MAYBE YOU werewatching on TV, Saturday evening, when everything went haywire on the Southcourse at Torrey Pines. In the last act the One Who Controls All Ratings wentbomb, bogey, par, par, swish, bomb. The U.S. Open had turned into the Masters,the bleachers were shaking, the Nielsen ratings were spiking and in a danktrailer in the television compound on the gorgeous top of the Torrey Pinescliffs, Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports—a sophisticate, a businessman,a sports fan—was raising his arms and yelping.
This is an article from the June 23, 2008 issue
Luckily forEbersol, one of his employees was not hyperventilating, and that made all thedifference. Following Tiger Woods for NBC was Roger Maltbie, the former Tourplayer and veteran announcer who was juggling his NBC microphone, a tuna saladsandwich and a yardage book, all while calming down overserved fans chantingRa-ja, Ra-ja, Ra-ja. Maltbie, known in the NBC broadcast trailer as the CourseWhisperer, his voice deepened by many years of Marlboro Lights, responded toWoods's trio of magic tricks with barely perceptible head nods and murmuredwords, his white mustache brushing up against the orangey-red foam cover of hismike.
At the very momentthat Tiger, spent and sore, was coming out of the scorer's room, the other manof the hour, everyman Rocco Mediate, was playing the final hole. This scenariopresented the NBC producers with the kind of problem they live for. Their goal,especially on Saturday and Sunday of a major or a Ryder Cup or a PresidentsCup, is to show as much live TV as possible. Play won't stop for an interview,but an interview, at least in theory, can wait for play. Maltbie's job was tostall Woods. He put an arm around Tiger's shoulder—for starters, very fewpeople are allowed to make physical contact with His Golfing Highness—droppedhis mike to his hip and, with a mellowness induced by many good nights spentwith the better California reds, said, "Let me tell ya, I've seen you dosome s---, but that was something else."
Woods laughed outloud and said, "Yeah, it was pretty good, wasn't it?"
And then Maltbiegave Tiger the lay of the land, TV-style: He explained that they were waitingon Rocco on 18, and that afterward they would go live to Rog and Tiger and thathe would be asking Tiger about his eagles on 13 and 18 and his chip-in birdieon 17, and that he'd wrap things up with a question about his knee. Tiger gavea tired nod. He was in. He was with Rog, with whom he's done scores ofinterviews going back to his amateur days. Woods waited around for twominutes—an eternity—the red light went on and Maltbie went right into hisquestions, concluding with a two-parter about Woods's knee.
"Is it gettingworse day by day?" Tiger said, repeating Maltbie's Part II word for word."Yes, it is."
There was the hintof a pause, just long enough for Maltbie to realize that he wasn't going to geta single word more out of Tiger on the subject. He did that quickspin-to-the-camera move used by generations of Action News reporters on variouslocal 11 o'clock news programs and said, "Dan, back to you!" (Maltbieuses an exclamation mark about once a year.) Anchor Dan Hicks, in the NBC boothon 18, picked it up from there, and Maltbie and Woods both cracked up. In therumble of their laughter you could feel the pressure and tension of playing inthe U.S. Open, and working in live TV. For anybody watching the exchange upclose—Tiger's agent, Mark Steinberg, and Craig Smith, a USGA media official,among others—it was mesmerizing.
Later that eveningMaltbie and some other NBCers—Hicks, Jimmy Roberts, Bob Costas, networkcommunications executive Brian Walker—met up, in staggered shifts, at anold-school San Diego steak house, Donovan's, conveniently located by theirMarriott hotel. Maltbie still had on his NBC golf shirt and hisindustrial-strength khakis, while Roberts, an interviewer and essayist, was inhis workday coat and tie. The conversation went from Maltbie's son's highschool graduation on Friday to the broadcasting legacy left by Jim McKay toBarack Obama's VP pick to Tiger's ability to let his legend grow. Every fewminutes you'd hear two names commonly attached to eight-year-old pitchingprospects, Tommy this and Johnny that. They, of course, didn't need to add thesurnames: Tommy Roy, 49, the executive producer for golf at NBC, and JohnnyMiller, 61, the lead golf analyst.
A Saturday-nightsteak house dinner is a tradition for the NBC crew, often with Roy andsometimes with Dottie Pepper—the kid sister in what they all refer to, with awink, as the dysfunctional NBC golfing family. It's a tight group, without themacho posturing that was so common in the three-for-the-bar CBS era of PatSummerall, Ken Venturi and Frank Chirkinian, from the mid-1970s to the early'90s. When Roberts announced that he was coming out of a golf slump and thathis handicap was again south of 10, Maltbie, who won the first Memorialtournament in 1976, responded with a fist bump. Roy was staying late at thecompound, trying to come up with a game plan in case Woods, in the finale,"went Big Brown," he told people. Miller was ... nobody had any idea.He does his own thing.
NBC broadcastsabout two dozen golf events a year—women's and men's, amateur andprofessional—and there are many weeks when the NBC people don't know whereMiller, independently owned and operated, is staying. Nobody sweats it.Miller's always early, always prepared, and his savantlike gifts for callinggolf shots will not quit. To the TV-watching public, Miller is the voice ofgolf for NBC. (Woods is its face and Maltbie its soul.) But what viewers don'trealize is that what we see are the shots that Tommy Roy wants us to see. Howdid Tiger and Phil get along during their Thursday and Friday rounds together?Roy could decide to show you a shot of Woods giving Mickelson an all-businesshandshake or a shot of them walking down a fairway together all smiley or, asRoy did, both. He shapes our opinions, hugely. For the 30 live hours of Roy'stelecast last week (18 hours on Thursday and Friday, allocated between NBC andESPN; 12 more hours on NBC on Saturday and Sunday) you'd be hard-pressed toname a more influential person in all of golf. Because he's a golfer (the sonof a club pro, a 5 handicapper who lives near the PGA Tour headquarters inPonte Vedra Beach, Fla.), "his broadcast is from a golfer'sperspective," says Sandy Tatum, the USGA executive who orchestrated theorganization's rights switch from ABC to NBC in 1995.
