Golf Channel Celebrates 25 Years in Orlando
It was September 25, 2016, and Rich Lerner had just arrived in Minnesota to cover the Ryder Cup as a television journalist for Golf Channel. He was having dinner with a colleague, and they got the word that golf legend Arnold Palmer had died. Lerner ran back to his hotel room to shave, grab a coat and tie, and head to the golf course, where he would be on-air within three minutes of arriving. It would be another 12 hours before he’d be free to deal with his own emotions.
Years earlier, Palmer had agreed to partner with entrepreneur Joe Gibbs to take the risky move of starting a 24-hour cable television channel devoted solely to a sport they both loved. Today, 25 years after it first went on the air January 17, 1995, the enterprise continues to grow in popularity worldwide.
Golf Channel’s main office building in its Orlando headquarters near International Drive contains state-of-the-art studios and a grand entrance that sports the NBC logo, showing its ownership by the NBC Sports Group, a division of Comcast subsidiary NBCUniversal. A cluster of surrounding office buildings holds part of the growing team of more than 1,000.
Covering Palmer’s death has been one of the highlights of Lerner’s career to date. “For that night, Golf Channel was akin to when someone passes and you open your home,” Lerner said. “People would come in and pay their respects to the bereaved. In this case, everyone in golf was the family. … That was a very poignant, emotional night and morning.”
He got back to his room at 2 a.m. to prepare to be back on-air by 8 a.m. “I got up the next morning and was sort of a wreck,” Lerner said. “I looked in the mirror and started crying.”
Lerner had grown up in what he calls a golf family. Lerner’s parents were both avid golfers, and pros like Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were on the family’s television every weekend. Lerner and his three brothers worked for their family’s driving range and miniature golf course in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“My father had this idea early on that he would approach this rising star from the other side of the state, and that would be Arnold Palmer, who was becoming quite famous,” Lerner said. “He would get him to put his name on this new center and they would create a string of Arnold Palmer golf centers across the country.”
When his father found out Palmer’s asking price, he changed his mind. As it turned out, though, Lerner would go on to work for the network Palmer co-founded, and Palmer would honor Lerner’s father’s memory on a plaque in the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, named after Palmer’s wife.
Golf Channel had come about because of a chance meeting. When Palmer was playing on the PGA Tour, it was customary for locals to host players to stay at their homes. Palmer stayed with Gibbs and his wife, and the two men became friends and later business partners. Gibbs, who is now retired, stayed active in the business for years and still pops in for a visit from time to time.
Lerner had spent some time with the golf legend in Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to report a story on his warehouse of memorabilia that included a pool cue given to him by Jackie Gleason from the movie The Hustler. It was two days before Christmas, there was snow on the ground, and Palmer, 82, stood up and said, “If there’s anything going on tonight, give me a call.” “Arnold was a man of maximum action,” Lerner said. “He loved to be on the move, and he loved people. He didn’t want to miss out on anything. … He had such a great love for life, and you felt it and knew it when you were in his company.”
From Print to TV
Damon Hack grew up in Los Angeles in a house where golf was never on the TV unless someone was waiting for a football or basketball game to start. None of his friends or family members played golf. It wasn’t until he was in college at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid-1990s that a hotshot golfer from another California school, Stanford University, caught his eye.
As a young black man who became a sports reporter for the Sacramento Bee newspaper, Hack had not seen someone who looked like him play golf before. Now he was intrigued, and he started playing with fellow graduate students and journalists. Hack went on to become one of the senior writers for Sports Illustrated, living in New York and flying around the country covering professional golf and football. His articles often appeared on the cover.
But the magazine was downsizing, and Hack was offered a buyout. Friends at Golf Channel asked him to try out for a new show called “Morning Drive.” After four days on the set, the channel offered him a job and he switched from print to TV.
“I’d previously found myself thinking, ‘TV can’t be that hard, you just get up there up and run your mouth a little bit.’ But then I realized there are all these other mechanics to it. Going to commercial, hearing a producer count down, 10, 9, 8 all the way to 1. You’ve got to put makeup on. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a little more to this TV medium than I had previously given it credit for.’”
Hack soon stood face to face with the man who had inspired him to learn about golf. He interviewed Tiger Woods for the first time in 2013. He now interviews players all the time, including Rory McIlroy, who visited the Orlando studio in December and joked around with the “Morning Drive” crew.
