You settle in to watch a little golf. You've got your beverage, your snacks, your feet up — relax, friend, this isn't playoff hockey — and then there's that voice.
You know the one. That particular announcer whose every arrogant/ignorant/simpering syllable fills you with remote-tossing rage. And you know you're in for a looooong afternoon.
More than any other sport, a golf tournament's announcers shape the character of coverage. The actual ball-in-motion action in a given golf telecast might total five minutes in an hour; the rest is anticipation, reaction and anecdotal information. So you've got to have someone leading you through the day whom you trust, someone who has the personal style to seem familiar but the sense to get out of the way of the story.
There's an old line in sports media that the smaller the ball, the better the writing. Like most cliches, it's truth deep-fried in exaggeration. (Basketball, for instance, is the white-hot center of 21st-century sportswriting.) Golf, with its long contemplative pauses and sweeping vistas, inspires some of the best writing in sports, but it also inspires some seriously cheese-dripping attempts at art. (Feel free to share links to my work in the comments.)
And broadcast journalism ratchets the portentous, overwrought drama to a new level. I cringe every time I see the soft-focus image of an empty course at sunrise and hear the opening piano notes and "The first time he touched a golf club..." voiceover of a feature. When they're good, they're memorable and necessary elements of a broadcast. When they're bad, well...every broadcast needs a few bathroom breaks.
And during the action itself, if you're not a fan of the me-first, golf-second broadcaster, sorry, friend ... the U.S. Open isn't the tournament for you. Johnny Miller, who never met a golfer he couldn't peck to pieces, dominates NBC's coverage. The joke about Miller is that he mentions his own U.S. Open win at Oakmont with every inhale and exhale, and while that's only the tiniest exaggeration, Miller does make sure that you know he's certain he's the smartest guy not only on the course, but on both sides of the TV screen. (Full disclosure: NBC and Yahoo! Sports are broadcast partners. Another disclosure: I have never won a U.S. Open.)
And then there's Chris Berman, an ESPN institution who, at first glance — and second, and third — appears a poor fit for a story-oriented, bombast-free sport like golf. Berman has never announced an event he didn't seek to stamp, and stomp, with his presence. Earlier this week, he discussed his involvement with golf in a tone of voice far more restrained than his usual braying, but for many in the golf viewing audience, Berman simply does not belong on a golf broadcast.
Berman has enough sense not to go full back-back-back in his coverage, but the rest of his crutches — the awkward transitions, the pauses while he waits to have players identified for him, the pop-culture references so old they've gotten married and had little baby references of their own — are always in force. Miller knows his stuff, but coats every word with a slathering of barely-disguised disgust with the poor decisionmaking of, well, everyone on the course who hasn't won Oakmont.
For good or ill, the ego-driven broadcaster and the treacly feature are golf traditions, and in golf, it's easier to hole out from the Merion rough than to change a tradition. Still, we can hope that ESPN will see that it already has a superior golf voice in-house in Scott Van Pelt, and scale back Berman's involvement even further. We can hope that someone will do something someday to impress Johnny Miller. Major championship golf is too good a story on its own to let the storytellers get in the way.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-
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