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Being David Feherty

February 15, 2013

Scorecard From The Edge

David Feherty is intense, intelligent, irreverent, improvisational and inexhaustable. And he may just be the best interviewer in the game

David Feherty

It was a lovely television moment.

David Feherty, the whimsical Northern Irish golfer-turned-CBS golf commentator-turned-popular golf writer-turned-Golf Channel inquisitor, had just tiptoed over the tangle of cables that crossed the dim floor like mangrove roots. He was now sitting comfortably in the lodge of a 3,000-acre man-cave on the edge of a Texas town that bills itself the Black-Eyed Pea Capital of the World.

In the hot seat opposite him — more aptly “polar-opposite” him or, as Feherty might crack, “bipolar-opposite” him — was Bobby Knight, once the most truculent of college basketball coaches, handy with both expletives and folding chairs.

For the last 30 minutes Feherty had been peppering Knight with faintly impertinent questions about everything from his short game to the differences between golf and basketball. “In basketball, the hole is in the air,” observed Feherty. “How is that even possible?” At the next break in the taping, he tells Knight, sotto voce, “Sometimes I ask dumb f—— questions.”

The cameramen change reels and Feherty, with tape rolling again, abruptly shifts gear. Fixing a serious gaze on the retired coach, he asks: “Why were you such a f—— lunatic at times?”

Knight’s eyes glow in recognition of the sarcasm, and he smiles appreciatively. This is clearly the set-up he has been waiting for; it’s as if he just knocked back a triple-shot of espresso; it’s the point in a game when the ref makes a bad call and all hell breaks loose.

The angriest voice in sports, at full belt, has immense carrying power, and the entire lodge grinds to a halt while everyone listens. Knight enlists every member of the camera crew as a witness: “Because I absolutely f—— wanted to win, that’s why!”

As Feherty giggles gleefully, Knight roars, “And that was a dumb f—— question.”

Flashing a grin that’s broad and diabolical, Feherty says, “See, I told you.”

Golf World:
David, if you could change one rule in golf, what would it be?

Feherty: 
You should be allowed to tackle your opponent.

In the two years since “Feherty” debuted, the half-interview, half-improv gabfest has emerged as Golf Channel’s only must-see original programming and its host has become the game’s first crossover TV star. Other guests on what Feherty calls his “televised nervous breakdown” have ranged from Annika Sorenstam to Samuel L. Jackson, from Billy Casper to Bill Clinton, who claims to be Feherty’s biggest fan. “You must have a lot of spare time on your hands,” Feherty told the 42nd president. “You clearly left the cupboard bare in media advisors if you’re doing this show.”

david feherty with bobby knightFeherty’s Knight interview included a swing tip or two for the legendary coach. Photo: Peter Larsen/Golf Channel

As a talker, Feherty is lavish and inexhaustible. He cascades opinions on any subject, from belly putters to belly lox, punctuating his effusions with goofy faces, strange sounds and grand, intense gestures. So broad is his appeal that CBS even asked him to audition as Andy Rooney’s replacement on “60 Minutes.” The fact that Feherty didn’t make the cut may have had less to do with his Q score, a celebrity popularity rating system, than his mordant choice of material. In one bit he offered three situations in which it’s permissible to laugh at a funeral: “One was that you didn’t like the deceased,” he recalls. “Two, if the pallbearers drop the casket.” He can’t remember the third.

The joy of Feherty is that he’s a free spirit. In a sport known for its humorless straight-arrows, he’s madcap and relentlessly mischievous. There’s a primitive, unreconstructed schoolboy in him, who likes jokes about farts and testicles and the rude bits of female anatomy. And, as the British comedian John Cleese once said of a fellow funnyman, he can tear it off by the yard.

Acutely attuned to the ways in which his own tortured past has shaped his outlook, the 54-year-old Feherty suffers fools goofily, which makes for unexpected and disconcerting TV. But for all the mugging and slapstick, his interviews can be as languidly brilliant as his tournament commentary. He’s affectionate, but not infatuated; admiring, but not adoring. There’s a genuine sympathy there, a real warmth that combines with his reckless sense of fun. “It’s David’s ability to be open and create raw and very real moments that makes him special,” says Golf Channel president Mike McCarley. “Because he’s so willing to reveal his flaws, his guests are more willing to reveal theirs.”

