ESPN golf analysts Andy North and Curtis Strange and John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president, programming acquisition and strategy, participated in a media conference call today to discuss ESPN’s multiplatform coverage of the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Coverage begins with live SportsCenter reports from the site on Tuesday, June 14, and also will include seven hours per day of first and second-round play on ESPN and ESPN HD on Thursday and Friday, June 16-17, four days of live play on ESPN Radio, extensive coverage on ESPN.com and a U.S. Open tribute on ESPN Classic.
A transcript of the conference call follows:
JOHN WILDHACK: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. We look forward, as we do every year, to the U.S. Open. But this one is special in a couple of different ways for us. This is our 30th year at the U.S. Open. We started in 1982, Pebble Beach, obviously one of the all‑time great U.S. Open Championships with Watson’s chip in on the 71st hole to beat Nicklaus. But for 30 years, the ESPN‑USGA relationship is one of the longest relationships and partnerships we have in our company. I want to thank the USGA and the leadership over that time from Frank Hannigan to David Fey, and now to Mike Davis for their partnership with us. Again, we are honored to be their partner, and to have this be our 30th consecutive year is quite remarkable. To do so in our nation’s capital at Congressional just makes the event and the Championship that much more special. I think any time you have a National Championship and you do it in the shadow of the nation’s capital, it just again makes the event and the Championship that much more meaningful for everyone. We’ll have coverage beginning next Tuesday. All told between domestic and international, our coverage will touch some 19 ESPN platforms, that includes our mobile offerings, our wireless offerings, our authenticated network offerings on tablets and smartphones as well, international distribution. This is truly a multi‑platform and multi‑territory event for us. Highlighting our coverage, I think, is again the U.S. Open is so special. But to have two people who have won it twice as part of our coverage team is really remarkable and, again, speaks to how special the U.S. Open. It speaks to how special the accomplishments that both Andy North and Curtis Strange, what they did in winning two championships a piece.
ANDY NORTH: Well, first of all, thank you for chiming in. This is going to be a very, very interesting U.S. Open. It’s a wonderful golf course. I was fortunate enough to go down there last week and we shot some of the things we’ll be using during the course of the week. It’s in beautiful condition. The biggest difference from the last time we were there in ’97 is the finishing hole will be that very, very difficult par‑4. That was the last hole in 1964 when Venturi won instead of the par‑3 that we played in ’97. Because of that, I think you’re going to have a different type of finish. That 10th hole or that 18th hole is now on the golf course, but it’s been redesigned completely. It’s now the 10th hole. It’s going to be a par‑3. The new tee is basically back where the green was and the new green is back where the tee used to be. It’s really a wonderful hole. It’s going to be a difficult hole. But all in all, I think it’s going to be a great Open Championship, and it should be an awful lot of fun.
CURTIS STRANGE: I think my first thought is that it’s always great to be a part of the Open. Either playing or working the television in some way, shape or form. I think it’s the grandest week of all. It’s the toughest test of all. And this golf course is so much different than for instance what we saw last year at Pebble Beach. I think that’s the beauty of the U.S. Open. We go to different golf courses, different venues every year, and many times they’re so different and lend themselves to different players. As we’ll probably discuss in the next few minutes who we like and who we don’t like for the week, it’s going to be a lot different than last year. Pebble being a much shorter golf course than this Congressional in D.C., which I must say it’s nice to see it go back to the area, like John said a few moments ago. I’m from the area or close by, and I wonder why it’s taken so long to get back. This is a big‑boy golf course. Set up differently than what we saw last. Different regime, as we’d like to say. A kinder, gentler, USGA, but it’s always a pleasure and great to be back to the U.S. Open. We all look forward to it.
Q. – Question for Curtis regarding Tiger Woods. Obviously, earlier this week he announced that he was not going to play. I know one person doesn’t make a U.S. Open. But Curtis, I wanted to ask you what you felt the impact of Tiger’s impact will be on the Open itself?
