BETHESDA, Md. – When you’re the anchor of cable television’s top-rated news show, you never stop scrambling to stay ahead of the competition – even if you’re chasing pars rather than stories.
So with his ball resting on wood chips under a tree off the sixth fairway at TPC Potomac, Bret Baier punches a low hook up near the green, wedges on and saves par with a clutch putt.
Baier always had a tidy short game, dating to his days at Marist School in Atlanta, where he shot 71 to win the regional title and lead his team to the AAA state championship in 1988, and later at DePauw University, where he lettered on four teams that advanced to the NCAA Division III Championship.
Now settled in Washington, Baier is a member at Congressional Country Club, though on this morning he’s playing the recently renovated TPC Potomac, undeterred by a persistent late-spring rain and chill.
“It’s like a warm day in Scotland,” says Baier’s playing partner, George Mavrikes, an NFL player agent.
Baier has seen worse. During a trip to Scotland in his freshman year at DePauw, he and other members of the team played a round in the snow at Muirfield.
Baier grew up in Atlanta playing American Junior Golf Association tournaments. In high school, he’d often play 36 holes per day at Dunwoody Country Club in Atlanta, then chip and putt well into the night, the lights of his Ford Granada illuminating the practice green. Though he fought a nagging hook, he arrived at DePauw with a fearless, Seve-esque flair – the sort who “would do or try anything,” says former teammate Rob McCormick, now the general manager at Crawfordsville (Ind.) Country Club.
“My coach at DePauw (Ted Katula) used to (say), ‘Baiersy, I can’t go out with you unless I have a flask of vodka,’ ” Baier recalls.
“His game matched his personality. He had a way of making something out of nothing,” says former teammate, Jon Stutz, head professional at Purgatory Golf Club in Noblesville, Ind.
“He was a scrambler, a grinder. He never seemed to be too taken aback by a bad shot. He just focused on how to make something out of the next shot.”
A self-described “ham,” Baier chased his television dreams in various small- and mid-sized markets after graduating in 1992.
“I went from covering loggerhead sea turtle nesting in Hilton Head (S.C)., to school-board issues and crime in Rockford, Ill., to politics on the state level in Raleigh, N.C.,” he recalls.
In 1998, he took a flier on a start-up called Fox News, opening the Atlanta bureau in the shadow of then-dominant CNN, covering the Southeast and South and Central America. In November 2000, he was dispatched to Tallahassee, Fla., to cover the Florida election recount, “working out of the back of a Ryder truck” with colleague Jim Angle.
His work there caught the attention of Fox anchor Brit Hume, who would become a mentor and occasional golf partner. Then terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, Baier was told to drive, not fly, to New York. By the time the third plane hit, in Washington, he had been rerouted to the Pentagon, where he began doing live shots later that afternoon. The next day, he was on a plane to the Middle East with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and he never went back to Atlanta.
A frenetic travel schedule, including covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made it difficult for Baier to get his golf fix.
Shortly after becoming Fox’s Pentagon correspondent, he followed Rumsfeld to Doha, Qatar. With some unexpected down time, Baier and two counterparts, the late Jack McWethy of ABC and Jim Miklaszewski of NBC, retreated to Doha Golf Club. On the eighth hole, they were paged to a Rumsfeld news briefing, and Baier, the rookie, insisted they return, against the advice of the more seasoned correspondents. When Rumsfeld’s briefing turned out to be “a total snoozer,” Baier recalls McWethy growling in his ear, “We could have been on 13 now.”
After covering the Pentagon and White House, Baier in December was tapped to succeed Hume. He assumed the anchor’s chair Jan. 5.
Fox News holds a lopsided ratings advantage over competitors, and ratings for “Special Report” have risen 39 percent since the start of the year, making Tiger Woods’ 15-stroke victory at the 2000 U.S. Open seem like a nail-biter by comparison.
“When things are confusing and there’s a lot of fast-moving, big, important stories out there, the most believable one gets the most viewers,” says Michael Clemente, Fox News’ senior vice president, who says Baier benefits from his reputation as a “solid-as-a-rock reporter.”
Baier’s weeknight audience of nearly 2 million viewers is more than twice that of second-place CNN’s “Situation Room,” with fewer than 900,000. And though some have tried to pigeonhole Fox News as a refuge for conservatives, self-described Democrats (33 percent) and independents (22 percent) combine to make up more than half of the channel’s viewers, according to the Pew Research Center. Those include some who are openly hostile toward Fox News.
“(White House Chief of Staff) Rahm Emanuel told me that he watches it every night,” Baier says. “I said, C’mon, no you don’t.’ And he said, ‘Well, sometimes the sound is down.’ ”
Among its many benefits, the anchor job involves far less travel, allowing Baier to give his golf game more attention on weekends and occasionally with two-hour lightning rounds before work. He still carries a 3.3 handicap, though he deadpans, “I’m a walking wallet.” This month, he’ll make his first pilgrimage to Bandon Dunes, and every two years he and friends from America and Europe – “some low handicaps and some real doozies who just really drink a lot of scotch” – hold four-day Ryder Cup-style matches.
But news is a 24-hour business. Walking to the green on No. 17 at TPC Potomac, Baier phones the Washington bureau to discuss stories for that evening’s broadcast.
“That’s an important point,” Baier tells his colleagues, “but they’re still sticking to January.” (That would be President Obama’s plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.) The conversation clearly is moving quickly, shifting to Obama’s economic claims. “That 150,000 number is totally picked out of the air,” Baier chimes in, walking to his tee ball on No. 18. “You can’t quantify how many jobs have been saved.”
Minutes later, he putted out, then threw his clubs into his Escalade. It was time to start chasing stories.