Knight agrees. “David puts you at ease,” he said after their summit. “He’s not mean-spirited, and he won’t throw you under the bus. I’ve never spent a more enjoyable time being grilled on camera, and remember: Nobody has ever accused me of being real kind.” Knight had asked to be on “Feherty” after watching an episode in which the host shot questions at pro basketball great Bill Russell. (“So, Bill, you were left-handed and black? I mean those are two serious disadvantages on a golf course.”) Knight had laughed so hard that he wanted to be part of the fun. And he was: At the end of the powwow, Feherty gave Knight tips on his golf swing, and Knight coached Feherty on the art of tossing a folding chair.

Golf World:
What’s the biggest secret you can reveal about yourself?

Feherty:
I’m unable to stop the wheel in my head from spinning, even if I drug the hamster.

How to explain this totally one-off character? The key may lie in “gabbling,” the Irish word for what goes inside each of our minds. Decades of alcoholism and clinical depression have sheared a few gears off Feherty’s gabbling machine. “There’s no order — it’s total anarchy in there,” he says. “Like most depressives — or most who actually take their medication — the treatment doesn’t make you feel good, just different.”

david fehertyFeherty, shown with Sam Torrance, had a 1-1-1 mark in the 1991 “War by the Shore” Ryder Cup. Photo: Stephen Munday/Allsport

The vial Feherty keeps in his pants pocket harbors his daily regimen of anti-depressants (Cymbalta), anti-psychotics (Abilify, Klonopin), stimulants (Adderall, Vyvanse), mood stabilizers (Lamictal), cholesterol (Lipitor) and blood pressure meds (Avalide), and sleep aids (Ambien). “I don’t like sleeping pills,” he allows. “I don’t like sleeping, period.” His credo: You sleep for a long time when you’re dead. “I’m hopelessly in the present, I don’t live one day at a time. I live 20 minutes at a time. I have no f—— clue what I’m doing tomorrow.” Asked in what era he would have liked to play golf, Feherty says the 1980s and ’90s. He quickly adds: “But I’d like to remember them this time.”

It’s easy to forget how good a player Feherty was in his prime — Feherty certainly has. During his 18 years as a tour pro, he won five events in Europe and 10 worldwide. His first victory came in a playoff at the 1986 Italian Open. After winning that year’s Scottish Open — also in a playoff — he went on a two-day binge that resulted in the disappearance of the tournament trophy. It still hasn’t surfaced.

Feherty captained Ireland’s winning Dunhill Cup team at St. Andrews in 1990 — hitting a gloriously decisive 3-iron of 199 yards onto the 17th green to clinch the victory in a sudden-death match against England’s Howard Clark. A month later he entered the consciousness of the American public at the World Cup in Orlando, where he shot 63 and famously compared the Grand Cypress course to one of those hot-air hand dryers found in public rest rooms: “It’s a great idea and everybody uses it once, but never again. It takes too long.” The following year he made the Ryder Cup team that narrowly lost the War by the Shore at Kiawah Island, beating Payne Stewart in singles. “I’m told that on my first putt I shook like a pregnant nun,” he recalls. “Everything moved except my bowels.”

Though he never won the British Open, he had chances at Troon (1989) and Turnberry (’94). And in the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick, he finished T-7, eight strokes behind surprise winner John Daly. “I was one of those players who didn’t want the responsibility that comes with winning a major,” he says. “There was always one pivotal moment on the back nine when I messed up. I lacked the mental capacity to go all the way. I found comfort in mediocrity. It’s something I picked up as a kid.”

Feherty grew up in the harbor town of Bangor, near Belfast. The middle child of three, he trained to be an opera singer. But at 12 his voice broke and from then on he says he “sounded like a baritone held very tightly by the scrotum.” He was a product of the Irish Protestant ascendancy, with its respect for education, good manners and civilized comforts. His father, Billy, worked as a surveyor around the Belfast docks. His mother, Violet, was once the personal secretary of Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Marchioness of Londonderry, an influential society hostess. Curt and chilly — “She’s 83 and still hasn’t ever told me that she loves me” — Mum could type at a pace of 160 words a minute. “She never used Wite-Out,” says David. “Then again, in those days Wite-Out didn’t exist.”

Golf World:
What’s your favorite memory from childhood?

Feherty:
The smell of Irish whiskey and the rasp of the stubble on my dad’s chin as he kissed me good night.

