Open Shut

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ESPN televised all four rounds of the Open Championship and the world survived.

The question is how did the first Grand Slam golf tourney, originating entirely on cable — broadcast brethren ABC had encore action on Saturday and Sunday afternoons — survive with the Nielsens?

In November 2008, ESPN sank an eight-year deal, worth a reported $200 million, for exclusive U.S. coverage of the British Open and the victor lifting the Claret Jug, beginning with this year’s tourney. TNT previously had the cable rights, with ABC on the broadcast side. In the same vein, the BSC games are migrating to the worldwide leader and its dual-revenue stream wallet from Fox next January.

Sure, ESPN suffers from having some 15 million fewer TV homes available to it. But this time, it was a question of a runaway action at St. Andrews, which didn’t involve one Eldrick Woods. Indeed, Tiger and Lefty, Phil Mickelson, were never in contention. Although it can be argued that their early tee times might have added length to ESPN’s weekend telecasts, the fact that no American was among the top 5 going into Sunday’s round — the first time that occurred since 1969 — couldn’t have helped audience matters.

Instead, ESPN had to rely on the fairy tale appeal of the man nicknamed Shrek. South African Louis Oosthuizen, who played his round on the right side of the fierce wind that suspended play and corrupted scores on Friday, led the tournament for its last 48 holes.

His 16-under par finish, which included just a pair of bogeys over the final 35 holes, left Lee Westwood seven strokes back at the Old Course, the second biggest margin at the Royal and Ancient since World War II, behind Woods’s eight-stroke romp in 2000.

Oosthuizen was challenged just once on Sunday, when Paul Casey came within three shots on the eighth hole. Casey drove the green on the par-4 ninth, sitting there with an eagle on his putter. Oosthuizen did him one better, reaching the same green and draining a 50-footer for his own eagle. Three holes later Casey triple- bogeyed as the champion knocked in an 18-foot birdie. Game, set and match, to mix metaphors with another sport the Brits hold dear.

Hence when broadcast critics and consumer protectionists look back at the 2010 British Open and and wag their putters, ‘You see what kind of audience you get when you put a major event on cable,’ it will be more about Oosthuizen’s performance draining the drama from the Open Championship, than it being available in fewer homes on ESPN.