Roger Maltbie’s emotional sign-off leaves golf world wanting more

Roger Maltbie at the 2024 Players Championship.

Roger Maltbie was emotional signing off on Golf Channel Friday evening.

Golf Channel

These days, the pro golf world is obsessed with new. New formats. New leagues. New tournaments. New money. But on Thursday and Friday, the Players Championship tapped into something different: Something enduring. Something time-tested. Something legendary. It worked.

Roger Maltbie and Gary Koch joined Golf Channel’s broadcast team at TPC Sawgrass for Thursday and Friday to help celebrate the tournament’s 50th anniversary. Their presence seemed to supercharge the broadcast; play-by-play commentator Dan Hicks seemed giddy every time he got a chance to toss to “Rog,” while Mike Tirico gushed at the chance to hand the reins to Koch.

For the uninitiated, Maltbie (an on-course reporter) and Koch (an analyst) worked on NBC’s golf broadcasts for more than 25 years before the network let them go at the end of 2022. Maltbie is among the most beloved people to cruise the fairways anytime he attends a golf tournament. And Koch was responsible for the most iconic line in Players history when he delivered his “better than most” call accompanying Tiger Woods’ iconic putt in 2001.

Their departure was controversial; neither Koch nor Maltbie were ready for their tenures to end, fans felt the same way, and they’ve said so. Maltbie told Golfweek last year that while he feels an “enormous” amount of gratitude, the end of his run was “handled pretty s—-y.” Koch echoed that sentiment to Golf Digest. “It hurts,” he said at the time. NBC executives had told them the network was looking for “a refresh.” That didn’t make it feel any better.

While Maltbie stayed on with Golf Channel to call a handful of events in 2023, Koch declined a similar offer, citing a lack of desire to “work in the minors” after a quarter-century at the top of golf’s broadcast ladder.

But on Thursday and Friday the two were an integral part of an energized Golf Channel team. It helped that the leaderboard was star-studded, the commercials were sparse and they’d clearly invested in resources to make the event feel big. In other words, it helped that they’d been set up to thrive. And for two days they did, like old times but more precious.

In one spirited exchange on No. 7 Friday afternoon, Koch questioned a risky play being undertaken by Rory McIlroy. He wondered aloud why McIlroy’s caddie Harry Diamond wasn’t intervening — a call I wondered if he’d have made on a long-term deal.

Maltbie chimed in with his perspective:

“His ball’s going to have to have a lot of speed to be the height that it needs to be to get underneath the limb and get across that water,” he said. “It’s going to have to be moving.”

And then, when McIlroy actually pulled off the shot, scampering his ball through a bunker, off the lip and up onto the green, they were both delighted to be proven wrong.

There’s plenty of good new stuff happening with Golf Channel’s broadcast. A welcome innovation came in the form of Smylie Kaufman’s “Happy Hour” segment, which was informative and entertaining as he hosted with Kevin Kisner — plus guests Keith Mitchell and Brian Harman — by the 17th tee. Kisner should be excellent on the weekend broadcast. And Johnson Wagner joined the “Live From” team post-round to try to execute that McIlroy pine-straw escape in a delightful, slightly unhinged segment that suggests they’re continuing to try fun new things. In all it added up to a terrific two days for a Tour in need of a good week.

But there was nostalgia and melancholy as the broadcast wound down and the reality — that this was temporary — began to set in.

Before they signed off, Hicks asked Koch to recall something that viewers may not have known about that better-than-most putt.

“Most of the times that you hear the call, you don’t hear what Johnny Miller asks me initially,” Koch said. “As the ball takes off – and Johnny always had a habit of bringing us in without us really knowing it was going to come – Tiger’s ball rolls about six to eight feet off the putter and I hear, ‘How’s that look, Gary?’ And that was the first ‘better than most,’ because it was farther left than any other putt I had seen to that point.”

It was an appropriate capstone to the broadcast, and fun to add another dimension to an iconic call that will live on for the Players’ next 50 years, too. But it was Maltbie’s exit that stole the show. As Hicks tossed to him, greenside at No. 18, he looked into the camera, his eyes welling up, delivering a concise sign-off imbued with heartache.

“Thanks, guys,” he said. “It was a treat and I loved every minute of it. I miss this. A lot.”

As we have for decades, the golf world heard him. And we felt what he said.

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