The 96th U.S. Open brought it all to our TV screens: rustling leaves, flying divots and at least one exploding animal per day. One by one the golfing menagerie, from Tiger Woods to the Golden Bear to the Great White Shark, blew sky-high on Oakland Hills' famous fairways as NBC commentator Dave Marr clucked sympathetically.
We can certainly say this: Viewers didn't miss much. Between NBC and ESPN the Open was on from morning to night, with several hours of replays in the evening. The annual pageant has become golf's version of the O.J. trial. There may be stretches of tedium, but you have to keep watching or you might miss a riveting moment.
On Friday, for example, Greg Norman lit into a photographer who had clicked his shutter while Norman was teeing off. For a moment it looked as if the Shark might go over and adjust the fellow's aperture. Brought to the NBC booth after his round, Norman was surprised to learn that the whole world had been watching. "Boy, it's lucky I didn't swear," he said. "I didn't know you guys were on the air."
They're always on the air, Greg. It's the Open.
NBC crowed that it was the first network to televise the Open during the first two days, but moving the Thursday-Friday coverage from and then back to ESPN seemed more confusing than anything else. Over at the Diablo Creek Golf Course in Concord, Calif., we visorheads got into a spirited argument with the waitress, who insisted that the coverage was over when ESPN left the course. " NBC," we said. "It's on NBC."
"Uh-oh," she said ominously. Turned out that although the snack shack featured 17 televisions and three satellite dishes, the one unavailable option was good old regular, noncable TV. Welcome to the '90s. The waitress finally got a fuzzy image on a small set in the corner, which we huddled around like a campfire, straining to hear the commentary. I think it was the third time I suggested that we turn down the soccer game a bit when the waitress hit her personal red line. "Don't you have a TV at home?" she asked.
Technically, NBC had a whole task force of announcers patrolling the rough, but there were only four real players. The voices in the booth ranged from the well-modulated Dick Enberg to the squeaky Marr. And big, booming Bob Trumpy was ready to roar, in case someone scored a touchdown. The star of the show, again, was Johnny Mumbles, the unlikeliest hit in the broadcast booth since John Madden. There are times when Johnny Miller doesn't even finish his sentences, but his muttered asides are the true voice of golf.
Miller is the most unprofessional commentator on TV, and I can't think of a better compliment. He may look uneasy and self-conscious when they dolly the camera in on him in the booth, but in the shocked silence after Norman missed a gimme at 17 on Saturday, it was Miller who yelped, "Holy mackerel! He had brain lock!"
Some of Miller's stuff is so inside that it's only for those working on a postgraduate degree, but you have to admit it has the unmistakable ring of authenticity. Looking at a Corey Pavin predicament, Miller opined that "it's a slice wind and a draw shot, so he'll probably end up right." I'm not sure I understood all of that, but when the ball stopped rolling, there it was, right of the pin.
Whoever plunked Miller in the big booth deserves applause because without his edge the NBC broadcast would be a stale puffed pastry. They gush about Enberg as host, but he's more like the ma�tre d'—"Right this way, folks." A golfing novice, Enberg has said more than once that his job is to stay out of the way of the analysts, and to his credit he does—mostly. He can't resist popping in with a few of his trademark factoids. When Enberg told us, "[Frank] Nobilo is between Nicklaus and Norman—not a bad spot—in the media guide," you had to wish Dick would stick a sock in it. Of course, Enberg was just killing time until the final hour. His specialty in every sport is calling the finish, stringing together the raves as the event winds down, until you swear you can hear the pen of history scratching in the book of the ages.