Not every story idea pans out. I had a brilliant one that laid an egg Wednesday. To help preview the 101st PGA Championship, CBS brought its army of impressive “talent,” as they’re known in TV-speak, to the media center Wednesday morning at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, including the big chief, producer Lance Barrow.
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Not every story idea pans out. I had a brilliant one that laid an egg Wednesday.
To help preview the 101st PGA Championship, CBS brought its army of impressive “talent,” as they’re known in TV-speak, to the media center Wednesday morning at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, including the big chief, producer Lance Barrow. Jim Nantz to Nick Faldo, Verne Lundquist, Frank Nobilo, Peter Kostis, Dottie Pepper, Gary McCord – the list goes on – they all lined up on the stage. Barrow introduced his group as “the greatest golf announcing team there is in sports, in my opinion.”
My superb story idea came from a deep dive into historical data, something I do every morning before I choke down a bowl of Lucky Charms. I discovered that McCord, one of golf’s most amusing personalities, played in three PGA Championships. They were his only major-championship appearances in 406 PGA Tour starts. He had zero victories, but don’t overlook his 1991 Gateway Open win on the Ben Hogan Tour, a pair of Champions Tour victories, the 1970 NCAA Division II individual title for California-Riverside and a guest shot on “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
Three PGA Championships? Surely, McCord has hilarious yarns to spin. So, when the group press conference broke up, I pounced on McCord, who already was talking about Tiger Woods with another writer.
“This guy was given up for dead, and all of a sudden, here he comes again. Are you kidding?” McCord said. “We lost our will to get Tiger to the next major three or four years ago. Now, we’re pushing him toward Jack [Nicklaus and his record of 18 major titles]. It’s a whole new dynamic… The Tiger Phenomenon is up on the horse again and in full stride.
“He’s not doing what Tiger used to do, which was outdriving everybody by 30 yards. He’s playing golf as Tiger knows how to play while the other guys go hide in the closet. We’re going to see if the other guys step up. It’s a really interesting situation.”
There were more McCord gems, but I finally asked McCord about his PGA appearances.
“Ohhh,” he said, sounding as excited as a man asked to discuss his parole being revoked. “I can’t remember.”
“Come on,” I urge. “You made the cut in ’84 and finished 54th.”
“Where was that at?” he asked.
I stalled. “I think we all know,” I said. That’s what you say when you don’t know. It’s a smug way to sound smart, as if the answer is so obvious that it’s beneath your contempt. McCord outwaits me, though. “Well?” he said.
"OK, I don’t know," I concede. "I didn’t look that part up." At least that makes him laugh.
He’s coming around now, starting to enjoy this silliness.
“The thing was, can I even name the three I played in?” McCord said. “Washington, D.C., at Congressional was one.”
I try to jog his memory. "You made the cut in ’84. Was that the Hubert Green year?" I ask. (Nope. Lee Trevino won.) “Ohh, Shoal Creek!” McCord blurted out. “I remember that because I remember walking up to Trevino in the locker room and going, ‘How in the world did you shoot 15 under with that rough out there?’ He paused and looked at me and said, ‘What rough?’ Ahh, you a-----e. That rough was this high [motioned toward his knee]. You just wedged out.”
This is progress, except it’s always hard to look McCord in the eyes when the tips of his handlebar mustache dance like drunken pro wrestlers while he talks. Mesmerizing.
“I’m pissed I can’t remember the third one,” he said. He looked up and saw a banner hanging from the media-center ceiling that showed future PGA sites. One reads “Southern Hills, 2030 PGA.” (Yeah, make your plans now.) “Southern Hills,” he said. “I think it was Southern Hills. I remember playing there, and it was hotter than [bleep].”
"Who won that? Raymond Floyd?" I asked. “No way I can remember who won,” McCord said.
Before I rag on him for failing to dazzle me, CBS colleague Amanda Balionis comes by. She’s looking for her giant purse, which McCord has been guarding. He fake-moans as he lifts it to hand to her, feigning great weight.
“Thank you,” she said to McCord. “You look very good with that purse.”
Good line. Maybe I should have grilled her instead.
I asked if McCord ever came close to playing the other three majors. Masters? That’s a quick, “No.” British Open? “I never had the money to go over for the qualifying,” he said.
He did try to qualify for the U.S. Open once. “It was in Atlanta. We went 36 holes, and I got in a playoff: eight guys for six spots,” McCord said. “I had a flight to go home [to California], and I hadn’t been home in a long time. P.J. Boatwright of the USGA was there, and he said, ‘OK, you guys, be ready to go. We’re gonna tee off in 20 minutes.’
“Twenty minutes? I realized this playoff could take forever. I told him, ‘Hey, take me off the list; I’m out.’ P.J. goes, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m out. I’ve gotta go home.’ I gave him 36 holes; that was it.”
McCord never tried qualifying a second time. “I couldn’t beat anybody on a normal golf course. I wasn’t going to beat them on a U.S. Open course, either,” he quipped. “I just took that week off every year. You look at your strengths and weaknesses, and I had a lot of weaknesses. A U.S. Open did not fit my criteria in any way, shape or form.”
Later, I checked the records. Oops. McCord didn’t play a PGA at Congressional or Southern Hills. He was at Oak Hill in 1980 and Riviera in ’83. He was right about Shoal Creek in ’84.
Well, my backup plan was Toptracer, the colorful ribbon seen on TV during a golf telecast that traces the flight of a golf ball. It’s the most significant innovation in televised golf history. I hate watching a shot without Toptracer. You just can’t follow the ball without it
“When you pan up and see a ball flying in the air, you don’t know where it’s going,” McCord said. “It’s very expensive, but we need to do Toptracer on all shots.”
McCord is excited about Toptracer’s potential, in fact. The next iteration will be a computer-generated view that will seem as if the camera is inside the ball and the viewer is riding along, he said.
“Imagine you’re at home and Tiger hits a tee shot over the water,” he said. “You’re going up, up, you’re coming right at the trees – am I going to make it over? You’ll be falling off the couch at home. Or a 40-foot putt up three levels and you’re rolling toward the hole. It’ll be unbelievable, if we ever get to that. And we’ve talked to guys about it.”
I’m seriously hooked on the current Toptracer. “We should have that on every shot. Otherwise, they’re just balls in the air,” he said.
“I’ll give you one: the 1989 Ryder Cup at The Belfry. We’ve got camera guys up in the air on giant cherry pickers, but we’ve got no control over them. So, this guy’s following a ball in the air, it’s going this way and all of a sudden a seagull flies by. The guy takes the camera off the ball and follows the seagull. I went ape----. You look at the technology now; that’s how far we’ve come.”
“Wait,” I said. “You remember a bleeping seagull, but you can’t remember playing in any of three PGA Championships?”
“It was just another major to me,” he said, with deadpan humor.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle