Tracking Tiger Will Be Job No. 1

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It won't be hard for ESPN and NBC to find the story line at the U.S. Open. All the networks have to do is stick with Tiger Woods, who is going after his fifth consecutive major title.

"If Tiger wins the Open, there is going to be a lot of talk of a real Grand Slam," NBC analyst Johnny Miller said. "What he has right now is like a royal straight. He's going for a royal flush."

If Woods successfully defends his Open title, he'll be halfway toward a 2001 Grand Slam. Last year, he won three of the four majors, all but the Masters.

"It wasn't quite a Grand Slam, but after he did it, he did have all four trophies on the table at once," Miller said. "He probably said, 'Well, if you guys don't like that one, I guess I will go for the real one.' "

NBC will have 17 hours of live coverage, including two-hour blocks Thursday and Friday at noon preceding its 13 hours of weekend coverage. The network will have 6 1/2-hour blocks on Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 10:30 a.m. each day and covering all 18 holes.

ESPN's coverage Thursday and Friday will run from 9 a.m. to noon and then 2 to 5 p.m., with three hours of each day's coverage to be repeated beginning at 5 p.m. Mike Tirico will serve as the host of ESPN's coverage.

ESPN will offer a nightly highlights show, hosted by Chris Berman. It begins at 9 except Friday, when it begins at 10.

ESPN Classic's "Road Show" tonight at 6 will originate from Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., with Charley Steiner and Times golf writer Thomas Bonk serving as co-hosts. They'll be joined by Mark Calcavecchia, Mike Holder, Hale Irwin and Steve Jones to reflect on past U.S. Opens.

The show features a "SportsCentury" tribute to 1958 Open winner Tommy Bolt and discussions of Woods and Casey Martin.

Starting Saturday at 5 a.m., ESPN Classic will present 20 consecutive hours of past U.S. Opens.

Coverage on http://ESPN.com will include video coverage of the sixth hole, hosted by Roger Twibell. It will be different from what is shown on ESPN.

Coverage on http://NBCSports.com will include a special section titled "Tracking Tiger."

ESPNEWS and ESPN Radio will offer comprehensive coverage with periodic reports.

Sporting News Radio also will have a presence in Tulsa. Jay Mariotti, Jim Litke, Bob Berger and Bruce Murray will host 32 hours of programming from the site.

Woods is one reason for all the coverage. The fact that it is the U.S. Open is another.

"The U.S. Open is the hardest major to win," said Miller, who won it in 1973. "The fact that it's our national championship adds tremendous pressure. It is the hardest test of golf and probably the most prestigious prize.

"The Masters is a great event that has so much history and nostalgia and charisma about it. The British Open and PGA [Championship] are great. But the bottom line is, if you asked a player to trade a U.S. Open championship for another one, I don't think he would."

Miller will work alongside host Dan Hicks in the 18th green tower. They'll be joined by tower reporters Gary Koch and Bob Murphy and on-course reporters Roger Maltbie, Mark Rolfing and Ed Sneed. Jimmy Roberts will serve as interviewer and essayist.

Koch is also playing in the Open, so if he makes the cut his reporting duties will become secondary.

This will be Koch's 17th Open appearance. The NBC announcing crew has a combined total of 70, led by Miller's 22.

NBC is handling its own production plus ESPN's. It has a production staff of 160, led by executive producer Tom Roy. The arsenal includes five mobile units and 48 cameras. There will be one in the MetLife blimp and there is also a lipstick-sized "spy cam" hidden in the bunker on the eighth hole.

Roy is counting on a dramatic finish.

"The 16th hole is the longest par four in the history of the U.S. Open," he said. "The 17th is precise but birdie-able, and 18 is a long, difficult uphill hole. We'll educate the viewers on how difficult these finishing holes are."

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