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Behind the Curtain

The making of NBC’s award-winning golf telecasts

By Bill Fields

Feature Photograph: (L-R) Joe Martin, Tommy Roy and Tom Randolph (Photograph by Kent Horner/NBC Sports)

As the people who love me could testify, for better or worse I have watched a lot of golf on television in a lifetime around the sport. This was the case when it was only a couple of hours and a handful of holes on weekends in the 1970s and ’80s, and in the 21st century, when major championships get sunrise-to-sunset treatment with technology that was the stuff of fantasy years ago.

But until the fall of 2017, despite decades in golf media during which I’d written, edited and photographed, I had never worked on a broadcast. Then Gil Capps, longtime NBC Sports’ editorial adviser and 18th tower mainstay, called to see if I wanted to fill in as a researcher/statistician for someone who recently had left the position. I soon had a new gig at a dozen or so events each season — and a perspective on televised golf that wasn’t possible watching from home or a press room where I was chronicling a tournament for one periodical or another.

Hundreds of shows later, I’m in my seventh year as a contributing researcher assisting talent in the main booth, a spoke in the large wheel that is NBC Sports’ golf production team, which will bring the 2024 U.S. Open at Pinehurst to millions of viewers. What was at first an alien new world is now familiar. Strangers have become friends. Sometimes, at least, I even remember to not place my backpack on a damp floor before our attentive stage manager, Kathy Noce, has issued a warning.

I’ve been pumped when an announcer has used a meaningful tidbit or framed a moment with the context I suggested, and bummed on the occasions (fortunately rare) when I passed along something to talent that was incorrect. Television is a tightrope that typing stories, even on a short deadline, isn’t.

“When you’re on live television everything’s immediate,” says Capps, a Hickory native and Davidson College graduate, who worked his first U.S. Open in 1995 at Shinnecock Hills and has been alongside golf host Dan Hicks since 2000. “There are no backspace keys, no eraser. You’re obviously striving to be right all the time, but it’s not just that — it’s being able to show things or tell things that make sense, that do justice to what you’re seeing.”

Many people and much equipment are needed to broadcast golf, more than a casual viewer would imagine. That includes production managers who handle logistics for the traveling circus, to caterers who feed us, and support staff who toil long hours making sure everybody has what they need to do their jobs, whether that’s getting index cards to the tower or putting down plywood to make it possible to traverse a muddy compound.

“The producer is telling the story. The director is painting the pictures,” says Joe Martin, an industry veteran who has directed NBC’s tournament broadcasts since 2021. “But the technical team — technical director Mark Causey, the replay guys, the camera operators, the audio technicians — are really the backbone of getting a golf show on the air. It doesn’t happen without them.”

It is hard to imagine NBC’s golf coverage without lead producer Tommy Roy, who has been at the helm since 1993, and co-producer Tom Randolph, who has been alongside him for the whole ride. Both men got into golf TV years earlier, Roy while he was a student at the University of Arizona, Randolph after playing collegiately at UCLA, where he was a teammate of Corey Pavin. (His cousin, Sam Randolph, won the 1985 U.S. Amateur.)

Left: (L-R) Joe Martin, Tommy Roy and Tom Randolph (Photograph Kent Horner/NBC Sports)

Middle: Brad Faxon, left, and Mike Tirico will be joined in the 18th tower at the U.S. Open by Dan Hicks and Brandel Chamblee (Photographs by Bill Fields)

Right: (L-R) Dan Hicks, Brandel Chamblee, Brad Faxon, Steve Sands on camera, and researcher Harrison Root

 

Roy comes from a golf family as well. His late father, Billy, a native of Manitoba, was a longtime club professional in Tucson, where he moved to be in a warm climate after contracting polio as a young adult. “He was in the hospital for a year and lost the muscles in his legs,” Roy says. “He could play golf but not with power, and he walked stiffly. He became known in the Tucson area for giving lessons to handicapped people and the elderly. I was always very proud that my dad was a golf pro.”

