Nothing matches the thrill of U.S. Open week for NBC golf crew

Through his choice of images, executive producer Roy controlled the U.S. Open story line.
Simon Bruty/SI

Maybe you were watching on TV, Saturday evening, when everything went haywire on the South course at Torrey Pines. In the last act the One Who Controls All Ratings went bomb, bogey, par, par, swish, bomb. The U.S. Open had turned into the Masters, the bleachers were shaking, the Nielsen ratings were spiking and in a dank trailer in the television compound on the gorgeous top of the Torrey Pines cliffs, Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports — a sophisticate, a businessman, a sports fan — was raising his arms and yelping.

Luckily for Ebersol, one of his employees was not hyperventilating, and that made all the difference. Following Tiger Woods for NBC was Roger Maltbie, the former Tour player and veteran announcer who was juggling his NBC microphone, a tuna salad sandwich and a yardage book, all while calming down overserved fans chanting Ra-ja, Ra-ja, Ra-ja. Maltbie, known in the NBC broadcast trailer as the Course Whisperer, his voice deepened by many years of Marlboro Lights, responded to Woods’s trio of magic tricks with barely perceptible head nods and murmured words, his white mustache brushing up against the orangey-red foam cover of his mike.

At the very moment that Tiger, spent and sore, was coming out of the scorer’s room, the other man of the hour, everyman Rocco Mediate, was playing the final hole. This scenario presented the NBC producers with the kind of problem they live for. Their goal, especially on Saturday and Sunday of a major or a Ryder Cup or a Presidents Cup, is to show as much live TV as possible. Play won’t stop for an interview, but an interview, at least in theory, can wait for play. Maltbie’s job was to stall Woods. He put an arm around Tiger’s shoulder — for starters, very few people are allowed to make physical contact with His Golfing Highness — dropped his mike to his hip and, with a mellowness induced by many good nights spent with the better California reds, said, “Let me tell ya, I’ve seen you do some s—, but that was something else.”

Woods laughed out loud and said, “Yeah, it was pretty good, wasn’t it?”

And then Maltbie gave Tiger the lay of the land, TV-style: He explained that they were waiting on Rocco on 18, and that afterward they would go live to Rog and Tiger and that he would be asking Tiger about his eagles on 13 and 18 and his chip-in birdie on 17, and that he’d wrap things up with a question about his knee. Tiger gave a tired nod. He was in. He was with Rog, with whom he’s done scores of interviews going back to his amateur days. Woods waited around for two minutes — an eternity — the red light went on and Maltbie went right into his questions, concluding with a two-parter about Woods’s knee.

“Is it getting worse day by day?” Tiger said, repeating Maltbie’s Part II word for word. “Yes, it is.”

There was the hint of a pause, just long enough for Maltbie to realize that he wasn’t going to get a single word more out of Tiger on the subject. He did that quick spin-to-the-camera move used by generations of Action News reporters on various local 11 o’clock news programs and said, “Dan, back to you!” (Maltbie uses an exclamation mark about once a year.) Anchor Dan Hicks, in the NBC booth on 18, picked it up from there, and Maltbie and Woods both cracked up. In the rumble of their laughter you could feel the pressure and tension of playing in the U.S. Open, and working in live TV. For anybody watching the exchange up close — Tiger’s agent, Mark Steinberg, and Craig Smith, a USGA media official, among others — it was mesmerizing.

Later that evening Maltbie and some other NBCers — Hicks, Jimmy Roberts, Bob Costas, network communications executive Brian Walker — met up, in staggered shifts, at an old-school San Diego steak house, Donovan’s, conveniently located by their Marriott hotel. Maltbie still had on his NBC golf shirt and his industrial-strength khakis, while Roberts, an interviewer and essayist, was in his workday coat and tie. The conversation went from Maltbie’s son’s high school graduation on Friday to the broadcasting legacy left by Jim McKay to Barack Obama’s VP pick to Tiger’s ability to let his legend grow. Every few minutes you’d hear two names commonly attached to eight-year-old pitching prospects, Tommy this and Johnny that. They, of course, didn’t need to add the surnames: Tommy Roy, 49, the executive producer for golf at NBC, and Johnny Miller, 61, the lead golf analyst.

A Saturday-night steak house dinner is a tradition for the NBC crew, often with Roy and sometimes with Dottie Pepper — the kid sister in what they all refer to, with a wink, as the dysfunctional NBC golfing family. It’s a tight group, without the macho posturing that was so common in the three-for-the-bar CBS era of Pat Summerall, Ken Venturi and Frank Chirkinian, from the mid-1970s to the early ’90s. When Roberts announced that he was coming out of a golf slump and that his handicap was again south of 10, Maltbie, who won the first Memorial tournament in 1976, responded with a fist bump. Roy was staying late at the compound, trying to come up with a game plan in case Woods, in the finale, “went Big Brown,” he told people. Miller was … nobody had any idea. He does his own thing.

NBC broadcasts about two dozen golf events a year — women’s and men’s, amateur and professional — and there are many weeks when the NBC people don’t know where Miller, independently owned and operated, is staying. Nobody sweats it. Miller’s always early, always prepared, and his savantlike gifts for calling golf shots will not quit. To the TV-watching public, Miller is the voice of golf for NBC. (Woods is its face and Maltbie its soul.) But what viewers don’t realize is that what we see are the shots that Tommy Roy wants us to see. How did Tiger and Phil get along during their Thursday and Friday rounds together? Roy could decide to show you a shot of Woods giving Mickelson an all-business handshake or a shot of them walking down a fairway together all smiley or, as Roy did, both. He shapes our opinions, hugely. For the 30 live hours of Roy’s telecast last week (18 hours on Thursday and Friday, allocated between NBC and ESPN; 12 more hours on NBC on Saturday and Sunday) you’d be hard-pressed to name a more influential person in all of golf. Because he’s a golfer (the son of a club pro, a 5 handicapper who lives near the PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.), “his broadcast is from a golfer’s perspective,” says Sandy Tatum, the USGA executive who orchestrated the organization’s rights switch from ABC to NBC in 1995.

