A week ago, I had a conversation with a senior producer of PGA Tour coverage. I asked him how he thought Jim “Bones” Mackay, Phil Mickelson’s former caddie, would fare in his new life as an announcer for NBC. He said he expected Bones to do well, based on having watched the 2015 RSM Classic, where Golf Channel road-tested Mackay as an on-course announcer.
I had watched that same tournament, which left me far less optimistic that Mackay had a future in TV.
As it turns out, of course, Mackay does have a future in TV. NBC signed him to a multi-year contract and introduced him to viewers at the British Open.
The first two days of Open coverage only reinforced my initial impression that Mackay is better suited to carrying a bag than a microphone.
Let’s start with two assumptions. First, we all have warm feelings for Mackay. There are so many memorable moments from his 25 years working for Mickelson. Plus, how can you not like a guy named Bones? (A former colleague called me on Friday and posed this question: If Mackay didn’t have a cool nickname, would he get a TV job? I didn’t immediately rule out the possibility. Would he be so prominent if he were known simply as Jim Mackay? Is part of his appeal that anchor Dan Hicks can say, “Bones, what does Spieth have?”)
The second point is this: TV is hard, and being an on-course announcer is especially difficult. It’s one of the toughest jobs in televised golf. It’s perhaps a little easier on producer Tommy Roy’s NBC crew because Roy doesn’t have on-course commentators call replays, but it’s still a tough gig.
That’s one of the reasons I thought it was a bad idea for NBC to leapfrog Mackay over more seasoned announcers. An on-course reporter has to be quick-witted and concise, be comfortable in his own skin and have an easy rapport with the audience.
Let me go one step further: I’m a firm believer that announcers are born, not made.
You either have it or you don’t.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. About eight years ago, I was laying in bed watching coverage of what was then a Nationwide Tour event at TPC Stonebrae near San Francisco. In those days, players sometimes would grab a mic and call some action after their rounds. It helped a short-handed crew, and also offered Golf Channel a chance to test new talent.
At Stonebrae, James Hahn joined the crew. He was funny, smart, insightful, instantly likable. (Side note: Hahn’s karate kick as he was walking up the 17th fairway at Royal Birkdale late Friday was one of the day’s highlights.) It was obvious that if Hahn’s golf career didn’t pan out – it has – he had a career in TV.
I didn’t get that sense listening to Mackay at the RSM Classic in 2015, nor over the past two days. In theory, you hire someone like Mackay because he has unique insights into players and caddies. In practice, Mackay was robotic, talking like a caddie – yardage, wind, club (“195 yards, straight downwind, with a 9-iron”).
That’s fine, but somewhere along the line, you want more.
Mackay had a good moment Friday afternoon when he said Brooks Koepka’s caddie had told him players were taking an additional club even on downwind shots. And on Thursday, he shared a mildly amusing story about a college-age Bubba Watson making a wager with Mickelson 20 years ago, though he didn’t display a story-teller’s flair in relaying the anecdote.
There were, however, too many missed opportunities.
Hicks tried to tee up Mackay Thursday when he was following Adam Scott’s group.
“You’ve seen (Scott’s game) through the years, you just wonder why this guy doesn’t win every week,” Hick’s said. “It’s just that technically sound.”
“It is beautiful to watch,” Mackay said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Johnny Miller jumped in to say, “But you gotta putt.”
That was a moment for Bones to offer some insight into Scott’s game: Why has he underachieved? Or maybe he hasn’t underachieved? Is he overrated? Where’s that insight we’re looking for?
Hicks tried again when discussing Paul Casey: “Surprised (Casey) hasn’t won a major yet, Bones?”
Bones: “I am, Dan. He’s an extremely good player. But as we saw with Phil
Mickelson, some of these guys don’t win their first major until they get in their mid-30s, and then they go on a tear.”
Actually, they typically don’t. Mickelson was unique in that regard. The multi-major winners typically win majors early in their careers because their talent is undeniable. What made Mickelson unique was that he clearly was the second-best player in the world through much of his career, but didn’t start winning majors until he was 33 years old.
This was in the midst of Mackay’s rockiest stretch. A few minutes later, he said, “Big tee shot here for Rick (Fowler), guys. I think that after a couple of poor swings on the last hole, he’s really going to be working hard to get this one in the fairway.”
Well, yes, golfers like to hit fairways. But what are you seeing that’s causing those “poor swings”? What are you seeing in Rickie’s manner? (Fowler seemed unusually frustrated at the time, slamming his club after hooking his approach on 15.)
Mackay also has a bad habit of starting many of his live hits by saying, “Yeah, guys. . .” or “Absolutely, guys. . .” He needs simply to share what he’s seeing on the ground.
He’s also too quick to default to groan-inducing clichés. On a Hideki Matsuyama chip, he said, “This is going to take all of his short-game wizardry to get this up and down.” Ugh. As for Tommy Fleetwood’s battle to make the cut? “He has shown a lot of moxie.”
Moxie. The only people who say “moxie” are those trying to sound like an announcer, rather than be an analyst.
Perhaps Mackay needs to decide which one he wants to be.