Oddly fetching in a Van Dyke beard and cheerleader bloomers, David Feherty, the 1991 Ryder Cupper from Northern Ireland and now America’s best TV golf analyst, has been bouncing onto our TV screens of late.
In the best of his inspired adverts for Cobra Golf, the half-daft Feherty leaps on a giant trampoline and between ka-thoings tells us why some miraculous zirconium gesundheit driver has the springiest clubface on earth.
“And while the trampoline was Cobra’s idea,” Feherty coos into the camera, with a schoolgirl’s bow, “the outfit was mine.”
This we never doubted.
The droll jester from Bangor, County Down, may have won 10 times professionally (including the Madrid, Scottish and Italian Opens) and made more than $3 million before retiring a decade ago, but he has easily surpassed those earnings and found his true calling by becoming a trenchant and hilarious voice in the stuffy confines of network TV golf.
“I’m convinced my Irishness is a huge part of my success over here,” he says. “Well, that, and I make fun of people. I’m really more of a stand-up comedian who happened to be good at golf.” For a decade he has patrolled the manicured country clubs of the PGA Tour with headset, microphone and intellect – often in shorts and barefoot on his off-camera days – pricking the pompous and creating a whole new golf vocabulary, especially for the best player in the world.
After one of Tiger Woods’ other-worldly shots, Feherty once proclaimed: “Never has my flabber been so completely gasted.” In a Pythonesque skit on a late-night golf highlights show he impersonated a stalker who screamed at Tiger on the driving range. (Yes, Tiger was in on the joke.) Feherty gets along so well with the impenetrable golf messiah that the two occasionally engage in covert gaseous duels on the links.
“I’ve never beaten him,” Feherty insists. “He doesn’t allow himself to lose anything, including his sense of fun. Going into the final day of last year’s Buick (Open), which would be his 50th win, I had assumed he was too preoccupied to remember we were tied in our juvenile contest at eight each. But when he came out of the scorer’s tent, I offered him my hand, which he grasped, and I heard an almost imperceptable squeak. He looked me in the eye, and deadpanned, ‘I win.’”
Feherty’s rapport with players is obvious. “I think he’s one of the funniest, quickest-witted people I’ve ever met in my life,” says Nick Price, who dismisses several other TV heads as insipid. “I love being around him. We love his off-the-wall comments.”
Honest but understanding, Feherty empathizes with the players without becoming a sycophant. “These guys chasing Tiger – Ernie Els, Vijay, Mickelson, Furyk, Retief – they’re the best group the world has ever seen,” he says. “But they all know that if Tiger plays well they’re screwed. Look at Mickelson – 42 majors without winning and he endures the most withering criticism of any player at anytime in the game’s history. Just vilified. Then he wins three majors, but badly loses one again, and he gets crucified. When anyone other than Tiger wins a major these days, it should count as three.”
Feherty is clearly doing well. He’s just signed a four-year contract with CBS-TV that will have him doing 20 tournaments this year. He’s written five books, is struggling with a sequel to his first novel, A Nasty Bit of Rough, and writes an irreverent monthly column for GOLF magazine. Aside from the Cobra TV spots, he’s done sit-com work on television, voice-overs for Tiger Woods’ video games, and in addition to free appearances for numerous children’s charities, this year Feherty will do about 30 corporate outings and speaking engagements, for which delighted barons of industry pay about $25,000 a pop.
Consequently, Feherty doesn’t ride five-to-a-Fiat anymore. An adopted Texan who loves his macho Ford truck and hand-crafted shotguns – he hunts birds with guys like Tom Watson – Feherty now lives in a plush North Dallas mini-manse with his second wife, Anita, and their only daughter, a precocious eight-year-old joy, Erin. (Both have two older boys from previous marriages. He has duel Irish and UK citizenship, but not American.) Anita, an interior designer with a soft Mississippi drawl met Feherty on a blind date, and married him in May 1996. Lately she spends much of her time furnishing an even bigger mansion they’re building nearby, complete with pool, elevator (“who knows why?” he moans) and acoustically-engineered office for Feherty, an audiophile and opera fan whose vinyl collection ranges from Puccini to Johnny Cash.
