Originally published: May 5, 2017
NBC offered me the opportunity to experience its coverage of The Players Championship from behind the scenes. This was my journey.
“Better than Most”
Gary Koch is the voice behind one of the most famous calls in golf history: a call that happened to take place on the famous 17th island green at TPC Sawgrass during The Players Championship in 2001 and involve Tiger Woods. But way before that, Koch was a player on the PGA Tour. He was good; winning 10 times in his career, twice in 1984 with one of those coming at the Bay Hill Classic.
Koch, who once played in a junior event with Arnold Palmer, still delights in receiving a trophy from The King of Golf and smiles as he tells me the story.
“Obviously winning Arnold’s event, I had had an opportunity to play with him when I was 17 years old and now here I am standing on the 18th with him as he’s presenting me with the trophy for winning his tournament was almost surreal,” he says. “And the way I won, over the course of your career you’re probably going to have one day that is the best day of your career, that final day was the best day of my career. I mean I shot 63, it was eight-under par. I had eight birdies and no bogies and then played two playoff holes and made two more birdies, so I’d played 20 holes and made 10 birdies and 10 pars on a pretty tough golf course.”
The 10-time PGA winner now sits in a tower and commentates on the sport he once played. He’s done this since joining NBC Sports in 1996. Until last season, he had been traveling to 25 events a year over the last 10 years. Koch will only travel to 16 events this season, but that is still a lot of time on the road.
“I cut back starting last year. I did 16 events last year and I’ll do 16 this year and next year. I’ve been doing this a long time,” says Koch. “I’m getting old and have been away from home a lot.”
It wasn’t hard to see while watching him work that he loves commentating on golf and is meticulous in his preparation of the four holes – 4th, 8th, 12th, 17th – at The Players Championship that are his responsibility.
He arrives at the course no later than 10 AM so he can check pin placements and make notes in his yardage book, which looks like a seasoned Tour pro’s, before he goes on the air at 4 PM. This gives him a feel for what the players will be experiencing as they pass through his holes.
“This year, because of all the changes, I probably spent a little more time going over this kind of information than I normally would because through the years the place has been pretty much the same and I have notes from all the years past,” says Koch. “So this year was a little extra work on that.”
After he’s done his personal course prep, Koch talks with producer Tommy Roy, who he says, “likes to use the telestrator to illustrate certain holes to show why they’re very difficult or why they may be easier.”
Koch’s prep doesn’t end there as he usually heads out to the range to chat with some of the players and listen in when they’re getting coached so he can have something to mention during the broadcast.
Once he’s on the air, Koch tells me he pays very little attention to the screen that has what you and I will be watching at home. His attention is on the secondary screen with camera angles of all four of the holes he commentates on.
“The program here, which is what you’re seeing at home, I watch that very little because I’m watching what is happening everywhere else, and I’m talking to the producer and co-producer Tom Randolph trying to let them know what’s happening on my holes.”
The producers see the same feeds as Koch, but they are also keeping an eye on the main broadcast as well as every other camera on the course. If Koch knows that a guy who is playing well is about to hit a shot on one of his four holes he likes to make sure and relay that information back to the main truck and let Roy know that he’s ready to comment.
“Whether they decide to go to that shot or not, that’s out of my hands, but that’s the focus there.”
Koch’s assistant Harrison Root (who sits to his left) keeps track of every player on the course so Gary can mention stats. Harrison tracks things like how many greenside bunkers a player has found during the week and how many times he’s gotten up-and-down out of them in case that situation happens on one of Koch’s holes.
“Harrison is really good. He’ll have the computer that has all the ShotLink information. He’s got two sets of white boards that have the scores of all the players on the course. I encourage Harrison that if something jumps out at him to get the information and put it on a card and put it in front of me,” he says. “If I don’t have the information I can promise you it’ll never get used. If it’s there, it may get used and a lot of times we don’t get stuff used, but especially later in the event if I can say that a player has hit into six bunkers and gotten it up and down five times, he’s obviously had a good week out of the bunkers. If I can say that, it gives the viewer something to latch on to. Hopefully I have time to describe whether it’s a hard shot or an easy shot and describe why so the viewer has some things in his mind before he watches the shot.”
