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Course Whisperer

This TV commentator has become players' go-to source for all things Olympic Club

May 28, 2021
Kay Cockerill

Kay Cockerill, a native of Northern California and, at the time, the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, attended her first U.S. Open in 1987, when she was a 22-year-old spectator watching at The Olympic Club’s Lake Course. Her memories of the championship, faded a bit with time, return as slightly abstract images in her mind.

“The bright greens of the trees and the fairways, and the bright colors of the guys playing and the crowd,” are what Cockerill says she remembers most. “It’s just the energy of that event is really amazing.”

Her connection to the course, which she first played in 1986, has only grown stronger in the more than 30 years to follow. Having grown up in nearby Los Gatos, Cockerill has lived in San Francisco since 2009, and she has been a member at Olympic since 2002.

It’s these ties to the course that have made the well-liked golf commentator an even more popular figure of late among LPGA pros. With Olympic Club hosting the U.S. Women’s Open for the first time next week, Cockerill, 56, has become a “course whisperer” to many with questions about the iconic venue ahead of the championship.

Club officials specifically asked Cockerill, along with green chair and former Stanford golfer Marissa Mar, to host players during practice-round visits in the run-up to the event. Who better than someone like Cockerill, a former USGA champion who also played 10 years on the LPGA, to give a guided tour of the test that Olympic Club presents.

Cockerill stepped up to play with LPGA members Gaby Lopez, Austin Ernst, Lydia Ko, Sei Young Kim and In Gee Chun. She also hosted Rose Zhang, the 2020 U.S. Women's Amateur champion, and Kaitlyn Papp, who was low amateur at the 2020 U.S. Women's Open last December. All told she played six rounds in a three-week stretch.

“It’s really flattering,” Cockerill said. “I admire them for all they’re doing in the game, and I’m just proud to have them out to Olympic Club.”

Suffice it to say, Cockerill has a wealth of local knowledge to provide, having seen the course go through plenty of changes over time. “Back in the ’80s, you were playing in a bowling alley. It was almost claustrophobic out there,” Cockerill recalled. “It’s cool now how they’ve opened it up because you can see across the golf course, and you can see the other holes. You used to only see the hole you were on because the trees were so thick.”

Cockerill made sure to provide time to answer as many questions as the players had while facing down the Lake Course, queries she said that ranged from handling the tricky rough to adjustments needed for the prominent reverse-camber fairways.

“It’s nice when you’re playing with a member because they know the course so well, and more so, because she’s played [before and has] the player background,” Ko told Golf Digest.

Kim, the 2020 KPMG Women’s PGA champion, said where Cockerill came in most handy was offering insight into how the lake and mountains in the surrounding area influence where the ball goes on the fairways and greens. On certain tee shots, Kim said that Cockerill was able to explain why you want to play to a certain side of a fairway even when the tee box feels like it’s pulling your body in another direction. “We talked [how] gravity [impacted so much] about the golf course,” Kim said.

Having been a commentator for 26 years, Cockerill noted that in several instances she has followed the players she played with for their entire LPGA Tour careers. Cockerill met Ko at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur when Ko was 15, giving her a unique perspective on how the two-time major champion should approach Olympic Club.

“She understands a lot about me,” said Ko, noting that Cockerill’s advice seemed almost tailored to her game. “It was just good to get some good insight.”

Cockerill’s practice rounds also provided USGA officials a chance to learn more about the venue, which has hosted five U.S. Opens through the years, as they prepare it for a first Women’s Open. Shannon Rouillard, USGA senior director of championships, has set up the course at the last five U.S. Women’s Opens and talked with Cockerill about a half-dozen times for knowledge about Olympic Club, particularly how the tour pros she played with approached certain holes.

“Kay knows women’s golf. She’s probably one of the most well-respected women’s players and commentators,” said Roulliard, who also played with Cockerill during the media preview day at Olympic in April. “Especially on her home course, why not seek feedback from her as to what she’s seeing?”

Cockerill has done plenty of behind-the-scenes work to help Olympic get ready for the Women's Open but is excited to return to her day job and be a commentator during the competition.

David Cannon

Cockerill’s influence on the 76th U.S. Women’s Open goes beyond merely offering course knowledge to a handful of players. She’s done voice-over work on hole-by-hole flyovers for Olympic Club’s social-media accounts. She is scheduled to speak at the annual amateur dinner the week of the championship. She’s hosted three live Zoom presentations with LPGA Tour players talking about Olympic Club for members. She’s on the player enhancement committee coming up with restaurant recommendations and gift ideas. And her face is plastered on banners alongside other USGA champions throughout the golf course.

It’s been a whirlwind before Cockerill does her day job at Olympic Club, working the broadcast for NBC and Golf Channel. “I think my role as a commentator will be the easiest thing, when I get a microphone in my hand walking the fairways and talking golf,” Cockerill said. “It’s just going to be me, watching the players, listening to my fellow commentators, and nothing else will matter at that point.”

Cockerill’s golf accomplishments will be noted during Open week as well. The club created a permanent women’s historical display in which Cockerill donated her two championship medals from winning the 1986 and ’87 U.S. Women's Amateurs amongst other memorabilia for the exhibit.

“She is a huge supporter and I think because of people like her, golf itself can become bigger and keep growing,” Ko said. “It means a lot to us who are playing.”