Why pros flock to Golf TV’s toughest job
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – John Wood has been in the golfing world for so long that he’s started to see the future.
Hitting the 16th tee at TPC Sawgrass on Wednesday morning of the Players Championship, the former caddy and current NBC Sports on-course reporter has his eyes on the weekend. He knows the mental hurdles that league leaders face, the tough decisions that will ultimately decide the tournament and how the weather will affect both developments. He knows the holes. The green accelerates. The good jumps and bad. As the rest of us know the sky is blue, Wood knows how things are going at TPC Sawgrass this week.
Wood’s psychic abilities are so prolific that he can even tell you exactly where every caddy in the field – all 144 – will be looking when they reach a specific turn in the 16th fairway.
“The really interesting thing about this hole isn’t this hole, it is The one,” he says as we arrive, turning his body across the water towards the famous island green 17. “Roughly here on the 16th the caddies start working on the shot for 17.”
The corner in front of the big split oak at 16, Wood explains, is such that it gives a perfect view of the front group’s tee shots at 17.
“If you’re watching this week, watch the caddies as they walk up here,” says Wood. “They will all have their heads turned in that direction. It’s the smart thing to do. So it’s a cool little thing that you’ll see from everyone.“
On paper, Wood’s job at NBC doesn’t lend itself to the dark arts. But after a few years on live television, the former tour caddy is tempted to disagree.
“When I was a caddy, I wanted to know How would Matt Kuchar play this hole?? Now that I’m doing it, it’s a bit more intense,” he says. “I really have to think about the hole for everyone. You must have a game plan for the hole for each player on the field.”
The world of golf television is challenging territory for everyone, but especially for the reporters on the course. While the broadcasters have “the booth” and the producers “the truck,” reporters are largely on their own. It is your job to follow the assigned group of two or three golfers throughout the round. Unlike most other members of the NBC team, reporters on the course are subject to the whims of their teammates. Should Dan Hicks, Paul Azinger or any other stand member ask a question, Wood, Smylie Kaufman or Notah Begay III are expected to have the answer right away – regardless of their position on the fairway, proximity to the player or time to address the situation .
“Every day – every minute – You have to be prepared,” says Woods teammate Smylie Kaufman, who joined NBC’s reporting team from the PGA Tour last season. “It’s a very reactionary job. You have to be a very good observer. Sometimes they don’t come to mind on every shot, so you can’t focus on a hole; They need to be able to update what Scottie Scheffler did last nine holes. What is going well for him? What’s his body language? Those are things to keep in mind while trying not to be too one dimensional about how you deliver stuff.”
If that sounds dizzying — and it is — consider the fact that losing your focus for just 30 seconds during a five-hour round of golf has the potential to embarrass you in front of an audience of a few million people. Don’t worry, says Begay. These mistakes will only stay with you forever.
“I think the moments you remember most from this job are when you say something So Remarkably stupid that you wish you could take it back, but it’s live television so you can’t,” said Begay, the team’s longest-serving opponent on the course, with a laugh. “Then you just know the text thread will be relentlessly talking to all your buddies from back home about the mistake you made.”
At this point, you might be wondering why Wood, Kaufman, Begay, or everyone would really consider stepping into the firing line to serve on a PGA Tour broadcast. The serious answer, it seems, is because it’s home. Despite the high-wire act, life on the broadcast team bears an uncanny resemblance to life on tour. That’s why so many pros and fellow pros — from Wood, Kaufman, and Begay to Colt Knost and Dottie Pepper — find themselves in television roles when their professional careers are over. For those who have devoted most of their formative years to the sport, the networks offer a way to stay involved. As long as they are willing to work for it.
“It’s basically touring life without all the perks of touring,” says Kaufman. “You know, the replacement car, the daycare. That’s life on the road with my wife. It will be a little different with our child, but we look forward to the opportunity. NBC has been a great success for me so far, the people have been great. It’s just – it was great.”
