The 2023 professional golf season will begin in Hawaii. So will the rest of Mark Rolfing’s career.
I’m on the phone with Rolfing, eager to discuss his new deal with NBC, the one that will have him on your television screen this week at Kapalua and beyond.
But first, he’d like to discuss the weather.
“Everyone thinks it’s like riding a bike, where I can climb in the booth and just get to it, kick off another year,” Rolfing says. “But y’know, the weather conditions are so different at Kapalua every year that it really is almost like playing a new golf course. Last year, with no wind and the course being soft, they shot an incredible number, 34 under. But there are years when the wind gets blowing and the sunshine gets going and then it dries out. It’s so dictated by the conditions and I always look forward to that — because you just never know.”
This is Rolfing in his comfort zone: a little folksy, a little geeky and a lot enthralled with the Hawaiian tradewinds that swirl across Maui and shape the opening event of the next golf calendar.
At 73, Rolfing isn’t the face of NBC’s youth movement. But he remains a versatile, valued, beloved member of the crew, and now he says he’s “absolutely thrilled” to be back for more: Rolfing says he’s just re-upped for a multi-year deal with the network that begins this week. (NBC confirmed the news.) He’ll be calling live golf at this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions plus next week’s Sony Open — the Hawaiian Swing is known among his most ardent appreciators as “Rolfing Season” — before settling into a hybrid role consisting largely of studio shows and “Live From” at big-time events (majors included), as he has the last few years. He’ll also call some live golf.
Kapalua is where every golf season begins. But it’s a particularly fitting spot for Rolfing to launch the next phase of his broadcasting career, considering it’s the spot he made his unlikely debut.
The year was 1985 and Rolfing — who’d grown up in Chicago, chased the pro dream long enough to realize it wasn’t meant to be and moved steadily west until he found an assistant pro position at Kapalua — had been granted an exemption into Maui’s PGA Tour event, which at that point was played in the fall. Producer Don Ohlmeyer was so impressed with his appearance that he offered him a tryout. Rolfing never looked back.
“It was a fluke,” Rolfing says of his big break. “I went up in the booth on Friday and it was Vin Scully and Lee Trevino. And Ohlmeyer — he was an icon, from Monday Night Football and everything else — brought me back the next day, and then on Sunday too.”
The following season, ESPN signed Rolfing full-time. He worked there for two years. Then he made the jump to NBC.
“That was the upset of all time because back then you had to have won a major championship, pretty much, to be an analyst,” he says. “That was before McCord. That was before Feherty. There weren’t really any non-big-time players, as far as I knew. So I wasn’t really sure how it would work out.”
Thirty-eight years, later, Rolfing’s body of work is proof enough of just how well it’s gone. As for regrets? Only one comes to mind: At the end of 1991, when he left NBC for a new-look broadcast team over at ABC. “Frankly, at the time it was about money and, y’know, that was pretty much it,” Rolfing said. He’d stay for five years before another opportunity boomeranged his way.
“I’ll never forget the call I got from [NBC producer] Tommy Roy in ’97,” he says. “He goes, ‘you ready to come back here?’ And I went back, and it was the same people it’d been when I’d left, the same NBC family. I was just so happy to go back, and how long has it been, now? Twenty-five years since then.”
Those years weren’t all guaranteed. In the summer of 2015 he noticed a bump on his neck, just below his left ear. When he got it checked out he received a terrifying diagnosis: Stage 4 mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a rare type of salivary gland cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good. After working the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits he broke the news to his crew, then drove to Chicago to have it removed.
The surgeon told Rolfing that getting the tumor out without damaging sensory functions — necessary for his career — was like extracting “a meatball from the bottom of a bowl of spaghetti, without damaging any of the noodles.” He did it anyway. The surgery, combined with proton therapy, was tremendously effective. Rolfing made his return to television at Kapalua in 2016. That same month he announced he was “100 percent” cancer-free.
Rolfing is grateful to be in this position. Grateful in the short-term, given he spent the holidays in Montana, where it reached 30 below outside and, in a house without heat, damn near zero inside, too.
