A Grand Evolution: Television and the U.S. Open
September 18, 2020 Liberty Corner, N.J. By Victoria Nenno, USGA
ABC had the broadcast rights for USGA championships from 1966 to 1994. (USGA Archives)

Before we unpack nearly 75 years of televised U.S. Open history, one thing is clear: there is no replacement for the energy and excitement of an in-person U.S. Open Championship experience. That being said, there is another conclusion that can be drawn from examining this important chapter in golf history: U.S. Open coverage is constantly evolving.

These days, the viewing experience leaves little to be desired: every important shot, every contending player and every compelling story is seen and analyzed by experts in real time from multiple angles. There are online streaming options, shot-tracers, drones, course flyovers, social media platforms, mobile apps, 120 years of championship statistics, and a myriad of other technologies to enhance the experience. This is critical in 2020, a year that has presented more challenges to live sports and in-person events than any since World War II.

To appreciate the incredible access tens of millions of viewers around the world now have to a sophisticated, gratifying – yet fully remote – U.S. Open experience, we need to examine the decades of creative partnerships and technological advances that have shaped the current climate.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, the published work of newspaper and magazine writers, sketch artists and photographers helped to bring competitive golf to the masses. Press coverage via radio followed, and steadily expanded, over the next two decades. The Golden Age of golf coincided with the Golden Age of radio: the exploits of Bob Jones and the rise of national radio networks blended with the birth of the soap opera and President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats between 1930 and 1940.

During this time, “live” U.S. Open radio reports typically consisted of 15-minute updates scheduled intermittently throughout the championship and following each round. Therefore, it is no surprise the USGA initially considered radio coverage of golf championship results to be news. However, in 1936, the USGA redefined radio broadcasting as a privilege to be purchased. That year, the National Biscuit Company (now Nabisco), sponsored radio coverage for the U.S. Amateur at Garden City (N.Y.) Country Club, where John W. Fischer defeated Jack McLean in one of the longest final matches in the championship’s history.

Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS), followed, purchasing radio broadcasting rights for the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur from 1937 through 1941. This new definition of broadcast coverage, along with the Nabisco and CBS contracts, set a precedent for future network relationships and all succeeding forms of “live” media coverage for USGA championships, including television.

Meanwhile, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which will televise the U.S. Open for the 39th year in 2020, covered the country’s most popular sporting events, including boxing, horse racing, baseball and the Olympics on their radio stations. NBC was also pioneering televised sports. In August 1939, NBC used Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field as the testing ground for the first televised Major League Baseball game, followed by the first televised National Football League game a few months later. 

Rory McIlroy and his father, Gerry, are surrounded by NBC television cameras following his U.S. Open victory in 2011 at Congressional Country Club. (Darren Carroll/USGA)

World War II stunted television’s growth, but the new medium had passed its experimental stages. When USGA championships returned in 1946, the Gillette Safety Razor Company purchased radio broadcasting rights for the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open. However, Gillette explicitly allowed the championships’ television rights to be sold separately. The following year, Gillette renewed its radio rights for the 1947 U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur and again expressed no interest in televising the events.

With the door open to pursue other options, the USGA worked with KSD-TV, a local St. Louis radio station and NBC affiliate, to provide the first U.S. Open telecast. The coverage was primitive at best. Requiring 12 men to serve as announcers and technicians, the radio station placed its camera truck behind the 18th green from 2 to 4 p.m. on Thursday and from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, showing players finishing their rounds.

As Sam Snead sank his 18-foot putt to force a playoff with Lew Worsham, the TV camera captured a close-up view of the ball falling into the hole. Though this singular perspective on the championship was received by a viewership of only 600 television sets in the greater St. Louis area, the U.S. Open had made its live television debut.

With this foundation in place, 1948 marked the beginning of the longstanding partnership between the USGA and NBC to bring championship golf to life through television. The original five-year contract granted exclusive broadcasting rights to NBC for all USGA championships and competitions through 1952. The contract was renewed for an additional five years, and eventually continued through 1965, with exponential growth in viewership and telecast innovations along the way.

As the estimated percentage of American households with television sets jumped from 9 percent in 1950, to 64 percent in 1955, to 92 percent in 1965, NBC spearheaded several positive developments for the U.S. Open telecast, including:

  • Expanding the limited regional broadcast to a coast-to-coast, fully national broadcast in 1954.

  • Lengthening airtime from short intervals to 1-2 hours by 1954.

  • Increasing coverage from one camera on No. 18 to nine cameras on No. 15 through No. 18 by 1962.

  • Increasing and diversifying NBC staff members to 70 experts by 1965, include directors, assistants, announcers, scorers, engineers, cameramen and audiomen.