Bored with school, except in English and music, Feherty says his best education came from his father, Billy, once a surveyor at the Belfast docklands, and mother, Vi, a “typical Ulster housewife” with a dry wit, who raised their three children through the Troubles without instilling hate for anyone. “We had murders and explosions in our town,” he says, “but the violence seemed an irrelevance. That’s how localized it was…My father always found something good to say about someone, no matter their reputation. I remember when he came home after being laid off at 42. I had never seen his face like that. The next day – thinking Dad would need to start his own business – I stole some office supplies from primary school. I was nine. He marched me back to confess what I had done.”
Skinny and obviously skilled, Feherty became the pro shop kid at Bangor Golf Club, learning the game from “a wonderful man,” then head pro Ernie Jones, now at the K Club. Feherty went on to work at Holywood, Balmoral and Royal Belfast golf clubs before turning pro at 17. (His favorite courses would be: Portmarnock, Waterville and Rosses Point.) “But I knew by the time I was 20,” he says, “that I wanted to be in broadcasting. Early on I was always on stage, either at school or in church. At Christmas I would be the little asshole in front of the choir singing ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’”
Feherty definitely had his moments in golf. He captained Ireland’s winning 1990 Dunhill Cup team at St. Andrew’s – hitting what Sam Torrance tells me was “maybe the greatest four-iron ever” to win in sudden death match play on the 17th hole against England’s Howard Clark. “Once the Scots were knocked out,” says Feherty, “the whole crowd turned Irish. I’ll never forget it.” He played well on the 1991 Ryder Cup team that lost at Kiawah Island, and barely missed qualifying for the team in 1989 and 1993. Yet Feherty is the first to admit, “I knew early on I would never be a world-beater.”
“For David, golf was just a way of earning money,” says Torrance, Feherty’s best friend on the Euro Tour. “He loved the game as much as any of us, but he didn’t like the hard work of traveling and being away from home. It’s a lonely life.”
“Most of us didn’t understand why he didn’t play better,” says Nick Price, another long-time friend. “He was a bit of an enigma. I think he was better than me, but David is extremely intelligent and sometimes very smart people have trouble playing the game because golf is not an equation.”
Feherty says he had chances to win majors in 1989 at Royal Troon, in 1991 at Crooked Stick (PGA) and in 1994 at Turnberry, where he finished tied for sixth, seventh and fourth, respectively. “But I didn’t want the responsibility that came with winning a major. There was always this one pivotal shot…and I would always miss that shot.”
And this was a conscious thing?
“Oh, yes. Oh, yes. There was a comfort in mediocrity,” he says. “I had the good sense not to Van de Velde myself (to self-destruct on the final hole). I played just well enough to be perceived as an almost guy. And since I was honest about that, people really identified with it….
“The truth is that I felt like it was a 9 to 5 job at times. I’d run out of money, then go win a tournament. The aspect I enjoyed most was the social life. I was around the same hundred guys every week, really close friends like Torrance, John O’Leary, Ian Woosnam. It was like a boys club for the best part of 20 years, and for me it revolved around the nightlife.
“I was the Tiger Woods of drinking. I was a world-class drunk.”
For nearly two years, Feherty has gone through a very public and cathartic confession about his alcoholism and clinical depression, incorporating the struggle into his stand-up comedy and going so far as to discreetly pose nude in GOLF magazine to illustrate one of his near-suicidal moments in what was a two-bottles-of-Bushmills-a-day hell. Some might prefer recovery to be a more private affair – he attends Alcoholics Anonymous after all – but he’s the first to say he’s more comfortable with an extroverted life that holds few secrets. “What are strangers gonna say about me,” he muses, “that I haven’t said publicly about myself?”
