The Buck Starts Here
County stadium in Milwaukee, Packers game, and it's freezing. I'm broadcasting the game, and the second half is taking forever. The bathroom is a mile away, and I've really got to go. My teeth are floating. There's a timeout, and someone hands me an empty soda bottle.
I knock it out of his hand and soldier on. There's another timeout, and I continue to suffer. The two-minute warning comes; there's still not time. At this point I'm jumping up and down and pressing my knees together. The game resumes, and then there's another timeout with seconds to play. There's a woman stage manager in the booth, and I point to the door and say, "Out." Someone brings in a trash can and lines it with a plastic bag. Suddenly I'm Jim Carrey pulled over by the cop in "Dumb and Dumber." It just doesn't end, even when we're back from break. How does this story wrap? Details will be in a book I'm writing that's due out next year, though I will say, the achievement will never be matched by any broadcaster, ever.
THAT'S A HECK OF A WAY to begin this interview, but it comes to mind because at the U.S. Open we're going to be on the air 11 hours a day for four days. I'll be on for six hours each day, with four two-minute breaks per hour. So I'll be scouting where the restrooms are the way caddies chart courses. And I might bring some Depends, just in case.
FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN. That's what this U.S. Open is for me, and I haven't felt this way since I called my first World Series, in 1996. Back then I had this sensation in the pit of my stomach, this nervousness, that took me right to the edge. And that's how hosting the U.S. Open for Fox is. Having done 17 World Series and being in the broadcasting business for almost 25 years, it's not a literal fear. But it's something I think about every day and night.
WE DID THESE DRY RUNS AT PINEHURST, using a feed from Golf Channel. Greg [Norman] and I did 20 hours, and when it's over I get the tape, go home and watch it. My wife, Michelle, is there, as are daughters Natalie, 18, and Trudy, 15. Two minutes into it, Trudy says, "It sounds like you're doing football, Dad. Doesn't sound like golf." Note to self: new golf tone needed.
WHAT I'VE FOUND about Greg is that he's sort of a terminator. He's going at this endeavor with a commitment and focus I'm not sure I've seen anywhere else. He's attacking it like a competitor. I've seen many former athletes try announcing, and it doesn't always go well. They drift. They stumble or get flustered. Greg comes in lasered up and ready to go. He'll be good, trust me.
MY EXPERIENCE IN GOLF IS LONG; my list of accomplishments small. I'm a member at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis. One of the great clubs in America, host of the 1971 Ryder Cup and scene of my one and only triumph, a victory in the Old Warson member-guest.
My partner, Mark Human, and I won our flight, which got us into one of those shootout things between the flight winners. A team is eliminated on every hole, and one by one they fell, until it was Mark, me and another team with a combined age of 107. I made the winning putt, a moment for the ages. Won a golf-bag travel cover, as I recall, and a $500 merchandise certificate. Which, as you know, buys you $200 worth of stuff in the pro shop.
MY INDEX IS 5.0. I've been as low as 2, and it gets up around 8 when I'm running badly. Historically I'm a little reverse-sandbaggerish, because when I play lousy, I head for the parking lot instead of the computer to post my score. I'm a Wild Willie more than a Steady Eddie. I like to rip it. I broke my sternum hitting a golf ball, and the doctor who treated me said he could write a medical paper about it. My big miss is a block. It has been and always will be a part of my DNA. With acceptance comes peace.
SPEAKING OF THE BIG MISS, I was down in Cabo San Lucas and got a little bet going with Hank Haney at El Dorado. Hank hangs out there a lot, filmed one of his "Haney Project" shows there. We're friends, but the game is serious. At the time I was working on the one-plane swing with Mark Miller, a disciple of Jim Hardy. On the range, Hank is giving me the business. "One-plane swing, eh? You're so far from a one-plane swing, it's a joke." I then proceed to play unconscious against Hank. I'm burying him. On the 16th tee he looks at the scorecard, shakes his head and says, "Do you know what you're shooting?" I look, and I'm one under. For a 6-handicapper playing El Dorado from the tips, that's unconscious. I par the last three holes and bring it home in 71, my best score ever. Hank can't believe it. He starts peeling off the $70 he owes me, but I decide to let him off the hook. "How about you just sign my ball for me?" He signs the ball, which is on display at my home today.