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is that it opens up the field, especially when he’s not playing well or not playing. It opens up the field to a great number of players. You know, it will certainly have somewhat of an impact on the casual fan as was seen throughout the years. There is no way of getting around that. I think the hard core fan and those who like big events in sports, they’re certainly going to watch. It’s not going to affect them one way or the other. There is always a buzz when Tiger plays. There is no doubt. But there is always a buzz at the U.S. Open as well. You know, this is the biggest golf championship for an American. He will be missed. But when I first ‑‑ the way I look at it, when that first tee shot is hit Thursday morning, his name won’t be mentioned.
Q. – Not even by the broadcast team?
CURTIS STRANGE: We’re going to try not to. Unless there is some relative information concerning a scoring record which he owns or some type of something you can relate to him, I don’t hear it mentioned a great many times.
Q. – Andy and Curtis, could I ask you about Steve Stricker? Do you consider him among your favorites coming into this tournament? Does he have the kind of game that would be suited to Congressional? What are his chances?
ANDY NORTH: I’ll jump in and take that one.
CURTIS STRANGE: This is an unbiased opinion, too.
ANDY NORTH: Very unbiased, exactly. I think Steve’s got a great chance. I think he’s coming into the Championship in great form. He played very, very nicely last week at Memorial, obviously, to win. But did it with some incredible play. Then he went through some stretches where he was a little shaky, but he was able to make some unbelievable putts when he needed them most. Number one, you’d be hard to pick two or three guys you’d rather have make a five‑ or six‑footer than Steve Stricker. So putting is such a big part of the Open, and he’s putting well. It’s a golf course he’s played well on before, and I think he’s in a really good place right now. I think he’s in a good frame of mind, and he knows that these are the events that matter at this point in time in his career. I think he’s really ready to take on the challenge. I think it’s going to be a good week for Steve. It would be easy to say, well, maybe he’s not long enough to play this golf course, but you’ve got to still put it in the fairway. He hits it plenty long. He’s not one of the bombers anymore, but he hits it plenty long. The key is to put it in the fairway, and if he does that, he’ll have a lot of good putts at it, and he’ll make some putt there’s. These greens aren’t uncontrollably difficult. They’ve got some slope to them, and they’ll have some speed to to them. But they aren’t in the Top 5 most difficult sets of greens at an Open, so I think he’s got a great chance.
CURTIS STRANGE: I agree with everything Andy said. I look at it as more of an outsider looking in. Andy and Steve are very good friends. Hell, everybody’s a good friend with Steve Stricker. But I look at it that he’s playing well talent in current form. He’s been a Top 5, six, seven player in the world now for a number of years. He is playing well. His form is excellent. He just won last week. I think he’s very mature. He’s in that time in his career where it’s time to get it done. You can’t force it, but it’s time to get it done. I think down deep he’s very, very confident, and he’s such a realist, too when you talk to Steve. He understands it’s going to be a hard, hard test out there. You ask is he long enough or Andy made that comment. I think he’s very much long enough. He drives straight enough to win an Open. The strength of Steve Stricker’s game is what you have to have to win an Open, and that’s inside 100 yards. He might be the best on Tour inside 100 yards. You’ll have to take advantage of the par‑5s by doing that inside 100 yards. And those times when you don’t drive them to the fairway and you can’t get to the green, that’s where the U.S. Open is won or lost, to stay in the game and make those hard par saves. I very much think he’s one of the heavy favorites.
Q. – I’m working on a piece about third round leads, 54‑hole leads and the problems that have beset a few of the younger guys in the past year. Dustin at Pebble, Nick Watney at Whistling Straits, and Rory at Augusta. Now both of you guys have had to take 54 hole leads into the final round of a major. I’m curious is there a tangible difference between taking a 54‑hole lead in regular events and taking that same lead into the final round of a major?
CURTIS STRANGE: There is a huge difference in taking a 54‑hole lead into a U.S. Open versus a regular TOUR event. It’s hard to put into words the ramped up of nerves of anxiousness, sleeplessness, pressure. That’s the only way you can explain Rory McIlroy, Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson of late. And there is one other thing that’s key and the common denominator to all these names you just mentioned was inexperience. If these players are back in contention Sunday afternoon, they’ll handle it much, much better. But being inexperienced, being young and just never having to deal with this, you have no idea. It’s like an out‑of‑body experience. You have to be there to understand what your body goes through.
