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Q&A with David Feherty, Golf's Most Entertaining Analyst

David Feherty

David Feherty

The following interview appears in the 2016 edition of Athlon Sports' Golf Annual, available now. Purchase it here

With his trademark wit, David Feherty has supplied much of the soundtrack to the Tiger Woods era in golf. And as the game continues its transition into a post-Tiger phase, the sport’s resident raconteur is making a transition of his own in 2016. Feherty has taken his unique talents from CBS to NBC, exchanging The Masters and PGA Championship for the British Open, the Olympics and the Ryder Cup. The move has Feherty nervous and energized — a combination that could yield some memorable broadcast moments in 2016 from a guy whose filter has been known to malfunction in refreshingly honest fashion.

Born in Bangor, Northern Ireland, on the Irish Sea, Feherty had a solid playing career in Europe, winning five European Tour events between 1986 and 1992 and earning a spot on the 1991 Ryder Cup team. But a nagging awareness that he would never be an elite player led him to look for a career where he could truly excel. By his own description, he was “the right drunk in the right bar at the right time” when CBS came calling, and the result has been an unlikely but wildly successful second act.

Athlon’s Rob Doster sat down with the game’s most popular on-course analyst and its most endearing ambassador. We quickly learned that his shameless, self-deprecating sense of humor couldn’t mask his profound passion for the game, his love for his adopted homeland and his sense of anticipation over another new chapter in a rock-star career.

Now that you’re working with Johnny Miller and the other members of the NBC team, are you adjusting your approach at all? Do you think they were ready for David Feherty?

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(Laughs) You’ll have to ask them. I’ve known them all for a long time, I’ve been in this country 23 years. I don’t think it’s a question of adjusting to the people; it’s the process that’s slightly different at NBC. I won’t be calling any taped shots, which is the big difference between NBC and CBS. And I’ll be spending a little more time in towers as well. They’re friends of mine — Roger Maltbie, Peter Jacobsen, Gary Koch, Johnny and Dan [Hicks]. It’s not a question of getting to know anyone.

What will you miss most about your work at CBS?

I’ll miss the people more than the places. It’s such a different challenge, having entirely new golf courses, entirely new venues in entirely different weeks compared to what I’ve done for the last 19 years. I obviously really enjoyed having my voice on an event like The Masters and the PGA Championship. That meant a great deal to me to be able to call those events.

But being able to do the Open Championship and the Ryder Cup, having played on a [European] Ryder Cup team and now being an American citizen, will be fantastic for me. It’s a unique position.

Then, of course, there’s the Olympics, which is an entirely different event. For many people, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To be a part of the crew, with Bob Costas and Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth and other people. I’ve gotten to work with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms and James Brown and John McEnroe and a bunch of great people on the CBS side, and now to have a chance to do it with another group of people of that caliber is amazing.  

You could even say that in exchanging The Masters and PGA and your other CBS duties for the Open Championship, the Ryder Cup and the Olympics, you came out ahead.

Yeah, which is pretty good, considering what I had.

The 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine could be the most eagerly anticipated Cup in history. Where does the Ryder Cup rank in the hierarchy of golf’s biggest events?

I’ve always loved the Open Championship, it’s the greatest stroke play event in the world, and I don’t think there’s any question that the Ryder Cup is the greatest match play event in golf. There’s nothing like Ryder Cup pressure. It’s more than any major championship, because it’s not just you and your ball, it’s 11 other guys that you least want to let down. It’s your country, or in Europe’s case, your continent. Any time you can play under your flag is really special.

You experienced it firsthand at the 1991 Ryder Cup, the famed “War on the Shore” at Kiawah’s Ocean Course. What do you remember about that week?

It was the high point of my [playing] career, being on a losing Ryder Cup side. I always think of it as high as I got. It was such an electric experience. I never felt anything like it before, and I’ve never felt anything like it since. Standing on that first tee and teeing the ball up and being part of that event.

