Yes, David Feherty is “on” even when he’s off the air. As he strolls into a bright Manhattan loft space for GOLF’s photo shoot and interview, he politely declines a handshake. His right mitt is swollen. “Sorry, just had surgery,” he says. Diagnosis? “Excessive masturbatory syndrome.”
Actually, it’s arthritis made worse by some ugly spills he took off his bicycle. “I’m 57, but I feel 75 the way I’ve treated myself. If I’d have known I’d live this long, I’d have looked after myself.” Feherty’s longevity is NBC’s gain. After 19 years, he left CBS last September, and the Peacock Network signed him faster than you can say “Irish wit.” He has plenty to look forward to in 2016 beyond sparring with Johnny Miller: NBC will air the British Open, Olympics and Ryder Cup. “I’m nervous and excited, like I’m starting over,” Feherty says. “I just hope McCord can carry on. He’ll probably have a breakdown without me.”
You make your NBC debut at the Waste Management in Phoenix. Does this feel like a fresh start?
It’s a new chapter, for sure. And all those years at CBS, and all the people I got to work with — it was amazing. Ironically, Phoenix is a tournament I’ve covered for 19 years. It’s exciting, but I am nervous. It’s a different challenge, a different style. And I won’t only be on the course. I’ll spend time in the tower at 18.
Is that where the nerves come from — the spotlight of being in the booth with Johnny?
Maybe a little. It’s a different perspective, a different cast. Really, I’m just glad NBC wanted me and that I’ll get to keep doing this. I’m an outside pet. If you don’t let me out every couple of hours, somebody’s gonna get crapped on. Part of the apprehension is that I don’t really know what to expect.
At CBS, Gary McCord was the Hardy to your Laurel. Who’ll be your comedic foil at NBC?
Well, there’s [Roger] Maltbie and [Peter] Jacobsen and Johnny — who I didn’t know until I interviewed him recently on my Golf Channel show. He was so genuine and heartfelt. For a long time, I used to think Johnny might have a little meanness, but that interview changed my opinion. He’s just honest, without much of a filter. We’ve got a lot in common in that sense.
How was the chemistry when you interviewed him?
I liked him immediately. He was very candid and emotional. There were things we touched on — how important being a good father is to him — that clearly he was tender about. He really opened up and showed a side you don’t see or hear when he’s in the booth.
NEWSLETTERS: Sign up for latest golf news, tips and insider analysis
As a fellow broadcaster, what do you most admire about him?
He’s immensely knowledgeable, and he played the game at the very highest level. That’s the biggest difference between us. Johnny knows what it’s like to win. I’m an expert in what it’s like to lose.
So Johnny knows what the top players are going through in the big moments. What perspective do you offer?
I can also sense what they’re feeling, but when I was in a position to win, I never wanted the responsibility that went with winning. I never had the ability to overcome that. Johnny knows how it feels to win at the highest level, so I think I have more in common with the average golfer. Johnny was anything but average.
In your years at CBS, what moment stands out — a call you made, a tournament you covered — as your finest?
Just having 19 years at the Masters is pretty special. When you think of the people that have covered it — Henry Longhurst, Tom Weiskopf, Pat Summerall, Ken Venturi — just having my voice on that telecast is really something. And to be there throughout the Tiger Woods era was just incredible. My first Masters was in 1997, and a 21-year-old wins it. My last Masters, another 21-year-old [Jordan Spieth] wins it. Two pretty good bookends there. And let me say that I will miss everybody at CBS enormously. Not just the names everyone knows — Nantz, Faldo, Kostis — but the entire crew. They were all so good to me. I still have a lot of letters to write.
You’ve witnessed many jaw-dropping Tiger moments. What’s No. 1?
When Tiger first came out and started pulling off these unbelievable shots, people didn’t believe what I’d say on the air. They’d say, “That shot wasn’t as hard as you made it out to be.” But the shots were that difficult. As for his best of all time, I go to the chip-in on 16 at Augusta [in 2005]. Tiger doesn’t think it’s his greatest shot, but given the moment, and the extraordinary nature of the shot, it was pretty special.