In 1978, when Roy was on holiday break in the middle of his sophomore year at Arizona, his dad helped him get a job at the Tucson Open. He had a choice of working in an on-course bar or as a runner for NBC delivering coffee to cameramen. He chose the latter because a friend had done it the prior year, the perk being the use of a rental car during the tournament.

But a week to earn spending money and drive fresh wheels turned into something of greater consequence when he was asked to help in the control room on Saturday. “When I went into the truck for the very first time, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” says Roy, who was instantly attracted to the organized chaos. “Most of the time you’re taught to take your time, think about the possibilities, then make your decision. In the truck, you have to make a decision ‘now.’ It kind of goes against what normal jobs are.”

When Roy returned home that evening, he told his mother, Luanne, that his future had a shape, and soon he was on the road during the spring as part of the golf crew, joining NBC full time when he graduated in 1981.

That was the year that Randolph, who grew up in Menlo Park, California, got his start. He was a golf partner and friend of John Brodie, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who was an NBC announcer. Brodie thought Randolph’s playing experience could be put to good use on a crew that at the time was somewhat thin in golf knowledge. As had been the case with Roy, Randolph enjoyed the hectic environment of many voices from Day One.

Left: Photograph by Bill Fields

Middle: Photograph by Tomas Ovalle/NBC

Right: Editorial advisor Gil ( Photograph byCapps Katie Capps)

 

“Some people are fascinated by it and love it, and others come in there and have to get out as quick as possible because it’s too much,” Randolph says. “I had a little trouble studying and reading books, but I could watch two games at once, hear a conversation next to me and play cards at the same time. For most people, that would be hard. But I sometimes focus better doing more than one thing at a time.”

Randolph stands behind and between Roy and Martin during shows, his eyes on dozens of monitors. “I’m kind of a traffic controller in the truck,” Randolph says. “I have a lot of spotters and other people helping me. I’m looking at many monitors and figuring out where we go live. If Tommy wants to do a replay, or show some taped shots or other elements, where can we get those in without missing the most critical live shots? It is definitely a team effort.”

Martin will have roughly 65 cameras at his disposal in Pinehurst. Many are operated by experienced and expert hands such as Mike Wimberley, Gunnar Garrity and Rick Rice, who have done golf for years. Martin is communicating with them throughout broadcasts along with volunteer spotters reporting who is hitting what shot where. “I can listen to three conversations at once and know which one I need to actually pay attention to, and why it matters to me,” Martin says.

Drones and an airplane will be in the Sandhills skies during the U.S. Open to capture distinctive views. Remember the dramatic images looking down at Tiger Woods as he exulted his must-make putt on the 72nd green of the 2008 U.S. Open? Those were shot by Bob Mikkelson, who will be flying above No. 2 in June.

Overseeing it all is the intense, Pepsi-fueled Roy, the 29-time Sports Emmy winner who in addition to working about 500 golf events has excelled at coverage of the Olympic Games (producing every medal-winning race of Michael Phelps’ glorious swimming career), the NBA and the NFL. Roy is the definitive and decisive captain of the golf ship.

“These are gigantic sports productions, and you have to have a leader,” says Hicks, who coincidentally also grew up in Tucson and graduated from Arizona, although he didn’t meet Roy until 1992. “Without a leader, you’re lost. Tommy has a huge swath of responsibility, and he’s done the job very well for a long time. He is our leader.”

Complacency doesn’t fly with Roy. “I’m just driven for greatness,” he says. “I’ve seen people who get in positions who no longer strive for greatness. They strive just to be good enough to get by. And I don’t ever want that to happen for me personally or for anybody who works with us. We give our best all the time. We’re relying on so many people to do their jobs perfectly.”

