Life On The Run The author tries the path to the top of golf television that starts at rock bottom

May 04, 1998
May 04, 1998

Table of Contents
May 4, 1998

Special Report [bonus Piece]

Life On The Run The author tries the path to the top of golf television that starts at rock bottom

My first task is to write the names of ABC's announcers--Judy
Rankin, Bob Rosburg, Mike Tirico, etc.--on manila folders. (Hey,
even Roone Arledge had to start somewhere.) My penmanship isn't
bad, but it's not long before my Sharpie produces a folder that
reads CURTIS STRANGe. This will not do. It won't ruin me, but it
won't Roone me, either. Maybe nobody will notice.

This is an article from the May 4, 1998 issue Original Layout

During December's JCPenney Classic in Tarpon Springs, Fla., this
is my life. I am a network golf runner, a gofer, a lackey, one
of a rare, stubborn breed of hangers-on who invariably lose
money on the Tour. Golf seduces in many ways. Without uncommon
ability or connections, running for the networks is the best way
to get close to the game's magical players and pristine courses.
Runners copy and cater in return for $50 to $75 a day (no per
diem). They pay their own way to tournaments, sometimes sleeping
in their cars. The job, as ABC highlight producer Sal Johnson
puts it, is "like caddying for a player who never does well."

Jeff Shapter, one of my fellow runners at the JCPenney, is
married to the game. I know this partly because he says so and
partly because this is his 36th tournament of the year. Shapter,
42, has no shot at the Nobel Prize in economics. At the 1990
British Open at St. Andrews, he made $200 but spent $1,000. At
the '97 Tour Championship in Houston, he ran out of money and
needed a loan to get out of town. By the time he reached Tarpon
Springs for the JCPenney, Shapter was dining on Quaker Corn
Bran. In between bites he told me he could name every U.S. Open
winner and venue since 1960. "So who won the last Open at
Medinah?" I asked.

"Hale Irwin beat Mike Donald in an 18-hole playoff," Shapter
said. "You know Donald was a pro who was going along in relative
obscurity until...."

If you can deliver a dissertation on Donald, as Shapter can, you
might be a good runner. Almost as important, though, is a good
nickname. I've been in the compound half a day when I'm given a
fine one--Camera One--by John (Shags) Shirley, a fellow runner
and my roommate for the week. We're at a Holiday Inn, and our
room features its own coffee in individual filter pouches. The
network gets two rooms for runners but doesn't pay for movies or
long-distance phone calls. Shapter is nicknamed Shapter One and
sometimes Shappy. He's rooming with Brian (B-Russ) Russell. The
best nickname belongs to Steve Lee, who is in charge of hiring
spotters to stand on the course with a headset and supply scores
and club selections. Lee horrified his co-workers at the '96
Mercedes Championships when he called Greg Norman Sharky one
night after a few beers at Tuscany's, a posh restaurant near La
Costa. Lee has been known as Sharky ever since.

I know my nickname is going to stick because of who gave it to
me. At 67, Shirley is running royalty. He has met George Bush
(twice) and Dan Quayle, James Garner and Chuck Yaeger. Once, at
a 1993 Monday Night Football game at RFK Stadium in Washington,
D.C., Shirley introduced Dean Cain, who at halftime was going to
promote his new show Lois and Clark, to Redskins center Matt
Elliott, who was injured and working for ABC as a runner.
Elliott looked at Cain, whose face was caked with makeup, and
said in all earnestness, "Oh, you must be Lois."

A story follows Shirley wherever he goes. At the JCPenney the
hottest story is about the most recent Kapalua International.
ABC had asked comedian Bill Murray, who was playing in the
tournament, for an interview, and Shirley had given Murray a
towel and a cold drink and otherwise helped the yukster in and
out of the booth without hassle. That night, during one of the
many parties that characterize the low-pressure Kapalua, ABC
producer Jack Graham approached Murray to thank him for the
interview. "Who was that shorter, gray-haired gentleman in the
booth?" Murray asked.

"That was John Shirley," Graham said. "We call him Shags."
"That man," Murray declared, "is the nicest person I've ever met
in television. In fact, he should be running ABC Sports."