ANDY NORTH: To follow up on what Curtis was saying, and I believe exactly what he’s saying. He brought up the experience factor and having been there. You have to want to be there too. You have to just relish the fact that your stomach is upside down and you didn’t sleep very well. But this is why you work so hard. You want to get into position where you feel like that. Having gone through it, if you’ve been lucky enough to get close enough to it that you’ve experienced some of that before you actually are the guy, like those three that you mentioned, that’s helpful. But there is nothing that can prepare you for this. I think this is where it comes down to how mentally tough a player is. Are you mentally tough enough to just absolutely embrace how bad you feel and how nervous you are and try to turn that into a positive versus letting it destroy you. On a Sunday afternoon in a major championship, the speed of what you do things, you have to work so hard to slow things down. If you talked to all of those guys, I would suspect they all told you things sped up very quickly for them. Swings were faster, they walked faster, they did everything faster. And once that ball gets going down the hill, you lose control of it and you’re gone. And that’s happened to so many young players.
Q. – From both of your experiences ‑‑ and forgive me for not doing the thorough research ‑‑ was there a time where you kind of had to learn that yourself and you were able to take it into the Open or were you kind of going with it as it came along?
CURTIS STRANGE: On, oh, absolutely. We remember those experiences like it was yesterday. I think that’s why we went on and did better things because we learned from it. When you’re in a tournament and everything’s great and nice and you make putts and get shots, you basically don’t learn a damn thing. It’s during those tough situations and missteps and those situations that you didn’t handle very well, both physically and mentally, that you really do learn something, and learn how to react, how to prepare, how to hit shots when you’re just, like Andy said, it’s hard to slow down. I know I did. I learned a great deal from them.
Q. Was there one particular that stands out to you?
CURTIS STRANGE: I’ve got to tell you, my first one was my first chance to win on TOUR. It was in Hartford in 1978. You know, it was just something I couldn’t control. I didn’t breathe properly. You might say what do you mean you can’t breathe properly? It’s an important part of handling the pressure. I don’t know. I just didn’t handle it well. I was embarrassed. I felt like I was stripped naked out there. I was hitting wayward shots for the first 63 holes, didn’t hit, and I just didn’t handle it very well. You know, it’s a tough situation and you have to keep moving. It’s disappointing. You want to go cry somewhere. And at that time I was 22 years old and it costs you a hell of a lot of money too. But more so than that you felt like you didn’t handle the pressure, which Andy said, you prepared your whole life to be a part of.
ANDY NORTH: I think what’s interesting. To take another look at this, is that sometimes you can draw on things that happened to you, not even as a pro, but as an amateur and a junior. It’s how you handled the bad things that happened to you all the way along. If you had a lot of failures early as a 15 or 16‑year‑old and lost tournaments, you had to figure out a way to overcome that and win later on as a junior. Same thing as an amateur, same thing in college. All of those factors are very, very important. The more golf you’ve played, the more times you’ve been in that situation, the more times you’ve failed at it probably will make you stronger when you finally get the opportunity to do it at a major championship. There have been a lot of guys that have had it easy all the weighing along, then they get there and it’s like, Geez, this is my first huge failure on a big stage. A lot of us had a lot of those early on, and you kind of got used to dealing with them.
Q. – This tournament is full of recognizable names, the K.J. Chois, the Phil Mickelsons. Are there any younger or newer players that you’ve been keeping your eye on as someone that might come out and surprise everybody?
