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A prime-time experiment

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By the time Tiger Woods and friends finish the 72nd hole of this weekend's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, golf fans on the East Coast will be getting ready to retire for the evening.

For the first time in history, the U.S. Open will be shown live in prime time in the East thanks to the tournament's San Diego locale. NBC and ESPN will combine for 30 hours of live golf from Thursday to Sunday, with 11 of those hours after 7 p.m. on the East Coast.

The playing schedule will make golf writers looking to make deadline cranky, but it has the potential to make the Open one of the highest-rated golf tournaments in history. (At the very least, it should be less absurd than the debut of mixed martial arts in prime time two weeks ago.)

"It could be really fun going into prime time on Father's Day," said Dan Hicks, the golf host for NBC, which has the rights to Saturday and Sunday's coverage. "It's really a day to spend with your family, but I think this is a unique opportunity to do that. After you have given your dad that eighth straight striped tie, I think you should hand over the remote after dinner and just let him settle in."

It will be interesting to see how this prime-time experiment goes. On one hand, it will be nice to be able to watch most of the tournament without feeling guilty about not mowing the lawn or missing the NASCAR race or interacting with your wife for an entire afternoon.

But this also sets up a scenario in which the golf enthusiast must compete with family members for the remote. (Somehow, it will lose out to a rerun of "Cold Case.") Moreover, many of the people who might tune in to a prime-time broadcast would not necessarily be hard-core golf fans.

"I think the later we go into the evening, the more diverse audience that we have," NBC producer Tommy Roy said. "Maybe people who don't always watch golf on Sunday afternoons, we need to keep that in mind that we're speaking to an audience that may need a few more things explained to them. But beyond that, this is no different than the way we handle the other U.S. Opens where we're putting our best on the air."

The late start will allow NBC to air highlights of the U.S. Open Challenge, which featured newsman Matt Lauer, pop star Justin Timberlake, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and John Atkinson, an 8-handicapper suffering from lung cancer.

Ratings for the U.S. Open could end up a bust if the golf action itself is not compelling. NBC and ESPN must hope that Tiger Woods is in the lead or in the hunt, and it wouldn't hurt to have Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia near the top of the leader board heading into the weekend.

More than 9.5 million viewers watched Angel Cabrera hold off Woods to win last year's U.S. Open at Oakmont. It was the highest-rated final round since 2002, when 13.1 million tuned in to see Woods edge Mickelson at Bethpage Black in New York.

A good performance by Masters champion Trevor Immelman also would get peoples' attention. (It does appear that the networks lucked out with the initial threesome of Woods, Mickelson and Adam Scott teeing off together Thursday.)

It's possible Torrey Pines itself will draw some viewers. As a public course, it has a similar allure as Bethpage Black, and its high rough and ridiculous length (six par-4s over 450 yards, including two longer than 500 yards) will have people tuning in just to see whether anyone can break par.

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