The Unfunny Life of David Feherty
There were always signs that David Feherty's charmed life could implode, but when you're the life of the party no one-especially you-wants to let those signs get in the way of a good time. In 1986, he won the Scottish Open, the biggest victory of his career. "They handed me the trophy-a big-ass silver cup," Feherty says. "The oldest trophy in all of sport. I drank all sorts of crap from it. I woke up two days later on the 16th tee at Gleneagles, which makes no sense, because I won the tournament in Glasgow [45 miles away]. I opened my eyes to see blue skies and Peter Gant, the road manager for Led Zeppelin. I hadn't seen him in ages. He's saying, 'You all right?' And the trophy's gone. Just f--in' gone. They never did find it. That was a low point."
"I was a spectacular drunk," Feherty says, "the Tiger Woods of drinking. I held court. I was lucid and funny and charming. People gravitated toward me. I was a poster child for excess without consequence. But all along, I was just masking a stunning sense of worthlessness, of being a fraud. I despise myself in so many ways sometimes."
If hearing Feherty say that surprises you, it shouldn't, because even though he was a Tour player he was never really a Tour player. He was too smart, too funny, too aware of his own fallibility and the absurdity of life to be one of those players who says, "Fairways and greens, one shot at a time." He was creative, but not hit-a-deftwedge creative. It wasn't like that. David Feherty wasn't a professional golfer who happened to be very funny he was a rare genuine wit who happened to be a very good golfer. He had something other Tour players didn't a beautiful mind. And that, as it turns out in his case and that of many other hyper-creative people, is as much a curse as a blessing, particularly when the high-capacity brain is attacked by the fraternal twins of self-destruction: boozefueled depression and depression-fueled boozing.
"If you have a soul, that's where it starts," Feherty says about depression, his Irish lilt small and sad, not full of hell like it is when he's working a CBS telecast or starring in a Cobra commercial. "That space that occupies the deepest part of you. It touches every bone and fiber and muscle. It is you. Your mind is like a crowded cafe, with 57 voices chattering at once. You can't tell them apart. You go cold. Your fingers and toes tingle and go numb. You shiver and shake. Your legs ache. Your arms are heavy, like gravity is magnified like you have a degenerative muscle disease. You curl up and clutch yourself, lying on your side, because that make s it hurt less. And you see things. Hallucinations that you can't banish. The most unspeakable, horrible images play in your mind, like a horror movie you can't turn off. And you..." Feherty goes quiet for a few beats.
"That's another thing," he says. "I have no f---in' idea what I just said. It's the short-term memory loss, the main side effect of the depression medicine. They throw pills at you to see what sticks. I have little blackout periods. Once, I couldn't find the liquor store. I'd been there a hundred times. I'm walking around in a haze, thinking, OK, I know it was here yesterday. Where'd they put it? Now, when I can't find a liquor store, that's saying something."
It's classic Feherty classic Irish, really. Use self-deprecating humor to mask the ordeal of existing. Even at that, Feherty recognizes the difference between being funny and being stupid, and he seethes (more classic Irish) when people trivialize the effects of depression on the soul. "Tom Cruise says there's no such thing as depression, that you can get better with physical exercise. Well, maybe he's right beating the shit out of Tom Cruise would be physical all right, and it would f---in' cheer me up, and a whole lot of other people."
By 1995, Feherty's heart was on the ground. He was living in Dallas, his first marriage had dissolved, and his best playing days were a memory. So were his winnings from nearly 20 years as a pro. ("I spent a lot of money on fast cars, women and alcohol," he says. "The rest I just squandered.") He was scrawny, broke and broken. He ran 15 miles a day to quiet his racing mind. He'd lost his playing privileges in the States. When a friend fixed him up with his current wife, Anita, a willowy brunette with warm green eyes, he showed up smashed for their date at an Italian restaurant. "I thought, She's gorgeous. I'm f---ed. What do I have to offer? So I arrived drunk and got drunker." He gulped her Bellini. She asked if he was HIV positive. "How's that for first-date small talk?" he says with a laugh. "She left after 30 minutes." But Anita liked his wit and vulnerability. She agreed to another date if he'd stay sober. He did. They married in May 1996. "That was the first time she saved me," he says. "I was penniless, jobless, homeless and drunk. Sorry, ladies, I'm taken!"
He wasn't unemployed for long. A few months after their wedding, Feherty was at a hotel bar in Ohio, drinking again "vodka-and-Gatorade, I was on a health kick" when CBS golf producer Lance Barrow approached him about doing TV. "I'd lost interest in playing," Feherty says. "And TV was always in the back of my mind. I had the advantage of an Irish accent, which is a huge help. And I had a good relationship with players and caddies, because I spent a lot of time with caddies doing what caddies do getting all f---ed up."
