In NBC's galaxy of talent, foot soldier Roger Maltbie shines with candor, humor
"Which floor?" The U.S. Senior Open volunteer asked as she glanced toward Roger Maltbie with a smile, pointing toward the elevator buttons.
"Mezzanine," he said with a sense of merriment. "I know it's only one floor up, but it's uphill and I don't do uphill."
He was kidding, but only by half. Maltbie, 57, is not the most athletic course reporter in network golf television, but he doesn't seem to have any trouble covering the real estate with enough speed to be one of its best foot soldiers.
Maltbie cuts the most recognizable figure among on-course broadcasters. There is no mistaking him for a denizen of the fitness trailer as the corners of his physique—if there ever were any—have been rounded off considerably. His white hair and mustache, which turned gray long ago, can be spotted from the green while he is still in the landing area. Everybody knows when Maltbie's coming.
He is central to the golf coverage on NBC—which will broadcast its ninth consecutive Ryder Cup next week from Valhalla GC in Louisville—and his observations are always a combination of a player's feel and a critic's discerning eye, with a few laughs and jousts with Johnny Miller thrown into the mix.
As far as his career with NBC is concerned, there has been no steep ascending grade. His job, since 1992, has been a downhill, right-to-left, reachable par 5, and no one can assess a birdie hole any better than Maltbie.
"The realization came to me a couple of years ago," says Maltbie, sitting outside the Broadmoor Hotel during last month's U.S. Senior Open. "I spent my whole life playing golf and did so with some measure of success. But I'm going to do [television] longer, be better known and make more money and I never spent one minute thinking that I'd do this for a living."
Except perhaps for some diehards older than 40, not many people either remember or know at all that Maltbie was an accomplished PGA Tour player. In 1975, his first full year, he won the Quad Cities Open and the Pleasant Valley Classic in back-to-back weeks. The following year, he won the inaugural Memorial tournament in a playoff over Hale Irwin. And in 1985, he won at two storied venues—Westchester and Firestone—and finished eighth on the money list. Two years later, at age 35, Maltbie was T-4 at the Masters, his best career finish in a major.
But a couple of shoulder surgeries curtailed his playing career, and in 1989 NBC asked him to join a tryout for new announcers at Kapalua in Hawaii that included Miller, Irwin, Gary Koch and Pat McGowan. The network broadcast about 18 tournaments in its package, and Maltbie turned down what he considered a meager offer. Two years later NBC came back to Maltbie about working on its expanded coverage of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. He said yes with the proviso that he be allowed to work the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, S.C.
It was at Kiawah that Maltbie would face a defining moment as a broadcaster. He had been covering the Payne Stewart-David Feherty Sunday singles match about the time Mark Calcavecchia was losing a 4-up lead to Colin Montgomerie with four holes to play to halve the match. Maltbie was told to leave the Stewart-Feherty match and find Calcavecchia for an interview.
"I find him, and he's with Peter Kostis, who was my instructor and Calcavecchia's instructor, at the USA Network trailer," Maltbie says. "His eyes were swollen shut. He had been throwing up, and I don't know clinically what a nervous breakdown is, but he was not in any shape to do an interview. I walked out of the USA trailer and over to our production truck and told [executive producer Terry] O'Neil that I wasn't doing it.
"He said, 'Stay with him. He'll talk.' I said, 'You stay with him. Maybe he'll talk to you.' I was still a player, and that was crossing a line. I don't know that I would look at it quite that way today, having done it all these years."
A month later Mark Rolfing left NBC for ABC, and the NBC team had an opening. The network only would air nine events in 1992 and still wasn't offering the kind of salary Maltbie thought he needed. But after the second shoulder surgery, the doctors told him his normal playing schedule of 28-30 events would be too much wear and tear. He decided he could do television work and play in fewer events, and it would all balance out.