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‘Shark’ beached as Fox turns to Azinger

Fox Sports took over TV coverage of golf’s U.S. Open last year with high hopes for its lead broadcast team of announcer Joe Buck and analyst Greg Norman. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Shark’s career as a TV analyst: He turned out to be the strong silent type, one who didn’t contribute much when the cameras were rolling.

It’s unfair to compare Norman in his first year to NBC’s Johnny Miller, a veteran in the broadcast booth, but the contrast was striking. Miller is famed for being outspoken − some would say to a fault − while Norman not only was not controversial, he was sometimes barely audible. (NBC was the rights holder for the U.S. Open before Fox took over.)

Fox last year began the first of 12 years broadcasting the U.S. Golf Association’s top championships, the biggest of which is the U.S. Open. The 2015 Open at Chambers Bay was the network’s debut in golf’s big leagues and it was not particularly memorable.

When Dustin Johnson three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole, allowing Jordan Spieth to win the championship, Norman’s comment was that he was “speechless.” For someone who had suffered some bad breaks and famous collapses as a player, Norman surely could have brought more to the microphone.

On Jan. 27, Fox Sports announced that Norman was out and Paul Azinger would take over as the new lead golf analyst. Azinger worked for two years in the golf booth at ABC Sports with Nick Faldo and Mike Tirico, then was an ESPN analyst for several years. He is known for being blunt and outspoken and his selection as Fox’s analyst was widely praised in the golf community.

Golf Digest blogger Geoff Shackelford wrote in December that Azinger’s “much-needed smart approach to players, championships, courses and the golf swing would be a great addition to Fox.”

Last summer, Azinger was part of the ESPN team covering the British Open at St. Andrews, where Tiger Woods missed the cut. Azinger did not soft-pedal his observations.

“It’s hard to watch the greatest player of this generation be a middle of the pack hack,” Azinger said on ESPN. “Golf is simple. It’s just not easy. You have to drive it, wedge it and putt it. Tiger’s doing none of those three well. ... He’s saying all of the things he should be saying. He keeps saying he’s close. He might be delusional.”

Azinger will again work with producer Mark Loomis, who was with ABC Sports when Azinger first teamed with Faldo and Tirico. Loomis reportedly had been lobbying for Azinger’s hiring at Fox from the start, before Fox settled on Norman.

Buck remains lead announcer and Brad Faxon will split time between being a hole reporter and a secondary analyst in the tower at the 18th hole. Fox Sports also hired Curtis Strange this year as its lead on-course analyst. Strange is working at the Masters for ESPN this week before moving to Fox.

Azinger will be part of Fox’s coverage this year for the U.S. Open at Oakmont, the U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Senior Open and U.S. Amateur.

Tuning in the majors

Johnny Miller will be back on the airwaves at a major championship in July, as NBC and the Golf Channel take over coverage of the British Open. ESPN was originally supposed to carry the British this year, but the network let NBC buy out the final year of its contract after the BBC − ESPN’s European counterpart at the Open Championship − opted out of its final year carrying the tournament. The Open this year returns to Royal Troon in Scotland.

Coverage of the PGA Championship, to be held the last week in July at Baltusrol in New Jersey, will be on TNT and CBS.

ESPN is the network for the Masters this week on Thursday and Friday, followed by CBS on Saturday and Sunday. ESPN will carry live action 3-7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, with a nightly encore presentation from 8-11.

Other Masters notes:

• The Masters Par 3 contest will air live on ESPN from 3-5 p.m. Wednesday. SportsCenter will carry live updates from Augusta throughout the weekend, and ESPN.com will be all over the tournament as well.

• Full-day video coverage from Augusta will be shown live at CBSSports.com. “Masters Live” will provide more than 110 hours of live online video, according to CBS. Streaming video from the 11th, 12th and 13th holes − Amen Corner − is this column’s favorite.

• “Masters on the Range,” live from the practice range, is a daily feature online and also on CBS Sports Network, the cable channel, which each night will also carry replays from the day’s live tournament coverage.

• The Golf Channel on Sunday kicked off a week of Masters coverage, including nearly 60 hours of “Golf Central Live,” from Augusta.

• Defending Masters champion Jordan Spieth has had some off days and weeks recently. ESPN’s Strange was asked in a media conference call last week whether Spieth had worn himself out a bit by keeping such a heavy travel schedule in the past year.

“You know, he’s doing what he thinks is right,” Strange said. “For somebody who did travel and burn out a little bit from the travel overseas, I think he did do a little bit too much, but as I just said, I think it was good that he did it this early in his career because he learned from it. . . . There’s nothing wrong with his game. I sense he’s just not making the putts that he made last year. Let’s not forget, last year was a phenomenal year for any player, much less a 22-year-old. So it could turn out 20 years from now that that could be his absolutely best stretch of his life.”

email gconnors@buffnews.com