As Mike Tirico, who will share the lead announcing duties with Hicks in Pinehurst, says, “You don’t ever want to let Tommy down. He has a bar for excellence that is higher than most people, and it’s there all the time. I’ve worked with great people, and he’s got a passion, an ability, an energy like nobody else. Nolan Ryan had command, a presence. He threw in the 90s for a long time. Tommy is just as good as he was when I first worked with him 25 years ago. That’s a lot of shots and a lot of miles to keep your fastball at 95, and Tommy’s is 95 with movement.”

Hicks and Tirico still bring it too, many years since their childhood aspirations of becoming broadcasters turned into esteemed careers on the air. Working closely with them affords a better appreciation of their talent: how fully they prepare, the cool under pressure, the ability to deal with an unanticipated detour, the judgment to let a moment breathe.

Capps has worked alongside Hicks for nearly 30 years. “I’m awfully biased, but at the same time I try to be objective, and I just don’t think there’s been a better golf play-by-play host all-time than Dan,” Capps says. “It’s a role that’s been blessed with a lot of good folks, Jim McKay and Dick Enberg among them. The list is deep with Hall of Famers. But Dan is unique in the way he can tell stories, weave them throughout an entire show, explaining what you’re seeing and why it’s important.”

Left: (L-R)Gil Capps, Dan Hicks and Jack Nicklaus (Photograph by Bill Fields)

Right: Tommy Roy (Photograph Courtesy of Jennifer Logue, Ponte Vedra Recorder)

 

“All hell can be breaking loose, and he’s going to come through time after time with the proper coverage,” Roy says of Hicks. “We’ve done so many hours of television together. That’s why there’s trust — he comes through every single time.”

Tirico, because of his extensive NFL play-by-play and Olympics hosting work, is more widely known to casual sports fans. He knows and appreciates that golf is different.

“You can’t please everyone,” Tirico says. “Some people want ball speed on every shot. Some people like the backstories of players. And some people just want to take a nap — they want the golf to be background noise. Golf is interesting because every time you show someone, as an announcer you could have so many different angles to explore. There’s statistics, there’s data, there’s historical material, there’s personal details about the player, there’s the shot that he’s facing or she’s facing. There are a lot of choices, and sometimes the best one in the biggest moment is to set up the shot and shut up, let people watch.”

Everyone on the crew will be looking forward to having the chance to broadcast the big moments in Pinehurst.

“Tommy has produced so many big events, and he’s clutch in the big moments,” Randolph says. “The thing I respect the most in Tommy is that he takes every show seriously and never mails it in. That said, he excels when the moment gets bigger.”

It will be the fourth Pinehurst U.S. Open that NBC has done, starting with the first one in 1999, when a star-heavy battle on a cool and misty Sunday came down to Payne Stewart’s clutch par putt on the 18th green.

“Your greatest hope in those types of moments is to take a back seat to what has happened, but you want to be able to enhance it,” says Hicks. “It can be easy to do, but you also can get in the way — and that’s what you don’t want to do.”

Hicks nailed the call after Woods sank his tying birdie on Sunday at Torrey Pines in 2008. “Expect anything different!” Hicks said, a brilliantly terse call for the ages that captured what everyone was thinking. Then he yielded to the many visuals that detailed the historic 12-footer in all its glory.

“There are always things I know we could have done better,” Roy says, “but Tiger making that putt in the 2008 U.S. Open was close to perfect. Dan’s call. All the angles. All the replays we had. Everything worked out.”

NBC’s last Pinehurst Open, in 2014, was bittersweet because it was the final one before the USGA took its championships to Fox. But in 2020, NBC regained the rights, doing the COVID 19-delayed one that year at Winged Foot and each championship since. The 2024 U.S. Open, the USGA’s 1,000th championship, will be the 25th U.S. Open for Roy and his team. (The network did a run of them in the early years of sports TV, ending in 1965.)

“It’s really cool to produce historical events, events that mean something,” Roy says. “The U.S. Open is huge.”

Like the golfers, we’ll be ready.  PS