Feherty's droll, cheeky style immediately imp ressed viewers and colleagues alike. "One of his first events was the '97 AT&T [at Pebble Beach]," Barrow recalls. "Tiger Woods hit a dangerous 3-wood approach to the green on the 18th, which runs along the Pacific. David stops him walking off and says, 'Tiger, great shot. But didn't you see that big blue thing to your left?' That's typical David. He can ask an ordinary question in an extraordinary way."
Everyone knows Feherty, 47, is funny on the air, but the real show the one you'd pay to hear begins when the network cuts to commercials. When he works the booth, as he did perched above Pebble Beach's eighth green on Friday of this year's AT&T Pebble Beach- National Pro-Am, the crew's laughter literally shakes the tower during breaks.
On the chilly air: "I'm freezing my nads off. It's snot-blindingly cold. There are two lumps in my throat, and I think it's my raisins."
On the marshals' baggy white knickers and red-and-navy stockings: "Those outfits guarantee you'll never, ever get laid."
On short putts: "My, that's a testy 5-footer. Speaking of testy 5-footers, where's Lanny?"
On Roger Maltbie, walking off the green: "He's 6 inches taller when he's lying on his back. Come on, fat boy! Look up here! He's like an oil tanker. It takes him three or four holes to change direction."
Maltbie looks up, waves and smiles at golf's Don Rickles. The game's names love the abuse, and few escape Feherty's jabs. He dubbed Jack Nicklaus the designer "a landscaper on acid," and the Bear laughed it off. "My god, you're an asshole," he told Ken Venturi when they met; the vinegary commentator squinted, cocked his head, and declared, "I like you, kid!"
"It's hilarious," Feherty says. "People don't take me seriously when I call them a nut sack, but guess what? I really think you're a nut sack. But it doesn't mean I don't like you. It means I do." To Feherty, the gentle abuse offers the abused a chance for dignity: rise above or return fire.
Behind all the punch lines there were equal parts empty bottles and internal chaos. In 2000, Feherty was misdiagnosed with adult attention-deficit disorder, and his decline continued for three years until he sought a second opinion and learned he was suffering from clinical depression. Alcohol and depression are a lethal mix, his doctors warned. But he still wasn't ready to quit. The hallucinations were growing more frequent and vivid, and drinking seemed to help. He loved the bottle and still remembers his highoctane exploits like a long-lost love. "There's nothing worse than are formed whore," he says. "I'm not saying it's a great idea to go out and get wrecked. I'm just saying I had a good time. It almost killed me, but it was a hell of a good time."
It was the winter of 2004 when Feherty faced the full fury of his own mind. He spent days at a time trembling beneath a blanket in his den, squeezing back tears. "With my depression, the immune system in my head shut down," Feherty says. "I'd watch the news, and be overwhelmed with sadness, unable to banish images of the dreadful things people do. The tortured soldier or molested child would be my child. I'd see a knife raised over my daughter Erin, and the mental picture was unbearable. Before I knew it, the collar of my shirt was soaked and I'd be crying like a baby. If I was driving, I'd have to pull over. Even if I banged my head against the wheel, it wouldn't go away."
Feherty hid his grief from his closest friends. Yet CBS golf analyst Peter Kostis could see the storm clouds on his colleague's face. A dear friend of the family (Erin calls him Uncle Peter), Kostis grew concerned when Feherty grew quiet. "There's nothing in the Feherty genes that's quiet," Kostis says. "Heck, even when he's asleep, he's farting. But I could see a darkness there, and I'd ask if he was OK."
Often during that long winter of 2004, Erin, then 5, the youngest of his five children, would climb on top of her immobile dad. ("She used me as furniture," he says.) It helped to hold her, to scratch her back, but soon she was off to bed or school. His wife, Anita, covered him with a blanket. She believed she was watching him die. He felt the kindest act would be to leave them. His daughter didn't need this kind of father, his wife, this kind of husband. "I'm beyond adoration for my daughter, yet I thought she would be better off without me. I thought that the only thing worse than being me was living with me. Suicidal depressives often think they're actually doing everyone a favor, committing an act of kindness." One day, he tried to get up, but couldn't. He was too sore. Had he been able to summon the strength, he says, he would have reached for a way out. "I've got a houseful of shotguns."
Two years later, Feherty is again on the brink of tears on a bright, blazing February day in Palm Springs, but only because his yellow panties are a tad tight. He's wearing a ruffled black-and-gold cheerleader skirt, with matching pompoms. He bounces on a huge Wal-Mart trampoline. To his right thoooomp! thoooomp! a man fires a golf-ball gun, beheading a succession of life-size cardboard Fehertys. It looks more like a Fellini film than a Cobra commercial set.
"These underpants are 180 pounds per square inch," Feherty says between hops. The trampoline represents Cobra's new driver, and its pitchman is demonstrating the clubface's bounce. "Couldn't you get Olga Korbut for this? She must have a beard by now." Moments later, he considers his skirt. "I wonder if I can make this ripple." The director praises a take for its "integrity," which Feherty finds hilarious. "If there's one thing I have none of, it's integrity. It's a shame we couldn't do this at Augusta."