That year, the European team flew in on the Concorde and landed in Charleston. I was sitting beside my best friend Sam Torrance [former European Ryder Cup player and captain who sank the winning putt for Europe in 1985], played with him for 20 years. At the airport, the fences were lined with people. It looked like people were trying to climb over the fence. And I thought, this event is huge, it’s amazing. And Sam said, “No, they’re here to see the airplane, you f---ing idiot.” That’s one of my favorite memories. The Concorde apparently doesn’t land too often at Charleston.

What about your singles win over Payne Stewart?

Payne was a great friend of mine. In our match, I was 4-up with four to play. I was playing probably the best round of golf I ever played in my life. But I lost two holes in a row, 15 and 16, and I was in a complete full DEFCON 1 panic mode going to the 17th tee.

Crowd control had broken down, and we were trying to make our way to the tee. This large lady marshal poked her “Quiet Please” sign into my chest and said, “Where do you think you’re going?” like I was a heavily disguised spectator. I was about to go bats--t postal when Payne put his arm around my neck and put his face right against mine, and I could smell the Red Man [chewing tobacco] from the plug he had in his mouth, and he’s grinning that stupid schoolboy grin, and he said, “Ma’am, I’d love you to keep this son of a bitch right here, but he’s playing against me.” That’s who he was. Being 2-down with two to play, you’d love to see your opponent losing his pieces before you get on the hardest hole in the Western Hemisphere [the par-3 17th at Kiawah], but that’s just who he was. I managed to make 3 there and finish the match. He was very special to me, and the fact that I got to play him in that series of matches meant a great deal to me.

Will Tiger and Phil make good Ryder Cup captains someday, or do their iconic personalities make them more individuals than team leaders?

I think that’s a good question. I haven’t thought much about that. I think they will be Ryder Cup captains; I can’t imagine they wouldn’t be. I think the role of the captain is sometimes overplayed. The bottom line is, if the guys on your team don’t play particularly well, everyone wants to blame the captain, but there’s only so much he can do. I mean, you can choose who’s going to play with each other and that kind of thing. At Gleneagles [in 2014], everyone wanted to give Tom Watson a hard time about who he put together, but I put them together [on paper] after the fact — in order of height, in order of weight, shoe size — and they still got their asses handed to them.

It’s a very difficult event to deal with from a logistical point of view. You have the gala dinners, the speaking, the signing of God only knows how much merchandise and memorabilia, all the press conferences and bulls--t that goes on around it. You get there early in the week and all you want to do is play golf, and all you’ve got is not that, until the bell rings.

You’ve got a lot to look forward to, but what’s the greatest moment you’ve called to this point in your career?

Wow. You know, Tiger in 1997 was my first Masters, and Jordan [Spieth] last year was my last, so that’s two pretty good bookends right there. Two 21-year-olds.

Tiger Woods and Bob May at the 2002 PGA Championship at Valhalla was one of the great Sunday afternoons in the history of sports, with Bob May hanging onto his leg like Alonzo Mourning dragging Jeff Van Gundy around the f---ing court. It was amazing to watch and amazing to be a part of. So many of those moments with Tiger — the chip-in at 16 [at The Masters in 2005], his PGA Championship wins were just extraordinary, the finishes that he came up with.

In many ways, the PGA Championship was the greatest major of all for me during my time at CBS, because of the finishes, whether it was Mickelson and David Toms at the Atlanta Athletic Club, or Rich Beem at Hazeltine, for God’s sake — what are the odds of that? Even before I got into broadcasting, John Daly at Crooked Stick in 1991. The PGA Championship just turns out amazing finishes. [Last] year at Whistling Straits — holy s--t, what were they smoking?

I know you can’t wait to get to Royal Troon. What does the Open Championship mean to you?