BUT LET'S TALK about the car wrecks, which far outnumber the triumphs. At Pebble Beach in 2007, I'm playing with Jay Delsing in the pro-am, and I'm having a terrible week. On our last hole at Spyglass Hill—we don't come close to making the cut—I have a tiny chance at redemption. I take a 9-iron and whistle it right at the flag. I'm holding my finish as the ball disappears. From up at the green comes that unmistakable groan, that Ohhh that tells you something bad has happened. My ball had airmailed everything by a mile. Jay sidles over and whispers, "On tour, what we do at this point is walk really slowly and hope that the pain subsides by the time you reach the green." Walk slowly I did, but the nightmare got worse. We get up there and discover my ball had hit an older woman, a devoted patron of 40 years there, square in the neck. She was OK and was very nice about it. Me, I left the Monterey Peninsula feeling like I'd committed one crime after another.
I KNOW HOW THAT LADY FELT. When I was 5, we went with my dad [Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck] on a road trip to Cincinnati. On the way into Riverfront Stadium, I begged my mom to get me one of those plastic batting helmets at the souvenir stands. She gave in, and as we took our seats just behind the third-base dugout, she told me that if a foul ball came, I needed to duck. Two innings later, Pete Rose comes up and rips one foul right at little Joe Buck. I ducked, but the ball hit me flush in the head. Thankfully I was wearing the batting helmet—with no padding. They took me to the aid station, but I was OK. Who had it rough for a few minutes was my dad, who couldn't leave the microphone.
PETE ROSE, BY THE WAY, should be in the Hall of Fame. Everybody deserves a second chance. He still follows the game passionately, knows minutiae about current players you wouldn't believe. Look, he's going to get in someday. We all know that. They might as well do it while he's alive to appreciate it.
IN 2002, A WRITER I KNOW, Dan O'Neill, did a story on me for Golfweek. We're at Old Warson and playing while he's interviewing me. There's a photographer there, and I'm nervous, feeling like I have someone else's arms. Standing on the tee of the 13th hole, a par 3, the photog says, "I think I've got all I need," jumps in his golf cart and drives in. My next swing, I make the only hole-in-one in my life. I whoop, my arms go in the air and Dan gives me a high-five. I look for the photographer and see his golf cart disappearing on the horizon. A Kodak moment, except there's no Kodak.
I'M PLAYING with [NFL quarterback] Carson Palmer one year in the Tahoe celebrity tournament. I can't do anything right. Four-letter words are pouring out of me like I have Tourette's. When it's over, Carson and his brother, Jordan, say, "How do you do a broadcast without letting an F-bomb leak out once in a while?" As I told them, when we go on the air, I kind of throw a switch in my brain where there's no profanity. Throwing the switch has worked—so far.
I'M NOT ONE OF THOSE ANTI-CART FANATICS, it's just that I've had two back surgeries, and a bouncing cart does me no good. I've also had a broken neck—I played with it for a week as a defensive tackle in high school before we realized it was broken—there's the sternum deal, and then I have an arthritic shoulder, so walking keeps me loose.
MAYBE IT'S FROM BEING AROUND BASEBALL SO MUCH, but I believe in sanctity of the clubhouse. Golf-wise, I believe that what happens at the club should stay at the club. I'm not a big 19th-hole hangout guy. Questions like, "Should the Seahawks have run the ball at the end of the Super Bowl?" are inevitable. But the stuff I hear on the course is unbelievable. Stuff about marriages and so on exceeds what professional counselors hear. Betray another person's secrets, and all is lost.
RORY MCILROY throws his 3-iron into the water at Doral, and it's cute. If Tiger Woods had done that, the media would have never let him up. The media dynamic with Tiger is interesting. The media are supposed to be objective, right? I've never taken it personally when a baseball or football player doesn't speak or open up to us—and there have been a lot. Move on to the next guy.
THE HAPPIER my life at home has been, the happier I've been playing golf. I think that's true with everybody. Michelle thinks I get too unhappy over a bad round, but she has no idea how unhappy it made me before I met her. If you're coming home from a lousy day on the golf course to a lousy situation at home, that's true misery, because at the course you were counting on four hours of bliss. It sounds sappy, but if you come home to a great person, golf no longer seems like life and death.
FIRST GOLF MEMORY: St. Petersburg, Fla., 1980. Spring training home for the St. Louis Cardinals. I'm 10, and I'm with my dad, who I didn't get to spend a lot of time with because he was gone working so much. We're at a golf course, and he hands me a token for the machine that releases range balls into a wire basket. I thought it was the coolest thing. I remember the clatter of the machine as the balls came out. And the laughter of my dad as I chased after the balls when they overflowed the basket.
NEVER BITE OFF so much in your job that you can't spend a lot of time with your family. My dad worked so hard. He slept in his own bed maybe half the nights of the year because of road assignments, but even when he was home, he was covering games. It put a lot of pressure on my mom. She brought in her parents to help out, and it took a village to raise us. I was lucky. Some kids, not having their fathers around, go off the rails. Me, I never wanted him to come home and have to deal with a discipline problem. So I kept my nose clean.
