The Dark Side of David Feherty
This story appeared in the March 2013 issue of Golf Magazine.
David Feherty, eyes closed, is banging his head on the elevator wall. But gently, so as not to further scramble his long-suffering gray matter. "You'd have to be a total idiot," he says into the wall, "to send me on the simplest errand without a guide dog and a nurse. I need a caretaker, and that's the truth."
The Irish lilt of his internationally recognized voice puts a comedic spin on the past 10 minutes, during which the CBS golf reporter and host of the eponymous Golf Channel interview show, clutching his electronic room key, has roamed the labyrinthine corridors of a Las Vegas hotel tower before remembering that the Aria Resort and Casino actually has two guest towers.
Straightening, a bemused Feherty shakes his head. His trim torso, in ruffled dress shirt and unbuttoned vest, looks ready for a black-tie affair, but his nether anatomy wears jeans and pointy suede boots. His black hair is combed back in the brilliantined style of a fifties cowboy crooner, but pointy sideburns and a Van Dyke beard suggest Lucifer in a production of Damn Yankees.
"Last week," he says in the plummeting elevator, "I couldn't find my room at the Bellagio," another Vegas casino. "I nearly slept in the hallway."
Feherty is embellishing a story he told over a tapas lunch, in which he recalled performing for an industry group at the Bellagio a few days earlier. "There were two thousand of them," he said, "but I had no idea who I was talking to. It was restaurant managers, but it could have been the local child-molesting club!"
The jokey coda was vintage Feherty. So was the way he rolled his eyes after announcing that his in-laws would be spending Thanksgiving at his home in Dallas.("They're from Mississippi. They think Deliverance is a love story.")
But you can't separate Feherty's antics from his anxieties. He noticed a few years ago that he was starting to forget things. "And not where my car keys were," he said at lunch. "I was starting to forget words. At a speaking engagement for the Navy I had to ask the audience to help me. 'What do you call that thing that goes across the land that has water in it?' And people would shout, 'A tanker!' No, that's not it. Somebody shouts something else. 'A stream!' "No! I meant a river."
He smacked his forehead with the heel of his right hand. "I've had my head run over a couple of times, taken a few falls, been knocked senseless."
So yeah, Feherty has reason to worry about the possibility that he's losing his ability to express or comprehend speech, a condition known as aphasia. At 54, he already depends on his wife of 17 years to manage his affairs and make sure he doesn't get on a plane to Fargo when he's supposed to speak in Seattle. "I rely on Anita beyond anything you can imagine," he'd said in the restaurant, staring wistfully at the attractive brunette by his side. "I don't know where we bank. I don't know how much I get paid. I couldn't tell you my net worth."
It got so bad last summer that he asked Anita to make an appointment for him to get an MRI brain scan.
"My problem," he starts to say--but he's interrupted by the elevator doors opening. He steps out and looks right and left before joining a parade of guests headed for the casino floor. His eyes search for a sign pointing to the Skyview Suites Tower.
"Remind me again," Feherty says to a reporter. "What is this for?"
The doctors x-rayed my head, Dizzie Dean used to say, and found nothing.
Feherty went to a neurologist for tests a few years ago, already worried that his mental deterioration mirrored that of his Alzheimer's-stricken father in Northern Ireland. But far from confirming dementia, a battery of cognitive tests showed the younger Feherty to be in the top percentile, noodlewise.
That surprised no one who had worked with Feherty, from his CBS colleagues to the editors of his five books. The word most used to describe him -- after lunatic -- is genius. "David is one of the most quick-minded people I've ever met," says Golf Channel analyst Kelly Tilghman, "and he has an amazing ability to paint pictures with words." Keith Allo, the executive producer of Feherty, says, "There's a definite genius to the way he looks at the world."
"David's brilliant," confirms Anita Feherty. "I'd say he's becoming a genius. He's constantly reading and discovering."
When asked what he reads, Feherty first mentions what he is re-reading -- the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the essays and dramas of Oscar Wilde, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front -- before copping to an obsession with the collected letters of Thomas Jefferson. ("The language is so beautiful. Jefferson's so succinct and so insightful.") When he gets rolling, Feherty can lose his golf-industry pals on the cultural backroads. His Charles Peirce is the 19th-century philosopher known as "the father of pragmatism," not the Charles Pierce who wrote a GQ profile nailing Tiger Woods as a 21-year-old pussy hound. (Although, to be fair, Feherty could have written the raunchy jokes that Woods told Pierce's limo driver.)
But while his brain performs like a Lamborghini on the test course, you have to wonder who's steering it on the streets. Feherty is absent-minded. (He leaves refrigerator and garage doors open all night, he misses writing deadlines, he's sometimes late to production meetings, and he burns through roughly three pairs of reading glasses per week.)
He's accident prone. (Already battered from a couple of high-profile road-bike accidents, he fell off a cliff and broke his right leg last year while hunting hogs, alone, in rural Texas at 3 a.m.) He's given to ranting. ("I've read The Art of War several times, and I still haven't found the chapter where you tell the enemy when you're leaving." ... "Nobody ever listens to the second verse of Danny Boy." ... "The present is important, the past is totally irrelevant." ... "I threw away my Irish passport. I don't want to be an Irish-American." . . . "John Cleese is a genius!")
Feherty's brain, moreover, has no brake pedal.
"I spent nine straight days with him in a war zone," says Tilghman, recounting one of Feherty's trips to Iraq and Afghanistan for his Troops First Foundation, "riding buses, sharing lodging. And I never saw David sleep for more than an hour. His body takes occasional naps, but his mind never sleeps."
