‘Tour life without Tour benefits’: Why pros are flocking to golf TV’s toughest job
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — John Wood has been in the golf world so long, he’s started to see the future.
By the time he reaches the 16th tee box at TPC Sawgrass Wednesday morning of the Players Championship, the former caddie and current NBC Sports on-course reporter has his focus trained into the weekend. He knows the mental hurdles the leaders will face, the hard decisions that will ultimately decide the tournament, and the way the weather will impact both of those developments. He knows the hole locations. The green speeds. The good bounces and bad. Like the rest of us know the sky is blue, Wood knows how it will go down at TPC Sawgrass this week.
Wood’s psychic skills are so prolific, he can even tell you precisely where every caddie in the field — all 144 of them — will be looking when they reach a specific bend in the 16th fairway.
“The really interesting thing about this hole isn’t this hole, it’s that one,” he says as we arrive, turning his body across the water toward the famed island green 17th. “Right about here on the 16th is where caddies will start working on the shot for 17.”
The nook in front of the big split oak tree on 16, Wood explains, is such that it gives a perfect view of the forward group’s tee shots on 17.
“When you’re watching this week, watch the caddies when they’re walking up here,” Wood says. “They’ll all have their heads turned in this direction. It’s the smart thing to do. So it’s a cool little thing you’ll see from everyone.“
On paper, Wood’s day job at NBC doesn’t lend itself to the dark arts. But after a few years in live television, the former Tour caddie feels tempted to disagree.
“When I was caddying, I would want to know, How would Matt Kuchar play this hole? Now that I’m doing this, it’s a little more intensive,” he says. “I’ve really got to think about the hole for everybody. You have to have a game plan for the hole for every player in the field.”
The world of golf TV is challenging terrain for everybody, but particularly for the on-course reporters. While the broadcasters have “the booth” and the producers have “the truck,” the reporters are left largely to their own devices. It is their job to follow their assigned group of two or three golfers for entirety of the round. Unlike most other members of the NBC team, on-course reporters are subject to the whims of their fellow teammates. Should Dan Hicks, Paul Azinger, or some other member of the booth ask a question, it’s expected that Wood, Smylie Kaufman or Notah Begay III will have the answer immediately — irrespective of their location on the fairway, proximity to the player, or time to address the situation.
“Every day — every minute — you have to be prepared,” says Wood’s teammate Smylie Kaufman, who leapt from the PGA Tour to join NBC’s reporter team last season. “It’s a very reactionary job. You have to be very good observer. Sometimes they don’t come down to you on every shot, so you can’t focus on one hole; you have to be able to update what Scottie Scheffler’s done on the last nine holes. What’s going well for him? What’s his body language? Those are things that you have to be keep an eye on while you’re trying not to be too one-dimensional on how you deliver stuff.”
If that sounds dizzying — and it is — consider the fact that losing focus for even 30 seconds during a five-hour golf round comes with the potential to embarrass yourself in front of an audience of a few million people. Not to worry, says Begay. Those mistakes will only stick with you, like, forever.
“I think the moments you remember most from this job are when you say something so remarkably stupid that you wish you could take back, but it’s live television so you can’t,” said Begay, the most-tenured counterpart on the on-course team, with a laugh. “Then you just know the text thread with all your buddies from home is going to be relentless about the mistake you made.”
At this point, perhaps you’re wondering why Wood, Kaufman, Begay or anyone really would consider stepping into the line of fire to serve on a PGA Tour broadcast. The earnest answer, it seems, is because it’s home. Even given the highwire act, life on the broadcast team bears a striking resemblance to life on Tour. That’s why so many pros and pros-adjacent — from Wood, Kaufman and Begay to Colt Knost and Dottie Pepper — find themselves in broadcast roles when their professional careers are done. For those who have committed most of their formative years to the sport, the networks provide an avenue to stick around it. Just as long as they’re willing to work for it.
“It’s basically Tour life without all the Tour benefits,” Kaufman says. “You know, the courtesy car, the daycare. This is life on the road with my wife. It’s going to be a little different with our child, but we’re excited for the opportunity. NBC has been a great haul for me so far, the people have been awesome. It’s just — it’s been great.”