Hack, the father of 8-year-old triplet boys, has been working with First Tee of Central Florida, part of a national organization that introduces youths to the sport. He helped bring a charter bus of boys and girls from Sanford to the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
“A lot of these kids had never been on a golf course before,” Hack said. “That doesn’t mean they’ll end up as the next Tiger Woods, but maybe they’ll find the peace and tranquility of a golf course that I enjoy. Or maybe they’ll want to be a golf course superintendent, or a golf writer or broadcaster, or a teaching pro. It was one more aspect or avenue to the game of golf that these young people otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Steve Sands grew up in Washington, D.C., and didn’t play golf until a friend in his dorm at Colorado State University encouraged him to come out and play with a bunch of guys on the college team. Sands watched everything they did, and they taught him the game. They’re all still good friends to this day.
Sands was a sports reporter for NBC affiliate WESH-TV Channel 2 in Orlando when he was offered a job with Golf Channel as a reporter on the “Golf Central” program. His start date was memorable: 01/01/01.
“The first time I was on the set doing ‘Golf Central,’ I almost got sick. I was so nervous, I guess because it was so new,” Sands said. “The thing I thought was the coolest about working there was that when you’re doing sports at 6 and 11 p.m. on the local news, the news comes first, weather comes before you, traffic comes before you, and sports is always the last thing. If there is a thunderstorm, sports is going to lose its time.”
In 19 years, Sands has reported some groundbreaking stories. He was the first journalist to interview Tiger Woods when the golfer won his 80th PGA Tour event after a five-year career lull. He was in the recording booth doing the play-by-play when Woods tied Sam Snead’s record with 82 victories.
But one event sticks out as one of his best at Golf Channel. It was in the mid-2000s, when Woods was the No. 1 player in the world in golf and Roger Federer was No. 1 in tennis. The two athletes, who were friends, were playing in tournaments in South Florida the same week, and Federer came out to watch Woods in a practice round.
At the end of the round, Sands asked Woods whether they could chat for a second and then casually asked Federer whether he’d like to join them.
“Roger couldn’t have been more gentlemanly or graceful, he couldn’t have been kinder,” Sands said. “He said, ‘Sure, I’d love to.’ We were going back and forth talking about one another, talking about this sport and that sport, motivation and different kinds of things. Both of the guys were great – they were feeding off each other.”
Instead of the typical two-minute interview, it was more than 15 minutes — and it was the first time the two athletes had been interviewed together. “By the time the interview ended, there were probably 40 reporters around us taping the conversation, and there had to be a thousand people around us trying to get autographs and screaming to Roger and Tiger,” Sands said. “It was a really cool moment.”
Woods started calling Sands “Sandsie” on air, and the name has caught on among Golf Channel fans. “Whether I’m in an airport or a restaurant or a bar or a gym, it doesn’t matter where I am, somebody always comes up and says that to me and makes me laugh,” he said. “By the way, that doesn’t speak to anything about me. That speaks about the power of Tiger’s reach.”
There’s another thing people shout to Sands at airports: “La Cheeserie!” That’s the name of a cheese shop inside the wine and liquor store his family has owned for more than 50 years in Washington, D.C. Sands’ friend and longtime Washington sports radio broadcaster Tony Kornheiser started encouraging listeners to yell the phrase at golf tournaments after someone hit a good shot. It has since found its way to the “Survivor” TV show, the Olympics, and even a state dinner at the White House — and, of course, anywhere Sands happens to be.
Golf Channel has formed a virtual community for people who love the sport. Lerner, who felt that during his time covering Palmer’s death, said there’s a kinship and connection that spreads from Orlando to the rest of the world.
“I hear it and feel it when I’m out on the road at tournaments,” Lerner said. “We’re family for the golfers around the world, around the country, but it feels like we’re part of their lives. If you love golf, you have this channel on in your home for some part of the day.
“The reason Golf Channel works is that in his heart, what Arnold understood when he took the risk with Joe Gibbs to do this is that while average golfers — those with a 20 or 25 handicap — could never play the game the way he did, they absolutely love the sport as much as he did. … Most of us who work here love the game the way people who watch us love it. I hope that comes through in the way we cover it.”