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MOST RIDICULOUS GOLF COURSE

St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones looks back at the best and worst from a weekend of televised sports.

The U.S. Women's Open wasn't even fun to watch because of the ridiculously difficult course at Oakmont, Pa. In fact, thinking back to last month's men's U.S. Open, the course at Pebble Beach was too difficult to enjoy. It's one thing to punish golfers for hitting a bad shot, but it's another to make holes so difficult that even good shots turn bad. Example: During the U.S. Women's Open coverage Saturday, Chie Arimura had a 40-foot putt on the first hole that looked so good NBC analyst Johnny Miller yelled, "Look at this!" Despite what appeared to be the appropriate speed, the ball missed the hole by a mere inch or two ... and then proceeded to roll off the green, more than 50 feet from the hole.

Miller said, "This is the hardest opening hole in the world."

What he should've said was, "This is the most ridiculous opening hole in the world."

When only one professional can break par, the course was set up too tough. And when it's set up that tough, luck has more to do with victory than skill, which is the exact opposite of the way it should be.

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Best hustle

To NBC for scoring an interview withPaula Creamer'sfather, Paul, as he followed his daughter down the 18th fairway on her way to a U.S. Women's Open title and her first major. And the best line of the day goes to Paul, who was asked what it was like to watch his daughter walk down the 18th fairway with a four-shot lead.

Paul deadpanned, "Thank God it's four shots and not one!"

* * *

Best and worst network

What a strange week it has been for ESPN.

Along with ABC, ESPN put the finishing touches on what might have been the most impressive coverage in the nearly 31-year history of the network with the World Cup. The broadcasts - from the pregames to the matches to the postgames to the specials - were complete, entertaining, interesting, provocative and enjoyable for soccer novices and futbol diehards.

Hosts Bob Ley, top left, always the level-headed voice of reason, and Chris Fowler, bringing the deft point guard skills he so impressively displays in the fall during College GameDay, were masterful in running ESPN's analysis shows. The game announcers - led by what just might be the most intelligent-sounding sports broadcaster in the world, Martin Tyler - were a pleasure to listen to. The only knock, and it's a slight one, was a few of the analysts occasionally wore their hearts on their sleeves (Alexi Lalas for the United States and Ruud Gullit for the Netherlands, for example). But once the United States was knocked out, Lalas' candid analysis became more appreciated.

The 2010 World Cup was, quite simply, the network's shining moment.

But the aftershock of last week's decision to carry LeBron James' free agency decision continues to be felt, perhaps even eclipsing ESPN's World Cup coverage. Media critics from across the country continue to pound away at ESPN's journalistic integrity for allowing James to essentially take over the network for an hour Thursday night to say he was leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat. While it's difficult to blame ESPN's decision to carry James' announcement - after all, what network would have turned down the offer? - ESPN did appear to sell a bit of its soul by allowing James to pick his interviewer and take ownership of the program's sponsors.

A year from now, what will people remember more: ESPN's top-notch coverage of the World Cup or its coverage of the James decision? It should be the World Cup stuff. My guess is the James show, and that's too bad for ESPN.

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Worst owner

It's understandable Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, below, feels hurt and betrayed by LeBron James leaving his team, but geez, show a little dignity. Gilbert blasted James in an open letter, saying it was a "cowardly betrayal," insisting the Cavs would win a title before LeBron, putting a curse on LeBron and then later suggesting LeBron had quit during the playoffs.

If James is all the things Gilbert suggests, then why did he want him back? And anyway, James is hardly the first big-time free agent to leave a team, and you've never seen other owners lose their mind or turn into crybabies.

While Gilbert's knee-jerk reaction might have made him and Cleveland feel better for the moment, it did more harm than good. It made him look so unstable that future free agents would think twice about signing up to play for a wingnut like that.

* * *

The ratings game

There was plenty of talk about how many people would watch LeBron James' free agency decision. One writer suggested it might equal Super Bowl numbers, which, of course, was insane. In the end, the Nielsen Co. estimates 9.95 million watched the ESPN show. That made it the third-most-watched program on cable this year, behind the 12.3 million who watched the Pro Bowl (another example of football's stronghold in this country) and an episode of iCarly on Nickelodeon in January. By comparison, more than 28 million people watched the seventh game of the NBA Finals last month between the Lakers and Celtics.

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Winners and losers in the LeBron circus

WINNERS

Obviously, no one comes out looking better than the Miami Heat. It now has three of the best, oh, 12 or 13 players in the NBA with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Also looking good were ESPN analysts Michael Wilbon and Jon Barry, both of whom maintained their journalistic integrity during the broadcast. ESPN reporter Chris Broussard certainly breathed a sigh of relief after insisting all day leading up to the announcement that James would go to Miami. And longtime sports analyst Stephen A. Smith deserves credit for predicting weeks ago that James, Wade and Bosh would all end up in Miami.

LOSERS

Interviewer Jim Gray was awful. It took him a mind-boggling 16 questions before he asked the one question everyone tuned in for: Where was LeBron going? You knew there was going to be a slight buildup to create a little tension, but 16 questions is absurd. ESPN's integrity has been questioned, placing it in the "loser" category, although it attracted more than 9.95 million viewers, which is a good thing for the network. Cleveland, of course, lost big-time. And LeBron has taken a major hit. While LeBron shouldn't be blamed for taking advantage of the free agent status he has earned, he could have handled the process better. He came away from this as arrogant and immature.

* * *

Harshest line

"Let's face it - lipstick on a pig. This was a pig of a game."

- ABC/ESPN's Alexi Lalas, talking about Sunday's yellow-card-filled World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands

* * *

Three things that popped into my head

1. Former Rays pitcher Scott Kazmir is 7-9 with the Angels and coming off a performance in which he gave up 13 runs. The Rays' Sean Rodriguez is hitting .265 with six homers and 30 RBIs. Anyone griping about the Rays "dumping" Kazmir now?

2. Okay, while the U.S. Women's Open course was too tough, the course at the men's John Deere Classic was too easy. Seriously, 26 under par for the winner?

3. Unlike the Olympic hockey tournament when stars such as Sidney Crosby and Ryan Miller came back to play in a league in this country, hardly any World Cup stars are coming to this country to play now. That's why soccer won't get national attention in this country until the next World Cup.

Up next:VIVA ESPANA

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