I grew up within sight of Turnberry across the Irish Sea only 20 miles away. You could see the lighthouse at Turnberry from the house I was born in. The first Open I played in was in 1979, the last in 1996. For me, it was always the biggest golf tournament in the world. As a European, we only have one [stroke play] major. Our other major is the Ryder Cup. The Open Championship — it’s the biggest golf tournament in the world, and it feels like it.  Players from all over the world come to the same nine venues. You feel like you’re getting closer to the heartbeat of golf when you play in the Open Championship.

You had top-10 finishes at the Open twice (in 1989 and ’94), and also tied for seventh in the 1991 PGA Championship. What do you remember about those tournaments?

In each of those championships, on Sunday afternoon, I had a putt that if I would have made it, it would have given me a realistic chance of actually winning a major championship. I missed it every time. Looking back at it, I don’t know if it was deliberate, but I didn’t want the responsibility that came with winning an event like that. I didn’t think of myself in those terms. Any successful person in any business has to want to be in a place where they know they’re going to be uncomfortable. That’s what makes people successful in any walk of life. And I didn’t want to be in that place. I didn’t know it at the time, and I wasn’t going to “Van de Velde” myself, I wasn’t going to wait until the 18th, but I would miss the putt and finish fourth, or seventh or sixth.

Those experiences tell you how small the difference is between winning and losing a major.

It prevented me from having that realistic chance. I knew I could finish high and come close and sort of limp heroically to the finish. But I knew I couldn’t be in that top echelon of players. When I quit playing and was lucky enough to get into this business, I felt differently. In this business, I do feel like I want to be in a place where I know I’m going to be uncomfortable. And that starts again in 2016, because I’m nervous about it. I’m uncomfortable, and that’s where I want to be.

You’ll get to call Olympic golf in Rio. What are you most looking forward to: the golf, or going to Rio and enjoying the whole Olympic experience?

I’ll be honest with you — just going to Rio and being part of that Olympic experience. It’s the chance of a lifetime, it really is. To have your voice on the telecast — any Olympic telecast. Hell, I’ll take marbles.

I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never been part of anything this gigantic. But I’m really looking forward to it.

Is golf a good fit for the Olympics? It comes at an awkward time on the calendar, for one thing.

It does, but it’s only every four years. A lot of it will depend on this first experience. It’s hard to know what to expect. But it’s like any event — it’s how invested the players are in it that will determine the success of it, I would imagine. How much would an Olympic gold medal mean to these guys? Hopefully, it’ll mean a great deal.

Have the Augusta National people ever objected to anything you’ve said in a Masters broadcast?

I get asked that a lot. To be honest, in 19 Masters, I don’t remember anybody asking me to say anything different or telling me that I said something incorrectly.

The players treat The Masters differently than any other major. There’s a tremendous amount of respect for it. And the other thing is, it was easier to do The Masters than it was to do any other event, because it just requires less commentary. It goes back to the same place every year, people are familiar with it, they know the topography, they know what players are liable to do in any given situation, so really I always felt like I was just providing punctuation and allowing the pictures to tell the story.

Have you ever said anything on the air you wish you could take back?

David Feherty

I farted once, and Tiger got blamed for it. At the [2009] Buick Open in Flint [Mich.]. I probably would have liked to have taken that back.

I’ve always been on the hairy edge with things like that. Sometimes people have been offended, but they haven’t been able to tell me quite why they were offended. In that sense, I guess I’ve been lucky.

I’ve always been lucky. I was the right drunk in the right bar at the right time when CBS was looking for somebody to put on the air. Tiger Woods turned pro about 10 minutes after I became a broadcaster. Talk about lucky. It’s been amazing. And fortunately, golfers and people in general, if I’m giving somebody a hard time, whether it’s Ernie Els or Tiger Woods, I like to think that I’m offering them the opportunity to show who they are by their reaction. It offers them dignity. You can choose to be offended, or you can choose to give me a little s--t back. That’s the intellectual exchange that I enjoy.

You’ve been very upfront about battling your personal demons (Feherty went public in 2006 with his struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder). Has it been therapeutic for you to do that in a public forum?

