For Greg Norman, it was a moment to define himself in his first United States Open as the lead analyst. Dustin Johnson was on the 18th green on Sunday with a chance to win if he sank an eagle putt. What was Norman’s assessment of the putt? Would it go left or right? What sort of speed should he put on it? Norman said nothing. Johnson missed. Now, Johnson had to try for a birdie to tie Jordan Spieth and set up a playoff for Monday. What did Norman say as Johnson prepared to putt? “Not an easy one.” That was all. Johnson missed — and Spieth followed his Masters win with the Open title.
Was this preputt silence — which occurred regularly during the tournament — a new Fox paradigm?
Norman was only a symptom of Fox’s poor debut as the United States Open broadcaster, a role that will last another 11 years. Producing golf is difficult, which is why there was concern when Fox succeeded NBC as the Open’s broadcaster. NBC offered a skilled production, honed over two decades, where you rarely wondered if Johnny Miller would speak his mind. Fox did not raid NBC’s on-air and behind-the-scenes golf staff — the network has plenty of golf left in its cupboard and recently acquired the rights to the British Open, starting in 2017 — so Fox created a crew from scratch.
Without much experience besides televising last year’s Franklin Templeton Shootout, Fox was bound to encounter problems. There were numerous unforced errors.
■Fox did not have a camera focused on Spieth to get his immediate reaction to Johnson’s missed putts on the 18th hole. He was found by Fox soon after, with his friends and family, but the shot that best conveyed his shock was lost forever. And Fox never had an interview with Johnson; whether he refused a request to give one was never noted.
■Joe Buck, Norman’s partner at the 18th tower, is not a golf guy the way CBS’s Jim Nantz and NBC’s Dan Hicks are. He might grow into the role but he cannot refer to Louis Oosthuizen, a South African, as an Australian, and he cannot say that Johnson “took six months off last year for personal reasons” without touching on the murky circumstances — was it a failed drug test? — that forced his absence.
■The wildly inconsistent use of graphics to show putting lengths was consistently maddening. So was the constant five-man leaderboards in the bottom right of the screen that were so inflexible that they excluded every golfer who had the bottom score, as when Adam Scott and Brandt Snedeker were at one under on Sunday but only Rory McIlroy was listed. There was also a lack of consistency in the way players’ graphics immediately changed to reflect a change in score. Viewers have come to expect such fundamental information delivered quickly.
■The use of tracer technology to chart the flight of a tee shot is interesting, but it appeared to serve as a surrogate for Fox’s cameras trying to locate the ball in the air. Too often, the network stuck with the tracer lines too long, depriving viewers of seeing the ball in flight before bouncing to its destination. Sometimes, tracers notwithstanding, the cameras could not find the balls at all.
■In too many circumstances to count, it was impossible to know who was talking, unless it was Norman, Buck or Juli Inkster (who disappeared on Sunday). Fox rarely showed graphics to say who was speaking. The announcers only occasionally addressed one another. At times, Scott McCarron and Steve Flesch were carrying on private conversations that we happened to overhear. At least I think it was them. Corey Pavin seemed to require a push from a colleague to speak. And the role for Brad Faxon, who has significant potential as a commentator and a foil to Norman, was too limited.
Norman need not turn into a verbal gunslinger to succeed at Fox (where his sportswear company, the Greg Norman Collection, is the official golf talent outfitter). But he must push himself to speak more, to be more insightful, to invite debate and not disappear for lengthy periods during an eight-hour broadcast. And he needs to use his personal experiences far more to enliven his commentary.
But even as Johnson foundered in the final round, Norman did not bring up his epic collapse at the 1996 Masters as perspective.
When Buck finally brought up the meltdown issue late in the postround wrap-up, Norman said, “That’s where my mind goes.” Eureka! But why didn’t he say that (and more) when it was relevant?
Buck’s leading role on United States Open coverage is not surprising; through football and baseball, he is Fox’s big voice. But Curt Menefee, a host of the coverage, was far out of his element, as if he had never swung a golf club. He showed none of the confidence he brings to his role on the Fox N.F.L. Sunday pregame show. He was tongue-tied at times and outmatched on a panel of former golfers. But his low point came after the final round when he suggested that Spieth was no more than a consistent golfer who “doesn’t do anything great.” He was rebuked by Faxon, who said, ”He’s one of the best at every facet of the game.”
Whatever Fox’s promises to the United States Golf Association that it would change the way the United States Open is televised and marketed may have to wait. Its innovations — from shading the greens to show Chambers Bay’s undulations to embedding microphones in holes — felt hollow with the basics not yet mastered.
Miller predicted in 2013 that Fox would have, at best, growing pains. After hearing that Fox had outbid NBC, Miller said, “You can’t just fall out of a tree and do the U.S. Open.” Early in Round 1, Buck said, “We’ve dropped out of a tree onto your TV.” And too often, that is precisely how it looked.