TNT will be televising the PGA Championship for the 23rd consecutive year, and for most of that time, Ernie Johnson has sat in the anchor’s chair. He’s best known for his work on NBA telecasts, though he also spent four seasons calling Atlanta Braves games with his father, Ernie Johnson Sr. He spoke recently with Golfweek’s Martin Kaufmann.
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Given that you broadcast only two or three golf tournaments each year, how do you prepare for the PGA Championship?
It starts with watching tournaments, taking notes during the year. I have a research guy named Joe Underhill – “Underdog,” as we call him. He’s good at funneling information to me. At the same time, I’m making lists of winners on the tours, nuggets about the tournaments, nuggets on players, and looking at my yardage book from 2003. I called (Oak Hill head pro) Craig Harmon yesterday to shoot the breeze and talk about changes to the course. He said three greens have been slightly changed, and they’ve put a little more length on 17 and 18. . . . It’s very different from what we do on NBA or baseball, where you’re preparing week to week, game to game.
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Do you have favorite or most memorable moments from covering the PGA Championship?
When I started in ’95, I was basically filling in for Verne (Lundquist) for a half hour on Thursday and Friday, and then I would do our early coverage on Saturday and Sunday. Working with Dave Marr was a kick. I still remember that from ’95. Tiger and Jack at Valhalla – the passing of the torch that Friday was very cool. Tiger at Southern Hills when he had a chance to shoot 62 when that putt lipped out on Friday. When you enjoy the game as much as I do, it’s really great to spend the number of hours we have on TNT calling golf shots.
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From a professional standpoint, what was the best advice your father gave you?
Two words: Be yourself. The great thing about my dad is that he didn’t push me to get into this. And he didn’t harp on (saying), “This is good, this is bad.” I learned a lot from watching him as a broadcaster doing baseball for 35 years. . . . His big deal was, if you show up acting like, “Now, I’ve got to be this person,” that ain’t going to work. That’s wonderful advice that extends beyond the parameters of TV. Also, Verne Lundquist was huge in terms of me covering golf. When they assigned me to Riviera in ’95 . . . we sat in a golf cart for 20 minutes and he just talked. The best thing he said was, “You’re a caption writer. Don’t feel like you have to tell long, involved stories. Do your homework and be a caption writer.”
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What is your best Jim Huber story or memory?
There were so many. I can’t even begin to list the essays that he did that were memorable. Jimmy could bring a lump to your throat with three words in the middle of an essay. He would have an image and the right combination of words that made you catch. . . . I was so jealous of the guy to say just the right thing in just the right way. We used to meet at the Grand Slam of Golf in Kauai, which was the greatest boondoggle in the history of televised sports. You’re out there for a week and calling 18 holes over two days, just four guys playing. The rest of the time you’re being treated to these great dinners by the great chefs of the islands. And Jim would have those fireside chats with the players, and what stood out was the respect players had for Jim and how they loved talking to them. And he would draw great things out of them.
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What is your favorite sport to cover?
It’s going to sound wishy-washy, but whatever I’m doing at the time. There’s something about all of them that’s special. The length of the NBA season and the lightning rod that Charles (Barkley) has become over 13 years on TV is going to get a lot of attention. . . . Baseball is in my blood. I grew up in Atlanta stadium watching my dad getting ready to do games, having Hank Aaron ask me how my Little League team was doing. But at the same time, my dad and I played golf together all the time. Our best day of golf ever was Dec. 10, 1998, when we played Augusta National together. I had arranged through a member to give that to my dad as a 50th wedding anniversary gift. I wasn’t even going to (play). It just so happened the NBA was in a lockout . . . and dad said, “Why don’t you come down to Augusta with me?”
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You alluded to Charles. Complete this sentence: Charles Barkley’s swing makes me __.
Feel much better about mine. . . . It’s gotten to the point where people don’t laugh anymore, they just kind of look down and shuffle their feet and move on.
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For young people who aspire to do the work you do, what advice do you have for them?
Do something else. No, the world’s a different place then when I started. A lot of times when I’m trying to give journalism students advice, I feel like maybe they don’t have to do what I did, which is work really hard, go to a really small market, make all your mistakes and work your way up the ladder. For me, that’s the way it was. . . . The world’s different (now). Somebody can get on Youtube and get 3 billion hits and all of the sudden they’re on television and they’re a star. Still, my advice is learn how to write and communicate, don’t be dependent on a teleprompter, learn how to tell stories, be concise and don’t try to impress people with seven-syllable words. Speak to the folks.