“The biggest hurdle that I faced very early in my career is that it’s no longer about me,” Begay agrees. “I’ve been there. I mean, I know, the nervousness, I know the tension, I know the pressure. I know what it’s like to be successful in those situations, and I know what it’s like to fail.”
Plus, the three reporters say, it gets easier. You learn to anticipate the action before it happens, and before long that anticipation becomes something else: a sixth sense.
On Thursday at TPC Sawgrass, John Wood is in the final stages of preparation. He’s researched the golf course exhaustively, written extensive notes on the weather report and cross-referenced a handy yardage book littered with handwritten nuggets. Based on the wind — it’s expected to swirl all week — he can already tell which times on which days will feature high scoring on certain. But there’s a part of preparation that has not easily to him: rest.
Style is an important aspect of life as an on-course reporter, and it’s evident nowhere more than on the fairways. Wood darts around like a pill bug, scurrying from fairway to green in search of the best vantage point or nugget. Kaufman strolls with a more lilac latitude, sharing smiles and nods with the players in his pairing.
“I wear an Oura Ring but I hardly ever check it,” Wood tells me with a laugh. “As a caddy you know how many steps you’re taking. I think now I’m scared to look.”
He starts the day with an appetizer, the closing stretch with Jon Rahm’s group, but his main course will be 18 holes with the group of Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Max Homa. As those three make it to the first tee box, Wood is still missing one crucial piece of information: he’s had no time to talk to the players or caddies during their warmup. Before he can even consider that possibility, his group is setting up at the tee box.
Wood assumes the position at the first tee, but suddenly there’s a hold-up. The group ahead is still in the trees. Wood’s group won’t tee off for another minute or so. He peeks into his immediate future as he realizes this and pings back to the production truck.
“At the moment there’s a player way left on one,” Wood tells lead producer Tommy Roy through his microphone and a pair of earbuds. “They can’t hit yet, so I’ll have to let you know.”
Just as the words leave his mouth, Spieth catches Wood’s eye. He flashes a playful grin and places his finger over his lips.
“Shhhhh,” Spieth whispers.
Finally, it’s go-time. Spieth pierces the ground with his tee and, after a short delay, takes a mighty lash. Wood is standing directly behind him as he flips on his microphone. He’s ready for this.
“Starting up the right side … this is turning over ever so slightly,” Wood gushes. “Oh man this is beautiful.”
It’s a short, pithy answer — the kind Roy has encouraged his reporters to lean on. Wood says he’s learned to get good at brevity, but it hasn’t been easy. The most tortured part of his job isn’t what makes it into the broadcast. It’s what doesn’t.
“When they come to you, you have a 30-second answer, a 15-second answer, a 10-second answer and a six-second answer,” Wood says. “You’re not always sure what you’re going to get, so you’d better have them all.”
“That’s the hardest thing,” Kaufman tells me. “As an on-course guy, you don’t know how long your window’s going to be. Sometimes you have something that’s really good but you just don’t have the time to say it, and sometimes you get done saying something and you’re like, man, I could have held onto that.”
A scream rings out down the left side of the first fairway, just a few yards ahead of where Jordan Spieth’s tee shot returned to orbit minutes earlier. There, standing on the fringe of the left rough, is the intended recipient of the scream: John Wood.
He’s talking quietly into his microphone when the second scream comes — this time from much closer.
“Oh s—, JOHN!” a cameraman bellows.
It’s no use. He can’t hear them, and several years of training have taught him not to hear them. But right now, in this moment, he ought to.
Unbeknownst to Wood, Sahith Theegala’s tee shot has landed within striking distance, taken a hard bounce down the fairway and begun a steady roll toward his feet.
The ball keeps its roll, steady and sure, as Wood shuffles mindlessly to the left.
Just as his right foot moves, the ball skitters past, coming to a stop, miraculously, at the center of his feet.
“Fairways and greens, fairways and greens,” he says cooly into the microphone, unaffected by the near-catastrophe.
Before anyone can say another word, Wood picks up his pace again. It doesn’t take long until he’s lost into the next fairway, eyes trained directly ahead.