Fox Sports is going to ruin the United States Open golf tournament. No, it’s going to reinvigorate it.
Fox will turn the major into a laboratory for its newfangled gadgets. No, Fox will give viewers a better view of the tournament and the Chambers Bay course in Washington State.
Over the past 20 years, the debate over what Fox will or won’t do — with its talent and technology — has accompanied its entries into the N.F.L., Major League Baseball and the N.H.L.
O.K., some hockey traditionalists’ worst fears were fulfilled when Fox deployed the glowing puck, with its accompanying comet tail. I’ve seen worse innovations.
So here comes Fox with its drones, its immersive graphics, its ball tracers, its virtual reality and its microphones at the bottom of each of the 18 holes. (No robots so far.)
They might all turn out fine — or distract us. They might rile older fans but get new ones. All the lessons Fox learned from televising baseball, football, hockey and Nascar might make golf a lot more fun to watch. Or they might ruin it.
As one might expect, Mark Loomis, the coordinator producer for Fox’s United States Open coverage, said last week that all the new technology was in service to covering the tournament.
“We’re are going to try and do a lot of things there to make the viewer feel like they are playing the golf course right in front of them,” he said during a conference call. “We’re trying to get some dimensions to the greens, increase the audio from the course, and give you a better look of what the shot looks like from the golfer’s view.”
He added: “The technology is part of the experience. It’s not the experience.”
My guess: Fox will probably overuse the technology at the start — if only to test its limits — then scale it back as early as the final round on Sunday.
Fox’s acquisition of Open rights was a bit of a shock. NBC wanted to retain them and thought they had. So did ESPN. According to a Golf Digest article, the presentation by NBC officials to the United States Golf Association in June 2013, was a “home run,” including an appearance on the network’s behalf by Arnold Palmer. NBC and ESPN were planning to double what they were paying.
But by August, that equation had changed. The U.S.G.A. saw even bigger money coming from Fox and a promise of innovation. Randy Freer, then the co-president of Fox Sports, sounded a bit snarky as he celebrated Fox’s first golf deal, saying, “We think the U.S. Open can once again be the pre-eminent golf championship in the world” — implying that its status had diminished during NBC’s tenure.
Johnny Miller, NBC’s lead golf analyst, told The Associated Press at the time: “I guess the money was more important than the performance. No way they can step in and do the job we were doing. It’s impossible. There’s just no way.”
But that was nearly two years ago. Fox set about building its golf infrastructure, and last week, NBC made a 12-year deal to carry the British Open, starting in 2017, replacing ESPN.
The United States Open coverage starts Thursday and Friday from noon to 8 p.m. Eastern, on Fox Sports 1, and moves to the Fox broadcast network from 8 to 11 p.m. Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods are among the golfers who are expected to be finishing their rounds in prime time Thursday.
On Saturday, Fox will start its eight-hour day at 2 p.m. and will wrap up its final-round coverage on Fox from 2 to 10:30 p.m. A playoff would be held Monday at 2:30 p.m. on Fox.
At the 18th hole tower, the network’s announcing crew will be led by Joe Buck and Greg Norman, pairing someone known for baseball and football, but not golf, and a former golf star new to announcing. They sounded comfortable on the conference call, but that is no way to judge how they will do at Chambers Bay in their first big test as a team.
They will be quickly compared to Miller and Dan Hicks at NBC and Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo at CBS. Will all the commentary filter through Norman, as NBC does with Miller? Or will the analytic flow be more egalitarian, as it is at CBS?
Norman sounds unfazed at picking up where Miller left off at the Open.
“We are fresh, we are new, we have some different ideas and opinions about what we’re going to see,” he said.
Buck said that he would depend on Norman for guidance. “I won’t wear you out with my knowledge of the U.S. Open,” he said. “I will pick my spots wisely.”
He vowed not to judge a shot too quickly. “Jumping the gun on these holes will be death, especially on the greens,” he said. “You have to let the shot play out before declaring good or bad.”
Buck and Norman did a shadow telecast of last year’s Open from a Fox truck at Pinehurst, calling shots over NBC’s feed, but for internal Fox use. They have also called the other golf events in Fox’s portfolio: the Franklin Templeton Shootout and the United States Amateur Four-Ball.
Buck said of Norman: “I know he’s there, he has my back on any golf question, no matter how dumb or simple.”
So, can Fox step in and do what NBC was doing? Miller and the rest of us will be eager to find out.