Vi’s splendid penmanship inspired her only son to write. Later in life, Feherty’s own pen proved a far more potent instrument than his unwieldy 5-iron. His first book, the comic golf novel A Nasty Bit of Rough, was an instant hit. Its hero, Major General (Ret.) Sir Richard Gussett, sets his sights on the game’s most prestigious prize, the petrified middle finger of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland. Feherty’s follow-up was a wayward history of the Ryder Cup. Then came his idiot trilogy: Somewhere in Ireland A Village is Missing an Idiot, An Idiot for All Seasons and The Power of Positive Idiocy, anthologies culled mostly from columns he wrote for Golf Magazine.

michael jordan and michael phelps on fehertyGuests like Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps have boosted the buzz of “Feherty.” Photo: Getty Images

How complicated is Feherty’s life? To quote Jeremy Irons in the film “Reversal of Fortune,” “You have no idea.” It may help to know that Feherty’s favorite work of art is a sketch by the quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan. Hanging from the doorknob at the entrance to a psychiatric ward is a sign that reads: DO NOT DISTURB ANY FURTHER. Mental illness doesn’t run in Feherty’s family, it gallops. His father has Alzheimer’s. His maternal grandfather was struck dumb during World War I. A brother-in-law hung himself.

Feherty says that though he drank heavily from about 16, his melancholia didn’t flower for another 20 years. The tipping point: He had reluctantly moved with his first wife, a warm-weather loving South African, and two sons from Bangor to Dallas. He supported his family by playing on the PGA Tour. In his rookie year, 1994, he earned $178,501 and placed 100th on the money list. “All of a sudden,” he says, “my game and marriage disintegrated simultaneously.” His wife dumped him and took the boys with her.

For various reasons, it was often difficult for Feherty to hang out with his kids. (Shey, now 24, works for a trucking company; Rory is 21 and in ROTC at UT San Antonio — he wants to be an Army Ranger.) “I feel bad about how little time I was able to spend with them as they grew up,” he says. “They both get it now, and appreciate the fact I always told them the truth.”

Feherty doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be seen as good.

Golf World:
What would the opening line of your autobiography be?

Feherty:
I wish I’d known it would turn out like this.

The breakup left Feherty broke and devastated. As a golfer he had all the traits that spell success: brains, of course, but also discipline, balance and, above all, focus. Now the last three of these characteristics had deserted him. He finished the 1995 campaign 166th on the money list, then missed the four-round cut at Q school and lost his tour card. He spent entire days in bed, buried in gloom.

His “divorce diet” was coffee, cigarettes and Advil — and alcohol. His capacity for Bushmills Irish Whiskey was prodigious. He tried to run away from his problems, literally, jogging 70 miles a week. “I lost 40 pounds,” he says. “A hundred and fifty if you include my wife.” The dark clouds lifted when he met an interior decorator named Anita Schneider, who had two boys of her own. Having blown their first date — “on the blind date I was blind drunk” — Feherty won her over on the second. He gave up smoking, stopped running and remarried in the spring of ’96. The couple’s daughter, Erin, was born two years later, and in 1999 they were granted custody of Feherty’s sons.

david feherty and tiger woodsAn unapologetic Woods fan, Feherty says the star is nicer than many perceive. Photo: Billy Surface

Even with his life back on track, Feherty has continued to battle despair. He had many of the worst physical symptoms of chronic alcoholism — he had DTs, both the delirium (hallucinating things) and the tremens (uncontrollable shakes). “I had all the humiliations that come with being a lush,” he says. “I wet myself. I vomited on people. The most destructive part was the self-loathing and the fear — a lot of being drunk is about always being terrified.”

He went on the wagon a half-dozen times, sometimes cold turkey. In 2006, with the help of fellow sufferer Tom Watson, he sobered up. Feherty says he hasn’t touched a drop since. Is he ever tempted to drink again? “There’s no such thing as a recovering alcoholic,” he says. “You’re either drunk or not drunk. My alcoholism is out there at the moment doing pushups.”

Feherty replaced drinking with cycling, only to get in three serious road accidents. The most life-threatening occurred in 2008, about a mile from his North Dallas home. “I got flattened by a tractor-trailer that tried to overtake me on a stretch of road where there was no room,” he says. “I was knocked flying up the road, after which the driver ran over me, crushing my left arm.” He also broke three ribs and punctured a lung.

“Imagine that!” Feherty says, sighing softly. “I’ve thrice been hospitalized after being struck by motorized vehicles. I can’t even classify the mishaps as accidents anymore. At this point, they’re more like hobbies.” Has he ever considered changing to a stationary bike? “Then I’d probably get hit by a stationary truck.”

Golf World: 
If you could be any animal, what would it be?

Feherty: 
With my luck, extinct.

No longer able to fully straighten his left arm, Feherty has given up golf. And yet he makes more money now from equipment endorsements than he did at any point in his playing career. “People ask me how I can stay current with the game if I don’t play,” he says. “I ask them when was the last time John Madden was tackled?”

