This is the story I wrote for the official Ryder Cup program:
Dottie Pepper was pumped up. Not that she requires much of an energy boost, because as her last name implies, she always is ready for action.
It turns out Pepper is just as feisty as a broadcaster as she was during a stellar playing career. A member of six U.S. Solheim Cup teams, she experienced her first Ryder Cup as an on-course reporter for NBC at the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland. The experience, Pepper said, was exhilarating.
“For me, it was almost as exciting as playing in the Solheim Cup,” Pepper said.
Now she was eagerly awaiting the 2008 Ryder Cup at Vahalla in Louisville. It would be her first on U.S. soil.
But on the eve of the matches, the anticipation suddenly deflated for Pepper. Producer Tommy Roy assigned her to work in a tower at a hole for the opening day.
“I was so bummed,” Pepper said. “I didn’t want to be stuck on some outer corner of the course. I thought, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
Pepper kept those feelings to herself and didn’t complain. Roy, though, must have sensed her frustration. He called Pepper late on that Thursday night.
“He said, ‘Do you want to walk tomorrow?’” Pepper said. “I said, ‘You’re damn right, I do. I want to be at that first tee.’”
There is nothing comparable to the Ryder Cup in golf, or sports, for that matter. And there’s nothing like being inside the ropes.
That’s why Pepper, Roger Maltbie, and Mark Rolfing feel like they have the best assignment in broadcasting during the Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club. They are NBC’s on-course reporters for the event.
“It’s my favorite event in golf, no doubt about it,” Maltbie said.
Only the players and caddies are closer to the action. The on-reporters are embedded in a sense, allowing them to hear the labored sighs and gasps that accompany the pressure of playing in a Ryder Cup. They can notice if a player’s gait becomes a fraction slower, as he feels the weariness of playing a second match of the day. They can witness the interaction between the players, teammates and captains, collecting morsels of information that add texture to the broadcast.
And the best part: Like the players, they also get lifted by the surge of noise generated by the large galleries, the deafening sounds that have come to define the Ryder Cup.
“There’s just a different decibel level,” Maltie said. “As we used to say, you could pick out a (Jack Nicklaus) roar a (Arnold Palmer) roar at a tournament. It’s pretty simple at a Ryder Cup. Depending where the matches are held, it’s either a USA roar or a European roar. It’s just a different animal.”
Adds Pepper: “Each match is essentially its own tournament. It has a finality to it. There’s just an intensity level you can’t describe.”
Maltbie has been a part of NBC’s coverage for 11 Ryder Cups. In fact, he made covering the event a stipulation in his contract when he first joined NBC in 1991.
NBC had asked Maltbie to help cover the Bob Hope tournament earlier in the year. Coming off two shoulder surgeries, he began to look seriously into broadcasting.
“I said ‘OK, but only if you allow me to cover the Ryder Cup (later that year at Kiawah),” Maltbie said. “The Ryder Cup was just getting big and and I just wanted to see it.”
Maltbie’s premonition was rewarded as he was part of the epic “War by the Shore” showdown. He got an up-close look at how the pressure can wilt the strongest of men at the Ryder Cup. After Mark Calcavecchia’s famous meltdown, in which he lost the final four holes to halve a key match against Colin Montgomerie, the producers sent out Maltie to get an interview.
“I had never seen anything like it,” Maltbie said. “He thought he cost the U.S. the Ryder Cup. He had been physically ill. His eyes were swollen shut from crying. He was in no condition to talk.”
Rolfing, meanwhile, was covering the final match between Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer. Like Maltbie, it was Rolfing’s first Ryder Cup as an on-course reporter. Rolfing could sense the Cup was going to be decided on the last hole. Sure enough, Langer missed a putt on 18, clinching the Cup for the U.S.
Flash forward to 2010, and Rolfing is walking with the Graeme McDowell-Hunter Mahan pairing. He had a sense of déjà-vu, as the match evolved into determining the outcome. This time, McDowell and Europe won.
The common thread for Rolfing: suffocating pressure.
“I remember thinking (at Kiawah) it doesn’t seem fair that it should come down to one putt for Langer,” Rolfing said. “It struck me as wrong. I felt the same way at Celtic Manor (in 2010). It was just excruciating to watch.”
The pressure starts from the first moment of the first match on Friday. Maltbie recalled being at the first tee for Darren Clarke’s opening match at the 2006 Ryder Cup. Clarke’s wife, Heather, recently had died of cancer. The Irish fans, his fellow countrymen, wanted to show they were behind him.
“What a moment,” Maltbie said. “The crowd was so loud. I’m thinking, ‘How is this guy going to get a club on the ball?’”
Clarke, though, was able to get through it. Walking with him, Maltbie was able to see that Clarke had his emotions in check.
Pepper said the up-close view gives her a sense of a player’s grip on the match at that moment.
“I remember once seeing Ian Poulter in a match,” Pepper said. “His intensity frightened me. His eyes were enormous. I had never seen that from him before. I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way he wasn’t going to get the job done in that match.’”
The captains also come to them for information. After all, they can’t be everywhere. Rolfing recalled Hal Sutton asking him during a morning 4-Ball match, “Which player is playing better?” Sutton needed the information in order to make the pairings for an afternoon match.
Maltbie said when he is approached by a Ryder Cup captain (It’s always been from the U.S. side), he provides facts, not opinion.
“If I’m asked a direct question, I’ll respond to that,” Maltbie said. “I’ll say, ‘He hasn’t been sharp’ or ‘He looks tired.’But I won’t tell a captain what to do.”
The on-course reporters are just that—reporters. Pepper said her marching orders are to report news back to Roy in the production truck, “especially anything out of the ordinary.”
And they are supposed to be objective. Rolfing said the entire announce crew is careful to not use the pronouns “we” and “they” in describing the action. It’s always “the U.S.” and “Europe.”
Yet the reporters are Americans broadcasting for an American audience. They can feel the emotions, to be sure.
Maltbie was standing close by for perhaps the most memorable moment in U.S. Ryder Cup history: Justin Leonard’s clinching putt during the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline.
“The momentum had been building all day,” said Maltbie of the Sunday American rally. “You could hear the cheers of USA, USA throughout the entire course. (For Leonard’s putt), I was near the back edge of the green, not more than 20 feet from the cup. My last comment was, ‘This looks good.’
“Then all of the sudden bedlam broke loose. The hair on the back of my neck went up. It was the culmination of what had been building for the last six hours. What a moment.”
Little wonder why Maltbie said the Ryder Cup is his favorite event in golf. Pepper has been looking forward to 2012 in Medinah ever since the last putt in 2010 at Celtic Manor.
Yet of the three on-reporters, this Ryder Cup will have the most meaning for Rolfing. While he has lived in Hawaii for most of his adult life, he still considers himself a Chicago kid who grew up in nearby DeKalb. Now to be part of a Ryder Cup in his hometown is the ultimate.
“This is like completing a bucket list for me,” Rolfing said. “In a lot of ways, it’s going to be the highlight of my career. Medinah is going to be a fabulous venue; Chicago is going to be a terrific host; and it’s going to be a great Ryder Cup.”
All three of them will describe it from the best spot on the course: Inside the ropes.