PGA Tour: Paul Azinger prompts volcanic reaction over Tommy Fleetwood comments

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Tommy Fleetwood
Tommy Fleetwood said he was 'upset' to miss out on a first PGA Tour win after finishing third at the Honda Classic on Sunday

Paul Azinger prompted a volcanic reaction with television comments belittling the European Tour during NBC's final-round coverage of the Honda Classic.

This was one of those social media eruption moments. Golfers and fans from this side of the pond responded in high dudgeon.

Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter led the way, tweeting: "seriously that was embarrassing today". But there is a more worrying subplot to this story than just American jingoism in the announcer's booth.

Azinger was creating a narrative that we were watching a significant step up for Southport's Tommy Fleetwood, who was firmly in contention for his first PGA Tour victory.

The Englishman eventually finished third to the outstanding Korean youngster Im Sung-jae after finding the water at the last as he sought the birdie that would have forced a play-off.

Early in the final round coverage on Sunday, Azinger said: "These guys know you can win all you like on that European Tour, the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour."

The 2008 US Ryder Cup captain then went on to comment on Lee Westwood, another Englishman on the leaderboard, winning only twice in the US among his 44 worldwide wins.

"Well it's not on the PGA Tour," Azinger went on. "And they know that and I think Tommy knows that. It puts a bit of pressure on Tommy.

"But this is where they want to be. They want to come here, they want to prove they can win at this level."

To have won that tournament Fleetwood needed to beat Im, a brilliant prospect but 34th in the world rankings, Mackenzie Hughes (308 in the world) and Brendan Steele (171).

The only major winner finishing in the top 16 was 2019 US Open champion Gary Woodland, although there were a couple of former world number ones - both prolific European Ryder Cup winners from England - in Westwood and Luke Donald.

So this is not exactly rarefied air for Fleetwood, who beat Dustin Johnson by a stroke to claim the first of two Abu Dhabi titles, shot a final-round 63 to come second at the 2018 US Open and won four out of five points in his Ryder Cup debut.

Azinger wanted us to believe that the final afternoon of a pretty standard tournament at PGA National was a significant step up for the man who currently lies 10th in the world rankings.external-link

Fleetwood admits the next tick in his career progression is to win in America but Azinger was seriously overplaying the significance of Sunday.

And in this regard he was simply doing his job because his role as lead commentator for NBC appears less about offering honest analysis and more about pumping up the PGA Tour.

The television coverage is used as a vehicle to promote the tour's brand and reward backers such as FedEx, as much as convey the sporting drama.

On the No Laying Up podcast, the recently sacked CBS on-course commentator Peter Kostis provided a revealing insight. He described how he got into trouble for asking a rookie winner about how his victory would be rewarded with a place at the Masters.

"I got a phone call the next day from New York [CBS Headquarters]," Kostis said. "They'd got a phone call from the commissioner who was upset that I didn't say first off that he had won 500 FedEx Cup points.

"And he didn't want me talking about majors."

Kostis was eventually taken off interviewing duties and lost his job at the end of last year. He is clearly aggrieved but insists: "The Tour wants more control over what's being said.

"They want more cheerleaders on the telecast, people who will - quote unquote - 'promote the Tour's product'.

"They don't care about the quality of the viewer experience, they don't care about anything other than promotion."

Paul Azinger,left, and NBC commentator Dan Hicks
Paul Azinger, left, pictured with NBC commentator Dan Hicks, won 12 times on the PGA tour, including the 1993 PGA Championship

Clearly the PGA Tour would argue otherwise but Azinger's words for NBC, who jointly hold the American broadcast rights with CBS and Golf Channel, reinforce a feeling that the coverage's primary function is to further the cause of the PGA Tour.

Azinger's narrative also framed a view that were Fleetwood to fail in his victory quest, it would be another choke by the Englishman in America.

The commentator knows a thing or two about the difficulties of holding your nerve down the stretch after his bogey, bogey finish to lose the 1987 Open to Sir Nick Faldo.

But this was hardly a fair assessment of Fleetwood's career or performance on Sunday. He did not have his A1 long game for that final round, which was uncharacteristic for him, but it can happen to the very best.

He did tenaciously stay in contention, though, with a string of back-nine par saves before making a superb birdie at the par-three 17th. It took real nerve.

So did the 305-yard drive - the longest of the day - straight down the middle of the final hole.

And then came his fateful second shot to that par five. An eagle to win, a birdie for a play-off. His five-wood approach flew right into the water.

The toughest of shots given a fluctuating crosswind, it was a mistake to go anywhere near a pin tucked in the right-hand corner.

It also seemed as though a moron had yelled at the top of Fleetwood's backswing. The sound may have come from another microphone, it may have been out of synch because of the use of Top Tracer technology.

We will never know, and Fleetwood did not complain, he would be too classy for that. Later he stated that he had not been put off.

However, it was a bad look and sound for the tournament at its most crucial moment. It was definitely an issue worth talking about.

It was, though, never mentioned on the broadcast and we should not be surprised.

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