From running for ABC to running ABC--amazing the power of a
preposition. Will I be so lucky? It seems unlikely, especially
when my second assignment is to go to a grocery store with
Shirley to pick up drinks and Pringles for a production meeting.
Perhaps someday Shirley and I will hold more of the chips in
broadcasting. Such ascensions are not unheard of.

CBS announcer Jim Nantz started as a runner at the 1979 Houston
Open. He had skipped Friday classes at Houston, where he played
on the team with Fred Couples and Blaine McCallister, thinking
he would stroll the Woodlands Country Club fairways as a
spectator. On a whim he wandered over to NBC's compound and
asked a security guard, "Would you please go get Don Ohlmeyer
for me?" Ohlmeyer, then the executive producer of NBC Sports,
met Nantz, then 19, and rewarded the kid's temerity with a job
driving players like Dow Finsterwald and Bob Goalby from the
parking lot and other spots to the 18th tower.

"I thought, My gosh, this has got to be one of the top 10 jobs
in network television," Nantz says. "I drove enough
accident-free that Ohlmeyer offered me the chance to go to
Dallas and work as a runner at the Byron Nelson. Of course I
took it immediately, and when they told me they were going to
pay me $20 a day, I thought, This is unbelievable. This is what
they mean when they talk about the big network dollars."

Graham also started as a runner, at the L.A. Open in 1977, the
year he bought a $375 lime-green Chevy Vega hatchback. "It was
beautiful," Graham says. "I slept in the back of it once in
Flagstaff, Arizona. I was driving from L.A. to Tulsa and
couldn't afford a hotel room. God, I was getting paid $25 a day
at that point." In 1978, while a senior at Southern Cal, Graham
did 60 shows in 52 weeks. "My very last final exam was on a
Tuesday afternoon after doing a Monday-night baseball game at
Yankee Stadium," Graham says. "My parents still aren't sure how
the hell I graduated."

Arledge, who was president of ABC Sports from 1968 to '86, was
never a runner, but he did get his start doing menial tasks for
the Dumont network in 1952. Couples once worked as a runner at
the NCAA basketball tournament. Matt Lauer, co-anchor of the
Today show, was an NBC golf runner. Their stories are great
motivators. Runners who want to climb higher can always look

"I want to be an announcer for my sport," says Russell. "I would
be good at it." Russell, 39, is not a golfer. He really is a
runner. In 1981 he set the UCLA record of 3:42.10 in the 1,500
meters, a mark that stood for two years. Since then Russell has
worked part time at his parents' office-supply business and as a
paralegal while flying hither and thither on the European track
and field circuit and the golf tours and anyplace else that
offers proximity to TV's power brokers. Russell still lives with
his parents, a common condition among runners, in Santa Monica.

The others of my five running brethren are Joe Worth, a
22-year-old senior at Florida State, and Garrett Hartough, 27.
Both are fairly new to running, as evidenced by their lack of
nicknames, and both see it as their last shot at a job in
television. "If this doesn't work out," Worth says, "I'll coach
football with my brother-in-law." It isn't easy to break into
television. When Hartough graduated from South Florida, the best
thing he could find with his broadcast degree was a job at a
local religious station, midnight to 5 a.m., for $5.50 an hour.
Instead, he started running.

"There are so few jobs in television it's ridiculous," says CBS
senior associate producer Chuck Will, who has started more
broadcast careers than the invention of cable has. Will, who
worked his 30th Masters this spring, hired Shirley at the 1972
Florida Citrus Open. When Shapter's car broke down at last
year's Buick Open, Will floated him a loan for new tires and a
brake job. Will can be a runner's best friend, and a tough
teacher. "You can go through communications college, or you can
come to me," he says. "Hang with me for a summer, you learn more
than in four years of college."

On Saturday I learn. My biggest assignment, one that could
actually affect the broadcast, sounds easy: Go to the tee on 15,
a par-3, get the players' club selections and radio them back to
Sharky Lee. I play golf. I know golf. So it surprises me how
difficult this is. My headset is attached to a cord in the
ground. I haven't been tethered like this since the womb. The
problem is that the JCPenney features men and women pros teeing
off 40 yards apart. I have enough line to get to the men's tees
but not to the women's. The caddies try to help out, but their
hand signals are much tougher to decipher than I thought, and
I'm at a loss when Lee tests me: "What'd [David] Ogrin hit
there, Cam, any idea?"

