Towering above the island green: An inside look at what it’s like preparing to cover one of golf’s most iconic holes

May 10, 2018

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Everything looks picturesque during a PGA Tour broadcast. From the sparkling course to the players’ perfect swings, it’s a pristine product all around. But behind the immaculate façade are the people behind the scenes hidden in the elevated towers — the “eyes in the sky” during events.

On an 85-degree sunny Wednesday afternoon, I spent an hour in the 17th-hole tower at TPC Sawgrass looking over one of the most iconic and exciting holes in the game. I was a fly on the wall some four stories high as analyst Gary Koch and the Golf Channel/NBC production team meticulously prepared for the Players Championship.

My initial thought? These broadcast towers must be the best seats in the house. But in reality, there’s a good chance you have a better view from behind the ropes as a fan. Koch will be calling the action from an eight-by-eight-foot booth, and that might be a generous estimate. It feels like a hunting shed out of Duck Dynasty. It’s thrown together with what appears to be scrap wood, and driving range-like mats are nailed to the walls. (I didn’t dare ask what the bathroom situation was like.)

It’s a snug fit for two people (the standard crew during play). Two desks and several monitors occupy much of the space. There’s a small window that provides a unique perspective of the action, but that requires standing up and peeking over a screen playing the same feed you’re seeing at home. One of the most gorgeous holes in the sport sits in front of you, yet Koch will be spending the majority of his time watching one of several video streams playing in front of him.

Oh, the irony.

A typical broadcast puts Koch on the hook for four to five holes at a time. This is where he makes his chops, changing gears from the 17th green to a fairway bunker shot without hesitating or pausing to reset. Koch is always ready to break down a swing, discuss shot strategy, dissect what a ball will do on a particular part of the green and, if pressed, could probably even tell you how many inches tall the fairway grass is.

One of the most difficult aspects of his job might be coming up with the right call when the perfect moment strikes — especially at a dynamic hole like 17 — but there’s no way to practice for that. He’s done just fine in past spur of the moment instances. Remember this one?

You see, Koch is a perfectionist. During one practice flyover shot he pointed out that it was starting from the wrong tee box, something that would go unnoticed by a viewer at home. One zoomed in shot of a player teeing off on 17 had a few garbage cans in the background, which he quickly made note of so they could be moved by Thursday. One by one he went through his arsenal of teleprompter tools to ensure they were up to his standards, and many required tweaking to his liking.

Some of his preparation brought to mind Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, as Koch rattled off some tricky tongue twisters:

“The caddie came close to hitting the camera.
The caddie came close to hitting the camera.
The caddie came close to hitting the camera.”

I’m not sure if that was to help him stay sharp or his way of staying sane during his downtime in a golf’s version of a tree fort.

Koch calls just about every shot he witnesses, even if it’s not on air. It seems to be second nature. Whether it’s for the viewer at home or the person standing next to him, Koch is going to do his job — he’s going to provide analysis.

The time between shots is often filled with Koch’s laughter. (Whoever is on the other side of his headset must be quick with a joke.) He also makes himself laugh with ease. You might too if you were given one of the best seats in the house on a beautiful day only to spend it in a dark box essentially watching the action on TV.

The longer I waited in silence waiting to speak with Koch the more I grew to appreciate the entire production. He is as skilled at his job as those competing in the Players are at theirs. He has a dream gig — and he doesn’t take it for granted.