Despite a three month delay due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 120th U.S. Open Championship will begin play Thursday at Winged Foot Golf Club’s West Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y without any spectators in attendance. This will be the sixth time the course has hosted the tournament and the first time since 2006, when Phil Mickelson infamously double-bogeyed the 72nd hole to hand the title to Geoff Ogilvy. The winning score of five over par was tied for the highest in a U.S. Open since Julius Boros’ nine over par in 1963, when he defeated Arnold Palmer and Jacky Cupit in an 18-hole playoff at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.

One of the biggest stories taking place inside the ropes, and there are plenty, is about the broadcast rights for the USGA championships. After ABC and the USGA parted ways in 1995, NBC took over. Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller fronted excellent and sometimes controversial coverage of the nation’s premier golf event for the next twenty years. However, in 2014, the USGA struck a 12-year deal with FOX, worth at least $1 billion.

USGA Faced Criticism

The deal was roundly criticized in golf circles, primarily because FOX had never provided coverage for a golf tournament, a difficult and far different endeavor than football, baseball, or NASCAR. The network’s first Open at Chambers Bay outside Seattle was an unmitigated disaster for both FOX and the USGA. Over the four days of the tournament, anything green on the golf course eventually turned to brown, and the broadcast team of Joe Buck and Greg Norman never really connected with the viewing public.

After several lineup changes, including the addition of Paul Azinger, FOX’s coverage improved somewhat due to experience gained at other USGA events, including the Women’s U.S. Open. However, as a golf journalist and long-time viewer, it was evident that FOX lagged far behind CBS, NBC, and its affiliate The Golf Channel in its quality of golf coverage. Furthermore, FOX had continually chosen to assign its “B” team to events outside of the U.S. Open and the Women’s U.S. Open, affecting the on-screen product and the development of the chemistry between the broadcast team.

In October 2018, Johnny Miller retired from NBC and was replaced by Azinger, who would also continue his role at FOX, where he had been in the 18th tower for the U.S. Open since 2016. The move should have been a positive for FOX, providing their top analyst another 20 events in the booth. However, the coverage still struggled to meet the standards set by the other networks that made up the PGA Tour schedule. In a bizarre twist of fate for the USGA, a global pandemic intervened on their behalf.

FOX Bows Out

The changes in the sports landscape precipitated by COVID-19 offered the USGA an excellent opportunity to correct what can only be described as an error in judgment they made in 2014. With FOX committed to their fall football coverage, they were unable to fulfill their contractual obligations for a U.S. Open that was scheduled for September. It didn’t take long for the USGA to react, announcing on June 29 that the media rights for USGA championships had been transferred to NBC Universal.

While in Branson, Mo., during the PGA Tour Champions event at Big Cedar Lodge, I ran into a prominent member of the Golf Channel on-air team. I congratulated him on NBC’s acquisition of the USGA rights and commented that I supposed the USGA was pleased with the outcome. While not confirming my speculation, his reaction indicated that I was probably on the right track. As I see it, the broadcast rights transfer was a win for everyone involved, including the USGA, NBC, FOX, and, most importantly, fans of golf everywhere.