How Johnny Miller and the NBC crew winged it during Monday's epic playoff

How Johnny Miller and the NBC crew winged it during Monday’s epic playoff

SAN DIEGO — You know what they say: the U.S. Open begins at High Noon on the day after Father’s Day, California time.

Rocco had made his birdie on the drivable 14th (short is beautiful), Tiger had made his par, and suddenly the old man with the bad back led by a shot. Inside the NBC broadcast truck, perched between the 12th hole at Torrey Pines and the Pacific Ocean, it was right on the edge of pandemonium, just the way they like it in live TV.

There were nine men in the truck, all but one of them dressed for golf. (A young associate director named Pierre was wearing a dress shirt with French cuffs.) Most wore headsets and all of them were looking at a wall of flat-screen TVs, 20 screens in all, with three or six or nine images per screen. If you can keep track of all that, you’re some kind of genius. At times, Tommy Roy, the executive producer of golf for NBC, was screaming, “Go to Elvis, go to Elvis, go to Elvis.” Elvis is a deck on a replay machine. Elvis’s cousin, Costello — cued up and ready to go — was largely ignored. Life in the big leagues, and in live TV.

Sitting to the right of the veteran producer was Doug Grabert, a veteran director, working his hands like a conductor, leaning forward from his swivel chair, right palm open to the ceiling and making a long, flowing wave, indicating when he wanted a camera to zoom in, his body movements mimicking his words spoken into his headset and to a particular cameraman.

Sitting near Grabert was J.J. Johnson, who runs the switcher, a control panel with scores and scores of lighted buttons, yellow and red and green, each a portal to a camera that would go live or not, depending on what button Johnson hit. He kept a washcloth and a bottle of water nearby, clean fingers being a job requirement in Johnson’s distinct line of work.

Standing right behind Grabert and Roy was Tom Randolph, a UCLA golfer in the Corey Pavin era and the longtime co-producer for golf for NBC, his eyes darting among the 70 or 80 images on the wall, on a constant prowl for something irresistible or something wrong: Rocco clapping for Tiger, a bug on a lens, a soundman in a shot. Tommy Roy likes clean shots, nothing extraneous, if he can help it. He tries to keep the camera towers out of shots as much as he can.

Outside, it was a gorgeous day in southern California. In the truck, there is no weather. There is nothing but dark coolness and pretzels and Goldfish and, in Tommy Roy’s case, a stream of Pepsi in cans. During Monday’s five-hour telecast he never left his seat and that’s not even close to his record. He misses nothing, or at least that’s the goal. When Rocco said something to Mark Rolfing of NBC, walking the fairways during the playoff, Roy was immediately talking in the announcer’s earpiece: “What did he say to you?”

Roy used to be the producer for all sports for NBC, but he returned to his golf roots so that he could have a slightly more sane work life. The U.S. Open days started early and ended late, with one more tacked on at the end. What he knows you may come to know.

During the first round, there was a shot of Mark Love caddying for brother Davis. Roy said into his headset, “Mark caddied for him in the sectional qualifier,” and a moment later one of the announcers repeated those words and sent out that little tidbit to millions of people.

If Roy had a rooting interest in the playoff, you couldn’t tell. All he wanted was a close match — a stroke-play match — which is what he got. He watched both as a producer and as a fan, saying, “Bite, bite, bite,” to approach shots from both players. Good golf is good TV and Roy looked like he was having the time of his life, amid all the tension.

Johnny Miller, the lead analyst, was, too. During one commercial break, from his perch about a half-mile away on the 18th fairway, he said, “I think NBC should just scrap its programming tonight and just show this thing again in prime time.”

For Miller, playoff Monday was a holy day, or something like that. When Dan Hicks, the NBC host, tried out a Rocco/Caddyshack bit during one of the breaks, Miller said, not sternly, “We are at the reverent point in the championship.” Hicks deferred to the 1973 U.S. Open winner.

When Tiger and his caddie, Steve Williams, discussed the wind on 17, Roy yelled, “Two-shot, two-shot, two-shot.” The viewer could hear every word that passed between player and caddie, but Roy wanted the viewer to see the two men, too — and within seconds you could. Roy is direct and quick with his criticisms and, more often, his compliments. “Nice, guys,” he said of that shot. “Really good audio.” He takes a profound interest in the work of his cameramen and soundmen. He sent one cameraman, Rich Leible, to a special program in Los Angeles recently, to learn new Steadicam techniques.

As the playoff neared the 18th hole, Pierre Moossa (the dapper guy in the French cuffs) fielded calls from Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports. In one call, Ebersol said he wanted no graphics for the rest of the playoff, no schematics of holes, just the two protagonists going at it. In another call he said he wanted the NBC logo, the colorful peacock, to appear on the screen and to stay there for the rest of the playoff. That’s TV for you, a wild blend of art and commerce.

A Monday playoff, when you have no idea how long it’s going to go, is pretty much uncharted waters, but the NBC gang was prepared for anything, even as one producer said into his head piece, “We’re winging it here, we’re winging it here, we’re winging it here.” When Rocco dropped a ball that landed in the drop circle but came to rest outside it, even Johnny Miller wasn’t exactly sure what the rule was. David Fay, the USGA’s executive director, was sitting in the broadcast booth on the 18th fairway and piped in right away: the ball is in play.

Moossa asked Tom Randolph how far the journey was from the seventh green to the 18th green, in case the playoff concluded on seven, the first of the sudden death holes. The trophy presentation, where Bob Costas would do a live interview with the winner, would be on the 18th green and Moossa needed to know how long it would take for the winner to get there. Randolph, of course, knew. The time it would take the winner to get to 18 would be the length of the break. They were winging it, the whole gang was, skin crawling, having a good time. When it was all over, and Tiger was holding up his daughter, they applauded one another and started thinking about the next one.