It’s easy to forget that NBC on-course reporter Roger Maltbie—his voice just sounds like Sunday afternoon—could really play back in the day. He won twice in his rookie year of 1975, and even when he didn’t win, he made an impression, like the time he hoseled a tee shot into a TV tower at Pebble Beach. Or the time he outplayed David Graham while nursing a wicked hangover. “I was in no shape to play golf,” Maltbie recalls of that day. He’s not proud of his former reputation as “Michelob Maltbie,” but it’s in keeping with the fun-loving, man-of-the-people vibe he brings to TV. Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo can have their lofty perches above the 18th green. “Rog” is at home in the trenches. “I see myself as a conduit between the players and the viewers,” says Maltbie, who’ll cover more than 20 events in 2012. As he eases into his third decade as a talking (make that whispering) head, the amiable 60-year-old dishes on Phil, Tiger and the revival of mustaches on the PGA Tour. Private first-class Maltbie is reporting for duty.
First things first: Can you speak entirely in your hushed, on-course reporter voice?
[Laughs] That’s why they call me the course whisperer.
Before we talk TV, let’s touch on your playing days. In 1975, you left a $40,000 first-prize check in a bar. What’s the second most embarrassing moment of your career?
Holy gosh! Everything pales in comparison to that—I did get a new check, by the way. For second place on the embarrassment-meter, I was playing the Pebble pro-am one year, and on the 15th tee, I hit a drive off the neck. It went about 30 yards, then rattled around a TV tower before—plunk—dropping down. It sounded like a Pachinko game. I sent the cameraman running for his life. Everyone was laughing. So was I! Somehow, I made par.
You shared the 54-hole lead at the 1987 Masters, which Larry Mize went on to win.
You missed out on the playoff by a stroke.
Is that the one that got away?
I woke up Sunday feeling like a caged tiger. It’s the Masters. You’re gonna feel nerves. My wife saw that and said, “Why don’t you call your dad?” My parents didn’t travel to Augusta that year. [Pauses] I’ll try not to get too emotional because this always gets to me. My dad’s last words to me that morning were, “Remember, son—no matter what you shoot today, your mother and I couldn’t be more proud of you.” I said, “Thanks, Pop.” I put down the phone and cried for 10 minutes—just bawled my eyes out. Then I felt better. It was cleansing. I said, “Let’s go.” I shot 74. It’s true that the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine Sunday, because if I’d have shot par coming in, then I win. I had my chances, but it wasn’t nerves. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough.
Five years later, you joined NBC Sports. What’s your broadcast philosophy?
I got some good advice early on: “Be yourself.” That’s all I’ve tried to be. I just say what I see when I see it. The viewer doesn’t care how technically proficient you are. He cares about the perspective and credibility you bring to the broadcast. I see myself as a foot soldier. I’m on the ground, mobile, in the middle of the action serving as the conduit from the players to the viewers. I’m their eyes and ears for what they can’t see on the TV.
Gaffes come with the territory. What’s your biggest “oops” moment on air?
I forget the event, but in the 1990s on the 18th green, someone made a putt that went in, and I thought it was for the win. I say, “Here’s the putt to win…” And he made it. But it was for the tie. The producer’s in my ear screaming, “No! That wasn’t the winning putt!” I hear Dan Hicks in the tower say, “What the hell did you just do?” Just like in golf, when you make mistakes, you have to get over them quickly. Otherwise, your problems compound themselves.
So you’re a foot soldier, getting down and dirty with the players. Have you ever gotten too close for their comfort?
At the Presidents Cup in South Africa in 2003, Tiger Woods is playing Ernie Els in singles on the final day—the one that went into darkness. On the fourth or fifth hole, I’d gotten ahead and started speaking on air. Tiger’s over his ball. I’m talking. He backs off, looks at me, and says, “Hey, Rog—can you keep it down?” [Adopts his famously hushed vocal] Which is why I’ve developed this whisper—you’re supposed to cover the story, not be the story. [Resumes normal voice] To make matters worse, Tiger hit a bad shot, and I felt terrible.
Do you think Tiger will ever get back to No. 1?
Yeah, I can see it happening. Tiger was a dominant player. Not to denigrate Luke Donald, but you have a No. 1 player who hasn’t won a major and who isn’t dominant. Tiger was dominant. Jack was dominant. Watson was dominant. Can Tiger be dominant again? I think so. But maybe not the way he was.
What do you mean?
I explain it this way: A component of being the fastest gun in the West is that you know you’re the fastest gun, but so do the other gunslingers. Tiger may get back to playing great golf, but the intimidation factor is gone, which was huge for him. That makes a difference, especially in events when you win by one shot. So the intimidation is gone, but the talent is not. As far as I know, aliens did not shoot down tractor beams that sucked the talent out of Tiger’s body in November 2009. The talent is still there. He’s more talented than other players. He just is. Just better.
This is your 21st year with NBC. What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen a player do?
The way Phil Mickelson played the 72nd hole at Winged Foot at the 2006 U.S. Open, well, that was the most surreal thing. You almost couldn’t believe it was happening. Johnny and I are saying, “Why in the world is he hitting driver?” There was no reason for it. He hit it way left, then tried a ridiculous shot from the trees, made double [bogey] and lost. So, to watch Phil win at Pebble this year—hitting 4-iron, 4-iron, wedge on the last hole—he’s really matured. He’s still aggressive, but he’s gotten wiser with age. If he’d have had that earlier, he’d have won more than 40 times.
At Winged Foot, that must have been an awkward post-round interview; you’re the guy who gets stuck interviewing the runners-up.
