With Paul Azinger Replacing Greg Norman, Fox Sports Gets Its Mulligan

January 27, 2016

LA JOLLA, Calif. — Fox’s turbulent telecast of last summer’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the network’s first crack at bringing that storied event into our living rooms, at least offered a multitude of lessons.

Among them is that only some of those who can play the game should be paid to talk about it — a hard truth that the USGA’s new television partner appears to have grasped with Wednesday’s announcement that it has hired Paul Azinger to replace Greg Norman as lead analyst.

“I think Zinger’s great, the little that I’ve heard from him on the TV,” Justin Rose said from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. “I’ve always respected him; he’s very clear in what it takes to be a great player, and if he can put that across to the fans it’ll be a great addition.”

“He’s been there, and he’s done it,” Casey Wittenberg said from the practice green at Torrey. “I don’t go out of my way to watch golf on TV, but I’ve enjoyed listening to him when I’ve watched the British Open.”

Last summer’s U.S. Open, the first in the Pacific Northwest, was plagued by several problems. Bumpy greens drove players mad. Bottlenecks on the dry, dunesy course made spectating all but impossible. Then there was the telecast, which spanned from the sublime (coverage of 15-year-old Cole Hammer) to the ridiculous (announcers not realizing they were on air).

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Norman looked most comfortable talking about countryman Jason Day, particularly while venturing out of the booth to report on Day’s vertigo. Alas, the Shark became much less voluble in discussing other players. Fox suffered. Now the network, new to golf, gets a much-needed second chance.

Azinger seems to understand that while his bona fides as a player (12 Tour wins, including the 1993 PGA Championship) can get him in the door they should never lead to complacency. He appears comfortable doing the unglamorous research into lesser-known players. And he may intuitively understand that while keeping the world at arm’s length might serve a player at the height of his fame, it’s one of the worst things he can do on television.

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“I am honored to partner with Fox Sports and the USGA to provide analysis for the compelling slate of USGA Championships,” Azinger said in a statement released by Fox. “It will especially be an honor to call our nation’s national championship, the U.S. Open [at Oakmont Country Club].”

Perhaps because of his fame and accomplishments as a player—20 Tour wins, including two British Opens, and 331 straight weeks at No. 1—Norman kept his own counsel. He was (and is) hard to know. Azinger is more relatable. For what it’s worth, he and I have played foosball at a dive bar in Miami, and we once worked on a lag-putting drill in the dark during a break in the action at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

If Azinger ever kept the world at arm’s length, then he doesn’t seem to do so any longer. He got into TV when ABC was still televising golf, in 2005, and moved to ESPN, where he was most visible working alongside Mike Tirico during the cable giant’s extensive British Open coverage. Azinger also did early round Masters and U.S. Open coverage.

In his new role at Fox, the 56-year-old will work not only the 116th U.S. Open, but also the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle; the U.S. Senior Open at Scioto C.C.; and the 116th U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills. Next year Fox will televise the 2017 Walker Cup Match at L.A. Country Club.

Relatively under-the-radar tournaments like the Walker Cup can be a test for any analyst, requiring study sessions just to learn the players’ names.

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“I don’t care whether you’ve won one major, two majors or no majors,” Stuart Appleby said from Torrey Pines, where he was to make his first start since back surgery last March but withdrew Wednesday afternoon. “It’s about what information you acquired as a player, and what information you’re acquiring now as a commentator to remain relevant to the game we’re watching.

“Jordan Spieth is easy to digest and break up,” Appleby added, “but let’s talk about somebody who’s a nobody who might soon be a somebody, and what do you know about him already? That’s the secret of being a good commentator, being able to dig something out that most people haven’t got a clue about because no one cares yet. You’ve got to say, ‘Let me tell you about so and so, because I spoke to his father a year ago.'”

Starting at the U.S. Open in June, Azinger’s task will be to build chemistry with Emmy-winning announcer Joe Buck and analyst Brad Faxon in the 18th tower, and to work closely with Fox golf producer Mark Loomis. Late to the party, Zinger will have to think on his feet and adapt quickly.

The best indication that he can do so may be not just his work at ABC and ESPN, but also his gamesmanship leading up to the ’08 Ryder Cup. The calculated Azinger wasted no time putting European captain Nick Faldo (now an analyst with CBS) on the defensive, winning the war of words even more decisively than the U.S. would win the Cup (16.5-11.5).

That take-no-prisoners attitude, long exemplified by NBC’s Johnny Miller, should translate well on TV. It should serve Azinger and Fox, and in doing so should serve fans who felt underwhelmed by the network’s bumpy first U.S. Open at Chambers. Fox’s big mulligan is ready to take flight.