by Art Thiel
As one who has earned his stripes in the “been there, done that” squadron of global golfers, up there with Gary Player, Greg Norman can be taken at his word when he surveys a place and calls it unique.
“Nothing like it in the world,” he said a day after playing Chambers Bay recently. “It’s going to take more than two rounds to understand this course.”
The site of the 115th United States Open is a sprawling swath of reclaimed industrial beach along the shoreline of Puget Sound. A course never before engaged with a major pro tournament, in a part of the country that is terra incognita to the PGA Tour, makes it possible to imagine the 156-man Open field as a latter-day Lewis & Clark Expedition.
Norman, then, is the advance scout. He offers tales of sights unseen and sounds unheard by men of experience.
“My first impression is the massive scale of it,” he said of the 930-acre parcel that rises swiftly from sea level to a forested butte with butterscotch-colored slopes between. “Really wide fairways, massive green complexes, undulations within the greens. The sound the ball makes hitting the green and the sound of dropping your putter on the putting surface. Some of these holes, you won’t know where the front of the green is. You wonder, can I mark my ball, or not mark my ball?”
Norman will join veteran sports broadcaster Joe Buck to telecast the first major for FOX Sports, beginning a 12-year deal between the network and the USGA.
Until this year, Norman has never been a TV golf analyst. Buck, a veteran of NFL Super Bowls and MLB World Series, never has done golf. FOX Sports is also a newbie to big-time tournaments. And Chambers Bay, just eight years old, and the Northwest have never hosted a U.S. Open.
The potential for a figurative train wreck is there. But Norman sees nothing but opportunity.
“This is made for TV,” he said, grinning. “This is fantastic, from our perspective. It will be such a dramatic visual.”
Norman seems almost amused by what golfers will encounter mentally and physically from Chambers Bay.
“A one-dimensional player won’t do well here,” he said. “A multi-dimensional player who can visualize and execute shots will do well. It’s going to be taxing on the brain. Negative thoughts creep in: ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like that’… you won’t figure it out. In the four rounds of the championship, you may see five different ways of setting up a hole.”
The physical demands of Chambers Bay are nearly equal to the mental trial. The nearly 300-foot climb from shoreline to clubhouse is a chore.
“What these (touring pros) have seen are links golf courses in the true, traditional fashion,” he said. “They’ve never played a links course with this much elevation change. Big difference. I’ve texted a couple of friends: ‘Get fit.'”
Buck knows Norman is not exaggerating. He played the course for the first time in the summer of 2014.
“I finished tired,” Buck said. “It is work to get around this golf course. I’ve never played a course with this elevation. I thought it was hard but fair.”
Buck has his own novel experiences with which to contend in his first major golf broadcast.
“I’d be an idiot to not be… concerned or apprehensive, and there will be things I’m hit with that I’m not expecting,” he said. “This isn’t second nature, but it will be. Gotta start somewhere.”
Buck and Norman will be supplemented by some innovative graphics and technology FOX intends to introduce in its epic effort of eight live hours of broadcast over each of the championship’s four days.
Still, 32 hours of live talking over four days means heavy reliance on two guys relatively new to one another. Buck said chemistry is no issue.
“That came quick,” he said. “Greg is like a lot of guys I’ve worked with before. I’ve been fortunate to be paired with Hall of Famers like Troy Aikman and Tim McCarver. Now Greg. There’s a common work ethic among those guys. You see why they were successful as players, and they’ve become successful as broadcasters.”
Just the golfers are new to Chambers Bay, and the Northwest is new to the U.S. Open.
“The setting is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Buck said. “For us to bust onto national TV with coverage at a place like this… it’s great.”
If live television and sports fans thrive on the unexpected and unique, prepare in June for some Lewis & Clark moments.
An award-winning columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer , Art Thiel is co-founder and columnist at Sportspress Northwest (sportspressnw.com), a regional news website. He’s a Northwest lifer and a too-tall golfer who shudders at the thought of playing a course where he cannot strike a tree with his tee shot.