There's no mystery to Feherty's behavior. Six years ago, in a widely read Golf Magazine profile, the retired tour pro admitted to years of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse -- a dance with clinical depression that had him drinking more than two bottles of Irish whiskey per day. The underlying diagnosis is Bipolar I disorder, a form of manic-depressive illness. Hypomanic symptoms consistent with Bipolar I include "inflated self-esteem, flight of ideas, distractibility, and decreased need for sleep" -- which pretty much describes Feherty's forgetfulness, his rants, and his four-in-the-morning trips to the garage to cut rifle-barrel threads on a lathe.
"Everybody's brain chemistry is different," says Feherty, freely conceding that his resembles the formula for Sara Lee lemon-meringue pie. Along with a daily regimen of antidepressants and mood-stabilizers he takes "an enormous dose" of amphetamines. ("They make other people hyper, but they make me relaxed.") He wears his pharmaceutical leash grudgingly, but it's way better than the despondency that engulfs him if he doesn't take his meds.
"And occasionally I don't," he admits. "I have the brilliant idea that I'm all right now, that I'm no longer depressed."
Asked to describe his depressive episodes, he stares at his hands. "I feel a hollowness inside that I wouldn't wish on anybody."
There's no punch line. No kicker. That's unusual for Feherty, who has been making people laugh since he assumed the "class jester" role at his school in Bangor, N.I., a Belfast exurb. Bangor is where he began, as he puts it, "playing the part of me."
Here, for instance, is how Feherty, playing "Feherty," talks about his alcoholism:
I would go for my annual physical once every three years [arched eyebrows] and my numbers were all right, until the last one. My doctor was looking at the chart, and he said, "How much are you drinking?" And I thought, Oh god [slumped shoulders], here we go. I said, "Well, you know, one and a half, two and a half bottles a day." He said, "Of wine?" And I said, "No, Irish whiskey." The doctor said, "My god [mouth agape], these numbers should be in Cooperstown! They're Mickey Mantle's! Have you ever thought about getting help?" And I said, "No! [bewildered look] I can drink it all by myself!"
You can't help but laugh. But if you're Feherty, you're wondering what kind of damage the whiskey and pills did to your ruminative organ. And you're asking Anita why, in a country where Debbie Does Dallas can be overnighted with a single click of the mouse, there's a two-month wait to get a brain scan.
"Spare time," Feherty likes to say, "is the addict's worst enemy." He adds, "That's why I'm riding my bike or using a physicist's scale and measuring to ten thousandths of a gram to make the most expensive ammunition in the history of shooting." He explains that while factory ammunition is good -- "that's what our snipers use in the theater" -- he can make it "so much better."
The battle against down time is complicated by Feherty's insomnia. "I don't sleep for days at a time," he says. "I take a two-milligram Klonopin and a 10-milligram Ambien, which would put a racehorse to sleep. I'll get maybe three hours."
This goes a long way toward explaining how Feherty can juggle multiple careers and pursuits. He covers roughly 20 tournaments a year for CBS and Golf Channel. He writes and hosts up to 22 episodes per season of Feherty, each episode requiring travel and a day or two of shooting. He accepts three or four speaking engagements per month at $40,000 to $50,000 a pop. He visits hospitals, hosts golf outings for wounded warriors, and leads Bob Hope-style, entertain-the-troops tours of the Middle East.
"David is the hardest-working man I know," says Bill Walters, the sports-betting tycoon and philanthropist, while watching Feherty mingle with guests at a black-tie dinner for Opportunity Village of Las Vegas. "Fifty or sixty nights a year he's doing this type of event, and he doesn't charge a penny."
Neither does he phone it in. Here's Feherty playing "Feherty" for anyone approaching him for a handshake or an autograph. For a local gossip columnist he puts down his Diet Coke and poses for a photo. For a married couple lavishing him with praise he arches his eyebrows and gushes, "I love people with low standards. It's my demographic!"
He's equally voluble over dinner, telling his table, "I just bought a raffle ticket for a '61 Mercedes convertible. It's been sawed in half and filled with marijuana twice." Meanwhile, his steak and salmon cool on the plate. "I never eat at speaking engagements," he explained earlier. "You can't talk with your mouth full, so I just wave my fork with food on it."
The point being that the man and the role seem to be one and the same. In this he's unlike Hall of Famer Lee Trevino, who cracks people up at the course but is forbidding when off the clock. "Tiger Woods gets the same Feherty as Joe Smith," says Tilghman, testifying to Feherty's genuineness.
Taking the stage at the Vegas fundraiser, he's everyday Feherty -- only more practiced. He opens with a very blue joke involving Elton John that elicits gasps and a rising tide of laughter that takes a good 10 seconds to die down. Having staggered the audience with that one comedic uppercut, Feherty rambles on and kills, sending up his CBS colleague Gary McCord, his own past as a boozer, his awe of veterans...adroitly leading his audience to a heartfelt appeal for Opportunity Village and the 3,000 intellectually disabled people it serves. When Feherty exits the stage to prolonged applause, comedian and emcee Brad Garrett says, "I never thought I would be shown up by a golf announcer. You are funny, David, really funny."
Later, watching her man work the fringes of the lively after-party, Anita Feherty says, "This is his life. This is what David does." She smiles. "This fills his soul."
She leaves unsaid the obvious inference: that David's soul needs filling.
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."
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.