20 Years of Golf: Talking golf and sharing stories

By Rich LernerJanuary 15, 2015, 1:30 pm

(Editor’s note: Golf Channel turns 20 years old on Jan. 17. In recognition, we are looking back at golf over the last two decades with a series of articles and photo galleries throughout the week.)

You’ve known me for long enough, so let’s break bread and reminisce on the week of Golf Channel’s 20th anniversary.

A few years ago I sat around a table at a Houston steakhouse with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player for a show called “Legendary Conversation.”  It’s a good assignment, if you like golf, which I do.

Anyway, at one point I wanted to understand what made Jack so good.  “You’ve won nine majors, Gary,” I said. “And, Arnold, you won seven; Lee, you won six. You guys were among the greatest to have ever played this game.” They all had a slight smile, because legends never mind when you repeat their record. 

“So how do you explain …” and now Trevino knows where I’m headed with this and without saying a word he starts pointing toward the ceiling, toward the sky.  “How do you explain Jack winning 18 majors?” I finished the question – and I really emphasized the number 18. Trevino, still thrusting his index finger to the roof, says, “He hit the high ball, hit it so high and could land it so soft, see that’s how you win 18 majors.”

Tiger Woods looked like he’d win 25 majors. Sunday afternoon at the 2001 Masters, he was on the verge of four in a row. The atmosphere was electric, with a long morning buildup to Tiger’s mid-afternoon tee time. When word spread that he was about to come out of the clubhouse, two lines formed from the door all the way to the ropes just before the practice putting green.

20 Years of Golf: Articles and photo galleries

Tiger’s mom, Tida, was standing to one side near the patio. You could not miss her. Tiger would walk out, get a good luck hug from Mom and then make history, right? Tiger popped from the doorway. He walked right by his mother. He saw nothing and no one but the task ahead. And then he won his fourth consecutive major.

I started at Golf Channel just as Tiger won his first major title, the 1997 Masters.  It was a great period because not only would we cover Tiger’s rise but the game’s all-time giants were still around, men like Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen.

I encountered Sarazen in Naples, Fla., in 1999 at a charity event hosted by Ken Venturi. It was Monday after Doral. Jim Nantz was introducing players. Through it all, Sarazen sat silently on the first tee box under an umbrella, dressed to the nines with his plus-fours, sport coat and tie, a straw hat and a cane. He was 97.

Eventually, Nantz brought up Ernie Els. Keep in mind that the day before, Els made double bogey on the final hole to kick away the tournament. Always gracious, Els said in his familiar accent, “What a great honor it is to be here in the company of such a great man like Mr. Sarazen.”

And then Nantz moved towards Sarazen and said, “Mr. Sarazen, how about that, isn’t that wonderful?” Sarazen, one hand holding the cane, still seated, took the microphone with a shaky hand. He looked up from under his hat toward Els and said, “Ernie Els. Huh, first time in my life I’ve seen a man blow a chip shot for 500,000 dollars.” The place exploded in shocked laughter. Sarazen passed just a couple months later.  

Through the years, we brought back more than features and highlights from our travels. There were ribald tales, wrong turns, equipment malfunctions and bizarre interviews – and we spilled it all in the old newsroom after a late “Golf Central,” usually with a stray putter in hand. Scott Van Pelt and I did some of our best work in that setting, with an audience of only three or four, imitating the likes of Richard Pryor, Vin Scully and Keith Jackson. John Feyko, one of our longtime cameramen and our resident Don Rickles, always called Van Pelt and me “13 feet of stupid,” since Scotty’s 6’7” and I’m almost 6’5”. Feyko understood the basic principle of good reporting: Get it right. He did.  

Van Pelt came through the door as an entry-level producer and Kelly Tilghman through the library. I jumped from radio in Dallas and we were fortunate to be carried along in those early days by consummate pros like Brian Hammons, Jennifer Mills, Kraig Kann and Mike Ritz. They were the originals and the network grew on the sturdy foundation they built.

A few years into my stint, I took one of my sons to the local ice skating rink in Orlando where I ran into our co-founder, Joe Gibbs. Making small talk, I’d mentioned that my wife and I were considering moving out of our apartment and into a house, but that I was unsure of my future at Golf Channel. As a father would to a son, he turned to me and with a knowing smile said, “Buy that house.” I owe Mr. Gibbs, and of course Arnold Palmer, a good deal.

