Michael Collins is a storyteller. One would expect that from a former comedian and caddy, but Collins is one of those individuals whose life can be told through a series of anecdotes that will make you laugh and tug at your heartstrings in equal measure. The big personality that helped get him to where he is now shines through in every pause, delivery, and belly laugh; a lifetime's worth of experience entertaining audiences evident as he verbally meanders his way from Point A to Point B and occasionally to Point Z.
As Collins shared the stories that plot out his life and led to his position as one of the faces of ESPN's golf coverage, one thing quickly becomes abundantly clear: even after a decade at the network, Collins still can't believe this is his life, his career. He's met his heroes, and some of them recognized Collins before he even introduced himself. He's traveled all over the country. He hosts his own show for the Worldwide Leader: America's Caddie on ESPN+.
"I'm waiting for the alarm clock to go off," Collins tells The Big Lead. "The alarm clock. You call for me to wake up and I'd be like, 17 and [thinking], I knew it was not real. I knew it was a dream.
"I'm getting to do something that 20 years ago I didn't even know was an option, you know what I mean? Like the whole journalism thing. I tell people all the time: 'If you would've told me when I first started doing stand-up comedy Hey, you're gonna caddy on the PGA Tour for 10 years and end up working for ESPN and be on SportsCenter, I'd have been like, I'm gonna need you to pee in this cup and go to HR because you may be off.'"
Collins started off as a comedian at 21 years-old, touring all around the country. In 1998, he put on shows at Hilton Head while the Heritage Classic was taking place. Collins ended up getting friendly with a few golfers and their caddies, inviting them to his show. By the end of the week, just about everybody at the event had seen Collins' act (some more than once) and loved it.
Collins ended up performing alongside several PGA Tour events and gradually worked his way into the caddie industry. One of his first jobs was carrying golfer Omar Uresti’s bag while he and his caddie discussed yardage during practice rounds. He ended up caddying for a decade, as golfer after golfer decided they needed to relax on the course and knew Collins was the perfect man for the job.
"He helped me through Tour school," Uresti says. "He was able to help me relax out there, to not get so stressed out. I kind of realized when I might have been getting a little too tense or whatever, and then he just started talking to me a little bit more and then threw in some jokes or something funny, you know, to loosen me up."
Collins' notoriety grew over the next decade and he eventually was tapped for radio hits and the occasional online live chat. Around 2009, Rob King, Senior Vice President who oversaw all of ESPN's original and digital content from 2007-2014, was listening to PGA Tour Radio on SiriusXM while in his car. Collins was on-air, interviewing players during a rain delay. King ended up listening to Collins for nearly an hour -- and only partly because King is such a golf junkie.
"I was enthralled by the candid, light-hearted, carefree way in which a series of Tour players were speaking with the show’s host," King says. "'Who,' I asked myself, 'could possibly be making these players sound so funny, so honest, so open about how they were feeling about their games and their careers?' I had never heard pro golfers sound like this before.
"When the show finally went to break, the host identified himself as Michael Collins. So as soon as I was done driving – yes, I did wait until I’d stopped driving – I Googled 'Michael Collins.'"
The next day, King suggested to Kevin McGuire, ESPN's golf editor at the time, that he give Collins a call. Collins received a direct message on Twitter from McGuire and assumed it would be a radio hit. Shortly into the conversation, Collins realized this call was an opportunity far greater than a radio interview. McGuire told Collins that one of their golf writers was leaving and the network was looking for something different than a standard columnist. As Collins put it, the call was for "a job-job."
Collins showed up in Bristol for a day filled with job interviews shortly thereafter. He still didn't really believe it, walking into King's office looking for cameras and expecting Ashton Kutcher to jump out, Punk'd style. Once King assured Collins it was, in fact, real, Collins began to believe.
What drew the network to Collins in the first place is what he prides himself on as a journalist and reporter. As someone who used to be "inside the ropes," Collins knows how golfers tick. They're a unique breed of athlete. Golf is more of a mental game than perhaps any other major sport in the world outside tennis. Interviewing these men and women while keeping the audience entertained is an intricate dance and artform. Collins' angle, though, is uncomplicated: He wants the world to know the golfers as he does.
