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Hop On: Roger Maltbie tells all from inside the ropes

Roger Maltbie

'I've told a couple players on tour, "I'd like to tell you it was a pleasure, but it wasn't"'

Photo: James Rexroad

May 2003

Roger Maltbie hasn't accomplished everything he might have expected to in three decades of professional golf, but boy, has he enjoyed the ride. Today, Maltbie is among the most popular TV analysts covering the game. As a storyteller, he's second to none.

Maltbie never won a major, but as a full-time tour player from 1975 to 1996, his five tour victories included back-to-back wins as a rookie, a bizarre playoff victory that led to some hard feelings, and a career-extending triumph at the '85 World Series of Golf.

Now 51, Maltbie thinks a little practice and a concerted effort to lay off the cheesburgers are all he'd need to be a factor on the Champions Tour. So NBC made sure he would continue walking the fairways for the network by extending his contract through 2005.

During a series of interviews, Maltbie roared with laughter while describing topped shots, lucky bounces and almost whiffing a tee ball after having been overserved the night before. And for a moment he cried while reminiscing about nearly winning the Masters in 1987. His experiences have been a riot, and he's not afraid to talk all about 'em.

Golf Digest: You've won some pretty high-profile events as a player, and as a TV presence you get a lot of attention from galleries when you're out there walking with the leaders. Do you consider yourself a celebrity?

Roger Maltbie: Fans feel they can say hi to me and I'm not going to bark or snap at them. I don't consider myself a celebrity, I consider myself approachable and friendly. I think I was that way throughout my career.

No secret that fans can be in awe of pros, but what happens when it's a player who's in awe of another pro?

Tuesday afternoon at Firestone, PGA Championship in 1975, my first major, I look at the pairings and see I'm playing with Jack Nicklaus. I'm figuring he's asking himself, "Who is this guy?" And no matter what I've done or not done, when I stand on that first tee, he's going to be looking at me and making up his own mind whether I've got anything or nothing.

So you arrive at the first tee on Thursday, and there's Jack. What happens next?

Off the first tee, maybe 80 yards, there's a little creek that winds down the left. No professional golfer had ever hit it in that creek. . . . I hit it in that creek. I was so scared. So scared. And he couldn't have been more gracious.

You topped the shot?

A heel/top/squib. Ihad no oxygen reaching any part of my body. None. Oh, was I embarrassed.

Big crowd watching?

Oh, yeah -- Jack and Ohio, are you kidding me? We go through a couple of holes, and I barely get the ball in the air. At one point he says to me, "Roger, just relax. You've got a very nice golf swing. You're a good player. Good things have been happening to you. Just relax." And I got better. But not much.

What else do you remember about Nicklaus from that first encounter?

A couple of things. The old fifth hole was a long par 3, uphill. First day it was playing into the wind. At the time, Angelo Argea was caddieing for him. Not only was Jack the greatest player in the world, Jack was the best caddie in the world. Jack didn't ask questions; he had his own yardages. The first day, I can't remember the yardage, but I want to say 220, up a substantial hill and into a pretty stiff breeze. Jack pulls out 1-iron. Bang, right at the center of the green, comes up about three yards short. No problem.

And you hit . . .

Three-wood. The next day we come to that hole again, Jack does all his computations, grabs the 1-iron. Angelo says, "Boss, you hit that yesterday, and we didn't get there."

I'll never forget the look on Jack's face. He looked at Angelo, and he says, "We'll get it there today." And he hit this 1-iron. I never saw a shot like it. It was just a skyscraper, into this wind and up this hill, and it pitched on the back of the green. Back then with that equipment. And we're talking a 25 or 30 mile-per-hour wind.

The other thing I remember: Ed Dougherty was playing really well the first round, leading. And I said to Jack, "Dougherty, look at that . . . " He's like five under par or something like that. Jack said, "Doesn't matter -- 276 will win." What did he shoot? Two-seventy-six. I thought that was impressive.

In 1976, Nicklaus started his tournament, the Memorial, and you beat Hale Irwin in a playoff. Three-hole playoff. First one of its kind. Jack didn't want his event decided by sudden death and thought three-hole stroke play would be better.

When you headed to the tee to start the playoff, I'm guessing the crowd knew Hale a little better than they knew you.

Oh, boy. He had won the Open in '74 at Winged Foot, on the hardest golf course in the world, and here he is.

And the crowd, and the tournament host, probably weren't rooting for the underdog?

That was the feeling I got about it. I can't put words into Jack's mouth -- it's never been said to me by him -- but to have Hale Irwin win your first, a guy with some pedigree . . . I was kind of long-haired with this floppy mustache and wearing these stupid [plaid] pants.

Are they still in your closet?

No, we got rid of those. At any rate, we go out for the playoff. I see Hale and extend my hand. He didn't receive it that warmly. And Jeff Burrell said the best thing that any caddie has ever said to me -- ever -- as I stepped over to my bag. Jeff looked at me and he said, "He thinks he's going to win."

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