In a perfect world, that is what Koch hopes to convey with his coverage, of course, like he says, that doesn’t always work out because things move quite quickly during the broadcast.
“Now, in the first two days, because (producer) Tommy Roy has a philosophy that I agree with 100%, if you’ve earned your way into this field you’ve earned the right to be shown on television, we tend to jump around and show a lot more golf, and I agree with that theory because people that are watching on Thursday and Friday are probably hard core golf fans. They want to see golf, so it makes it a little more difficult to try and set something up and provide additional information because we’re not going to be there as long. Then it’s a matter of reacting after the shot and deciding whether I have enough time to describe the player’s next shot.”
While Koch is telling me these things, Harrison is nodding along in agreement. The two obviously work well together and the first two days are not easy to cover with the field being as large as it is, but they make it work.
“It all becomes really a matter of feel more than anything else, and fortunately I’ve been doing it long enough that I kind of have a sense for that.”
Koch has seen a lot of crazy things on the 17th hole. He mentions Bob Tway’s 12, Rickie Fowler “tearing up the place” a couple of years ago, Russell Knox landing one in the water and then shanking another one that almost hit the camera on the “other island.”
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to sit here and see some good stuff over the years, and I can’t think of many places, there are a couple that come to mind, maybe at Augusta, but as far as pure excitement over a closing three holes it doesn’t get a lot better than this place.
“Pete Dye knew what he was doing when he put this thing together.”
There are a lot of moving parts behind the scenes at The Players Championship and Koch is one of the most familiar because of how much air-time the 17th hole gets, but, just like the 17th hole, he is just one piece of a very large puzzle that comes together in a spectacular way.
The Lonely Island
There is technically only one island in the pond between the 16th and 17th holes at TPC Sawgrass and it has a tree, some pretty flowers, and one lone cameraman occupying it during The Players Championship.
That cameraman is Brian Phraner. Phraner has been behind the camera for NBC since 1995, but he started working at tournaments before Tiger Woods was the Tiger Woods we all know.
He recounted a time he once drove Tiger’s father Earl around at the U.S. Amateur.
“I used to drive his father around at the U.S. Amateurs when we were doing the amateurs,” says Phraner. “I had really basically just started doing it and the last year that Tiger won the U.S. Amateur (1996) I asked his father ‘How’s the kid doing?’ and he told me, ‘He looks a little distracted today. He’s got this guy from Nike following him around,’ and I don’t know what’s going on with him and then the next morning you read in USA Today that Tiger Woods has signed a 40-million-dollar contract with Nike.
“It was kind of cool being right next to that and seeing that in a nonchalant manner, but I was lucky because I really rode that Tiger Woods wave, and when you look at a lot of replays, I shot so much stuff of him.”
Phraner’s vantage point during the tournament is one that you’ll see on TV often, but one you will likely never get to experience in person. Only a very small group of people have visited the “other island,” and even fewer have visited while players were on the course. That made the experience even more special for me.
Phraner told me that the others who have been out to the island include those who build the platform, a couple of other Golf Channel guys who help him set up the camera – a large super high-definition camera that must be moved from a boat up onto the top platform, which involves stepping up onto the bulkhead that surrounds the island and then across to a small wooden platform before it can be carried up a few metal stairs.
The other person who visits the island during the tournament is the man responsible for swapping out the flowers to pink after the third round on Saturday for Mother’s Day.
Phraner has been behind the lens for many events, but there are very few spots in golf that are as cool as the spot between the 16th and 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. It would be very easy as a spectator to find a spot on the hill on the 17th and sit and watch every group come through. It is a special place and there are very few places where player reactions are such a big part of the result of the shot. This provides both excitement and frustration and Phraner has captured it all.
So, when you see that small box in the top corner of your TV focused on the player after a tee shot on the 17th during The Players, that is Phraner, and even though he is surrounded by what can be quite a raucous environment he tells me it is very peaceful on the island by himself with only the sounds from his headset directing him which way to point his camera.
