DUBLIN, OH — Mark Rolfing estimates he's walked some 12,000 miles, nearly halfway around the world, in his 26 years covering golf tournaments as an on-course reporter. Walking up the 484 yard 18th hole at Muirfield Village on Saturday afternoon at this year's Presidents Cup, with Matt Kuchar and Tiger Woods locked in a dramatic match with Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama and thousands of fans looking on, he takes a moment to soak it in and admire the scene. In those 12,000 miles, Rolfing has walked alongside the likes of Nicklaus, Norman, Woods, and Mickelson and done so with the kind of access fans of golf, or any sport could only have in their dreams.
The role of on-course golf reporter is not seen elsewhere in sports broadcasting. Imagine Michele Tafoya being in the huddle with Peyton Manning or Tom Verducci on the mound with Don Mattingly and Clayton Kershaw. Instead of being restricted to the sidelines or the dugouts, the on-course golf reporter is uniquely positioned inside the ropes with the players in the field of play. Furthermore, instead of being restricted to coachspeak interviews or injury updates, the on-course reporter is an integral part of any golf telecast, often times being featured as much as the main announcers in the broadcast booth.
"A basketball court is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide, a football field is 100 yards long. Everybody can pretty much see everything. Muirfield Village is hundreds of acres in size and there are a lot of places you can't see what's going on," Rolfing said. "Being with the players we can keep track of that. If a player isn't feeling good or is really nervous or if there's a row between a player and his caddie I can be close enough to have a sense of what's going on and be able to tell you something you wouldn't otherwise know."
Unearthing those jewels of information are a point of pride for on-course reporters. A favorite story of the NBC golf team regarding the value of the position is a weird incident that happened last month at the Tour Championship. While in contention on Sunday, Steve Stricker appeared to suffer an injury during play. In conversations between the on-course staff and the production truck, the crew was able to identify the 8th hole as the time when the injury probably happened. After examining the tape, the full story was revealed. Steve Stricker hurt his hand reaching into his golf bag for an energy bar when he stabbed himself with a pencil and a piece of lead was embedded into his finger. It was the kind of bizarre, unconventional story that could only be reported from inside the ropes.
"They're our eyes and ears on the spot," said producer Tommy Roy on the importance of the on-course reporter to covering golf on television. "There's a lot of things our cameras can't see. We're trying to give the viewers the best seat in the house as if they are right there. In order to do that you've got to have an announcer right there to tell us what the lie is, what the yardage is, what the wind is, etc. In other sports the field guy can't get out onto the field or the court. Roger Maltbie is literally 5 paces away from the guys hitting a golf shot."
While Rolfing has walked roughly the distance from Dublin, Ohio to Perth, Australia, Roger Maltbie has lost track of just how many miles he's logged in his days as a player and reporter. Before his 20 year career working for NBC, Maltbie won 5 PGA Tour events and notched a Top 5 finish at The Masters. In fact, many of the players in this year’s Presidents Cup, like 20 year old Jordan Spieth, know Maltbie only as an announcer and not the man who won the inaugural Memorial Tournament here at Muirfield in 1976. The 62 year old is perhaps one of the most well-known voices in golf and has followed countless final group for PGA Tour events, majors, Ryder Cups, and Presidents Cups. He's seen so many iconic moments in the game, he struggles to name a particular one from his reporting career that stands out.
Maltbie reflected, "There's been so many. Which one would I single out? I remember telling Tiger once you're going to get me fired. And he said, how's that? And I said, you're going to hit one of those shots that only you can hit and I'm going to go 'holy sh*t' when the ball's in the air and those will be my last two words on the air."
Although Maltbie has worked in the booth as an analyst, he prefers being out on the course with a group where he can see the best in the game in person and not off a tiny monitor in a cramped broadcast tower.
"Having played the game for all those years you know you couldn't do it. So when you see it you go 'wow!' Probably the coolest thing about it is that I'm still a fan of the game and of players that can do these remarkable things. I've never lost that excitement about those things," Maltbie added.
After 4 PGA Tour victories, Notah Begay III became a full-time on-course reporter for NBC and Golf Channel earlier this year. With his playing days on the tour behind him, being inside the ropes is the next best thing to competition. "You get to be part of a live sporting event," Begay said. "These are the best golfers in the world playing at the pinnacle of their careers on the toughest venues in the best conditions. It's an honor to still be a part of things inside the ropes. It's as close as you can get without pulling a club out of the bag."
On-course reporting is much more than a free pass to the best golf in the world and a relaxing stroll on the best golf courses in the world, though. There's an incredible amount of work that goes into each report from the course that goes unseen by television viewers, with everyone working in sync to gather the necessary information to provide viewers at home with this valued perspective that is exclusive to a golf telecast. There's the hours spent before the tournament even begins walking the course, reading the greens, and researching the players. Begay estimates about 95% of his research isn't used during a typical week. Each on-course reporter is accompanied by a crew of 3-4 people, many of whom are given nicknames like Frosty, Ike and Eyeball like they are part of a 1950's World War II film. At its most basic level, on-course reporting is a checklist of yardage, clubs, wind conditions, and examining lies hole after hole after hole.