But he's a golferwho thinks in TV pictures. It was Roy who persuaded Tour officials to make the14th at Royal Montreal, site of last year's Presidents Cup, a drivable par-4with a pond guarding the left side of the green. If that hole had been playedas a routine two-shotter, there's no Woody Austin Aquaman moment. There's aduller highlight tape, less for fans to talk about, lower ratings. The oldScottish shepherd's game—and Tommy Roy's family name comes from Rob Roy ofScotland—has turned into a complicated business.
Last week Roy hadat least 100 people working under him. That group included Hall of Fame golfers(Curtis Strange, Judy Rankin) and various TV pros (coproducer Tom Randolph,director Doug Graber) who are famous, at least within the confines of thebroadcast compound. For many of the crew members, all they saw of Torrey Pineslast week was the compound, a makeshift village of trailers, port-a-potties,golf-cart parking lots and mess halls. For reasons only a die-hard unionistcould understand, ESPN (or S-Po, as it's known in the broadcast trucks whereevery second counts) and NBC each had its own catering tent last week, eventhough the two networks were joined at the hip for much of the U.S. Open. Forthe Thursday and Friday telecasts, Strange and Rankin and Mike Tirico and RickReilly and Chris Berman and others from ESPN took their cues from Tommy Roy ofNBC.
The workweek beganin earnest with a Wednesday afternoon meeting for 60 people—Miller sittingright up front, reading glasses on—in a billowy white NBC hospitality tent.Mike Davis, the USGA executive in charge of the Open, talked about thedifferent tee positions that would be used. Miller took notes. A youngresearcher named Sam Goldberg went through a long list of entrants withunlikely backstories. (Who was a cancer survivor, who had a pacemaker, who hada twin brother getting dates off his brother's I'm-in-the-Open fame.) Millertook notes.
Roy concluded themeeting by asking the group's "rookie" to stand up and say a few wordsabout the importance of being at the national championship and working on itsbroadcast. It was part of the NBC tradition, he said. He introduced the TorreyPines rookie, Curtis Strange.
If you saw Strangein his playing prime, you know his slow-burn move: The color drains from hisface, the eyes narrow, the lips purse. Strange slowly started to stand up andsaid, "Are you serious?"
Roy, who hasworked for NBC his entire adult life, had Strange dead to rights."Nah," Roy said, "we don't have any tradition like that."People laughed. In TV, as in other tense environments, you do what you can to,as the old King Harvest song says, keep things loose, keep things tight.
The next dayStrange, who doesn't have a regular TV gig these days, was introduced, orreintroduced, to the Thursday afternoon ESPN audience. Roy played a clip thatshowed Strange winning the 1988 and '89 U.S. Opens, plus shots of his father,who played in 22 Opens, and his twin brother, Allan, and Curtis's wife, Sarah.On a monitor in Roy's broadcast truck—dark and cool, all teched-out and with anelectric atmosphere—you could see what the home viewer could not: Strangewatching his this-is-your-life clip. He was completely still and near the endof the clip said to no one in particular, "My God." He didn't know itwas coming, and he was moved. When the live camera turned to him, he talkedabout ... the importance of the national championship and being part of itsbroadcast.
The thing aboutCurtis is that he can't keep his needling, true-jock self down. A day later,during the passing of the baton, when ESPN took over the Open telecast fromNBC, Strange picked up Miller's headset in the broadcast booth at 18, held itgingerly and said, "Anybody got a can of Lysol for this thing?"
It's been that wayforever in TV, that some of the best stuff is said off-camera. Pepper, an SIcontributor (page G24), had one moment that sounded like the kind of coupletAdam Sandler would have a field day with:
In the hay.
Oy [long beat]vay.
The funniest ofthe NBC golf gang is Hicks. He played football, basketball and baseball at hisTucson high school, but with his slightly shaggy hair and the casual lean ofhis shoulders, there seems to be an inner Jeff Spicoli there. He'd kill onJeopardy! under POP CULTURE. During a rehearsal, when a monitor showed an NBCcamera hanging from a limb of one of the trees that gives the course its name,Hicks said, "Is it legal, to strap on a Torrey Pine?" But when theFriday broadcast returned to the U.S. Open after a live report from Tom Brokawannouncing the death of Tim Russert, Hicks extended condolences to Russert'sfamily from all those gathered "in coastal California." The shot overhis voice was of the cliffs and the ocean. A moment of TV poetry.
Jimmy Robertsarrived late to the Saturday night NBC dinner at Donovan's. He had beenhunkered down in a trailer at the television compound, working on an essay thatwould be broadcast shortly before Tiger's Sunday tee time. Tommy Roy wasstaying around, to oversee the editing of it, among other things. When theessay was broadcast on Sunday, shortly before 4 p.m., 30 Rock time, millions ofpeople could hear Roberts refer to Woods as "an injured thoroughbred."The third leg of the Triple Crown, the fourth round of a major golfchampionship, you never know what's going to happen in sports. On Saturdaynight, Roy was talking about Big Brown and Roberts was writing about an injuredthoroughbred. What's the modern corporate-speak word for that, synergy? Anyway,there's no I in TV, not when it's done well.
Fresh news andviews from SI and Golf Magazine staffers at GOLF.com/presstent.