Behind the scenes at Pinehurst: Rain, a run and two-way radios
Posted June 19, 2014
Pinehurst, N.C. — For a local news organization like WRAL, covering a big event like the U.S. Open presents some logistical challenges. We’ve had some near mishaps at both Pinehurst and Pine Needles and also, shall we say, some “days to remember.” Here are a few of my favorites.
The big rain
1999 was a pretty dry year in North Carolina. Raleigh, in fact, operated under water conservation measures. In Pinehurst, the arid weather came to an end June 16, the night before the start of the U.S. Open.
Tom Suiter had driven from Raleigh for the day to anchor the evening’s sports coverage and our live U. S. Open special. He pulled into the parking lot at the condominium we had rented for the week just as the big storm began in the late afternoon.
Tom may have had visions of having to hold an umbrella with one hand and his script with the other, while getting pelted from the rain blowing sideways. That would have been something to see, wouldn’t it? But our multi-faceted engineer Tony Gupton had put up a tent for Tom and the team to report live, protected from the elements. Viewers could no longer see the Pinehurst clubhouse as a backdrop, but keeping Tom and the gang dry was well worth the tradeoff.
And here’s my favorite part: We had rented a golf cart for the week, a covered golf cart. We transported Tom from his car to the tent, and he stayed high and dry. I also picked up author John Feinstein, who was a guest on our live special, and drove him through the rain and some pretty good-sized puddles without getting wet. I’ve known John since he was a student at Duke, but I doubt he would have come on our show if he had had to walk to the tent in the driving rain.
And the rain did come down heavily. I was live on TV about 5:45 p.m., tossing to a feature story I had done on Peggy Kirk Bell. Somewhere during the playback of the taped story, the rain overpowered the transmission signal from our truck, wiping out the video. I watched the tape weeks later and saw former WRAL anchor Jim Payne say, “Because of the storm, we’ve lost Bob, but as you can see Peggy’s still got game!”
The rain diminished from torrential to merely steady by about 6:10 p.m., and our signal returned. Tom was able to do his sportscast live at 6:20 p.m. And about halfway through the special at 7:15 p.m., the rain stopped altogether. When I carted John back to the media center after his live segment with Tom, I was able to unzip the flaps on the golf cart and let in summer air.
We all breathed a sigh of relief after our special ended-without any major glitches. That was close!
My run around Pinehurst No. 2
After we got off the air, I needed to relieve some stress, and I wanted to see how the USGA and the Pinehurst golf course operations staff would deal with the heavy rain that threatened their plan to present a golf course that would play fast and firm for the world’s best players. Plus, I figured this might be the only time all week when I could squeeze in a run. So I changed into running gear and away I went, down the sandy cart paths and fairways of fabled Pinehurst No. 2.
With today’s increased security, one probably couldn’t get the access I got in 1999. I remember running alongside the first and second holes just about dusk. By the time I reached the diabolical fifth hole (then a 480-yard par four to a narrow undulating green) it was getting dark.
I saw crews working feverishly in the bunkers, trying to get the water out. By now they had turned on lights powered by generators, and I could see, as I slowly trudged by, that they were trying to get the sand spread out evenly in the bunkers where it might dry by morning.
The sound of water pumps could be heard in multiple locations that night in 1999. Former Pinehurst Superintendent Brad Kocher and his crew were doing everything they could to prevent the storied Donald Ross treasure from being plundered by pros firing at flag pins.
To a large extent they succeeded. While 23 players broke par on the first day of the 1999 Open, scores could have been much lower but for the hard work to dry out the golf course. On Friday, only three players broke par. By Saturday, only one player broke par. That’s how the USGA and the folks at Pinehurst like it.
It got really dark by the time I reached the tenth hole, and I actually got lost for a brief spell. I think I remember wondering what would happen if I didn't make it back in time for the 11 p.m. news.
I did recover my bearings somewhere around the 12th hole, and followed the lights of the clubhouse thereafter. I have taken a number of really cool runs in my day –Waikiki, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, the Riverwalk in San Antonio and the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Running Pinehurst No. 2 the night before the ’99 Open is a memory I’ll always treasure.
Of course I reported what I saw on television that night. After hearing about the golf course, Tom asked me, “What kind of shape are you in?” I could only laugh. “Not as good as the golf course!”
“You, stop what you’re doing right now!”
In the good old days before 2008, the USGA allowed stations like WRAL to shoot their own highlights, to document the tournament in their own way. Many stations were content to sit in the media center and take all their video highlights from network TV. We felt like our team of photographers, three on the course and one in the press conference area, could show different angles and tell a much different story than the one that people who had watched the live U. S. Open coverage had already seen.
So we shot our own stuff. Our plan depended on the use of portable two-way radios. The transmissions weren’t heard except by us – we used earpieces.
By using this modern technology, our photographers could spread out around the golf course to make sure we shot good video of all the key players. Our system worked so well that during the first three days of the ’99 Open, we used only two shots from network TV.
