Tiger Woods sits out U.S. Open

"When Tiger’s in the hunt, it definitely does give us a bump in the ratings in terms of the general sports fan,” says Tommy Roy, the executive producer of NBC’s U.S. Open coverage. (Streeter Lecka, Getty Images / May 11, 2011)

In the Tiger Woods era, it was hard to find a better Father's Day storyline for the network announcers to ply than that of the young superstar and his dad.

Woods' father, Earl, put a golf club in his son's hands when the child was only months old, and the one-time Green Beret remained Tiger's foremost mentor until his death in 2006. The relationship and storyline were so deeply ingrained in the popular imagination that in 2010, Nike used the voice of Earl Woods in an ad asking Tiger whether he had "learned anything" — presumably from his off-course personal troubles.

Not only is NBC Sports facing this Father's Day and the finale of the U.S. Open at Bethesda's Congressional Country Club without that super-father-and-son story; it is doing so without Woods competing for the first time since 1994.

Is there TV life after Tiger? And if so, how do you go about trying to make Sunday afternoon U.S. Open golf attractive to a mass audience without that kind of marquee presence?

It's not easy, says Tommy Roy, the executive producer of NBC's coverage, but with an event as large and storied as the Open, it can be done — with a little help from the golfing gods Sunday, of course.

"When Tiger's in the hunt, it definitely does give us a bump in the ratings in terms of the general sports fan," Roy said in a interview last week. "Actually, it's a pretty significant bump. But this event is so big and so marquee in terms of your overall sports landscape, the bump that you get by having Tiger in there is not as dramatic."

While it might be wishful thinking, the 52-year-old Roy says, "Not having an injured Tiger here is almost for the best. Having him come here and not being at his best and maybe playing only a round or two becomes just more of a distraction than it is a positive to the event and telecast."

Last year, NBC's telecast of the Open, with Woods going into Sunday as a contender but finishing fourth, drew an audience of 9.2 million viewers, which is big number by anyone's standard in these days of fractionalized audiences.

But in 2008, when Woods, wincing in pain with almost every shot, chased down Rocco Mediate to force a playoff, that Sunday's Open coverage was seen by 12.1 million. But the golf gods were smiling so hard on NBC's Nielsen fortunes that day, their faces all but broke.

Still, it's the Open, and it's a massive production of one of the most prestigious sporting events of the year. It's also one of the most challenging events to produce, according to Roy, who has won 27 Sports Emmys and led NBC's coverage on everything from the Super Bowl and Olympics to the World Series and Daytona 500. Roy produced NBC's swimming coverage from the Beijing Olympics, where Baltimore's Michael Phelps won eight gold medals.

"Here, there can be up to 70 balls in play at any time, whereas in football, baseball, basketball, there's only one," he says. "So in the other sports, you're following that one ball and whatever stories may unfold around it. But here, you have each of those 70 balls hit by different players who have their own stories."

To further complicate golf telecasts, the action on the course does not stop when the network goes to commercials, as it does in other sporting events.

Rather than "catching your breath" during commercial breaks, Roy says TV producers have to "work that much harder when you hit the commercial breaks, making sure you have everything recorded."

And then, decisions must be made in split seconds on whether you are going to come back on air with live coverage or with something dramatic that was captured on tape during the break.

"Add to that," Roy says, "the fact that it's all spread out over 40 acres, compared to just a field or a stadium or an arena, and it makes a golf telecast like the Open quite complicated."

And the storylines that are so important in trying to engage viewer passions are rarely easy with golf, especially when the sport's biggest star is missing.

"If you're doing a football game, you can prepare for what you think the storyline is going to be a lot better," Roy says. "For example, if you're doing a Baltimore Ravens game, probably your key storyline is how Ray Lewis is going to play."

But for a U.S Open without Woods present, "There are 156 players entered, and we have to react. If all of a sudden, Trevor Immelman is leading this thing, then you got to go back and dig out the footage of when he won the Masters [in 2008] and talk about him coming from South Africa and the whole bit," the veteran producer says.

At the end of two days, 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, was the guy "leading this thing," which meant Roy and his team of more than 200 NBC Sports employees had to go back and dig out the footage of him losing the Masters in April after leading at the end of three days. McIlroy's Sunday performance at the Masters was something to behold — in a bad way.

The young Irishman's chance at redemption could turn out to be the big Sunday storyline at the Open. And if it is, that wouldn't be a bad one.

It's not Tiger and Earl, of course, on Father's Day — with Woods walking up to the 18th green about to win another major as the gallery applauds and his dad looks on.

But as anyone who has ever set foot on a course knows, in the end, you take what the golf gods are willing to give. And you thank them for it — even if you are a network sports producer with 27 Emmys.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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