CURTIS STRANGE: Yeah, absolutely. A couple that I think could very well be a part of the mix here this weekend. One is a player we don’t know a lot about but has played exceptionally well this year and that is Mark Wilson. His name is not being thrown around at all as a pre‑ tournament favorite. And probably shouldn’t, but he’s won twice. And as far as young players, I’m biased here a little bit too, because I know his daddy really well. But Bill Haas is a player who has played really well the last two years, has the game, has the length. Once in a while somebody’s going to pop out of nowhere and do well. I route for this kid, but I also think I do it with a reason to justify doing that because he has a tremendous amount of talent. If he does well, who knows. But he’s a young player, as you said, that could well pop out and do well.
ANDY NORTH: Right now we’re going through a period of time where there are so many younger players winning tournaments on TOUR, that these guys every time you get in contention to win, it gives you confidence and the ability to probably do better at a major championship. One guy that’s had a terrific year and is on the edge of becoming a great player is Nick Watney. Here’s a player that’s always had a nice long golf swing. Swings at it much like Bill Haas. From a distance they look quite similar swinging the golf club.
CURTIS STRANGE: They look the same.
ANDY NORTH: Exactly. Same type of body, taller, thin, strong guys, but Nick has worked unbelievably hard on his short game. All of a sudden his short game is so solid great chipper and pitcher of the golf ball now, where that was a weakness of his three years ago. Those are the things that you need to do well at the U.S. Open. I think he’s starting to get some confidence in believing that he can get it done.
Q. – Hey, I got a question for each one of you. Both of them relating to Phil Mickelson. Curtis, Phil has finished second five times, is that good or bad? Andy, he doesn’t seem to be a guy that would play well at the U.S. Open. It doesn’t fit any of the characteristics and attributes that we normally associate with him, yet he seems to find a way to get it done. If you could address that each in your own way?
CURTIS STRANGE: Well, if I was Phil Mickelson, I would look at five runner ups as very, very disappointing. You have to try to take a positive out of it, but when you have his amount of talent and his ability and his record, you know, not winning when you have a chance to win is disappointing. And there is no way else to look at it. I felt for him every time. But he’s had opportunities, and he just hasn’t come through. I think he certainly would look at it as a black eye right now. I guess you can say it like that, just disappointing.
ANDY NORTH: When you look at a U.S. Open, you think of a guy that plays a little conservative or is able to be consistent or those sort of criteria where with Phil you think of more of the flamboyant, aggressive, swashbuckling‑type of player that he can be. He can be that other type of player too. He just hasn’t done it enough at an Open. You see him trying to do it, but it fights some of the things he’s done for his entire life and that makes it difficult. But Phil, I think Congressional, of the Open courses we’ve played the last ten or 12 years, I think Congressional sets up quite well for him. The fairways are generous. The rough isn’t horrendous because of this new, as Curtis said, the kinder, gentler USGA where they’re giving the players these cut down areas before you get to the really deep stuff. And it’s a golf course where if you have length, that’s a positive. Phil does. If you hit the ball way up in the air because of the elevated greens, that’s a positive for Phil. I think it comes down to people have talked about what a fantastic putter he’s been all these years. Well, he goes in streaks. There are times he’s unbelievable. There are times he’s very average. He misses too many short putts. If he has a good week putting, I think Congressional’s a great venue for him to win on.
CURTIS STRANGE: Can I elaborate just a second. Andy is so right on that. First of all, Phil can win anywhere. But I want to go back to Congressional because Andy made mention of how far you have to hit it. When we played the Kemper there and the Open in ’97, it was a long golf course. But I still think the average guy can win here because he’s going to put the ball in the fairway, the short grass more so than the big hitter. Now the big hitter is not going to be that penalized like he was years ago with old regime at the USGA, but he’s still going to put it in the rough where he has less control of the ball. So I still think the guy that is the average hitter can still win on the long golf course. Yes, he’s giving up a lot of yardage, and giving up hitting some long putts on some of these uphill greens. But if he plays out of the fairway 85% of the time versus 55% of the time, I think it will eventually equal itself out. So if you’re a quality player and are playing well, you can do well here.
Q. – Question about Tiger Woods not being there, how big an impact does that have on the audience? Does it affect at all the way you approach the telecast of the event?
