How Rich Lerner became the real-time author of golf

rich lerner and brandel chamblee joke at the golf channel desk

Rich Lerner (left) peers from his perch at the Golf Channel desk next to Brandel Chamblee (right).

NBC Sports

Rich Lerner’s six-foot-four frame is draped across a tiny folding chair against the wall of a Golf Channel studio. A dozen feet away, real-life television is being created in front of real-life cameras on the studio’s aft side. Our perch — and its proximity to the action — requires that we speak in voices barely above a whisper.

It’s Tuesday at the Open Championship and Lerner’s deep blue eyes have narrowed, revealing a furrowed brow. From the folding chair beside him, I’m lobbing Lerner questions about his ideas and approach. I want to know about the origins of his creative skillset, but he’s not sure what I mean.

“I’m afraid I don’t know the answer,” he tells me after a pause. “Can you ask that question a different way?”

I consider raising my volume but quickly think better. The punishment for noise is a shushing at the hands of the rather terrifying production manager whose job it is to maintain absolute silence on set … and who it seems would take great joy in tossing out Gandhi or Mother Theresa if either dared to interject at a decibel-level registerable to even the studio’s most sensitive microphone. This situation is not particularly conducive to understanding English language nuances like inflection and intonation, which may be to blame for Lerner’s confusion. (The abject fear I feel for the production manager — who has already silenced me with a fury unfelt since at least the fifth grade — is likely also contributing.)

After a pause of my own, I try a blunter approach.

“I guess the question I’m asking is … do you consider yourself a writer?”

Now Lerner’s eyes widen. A lightbulb switches on. He smiles, then waits, then answers.

“As opposed to what?”

THE POINT is that Rich Lerner has what your mother would call “the gift of gab.” His words appear to flow from the same magic geothermal source that powers Old Faithful: beautiful, reliable, entrancing. And if his on-air talking sounds like writing, well, that’s because it is.

Lerner’s three decades working for the Golf Channel and NBC have shown him to be among the most capable talkers in sports television — able to shapeshift from traffic cop to sparring partner to essayist in real time. His ability to thread seamlessly between these delicate and often overlapping roles has made him a fixture on shows like Golf Central and Live From, where his job is principally to make the long, choppy hours of live studio coverage feel brisk and smooth. Anyone who’s ever seen him pivot between totally unrelated segments (or away from a tirade delivered by partner and good friend Brandel Chamblee) can attest. When the cameras turn on, Lerner’s gifts for propulsion and intentionality sparkle against the backdrop of a format with a nagging tendency for the opposite.

On one recent Saturday, Lerner teed up fellow host Mark Rolfing to deliver a staggering statistic about Scottie Scheffler’s Sunday tournament struggles without even asking a question, feathering in a series of stats about the former Masters’ champ’s struggles before serving up an alley-oop to Rolfing so crisp his analyst could’ve closed his eyes and finished the bucket. On another Tuesday, a segment-opening quip about the “winds of change” flowed so gracefully into a question for PGA Tour policy board member Peter Malnati about the complicated geopolitics of Saudi Arabia that Malnati himself seemed unsure about whether he was being set up (he wasn’t).

This is Lerner’s gift: the ability to keep the conversation moving without making you, watching at home, aware that you’ve been listening for five or 15 or 45 minutes. His skill for carrying dense, nuanced discussions with facile agility and ease — particularly in the current era of golf and geopolitics — makes him pretty much a hero to his coworkers.

“That’s the thing that makes Rich … Rich,” says Matt Hegarty, his lead producer at NBC and friend of nearly three decades. “He can talk off of basically anybody in the world, and he can talk golf with anybody in the world.”

It helps that Chamblee is often the person with whom Rich riffs on golf. Individually, the two men are among the nerdiest golf talkers alive, obsessing over history and minutiae so esoteric it’d turn even the diehards to dust. But together their penchant for the small details has helped them quickly become the kind of host/analyst tandem viewers seek out for soothing entertainment, informed analysis, or most often, both.

“He can just do it all,” Chamblee says. “He has such a ferocious appetite for information and for the tapestry of a story. It’s back-of-the-neck-hair-raising stuff to watch him work. He comes in at these events — I don’t know how he keeps track of the golf, there’s so much going on — and yet he gives so much attention to the things we do.”

Some of Lerner’s ability comes from a showman’s sense of timing, and some from a genuine passion for the subject matter. But most of it is merely a symptom of Rich Lerner’s Great Skill, which is that he is not a broadcaster or a TV host or even a “personality.” It’s back to that first question — and the answer Rich thinks is so self-evident he’s surprised I’m even asking.

He is a writer.

MANY MONTHS LATER, when I repeat the story to Lerner’s old colleague Scott Van Pelt, he chuckles.