We also owe much to the players. At the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland, I stood outside the U.S. team room moments after another embarrassing defeat, looking to snag a few post-match interviews. Jim Fuyrk stormed in my direction. This wasn’t the time for a smile and a “Hey, Jim!” They’d just been obliterated. He was hot, that was plain to see.

So I did what I’d so often done through the years, just slightly tilted the Golf Channel microphone - with the big G on it – toward him, subtly letting him know that it was time for me to do my job. Furyk stopped in his tracks, turned to me and angrily said, “I’ll do the interview as long as you don’t ask me any stupid, f*****’ questions like they just asked me over there,” pointing toward the green where he’d just been surrounded by press. “Fair enough,” I said. “How do you explain what happened this week?” He replied, “That’s better.” And then he calmly told me that the Americans play tight and there was no good explanation for it.

The larger point here,though, is that through the years we’ve only had to tilt our mic flag in the direction of the players for them to stop and give us a few minutes. They’ve been generous with their time from “Golf Talk Live” to “Feherty” to “Playing Lessons with the Pros” to “Live From,” “Golf Central” and “Morning Drive.” More than the announcers, the players are the face of our network, and we’re grateful for their immense talent and their time after they’ve put it on display.

Lastly, and you’ll forgive me for getting schmaltzy, we’re grateful to you, our audience. You read about golf, watch golf, play golf, dream golf, love golf and need golf. 

Every now and then, in an airport or restaurant or at a tournament, someone will point to me and exclaim, “Hey, Golf Channel guy!” And then we’ll talk golf. That’s what we do. That’s what we love to do.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.

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Garcia cruises to five-shot win in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:10 pm

SINGAPORE - Sergio Garcia played 27 holes on the last day without dropping a shot to win the Singapore Open by five strokes Sunday in an ominous display of his newfound self-belief as he prepares to defend his Masters title.

Still brimming with confidence after claiming his first major title at Augusta National last year, Garcia started his new season with a runaway victory at the Sentosa Golf Club, finishing at 14-under 270.

Returning to the course just after dawn to complete his third round after play was suspended on Saturday because of lightning strikes, Garcia finished his last nine holes in 4 under for a round of 66 to take a one-shot lead into the final round.

With organizers desperate to avert the constant threat of more bad weather and finish the tournament on time, Garcia promptly returned to the first tee shortly after and fired a flawless 3-under 68, cruising to victory with 10 straight pars as his rivals floundered in the stifling humidity.

''It may have looked easy, but it wasn't easy. You still have to hit a lot of good shots out there,'' Garcia said. ''It's always great to start with a win, to do it here at this golf course against a good field in Asia on conditions that weren't easy. Hopefully I can ride on this momentum.''

Garcia's closest rivals at the end were Japan's Satoshi Kodaira (71) and South African Shaun Norris (70). Both birdied the last hole to share second spot but neither was ever close enough on the last day to challenge the leader.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

''I could not reach Sergio. I was thinking, 12 or 13 under for the win, but he went beyond that,'' Kodaira said.

Jazz Janewattananond (71) and his fellow Thai Danthai Bonnma (73) finished equal fourth at 8 under, earning themselves a spot in this year's British Open, while American Sean Crocker, who was given an invitation to the event after turning pro late last year, also won a place at Carnoustie by finishing in a tie for sixth.

Garcia made just three bogeys in 72 holes and his victory provided the 38-year-old with the 33rd title of his professional career and his sixth on the Asian Tour.

He has also won three titles in the last 12 months, including the Masters, and his game looks to be in better shape now than it was a year ago.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for Augusta National because of the steamy conditions and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament, which is regularly stopped because of inclement weather.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore a year ago, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

"I'm extremely happy with how the week went. It was a tough day and a tough week, with the stopping and going. Fortunately, the weather held on. Still, it was hard to play 27 holes under this heat and I can't wait to get a cold shower,'' Garcia said. ''I came with some good confidence and wishing that I will play well. I hit the ball solid the whole week and didn't miss many shots.''