When you follow Tiger’s group, how much do you two interact?
Often. One of the first times I covered him, he called me out. It was at Cog Hill, and on the ninth hole, he’d hit it underneath a tree, off the right fairway. Now, I’m new to broadcasting, so I go have a look at the line, and I come back and say, “He’s got to chip it out sideways.” Fluff [Mike Cowan] was on his bag, and he pulls out a long-iron. I think, What’s he doing with that? Is Tiger’s back itchy? Then I see he’s aiming directly at me. Now, I’d been a pro for 20-plus years, so I thought I knew where I could safely stand. Nope. Tiger unleashes a vicious swing and violent follow-through. The ball shoots over my head and goes 240 yards, cuts about 50 yards, bounces twice and onto the green. McCord says, “It must have been a better line than you thought.” I said, “No. It wasn’t.”
And did Tiger then say something to you?
He did. I went back for another look at this line because I’m pissed. This kid just made me look like an idiot on TV. I’d played with the best. I knew what Greg Norman or Seve Ballesteros or any other human would do from that position. They’d chip out sideways. I hear “Oy!” Tiger flashes that beautiful smile and says, “You called that one, didn’t you?” I’m thinking, You little…. I say, “I don’t know what you are, but there weren’t two of you on Noah’s Ark.” Those were the first words we ever exchanged.
A lot of people are writing Tiger’s golf obituary. He entered 2016 ranked 413th in the world. If he gets healthy this year, do you think he can win again?
Absolutely. The only mistake I’ve ever made about Tiger is underestimating him. He’s too proud and too good. If he’s in better shape, I think he can win again. I’m a believer.
What’s behind his poor play in recent years?
I think he has more anxiety about winning than he used to. In his prime, he only paid attention to what he was doing — the physical act of hitting the shot — and no attention whatsoever to the result. He’s lost a bit of focus on the process. When Michael Jordan went up for that fadeaway, he wasn’t worried about making or missing. He was in the here and now. That’s what being in the zone is all about: occupying yourself with the physical act and blocking out the result. Tiger still has that ability, but for the last two or three years he’s been too invested in the result rather than in owning the action.
You’ve said there are sides to Tiger that most people don’t ever see. Like what?
For one thing, he shows up at my foundation’s events for wounded military. He comes on his own, no cameras, has lunch with the boys. If a kid’s got one arm, Tiger will hit balls with one arm. Or no legs, he’ll hit it off his knees. And he’s so darn funny, but we beat that out of him by following him from the minute he arrives [at a Tour event]. As badly as he’s played lately, there’s still a camera on him when he walks in the door, or when he walks to the courtesy car, or takes off his shoes. If Phil or Furyk or Els shoot 75, there’s no need to interview them. With Tiger, after every single round he plays in public, there’s a forest of microphones — and a bunch of pricks holding them. That’s why he doesn’t offer much up in interviews. He’s numb to it all. He’s developed a heat shield.
Come on, isn’t that the deal you make when you’re an elite athlete? It’s easy to blame the media for Tiger being a bit closed off.
I don’t blame the media completely. I never thought I would feel bad for the guy who’s made a zillion bucks, but it’s been a very difficult part of his life. But there’s a difference between scratching your ass and tearing yourself a new one. When he hit that period with all the women, other a–holes like John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer were also running around, but the Tiger coverage was relentless. You’d have thought he was a mass murderer. He got so much limelight that he was scorched by it. But I know he would be the first to say, “A lot of this is my fault.”
How does Tiger’s sense of humor come out when he’s with you?
I remember one time he says, “Hey, Feherty,” pulling the bill of his cap down so the cameras can’t read his lips. “What do you call a black guy flying an airplane?” I say I don’t know. He says, “A pilot, you f—ing racist.” [Laughs] He loves to needle, to give people a hard time. But there’s an intellectual exchange there as well. He wants you to give it back to him. Nicklaus is similar that way. He can’t stand people who are too impressed with him. There’s no intellectual challenge in that. You want someone who respects you but who doesn’t want to climb up your ass and tell you how wonderful you are.