Oh, do I feel stupid. "Um, no, I'm not sure yet," I say.
"O.K., the thought process is to kind of stick your head in the
bag and get the club before they hit."

When I start to get the hand signals down, my nerves settle.
Ogrin and Wendy Ward aren't marquee names here, anyway, and we
aren't taping yet. I tell myself I'll be ready two groups later,
when John Daly and Laura Davies come through. Trouble is, I'm
not. Between Daly, Davies and 6'2" Vijay Singh (also in the
group is Singh's partner, Marie-Laure de Lorenzi), there's too
much mass on the tee. I can't see through it all. I panic. I
look for help from Daly's caddie--one finger down for a
six-iron, two down for a seven-iron--but either he's not
offering or I'm blind. Looking like a mime school dropout, I
frantically gesture. No luck. Daly hits, Singh hits, and I start
to think I'm not network material. There's a bright side,
though. Lee hasn't asked me what anybody's hitting in this
group. I start to think my radio is dead. "Steve, you still with
me?" I ask.

"Yeah, Cam," he replies. "We haven't started taping yet."

You take your lumps out here, in more ways than one. At popular
events, back when the networks dominated sports, ABC put as many
as 14 runners in one hotel room. "You had people getting up
early to take showers because that shower was pretty raunchy by
the eighth or ninth person," says Johnson, who was a runner in
the Arledge era. Arledge had a suite at every site, even at
tournaments he couldn't attend. Savvy runners knew this was
where they could sneak a decent shower.

The big names and the truly anonymous are never separated by
much. They're too interdependent, and everyone seems to like one
another anyway. Rankin and her husband, Yippy (he grew up on a
ranch), are famously nice, and during the JCPenney, Rankin makes
chicken-fried steak for the entire crew. Rosburg, too, is
friendly. At lunch, when ABC director Jim Jennett asks the
winner of the 1959 PGA Championship, "What do you think of the
soup?" I expect Rosburg to shout, "This soup's got no shot!"
Instead, he says it's tasty. I decide to ask Rosburg about his
signature line. "That was 10, 15 years ago. I said that a few
times and got kind of known for it," he says. "I was right
probably 70 percent of the time, but a few times I wasn't."

I learn a few things about the ABC talent that I didn't know.
Rosburg will sometimes send his runner for a cold treat. "Every
once in a while you'll see him on the course eating an ice cream
cone," Rankin says with a wink. Strange is more easygoing than I
expect, joking and laughing with production assistant Amy Faas
about her swing. Roger Twibell likes his cigars and shows he's a
pretty good golfer when we play four holes after Sunday's final
round. Steve Melnyk had fraternity brother Steve Spurrier in his
wedding party and will watch the Florida Gators even while he
announces golf. Tirico doesn't surprise me. I have heard he's
the consummate pro, studying John Feinstein's A Good Walk
Spoiled when he got his golf job. He's true to form here,
arriving at the compound with a sports viewership survey and
college basketball media guides--always ahead of the game.

I'm still stationed on the 15th tee on Saturday when I make my
greatest mistake as a runner. It's the last foursome, the teams
of Dan Forsman and Catriona Matthew, and Mike Brisky and Barb
Mucha. I've got the signals down, so when Lee asks me what
Forsman's hitting, I say "Six!" loud and clear. Too loud and
clear. I've lost track of the volume of my own voice, and
Brisky, his caddie and Forsman's caddie look at me and begin to
crack up. I'm grinning, too, partly out of embarrassment but
also out of relief because Forsman has not backed off and glared
my way.

Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody is good at something. By
the end of the broadcast I'm still not sure what my specialty
would be in this business. Shapter can tell you, from 100 yards,
the difference between Steve Jones and Dawn Coe-Jones. Big deal?
It is when the Jones in question is hidden from view in a
thicket of bougainvillea. It's then that Shapter looks at the
bag for sponsorship clues. He looks at the caddie. Once he knows
who the player is, he tells the audio operator seated next to
him. That, in essence, is the job description for runners: Do
whatever it takes to bring off the show with as few glitches as
possible. One runner at CBS made himself an instant legend by
heating croissants on the hood of an idling car.

