Keeping Score

Sands caps error-free era in Tour playoffs

Everybody knows Golf Channel’s likable Steve Sands. He’s easy to listen to whether he’s interviewing players, calling action or serving as broadcast host

ATLANTA – Everybody knows Golf Channel’s likable Steve Sands. He’s easy to listen to whether he’s interviewing players, calling action or serving as broadcast host. Sands was the unquestioned "King of the Whiteboard" in prehistoric days when the FedEx Cup point totals during the Tour Championship changed faster than a chameleon sprinting under a rainbow, and it was his thankless task to keep viewers updated.

Those segments showing newly revised points projections made Sands into an unmistakable celebrity.

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Steve Sands (right), interviewing Tiger Woods, always seems to find a way to bring order to chaos with evolving FedEx Cup playoff equations.

COURTESY OF GOLF CHANNEL
Steve Sands (right), interviewing Tiger Woods, always seems to find a way to bring order to chaos with evolving FedEx Cup playoff equations.

“To this day,” Sands said, “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been in an airport or at a restaurant and someone says, ‘There goes the Tim Russert of golf.’ I always go, Hold on. That guy was host of ‘Meet the Press.’ That’s a totally different deal than just computing numbers at a golf tournament. Tim Russert was great.”

Well, everybody in golf knows Golf Channel’s likable Steve Sands, anyway. He’ll always be the face of the FedEx Cup points reports and a guy who got global recognition. Everyone knows “Sandsie,” as Tiger Woods dubbed him.

“Someone just called me Jim Nantz last week,” Sands said with a laugh. “It’s always a compliment.”

All right, not everybody can put the Sands name with his face. Most golf fans know him well, however, and it is fun to look back and laugh now because that revolving-door FedEx Cup point-projection system was so user-unfriendly. Sands was the right man for what was a wrong job.

In the first few years, Sands used a whiteboard and a trusty pen to write out the projected numbers, then had to add the numbers himself, right there in living color.

Go ahead and chuckle, but who walks among us who would like to show off his or her rusty math skills on live TV before a national audience? Hmm, I don’t see any volunteers raising their hands.

Sands handled the board and numbers well, even after his whiteboard was replaced by a computer touchscreen. His points updates earned him a special niche among viewers, caddies and tour players, even if it was out of sympathy as much as it was out of appreciation for otherwise unobtainable information.

The comparisons to Russert, the late NBC superstar, are apt, though on a smaller scale. Russert was a workingman’s broadcaster who wielded his whiteboard like Thor’s Hammer on Election Night back before smartphones – yes, children, there really was such a scary time. His most famous early projection came during the too-close-to-call 2000 presidential election, when he correctly foresaw that the outcome would hinge on one state and forcefully said, “Florida, Florida, Florida.”

Sands didn’t have a similar Florida moment, but he had something more impressive. During all of those on-camera whiteboard sessions, Sands and his crew never made a mathematical error.

“It’s remarkable that we never made a math error on the air,” Sands said. “I’ve always been good with math. The only thing I had in life was math and street smarts, coming from Washington, D.C., and a sense of direction.”

His sense of direction was put to the test right away when the scoring updates went live. On camera, he wrote point totals out horizontally on the whiteboard, then added them in his head. Sands remembers the inaugural update when he had co-producer Tom Randolph talking to him in his earpiece while Sands worked the addition – all live, with no calculator or stunt double.

“We’re taught to add numbers vertically in school,” Sands said. “So, to do this math horizontally, with four-digit numbers that have commas, and equal it out with Tom in my ear was no good. At the commercial break, I politely told Tom, ‘Hey, if we’re going to continue doing this, there’s no way I can hear numbers in my ear and add other numbers on live TV.’ Tom got it right away. After that, there was always silence when I added, thank goodness.”

Sands can recall only one near meltdown in one of the early FedEx Cup years. He was still doing horizontal math, and he remembers having four-digit figures to add.

“I didn’t get stuck on the total; I just paused,” Sands said. “But when you pause on TV – and I can’t really explain it if you haven’t done a lot on TV – it felt like 12 seconds. It felt awful. It wasn’t really that bad, but in that long moment, the silence was deafening.

“We dug out of it. I would toss it back to Dan Hicks or Johnny Miller or Gary Koch or someone else at NBC, and they’d joke, ‘Whew, he got through it again.’ ”

The Steve Sands Update Era is officially over. This week in the Tour Championship here, the FedEx Cup has replaced the confusing points system with scores versus par, numbers designed to be easily understandable. Justin Thomas, who ranked No. 1 in FedEx Cup points after winning last weekend’s BMW Championship, will begin the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club at 10 under par. He will start with a two-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay, the No. 2 player; a three-shot edge over No. 3 Brooks Koepka; four over No. 4 Patrick Reed; and five over No. 5 Rory McIlroy. Then the strokes are staggered in groups. The bottom five players in the 30-man field will start at even par, 10 shots off the lead.

That may sound odd, but it means viewers, media and players will know where every player stands at all times in the race for the $15 million first prize. More drama, less math.

The Steve Sands Update Era is over, but this week kicks off the Steve Sands Needling Era.

“I’ve had more people ask me the last few weeks, ‘Man, are you gonna be all right? Do you have a job?’ Even some players,” Sands said. “I tell everybody, ‘Yeah, I’m still working this week; I just won’t have a board.’ ”

He was joking, maybe, when he said that he might get a tear in his eye when he passes the East Lake clubhouse set where he used to work his whiteboard magic. “I’m going to miss it,” Sands conceded. “The updates were so much fun, and we took a lot of pride in doing them.”

It’s a warm bit of nostalgia now, but time marches on, as does the FedEx Cup.

Sands fondly remembers what a kick his late mother got from watching him do addition in those early FedEx Cup updates. She was a high school teacher, a big golf fan and, of course, a big fan of her son.

“After the first few times, I guess she thought it was OK to text her son, maybe after the nerves left her from watching me do math on live TV,” Sands said. “She said, ‘If you would’ve done that much homework in high school, you could’ve been somebody.’ ”

Mom was only kidding. Everybody in golf knows Sands. He’s the guy who used to add FedEx Cup points on a whiteboard. You know, the guy who wasn’t Tim Russert or Jim Nantz.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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