After drawing criticism for its inaugural U.S. Open broadcast in 2015, can FOX redeem itself in 2019?

By Jacob Feldman
June 13, 2019

This could be the U.S. Open FOX has been waiting for—and working towards. Tiger Woods has not made the cut since the network started broadcasting the U.S. Open in 2015. This year, bettors are giving him an 85% chance to make it to the weekend and have placed the reigning Masters champ as one of the most likely to win it all.

“Believe me, that’s in my mind: 'Man, I wonder what it would be like if he was in the hunt,'” host Joe Buck told SI.com. Having covered Tom Brady in Super Bowls and Derek Jeter in World Series, the broadcaster has developed a system for discussing transcendent stars, keeping a running page of notes on their career milestones. I’ve already got two pages on Tiger, Buck said Monday, though most of the notes won’t make it to air.

“When you only drop in once a year for the U.S. Open on the men’s side, it’s hard not to try to empty your bucket every time the mic is on,” Buck said. “The beauty of golf is the silence when someone walks into a shot and the moment they pull the club back—that’s what I love to watch. If Tiger is in it on Sunday, I’m going to be fighting myself to not always be putting it into perspective…. Unless it’s really good or worthwhile, just shut up.”

Fans can get all the Tiger they want starting on Thursday, when for the first time FS1 will pick up featured group coverage that was previously online-only. FOX will take over the main coverage at 7:30 p.m. eastern. Justin Kutcher and Mark Brooks will anchor coverage focusing on Woods’s group, which includes Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose.

“We can take a deeper dive on FS1, while on FOX we’re trying to tell the whole story,” executive producer Mark Loomis said.

Back-to-back U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka will also be getting the featured group treatment on Thursday after recently being left out of a FOX tournament ad. Koepka brought up the slight during his Tuesday press conference, and also mentioned it during his sit-down with Buck. “He rattled off everybody who was in the promo,” Buck said. “He can laugh at it on one hand but I think he uses that inside the rope as motivation.”

Having won three of the last five majors, Koepka has yet to break through as a household name—or, it seems, a must-highlight TV draw. If the 29-year-old is in contention again, Buck hopes to change that. “As opposed to the Tiger scenario … you really have to set all that up and say, ‘We are looking at greatness. Let’s not let us pass it by without acknowledging how special that is.’ It’s up to us as a broadcast crew to really bang the drum.”

FOX debuted its inaugural U.S. Open coverage to critical responses in 2015 at Chambers Bay, but four years on, Buck said this production feels different. He’s more comfortable with the mechanics of teeing up his on-course analysts, and now the players recognize him. “The first year we showed up at Chambers Bay and everybody was like, ‘Why the hell is the football guy here?” Buck said. This time around, he’s joking with Koepka.

“It just has a different feeling in 2019 than I’ve really experienced the first four years,” Buck said. “Everybody is excited. Nobody is really wondering what’s going to go wrong.”

Calling the Pebble Beach action along with Buck will be Paul Azinger, Shane Bacon, and Brad Faxon, as well as on-course reporters Ken Brown, Curtis Strange, Steve Flesch, and Brett Quigley. David Fay (rules) and Gil Hanse (course design) will be on hand to provide their expertise too. And, this year, FOX has brought in Joel Klatt to handle interviews. The former college QB is apparently a scratch golfer. “If you went through all of 2018 and figured out which of our announcers watched the most golf on TV, Joel would’ve won going away,” Loomis said.

Having pushed the ball forward with coursewide shot tracking and advanced elevation graphics over the last few years, FOX has a few new technical tricks this year. There will be new tracer set-ups on the fourth and 14th hole, allowing for different perspectives, as well as a drone designed to give viewers a new perspective on the course that has now hosted the most U.S. Open tournaments over the last 30 years.

MORE THOUGHTS ON SMOLTZ AND THE FUTURE OF BASEBALL BROADCASTS

Following up on last week’s look into the debate around baseball’s national voice, here are a lineup card’s worth of additional notes on the Hall-of-Famer in the middle of it all and the state of the sport on TV.

1. Young John Smoltz was an inventor. Each Lansing winter, he governed ping-pong baseball, a basement game featuring oars as bats, a staircase-turned-strike zone, and two windows comprising grand slam territory. His curveball was basically banned.

Summer brought pool baseball. The pitcher stood on the diving board while the second basemen manned a spot in the shallow end. Whenever a runner attempted to steal, the designated ump would grab a breath and dive under to study the contorting limbs, looking for a tag. Other contests featured the nearby chimney and a varied assortment of cones. “We were constantly making games,” Smoltz said. “I had a blast.”