In a dark wood paneled office that could pass for a divorce lawyer’s, Feherty scoops up his cherished hunting beagle, Ziggy, for moral support as we move into the mandatory introspection phase. To somber things up he puts on his sublime Naim stereo the sweet haunting voice of Eva Cassidy – “she’s dead now, cancer” – doing Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” The comic bravado recedes a bit.
“I honestly don’t know how Anita managed to deal with me. I had these horrible hallucinations. People doing horrible things to my children, but I couldn’t see their faces. I couldn’t do anything. I withdrew socially. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Physically I was wracked with pain. Head to foot. I thought I had some kind of degenerative muscle disorder. Turns out, that’s a symptom of depression.
“I drank heavily from about the time I was 16, but I’ve never been drunk on the air. I became a spectacular drunk toward the end. I would drink one bottle of whiskey to prepare myself for drinking the second. That was what it took to put me to sleep at night. I went days without sleep. That’s the real killer, when you wake up screaming and realize you haven’t been to sleep yet.
“After I told my doctor how much I was drinking,” he says, needing a punch line. “He asked, ‘Have you thought about getting help?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I can drink it all myself.’” Ba-da-boom. He reaches back for a George Best line: “I spent a lot of money on fast cars, women and alcohol…The rest I just squandered.”
If he knows of any deep root cause for his pain, he’s not saying. He was misdiagnosed in 2000 with adult attention-deficit disorder and there was, by his account and others, a pretty miserable first marriage to a South African woman that lasted ten years, but he doesn’t dwell on it. “There was no priest fondling,” he quips. “With my protestant background the priests weren’t even fondling themselves.”
His epiphany, his angel of intervention, finally came in the voice of little Erin, rambunctious and full of brown curls, who two years ago, at 6-years-old, saw him nearly passed out in a living room recliner at home, with an empty bottle of whiskey beside him. “She crawled into my lap,” Feherty tells me, his voice drained and slow, “and she said, `Dad, you need another bottle.’ She looked really sad, so I sent her to get one.”
With that, Anita could take no more. Sober up, or she and Erin would leave. So he agreed to stop killing himself. Says Feherty: “I looked into the eyes of a young child who had the accidental wisdom to flip the switch.”
In the made-for-TV world he inhabits we’d go straight to the happy violins now, but this is Planet Feherty. “There’s nothing worse than a reformed whore,” he bellows. So, yes, there have been a few lapses on the road back. A trip to Donegal in June 2005 for his dad’s 80th birthday turned into a three-week binge. “How else was I to know if I was truly cured?” he cracks. “There’s no fence-sitting with Feherty,” says Torrance. “If he goes off the rails, he goes off the rails.”
Sober for six months now, he’s off his depression medication and looks like a clear-eyed athlete again, biceps all thick from pumping iron, channeling Lance Armstrong as he rides his Trek road bike through Dallas, itching to hunt for blue quail with Ziggy. “Everyone around me is happier. When you help one depressive you help a hundred other people.”
“We miss him terribly over here,” says Torrance. “He’s left a hole in my life.”
The only thing missing from this tidy story – this is America, remember – is a testimonial from the athlete thanking God for his rescue. That is the way it’s done over here, where steel-tough warriors routinely point to the heavens after touchdowns and begin post-game TV interviews with, “I just wanna give God the glory.”
Feherty’s not buying it.
“I am a diehard atheist,” he volunteers, joining Einstein, Darwin and, hmm, Annika Sorenstam, but clearly crossing into uncharted waters for an American TV personality.
“Funny how on TV in America you can talk about pedophile priests,” he says, hunting for his copy of Richard Dawkins’s best-seller “The God Delusion,” “but you can’t talk about why you would ever need priests…I have no trouble with Jesus. I used to wear Payne Stewart’s WWJD bracelet (“What Would Jesus Do?”). But all the rest is superstition. All the things we loathe in human beings are the attributes we give to this God. He wants to be worshiped and told how great he is, meanwhile somebody’s five-year-old is being raped by her step-father. Where is her God?”