One of Collins’ advantages in this industry is his experience on the other side of the microphone. He hated pre-round interviews on Saturdays and Sundays because no question from a reporter could get a good quote from a golfer trying to lock in for the stretch run of a tournament. When Collins is doing the asking, he tends to avoid questions about golf entirely, instead asking about their pre-round meals or what they watched the night before. It makes for a more interesting back-and-forth for the audience while helping Collins continue to build personal relationships with his interview subjects.
Collins prides himself on those relationships. He knows it's what grants him legitimacy in the eyes of viewers who expect either former PGA Tour members or lifelong golf analysts to break down the game. He knows these people, and they know him. That also gives him standing in the eyes of the players he interacts with and occasionally critiques. Golfers have told Collins they don’t mind when he is doing the criticizing because he’s been in their position and know very well Collins isn’t saying anything on-screen he wouldn’t say directly to their faces.
Simply put, golfers trust Collins. He understands what that means and how important it is now that he’s holding the microphone.
“It's important if you're going to ask people to trust you," Collins says. "You also have to be accountable for what you say. And if you get it wrong, standing up and saying you were wrong. And if you do that, and people know that you're sincere when you do that, then you don't lose that trust. Because once you lose somebody's trust, if they think that they can't tell you something, then you'll never gain that trust again. Ever."
Collins' camaraderie with his interview subjects and his jovial personality are what make him the unique reporter he is now for ESPN. It's also what makes America's Caddie such a perfect medium for his particular set of skills. It's just Collins and his subject, having a conversation, drawing on personalities.
Collins stands out when he's on the course, and not only because of his good-humored demeanor that can be seen and heard from yards away. Collins understands what it might mean for young people of color to see him on screen, covering a sport looking and acting like very few others who’ve covered the sport. It is not a weight or a burden for Collins, but rather a blessing and just another reason to be grateful about how he got here.
"That means even more that it's in golf. It means even more, that somebody who looks like me and kind of talks like me," Collins says. "I don't think the way that the color of my skin looks should preclude me from inspiring someone else from a different race. So I don't look at that as a weight on my shoulder. I look at it as, 'Hey, check it out. I'm the guy who you can go be. I can do this no matter what I look like, no matter what I sound like. Like if I really want it and the opportunities, then I can get there.'
"So, it sounds corny, like Russell Wilson. It's a blessing, not a burden. It's a blessing. But as corny as that sounds, it's true. I don't think it's weight. I think it's actually something cool."
Collins is truly one of a kind. In one hour, he can tell you about the time Rick Reilly made fun of him for not being able to type, hanging out with George Lopez, and how awed he felt when Chris Webber recognized him. He'll enamor you with tales like his first ESPN gig, an online chat for the British Open that took place at 3 in the morning and one of his few compatriots at that hour was a golf fan logging in from an oil rig in the ocean. He stands out even among the network’s roster of talent who can mesh analysis and entertainment. It comes as no surprise to those who know him well.
"If I happen to have the TV on and he shows up, it's definitely stop and watch, listen, crack up at him," Uresti says. "[I'm] just so happy for him that he's been able to succeed. Even when he was with XM Radio, he made the broadcast so much more interesting. The guy is incredible. He's funny, and he makes everything a little bit more fun to do."
"I should say here that at ESPN, we’ve had a good, long run of smart, talented golf writers, most notably embodied by Bob Harig, one of the business’ stalwarts,” King says. “But in my role overseeing ESPN Digital and Print Media at that time, I was constantly on the lookout for interesting new ways to cover all sports, let alone the sports I loved. And seemingly out of nowhere, here emerged an ex-stand-up comic, a former caddie and a person of color whose unique character and expertise endeared him to a host of Tour players and guaranteed a fascinating new lens on golf.”
It was not easy to get here. It never is. And, as all good things do, it will eventually come to an end. But Collins spends every day knowing he's doing what he loves: making people laugh and having fun. He's grateful to have gotten to this point and has no plans on slowing down. Even if, sometimes, he wonders when the alarm clock will ring.
The latest episode of 'America's Caddie' was released on April 1. Watch Michael Collins go to work on ESPN+.