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U.S. Open should be more fan friendly

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It’s a safe bet to say a large portion of the American population does not sit in front of a television for 6-8 hours on a weekend to watch golf.

Count me among the occasional viewer.

Watching and playing are two different things. Accessibility to golf courses is one of the benefits of living in Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area.

There are exceptions to the television rule and this weekend is one of those exceptions. The U.S. Open, one of professional golf’s four major tournaments, is being played this weekend.

Anyone good enough to win this event truly earns it. In addition to prestige, that golfer will also earn upwards of $2 million.

Some like to accuse the United States Golf Association (USGA), the tournament’s sanctioning body, of having total disdain for low scores.  While 8, 10 or 12 under par can win any of the other three majors, the U.S. Open routinely has winners that are near even par or over par.

The masochists at the USGA have 364 days each year to figure out ways to bring the world’s best to their knees. This includes letting the rough grow to lengths that appear to reach the golfers’ knees.

The tees on some of the par 4 holes are moved back to such a distance, it might be easier to give FedEx $35 to ship the ball from tee to green. The greens are often fast enough for a hockey puck to slide off into a bunker.

This year, the USGA has outdone itself. They have chosen the Chambers Bay golf course, slightly southwest of Tacoma, Wash..

Along with the descriptions previously mentioned, this course has wind and severe differences in elevation.  One wag joked that on a particular par 3, the golfer could hit his tee shot, and then grab a parachute to reach the green.

You get the idea. The U.S. Open is hard. Ask Tiger Woods, who was 10 over par after the first round. There is little chance he will be around for the Saturday or Sunday rounds.

That is not good news for Fox Sports, which is telecasting the Open for the first time. Casual viewers might stop for a bit to watch Tiger or Phil Mickelson play. Jordan Spieth may eventually earn that stature.

Spieth and Mickelson finished the first round at one under par, clearly in contention. That makes Fox and television sponsors happy.

Having said all of this, here is a request to the USGA on behalf of those who want to see the game’s stars show their stuff. We would like to see courses set up so the best shot makers in the world can thrive instead of trying to survive.

In other words, we don’t want them to look like us on the golf course. Far too often we hackers can advance the ball only 20 yards from the rough. There is no enjoyment in watching Tiger, Phil, Jordan, Sergio Garcia or Rory McIlroy do the same.

We want to see chances for more memorable moments like the legendary stroke from among the trees by Pensacola’s Bubba Watson at the 2012 Masters. Taken during a sudden-death playoff, that legendary shot led to victory.

This brings up another fan-unfriendly problem with the USGA and the U.S. Open. After all of these years, the Open is mired in the outdated practice of conducting an 18-hole playoff on Monday in the event of a tie after 72 holes.

Perhaps this made sense before the era of television. When Ben Hogan (who finished his four rounds at 7 over par) won a playoff at Merion in 1950, all it meant was the result was reported in the Tuesday newspapers instead of Monday.

For those who spend good money to join the gallery hoping to cheer a winner, they must feel cheated. Many cannot afford to stick around for another day.

How about the television viewers? They invest time expecting to see a winner clutching a trophy, a trophy wife, and mostly adorable children. Many work for a living and do not have the opportunity to be in front of a television on Monday.

The USGA needs to beam themselves into the 21st century. The Masters and PGA Championship have playoffs. Even the stuffy British Open, with more tradition than the U.S. Open, cast tradition aside a few years ago and went to a 4-hole playoff.

Imagine the 7th game of the World Series tied after 9 innings and Major League Baseball rules required another full game be played the next day. How long would fans, the networks, and the players’ union put up with that?

Hopefully, one golfer will be able to either avoid or scramble from the rough and finish ahead of the field and be crowned U.S. Open Champion. If it goes to a playoff, can someone let the rest of us know what happened?

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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