JOHN WILDHACK: I don’t think it really changes it. I mean, obviously whatever sport you’re talking about, if you take out the most popular player in that sport, obviously that’s not desirable. But I think one of the things that we have here is there are so many story lines of the game and the guys have just talked about it. Whether it’s Mickelson, can he finally breakthrough, to the young guys who have been there on the brink of majors but haven’t been able to get it done yet. To a guy like Steve Stricker who has been consistently excellent for such a long period of time, but doesn’t have a major. So I think there are enough story lines. It’s kind of a mosaic as opposed to a self‑portrait of Tiger. Do we wish he was playing? Of course, absolutely. But most important thing is he’s got to get physically where he can play again. When he does, all of us involved in the sport will be thrilled to see him back.
Q. – I was wondering what you thought about Sergio’s chances? He’s a little bit wet today after an 11 on one of the holes in Memphis. Do you think he has much of a hope next week?
ANDY NORTH: We’ve seen some bright spots in his game of late. He really has struggled the last year. We’ve seen him play some pretty decent golf over the last month or two. And he’s such a fine ball striker, so any time any player can strike the ball as he can, he’s got to have a great chance. But the one thing that is always an issue with Sergio is that can you make enough putts to win a major championship? Can you make enough putts for a U.S. Open? And the U.S. Open, if the greens end up getting firm and as quick, as we all hope they will be, you’re going to have to have ‑‑ I would suspect during the course of the tournament you’re going to have more five footers that you have to make for pars than any other tournament you play all year long. So can he make enough of those putts to win? That’s the only question.
CURTIS STRANGE: I agree that he’s such a good ball striker and has been for years. I think he’s still striking it well enough that his putting has been so poor the last couple of years which really aggravates him to the point of it looks like to me he’s lost confidence. Can he win here? Certainly he can, but I don’t think he will. Andy said you have to putt well to win the U.S. Open. Without a doubt you have to putt well to win the Open, and I don’t think he’s putting near well enough. And his mental state right now is not the best there is going into a big event. So it will be hard for him next week.
Q. – Hey, guys, it’s nothing new, but it seems that fewer ask fewer players appear to be actually having fun during a round. Do too many guys get too caught up in grinding and making the perfect swing and forget to have fun, which would help them play better and if you think there’s any validity to that theory? What does that do to them at U.S. Open week?
ANDY NORTH: Let me jump in on this one. Playing in a U.S. Open, if you’re having fun, there is something wrong with you. It is the most brutal test of all tests. I know all the sports psychologists are telling all these guys you’re supposed to smile and have a wonderful time and all that kind of stuff. Neither Curtis nor I were those type of players. To me I wasn’t talented enough to go out there and have a great time. I had to grind and grind and grind to play well, and the U.S. Open is even more so. But I think that’s also why I had success at a U.S. Open. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed that mentality. I enjoyed that type of test. It was something I had to do on a week‑to‑week basis. So maybe I was a little better prepared for it than the guy that went out there, hit it around and had a wonderful time, and smiled and waved at everybody, because that is not what the U.S. Open is about.
CURTIS STRANGE: I go back to that line that I love. If this was a smiling contest, I wouldn’t be entered. And I really mean that, especially at the Open as Andy said. This is the toughest test in golf. When you go back, think about this: I think every generation says this, ask the young guys will smile looking like they’re having fun. But I think every generation has said that of players and reporters. I think you’d be writing the same thing about Ben Hogan. Did he smile a lot? We all can’t be Lee Trevinos, and he was wonderful for the game, but he was the exception. Chi‑Chi ‑‑ well, Chi‑Chi didn’t win a major. But Lee Trevino and any major champion that was bubbly and fun and laughed on a golf course during the major, they were very much the exception. These guys are out there to make history for themselves and to pay the bills and be the best they can be. It’s not all fun and games sometimes. So I think they’re doing pretty well. I like the way we see these young kids. When you look back at the Masters and you have these young kids trying to win their first major, and a lot of them with good charisma and good looking kids with great swings, I thought it was a wonderful show. We could very much have that this week at the Open too. But you won’t see a lot of smiles out there, no.