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TV's Roger Maltbie talks a great game

NBCTiger WoodsJason DayHonda ClassicRyder CupPGA Tour

As good and as popular as he is as the lead course reporter for Golf Channel and NBC, Roger Maltbie never had the slightest inclination to do what he has done so well for the past 23 years.

And given his introduction to golf tournament broadcasting, it's amazing he ever got the job.

Maltbie will be with the leaders this week at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship as they make their way around the Blue Monster at Trump National Doral.

Microphone in hand, he will report on everything from what the players need to do for a particular shot to where those shots end up, while fans will constantly call out, "Hi Roger!"

"You know what I really love about being out there? You can interact with people," said Maltbie, 62, who played on the PGA Tour regularly for 21 years, winning five times, before dramatically cutting back his schedule.

During last week's Honda Classic at PGA National, Maltbie got a bigger reaction from fans than Rory McIlroy, who led for most of the tournament before losing in a playoff. He signed autographs, chatted with fans and players, and was always quick with a one-liner.

"Come on, Roger!" yelled a fan.

"Where're we going?" Maltbie said, the crowd laughing.

NBC's Jimmy Roberts called Maltbie "The people's pro." One of Maltbie's nicknames is "The Course Whisperer."

"I'm not so much a golf analyst, which at times you are, but I'm a reporter as to what's happening on the golf course," Maltbie said. "The tower announcers are well away from the action, so if there's something I can add, then you try, something that I see or notice that maybe they don't see.

"You just can't have a camera there to see absolutely everything. They try to get everything but every now and then they don't know and I do, or [fellow course reporters] Notah [Begay] or Rolf [Mark Rolfing] do. I have a "talk-back" button and I will hit the button … so we can direct them sometimes to something they wouldn't want to miss."

Maltbie, 62, grew up in San Jose, Calif., and now lives in the suburb of Los Gatos. He made headlines as a Tour rookie in 1975 when he won back-to-back events. He won two events in the 1985 season, including the World Series of Golf.

A shoulder injury and two subsequent surgeries prevented him from hitting certain golf shots, and it was in 1989 that he happened to get a call from NBC, which was conducting broadcasting auditions at a tournament in Kapalua, Hawaii.

A few weeks later, he was offered a job. At the time, Maltbie played in 28-30 tournaments a year and NBC was broadcasting 18. Maltbie had a 10-year exemption for winning the World Series, but he didn't want to cut back his schedule that much and the money NBC offered wasn't that appealing.

So he turned down the offer.

"I never spent one second ever thinking about doing television," Maltbie said.

Late in 1990, NBC called and offered him a job as a course reporter, in part because Rolfing had moved to ABC. NBC was doing fewer tournaments and the money it offered was much better. Maltbie said he'd do the Bob Hope tournament in California if he could do the Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island.

He got on the course at the Hope to practice and none of his equipment worked. By the time it was repaired, it was time for him to go on the air.

"I'd never been on the air a second other than the stuff I did in Kapalua," said Maltbie, who that evening told director Larry Cirillo, "I felt like I was alone on an inner tube in the middle of the ocean. At that point, probably without knowing it, he gave me the best advice I've ever gotten: You were fine, just be yourself."

Being himself has resonated with viewers. Maltbie, who had little interest in playing on the Champions Tour — he's played only nine events since turning 50 — loved that he was able to spend time at home with his wife and sons, who are now 27 and 24, and he loves that he still gets to be around the game.

"Even though I don't play anymore, I'm still a huge fan of watching guys do it well," he said. "Fortunately doing what I do, I'm usually walking with the leaders. These are the guys that are playing the best, so I'm watching the best players play at the top of their game."

Sometimes the best players hit some squirrely shots. Maltbie said the closest he's come to being hit came on the final hole of a tournament.

"Jim Furyk almost took me out with a shank on the 72nd hole when he won at Tampa," Maltbie said. "I was up ahead of him 75 yards or so and he hit one right off the hosel. It was pretty funny."

There have also been plenty of great shots. Two of the best for Maltbie were in 1999:

Payne Stewart sinking a putt on the 72nd hole at Pinehurst to win the U.S. Open — "Guys don't make putts like that to win national opens," — and Justin Leonard making a 45-foot putt at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., to win the Ryder Cup for the United States.

"When it came up over the ridge, I was the guy who said, 'This looks good' and it went in. That was one that made the hair on your arms stand up," Maltbie said.

"There's been a lot of moments like that, which is what makes the job worth doing. For those moments. You get older and your skills go and you can't do it any more from my perspective, but you recognize greatness when you see it and I get a chance to witness it a lot of times, which is pretty good."

Day expects Tiger

Tiger Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic after 13 holes Sunday because of lower back spasms, but Jason Day said he expects Woods, who has not yet played the renovated Blue Monster, to defend his title here.

"I think he'll be here," Day said Tuesday morning. "It's going to be a bit of a shock to him [when he plays the new course for the first time], but he is Tiger Woods."

Day, who won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship two weeks ago and is No. 4 in the world rankings, said he assumed the top-ranked Woods is receiving treatment for his back.

"The guy is not 20 anymore," Day said of Woods, who is 38. "When you get older, things hurt a little bit more. I think he just needs to take it easy."

A "new" Blue Monster

Justin Rose said the Blue Monster is "a new golf course. There's elements you recognize, but pretty much the shots and the lines and the reads on the greens are all completely new."

Henley's big Honda win

Russell Henley won his first PGA Tour event as a pro, the 2013 Sony Open. Winning the Honda Classic for his second Tour victory was huge.

"I definitely wanted to win again, obviously ever since I won the first time, just to make myself feel like that win wasn't just a one-week thing," said Henley, who won a four-man playoff with a birdie on the first playoff hole. "And now that I've won again, I think I'll feel a little bit better about my first one. It makes me feel very confident, like I'm supposed to be out here kind of feeling."

swaters@tribune.com or 954-356-4648

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