Immediately after all four players in Match #13 hit their drives on the Par 4 10th hole, Roger Maltbie's assistant Ike runs out into the fairway to calculate the yardage for the approach shots to the green. Ike does this the old fashioned way stepping off the numbers out of a yardage book and then relaying the numbers to the production truck to use for the graphics on the telecast. Meanwhile, Maltbie and another assistant weave in and out of the gallery in a golf cart that he uses from the tee to the fairway to help ease the burden of walking a full 18 holes. As Maltbie hops back inside the ropes in the fairway, he's handed a sticky note of each player's yardage on their second shot to the hole and to the front of the green as well as a rough map of where each player is situated. The process repeats itself on every hole, even when the telecast doesn't come live to the group for a report. On Par 3's, one of the assistants stands on the tee with the players and searches through the golf bag to see what club is missing. He then gives a hand signal to the reporter on what club is being used. On the short Par 3 12th hole, 2 fingers for Keegan Bradley means he's hitting a 7 iron. 3 would mean an 8 iron. A closed fist equals a wedge.
"The most interesting thing is how much work we put in to produce a show," said Begay on Thursday morning. "The number of people and all the communications from the graphics people to the engineers to the talent. We all are trying to put the best product on the table for the viewer and working tirelessly behind the scenes."
Believe it or not, there's a science to all this. The on-course reporter has to get close, but not too close. "There are times I know the caddies or players more personally and you might have a chance for a little dialogue but that's not always the case," Maltbie said. "Being a former player I do everything I can to stay out of their way. I don't want to be part of them. I'm not one of them. That took me a while to learn and maybe it was just time."
Golf being the ultimate gentleman's game, the personal space of the players has to be respected at all times. The reporters interact with fans in the gallery more than players on the course, which leads to some amusing moments. During yet another rain delay, one fan comes up to Mark Rolfing and asks if he can procure a golf cart to help elderly fans back to the clubhouse since he's wearing a headset. Several fans discuss with Maltbie the potential of Muirfield Village being cursed by rain due to being built on an Indian burial ground. Another fan professes his support for Roger Maltbie by shouting, "we love you Gary!" Maybe the mustache threw him off.
The reporters are often stationed between the players and the target to find their best vantage point. For Mark Rolfing, that means finding a spot with the sun at his back where he can watch the ball fly from left to right since he's left eye dominant. Around the greens, it's usually in the path from the putting surface to the next tee to get a jump on moving to the next hole and so as to not block the view of any paying customers. Although the "Whispering Golf Announcer" does go into effect sporadically, the on-course reporters are actually at a safe enough distance to talk in a normal voice on most occasions. Otherwise, they may hold up a clipboard in front of their mouths or even turn around and face away from the golfers to speak.
While all of this information is being exchanged on the course, the reporter has to be in tune with what's happening on the telecast at all times. The true challenge, and most fascinating element, in on-course reporting comes in the need to adapt and always be aware of what's happening both in front of your eyes and in your ear. "The first priority is to listen to how you're led to because there's certain information you need to know," Rolfing said. "Who's hitting, his score, what hole they're on and what par it is, what he's hitting and the wind… I have to listen to how it gets thrown to me first."
That report could demand different pieces of information from the reporter depending on what's already been shared by the broadcast booth. Sometimes that could mean the on-course reporter takes the lead by setting the entire scene of an entire match and describes each shot in full detail. On other occasions there may be only enough time for a 5 second soundbyte about a lie or a yardage before the telecast jumps back to a different hole, like Maltbie reporting that Phil Mickelson hit out of what appeared to be a heel print in the rough by the 7th green. "As they throw it to me I'm the last in the food chain you deal with what you've got and you have to adjust accordingly," Maltbie said.
Knowing what information to share and when takes an inordinate amount of focus, especially on a 14 hour day like Saturday in Dublin. With rain stopping and starting the tournament ad nauseum, this year's Presidents Cup felt like rush hour traffic on the construction-plagued highways around Columbus, an already difficult weekend turns downright grueling. During one of the many rain delays, Maltbie remarks that this tournament is as tough as it gets for he and his fellow reporters. Considering they will walk nearly 21 miles over the course of 4 days and be on the air for 27 hours, the concentration levels needed for the job are off the charts. The way an on-course reporter can seamlessly flow in and out of a broadcast with an announcer in a tower stationed miles away, especially under these circumstances, can really only be appreciated when seen first hand. After more than two decades working with one another, Mark Rolfing and Johnny Miller can carry on a conversation and banter back and forth like they're sitting next to one another even though they may be miles away.
The reporters have different styles, too. Begay likes speaking from experience and his recent playing days. Maltbie prefers to stick to his reporting duties and let the tower announcers handle the analysis. Rolfing isn't afraid to share his opinion on what's happening on the course and combines analysis with his reports and observations.
And yet somehow, all of it comes together as one coherent telecast. The role of on-course reporter has transformed golf telecasts over the years. The amount of information for viewers at home from the course can put them on the tee or in the fairway with the players themselves, knowing everything from wind conditions to how nervous they may be over a shot. The goal of the on-course reporter is to put the viewer in their shoes, walking the course right alongside the best in the game. The hours of preparation, the people behind the scenes calculating numbers, and everything that leads to a report from the course does just that. Each time a live report is needed, the on-course reporter has to discern precisely what information is pertinent and useful for the telecast – and do it live. In real time. For millions watching at home.
The on-course reporting role in golf is one-of-a-kind in sports broadcasting. It is challenging, moreso than many longtime viewers may be led to believe. But perhaps most importantly, it's a role that allows fans of the game more access than any other sport on television. And, as a bonus, it's the best seat imaginable for fans of the game. After Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley win their match on the 17th hole at Muirfield in Saturday's morning session after a spirited match with Ernie Els and Brendon de Jonge, Roger Maltbie finds his golf cart to move on to his next assignment for the day. It's been a long day already and going to get longer, but he agrees with the assessment that he has one of the best jobs in sports television.
"I do," he replies. "But I've never called it a job."