It’s not too early to offer a trio of predictions for the 2015 U.S. Open golf tournament at Chambers Bay Golf Course near Tacoma.
1. The relatively new (it was opened in 2007) public course will receive lukewarm reviews from players and the national media.
2. The first-year broadcasting team of Joe Buck and Greg Norman will be unpopular with golf purists.
3. The tournament, however, will be more exciting than the recently concluded 2014 Open at Pinehurst, N.C.
The last forecast is the safest. Martin Kaymer’s waltz to an eight-stroke victory last Sunday provided few thrills and drove television ratings to a new low for recent major championships.
After three holes of the final round, Kaymer owned a six-stroke lead over a handful of challengers with slender big-tournament credentials. At that point, many armchair golf fans were undoubtedly seized with an irresistible impulse to check out the France-Honduras World Cup soccer match on another network.
Even possessing a six-stroke lead, Tiger Woods can hold an audience because he’s Tiger Woods. The same could be said for Phil Mickelson, in part because he has demonstrated he is capable of squandering such an advantage within a few holes.
Kaymer, a German pro who plays with all the passion of a Volkswagen assembly-line worker tightening the bolts on a new Jetta, looked as unbreakable as RoboCop.
Woods, who missed this year’s Open while recovering from back surgery, presumably will be on hand at Chambers Bay. How much he’ll like the course is very much in doubt.
Very atypical for a Northwest course in that it contains only one tree and nary a water hazard, links-style Chambers Bay has hosted only one significant national tournament, the 2010 U.S. Amateur.
Judging from what I witnessed via television in that tournament, next year’s Open field will be challenged primarily by the strange bounces created by steep slopes on and around the greens. Frequently, the U.S. Amateur contestants had to aim well away from the flagstick in order to hit their approach shots close.
Some of the severe slopes reportedly have been or will be modified prior to the Open. A high school player, Sammamish’s Matt Maresse, fired rounds of 65 and 68 during the state 2A tournament last month at Chambers Bay, demonstrating that the course is far from impossible under certain conditions.
But if Chambers Bay is set up so that pinball golf is required, expect howls of protest from the pros.
While constructed much differently than Chambers Bay, Pinehurst also featured a paucity of trees and water and was almost universally hailed by the players and media. Yet the design, at least to my way of thinking, contributed to Kaymer’s lopsided victory.
Trees and water at least tend to punish errant shots. Kaymer frequently got away with off-target drives when those shots rolled into favorable lies in the sand and pine needles that served as Pinehurst’s rough.
Most golf publications, it should be noted, do not rank Chambers Bay is the best course in Washington. Redmond’s Sahalee Country Club, the consensus choice for that distinction, hosted the 1998 PGA Championship and 2010 U.S. Senior Open, but lacks the infrastructure that most organizations want for a major tourney these days. And nobody seems to know why Pumpkin Ridge in the Portland area, once considered a cinch as a future men’s Open site, fell out of favor with the United States Golf Association.
The Chambers Bay Open will be the first aired by the Fox network, which won a bidding war with long-time incumbent NBC for future broadcasting rights to USGA events.
A USGA official, a possible graduate of the Richard Sherman School of Diplomacy, further angered NBC personnel by explaining that “Fox shares our vision to seek fresh thinking and innovative ideas to deliver championship golf.” The $93 million that Fox offered ($13 million more than NBC) clearly was irrelevant.
While Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller, NBC’s lead commentary team, have their critics, the guess here is that they will look pretty good in comparison to Fox’s Buck and Norman.
Buck is a low-handicap player whose understated style could be well-suited to golf. But he has no experience in broadcasting that sport and is widely perceived as already overexposed from football and baseball.
The charismatic Norman was once regarded as a natural for television commentary, but hasn’t played regularly for more than a decade while devoting most of his time to business interests and sorting out various matrimonial difficulties. It is hard to believe he can gain familiarity with today’s players broadcasting one men’s tournament per year.
Even in a worst-case scenario, however, Fox probably can’t approach the historical depths of U.S. Open coverage.
In the 1955 Open, only the second to be telecast nationally, NBC followed the legendary Ben Hogan through his final shots, congratulated him in a post-round interview for winning a record fifth Open and signed off.
Newspaper readers were thus no doubt surprised to learn the following morning that Jack Fleck, who was still out on the course when the telecast ended (the leaders, in those days, did not necessarily tee off last) had rallied to tie Hogan — forcing an 18-hole playoff that Fleck won and NBC neglected to carry.
Fox representatives might want to keep that scenario in the back of their mind next year. If Martin Kaymer owns a six-stroke lead in the final round, they might consider proclaiming Tiger Woods as the champion and calling it good — or previewing the network’s 2018 World Cup coverage.
Now that would represent fresh thinking and innovative ideas.
Rick Anderson: (360) 537-3924; firstname.lastname@example.org