A Big Production
NBC Sports’ main production truck can be described as extremely organized chaos during a tournament.
As Gary Koch mentioned earlier, producer Tommy Roy likes to show every player at least once because he knows that real golf fans will appreciate it.
Roy is one of the best sports producers in the business and watching him work is like sitting front row at an orchestra concert; he points and yells out camera names like “Winder,” “Dawg,” and “Elvis.” When the graphics wipe across the screen, Roy is wiping with his arms as if he is controlling them with his mind like a Jedi in Star Wars. He doesn’t look in the least bit stressed by the chaos and appears to relish the atmosphere; smiling as he’s barking orders not only to the crew around him in the truck, but also to everyone on the course with a direct line back to him.
Roy does this while watching the main TV feed, a feed adjacent to that one showing what is being queued up to show next, as well as around 30 other screens of live feeds spread out across one wall inside the truck named “Double Eagle.”
In all, I counted 35 screens on the main wall of the production truck that Roy, co-producer Tom Randolph, director Doug Grabert, and technical director Mark Causey are all focused on. It is a massive production and clearly takes time to get used to. I was overwhelmed within the first five minutes of trying to focus on what Roy is watching and pointing to all while he is talking to commentators and the graphics guys in another room in the truck.
Over the span of his 25-year career with NBC, Roy has produced Super Bowls, Olympics, NBA Finals and a college football national championship. He has also served as the executive producer of events like the World Series, Kentucky Derby, Daytona 500, Wimbledon and Notre Dame football.
Roy has won 30 Sports Emmy awards. To say he is good at what he does is an understatement. He’s great at it and golf fans appreciate the coverage he puts together for events like The Open, the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Players Championship and FedEx Cup playoffs.
It is difficult to put into words exactly how vast the production for a tournament, especially one as big as The Players Championship is. The crew brings 11 trucks, 47,128 feet (nine miles) of Fiber, 21,000 feet of camera cable, 8,000 feet of audio cable, 12,000 feet of microphone cable, and 120 microphones.
Somehow Roy and his staff manage to bring everything together and make it all seem so easy. When most sports are focused on a single ball, the NBC Sports staff is focused on many.
Ride Along with a Star
There isn’t a hole on a golf course that Roger Maltbie steps on during a tournament where someone isn’t heard yelling, “Rog,” or “Maltbie,” or making some sort of joke to which he will quickly respond with one of his own.
I went for a ride with the legend over the front nine holes of the first round at The Players Championship as he followed the Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and Justin Thomas group. One of the first things he told me was, “Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
He wasn’t lying and his driver, Bob Reed, also made sure that I understood “when Roger hits that seat, your ass better be holding on.”
We went through the first hole at a blistering pace, with Bob yelling at fans “on your right, on your left” as he pushed the gas pedal down and weaved through the crowd. The first hole was a blur for me and I cannot recall a single shot.
When we arrive at the spot on the second hole where the group’s drives had landed, Roger couldn’t find a flag marking Justin Thomas’ ball. He began looking around and asking, “Where’s the flag? Where’s the flag? Do you see the flag?” This prompted the crowd to point out exactly where the ball was in the rough. Of course, Maltbie quipped, “Why’d they get rid of the flags? Now I’m going to have to do more walking while I search for these balls.”
At the age of 65, Roger appears to appreciate the ride in the cart–I know I did–and picks his battles on when to walk up the fairway to the green. It is also quite possible that he could find shade in a desert. He knows how to position himself under the nearest tree while still giving himself a view from inside the ropes so he can commentate should the broadcast choose to go to him.
“I have to be ready at all times,” he tells me. “I never know when they’re going to come to me.”
Almost as soon as he says this he turns and starts whispering into his microphone.
In between pauses in commentary, he tells me about the difficulty he’s having tracking the ball off the tee in the hazy conditions. There are fires north of the course and the smoke in the air, while not thick, was making things more difficult for him than they normally are.
Again, he gets interrupted, but this time it is by Justin Thomas’s parents telling him they enjoy his work covering their son.
