Talking A Good Game
None has won a Grand Slam title, but journeyman pros are a major presence at Golf Channel.
In his former life as a player, Tripp Isenhour's day would be ending at 6 p.m. during Thursday of tournament week. Now it is just beginning in his new life as an analyst for Golf Channel.
Preparation means sitting in a chair and allowing a stylist to make him look just right for an evening of TV duty. She applies makeup on Isenhour's face and finishes it off with a few brushes of powder. Finally, she pats down some wayward strains of hair, as Isenhour, oblivious to the primping, goes over his notes.
Eventually released from the beauty portion of his night, he takes the short walk into the Golf Channel studio and confers with a producer. In a few moments, he sits in another chair, this one on the set for "The Grey Goose 19th Hole."
The twice-weekly show calls for Isenhour, who had a 12-year career on the PGA and Web.com Tours, to offer fresh and candid insights about all things golf, especially on the PGA Tour. When the taping ends around 9:30 p.m., a content Isenhour is ready to call it a day. No visit to the scorer's tent for him.
"The only question players ask me now is, 'Do you like your new gig?' " Isenhour says. "I say, 'Yeah, I don't have to make four-footers, and I still get paid.' "
Isenhour, who last played competitively in 2009, is among the group of former players (and in some cases part-time current players) who have found a second life as golf analysts on TV and radio. And the number is likely to grow. "We're talking to people all the time," says Golf Channel president Mike McCarley.
The demand for analysts is greater because Golf Channel is constantly expanding its coverage, and other platforms are emerging too. Yet a different dynamic is at work compared to what often transpires in other sports.
For the most part, these golf analyst jobs are being filled by former players such as Isenhour and others who don't have the cachet of having Hall of Fame résumés as players. They are, for lack of a better phrase, journeymen pros, who now are viewed as experts when it comes to dissecting the work of Tiger, Phil and Rory.
Besides Isenhour, who never won on the PGA Tour, Golf Channel's roster of studio analysts includes Brandel Chamblee, Frank Nobilo, Charlie Rymer, Steve Flesch and Notah Begay III. John Maginnes has emerged as a major presence for PGA Tour Radio. Combined number of major-championship victories: zero.
Compare that to the group of studio analysts for the NFL Network: Hall of Famers Deion Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp and a likely future enshrinee, Kurt Warner. Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson do high-profile studio work in basketball; Terry Bradshaw, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, has become an even bigger star during his years on Fox NFL Sunday.
The difference, of course, is that professional golf is the only sport in which the top stars seem to play forever. While a football player's career is done by his early- to mid-30s if he is lucky to last that long, elite golfers play well into their 40s on the PGA Tour and most make a seamless transition to the Champions Tour in their 50s.
As a result, the roster of available big-name talent for TV is much slimmer, or nonexistent, for Molly Solomon, Golf Channel's executive producer. "It's difficult because golfers never want to quit," Solomon says. "Once they get to 50, another door opens for them. It's hard to get them to commit to TV. Why would you want to work for a living?"
There are golfers, however, for whom playing the tour didn't turn into a lifetime profession. When Rymer turned pro after finishing at Georgia Tech in 1991, he thought, "This is what I'm going to do the rest of my life."
It came to an abrupt end for him in the late '90s after spending only three years on the PGA Tour. Despite a handful of top finishes, Rymer realized it wasn't going to be his life's work. Plan B materialized while he was hitting balls next to CBS' Gary McCord prior to an outing in April 1998.
"He said, 'You ought to do TV,' " Rymer remembers. "I said, 'I'm not qualified.' He said, 'You're an idiot. That makes you qualified to do TV.' " McCord made some calls on Rymer's behalf, and it led to him launching a broadcast career at ESPN; he made the move to the Golf Channel in 2009.
Persistent back problems brought Begay to the crossroads last year. The four-time PGA Tour winner had done some work for Golf Channel while playing a limited schedule without much success. With the departure of Dottie Pepper, NBC golf producer Tommy Roy and McCarley wanted to hire Begay as a full-time on-course reporter.
Begay, though, wanted to take one final shot at Q school last fall. Roy and McCarley weren't rooting against Begay, but they weren't disappointed when he didn't regain his card. "The day after Notah was out at Q school, Tommy was on the phone and said, 'Can we call him now?' " McCarley says. "Notah had shown some real promise when he did the studio."
A deal with NBC/Golf Channel was done within a week. At age 40, Begay knew it was time. "A player gets to the point where you have to make a fair and honest assessment of your performance," Begay says. "I was spending more money to play than I was making. Not making it through Q school was the final nail in the coffin."
Flesch, meanwhile, has found himself in limbo. At 46, he is trying to play part-time on the PGA Tour -- he has limited status in 2013 -- with an eye toward the Champions Tour at 50 while analyzing the game for Golf Channel. The arrangement produced an odd scenario for Flesch earlier this year. A second-round 64 put him in contention during the Colonial, where he finished T-22 after a closing 73. The following week he was inside the ropes again, this time as an on-course reporter for Golf Channel's Memorial coverage.
"I will say, TV is infinitely less stressful," Flesch says.
However, broadcasting isn't without its challenges. Begay realized just how much things had changed in his life when he arrived to work his first tournament for TV and couldn't find the production compound. "As a player, we're used to driving up Magnolia Lane in our tournament cars," Begay said. "Now, in TV, we enter through a back gate."
The transition from player to analyst happens quickly, without time to go to broadcast school to learn the basics. Isenhour had little idea of what to do when he worked his first tournament in 2011. He figured he didn't screw up because he got asked to do another one.
On-the-job training comes quickly. "There's a pretty high learning curve," Begay says. "It's everything from diction and grammar to working with the camera and where to stand. You have get used to people talking in your ear while you're talking. It's even as basic as, 'Sit up straight.' "