Traditionally the British Open has been the year's worst major telecast, spoiled by terrible visuals (the inherited BBC feed, washed out by flat coastal light) and uninspired commentary (with the notable exception of Peter Alliss's).
This year brought new hope. For the first time ABC would be using digital video, from the BBC's cameras and ABC's own. Further, the network's lead color commentators, Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo, would be working their first major together.
The championship had a picture-perfect start, with TNT broadcasting early-round play in high definition. Because of the peerless setting, and yes, that same coastal light, TNT's images were more dramatic than anything from CBS's Masters or NBC's U.S. Open HDTV telecasts.
Azinger, who has shown promise during his first year on the job, warmed up for the weekend alongside TNT anchor Ernie Johnson. On Friday, they were tossed into the deep end, charged with narrating Jack Nicklaus's exit from championship competition. Avoiding the big mistake, neither said too much. Azinger, in fact, barely said anything, and a telling anecdote from his 20 years in close proximity to Nicklaus would have been nice.
On the weekend ABC inexplicably decided not to convert its digital signal for HD broadcast. The old lower-definition shortcomings were immediately apparent, and worsened by Saturday's bright conditions: When Colin Montgomerie's opening tee shot hit the fairway, the ball was invisible.
So, for the most part, was Azinger. Known as one of the most opinionated players in the game, he lately seems to be taking controversy-avoidance lessons from Ian Baker-Finch (especially since l'affaire Sabbatini at Congressional). Only once over the weekend did the real Zinger stand up, on Sunday after Faldo had finished birdie-eagle. When Mike Tirico mentioned that Faldo would soon be coming to the booth, Azinger cracked, "He'll never get his head through the door."
Faldo's fine performance--he finished 11th--short-circuited any chance of on-air magic. (It's hard to be insightful when you don't start work until the leaders have reached the 11th tee.) Clearly, though, Faldo is relishing his new role. He recently said that once he gets comfortable, he'll "make Johnny Miller look like Mary Poppins." Second-guessing Tiger Woods's club selection on Saturday was a start, but on Sunday, Faldo, tired and reportedly ill, also fell silent.
Down the stretch Tirico, the steady veteran, introduced the major story lines--Tiger's pursuit of Nicklaus's record, Monty's tragic fortune--and got little or no response from Faldo and Azinger, forcing Tirico himself to offer the commentary. So was ABC's coverage better than in years past? Much. Is there still room for improvement? Plenty.