King of the Q&A
Golf Channel host Peter Kessler has interviewed the biggest names in golf. Now we turn the tables on him (and you should hear his answers)
In the seven years since the inception of The Golf Channel, no one has become more closely identified with the cable network than Peter Kessler. As host of "Golf Talk Live" and "Academy Live" Kessler has had a privileged seat next to the game's best players and teachers. His guest book reads like a Who's Who of the game, from old-timers Sarazen, Snead and Runyan to current stars Woods, Garcia and Duval.
You don't have to be one of The Golf Channel's 45 million viewers to appreciate the behind-the-scenes stories he tells in this interview: everything from a guest battling a bladder problem during a live show to surprises, tears and laughter from the giants of the game. Kessler has shown a knack for getting them all to open up on the air -- in his words, as a fan who gets to ask the questions that everybody wants to ask.
Kessler found his lifework relatively late (he turns 50 in February). Before The Golf Channel, he bounced from London to Wall Street before landing a gig as "the voice of HBO Sports." With that smoky baritone coming from his cozy studio setting, Kessler has become a big player in the TV game. He has become so big, in fact, that he may have outgrown The Golf Channel. Kessler, refreshingly forthright talking about his guests -- and himself-- in this interview, has clashed with management over the past year and found his on-air time scaled back. There was speculation at press time that his days with the network were numbered. But even if and when that transpires, we're sure we haven't seen or heard the last of him.
Golf Digest: Do you ever feel as if you have the best job in golf?
Peter Kessler: I thought the best job in golf was being Tiger Woods. So if you're not going to be Tiger, you look at all the other possibilities. But in terms of the fulfillment quotient, it's really high. I've done 1,300-plus hours of live television for The Golf Channel, and I've never become bored with it. I've never taken it for granted.
Some of your more memorable interviews have been with golf's golden oldies. Did you ever have to halt Sam Snead from telling some of his raunchy stories on the air?
Sam saved the raunchy stories for the car ride, and he told them to my then-6-year-old son, Kevin. Sam told Kevin two dirty jokes in the back of that limousine that were as filthy as anything you have ever heard. My 6-year-old keeps looking at me like, "What is he talking about?" Now after seven years of psychotherapy my son is finally coming out of it.
What about the night you interviewed Gene Sarazen -- wasn't he known for being a little difficult at times?
Not that night. He was sweet as sugar. In 1920, he used to take the train from Harrison, N.Y., into New York City. At Pelham Station, he would run into the Ziegfeld Follies chorus girls, and he would flirt with one in particular who, in his vernacular, "wouldn't give me a tumble," meaning she wouldn't flirt with him -- I think in those days "tumble" meant flirt. He said that on the air.
He said, "Sixty years goes by and a woman walks up to me and says, 'Do you remember me?' " Now it's 1980. And he said, "I looked her over and I didn't recognize her, and I told her so." And she said, "Well, I'm the blonde that you used to flirt with on the platform in Pelham in 1920, and my name now is Mrs. Bob Hope."
What would rank as your favorite interviews over the past seven years?
The interview with Johnny Miller, the interview with Sarazen, the last full interview with Payne Stewart and the interview with Arnold after his wife, Winnie, passed away around Thanksgiving of 1999.
I agonized over how to handle the situation with Arnold. On the one hand, I didn't want to raise the subject right away. On the other hand, if it's real life and you've just had a tragedy in your family, I wouldn't ask you about your golf game before I told you I was sorry about your personal tragedy.
I tried to imagine all of the possible reactions that Arnold could have. And I knew that one reaction would be that he wouldn't be able to speak. I had decided that if that occurred I would let him regroup by reminding him of how every time Winnie came to the studio with him she sat 10 feet away and never paid attention to one word either of us said. She found it so fascinating that she knitted, she talked on the phone, she read a book, she wrote letters, she made lists -- everything but listen to the two of us.
She might have listened if she had heard the ERC II driver debate between you two a year later.
There wouldn't have been an ERC II debate, because Winnie would not have let Arnold endorse a nonconforming golf club. She'd have hit him over the head with that golf club in five minutes -- in five seconds -- and there never would have been any issue of this whatsoever.
We'll get to that later. Describe the reaction when you mentioned Winnie to Arnold that first time in the interview.
He wept openly, and when the segment came to an end, I leaned over to him and whispered, "Are you OK, Arnie?" And he goes, "That's what they wanted, and we both knew that's what we had to give them." It made me appreciate not only his sensitivity to who he was as a professional but who he was as a human being.
Anything particularly surprising that has come from a guest?