After he’s said a few words, we go back to chatting while waiting for the players to hit. He explains to me how he doesn’t use ShotLink, but instead has a guy out there on the course with him who walks off the distances just like the player’s caddies and then hustles over with a sticky note with them listed.
He’s always done it this way and he feels it gives him a better grasp of what the players are experiencing.
The players hit again and we hustle back over to the cart, pushing our way through the crowd to get to where Bob is parked, waiting to zip us up to the green. When we arrive, Roger goes off to get the lines of the putts from the player’s prospective (I stay behind, again, I can’t walk out onto the fringe of the putting surface like he can), but it gave me time to talk with Bob and get a sense of what it’s like driving Roger around. He tells me a few stories that make me feel like I’m talking to Roger.
When Roger comes back, we take off and head down the next fairway to a spot with very few fans. When we stop, Bob asks Roger, “Did you enjoy the Super Bowl?”
He answers, “No, it was sad to see Atlanta cough up that lead.”
The two continue talking and joking until a fan comes up and asks Roger for a picture. He obliges, for the third time over the first six holes, but makes sure to mention, “We’ve got to hurry up because I’ve got to go.” The fan had some trouble getting the camera to work on his phone prompting another, “let’s hurry.”
The picture is snapped and once again we’re off. Before I knew it we were heading for the ninth hole. My free ride was almost over. As we walk up the ninth tee box ahead of the players the crowd begins yelling Roger’s name.
It becomes very clear that the fans across the course appreciate him because he interacts with them. He’s as much of a celebrity on the course as the players they are there to watch.
The Man with All the Stats
Brandel Chamblee is one of those guys you could sit down and talk golf with for hours. You know going into the discussion that you may disagree with some of what he says, but if you’ll give him the opportunity, he’ll show you why he feels the way he does about a point he is making.
I asked Brandel how he goes about preparing for an event like The Players Championship and wasn’t surprised at all to learn that he is extremely analytical and focuses on stats. He began by describing the tournament as a major because it is treated as such by everyone involved and fans at home.
“We treat it like a major, it feels like a major,” he tells me.
He begins prepping two to three weeks ahead of the tournament.
“I start accumulating all the data from years past and start refreshing myself with every event that has ever taken place here, so I go all the way back to 1982 and whatever data I can dig up, there wasn’t as much statistical data available then, but starting from about 1982 to 1990 you can get a certain amount, and from 1990 to 1997 you can get a certain amount more and then from 1997 on you can basically get what color socks people wore,” he says. “I get all of that. I dig it all up. I put it all down on legal pads and get organized and then start breaking down the types of players that have won and how they’ve won. Everything from how they played the par-3s, the fours, the fives, how many birdies they’ve made, how many doubles they’ve made, how many eagles they’ve made.”
Brandel then begins to show me the websites he uses to gather his information.
“I’ll go into ShotLink and look at the shot trails and look at where they played certain shots and where they made birdies from, what side of the fairway, where most people made birdies from, and how people got into trouble and then I just come to grips with what type of player it’s going to take to play well this coming week based upon the forecast. Based upon how the golf course is playing.”
Brandel then informs me he came to TPC Sawgrass two weeks prior to the tournament to see the golf course, play it and get a sense of how it feels.
“I take all of those things into account and start very broadly and then just try to narrow it down,” says Brandel.
He continues by giving me a quick presentation of the websites he’s mentioned, showing me exactly how he will pull up a player’s shot trails and then use another website to see how that player has done on par-3s, 4s, and 5s this season.
“The other night I said, ‘Watch out for Francesco Molinari.”
I responded by telling him that when I heard him mention Molinari I was surprised, so he showed me why he felt Molinari may have a good chance to win.
“So how do I come to that? I’m looking at everybody, but I get down to Molinari and I’ll start with how has he played this golf course in the past. So, I’ll go to The Players,” he says as he scrolls to The Players on one of the many sites he uses. “So, this is going to give me statistical history at this golf course. In 2016 he finished seventh,” he says of Molinari. “He was 10th in fairways.” He then points out that driving distance doesn’t matter, “If a guy hits it long here, chances are he’s going to struggle because guys who hit it long are not used to being told what to do and this golf course tells you what to do.”
