"Welcome to my televised nervous breakdown," says the Golf Channel's David Feherty, just before a recent taping. With his shaggy hair and trademark Vandyke, the 56-year-old looks more like an aging skateboarder than a TV personality in the stodgy world of golf. Feherty is the host of an hour-long celebrity chat show, now in its fourth season. Feherty is one of the Golf Channel's highest-rated programs and one of the most idiosyncratic on TV. Every week, the former top 10–ranked European Touring Pro from Northern Ireland, a bipolar recovering alcoholic who wrote his bestselling novel, A Nasty Bit of Rough, while blind drunk, gets everyone from Jack Nicklaus to Jack Welch to reveal their highs and lows, both on the links and off. In a sport known for its hushed voices, Feherty keeps it real. He has asked infamous college basketball coach Bobby Knight, "Why are you such an asshole?" and been told by Bill Clinton, "You know why I'm doing your show? Because you're as full of it as I am!"
The show is only peripherally about golf. It's really about the last unscripted man on TV and his ability to surprise and draw surprises from his guests, as when Clinton told of the onetime Chelsea boyfriend who wore a baseball cap backward to dinner at the White House. Feherty's penchant for self-revelation often prompts in his guests a refreshing candor in return. But don't tell Feherty that's a talent. "It's not like I work at it," he says. "Really, I just want to maximize whatever my potential is with as little effort as possible. I don't swim upstream."
Let's talk golf. Can Tiger come back?
He'll be back to number one in the world by the end of this season, on talent alone. But the other question is, will he be as good as he was 10 years ago? I'm not sure my children, or my children's children, or their children, will ever see anyone play like that again. He was just so dominant.
What should the sport do to keep itself relevant to young people?
The people running the game should think more about the average amateur. Unlike football and baseball, golf is watched by people who still play the sport. So change the rules and make the ball bigger to slow it down, which will help the amateurs on the greens and attract more players. Twenty-five years ago, Jack Nicklaus said they should do this. I guess the idiots at the USGA don't consider him enough of an expert.
How do you make a golfer talk show funny and honest?
Where I come from, people have a different way of looking at things. I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Sixties and Seventies, when urban terrorism was everywhere. Against the background of bombs and sectarian murders and soldiers in the street, the people were very funny, even though there was very little laughter. Growing up with that, you see the same accident as everybody else, but it's from a different side of the street. My questions come from different places.
I WAS THE RIGHT DRUNK AT THE RIGHT BAR AT THE RIGHT TIME WHEN CBS WAS LOOKING FOR SOMEONE
Is that why the viewer never quite knows where you're going to go on the air?
Neither do I. Every time I do the show, I think, "Well, I'm going to fuck this up." But the only shows that I could have done better are the ones that I actually prepared for. I just end up listening and asking what seems like a logical question. It's against all the rules. When I'm up in the 18th tower as a course reporter or in the studio at the Golf Channel, everybody has all these papers in front of them, with notes and statistics. I've got a packet of Skittles and a Sharpie.
Was there anything in your upbringing to predict you'd become a TV personality?
I failed miserably at school. They called me stupid. If something didn't capture my attention, I was beyond useless. If it did, my focus was unbreakable. I dropped out of school at 17. Turned pro with a five handicap, which I lied about. I improved very quickly because of my ability to focus on one thing that fascinated me. And against all odds, I became a half-decent player.
So how did you go from pro golfer to commentator?
I was the right drunk at the right bar at the right time when CBS was looking for someone. I hadn't been playing well and was in the depths of illness – I was depressed, going through a divorce after a marriage that was really more of a hostage situation, and I was washing down 40 Vicodins with two and a half bottles of Irish whiskey a day. These two men approached me from across the bar and said they were with CBS. I immediately thought, "Fuck! It's 60 Minutes – they're doing some exposé, and they've found my stash of weed and pills." But they said they wanted me to be a course reporter. When they told me how much they were going to pay, I said, "You want to buy a set of clubs?"
JACK NICKLAUS SAID, "JUST LOVE HIM. JUST BE THERE FOR HIM." AND IT WAS A POWERFUL MOMENT.
When Feherty debuted on the Golf Channel, did you purposely decide to be vulnerable and talk so openly about yourself?
None of it is planned. Like when Jack Nicklaus was on. He was talking about his father. My father has Alzheimer's now, and I don't know what to do for my mother, or how to approach my father. So I asked Jack for advice. He said, "Just love him. Just be there for him." And it was a powerful moment. I'm at an advantage – all of my skeletons are out of the closet. I'm as fucked up as they come. I have to take 13 pills a day to be this normal.
What did you learn from your years of alcoholism?
It didn't work for me when I was drinking. Nobody knew I had a drinking problem, until I showed up one day and was sober. A good drunk is worse than a bad drunk, because it's going to kill you and people aren't even going to notice. When I wrote my first book, a novel, I was hammered. I wrote it in a whiskey-induced coma. At one point I set my swimming pool on fire. Shot a tree in half in the backyard. I thought I wasn't going to be able to write once I sobered up – that that's where creativity came from. But if I hadn't gone through that, I don't think I'd have the viewpoint I have today. Now nothing matters other than the time I have left. I don't live one day at a time – I live 20 minutes at a time. It drives my wife Anita crazy because I can't think of what I'm doing tomorrow.
What turned you around?
The feeling I was failing my wife and daughter. Eight years ago, when she was seven, my daughter climbed on top of me and put her forehead on mine. I was on a La-Z-Boy with a bottle of Bushmills on the table beside me. I was half-man, half-mattress. And she's smiling and says, "Dad, you need another bottle." And I sent her to get one. Because I wasn't where I needed to be yet. I'll never forget her saying that to me, and it was part of the turning point.
I CAN'T IMAGINE OTHER OCCUPATIONS THAT WOULD ALLOW YOU TO BE AS INERT AS I AM. I'M LIKE HELIUM.
What are your favorite interviews from the show?
I love the interviews that I learn from. I adore Bill Russell. Segregation was never a problem for him – if you don't want to see me play, that's fine. I'm outta here. He had a dignity and an aura about him that I only ever experienced one other time – when I shook hands with Nelson Mandela. It wouldn't have mattered what era Bill Russell had been born in; he would have been a giant at whatever he did.
After everything you've been through, do you feel lucky?
The greatest stroke of luck I've had is ending up at one of the very few jobs that I could get away with this. I can't imagine other occupations that would allow you to be as inert as I am. I'm like helium. A lot of what I do is stupid. But doing stupid things can make other people feel more intelligent.