This week's U.S. Open Golf Championship will be contested at a new golf course, broadcast by a new network and could very well be won by a first time major winner. Some would say that's probably a good thing, but I tend to disagree. While it's not tantamount to August National building a Phoenix Open style stadium environment at the sixteenth hole for the Masters, it seems to nonetheless smack of gimmickry by the venerable USGA. Chamber's Bay, the host course, didn't even exist ten years ago. It makes me wonder, with all of the great, tournament tested courses in this country, that they would feel compelled to have their premier event contested on such an untested and unknown layout. In addition, there is only one tree on the entire course. The tournament will appear more like the British Open. While I have nothing against the Open Championship, what typically makes the majors golf championships so compelling is the variety of courses and styles the players need to overcome.
The Masters, with it's familiar layout and swift greens, unofficially opens the golf season. We know what to expect, with more often than not the tournament hinging on the final nine holes. Jim Nantz whispers his way through four days of almost religious reverence. Although not officially a major, The Players treats us to another familiar, yet completely different style of course, with railroad ties, water hazards and the famous island green on number 17. Major wannabees like Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar and Ricky Fowler tend to prevail. NBC, with its long history of airing the tournament, does its best to maximize the drama and tension created by the 17th. Generally, the U.S. Open is held on an older course, with narrow fairways, thick rough, small greens and fragile nerves the order of the day. Johnny Miller is usually at his acerbic best, criticizing everything from the club selection of the players to the condiments provided at the concession stand. The British gives us links style golf, a starter that goes ten hours between bathroom breaks and a glimpse into the birth of the game. ABC, now ESPN, handles the broadcast chores, giving us Curtis Strange and Paul Azinger as a break from Faldo and Miller. The rotation of sites is under ten courses, with the venerable St. Andrews a staple every several years. It's the most international of the majors, and always has been. In fact, until Arnold Palmer focused on the event in the late fifties and early sixties, few American golfers made the journey to Europe. And finally, the PGA Championship closes the major season. Although the numbers are down, there are still club professionals that have an opportunity to compete. The course selection is a little broader than the U.S. Open and the setups are more forgiving. Davis Love recorded his only major in a PGA, while Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer never got one, depriving them of the career Grand Slam.
So this brings me back to the USGA, which inexplicably has deviated from the long held traditions of the tournament. The most surprising, and maybe compelling aspect, will be Fox Sports' ability to broadcast a golf tournament. To my knowledge, the network has never covered even a putt-putt tourney, much less the biggest tournament in American golf. Are you kidding me? Greg Norman, the lead analyst, has been in the booth during his career, but never has he had to carry the broadcast. Unlike NBC, which owns the Golf Network, there isn't a lot of history or talent in golf. It's certainly disconcerting that the USGA would take such a huge risk. Golf is one of the more challenging sports to produce and direct, with action taking place over a huge eighteen hole layout. What to show live, the sequence of shots, the uncertainty created by someone unexpectedly making a charge all contribute to the reason that the PGA Tour generally has the same networks cover the same tournaments for years at a time. Yet the USGA brings in a total rookie organization, at least as far as golf is concerned, for the U.S. Open. It was a clear money grab for an organization that should be better than that. Golf, at it's core, is about integrity and honor. When one of the two organizations charged with protecting and promoting the game stoops to such depths, presumably just for money, it smacks of hypocrisy, something the game really can't afford at this juncture.
As a player and a fan, I truly hope next week's Open is a tremendous success. Given the risks the USGA has taken and what's at stake, I'm concerned that the gamble might just backfire.
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