News & Opinion

TNT’s Johnson disarms haters at PGA

Perhaps it’s partly because the PGA Championship never has measured as high on the significance scale when compared with the game’s other majors. As it relates to passion, it doesn’t elicit the same response as the Masters or U.S. Open for American audiences.

Maybe it’s because the crew at TNT makes only a cameo appearance each year on the golf scene, and doesn’t televise the fateful, final moments of the weekend at the PGA, when any potential on-air error is magnified.

For whatever reason, it’s fascinating to note the relative absence of fan blowback and vitriol during the week of the PGA, compared to when Fox presents its lone PGA Tour-sanctioned event of the year, the U.S. Open.

In contrast to the blistering broadsides absorbed each June by Joe Buck and the allegedly amateurish Fox Sports crew, the criticisms of TNT and booth anchorman Ernie Johnson at the PGA are as muted as the sound of one hand clapping.

Admittedly, then, the PGA ranks fourth in majors magnitude to most fans, but it’s hard to grasp why Johnson has been mostly immune from the venomous attacks hurled at Buck over the years. Some of it surely has to be attributable to the personas of the broadcasters themselves.

Whereas Buck has endured mountains of criticism because of his perceived haughty delivery coupled with a comparative lack of golf knowledge, Johnson has dodged relatively few bullets on the same front. Even though, remarkably, TNT essentially broadcasts only the first two days of one tournament per season.

Johnson is best known for anchoring the freewheeling coverage of “NBA on TNT” with former players Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, which might qualify as the antithesis of a conservative golf broadcast. With those three in tow this week, golf would be changed forever.

“Oh, it would be a total train wreck,” Johnson told the Charlotte Business Journal. “It would be mayhem. You would be hard-pressed to understand who had the lead and by how many and what round it was.”

We’ll supply the punchline: So, sort of like Fox, right? 

To many viewers, Johnson has no apparent ego, an assertion that has rarely been uttered about Buck, who once worked for one of the most sanctimonious and successful organizations in sports, the St. Louis Cardinals. Johnson occasionally employs self-deprecation as a weapon to win over viewers.

Similar to Buck at the Open, Johnson is a born-again rookie as a golf broadcaster every August at the PGA, and he has to cram like crazy to dance through six hours of daily coverage on Thursday and Friday. He watches some PGA Tour events on TV, and researchers pass along notes. He walks the host course a couple of times.

“Then you’re ready to go,” he said.

If only it were that easy. Fox broadcasts the U.S. Women’s Open, too, as well as the Walker Cup and the men’s and women’s U.S. Amateurs. For TNT, which has a contract with the PGA through 2019, this is a one-and-done proposition in golf. The network used to broadcast the Grand Slam of Golf, another property owned by the PGA of America, but that four-man exhibition, which had been scheduled in 2015 at then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Los Angeles course, was mothballed in the aftermath of Trump’s incendiary comments about Mexican illegal immigrants two years ago.

Familiarity with players aside, Johnson’s first PGA Championship broadcast came in 1995, so he’s got 22 years under his broadcasting belt at the event and understands both its history and the organization that runs it. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by broadcast brethren such as CBS veterans Verne Lundquist, Ian Baker-Finch and Gary McCord, who televise 20-some tour events each season, including two major championships.

We all can agree that picking favorites in the broadcasting realm is as subjective of an exercise as finding a tolerable station on the FM dial with three passengers in the car. Some like the classics, some like classic rock. Sometimes, though, it’s all about the delivery.

As the TNT coverage opened on Thursday with pro wrestling legend Ric Flair, a longtime Charlotte resident, handling the intro, Johnson was ready.

“How do you follow the Nature Boy?” Johnson said, chuckling.

As much of a fan as an expert, Johnson clearly has fun at his golf gig, openly expressing glee after good shots and celebrating the positives on the air. So, while many of Buck’s critics are grabbing pitchforks and storming the Fox castle, Johnson’s disarming delivery somehow keeps them at bay, despite a lack of expertise relative to the regulars who occupy his seat, such as Jim Nantz, Dan Hicks or Mike Tirico.

Thankfully, humility goes farther than a Rory McIlroy drive. Johnson doesn’t take himself too seriously, and the less-obtrusive, easygoing vibe somehow works. If you can’t necessarily analyze it, you might as well have fun with it. 

That way, the ride for listeners is generally enjoyable, too. 

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email:; Twitter: @EllingYelling