Was that enough television coverage for you? Sort of put the Super Bowl to shame. NBC gave us six hours of the U.S. Open on Saturday, six more on Sunday, another 13 on Thursday and Friday through ESPN, plus a preview, late-night highlights and reruns. Some marriages don't last that long. On Sunday you could have flipped on the set, caught an opening feature or two, gone out and played a round of golf, and returned in time to watch Greg Norman play his. Long it certainly was. The question is, Was it good? We'll get to that later.
First, some nitty-gritty. When it was announced on June 1, 1994, that for the first time in 29 years ABC would not be televising the U.S. Open, it caused nary a blip on the radar screen of most people's lives, but within television's sporting industry, it was a bombshell. What happened? Well, for one thing, NBC offered more money, always a good idea—$40 million for a three-year contract to cover the Open as well as the USGA's other major events, the Women's Open, the Senior Open and the Amateur. ABC came in at $33 million. And where was CBS, you might ask? Never made an offer.
Beyond money, NBC had made an impassioned presentation to USGA officials, with its golf analyst, Johnny Miller, the 1973 Open champion, telling the gentlemen in the blue blazers how much the Open had always meant to him and how wonderful it would be to cover it. In addition, the USGA had become disenchanted with ABC, feeling the network had not sufficiently promoted the tournament. That's one reason you saw so many Open promos during NBC's telecast of the NBA Finals.
There was a time not that long ago when, in the words of Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, his network was "a dismal third" behind the other two. That began to change in 1990 with the arrival of Miller, whose glory days as a player had ended. Untutored in the area of television diplomacy, Miller truly told it like it was, angering some players with his honest but blunt comments. Over the past five seasons he has learned to pull his punches ever so slightly, and he is now regarded by all camps as the best there is.
Two years ago Ebersol promoted Tom Roy, then 34, to executive producer. Roy had once harbored notions of playing the Tour himself, but a shoulder injury scuttled that. One of Roy's first moves in preparation for this year's Open was to hire Dave Marr, who for 22 years had been ABC's analyst and the best in the business. In 1991, ABC dropped Marr. "They didn't officially tell me until two months after I found out," Marr says. By that time he had hooked on with the BBC in Great Britain, his Texas accent charming the Brits. He now works for both networks.
But under the system adopted by all three networks, there is no room in the booth at 18 for two expert analysts, so at Shinnecock, Marr was at 16. Still, he was delighted to be back at the Open. "I love the game," he said. "It's all I am."
Two days before the start of the tournament, with rain falling, Miller did a tour of the course, sometimes getting on his hands and knees to feel the depth of the rough or pacing off the precise width of the fairway. "My confidence level in the booth is directly proportionate to the amount of time I spend studying the course," Miller says. "I do more of it than anyone else."
On this excursion in the rain Miller dragged along his current coanchor, Dick Enberg. In his five years at NBC, Miller has shared the booth with Bryant Gumbel, Charlie Jones and Jim Lampley, but as the industry saying goes, the chemistry wasn't right. Cramming like a student for a final exam, Enberg said he knew comparatively little about golf and just hoped to keep out of Miller's way.
Thursday morning at 10:30 it was show-time...on ESPN, that is. Call it a dress rehearsal for the weekend. NBC's foot soldiers—Roger Maltbie, Dan Pohl and John Schroeder, all current or former touring pros, all wearing ESPN shirts and hats—were out in force, covering glamour groupings such as Ernie Els, Nick Price and Tiger Woods. Reporters Bob Trumpy and Dan Hicks were in booths at 10 and 13, respectively. In that regard NBC coverage differs from that of its two rivals. Each network has an anchor pair at 18, but CBS uses stationary announcers while ABC has field people. NBC uses both.
At Shinnecock the system worked well. Miller and his field patrol often carried on a dialogue as if sitting in the same room. Miller was sharp early. Talking in the booth with Scott Simpson, who had shot a first-round 67, he pointed out that Simpson excelled in Opens, winning in 1987 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Miller then said that Simpson probably should have won again in 1991 at Hazeltine, when he squandered leads both in regulation and in a playoff to lose to Payne Stewart. Then a pointed question: Does that hurt? Simpson admitted it did just a bit.