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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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.