Feherty pauses. This is no random rant. It’s central to his id. But surely he’s thinking that in America, where last year a survey found 53 percent of the population (75 in Alabama) believes the Bible is literally true, network TV executives don’t fancy public atheists for golf broadcasts. After all, a sizeable number of tour players align themselves with America’s Religious Right, whom Feherty calls “maybe the scariest people in the world.”
Ziggy nervously paws the carpet. Who wants to see unemployed beagles?
We change the subject.
As if the world didn’t appreciate Eldrick Woods quite enough, Feherty fervently wants you to know that we mortals cannot conceive of just how stupifyingly brilliant Tiger’s game really is, and more important, how thoroughly Tiger has changed everything. Feherty wants it known that his job isn’t like covering Pele in his prime, or Muhammad Ali. It’s more like covering DaVinci.
“I know what I’m seeing out there, and this is the 500 year flood. And there’s no one like him on the horizon. If Tiger quit playing tomorrow,” Feherty says, thinking of workers at everywhere from Nike to Buick, IMG, ad agencies, five TV networks, and dozens of others, “tens of thousands of people would lose their jobs.”
Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Feherty had just started his television career when, in August 1996 at the Greater Milwaukee Open, Tiger struck his first professional shot. The wise-cracker has been closer to him physically during more great moments of Tiger’s career than probably anyone in the media.
“In Milwaukee, the first time I saw him hit a ball, I thought, holy shit. He was unlike any creature I had ever seen. There was a controlled violence, yet a grace and athleticism I had never seen.
“It’s my job out there to be an expert about these players, to know what they are capable of doing in certain situations. I’ve played with all the great players of the modern era. Greg Norman. Tom Watson. Ballesteros. Seve was magical, yet Tiger has his skill 10 times over. I knew what Norman could do. But after I saw Tiger play a couple of holes I knew that I had no clue what he could do. No clue at all.
“People have accused me of being so far up Tiger’s arse that he can barely make a full swing, but I maintain that he is a special person. There’s no one else on the planet that can do what he does or even think of doing what he does. I’ve often thought, instead of showing Tiger’s reaction to a shot he’s hit, we really should show the reaction of those around him.”
But here’s the next best thing. “I’m walking down the 18th fairway at Firestone Country Club with Ernie Els and Tiger, who has popped up a three-wood about 40 yards behind Ernie into some wet, nasty, horrible, six-inch rough,” says Feherty.
“Tiger’s cursing and taking clumps out of Ohio with his three wood. And, of course, we’re not showing this on TV because we want to be able to interview him later. Ernie and I walk past Tiger’s ball, and it is truly buried.
“Ernie is tied with Tiger and he’s in the middle of the fairway. I’m standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ernie and my microphone is open. Ken Venturi (in the CBS booth at 18) sends it to me and I say, ‘Tiger’s got 184 yards with two big red oaks overhanging the green. He’s got absolutely nothing. With a stick of dynamite and a sand wedge I might be able to move this ball 50 yards.’ Steve Williams (Tiger’s caddie) tells me (with a hand signal) that he’s using a pitching wedge.
“Tiger takes his swing. Every muscle in his body is flung at the ball…The divot went as far as I could hit the ball. I’ve got my microphone at my mouth thinking, ‘What the hell was that?’ The ball sails over the trees, lands behind the hole and backs up to about six feet from the flag. I open my microphone and Ernie turns and says, ‘—- me!’
“My producer comes on in my earpiece and says, ‘Was that Ernie?’
“I say, ‘Yes’ He says, ‘Fair enough.’
“I could have described that shot for 15 minutes and not done as good of a job as Ernie did with two words. This is the second best player in the world talking, and you wanna know how good Tiger is?
“Ask Ernie Els.”