BUT IN THE END, what I learned is never to risk being underexposed at home to be overexposed on the air. When we're finished here, I'm heading to Trudy's lacrosse game. Not that I'm father of the year or anything, but I've tried to keep that balance.
GREAT AS MY DAD WAS—I would never have gotten my first job announcing if I didn't have the last name Buck—it's my mom, Carole, who has made the biggest difference. She was on Broadway back in the 1960s. She understands entertainment, has incredible instincts. When you're lucky enough to do high-profile events, you're surrounded by people telling you how good you are. You need that one voice you trust, one person who will tell you the truth. When my mom says, "That didn't sound like you. It wasn't your best," I listen.
JACK BUCK FOUGHT through Europe during World War II. He crossed the bridge at Remagen. He got shot and was decorated. Rough, traumatic stuff. But for some reason he loved watching World War II movies. You'd think they would give him flashbacks, but even during the hairiest parts of "Saving Private Ryan," he just munched away on his popcorn. One part got to him: the scene where Ryan is old and visits the graves with his family. But the rest, he watched like it was just another movie. He was a tough guy.
IN 1999, I WON A SPORTS EMMY for best play-by-play announcer. Floyd Mayweather was doing the presentation. He said, "And the winner is... " and opened the envelope. When he said "Joe Buck," he said it in a surprised way, as if to say, Who's that guy? I've been fortunate enough to win seven Sports Emmys, but Floyd's surprise is one reason I'm looking forward to the U.S. Open. It's a chance to sort of take it to the next level. It's not the goal, but I hope it's a happy consequence.
AT THE SAME SPORTS EMMYS SHOW IN 1999, my dad got the Lifetime Achievement Award. He had diabetes, lung cancer and Parkinson's disease, but he got up there and stole the show. His hands shaking visibly, he said, "I shook hands with Muhammad Ali a while back. It took them 30 minutes to get us untangled." He said of his World War II experience, "If it were not for a French woman hiding me in her basement, I never would have made it out alive. The basement was in Cleveland, Ohio." Brought the house down.
BEST ATHLETE-GOLFER I've seen is Sam Bradford, now quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. Jay Williamson, a former tour player and good buddy of mine, says that if Sam focused on golf, he could be on the PGA Tour within a couple of years. As far as playing the game goes, he's better than Tony Romo, John Smoltz, Rick Rhoden or any other nongolf athlete out there.
OF THE POSSIBILITY of performance-enhancing drugs in golf, I suggest you think of one name: Freddy Galvis. He's not a golfer but a player for the Philadelphia Phillies who was suspended for PED use. Google him and look at pictures of him. The drugs made no difference in his appearance. The days of steroid use and the bulging muscles and acne are long gone. The idea now is to use designer drugs that make you recover faster. I have no idea if anyone in golf is using them. What I'm saying is, you can't tell just by looking at a guy.
BEST PROFESSION for playing golf: major-league baseball pitcher. Smoltz, Greg Maddux and those guys played more than PGA Tour players, every day except when they were pitching. And they did it with the blessing of their managers, most of whom also loved to play. There came a day when teams started discouraging it and stopped allowing them to put their clubs on the charter flights. So what did the pitchers do? They FedExed their clubs. Some teams have relented and just let them play.
SECOND-BEST PROFESSION for playing golf: baseball announcer. When I was broadcasting Cardinals games with Mike Shannon, we played the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1998 just before the U.S. Open, when it was closed to members. Name the great course in a great city, and we played there. Tim Finchem could not have set it up better. In fact, there are very few American courses still on my bucket list. Spoiled rotten, is what we are.
AUGUSTA NATIONAL? Of course. Troy Aikman arranged it through Joe Ford, a wonderful guy and member there. We stayed in the cabins. The first day we played from the member tees and also played the Par-3 Course. The second day, Troy asked Joe if he'd mind if we played from the back tees. This was a month before the 2012 Masters, and the course was running fast, in prime condition. Joe said he didn't mind. The course was a beast, but on the ninth green, I was three over and headed for a career round. At that point, it started to sprinkle. Tiny drops, where you don't even break out the umbrella. Joe Ford knocks in his putt, looks at the sky and says, "I guess I've had enough of this rain. Let's get some soup, boys!" And he walks in. I'm speechless, thinking with all my power, Joe, please come back. But he kept going. Joe's aversion to rain probably saved me from a back-nine 56, though it stayed dry. The soup was terrific.
