Once More, With Feeling
Continued (page 2 of 2)
Roy set the tone immediately for his first U.S. Open. Hicks recalled that Roy, knowing the magnitude of the event, cautioned everyone to be careful about what they said. "He half-jokingly said, 'You don't want to be the person who costs us the contract with the USGA,' " Hicks says.
Miller, though, never operated with a filter. Just minutes into the first telecast, he referred to the rough at Shinnecock as "dingle-dangles."
"I remember going, 'Oh, my God, that's not going to go over that well,' " Hicks says. "We still joke around today about how Johnny called the rough 'dingle-dangles' literally minutes into the telecast of our first U.S. Open and how we didn't lose the contract."
Instead, Miller, with his unique style, became an even bigger star with the U.S. Open as his showcase. Rolfing calls him "a lightning rod" for NBC's coverage of the tournament.
"He actually elevated my game, and I think other people's games, because we all sense how much Johnny loves the Open and how important it is to him," Hicks says.
Perhaps Miller's most memorable moment came in 2000 at Pebble Beach. Barely an hour into the telecast during the first round, Miller told Hicks that Tiger Woods would win by a big margin and shoot a record score.
"I'm in the truck thinking, 'What in the world is he saying?' " Roy says. Sure enough, Woods won by 15 shots while posting a then-record 12-under total. "I had looked in Tiger's eyes on Wednesday and knowing how well he was playing that year, I could just see that thing coming," Miller says.
Other memories flow as NBC approaches its last Open. Rolfing recalls spending time on the driving range with Rocco Mediate just prior to his Monday playoff with Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
"He gave me 'Observing Rocco 101' lessons," Rolfing says.
Mediate told Rolfing if he was walking in a circle on a tee box, it meant he was nervous. On the sixth hole Rolfing noticed him start to do a 360 while waiting to hit his drive, and Rolfing told the story to viewers.
Hicks recalls the strange turn of events that took place during the final round of the 2004 Open at Shinnecock. After walking the course as part of his normal routine, Miller rushed up to the booth, breathlessly saying, "You're not going to believe what's happening at the seventh green. It's unbelievable."
The baked green was virtually unplayable. Among the people in the booth hearing Miller's account was USGA executive director David Fay; NBC was using him for rules analysis during the telecast. Eventually, the USGA had to take the extreme and embarrassing measure of watering the green during the round.
"Literally, seconds after Johnny is saying that, Fay's radio starts crackling and they're talking about what's going on over at the seventh green," Hicks says. "Fay had this ashen-looking expression on his face. That was a crazy day because we had to deal with it on the air. We had a relationship with the USGA, but we also were journalists and we had a job to do."
However, the one Open that stands above the rest for NBC was Payne Stewart's victory at Pinehurst in '99. The drama of Stewart's winning putt on 18 left an indelible image for the entire crew, especially in light of his tragic death a few months later.
Hicks was greenside, waiting to do the interview with the champion.
"What in the world do you ask a guy who just won the U.S. Open like that?" Hicks says. "So I formulated some kind of question, and I remember the only thing out of his mouth was a big whoop and holler, kind of typical Payne. We somehow got through the rest of the interview, but that will always stand out as one of my favorites, and it even took on more importance after what happened later in the year, obviously."
With NBC returning to Pinehurst, Miller has one request for his final Open: He wants it to be memorable. With Woods not playing, he hopes the other big stars step up.
"My only wish for the championship is that we get a great leader board and a great champion," Miller says. "I'd love to get somebody who really makes a difference. Maybe it's Phil Mickelson finally getting his Open. Nothing against the Matt Everys, but I hope we get some guns going down the stretch."
Ebersol will be watching. When he was running NBC Sports, the final round of the Open was one of his favorite days of the year. He made a tradition of walking all 18 holes with the last pairing.
Ebersol is saddened that this will be NBC's last Open. He calls the USGA's decision to go with Fox a mistake, considering the learning curve required to air a U.S. Open.
"I don't think Fox is going to do a bad job," Ebersol says. "But they have to live up to a high standard."
For his part, Roy says he is not going to dwell on the fact that this will be his last U.S. Open for a while. In fact, he has plenty on his plate since NBC will remain at Pinehurst to do the U.S. Women's Open the following week. He insists the story "is about the event, not NBC."
Also, it isn't as if NBC is getting out of the golf business. The network still has a healthy menu, highlighted by the Ryder Cup and Players Championship.
Yet the entire crew knows the reality of the situation. The U.S. Open has been NBC's jewel and now the long run is coming to an end. It goes beyond Miller. The air will be thick with emotion in the production compound.
"It's going to be tough," Hicks says. "I can't imagine how we'll feel when the last putt drops. I guarantee some tears will be flowing."