When Scott Van Pelt first heard the news last August about Fox landing the U.S. Open, he was shocked. Then when he read the wording on the United States Golf Association release, he was fuming.
Reality, though, has settled in since then. Van Pelt now insists he will be just concentrating at the task at hand this week: Anchoring ESPN’s coverage from the 18th tower for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open beginning Thursday at Pinehurst. He will be in the lead role with Mike Tirico covering the World Cup in Brazil.
However, it will be a difficult moment for Van Pelt and ESPN when he signs off on Friday afternoon. It will mark the end of the network’s 33-year run in covering the U.S. Open. Fox Sports begins its 12-year deal with the 2015 U.S. Open.
Much of the sports media focus has been on Johnny Miller and NBC’s last shot for the U.S. Open, including a piece I did for Golf World. However, ESPN has a deep association with the tournament dating back to 1982, when Jim Simpson was the host and Cary Middlecoff and Nick Seitz were the analysts.
“I guess Pinehurst is it, and that’s hard to fathom,” Van Pelt said. “It’ll be emotional, I mean, legitimately emotional.”
Van Pelt admitted he was caught by surprise when a friend informed him via text that Fox had won the rights to the Open.
“Brutal,” Van Pelt said. “I said, ‘What? I didn’t know they were at the table, man.’”
Then to compound the loss, the USGA issued one of the most poorly-worded press releases ever. It included this line: “The game is evolving and requires bold and unique approaches on many levels, and Fox shares our vision to seek fresh thinking and innovative ideas to deliver championship golf.”
Yeah, thanks for nothing, NBC and ESPN. Van Pelt still gets agitated every time he thinks about it.
“That was incredibly offensive,” Van Pelt said. “We’ve done plenty to innovate and change how golf is covered, and (ESPN producer) Mike McQuade should be praised for that. Golf looks very similar on TV now as it did before. There’s only so much you can do.
“You want to put arrows for the wind, I got it. You want to show me what direction the putt is going to go, that’s fine. What are you going to do, put a camera on Bubba Watson’s visor? How are you substantively going to change how the game is covered? You’re not. What they should just say is that they wrote us the biggest check, and that’s fine.”
Van Pelt went on, wondering about Fox’s ability to be up to the task when the ’15 U.S. Open will be its first full golf tournament.
“It’s a hell of an event to parachute in as your first one,” Van Pelt said. “You kind of like to ramp up with the Florida Swing or something. Again, I’m sure that they’ll do it well, because I know the people. I just took umbrage at the idea that they’d do it better and be more thoughtful or innovative than we have, when we and certainly NBC have worked incredibly hard to cover that championship as well as it could be.”
Just like the folks at NBC, Van Pelt stressed the passion and energy ESPN brings to its coverage. He pointed to Chris Berman as an example. Berman will be working his 29th Open this week.
“Look, he doesn’t have to do one thing at ESPN that he doesn’t want to do,” Van Pelt said. “He loves it. The fact that he’s there speaks to the fact that it matters to him, and the group of people that have produced it matter to him.”
The crew is so tight, Van Pelt calls them “McQuade’s 11,” as in “Ocean’s 11.” Everyone needs to be all in, given the marathon hours required to cover the first two rounds of the tournament.
Now with ESPN looking at its final 36 holes, Van Pelt would like to see the network sign off with a pair of 68s.
“I’m as proud of those shows as anything we do at ESPN,” Van Pelt said. “We work our asses off doing that, and it’s great people and it’s great friends, and you’re there at 8:00 in the morning and you’re there when it’s dark. We’re not crying, We had a hell of a run.”