Golf is not an ESPN staple, yet there are several reasons to expect its British Open coverage to shine this week.
Even before a shot has been hit in earnest the sports network got it right. It moved its Thursday and Friday start times up a half-hour to 4:30 a.m. (EDT). This was done to allow viewers (early risers, at least) to see the rounds of Tiger Woods (a 4:42 a.m. tee time on Thursday) and Phil Mickelson (4:31 a.m. tee time on Friday) in their entirety.
It's easier to do, of course, when it is the sole American television producer of the event. The Open is the only tournament that ESPN exclusively televises. It does the Masters, but only until CBS takes over. Same with the U.S. Open and NBC.
ESPN will televise 36 hours of tournament play live over four days. Afternoon and prime time encore showings up the number of hours to 72.
"The biggest thing that has changed," Mike McQuade, vice president production for ESPN, said, "is that ESPN has taken ownership of the Open Championship. That's the best way to put it. And we've invested in such, every way possible -- announcers, cameras, audio. That means controlling our own destiny.
"Each and every year the transition gets smoother and the more experience we have in producing the event makes it better for the viewer. We're now finding our groove. We don't produce a lot of golf. What we do produce is a lot of television. The good thing about golf is that people still play it. A television production person that may not have worked on golf has at least some knowledge of golf because they play it."
ESPN has about 250 people working the event, including the man who is a candidate for best analyst in the game, notwithstanding few opportunities to make the case: Paul Azinger. It also has Mike Tirico hosting for the 17th straight year (Tirico and Azinger are shown above, working the U.S. Open for ESPN). Azinger, meanwhile, promises to Tweet throughout the day as well (@PaulAzinger).
The network is introducing what it calls Virtual Aerial, allowing viewers to see from above the wind direction on various parts of the course. It also will again feature its Flight Tracker tracing the flight path of tee shots, though increasing over previous years the number of holes on which it will utilize it.
"We're also experimenting with new high-motion cameras," McQuade said. "We'll try to get different angles of high motion that the viewer hasn't seen before. We're mildly, cautiously optimistic about it."
Finally it will have distance markers instantaneously showing viewers the distance drives were hit.
And for those who might be wondering, Chris Berman will not be part of a broadcast crew that will include Tirico, Scott Van Pelt, Terry Gannon, Azinger, Curtis Strange, Andy North, Tom Weiskopf, Judy Rankin, the BBC's Peter Alliss, Sean McDonough, Bill Kratzert, Olin Browne, Tom Rinaldi and ESPN.com's Gene Wojciechowski.
-- John Strege