Now Smoltz is 52 and worried. “Today if you set up 20 kids and told them to go outside and figure it out, I don’t think they could,” he said. “Technology has taken over … it would be difficult for them to make up a game.”

2. Smoltz spends nearly the entire day leading into a broadcast scraping numbers off baseballsavant.mlb.com—by hand. He pulls up each starting hitter’s splits on his iPad and transfers them to a page on his legal pad, before putting the numbers back in his iPad, categorized by team. The multi-step process helps him commit all of the figures to memory. Good numbers go in red digital ink, bad ones in blue, and terrible ones in green. While the site offers a bevvy of advanced metrics, Smoltz sticks with recording straight batting averages. “To me,” he said, “average still matters.”

Sunday Night Baseball play-by-player and MLB Network host Matt Vasgersian said he’s only worked with one other analyst, in any sport, who takes game prep as seriously as Smoltz. (NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger, if you were curious.)

3. Asked about the criticism he and Smoltz receive, here’s what Joe Buck had to say:

“That’s just the way of the world right now and you just have to kind of carry on and do the job that you think you’re there to do. And if someday that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing, then I assume somebody will tap you on the shoulder and somebody else will sit down and take your seat and you will go home.”

4. In Boston, Smoltz walked from his hotel to Fenway Park, in the hopes of finding a Supercuts. He’s also been known to pick up a strawberry acai refresher from Starbucks.

5. Smoltz may or may not be undefeated playing P-I-G on the MLB Network office’s hoop (there’s no time for H-O-R-S-E). Pedro Martinez is about the only table tennis foe who can keep up with him. Off-air for minutes, Smoltz already has a card game pulled up on his phone. On the golf course, he has qualified for the U.S. Senior Open. “He’s probably the most competitive guy I’ve ever been around,” former teammate Brian McCann said.

6. MLB on FOX director Matt Gangl also directs Twins games for Fox Sports North, giving him a unique vantage point on the difference between local and national baseball coverage. “(On local games), you can't go to the extent you can as a national broadcaster—you can criticize things, but you criticize them in a more productive way, maybe,” he said. “At the regional level, you are a partner with the team.”

7. Sixteen year pro and current MLBN analyst Mark DeRosa was talking about how the game has changed, with batters now accepting strikeouts and swinging for the fences, when I asked if he was jealous of how they are now told to play. “Hell yeah,” he said.

8. Working with Smoltz for nearly a decade now, MLB Network senior coordinating producer Chris Pfeiffer has seen how active players relate to the pitching legend. “When we walk into camp, players just come to him,” Pfeiffer said. “We went to Spring Training, bouncing around different camps. Sometimes the PR people would tell us, ‘Oh, no, so-and-so isn’t available,’ and we’d walk in and that player was running up to Smoltz…. It’s just that he’s easy to talk to.”

9. Smoltz isn’t interested in joining social media. Yes, he’s always up for a back-and-forth. Yes, his agent has told him he’s losing money by staying off the services. But no, he’s good.

SIGHTLINES

• Jon Gruden, Antonio Brown, and Derek Carr are headed to HBO as Hard Knocks focuses on the Oakland Raiders this August. Vontaze Burfict and Richie Incognito will also likely get their share of screen time.

• Sports media/betting synergy update: “Our platforms, CBS Sports HQ or our CBS Sports cable network, and we own Sportsline, as [betting] becomes legal state by state, I do think there is a bigger platform opportunity. And we are having multiple discussions with several partners to make sure we get the opportunity right,” acting CBS CEO Joe Ianniello told investors last week.

• The Starters are reportedly leaving NBA TV.

• DAZN subscribers should check out the platform’s post-fight Andy Ruiz-Anthony Joshua mini-doc, following an upset that might have been the most illegally streamed match of all-time. Speaking of documentaries, Golf Channel has a two-parter coming next week on Ben Hogan, which includes an interview with the late Dan Jenkins.

• ESPN is shutting down Deportes Radio.

• ‘Battlebots’ is back! Danny Heifetz has more.

• The Washington Post’s Ben Strauss watched Rick Reilly eat a samosa and discussed his time at SI and ESPN.

• Richard Deitsch has the info you need on FOX’s Women’s World Cup coverage.

• Tucker Roberts, son of Comcast CEO Brian, is investing in the future of gaming.

• Bill Simmons spoke to AdWeek as The Ringer turns three years old. Asked about his decreased writing output, Simmons responded, “You hit this point where you’ve said just about everything [you] want to say.”

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