The interview never happened, which was a bone of contention. Phil walks off the 18th green and goes through these glass doors into the scoring area—the pro shop—before I could talk to him. NBC’s producers are yelling, “Roger, you gotta get him!” But I’m not allowed in the scoring area. I’m in the doorway. I’m staring at Amy consoling him. Phil was in shock. The calls from the truck are becoming more frantic because we’re running out of [air] time. They think I can go in there and yank him out, but I can’t. Finally, Phil walks out and graciously says, “Yeah, I’ll talk to you.” But it was too late. The closing credits were rolling.
Do you regret not just barging in to grab Phil?
Rules are rules. I wasn’t allowed in the area. And he was with Amy. Those [interviews] are not the fun ones to do, okay? It’s one thing to interview the guy who just holed the last putt to win. It’s another thing to interview somebody who lost in a tragic way. You feel like a news reporter interviewing someone whose house just burned down.
Many of the top players today live in cocoons of sorts. Things were very different in the 1970s and ’80s, right?
I’m from another era, but, yes, it’s a shame that fans don’t get to know players like they should. There’s less interaction with the media and fans. The players finish an event, hop on their plane, and they’re gone. Private planes? S---, when I played, you needed 70 wins to get one of those.
Let’s talk about partying and drinking on Tour, in your day versus today...
Now why would you ask me that, of all people? Back when I played, you had Prohibition. [Laughs] It’s all toned down a huge amount today. We didn’t have physical trainers. We didn’t have coaches and sports psychologists with us. We saw the game different back then. Today’s players are athletes in constant training. We weren’t athletes.
You endorsed Michelob, right?
Yeah, for 20 years I carried a Michelob bag. I always said that I drank Michelob during the day and Scotch at night. And my favorite hole was the one on the top of the can. [Laughs] I’m not 25 anymore, but I still enjoy a beverage. It’s a mistake to think I was out carousing every night. But did I have a Scotch at night? Or two? Yeah. I wasn’t out till two in the morning. I wasn’t the last guy in the bar. I’m not saying I didn’t have nights like that, but they weren’t playing nights.
You sure about that? What do you remember—or not remember—about beating David Graham while hungover?
In 1975, my rookie year on Tour, we were playing the Greater Jacksonville Open. I had made the cut but was in last place. I was in the first group out that Sunday and was paired with David and Joe Porter III. David was a straitlaced, prim and proper man. And I was terribly overserved the evening before. I was in no shape to play golf. None. I chopped it up all over the course on a cold, breezy morning. I was sweating bullets. It’s nothing I’m proud of. Joe Porter is giggling with each shot, because I’m half-topping everything. But I made every putt I looked at and shot even par. As we walked into the scorer’s trailer—I shot 72, David shot 73—Porter is crowing, “That’s the greatest round of golf I’ve ever seen! Unbelievable!” David signs his scorecard and says, “That’s it—I quit! If any drunk can beat me, I quit!” He was not pleased. He didn’t quit, of course, and we’re friends today, but he meant it in the moment.
So drinking can help your game?
You mean is there such thing as “tempo in a can”? Yes, it can smooth out bad tempo. Mr. Busch put a lot of great things in there. There have been guys—I won’t name them because it’s not appropriate—who for years drank on the course [during Tour events]. More in my era than this era. Yeah, guys would get the whips and jingles with the putter, and they’d have a little nip here and there. You just don’t know how far to go with it.
What’s the greatest shot you’ve ever witnessed as a course reporter?
The most dramatic is Justin Leonard holing the birdie putt at 17 in Brookline in ’99 [to win the Ryder Cup]. I was 15 or 20 feet behind the hole, watched the putt come over the ridge, and the ensuing chaos was remarkable. Those Sunday roars sounded like Augusta in 1986 when Jack won.
Johnny Miller told us that his stinging criticisms of Leonard’s poor play—he said that Leonard should be benched—may have helped spur Team USA’s big comeback. Do you agree?
I wouldn’t say Johnny provided the rallying cry, but he did upset people. It upset Justin. After it was over, I had to interview Leonard behind the 18th green. I said, “Justin, can I get a word?” And he said, “Sure, I’ve got a few things to say to Johnny.” I said, “Listen, Justin, this could be the defining moment of your career. Do you really want to get into a contest with Johnny?” He said, “You’re right,” and he left it alone. A wise choice.
That was kind of you, but as a reporter, isn’t it your job to get that fire-breathing quote?
This was a big moment for Justin and the Americans, so I thought, Why engage in conflict with an announcer? Again, we in the media are not the story; we cover the story. We should be in the background. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how I feel.
Which of today’s players would make a good
[Long pause] Gosh, I don’t know. You think a guy will be great, then you put a mike in his hand and he’s terrible. I once recommended that a top teacher come on the air. I thought he’d be great because he’s glib and sharp and had done TV spots. And he was awful. Just awful. But I won’t name names.
If it was Hank Haney, just clear your throat.
[Laughs] Not saying. But he couldn’t get the words out. Broadcasting is about taking a snapshot of the situation and condensing it down to a few words. Let’s say a player’s ball is sitting down in the rough, and he has to get the club under the ball, over a bunker and stop it quickly on the green. Well, this teacher was nowhere close to coherent. He’d still be setting up the situation by the time the ball was on the green.
Last thing. Would you like to take credit for the reemergence of mustaches on Tour in 2012?
A lot of guys are rocking the ’stache! Hey, everything that goes around comes around. Mustaches, narrow ties, tight clothes, loose clothes…
Your clothes look a lot looser these days.
I’m down 35 pounds. In my job, you have to be mobile. If I stand sideways, there’s nothing left but mustache, lips and tennis shoes.