Any task, no matter how menial, any expertise, no matter how
obscure, can forge your legacy here. Shirley is renowned for his
catering. He knows how to get a hotel room ready for a
production meeting, how much beer and pop to buy, where to find
the rubber trash receptacles in which to put the ice. He's ABC's
ace of access, unrelentingly positive and always there in a
pinch. During the week, I watch Shirley sweet-talk a maid right
into her linen closet, where he harvests extra towels and trash
bags. "Shags is just a phenomenal guy," Rosburg says. "If I want
somebody to pick me up at 3 a.m. in south Tampa, Shags will be
there. Absolutely."

I will miss these people. They are in some ways more interesting
and endearing than the ones you see on TV. They are hard workers
and big dreamers. The runners with talent will begin to move up,
usually to production assistant (still not much money, but at
least the network pays travel expenses) after one or two years.
It's been a long time since Shirley caddied for Doug Sanders in
the 1971 Sahara Invitational in Las Vegas in October, worked as
a substitute teacher for five months and then drove
cross-country to the Citrus Open, thinking he would caddie full
time. When he couldn't get a bag, he mentioned to some guys
laying TV cable that he needed a job. "You don't want to talk to
us," they said. "You want to talk to Chuck Will."

Shirley, who retired from his job as a special-education teacher
in 1993, has been a runner off and on since then. He operates a
small business leasing walkie-talkie radios to the networks, who
use them at golf tournaments and other events like the Indy 500
and the Kentucky Derby, where Shirley is a fixture. "You know
that song My Old Kentucky Home?" says Shirley. "I cue the band
[that plays it on the broadcasts]. I've been in winner's
circles. I've been in places millionaires can't go, and they own
the horses." The more Shirley talks, the more you're reminded of
Forest Gump, the bystander to history. Shirley is everywhere.
His greatest ambition, after he finishes building a house for
himself and his wife in Pittsburgh, is to operate the most
remote checkpoint in the Iditarod sled dog race. At 5'4" and 123
pounds, Shirley looks as if he would be lost in a decent-sized
snowdrift. Says Graham, "He's amazing. I hope I'm as energetic
as he is and want to hang out with young people when I'm his age."

Shapter is equally amazing. He was born with cerebral palsy, and
a doctor told his father he would never graduate from high
school. Shapter had surgery at 12, started playing golf at 13 at
Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, graduated from high school
and got a degree in history from Texas Wesleyan. "I'm not really
prevented from doing anything," Shapter says, "except being fast
on the computer." That depends on how you look at it, for
Shapter has a computer in his head. He tells me he shot his best
score, 42-38-80, and his best nine, 36, two weeks apart in July
1981 at the Z-Boaz course in Texas, the one made famous by Dan
Jenkins. He tells me that the 1990 British Open cost him $772 in
airfare. He has driven 25,000 miles this year in his '96 Olds
Achieva, twice going 11 straight weeks without seeing home.

I wonder where Shapter will end up. With 1999 will come the PGA
Tour's new television deal, and talk in the compound is about
what that might do to the business. Odds are that runners like
Shirley and Shapter, legends at what they do, will always be in
demand. "If you don't have Shapter here, the whole audio thing
just falls apart," Johnson says. "Same with Shags. They're

And if some day they aren't? "I'll just move back to Texas,"
Shapter says, "get a full-time job and watch golf."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY RANDY DAHLK TEAM EFFORT The runners had many tasks but one common goal: Do whatever it takes to bring off the show with a minimum of glitches. [Drawing of runners, golfers and caddies on golf course]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY RANDY DAHLK STALL TACTICS With up to 14 runners packed into a room, only early risers beat the crush at the shower. [Drawing of line of men wearing towels]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY RANDY DAHLK FOOD FOR THOUGHT One runner made his reputation by heating croissants on the hood of an idling car. [Drawing of man heating croissants on car hood]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY RANDY DAHLK COLD COMFORT Shags may be too short to work the Iditarod, if you get our drift, but that's his dream job. [Drawing of John Shirley in snow beside Iditarod sign]
"I thought, My gosh, this has got to be one of the top 10 jobs
in television," Nantz says.
"Hang with me for a summer, you learn more than in four years of
college," says Will.
"If I want someone to pick me up at 3 a.m. in south Tampa, Shags
will be there," Rosburg says.