital. His “Boomer” persona, occasionally groan-inducing puns and full-throttle enthusiasm always seemed a bit much for the golf crowd.

But John Wildhack, ESPN vice president for production and programming and part of the network’s golf coverage since 1980, thinks Berman gets a bad rap. “It bothered me,” he said. “I know how much he loves the Open; it is right up there with the NFL for him, which is what he’s known for.”

Agree or not, with Berman and Van Pelt, and Miller and Hicks, you knew what you were getting at the Open. Fox’s Joe Buck is great on baseball, and Greg Norman might be another Miller when it comes to unfiltered commentary. We don’t know. Come 2015, we’ll find out.

For now, it’s worthwhile to reflect on ESPN’s role – the salad and appetizer to NBC’s entrée and dessert – and what it did to inform and entertain about the world’s most demanding golf tournament. ESPN started in 1982 in partnership with ABC and brought us some wonderful golf theatre: Tom Watson’s chip-in to beat Jack Nicklaus that first year; Payne Stewart’s perhaps-best-ever win at Pinehurst in 1999; Tiger Woods’ history Pebble Beach win in 2000.

So why did the USGA choose to cut loose ESPN and, as Wildhack notes, “made clear last year when in negotiations their desire to have one partner,” which became Fox? Short answer: money. Just as Fox wrestled away the NFL with a bigger offer, its $93 million bid last August trumped the NBC/ESPN offer.

That, Wildhack says, is business. What riles ESPN’s Van Pelt, though – who, unlike Berman’s mixed reviews, has a reputation as one of the best young golf announcers around – is the backhanded slap administered by the USGA on its way into Fox’s arms. In a statement, the association said that “the game is evolving and requires bold and unique approaches on many levels, and Fox shares our vision to seek fresh thinking and innovative ideas to deliver championship golf.”

“That was incredibly offensive,” Van Pelt said. “We’ve done plenty to innovate and change how golf is covered, and (ESPN producer) Mike McQuade should be praised for that. …

“What they should just say is that (Fox) wrote us the biggest check, and that’s fine.”

Again, we’ll all find out in June how fine it is. NBC’s Miller, before later adopting a more politically correct tone, was typically blunt: “You can’t just fall out of a tree and do the U.S. Open. I guess the money was more important than the performance.”

Too, back when Fox jumped into the NFL, it essentially hired most of CBS’ talent; for viewers, it just meant tuning to a different channel. But NBC and ESPN aren’t getting out of the golf business – in July, ESPN will air The Open Championship from Royal Liverpool; next April, it’ll open the Masters – so Fox must find its own (hopefully) knowledgeable on-air personnel.

Today, ESPN faces another finale: its coverage of the Women’s Open, also at Pinehurst, anchored by Sean McDonough, Judy Rankin and Dottie Pepper. The Senior U.S. Open follows later this summer, and then it’s over.

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