But he’s a golfer who thinks in TV pictures. It was Roy who persuaded Tour officials to make the 14th at Royal Montreal, site of last year’s Presidents Cup, a drivable par-4 with a pond guarding the left side of the green. If that hole had been played as a routine two-shotter, there’s no Woody Austin Aquaman moment. There’s a duller highlight tape, less for fans to talk about, lower ratings. The old Scottish shepherd’s game — and Tommy Roy’s family name comes from Rob Roy of Scotland — has turned into a complicated business.

Last week Roy had at least 100 people working under him. That group included Hall of Fame golfers (Curtis Strange, Judy Rankin) and various TV pros (coproducer Tom Randolph, director Doug Grabert) who are famous, at least within the confines of the broadcast compound. For many of the crew members, all they saw of Torrey Pines last week was the compound, a makeshift village of trailers, port-a-potties, golf-cart parking lots and mess halls. For reasons only a die-hard unionist could understand, ESPN (or S-Po, as it’s known in the broadcast trucks where every second counts) and NBC each had its own catering tent last week, even though the two networks were joined at the hip for much of the U.S. Open. For the Thursday and Friday telecasts, Strange and Rankin and Mike Tirico and Rick Reilly and Chris Berman and others from ESPN took their cues from Tommy Roy of NBC.

The workweek began in earnest with a Wednesday afternoon meeting for 60 people — Miller sitting right up front, reading glasses on — in a billowy white NBC hospitality tent. Mike Davis, the USGA executive in charge of the Open, talked about the different tee positions that would be used. Miller took notes. A young researcher named Sam Goldberg went through a long list of entrants with unlikely backstories. (Who was a cancer survivor, who had a pacemaker, who had a twin brother getting dates off his brother’s I’m-in-the-Open fame.) Miller took notes.

Roy concluded the meeting by asking the group’s “rookie” to stand up and say a few words about the importance of being at the national championship and working on its broadcast. It was part of the NBC tradition, he said. He introduced the Torrey Pines rookie, Curtis Strange.

If you saw Strange in his playing prime, you know his slow-burn move: The color drains from his face, the eyes narrow, the lips purse. Strange slowly started to stand up and said, “Are you serious?”

Roy, who has worked for NBC his entire adult life, had Strange dead to rights. “Nah,” Roy said, “we don’t have any tradition like that.” People laughed. In TV, as in other tense environments, you do what you can to, as the old King Harvest song says, keep things loose, keep things tight.

The next day Strange, who doesn’t have a regular TV gig these days, was introduced, or reintroduced, to the Thursday afternoon ESPN audience. Roy played a clip that showed Strange winning the 1988 and ’89 U.S. Opens, plus shots of his father, who played in 22 Opens, and his twin brother, Allan, and Curtis’s wife, Sarah. On a monitor in Roy’s broadcast truck — dark and cool, all teched-out and with an electric atmosphere — you could see what the home viewer could not: Strange watching his this-is-your-life clip. He was completely still and near the end of the clip said to no one in particular, “My God.” He didn’t know it was coming, and he was moved. When the live camera turned to him, he talked about … the importance of the national championship and being part of its broadcast.

The thing about Curtis is that he can’t keep his needling, true-jock self down. A day later, during the passing of the baton, when ESPN took over the Open telecast from NBC, Strange picked up Miller’s headset in the broadcast booth at 18, held it gingerly and said, “Anybody got a can of Lysol for this thing?”

It’s been that way forever in TV, that some of the best stuff is said off-camera. Pepper, an SI contributor, had one moment that sounded like the kind of couplet Adam Sandler would have a field day with:

Adam Scott.

In the hay.

Oy [long beat] vay.

The funniest of the NBC golf gang is Hicks. He played football, basketball and baseball at his Tucson high school, but with his slightly shaggy hair and the casual lean of his shoulders, there seems to be an inner Jeff Spicoli there. He’d kill on Jeopardy! under pop culture. During a rehearsal, when a monitor showed an NBC camera hanging from a limb of one of the trees that gives the course its name, Hicks said, “Is it legal, to strap on a Torrey Pine?” But when the Friday broadcast returned to the U.S. Open after a live report from Tom Brokaw announcing the death of Tim Russert, Hicks extended condolences to Russert’s family from all those gathered “in coastal California.” The shot over his voice was of the cliffs and the ocean. A moment of TV poetry.

Jimmy Roberts arrived late to the Saturday night NBC dinner at Donovan’s. He had been hunkered down in a trailer at the television compound, working on an essay that would be broadcast shortly before Tiger’s Sunday tee time. Tommy Roy was staying around, to oversee the editing of it, among other things. When the essay was broadcast on Sunday, shortly before 4 p.m., 30 Rock time, millions of people could hear Roberts refer to Woods as “an injured thoroughbred.” The third leg of the Triple Crown, the fourth round of a major golf championship, you never know what’s going to happen in sports. On Saturday night, Roy was talking about Big Brown and Roberts was writing about an injured thoroughbred. What’s the modern corporate-speak word for that, synergy? Anyway, there’s no I in TV, not when it’s done well.