“So then I’ll see he [Molinari] hit a lot of greens, and then I’ll look over here,” he points to another section of the site, “and see how he played all of his holes and he only made one double bogey. That’s good.”
He continues, “Then I’ll go down to the next year and see that he was fourth in fairways hit. Right?” He looks at me to make sure I’m following along. “I’ll go down here to 2010, I’ll see he was fourth in greens hit, then second in greens hit, he was eighth in fairways, seventh and sixth the last two years and I’ll think, ‘Ok, this guy can obviously do all the things necessary to play this golf course well.”
The next step for Brandel is to see how he’s playing this year.
“I will go back and say, ‘Let’s have a look at how he’s playing this year,” he pulls up the 2017 results for Molinari. “This will give me all his statistical data. Now, I can get this on other sites, but this one aggregates it for me, so I’ll look. Here he is coming into Wells Fargo. He finished 24th, which doesn’t sound very good except that he was sixth in greens, ninth in fairways.”
He continues listing off how Molinari has finished in fairways hit and greens hit over the season and then tells me, “Nobody hit it better than him at the Masters. Now, putting is not his gift, but ball-striking is. You can get yourself in a lot of trouble here if you’re not spot on.”
He then poses the question of whether he can win The Players or not.
“Can he win? He’s going to have to have a very, very good week for him on the greens to win, but can he contend? Absolutely. When you start looking at predicting a player that will contend here, it’d be very hard to get past Francesco Molinari.”
Brandel does this with every single player in the top 50 in the world rankings and sometimes he goes down to 75 before he arrives at a conclusion that he feels is worthy of sharing with the television audience. He knows that many won’t agree with him, but backs it up with stats. Molinari wasn’t his pick to win the tournament, Jon Rahm was – I also had Rahm listed in my picks. He picked Rahm because, “The moment doesn’t frighten him at all.”
Rahm ultimately ended up finished tied for 72nd after carding an 82 in his third round, but that is beside the fact. Chamblee doesn’t prep, he does research. His notepad has more information than most fans would find relevant, including the apex of a player’s drive.
It all works for him.
Brandel doesn’t stop with stats, he also reviews how players have interacted with the media at past tournaments so he can get a sense of their personality. This is important for him because it shows him how players handle themselves under the pressure when there are millions of dollars on the line.
“At the end of the day, you then go on the air and you try to have fun and you convey that knowledge in sort of a basic way because there are a lot of geeky people out there who want to know that stuff, but there are also a lot of people who want to cut to the chase.”
We continued to talk about golf and a few other topics. I asked Brandel how he felt about green reading books and he, without hesitation, told me why he believes that aim-point putting is wrong and that players are getting too technical with that aspect of the game. This gave me the opportunity to bring up Bryson DeChambeau.
“What Bryson is trying to do is nothing new. The reason I try to admonish people against the ideas of The Golf Machine are, one, they get fundamental things wrong in that book. Very early on in that book it says that the head does not move. Well, that’s wrong,” he says. “I mean that is very wrong. There is not a single great player out there neither moved their head off the ball, or up. So, it’s just wrong.
“I mean if you get something as basic as your head not being able to move wrong, how am I going to believe you on any other thing in that book?”
Brandel then tells me, “The people that dive into that book get so technically oriented that they play with the sense that golf can be perfected, and so they are always butting heads with the fact that it can’t be perfected.”
Chamblee loves golf. He loves sharing his opinion on the sport and genuinely appears to love doing the research and prep work for every tournament. He knows that not everyone will agree with his opinion, and that is fine with him.
His goal, like the rest of Golf Channel’s staff, is to share as much golf information as he can, and make it interesting and fun.
Experience of a Lifetime
I hadn’t planned on attending The Players Championship, but after Golf Channel approached me with the opportunity to do the things I did, I’m glad I did. The experience was spectacular. One I’ll never forget and the tournament is wonderful.