“The biggest hurdle I faced very early in my career was that it wasn’t about me anymore,” agrees Begay. “I was there. I mean, I know the nervousness, I know the tension, I know the pressure. I know what it’s like to succeed in situations like that and I know what it’s like to fail.”
Besides, say the three reporters, it’s getting easier. You learn to anticipate the action before it happens, and before long that anticipation becomes something else: a sixth sense.
On Thursday at TPC Sawgrass, John Wood is in the final stages of preparation. He has researched the course exhaustively, written extensive notes on the weather report, and cross-referenced a handy yardage book littered with handwritten nuggets. From the wind – which is expected to swirl throughout the week – he can already tell at what times on which days on certain days a high score will be achieved. But there’s one part of the preparation he doesn’t find easy: rest.
Style is an important aspect of life as a reporter on the course, and it shows nowhere more than on the fairways. Wood darts around like a pill bug, scurrying from the fairway to the green in search of the best vantage point or nugget. Kaufman saunters around with a more lilac latitude, smiling and nodding with the players in his pairing.
“I wear an Oura ring, but I hardly ever check it,” Wood tells me with a laugh. “As a caddy, you know how many steps you take. I think now I’m afraid to look.”
He starts the day with an aperitif, ending with the group of Jon Rahm, but his main course will be 18 holes with the group of Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Max Homa. When those three make it to the first tee, Wood is missing one crucial piece of information: he didn’t have time to talk to the players or caddies during the warm-up. Before he can even consider that possibility, his group builds up on the tee.
Wood takes the position on the first tee, but suddenly there is a hold-up. The group in front is still sitting in the trees. Wood’s group won’t be teeing off for about a minute. He looks to his immediate future upon realizing this and pings back to the production truck.
“There is one player at the moment Away left on one,” Wood tells lead producer Tommy Roy over his microphone and a pair of earphones. “They can’t strike yet, so I have to let you know.”
Just as the words are leaving his mouth, Spieth Wood’s gaze catches the eye. He flashes a playful grin and puts his finger to his lips.
“Shhh” Spieth whispers.
It’s finally go time. Spieth pierces the ground with his tee and, after a short delay, gets a powerful blow. Wood is right behind him as he turns on his microphone. He’s ready for that.
“When I go up the right side… it flips over really easily,” enthuses Wood. “Oh man, that is Nice.”
It’s a short, succinct answer — the way Roy encouraged his reporters to lean on it. Wood says he learned to be good before long, but it wasn’t easy. The most torturous part of his job isn’t what makes it on the show. It is something not.
“When they come to you, you have a 30-second response, a 15-second response, a 10-second response, and a 6-second response,” says Wood. “You’re not always sure what you’re getting, so it’s better to have them all.”
“That’s the hardest part,” Kaufman says. “As a player on the course, you don’t know how long your time window is going to be. Sometimes you have something that’s really good but you just don’t have the time to say it, and sometimes you’re done saying something and you’re like: ManI could have captured that.”
A scream rings out to the left of the first fairway, just yards from where Jordan Spieth’s tee shot had returned to orbit minutes earlier. There, at the edge of the left rough, stands the scream’s intended recipient: John Wood.
He’s speaking softly into his microphone as the second scream comes – this time from much closer.
“Oh s—, JOHN!” a cameraman yells.
It’s no use. He cannot hear them, and several years of training have taught him not to hear her. But now, at this moment, he should.
Unnoticed by Wood, Sahith Theegala’s tee shot landed within striking distance, ricocheting a hard shot down the fairway and beginning a steady roll to his feet.
The ball rolls calmly and confidently as Wood thoughtlessly shuffles to the left.
Just as his right foot moves, the ball whizzes past and miraculously comes to a stop in the middle of his feet.
“Fairways and greens, fairways and greens,” he says coolly into the microphone, unimpressed by the near-disaster.
Before anyone can say another word, Wood resumes his pace. It doesn’t take long before he gets lost in the next fairway, eyes straight ahead.
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