Blog 334, 1/18/16 - So what are we actually looking for in a golf announcer?

greg norman
Greg Norman lasted just a year at Fox.
The news that Greg Norman is out at Fox came as a huge surprise. Not because I, you, or anyone else thought he was good and would be seeing out his career 15 years from now as a cozy, much-beloved 75-year-old, but because we knew the dollar figures involved. Fox Sports and the USGA’s contract is worth $1.2billion over 12 years, and that is a boat contract-makers would rather not rock. Also, eminent corporate types with super-sized egos tend not to admit they made a huge mistake and that all the hype and bluster was for naught.
The consensus in all today’s reports is that Norman failed in two major areas. First, he was under-prepared, having very little insight on players not born in Australia. To be honest, I didn’t think he was an all-knowing oracle on the Australian players either, not like Luke Elvy, Wayne Grady, Paul Gow and other Aussie analysts anyway. Those guys talk about, and to, the players during Australian Open and Australian Masters telecasts as if they live on the same street, or head down the pub for a few beers and actually play golf together.
Norman, of course, couldn’t do that. His considerable success and immense wealth set him on quite a different path to that taken by the vast majority of today’s professionals. The Australian players obviously revere Norman, but he became untouchable. The two-time Open Champion and winner of 90 professional tournaments (including 20 on the PGA Tour) in an amazing career, took up residence of his ivory tower many years ago, effectively shutting himself off from the sort of golf you and I read about, watch, and listen to every day. Shortly after news of his new job at Fox broke, he admitted the only golf he ever watched on TV these days was the back nine on Masters Sunday, or the final hour or two’s coverage of the other majors. That’s not exactly keeping yourself in the loop.
His other serious shortcoming was a surprising lack of anything interesting and worthwhile to say at crucial moments. Having won two majors and contended in several others, surely he was in a perfect position to offer some timely insight into his experiences and how they might compare to what US Open contenders, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen were feeling coming down the stretch at Chambers Bay last June. Instead of telling us what thoughts might be running through Johnson’s head as he strode up the fairway after hitting his superb 5-iron second to just 12 feet at the par 5 72nd hole, he said precious little, even less as Johnson made a hash of the eagle putt and ensuing birdie putt that would have set up a Monday playoff with Spieth had he holed it. It’s not that Norman said anything particularly dumb or bone-headed at any point, just that there was little substance at the right time.
To be fair, hiring Greg Norman seemed like a sound enough move at the time. Everyone knew where his weaknesses would show up, and we were prepared for a little narcissism now and again. The hope was his understanding of the game and familiarity with high-pressured situations would make viewers hang on his every word.
In this day and age though, you usually don’t get a few years to let your style evolve. It’s very rare for anyone to be given sufficient time for viewers to become accustomed to your ways, be you one of history’s greatest players or an unknown journeyman. In this world, you need to be compelling and engaging from the start.
One man who was lucky to survive a less than convincing first few years, however, was Nick Faldo, Norman’s nemesis during their playing days. Faldo was given time to ripen first at ABC then CBS by executives who must have shaken their heads dozens of times as their on-air 'talent' lurched from one unfunny attempt at a joke to another, and from a mildly offensive impression of a player’s accent to an unfinished story that started out promisingly enough but ended weakly with a “gee whizz” or “cor blimey”. Faldo still lapses into unnecessary Cockneyisms occasionally, but he has matured well, tempering the inane moments with some really useful analysis. One wonders how Norman would have fared at CBS or NBC. Would his bosses have cut him a little more slack than he got at Fox?
Norman’s departure and Faldo’s apparent success begs the question what actually makes a great announcer? The best golf commentator I ever heard was/is Peter Alliss. Maybe I should rephrase that; the golf commentator I most enjoy listening to was/is Peter Alliss. There’s a big difference. If you want stats and empathetic perspective you don’t want Peter Alliss. The old chap’s 84 now, played in his last Open Championship 41 years ago, and officially retired in 1975. I would never call his professionalism into question, but I’m guessing he no longer walks the course at dawn to check pin positions, pours over meteorological reports to see how conditions might change throughout the day, or spends time on the range talking with players, coaches and caddies…if, indeed, he ever did.
But for setting the scene quickly and succinctly, interjecting an amusing or witty line every now and then, remaining silent when silence is called for, never (well, rarely) allowing himself to become more of a story than the players and championship, and generally enhancing viewers’ enjoyment of the coverage, there is no one better.
Alliss is certainly popular in the US, but would his style work for long in America, especially with today’s millennial viewers whose attention he would surely lose partway through a typically stirring monologue? In America, sports fans need stats, experience, credibility, evaluation, stats, acuity, and stats, all mixed with genuine insight and discernment.
Norman had all the credentials, indeed far more credentials than Allis ever had. But his commentary was light on the sort of stuff golf fans want to hear.  
So who replaces him? Paul Azinger is favorite right now, and with good reason. The 1993 PGA Champion and 2008 winning Ryder Cup captain obviously has all the experience required from the golf course and the commentary box having worked alongside Faldo at ABC and done a great job with ESPN during last year’s Open Championship. He has a sharp sense of humor, sometimes breezy sometimes caustic. Better still, he’s not the type to sidestep issues that warrant discussion.
The problem though with identifying the perfect golf announcer is that the ideal might not actually exist - there seems to be very little agreement on who the best might be. Alliss is great until you need some cold, hard facts, while Faldo and Johnny Miller are fine until you need a little humility and/or silence. The complete announcer would probably include parts of all three, along with a little David Feherty, some Roger Maltbie, a moment of Gary McCord, a good measure of Gary Koch, and even some Curt Byrum.
Apart from his playing record though, there wasn't much to validate Greg Norman.

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