(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.
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.