Yes. When I first started to get clean, I was very open about it, because I felt that given the F-list celebrity that I had, I could paint or write myself into a corner, where if enough people knew that I had the problem, I’d be less likely to transgress. You can’t sit in a bar in an airport and order a drink if there’s a bunch of people sitting there who know you shouldn’t be doing it.

As I progressed with it, people would talk to me and say, “My sister, or my brother, or I have this problem.” It became apparent that by being open about it, it was tremendously helpful to a lot of people. That, in its way, was very helpful to me, the thought that I might be able to help others. It’s really been very beneficial for me.

Let’s talk about your self-titled TV show on Golf Channel. Who’s your favorite interview subject of all time? Least favorite?

I’ve enjoyed all of them. I’ve only ever watched one of my shows — the first show, with Lee Trevino. That was very important to me. One of my earliest golf memories is Lee Trevino winning the 1968 U.S. Open, and I just fell in love with him then. To have him on my first show, and to have Lee Trevino as a friend, has been the most amazing thing. He was my hero, and he still is. So I did watch that show. I’m so freaking neurotic, I can’t watch myself on television. It gives me the creeps so badly I need therapy.

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The only person who has been difficult? Larry David, for me, was like interviewing a mirror, because he’s equally paranoid. He actually offered me $50,000 not to air the interview right after we were finished because he thought it sucked so bad.

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My favorite interviews are people like Bill Russell. I think about him all the time, especially in these times we’re in with the trouble we’ve got with race. He was extraordinary. When I shook hands with him, I felt greatness, an aura I’ve only felt with a few people — President Clinton, Arnold Palmer, Nelson Mandela. They’re just people that exude this electric kind of aura. There’s a warmth in their handshake and their general being. I felt Bill Russell was one of the greatest men I’ve ever met. Growing up in that era of segregation, and not actually having a problem with it. His attitude was, hey, one day they’ll wish that they’d seen me play. Boy, was he ever right. The man is just greatness.

Tom Watson, who helped save my life [Watson recognized the signs of Feherty’s alcoholism and helped him into recovery], is another favorite of mine. The interviews where I can show people perhaps a side of someone that I know that the viewer’s not aware of, like a Jim Furyk or a David Duval. I’ve had such a great time with all of them, to be honest.

Describe your experience interviewing Donald Trump (Trump was a guest on Feherty’s show in 2012). 

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I had a great time with Donald. The first thing he said, I walked into his office, and he said, “You need a suit.” ’Cause I looked like a homeless person who had just robbed Nordstrom’s. He actually had a suit made for me during the interview.

I think he is good for the game. He’s larger than life, a tremendous character. He’s kind of polarizing, obviously — either you like him or you don’t — but he is who he is, that’s for sure. I enjoyed being with him.

You’ve taken your act on the road with your one-man show, “David Feherty Off Tour.” What’s it like connecting with a live audience?

It’s been amazing. The live shows that I’ve done on the Golf Channel, I’ve done a couple of them a year, they’re kind of a laxative. You can’t screw it up, and if you do, you’ve got to make it look deliberate.

Being on stage with a microphone and a spotlight and a chicken for some reason [a stuffed chicken named Frank is essentially his only prop] — that’s an entirely different experience. It was something I wanted to see if I could do, and it’s been amazing. You get addicted to the adrenaline rush. It’s not like I’m going to make a career out of it, but I’ve been amazed at the amount of people that will show up to listen to me tell other people’s stories.