He’s grateful big-picture, too, understanding the tradewinds that have blown through the industry, including his network. Rolfing’s extension comes in the context of longtime colleagues Roger Maltbie and Gary Koch, whose contracts each expired at the end of 2022. Both Koch, 70, and Maltbie, 72, are actually younger than Rolfing and have worked alongside each other for years.
Rolfing isn’t sure how to make sense of their departure other than to appreciate their collective tenure.
“I’m really going to miss those guys, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “I missed Johnny Miller when he walked down the steps of the tower for the last time. Look, there will be new voices and there will be new faces. It’s going to be fantastic, and we’re evolving as a network, and things are always being done differently. The world has changed. But even while I’m looking forward to that…” he trails off. Later he returns to the subject, unprompted.
“When I look at the team of Dan [Hicks], Johnny [Miller], Gary [Koch], Roger [Maltbie] and Mark [Rolfing], I just don’t know if there will be another team like that. That was just the best. There were others that floated in but that team was the best.”
The game has changed. Rolfing knows that. This is his 38th year, after all.
“I look back at the product we put on air when we started and frankly I’m not sure I would have watched,” he says with a chuckle. “I started in ’86 on ESPN and we basically did two hours Saturday, two hours Sunday. Our coverage started on the 12th green, so we handled the last six holes and there were three announcers and none of the technology. It was slow-moving. The fans weren’t as much a part of it. You look at the speed now and the energy, too, and it’s just become such a better spectator sport.”
If there’s a secret to his longevity, it’s been his versatility and availability, Rolfing says. He’s played host at major championships. He’s been an analyst. He’s been an on-course guy. He’s been a studio guy. And his eagerness to get out there has never wavered.
He’s particularly revved up for this year’s iteration at Kapalua. It’s the first of the PGA Tour’s “designated” events, which means a top-tier field.
“Getting all the best players together on a regular basis, it’s going to give it this whole new dynamic,” Rolfing says. “And y’know, I feel like there’s a little bit of pent-up demand. I’ve been wanting an offseason for a long time. The offseason makes the NFL. Fans get all lathered up when they’re not playing. So it feels like we haven’t seen the best players together for a long time, and I’m excited to have them here.”
Rolfing has some expectations for the coming year. He thinks Rory McIlroy will complete the career Grand Slam with a win at the Masters. He’s eager to see more of Tom Kim at new courses. He’s curious, though dubious, to monitor whether this generation of golfers could form a “Big 3” or “Big 5,” or whether the talent level prevents it. Mostly, though, Rolfing hopes we enjoy the golf.
“The game is evolving and changing and so much more of the story seems to be happening away from the golf course, which I kind of don’t like. I would prefer the story to be, you know, made by the players and the way they play the game and the championships they win,” he says.
As for when this chapter of his career might wind down? Rolfing can finally admit he’s had a date circled on the calendar: the 2025 Ryder Cup at Bethpage Black.
“The Ryder Cup is my favorite event,” he says. “Maybe that’ll be the end or the beginning of the end, I don’t know. Maybe after that I would continue doing a smaller schedule.”
Make no mistake, though. He’s not beginning any sort of farewell tour.
“This is not a ceremonial trip for me,” he says. “This is going back to work. Starting this week.”
All that remains is finding his signature moment for 2023.
It will join a library. There was his post-round interview with Arnold Palmer at Oakmont in 1994, where Palmer was left speechless after his final U.S. Open. There was his moment with Jack Nicklaus at his final U.S. Open, when Rolfing went from the 18th green at Pebble Beach over to the first tee, where Tiger Woods was teeing off. And then there was Woods’ walk up the 18th fairway at St. Andrews this year, while Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas walked down No. 1.
“I’ve had a number of those moments and I’m not sure if that’s pure luck, good fortune or what. But now I’m wondering: what is going to be that kind of moment this year?”
Not knowing — but hoping — is what keeps him coming back.
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