LATER THAT DAY, who comes off 18 but the great football coach, Lou Holtz. He and another guy had gone off as a twosome that morning, first group off. They were the last group off the course. Lou said they played 72 holes, just went around and around.
MY CHOICE FOR BEST golf announcing moment I've seen might surprise you. It was from NBC's Dan Hicks when Tiger Woods made the putt to get into the playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open. Dan's words were, "Expect anything different?" It's a good line, but it was the timing that made it exquisite. Announcers have different styles. You can ride the front of the wave—be right on top of a call like a play-by-play guy in an action sport. You can dive into the middle of the wave, or ride the back of it—a pause before you give a reaction. Dan's call was on the back of the wave, and it couldn't have been better. That's the best way, I think. Pat Summerall did it like that. That's what I'm shooting for.
BEST GOLF ANNOUNCER, all time? Jim Nantz. He's got the right voice, the right tone, a great sensibility and an amazing way of mixing in history with what you're seeing. Nobody puts it in context like that guy. His institutional knowledge is unreal. Anybody who tries to be the next Jim Nantz needs to have their head examined, because that exact model is unattainable. It's too intimidating. My biggest fear is falling into a trap of trying to be like Jim. We'll try for the first Joe Buck, and see how that goes.
BUT I WON'T FALL INTO THAT TRAP. I was hired to do Cardinals games at 20, did my first game at 21. I actually had to wait a while before I could do drop-ins for Bud Light, because I wasn't of drinking age. I worked with my dad and Mike Shannon, and you can imagine the temptation to try to sound like those guys. I didn't do it then, so I suppose I can find my own style now.
NEPOTISM CUTS BOTH WAYS. I got my start in baseball because I was Jack Buck's son. The downside, as we learned with Julian Lennon, is if you aren't very good, they get rid of you twice as fast.
I WILL NOT HAVE AN EXCLAMATION planned in advance for when the last putt falls. I planned a call one time—for Mark McGwire's 62nd home run—and it didn't happen because of where he hit the ball. I'm glad I went with something spontaneous.
OK, THERE'S ONE EXCEPTION. If Tiger Woods happens to win, I just might say, "I don't believe what I just saw." That would be a small homage to my dad's call of Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series. Let's face it, that expression would be hard to beat. It would be truthful. The way he's been playing and after what he's been through, I really wouldn't believe what I just saw.
ON SECOND THOUGHT, there's no way I'll say that. I copied one of my dad's expressions, his "See you tomorrow night," when I called Game 6 of the Cards-Rangers World Series in 2011. I'm not interested in becoming a Jack Buck cover band.
BEST GOLF TV MOMENT: Payne Stewart winning at Pinehurst in 1999. It was best personally because the birth of my second child was a month away, and watching Payne take Phil Mickelson's face in his hands and tell him, "You're going to be a father" was very powerful. It was awesome from a professional standpoint because the announcers had the good sense not to be talking. It's important to know what to say. Knowing what not to say, and knowing when not to say it, is every bit as important.
WHEN FRANK CHIRKINIAN was running the golf telecasts at CBS, he had a rule for announcers never to talk while the ball is in the air. At Fox, one rule I'm hoping for is to never talk over natural sound. We'll have a lot of mics going at Chambers Bay, and you'll hear a lot of caddie-player conversation. I don't think there's anything an announcer can say that would trump the information and drama going on in those moments. If they go to one of those conversations while I'm in mid-sentence, I'll shut up and defer to what they're saying.
MY DAD always felt you should go just a little easy on the players. He said that doing what they do, as well as they do it, is incredibly difficult. I think that applies to golf. Why, when a guy turns pro, does he suddenly deserve to get ripped for occasionally making a mistake you or I make on practically every hole?
ANOTHER COOL THING about golf is, I could stand at home plate at Busch Stadium and hit it completely out of the stadium with an 8-iron. Pretty much every immortal slugger in baseball history has come through there, and nobody has hit it a fair ball completely out of the park. And here I can do it with a golf ball, using a short iron, bad back, broken sternum and all.
SO WHAT WOULD BE the perfect ending at Chambers Bay? How about Rory, Tiger and Phil tied for the lead, Rory and Tiger in the group ahead of Phil. Those two finish and are waiting near the 18th green, waiting to see what Phil does. Mickelson nails his approach to the 18th green to 10 feet, and with the world on edge, strokes the putt that could define his career, his first U.S. Open after six runner-up finishes. The ball has that beautiful Mickelson roll to it.
It creeps to the edge of the hole, teeters there for a second that seems like nine years, and then... you fill in the rest. The chances of this happening are on the other side of zero. But I can dream, can't I?