Later, his 14-hour workday complete, Feherty slumps into the back seat of a limo for the two-hour drive to Los Angeles, six Cobra spots in the bag. Playing a cheerleader is an odd way to make a buck, but the former wringerouter for a one-armed Belfast window washer will take it. "Somehow," he sighs, "I've managed to never let drinking or depression affect my work. Somehow, I fight it off. I was never drunk on the air, before or during a telecast. The thought of people not liking me or what I do that terrifies me."
Feherty's thoughts return to the images of a hand and a knife and his daughter. "I couldn't see who was holding the knife," he says. "But I had this horrifying, sickening feeling that it was my hand. The image came back over and over. I'd walk upstairs and wake her up and hold her close, and I'd say to myself, She's here. Nothing's happened to her. That something dreadful would happen to one of your children is anyone's worst fear, and my mind was realizing it over and over again. I had to make it go away. It was men-in-whitecoats, cuckoo's nest madness. I thought, \"Why the f--- is this going through my head? Should I be put away? Am I a danger to my family?\"
Feherty remembers the day when the fog began to lift: Jan. 26, 2005. He had spent the night before drunk and nearly comatose in his recliner at home, a drained bottle of Bushmills on the table beside him. He was almost catatonic with despair, and felt as if the only thing he could move was his eyeballs. As he wrote in his column in this magazine last July, Erin climbed up on his lap, grabbed his ears, leaned her fo rehead on his and said, "Dad, you need another bottle." "She looked so sad," Feherty says. "I thought, Holy shit! I do need another bottle. So I sent her to get me one because, why stop when you're not where you need to be? That was a turning point."
Anita watched her daughter fetch the whiskey, and knew then she'd had enough. The next morning, after dropping Erin off at school, Anita found David in bed, enduring his daily hangover. She told him he was an alcoholic, and that if he didn't quit drinking, she would take Erin and leave. "A daughter finds a man like her father for a husband," Anita says. "I didn't want her to marry an alcoholic. So I asked him for 90 days of sobriety. And he told me he would stop."
Those first few weeks were horrendous. He had the shakes. He had insomnia. He snapped at Anita, or his friends, "and David doesn't have a mean bone in his body," says a longtime friend. At the NEC Invitational last August, he was reading a Tiger Woods putt as part of his television foot-soldier duty when Steve Williams playfully offered Feherty his boss's putter and asked, "Would you like to putt it for him?" Feherty mistook the comment as an order to back off and shot back, "Why don't you take a half hour off from being an asshole?" (Feherty later apologized.)
"When we're working, we all ride herd on him," says Kostis. "We have his back me, McCord, Lance Barrow. Though we still get nervous. David took up clay shooting a while back, and McCord and I would look at each other and say, 'A drunk, depressed Irishman with a shotgun? Not a good thing.'"
Feherty is the first to handicap his fragile sobriety. "Even now, people ask me how I feel. Well, I feel like a f---in' drink, that's what I feel like. The pain is unbearable sometimes, and I feel like shit, and I know release is just a drink away."
He's stumbled a few times since Jan. 26, 2005. He took a three-week alcohol-iday last June for his dad's 80th birthday in Ireland. ("I told people I got drunk once, but it was for three weeks.") A month later, in the middle of the night, he threw off his hotel room sheets and ripped open his locked mini-bar (he declines the key when checking in) like a grizzly going at a trash can. He drank all the Jack Daniel's he could find, which wasn't much four mini bottles.
Otherwise, he says, he's been dry. "Earlier this year, on our West Coast swing, I'm watching TV in bed late one night when the phone rings," says Gary McCord. "It's David. He says, 'What are you doing?' I told him. He says, 'Can I come over and watch with you?' David has never done that. 'Why?' I ask. He says, 'Because the mini-bar is talking to me.' We watched TV for two hours, lying on the bed together kind of a 'Brokeback' moment. I love the guy. Whatever he needs, David knows he can come to us for support."
Soon after he quit drinking, Feherty's hallucinations all but stopped. "They still come, but I can banish them now," he says. He still feels like he's hiding around a corner, running from something. "But this is easily livable, the way I feel now. It's taken a combination of pills, therapy and not drinking, but I'm better every day. Far too many people are owned by addiction and devastated by depression. There's such a stigma attached to mental illness that they're afraid to get help. You can get better, but you can't do it alone."
When the depression creeps in, as it does from time to time, Anita can spot it. "There's an absence in his eyes," she says. "His mouth seems to freeze, and his tongue can't move the words. He has a desperate look that makes everything else stop."
The cure these days isn't whiskey-induced oblivion. Instead, Feherty lies on his side and curls up, and Anita puts his head in her lap, holding a framed photo of Erin in front of his face. In the snapshot, Erin is digging her toes into the sand and laughing beneath a tangle of curly brown hair. "It reminds David what's waiting for him," Anita says. "And it always brings him back."