What prompted you to create your Troops First Foundation? (Feherty’s Troops First Foundation works to provide assistance to military personnel who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

I grew up in an urban warfare situation in Northern Ireland of the ’50s and ’60s. When I moved to the United States, I fell in love with the place fairly quickly, and when 9/11 happened, and when we went into Iraq, I couldn’t bear the thought of anything like that happening here. I went to Iraq in 2007 to see why our military was being portrayed so negatively in the media, and I came back needing to be a U.S. citizen. I started the process [of gaining citizenship] immediately. I couldn’t believe what wasn’t being reported: the restraint that they showed, the compassion that they have, the love for each other, the teamwork. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s fine to be able to do something for them while they’re there, but being able to do something for them when they come home, especially when they come home broken. … It’s like alcoholism and drug addiction for me — being public about it is very therapeutic for me. Being able to do something for them is even more valuable. I almost feel selfish doing it. It’s the biggest thrill in my life to be around these people. These are real-life action heroes. To be able to number them as friends is a huge thrill for me. If I can do something decent for them, that’s a bonus.

Let’s talk about the state of the PGA Tour today. Do you subscribe to the concept of a Big Four — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler? Does the game need a hierarchy like that to sustain interest in the post-Tiger era?

I think the game’s in tremendous shape, and a lot of it has to do with Tiger. All four of the kids you just named were sort of between 8 and 12 when Tiger started this amazing run between 1997 and 2009. He set the bar, and these kids believed that maybe they could get there.

It’s a whole lot more difficult to have a Big Three or Big Four now than it was back in the ’60s and ’70s because of the strength and depth there is out there. It’s not just those four kids. There’s dozens of them behind them now that are able to step up and win not just regular PGA Tour events but majors. I think golf is in a fantastic place because of it. Tiger Woods dragged it there.

Because of that depth, there’s probably no one out there, as good as they are, who can threaten Jack’s or Tiger’s career totals. Would you agree?

It’s unlikely. As good as these kids are, that’s actually the problem they have as well. To win eight, 10, 12, 14 majors — my God, it just seems impossible, just the thought of it.

Who’s the Next Great Player? Someone you have your eye on who we might be overlooking?

That’s a tough question. There are so many. In the early part of the wraparound season, we had new winners every week, shooting incredibly low scores. Nobody chokes anymore. Have you noticed that?  That pisses me off. The kids have got no fear, and just tremendous talent.

Do you think Tiger Woods is finished as a force on the PGA Tour?

I don’t. He’s too stubborn, he’s too proud and he’s too talented. And he loves the game. You know he loves the game now because of what he’s gone through in the last two or three years. He still shows up. He entered at Greensboro [in 2015] at the last minute because he wants to be there.

Having seen him at the peak of his extraordinary ability, my children won’t see golf like that, their children won’t see golf like that. Having seen him do what he’s been able to do, I cannot imagine the frustration that he feels at the moment. I don’t think he’s done yet. I really don’t.  He’ll defy logic, and he’ll defy us [pundits]. “No, I’m not done.”

Do you think Phil Mickelson has another major in him, specifically the one that’s eluded him thus far?

It wouldn’t surprise me. It wouldn’t surprise me at all. He’s been one of the most entertaining players that ever played. You just never know what you’re going to get with Phil. He has that mercurial brilliance, and then the ability to f--k up like you or I might do, and everything in between.

What’s the biggest problem facing the game today? Slow play sure gets a lot of attention.

I think slow play is a huge issue. And the game continues to be much too exclusive. I think we need to make the game more accessible. It’s a very wealthy demographic, which is one of the reasons the networks like it so much: Its demographic is very affluent, so it appeals to sponsors. But we have to make sure it becomes more accessible to kids, to women, to people that don’t make a s--tload of money.

You’ve built this multifaceted career in golf — player, then analyst, interviewer, storyteller, writer. Which part is your favorite? 

"I'm an outside pet. If you don't let me out every couple of hours, somebody's going to get s--t on."

I love what I do, especially the fact that I get paid for it, which always seems like a complete ruse to me. I turned pro at 17 and have never had a job. I’ve been a professional golfer for 40 years. People say, you’re an ex-professional. No, I’m not. It’s like being a Marine, but less dangerous. Unless you want to be an amateur again and revoke your status, I’m always going to be a professional golfer, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to stay in the game for as long as I have. I love it. Even though I can’t play anymore — I haven’t played golf at all for 10 years, my left arm is pretty much crippled, and I can’t close my left hand; I got run over by a truck 10 years ago riding my bike. Not that I was playing much or wanted to play that much, it just made sure that I couldn’t. But I enjoy the game so much.