“He’s missing that it’s a flattering question,” Van Pelt says. “Of course he’s a writer. He’s also a television host. Not a decent one, not a good enough one, but an excellent one. And he’s an excellent broadcaster. These are hats he wears with equal aplomb.”

Or streams all fed by the same river. The truth is that Lerner can’t turn off his writer’s brain any more than he can turn off his dulcet baritone. It’s an inherent piece of who he is, and that means it’s an inherent piece of who he is on television.

Good writers obsess over qualities like style and voice, setup and payoff. Lerner has had the time to develop those qualities in spades. Over the last 26 years, he’s written more than 1,000 essays for the Golf Channel on everything from Tiger Woods’ life-threatening car crash to the ways in which playing Whistling Straits is like exploring the moon. His work as a broadcaster and TV host is inextricable from his work as an essayist, but the latter is what he’s best known for; it has defined Lerner’s tenure with his current employer.

These days, Lerner usually writes at least one essay a night for Golf Central or Live From, and depending on the news of the day he’ll have anywhere from a few months to a few minutes to prepare it. There is a sense of polish and pride behind those performances, and even the all-out sprints turn up dripping with his distinctly elegant prose.

“I think the ability to have those two gears is such a gift. One is you’re an event planner; the other is you’re a line cook,” Van Pelt says. “And the thing about Rich is, even when you’re slapping together flapjacks and an omelet for the drunk who just came into the late-night diner — it’s not just that. It’s always got a little bit more flavor, a little bit more nuance, a little more substance.”

It should come as no surprise to learn that Lerner’s language seldom gets returned to the kitchen. In recent years, his writing voice has become so recognizable that it has become a competition among the Golf Channel staff to attempt their own Rich-isms (a rare case of imitation truly being the sincerest form of flattery). Nobody can quite capture Lerner’s gift for the metaphor — but that doesn’t stop everybody around the office from ripping off his best ones, like “longshoreman’s forearms.”

“Sometimes I’ll just look at him and say, ‘That was Shakespearean,'” Chamblee says. “It’s frickin’ beautiful.”

A young Rich Lerner at the desk at the Players Championship, where he will return this week to call the action. NBC Sports

Like all good writers, Lerner is often the product of a razor-sharp editor. There have been many fact-checkers over the years (Hegarty is among the longest-tenured), but none more important than the one Rich calls “the boss.” Her name is Robin Lerner — owner of an M.S. in linguistics — and the two have been married for more than two decades.

“She looks at every one of my pieces,” Lerner says with a wry grin. “She’s extremely literate. Sometimes she’ll say to me I will have maybe overwritten or written sideways on a thought. She’ll say ‘what are you trying to say?’ Which is her way of saying ‘I don’t understand.’ And I’ll get a little pissed, and then some time will go by and I’ll think to myself, ‘You know what? She’s got a point.'”

Robin’s editing has saved many an essay from the brink, he admits now. He stammers a bit — a rarity — when I ask what she means to him.

“He loves her to death,” Hegarty says more succinctly.

Every person interviewed for this story touched on some version of the same theme: There’s something about Rich’s relationship with Robin that speaks to his relationship with work. There’s effort and there’s vulnerability. And the ground beneath the two is firm enough to withstand much more than honest feedback. That’s a testament to their relationship and it’s a testament to Rich’s commitment to the craft. His willingness to humble himself before even the closest people in life reflects his burning desire to do something worth remembering.

“I think all writers have a battle with that uncertainty. You know, that question of: Is this great?” Van Pelt said. “I think Rich is right to aspire to be that. And I hope he takes very certain steps these days.”

It is challenging to find confidence as a writer — and it requires confidence to speak your writing to a television audience. But those around Lerner say his secret is that there is no secret; he sees that there is work to be done and he’s good because he chooses to do it every day, even if nobody’s watching. He chooses to give a piece of himself to the world, acknowledging that the world may find it silly or unworthy, because it’s better to be silly and unworthy than nothing at all. Hemingway said that writing is sitting down at a typewriter and bleeding. Lerner’s colleagues relish the opportunity to watch him do just that.

“Let’s talk about commercial breaks for a second,” Chamblee says. “You or I would say, ‘we’ll be right back from the beautiful shores of Torrey Pines.’ Well, that works. But this is where Rich is different.”

Brandel’s pitch rises to match the passion of his subject.

“Rich will figure out exactly what the shore is called, what the dirt is called, when the break is coming in, and what the birds are singing. He’ll figure out when the hang glider was invented. And he’ll figure out some turn of phrase that nobody’s ever heard before to weave that all together — punching the keys like Tyson punching the bag…”

He pauses as he says that last part, as if to underscore the depth of his admiration.

“What kind of person cares that much about a break? Seriously … tell me.”

Well, isn’t it obvious?

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