Our great system nearly ground to a halt during the championship round, though. The USGA had stopped one of our photographers after they had seen him talking into the microphone on his shirt lapel. “You, stop what you’re doing right now! You’re interfering with the international broadcast!”
The photographer was allowed to radio me before being shut down. I think I was on the sixth or seventh hole and rushed to the third hole as quickly as possible.
One thing to point out here: We were transmitting on frequencies assigned to WRAL by the FCC. We weren’t doing anything wrong. The network had, unfortunately, chosen one of our frequencies for their back channel communication between director and talent. So some of our communication was apparently bleeding over into theirs. Not good for either party.
Happily, we figured out a compromise. We had multiple channels within our assigned frequencies. We found a channel that did not interfere with the live network coverage. And beginning the next year, the USGA made sure to coordinate the frequencies of those using wireless transmission devices.
“You shoot wide; I’m gonna be tight on Payne”
Solving our wireless transmission issue was critical to what unfolded over the final hour, an hour I believe ranks with the finest in the history of WRAL-TV sports.
I had no view of the events on the 18th green. All week long, the Pinehurst security people had allowed me inside the ropes with our photographers, even though only the photographers had the required arm band. However at 6 p.m. on championship Sunday, I had to leave my awesome perch inside the ropes on the 18th green, to go do a live report at another location on the golf course. By the time I returned, spectators were lined up eight rows deep to watch the thrilling finish. The security folks were nice to me, but they said, “Sorry, Bob, we can’t let you back inside now.”
So my understanding of the closing moments of the ’99 Open came entirely from what I heard spectators say, and from what our photographers transmitted by two-way radio. I could tell from the crowd that Phil Mickelson had a chance at birdie and missed. As Payne Stewart stared at the hole before his historic winning stroke, I heard someone say, “No one’s made this putt all day.”
Mostly I remember hearing the voice of Jeff Gravley on the two-way radio. Long before he became a top television anchor, Jeff was a superb sports photographer.
And that may have been his greatest moment behind the scenes. Jeff asked our other two greenside photographers, Todd Gibson and Tom Crichton, where they were located. They responded, and then there was silence for about 15 or 20 seconds. But I could mentally hear Jeff formulating a plan.
Finally, Jeff let us know how this would unfold. “Gibby, you follow the ball,” he said. “Tom, you give us a wide shot of the putt and crowd. I’m gonna be tight on Payne.”
The plan worked like clockwork. WRAL videotaped three different angles of one of the great moments in golf history. But because of the communication conflict mentioned above, WRAL almost missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Bob, if you dry off first, we’ll miss our deadline!”
Photographer Brad Simmons and I worked together on into the evening of the third round of the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open. This had been a long day. The second round at Pine Needles had been delayed by storms. So we were traipsing all over the golf course trying to get as many shots involving the ever-changing leaders before play would be halted until Sunday. Only another storm was about to strike.
We were following pre-tournament favorite Lorena Ochoa. If I remember, we were on about the 14th hole – the most distant point of the golf course. Word came down from the USGA that play was about to be called because of darkness and a brewing storm. Players were given the option of picking up immediately or finishing the hole. Ochoa and her group chose to finish the hole. The result: Brad and I were nearly finished.
Players were whisked away in golf carts. We were at least a mile from our satellite truck, walking and carrying heavy gear. We had just made the turn from the 11th hole to the 10th, when a huge lightning bolt lit up the fairway. There was no shelter.
Happily, the lightning subsided, but we were pelted by heavy rain. Brad had a cover for the camera, but the two of us got soaked. I’ll never forget feeling totally drenched by the time we reached the ninth hole, and we still had more distance to cover before reaching shelter.
As I climbed into our WRAL truck trying not to get anyone else wet, I pleaded for the chance to go back to the house we were renting for a quick hot shower or at least the chance to get some dry clothes. The response from our sports team was immediate and unanimous: “Bob,” they said, “If you dry off first, we’ll miss our deadline.”
This was a problem. Besides being incredibly uncomfortable, the drops falling from every inch of my body posed a serious threat to any laptop. Morever, my hands and elbows were entirely too wet to try to write with pen and legal pad.
But the sports staff at WRAL is nothing if not creative. “You just dictate to us what you want to write," they told me. “We’ll put it into the computer.”
It’s a bit different trying to write a story when your fingers are not resting on a keyboard, but somehow I managed to get into the flow of giving dictation. And I insisted on turning the heat up full in the live truck. Even in the heart of the North Carolina summer, my teeth were chattering.
We got the story written, and I managed to read it without shivering too much. The story hit air right on time. And then I got that hot shower and dry clothes.
Covering big events on television can lead to some very stressful situations. But when a story you’re proud of makes air at its appointed time, the afterglow of success illuminates the difficult journey in a whole new way. You no longer think about the many hardships and personal sacrifices required to tell the story well. It’s more like: Wow! I can’t believe we just did that!
And years later I’m still amazed.