  • Introducing “Instant Replay” and “Vizmo,” a system of animated diagramming, in 1965.

  • Inaugurating the first color telecast of a major championship in 1965.

  • (ABC also aired the first nationwide telecast of the U.S. Women’s Open in 1965.)

A look inside the NBC production trailer during the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)

Perhaps most importantly, NBC identified the purpose of a golf championship telecast, described by producer Perry N. Smith in 1962 as, “continuous coverage of contender vying with contender [beginning] as early as possible on the course through the finish of the tournament rather than aimless shots of numerous golfers hitting the ball from random spots on the course.”

In the era of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, whose head-to-head duels in the 1960, 1962 and 1967 U.S. Opens intensified a rivalry that defined a decade of professional golf, televised golf already had its stars. But the networks continued to be challenged to provide comprehensive coverage and efficient storytelling despite a golf course’s size and a championship’s duration.

After the 1965 championship season, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) replaced NBC as the official producers of USGA championship telecasts. Between 1966 and 1994, ABC solved the two major roadblocks NBC struggled with.

However, it took time, creativity, and financial support. In 1967, at Baltusrol G.C., ABC covered the last seven holes, showing Nicklaus’ strategic 1-iron tee shot on No. 18 that helped him secure his victory over Palmer by four strokes. A large stationary computerized scoreboard supplied by IBM produced updated player statistics, including total putts, fairways hit, greens in regulation and even select driving distances. The 1968 U.S. Open included three days of coverage, and by 1972 cameras caught all the action beginning at No. 5, airing Pebble Beach G.L.’s iconic seventh and eight holes for the first time on a live golf telecast.

An ABC press release published prior to the 1974 U.S. Open provides a glimpse into the “massive technical and personal efforts” employed by ABC as they attempted to “capture color and excitement of a golf championship” at Winged Foot. Extending coverage to 5½ hours over three days in addition to a U.S. Open preview program televised the week before, ABC’s “small army” maintained 26 color cameras, along with nine broadcast towers and slow-motion replay equipment to capture Hale Irwin’s impressive victory on a historically challenging U.S. Open layout.

In 1977, at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., ABC provided live coverage of all 18 holes for the first time. It was considered the largest remote telecast in history, outside of the Olympic Games. With 28 cameras, roving announcers, as well as reverse, hand-held and high-angle camera shots, viewers could watch the final-round leaders tee off on No. 1 and hole out on No. 18. ABC director Terry Jastrow’s level of dedication to this endeavor was unassailable when he wrote: “Rest assured, the team of producers, directors, announcers and engineers will be as prepared and psyched for this championship as any player in the field.”

It only took a few more years for ABC to solve the second obstacle to all four U.S. Open rounds receiving live national coverage: available airtime. Through an agreement with the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) beginning in 1982, ABC televised the final two rounds while ESPN televised the first two. The deal served all parties so brilliantly that ESPN would partner with subsequent networks to assist with U.S. Open coverage through 2014. Highlight reels, past champion interviews and special programming spanned 10 days over both channels. U.S. Open television coverage had attained previously unmatched depth, breadth and reach.

Change remained constant as the 1990s and early 2000s brought new partnerships, extended airtime, and opportunities for other USGA championships to share the U.S. Open’s spotlight. A few highlights include:

  • NBC renewed its partnership with the USGA in 1995, replacing ABC.

  • U.S. Open scores became available online for the first time in 1995. Additional resources, including user-friendly digital experiences such as live chats and trivia quizzes, were added over subsequent years.

  • Seven of the USGA’s 13 national championships aired over NBC, ESPN and ESPN2 for a record 81 hours in 1997. This was surpassed in 2000 with 100 hours of televised coverage.

The digital chapter of U.S. Open coverage began in earnest with the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills. Like the singular television truck at the 1947 U.S. Open, the U.S. Open’s first live webcast showed only the sixth hole. Despite its limited scope, more than 250,000 viewers tuned in online.

The USGA’s exploration of digital streaming, on-demand content and real-time scoring to augment televised championship coverage continued with a U.S. Open website revamp in 2008, just in time for Tiger Woods to win his third U.S. Open title in an epic playoff with Rocco Mediate that went to extra holes.

This year’s global pandemic and U.S. Open schedule change ended the USGA-Fox broadcast agreement after just five years of their groundbreaking 12-year contract. However, it paved the way for NBC, the USGA’s longest-serving broadcast partner, to return and continue to pursue shared goals of providing audiences around the world greater access to the players, moments and courses that continue to inspire us as golfers and sports fans.

Victoria Nenno is the senior historian for the USGA Museum and Library. Email her at vnenno@usga.org.