Golf World

Scorecard From The Edge

David Feherty is intense, intelligent, irreverent, improvisational and inexhaustable. And he may just be the best interviewer in the game

February 18, 2013

It was a lovely television moment.

David Feherty, the whimsical Northern Irish golfer-turned-CBS golf commentator-turned-popular golf writer-turned-Golf Channel inquisitor, had just tiptoed over the tangle of cables that crossed the dim floor like mangrove roots. He was now sitting comfortably in the lodge of a 3,000-acre man-cave on the edge of a Texas town that bills itself the Black-Eyed Pea Capital of the World.

In the hot seat opposite him -- more aptly "polar-opposite" him or, as Feherty might crack, "bipolar-opposite" him -- was Bobby Knight, once the most truculent of college basketball coaches, handy with both expletives and folding chairs.

For the last 30 minutes Feherty had been peppering Knight with faintly impertinent questions about everything from his short game to the differences between golf and basketball. "In basketball, the hole is in the air," observed Feherty. "How is that even possible?" At the next break in the taping, he tells Knight, sotto voce, "Sometimes I ask dumb f------ questions."

The cameramen change reels and Feherty, with tape rolling again, abruptly shifts gear. Fixing a serious gaze on the retired coach, he asks: "Why were you such a f------ lunatic at times?"

Knight's eyes glow in recognition of the sarcasm, and he smiles appreciatively. This is clearly the set-up he has been waiting for; it's as if he just knocked back a triple-shot of espresso; it's the point in a game when the ref makes a bad call and all hell breaks loose.

The angriest voice in sports, at full belt, has immense carrying power, and the entire lodge grinds to a halt while everyone listens. Knight enlists every member of the camera crew as a witness: "Because I absolutely f------ wanted to win, that's why!"

As Feherty giggles gleefully, Knight roars, "And that was a dumb f------ question."

Flashing a grin that's broad and diabolical, Feherty says, "See, I told you."

Golf World:
David, if you could change one rule in golf, what would it be?

You should be allowed to tackle your opponent.

In the two years since "Feherty" debuted, the half-interview, half-improv gabfest has emerged as Golf Channel's only must-see original programming and its host has become the game's first crossover TV star. Other guests on what Feherty calls his "televised nervous breakdown" have ranged from Annika Sorenstam to Samuel L. Jackson, from Billy Casper to Bill Clinton, who claims to be Feherty's biggest fan. "You must have a lot of spare time on your hands," Feherty told the 42nd president. "You clearly left the cupboard bare in media advisors if you're doing this show."

david feherty with bobby knight

Feherty's Knight interview included a swing tip or two for the legendary coach. Photo: Peter Larsen/Golf Channel

As a talker, Feherty is lavish and inexhaustible. He cascades opinions on any subject, from belly putters to belly lox, punctuating his effusions with goofy faces, strange sounds and grand, intense gestures. So broad is his appeal that CBS even asked him to audition as Andy Rooney's replacement on "60 Minutes." The fact that Feherty didn't make the cut may have had less to do with his Q score, a celebrity popularity rating system, than his mordant choice of material. In one bit he offered three situations in which it's permissible to laugh at a funeral: "One was that you didn't like the deceased," he recalls. "Two, if the pallbearers drop the casket." He can't remember the third.

The joy of Feherty is that he's a free spirit. In a sport known for its humorless straight-arrows, he's madcap and relentlessly mischievous. There's a primitive, unreconstructed schoolboy in him, who likes jokes about farts and testicles and the rude bits of female anatomy. And, as the British comedian John Cleese once said of a fellow funnyman, he can tear it off by the yard.

Acutely attuned to the ways in which his own tortured past has shaped his outlook, the 54-year-old Feherty suffers fools goofily, which makes for unexpected and disconcerting TV. But for all the mugging and slapstick, his interviews can be as languidly brilliant as his tournament commentary. He's affectionate, but not infatuated; admiring, but not adoring. There's a genuine sympathy there, a real warmth that combines with his reckless sense of fun. "It's David's ability to be open and create raw and very real moments that makes him special," says Golf Channel president Mike McCarley. "Because he's so willing to reveal his flaws, his guests are more willing to reveal theirs."

Knight agrees. "David puts you at ease," he said after their summit. "He's not mean-spirited, and he won't throw you under the bus. I've never spent a more enjoyable time being grilled on camera, and remember: Nobody has ever accused me of being real kind." Knight had asked to be on "Feherty" after watching an episode in which the host shot questions at pro basketball great Bill Russell. ("So, Bill, you were left-handed and black? I mean those are two serious disadvantages on a golf course.") Knight had laughed so hard that he wanted to be part of the fun. And he was: At the end of the powwow, Feherty gave Knight tips on his golf swing, and Knight coached Feherty on the art of tossing a folding chair.

Golf World:
What's the biggest secret you can reveal about yourself?

I'm unable to stop the wheel in my head from spinning, even if I drug the hamster.

How to explain this totally one-off character? The key may lie in "gabbling," the Irish word for what goes inside each of our minds. Decades of alcoholism and clinical depression have sheared a few gears off Feherty's gabbling machine. "There's no order -- it's total anarchy in there," he says. "Like most depressives -- or most who actually take their medication -- the treatment doesn't make you feel good, just different."

david feherty

Feherty, shown with Sam Torrance, had a 1-1-1 mark in the 1991 "War by the Shore" Ryder Cup. Photo: Stephen Munday/Allsport

The vial Feherty keeps in his pants pocket harbors his daily regimen of anti-depressants (Cymbalta), anti-psychotics (Abilify, Klonopin), stimulants (Adderall, Vyvanse), mood stabilizers (Lamictal), cholesterol (Lipitor) and blood pressure meds (Avalide), and sleep aids (Ambien). "I don't like sleeping pills," he allows. "I don't like sleeping, period." His credo: You sleep for a long time when you're dead. "I'm hopelessly in the present, I don't live one day at a time. I live 20 minutes at a time. I have no f------ clue what I'm doing tomorrow." Asked in what era he would have liked to play golf, Feherty says the 1980s and '90s. He quickly adds: "But I'd like to remember them this time."

It's easy to forget how good a player Feherty was in his prime -- Feherty certainly has. During his 18 years as a tour pro, he won five events in Europe and 10 worldwide. His first victory came in a playoff at the 1986 Italian Open. After winning that year's Scottish Open -- also in a playoff -- he went on a two-day binge that resulted in the disappearance of the tournament trophy. It still hasn't surfaced.

Feherty captained Ireland's winning Dunhill Cup team at St. Andrews in 1990 -- hitting a gloriously decisive 3-iron of 199 yards onto the 17th green to clinch the victory in a sudden-death match against England's Howard Clark. A month later he entered the consciousness of the American public at the World Cup in Orlando, where he shot 63 and famously compared the Grand Cypress course to one of those hot-air hand dryers found in public rest rooms: "It's a great idea and everybody uses it once, but never again. It takes too long." The following year he made the Ryder Cup team that narrowly lost the War by the Shore at Kiawah Island, beating Payne Stewart in singles. "I'm told that on my first putt I shook like a pregnant nun," he recalls. "Everything moved except my bowels."

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