Last U.S. Open for NBC: Memories and Johnny’s tears with impressive 20-year run ending at Pinehurst

I did a big piece for Golf World on the end of era in sports TV. NBC will be doing its last U.S. Open for a while this week. Fox Sports takes over the duties next year.

It truly was a pleasure to do the story. As a veteran of many U.S. Opens, I have known the NBC golf crew for years. I wanted to capture what went into a terrific run in covering the tournament.

I had nothing to do with the illustration that ran with the piece (check it out), but Johnny Miller’s tears says much about his passion, and NBC’s for that matter, for the Open.

From the story:

His NBC teammates know that whenever Johnny Miller starts talking about the U.S. Open, it could be a three-tissue experience. He tends to get a bit emotional about the tournament that has defined his career as a golfer and an analyst.

“The Open always has been such a big part of my life,” Miller says.

The connection reaches back to his father, Larry, telling him while honing his game as a kid in San Francisco that he would win the U.S. Open one day. The dream came true when Miller’s final-round 63 at Oakmont in 1973 proved to be the transcendent moment of his Hall of Fame career.

Miller then got a second crack when NBC acquired the rights to the U.S. Open in 1994. His frequent bursts of emotion have punctuated the network’s coverage of the event, serving almost as mile markers along the way.

Former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol invited Miller to be part of a meeting when the network made its big sales pitch to the USGA to land the rights. Ebersol recalled Miller breaking down while talking about the Open.

“It was the most unusual presentation ever,” Ebersol says. “Tears were coming down his cheeks. I always thought seeing that emotion, that love for the event, really had a huge impact [on the USGA].”

NBC golf producer Tommy Roy got an instant taste of an emotional Miller when the network launched the new deal by airing the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock. Roy opened the Saturday telecast with a montage on Open lore that included Miller. Looking at the monitor, he could see both Miller and his partner, Dick Enberg, choking up.

“I’m going, ‘Holy Cow, this can’t be happening,’ ” Roy says. “I start yelling to Dick, ‘Talk about the weather.’ If you look at the video, you’ll see Dick starts talking about the weather.”

Miller’s display at Shinnecock hardly was a one-time thing. His longtime 18th-tower partner, Dan Hicks, says Miller still gets emotional during the opening segment for the final round on Father’s Day. “Every time,” Hicks says.

Team at work: NBC’s long run of U.S. Open coverage has blended the diverse talents of Miller (above) and Hicks (below, alongside Miller). Photo: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Now with Miller set to work one last U.S. Open at Pinehurst for NBC, all eyes will be on him again. Will there be enough tissues in North Carolina to handle his finale?

“I don’t know,” Miller says. “I never know when I’m going to get that way or not. This tournament is the epitome of what I wanted to do as an announcer. As long as nobody asks me, ‘Is this going to tear your heart out because it’s your last U.S. Open?’ I’m probably going to be fine.”

Hicks, though, knows better. “It’s almost unfathomable to me to think what his emotions will be like, knowing it’s his last time,” he says. “It’ll be pretty powerful.”

On producer Tommy Roy:

While Miller made a profound impression on the USGA, Ebersol contends he also had another powerful weapon.

“If Johnny is the face of the U.S. Open for NBC, Tommy Roy is its heart and soul,” Ebersol says.

The son of a golf pro, Roy is known for a devout attention to detail. Roy credits longtime USGA fixture Sandy Tatum for helping to shape his philosophy in televising golf. Tatum told him that less talk is better, especially down the stretch, and that “tap-ins aren’t important. Tee shots are.”

Miller says he never has been with anyone who constantly strives for perfection like Roy. The quest is felt by those who work for him.

“He’s such a perfectionist. We know when he thinks we haven’t done our best work,” says on-course reporter Mark Rolfing. “Yet he’s also the first guy to praise and stand by us. He cares so much that you really don’t want to let him down.”

High standard set for Fox:

Ebersol is saddened that this will be NBC’s last Open. He calls the USGA’s decision to go with Fox a mistake, considering the learning curve required to air a U.S. Open.

“I don’t think Fox is going to do a bad job,” Ebersol says. “But they have to live up to a high standard.”

For his part, Roy says he is not going to dwell on the fact that this will be his last U.S. Open for a while. In fact, he has plenty on his plate since NBC will remain at Pinehurst to do the U.S. Women’s Open the following week. He insists the story “is about the event, not NBC.”

Also, it isn’t as if NBC is getting out of the golf business. The network still has a healthy menu, highlighted by the Ryder Cup and Players Championship.

Yet the entire crew knows the reality of the situation. The U.S. Open has been NBC’s jewel and now the long run is coming to an end. It goes beyond Miller. The air will be thick with emotion in the production compound.

“It’s going to be tough,” Hicks says. “I can’t imagine how we’ll feel when the last putt drops. I guarantee some tears will be flowing.”


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