The Dark Side of David Feherty

David Feherty, Anita Feherty
Angus Murray
Feherty with his wife Anita, whom he relies on "beyond anything you can imagine."

No matter. He'll say it himself: "The problem with having a mental illness or an addiction -- or both -- is that the longer you appear to be well, the less of a problem people perceive you to have. But you're never recovered. You're just not drunk."

This was in the Fehertys' suite at the Aria, a couple of hours before the benefit. Tired from his game of hide-and-seek with the room, David had pulled off his boots and settled on a chaise longue. His Mac-Book Pro sat open on a table, its screen frozen on a shaky drone's-view shot of a Hellfire missile taking out a terrorist hideout. ("I watch it every now and then, just because it cheers me up.")

The bigger problem, he continues, is that an addict with the requisite charm and garrulousness can fool people until it's too late. "Until I hit bottom, I was functional. I played the tournament, I wrote the column, I held the microphone, and people didn't notice. I'm thinking what the f--- is wrong with you? I'm shaking like a friggin' Italian greyhound! Two and a half bottles of whiskey a day and between 20 and 40 Vicodin -- that kills people! -- and nobody noticed."

And now?

Anita answers this one. Waiting in an idling limousine while David shakes a few last hands after the show, she says, "He's in a happy place now, but it's still a battle. David's head is full of cobwebs, he hears voices. When he's stumbling around at 3 a.m., he's dealing with those voices. But at least now he recognizes what's happening, and he can deal with it."

Staying on his meds is critical, she emphasizes, but equally important are his pursuits. Riding bikes, interviewing celebrities, teasing their 14-year-old daughter, building custom hunting rifles for wounded vets, leaping from an airplane, watching raw video for an ordnance-heavy Feherty spinoff called Sniper Golf, raging against religion -- it's all therapy, Feherty style.

The problem -- there's that word again -- is that Feherty, like this article, is mostly present tense. He can't plan, he won't remember. Having turned off his voice mail, he communicates by the most distilled medium available -- text. He relies on his agent, his producers and Anita -- mostly Anita -- to coach him through his day.

Staring at the diffuse glare of headlights flowing across the tinted windows, Anita considers her husband's plight. "One of his book titles," she says, "was Somewhere in Ireland a Village Is Missing an Idiot. Well, it takes a village behind David to keep him going."

Anticipating the next question, she says, "Yes, it's challenging. But it's my job."

And finally, with a self-mocking shrug: "I'm a type A."

----

Television stardom? That caught Feherty by surprise.

"English and music, those were the only two things I excelled at in school. My mom kept all my report cards, and they're all basically 'David is not a particularly clever boy, but he can take a punch.'" Memo to self: When's that MRI? "School was just too hard and frustrating. I hated it."

So Feherty dropped out his junior year of high school to become a golf pro. "I was a 5 handicap," he says. "I had no business turning pro. But I loved it, and I had this imagination." Imagining himself to be the next Trevino, Feherty labored for low wages at local clubs, including Holywood Golf Club, soon to become Rory McIlroy's launch pad. Inexplicably, given his growing reliance on performance-detracting drugs, Feherty went on to win 10 European Tour and world events, finish T4 at the 1994 British Open, and overcome debilitating nervousness to beat Payne Stewart on the final day of the 1991 "War by the Shore" Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island.

A funny man through it all, Feherty was nonetheless baffled when CBS approached him at the 1996 World Series of Golf. "I thought it was 60 Minutes," he jokes. "I thought they'd discovered my alcoholism."

Nope. CBS had merely discovered the freshest voice in course reporting since Bob Rosburg introduced "He's got no shot" to the lexicon. Fifteen years later, Golf Channel extended the Feherty brand with Feherty, an interview/travel program hosted by a newly minted American who comes off as a cross between Professor Irwin Corey and Barbara Walters.

Feherty initially wanted the show to revolve around his comedic dysfunction -- a Curb Your Enthusiasm for the Callaway crowd. Golf Channel produced two pilots -- one of them Larry David-ish -- and chose the current format, which places the traditional celebrity interview in the context of droll Feherty stand-ups and madcap stunts.

"We look at his lunacy as a strength," says Allo, the show's producer, "but we think the interviews are more in his wheelhouse. He's so damaged, so vulnerable, that people are willing to open up to him." (Feherty's response: "Brutal honesty is disarming. People don't expect it.")

The stunts remind old-timers of the physical gags the great Steve Allen performed on his late-night show. A screaming Feherty ziplines over traffic, takes a Sergio Garcia tennis serve in the nuts, or dives into a Stanford University fountain. The physicality of the stunts worries his field producers, who know that a severely compromised left shoulder prevents Feherty from swinging a club without pain. Concern turned to alarm last season when he lay on the grass with a teed-up ball in his mouth so John Daly could blast a drive.

Told of their concern for his safety, Feherty feigns astonishment. "Hell, they pushed me out of a frickin' airplane!"

Whoever authorized that, he implies with a smirk, ought to have his head examined.

Feherty's a mess, and yet somehow he keeps succeeding. Count his ribbons: Golfer, novelist, television star, standup comic, motivational speaker, foundation head, gunsmith and, lest you forget, the author of a popular column in this magazine from 1996 to 2011.

The woman closest to him accounts for it in a word: "Genius."

Feherty needs more than a word to make sense of it. It's his wife, first of all -- "If I wasn't with Anita, I wouldn't be here today" -- and his daughter, too, whose unconditional love has shamed him. His eyes water at the mention of Tom Watson, also a recovering alcoholic, whose intervention six years ago saved Feherty's marriage, if not his life. (See Feherty, season 1, episode 3, but keep a box of tissues handy.) As for the "secret" of his success, the ex-Irishman invokes the good ol' U.S. of A.

"It's one of the things I love about this country," he says. "If you're willing to do the things that unsuccessful people won't do, you'll be successful. You just have to put yourself in a place where you know you'll be uncomfortable. And that's true whether you're an actor, an athlete, a musician, a businessman or a writer."

In other words, you have to jump from the frickin' plane.

He's standing now by the glass wall of his Vegas suite, and you can't tell if he's staring at the gathering dusk outside or at his demonic reflection in the glass. "Some-where," he says, "I found the strength to come back from the edge. And hard as it is to believe, I'm glad that I went through it. I wouldn't have the peace of mind that I have now, or the wisdom that comes with it, if I hadn't been so f---ed up."

Feherty's only nagging worry seems to be the everyday words that suddenly dart out of his reach, along with those embarrassing moments when, having charmed an interview subject with a witty prologue, he's forced to admit that he can't remember his question. It's those flirtations with aphasia, he explains again, that motivated him to make the appointment for his brain scan, which...

Feherty freezes, then slumps. He's got that look of hangdog frustration, the look that preceded the banging of his forehead in the elevator. Apparently, it's confession time: The MRI was on his calendar for two months, but he forgot to go.

"What does that say? You make an appointment for a brain scan, and then you forget it?" He grins triumphantly. "I rest my case!"

Of course, being Feherty, he won't.

This story appeared in the March issue of Golf Magazine, on newsstands now; it is also available free for subscribers on tablets at golf.com/allaccess.

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