Like Madden, Feherty seems born to the medium Norman Mailer once called a “small, modest malignancy, wicked and bristling with dots.” Since his very first TV commentating gig for CBS at the 1996 Sprint International, Feherty has separated himself from the pack by gently ridiculing convention and pomposity. “The tour is very overprotective about its brand and the image of golf as a respectable sport,” he offers. “No criminals. No gay players.” Feherty refuses to play along.
It almost goes without saying that he’s not universally beloved on tour. His relationship with some pros — notably Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie — has been testy. “Sure, I’ve said Monty has a face like a warthog that’s been stung by a wasp, but he knows I like him,” Feherty says, “What he doesn’t quite understand is why I make fun of him.”

The one player he never mocks is Tiger Woods. In the eyes of Feherty, Woods’ penile pratfalls are a minor misdeed that should be left to the jurisdiction of his immediate family. “When the s— hit the fan, people were on Tiger like stink on a dead cat,” Feherty grumbles. “Personally, I don’t need any explanation from him. There are a lot of questions viewers want answered, but I can’t think of one that I haven’t heard asked before.”

He launches into a disquisition on the falsity of media attention and the mendacity of image-creation that ends with a concession: Feherty never anticipated how long Woods would take to regain form. “People forget how good Tiger is when he plays well,” Feherty says. “We mortals cannot conceive of just how stupifyingly brilliant his game was or how thoroughly he changed everything. Tiger won 40 percent of the events he entered! It was like all of a sudden a different species turned up.”

david feherty on a bikeFeherty’s love of cycling has led to some close calls. Photo: George Bridges/MCT

Woods’ pro debut roughly coincided with Feherty’s first appearance as a network analyst. The two became inextricably entwined in 1997 at Pebble Beach. After Woods had gambled in the final round and reached the 18th green with a 3-wood, Feherty asked, “Were you concerned at all by that big blue thing to the left?” He meant the Pacific Ocean.

Since then, he and Woods have remained friendly — engaging in innumerable if barely audible on-course farting duels — though not especially intimate. “I’ve been accused of being so far up Tiger’s ass that he can barely make a full swing,” says Feherty. From his privileged redoubt, he maintains he’s seen a facet of Woods that the public seldom does: an immense vulnerability. “Tiger got so famous so quickly that he had little or no control over the firewall that was built around him,” he says. “As a result, who he really is vanished for most of us overnight. I imagine it must be hard for him to live a life in a manner that he may not have chosen, and I think he struggles with it. Just a theory, but he’s so much nicer than the general perception of him.”

Feherty says he’d love to interview Woods on his show, but “only when he’s ready.” The guest he most covets is the person he most fears: Bill Murray. Feherty can quote virtually every line from “Caddyshack,” a film he credits with exposing golf’s “racist, classist” underbelly. To him, Murray is one of the game’s most important figures — his character, Carl Spackler, made the game cool. Feherty acknowledges that Murray is a “nightmare interview,” but he wants him on “Feherty” precisely because he’s a nightmare interview.

Golf World:
What would you like to be reincarnated as?

Feherty:
Myself. I’d like a mulligan.

In the pooling black night, Feherty and a couple of disabled Green Berets shoulder semi-automatic weapons on the deck of the Texas man-cave. The three of them spend several hours firing off rounds into the darkness. One veteran is a former sniper named — believe it or not — John Wayne Walding. He lost part of a leg in 2008 during the Battle of Shok Valley, a 6½-hour firefight in Afghanistan.

Feherty is deeply involved with the Troops First Foundation, a charity that helps wounded soldiers. He’s hired Walding to assemble custom rifle stocks in his garage. “I owe so much to David,” Walding says. “Every time I’m in a dark spot, he’s the one who pulls me out. He’s helped me adjust to the new man I am.”

Walding calls Feherty a skeptic who questions everything but the dignity and worth of others, and who recognizes an obligation to serve the larger community. Feherty says he hasn’t always been that way. “For a long time, I felt the world would be a much better place without me on it,” he says. “But I’ve found that the longer you spend on this planet, the more important the time you have left becomes.”

His musings on mortality echo those of the great Irish writer Samuel Beckett. At the end of Beckett’s novel Murphy, the protagonist’s ashes are to be flushed down the toilet of the Abbey Theater in Dublin. Asked how he’d like to die, Feherty says, “In someone else’s sleep. That way, when they woke up, I’d still be alive.”

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