Looking at NBC’s golf schedule, which event are you most excited about?
We’ve got the best stroke-play tournament in the world, the Open Championship, and the best match-play tournament, the Ryder Cup. And we’ve got the Olympics. I’m not sure what to expect in Rio, but to have that gold medal on the line, the excitement is going to build.
At CBS, how much did you censor yourself when doing the Masters? Would you worry about saying the wrong thing?
I always did the Masters differently. It’s a major, so it commands more respect. But it might have been the easiest tournament to do because it requires so little commentary. People are so familiar with the course that I just added punctuation. The pictures tell the story. That’s one reason I’m really looking forward to the Open Championship. There’s a tremendous opportunity for silence, something missing in so many sports. A favorite Open memory is of Henry Longhurst in 1970. Doug Sanders is standing over that three-and-a-half-footer. With the deafening silence of Henry not speaking, you knew something god-awful would happen. When Sanders missed, Henry said, “What a pity.” That was it. Genius.
Do you have any TV aspirations beyond golf? Will we see you on The Voice in a big red swivel chair?
[Laughs] There are possibilities, but the first thing I want to be is informative, and then entertaining, about golf. That’s what I do. That’s job one. Anything beyond that would be gravy.
Let’s talk about the 2015 Player of the Year. Where does Spieth’s season rank?
Right near the top. Beyond winning two majors and the FedEx Cup, look at the nature of the competition he faced, the deep fields. There are Web.com Tour players who could go out and win a Tour event. But I think the chances of one player rising above the rest is slight, as special as Jordan is. Look at how many first-time winners we’re having. The standard of golf today is just staggering.
You saw Spieth go wire-to-wire at Augusta last year. What stood out to you?
He has wisdom well beyond his years — and a little evil in him, too. He gets pissed off at himself but can channel it back into the next shot. And to have that kind of lead [four strokes entering Sunday] and to close it out — that’s the hardest lead in golf to defend. The green jacket feels like a suit of armor on Sunday afternoon. He’s very special. He has balls the size of wheelbarrows.
Of all the golf greats you’ve known, who taught you the most about the game?
Bob Torrance, my longtime coach in Europe. A remarkable man, a rogue, a savant. He was extraordinarily funny, and his son, Sam, is my greatest friend, outside of my wife.
Bob Torrance died in 2014. When you think of him, what memory comes to mind?
I recall walking along the range at the Open Championship at Birkdale in ’91. A certain player — a former World No. 1 who shall remain nameless — waves Bob over. He says, “Bob, do me a favor. I’m struggling. Give me a tip.” Bob watches him hit a couple of shots, then whispers something in his ear. The guy reacts with this confused look, and Bob walks away. I asked Bob what tip he gave. “I told him to never tie his shoes in a revolving door.” Ah, great moments in sport.
You’ve had some not-so-great moments while bicycling, getting banged up a few times. Have you given it up for good?
Yes, I lost my nerve when I got hit for the third time. The first time I got run over nearly killed me. The second time, I got hit from behind in New York City. A lady ran a red light — I went through her windshield and almost came out the back windshield. I can take a hint.
Maybe you should try a stationary bike.
I’d probably get hit by a stationary car. Or a chandelier would fall on me.
So your body is still hurting, but at least you seem to be on the mend. How’s your head? You’ve battled depression and alcoholism for many years.
I’m bipolar. Most days, I get out of bed and I’m overwhelmed by sadness — and that’s before I see myself naked. With my condition, I don’t really have tremendous highs or enormous lows. What helps is I’m on a cocktail [of medication]. I don’t like taking it, because you just feel hollow, but it’s necessary, and it sure beats the alternative.
How’s sobriety treating you?
I’ve been sober for 10 years. It’s not always easy. When I’m in a hotel, those mini-bars with the windows are the worst. I can see the Jack Daniel’s bottle waving at me.
Let’s fast-forward one year. As you imagine looking back at 2016 — NBC, the Olympics, the Ryder Cup — what are you most proud of?
Not getting fired.
That’s a pretty low bar.
Exactly. I always want the bar to be just high enough so I can crawl underneath it.