I’m an outside pet. I’m going to spend some time on towers, but I’m an outside pet. If you don’t let me out every couple of hours, somebody’s going to get s--t on.

Being there with the leaders, I still feel like a professional golfer. I don’t really feel like an announcer. I’m with the leaders, I never miss a cut, and I get to watch the greatest players in the world play unbelievable golf, and I get paid for it. It’s fantastic.

Favorite course in the U.S.? Favorite outside the U.S.?

My favorite outside the U.S. would be St. Andrews. You’re walking into the heart of the game when you walk into that town. Up on that last green, it feels like you’re playing in a cemetery. It’s amazing, just an extraordinary place. I love it so much.

As for the United States: The very first thing a great golf course should be is a great walk. A beautiful walk. If you have to drive around it, then it doesn’t work for me. So places like Cypress Point, where you’re walking out into the Pacific, or in among the deer and the trees. I love Harbour Town, which is a golf course that hardly ever gets mentioned. Sleepy Hollow, which is on the Hudson, might be the most beautiful walk in American golf. I just love it. Bill Murray is a member up there.

I love these little golf courses. Little and old and short. If I had to pick an American golf course, I would pick a short, flat one with a Ritz-Carlton. But I don’t play anymore.

Speaking of the classic shorter courses, does it bother you that equipment is making them a little obsolete? Although, it seems like when they put a major at a shorter course like Merion, the course rises to the occasion.

I think our ruling bodies are worried about the wrong set of golfers. Whether Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods or Jordan Spieth or whoever makes Merion look short, that’s the wrong set of golfers. The people who drive the industry, who pay for the 30-second spots, the average person at home who loves the game, the game hasn’t got any easier for them.

Still, equipment has made the game more accessible, it’s made it more enjoyable, and we should let manufacturers make whatever the hell they want — except for the golf ball. They lost control of it. I believe the fix is very simple: You make the ball bigger. Instead of 1.68 [inch diameter], make it 1.72 or 1.71. The bigger surface area, it won’t go as far, it’s harder to hit straight, but it sits up a little better around the green, so it’s easier for the amateur to chip. There’s no downside to it. It’s too simple, I guess.

Are there plans for you with NBC outside of golf?

I don’t think so. It’s not something I would say no to, but my first priority is to be informative about golf, it’s what I know about, and second, to be entertaining about golf. If something else crops up, I’m game.

Picking winners of golf tournaments a few months out is a fool’s errand, but since we’re a major championship preview, I’ll ask: Who will win the four majors and the Ryder Cup in 2016, and why?

I think the United States wins the Ryder Cup, finally. As for the four majors: I recently interviewed Jordan Spieth for my show, and he is still pissed off, and I mean genuinely heartbroken, that he didn’t win the Open Championship. He is beside himself that he didn’t get that done. He was two shots away from the modern Grand Slam. That’s unthinkable. I’ll pick Jordan to win two of them.

I think Rory McIlroy will win one. And for the fourth, I think we’ll have a dark horse. One of these youngsters will pop up.

I see Rory winning a few more, and I certainly see Jordan in there as well, with the desire and talent he has combined with that wisdom and youthful spirit — that combination, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.

The Feherty File

Born Aug. 13, 1958, Bangor, Northern Ireland

Wife Anita, 5 children

Winner of 5 European Tour events and 5 other events worldwide

Member of 1991 European Ryder Cup Team

On-course reporter for CBS golf telecasts from 1997-2015

Creator and host of self-titled interview series on Golf Channel since 2011

Founder of Feherty’s Troops First Foundation, which works to provide assistance to military personnel who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan