- NBC's lead play-by-play host shares his thoughts on the Florida Swing, golf's most talented players and Tigers Woods's future in a Q&A with Sports Illustrated.
Dan Hicks has spent 19 years in the golf broadcast tower and has pretty much seen it all on the course, but 2019 has been a year of change for the veteran NBC Sports voice. Hicks recently said goodbye to Johnny Miller and welcomed Paul Azinger into the booth, just in time for a star studded WGC event in Mexico and the Florida Swing.
As NBC/Golf Channel kicks off its coverage of the Honda Classic, SI.com’s Ryan Asselta had a chance to catch up with Hicks for “A Quick Nine." NBC’s lead play-by-play host shared his thoughts on the Florida Swing, who the best player in the world is, and what it’s been like piloting the NBC Golf ship, with a brand new co-pilot sitting next to him
Ryan Asselta #1: The Florida Swing kicks off this week on the PGA tour and on NBC/Golf Channel with the Honda Classic. With The Players Championship now two weeks away and The Masters just a month and a half away, does the Florida Swing really signify that golf season is now fully underway?
Dan Hicks: Yes, when the people that are still suffering from some cold temperatures or watching from the Midwest or the Northeast and they see the palm trees, that always signals that we're getting very close to the big chunk of the important part of the golf season. With the reconfigured schedule and The Players going back to March, I think it just give us that old feeling of The Players starting off the championship season and then leading into the four majors and then end with the FedEx Cup playoffs. This week, the Honda Classic field isn't as strong as it has been, but Bay Hill is going to be the strongest field they've had in like 12 years. So, how often and when the players are going to play will always be in flux, but it’s great to be back at the Honda
RA #2: You're coming off the WGC Mexico where Dustin Johnson completely dominated the field. Has his win, and the way he completely obliterated everyone, except Rory Mcilroy, drawn the attention it deserves?
Hicks: You know as the day was developing in Mexico, we were trying to continue to put in perspective not only what he was doing on that day but what his career has been like. And the fact that he's won 20 events is not enough. You’ve gotta delve deeper into the fact that he's just the 30th player in the history of the PGA tour to win, to win 20 PGA tour events, which is just a phenomenal achievement. I think that stat right there kind of tells it all. And then there’s the margin of victory that speaks to his ability to separate himself. Even in a field like that, which has all the top players in the world, to get that kind of separation and to get that kind of no doubt feeling that we had going in was remarkable.
I seldom get a feeling after 54 holes that, even with a four-shot lead like he had on a course like that, it was done deal. And I just had this feeling that there was just no one going to get close. And if you look at the history of his golf tournaments, he's won a number of them like that, by at least three shots, where he just says “see you later." It’s a little reminiscent of the way Tiger used to win. Sometimes when Tiger got the lead, and was playing well, he was uncatchable.
RA #3: Regardless of what the World Ranking says, is DJ by far the best player in the game today?
Hicks: I mean, he is right now, especially after what he did, with Rory Mcilroy there behind him, you know, that’s another example of how good Rory Mcilroy is. I don't know if I've ever seen a tournament quite like that where there was that kind of separation between first, second and third. We can't get too carried away with it, because I've been doing this a long time in this game of golf and there's an old saying “you only borrow it for a while." And it’s really true. But there are only a few guys that can really separate themselves. Rory, Justin Thomas, but certainly DJ can lay claim to being the best in the world. He is right now.
RA #4: You mention Justin Thomas. He heads to the Honda Classic as the defending champion after a rollercoaster week in Mexico. He closed with a 62 with his “Screw it. We're just gonna hit driver all day” mentality. Can he carry that into the Honda this week?
Hicks: Well of course he can. I mean it's just a matter of, how he wakes up and how his warm up goes and how he's feeling day to day. I don't think people can really appreciate how hard it is to string four good rounds together. One thing I think is so incredible about the sport is the guys that can continue to put four rounds together. It takes four rounds to win a PGA tour event. Thomas has just been off a tiny bit in one round, otherwise he would have won this season.
Sunday was an example of what you can do in this game when you're just, carefree and loose. He made the comment this week that he's going to try to bring that more carefree freewheeling approach to his game. I think these guys that are pretty explosive, that like to let it fly can be aggressive. It’s going to be interesting to watch and see if Rory can break through and win soon, or if Thomas can finally win after knocking on the door.
RA #5: You got a good look at Tiger Woods last week down in Mexico. After seeing him in 2019, are you more or less confident he can win a major this year?
Hicks: I would say I have the same confidence. He showed everyone last year that he can win again. A major is a different story and obviously he was close at the PGA. It's a heck of a lot harder to win a major, at his age at 43 than it was when it was the early 2000s. It's just a totally different world and there's more players now that can challenge Tiger in majors that aren't afraid of him and that aren't afraid of winning these things.
And that’s not to diminish what Tiger did, but there are better players and there are deeper fields right now and I think that's all going to make it harder and harder for him to win. But I still wouldn’t be shocked if he won one.
RA #6: Who's a player you've seen over the start of this season that's kind of flying under the radar, but you think could do some big things this year?
Hicks: There are a few of those guys. A lot of people have Patrick Cantlay on their minds and I do too. I think he’s a tremendous player who is pretty intense out there. I think maybe he just needed to kind of get out of his own way to a degree. I think he's got a ton of potential.
Another guy who's more established since he's won more is Xander Schauffele. I think he's going to win a major championship this year. I think he's that good and that poised. I wouldn't be surprised to see him win The Players, or a major and have a huge year.
RA #7: You recently said goodbye to Johnny Miller in the NBC broadcast booth after the Waste Management. Now you sit alongside Paul Azinger. How has the transition in the 18th tower been for you?
Hicks: You know, it was scary. It was sad to lose Johnny. I mean we had such a long running thing going on. You can strap down in a chair and you knew what you're going to get. You knew you were going to get an interesting commentary and it was going to be a learning experience for the people at home. And for me who sits next to him, I was always intrigued by his mind and the way it works. But with that said, the transition to Paul Azinger has been a heck of a lot easier than I thought it would be. Zinger has stepped right in as a seasoned broadcaster. It’s not like we're training anybody for the television booth here. A lot of our crew has been doing this for 25 years so it was a good situation for him to come into.
I think it's been so much of an instantaneous bond and melding with a crew. The chemistry, not only between Paul and I, but also with Roger Maltbie on the course and Gary Koch in the tower and David Feherty, it really bodes well for the future.
RA #8: As far as the Honda Classic, what’s the biggest storyline you look forward to seeing play out this week at PGA National?
Hicks: Well, the golf course is one of the toughest on the PGA tour. Last year it was the second toughest on tour aside from Shinnecock. I'm looking outside and the wind is barely blowing right now, but it's going to blow one, two, or the next three days, it always will pick up. So I think that's always the storyline with this course and the intrigue of it, especially down the stretch in the Bear Trap and 15, 16, 17 and how the guys handle it.
Also, I just feel an even bigger sense of urgency for players to get their games ready. They don’t have the luxury of just tuning up through Florida. I think it's really going to be a good dynamic leading to The Players in a few weeks.
RA #9: You mentioned the Bear Trap. Have you played it?
Hicks: I have played it! Probably three times. I hit the green on 15, two out of the three times. And I remember the two times I did it, the wind was blowing like 25 miles an hour from off the water. And the one time I hit it in the water, it was as calm and as good a day as you imagine!
So that’s my Bear Trap story, but that was before the large statue of the Bear was erected near the 15th tee. That is intimidating!
Overall it’s a fun week, and having Jack Nicklaus come up in the booth has turned into a cool tradition. We get to talk about the golf course but also the work he and Barbara are doing for the hospital as well. It really is a great event.