Gary Koch has been a part of PGA Tour golf for nearly five decades, first as a six-time winner on tour and later as a distinguished voice on ESPN and NBC Sports telecasts.
It was Koch who uttered the famous “Better than most” commentary when Tiger Woods holed a double-breaking 60-foot putt on the 17th hole during his victory in the 2001 Players Championship. Since 1997, Koch has worked alongside Roger Maltbie, Dan Hicks and others, becoming one of the game’s most recognizable voices.
Earlier this month, NBC Sports announced that Koch, who turns 70 today, and Maltbie, 71, no longer will be part of its golf broadcast team. In a press release, the network said it wanted to “refresh” its broadcasts.
The news came as a surprise to both men. Koch, at home in Tampa, Florida, where he has lived since 1968, talked by phone with Global Golf Post senior writer Ron Green Jr. last week about his career, his famous call and what’s next for him.
I was at a University of Florida fundraiser the Monday after Bay Hill at Lake Nona in March of 1990. Bob Murphy was working for ESPN and he was turning 50 and going to play the Senior (PGA Champions) Tour. He asked if I would have any interest in doing television work, and with the way I was playing, I said, ‘About now I’d try anything.’ I was a perfectionist and I was pretty grumpy because I had been playing so poorly for so long. A month went by and I didn’t hear anything. Then I got a call from Andy Young, who said he had five events through the end of the year. It’s a chance to see if you like it and to see if I had any potential. It meant not playing at three places on tour that I played regularly, but I told my wife if I’m going to make a change, I need to take advantage of this. I really liked it.
Playing on the tour is an individual endeavor. You have good friends, but come Thursday morning you’re trying to beat the other 143 players in the field. Television was the ultimate team effort. As many as 150 people are working together, and everyone has to do their job right or it doesn’t work. The team part really appealed to me. At the end of 1990, Ohlmeyer Communications said they wanted to sign me full time, and I started in 1991 with ESPN. I go back and look at some tapes from when I started; it’s not pretty, but there’s no way to practice. You have to put your feet in there and see if you sink or swim. I had to do all the interviews because I was the only one on the ground. I’d always been the one answering the questions, not asking them. Some of those first interviews weren’t very good. I remember being told that people aren’t interested in what you know. They want to know what the player knows. Just ask a direct question and get out of the way.
I was at ESPN for six years and moved into the 18th tower. ESPN did Thursday-Friday work with the Players, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur, and (producer Tommy) Roy asked if I could be part of the NBC shows on the weekend. (ESPN executive) Howard Katz said that would be fine. I did well enough that when my contract ended in 1996, Tommy said he’d like for me to work with them. I was a little hesitant because I was the lead guy at ESPN and I didn’t want to go back to being on the ground. He said, no, we want you in a tower, and I started in January 1997. With a lot of help from Tommy and (director) Bucky Gunts, they helped me get better. I had to take us to commercial, bring us back from commercials. There was definitely a learning curve.
Having been involved in all of the Ryder Cups since 1997 is very special. The Ryder Cup is unlike any other golf event, especially what it’s become in the last 15 years with the emotion and the passion shown by the players. It’s just very special. In ’99 at Brookline, I was on the ground again because there were so many matches. That Sunday afternoon comeback, I’ve never experienced anything quite like that on a golf course. The roars ... literally the hair standing up on your arms. There was so much electricity in the air.
I thought we had done a wonderful job setting up the difficulty of the putt and what I’d seen from other guys in that location earlier in the day. If you listen to the whole sequence, none of it would have happened if Johnny (Miller) hadn’t asked me the question. That’s something he had a tendency to do, to jump in with a question, so you had to be ready. We talked about how you had to drip the ball over the top of the ridge and most guys hadn’t hit it far enough to the left. The ball hadn’t rolled more than 8 feet and Johnny says, ‘How does that look?’ and I said, ‘better than most’ because it was farther to the left than I’d seen. Halfway down the hill, it was well left of the hole where the others hadn’t been. I said, ‘better than most’ and Johnny pipes in, ‘How about in?’ I said, ‘better than most.’
At the time it was just another Tiger moment. He just did things that other people didn’t do. It was a Tiger moment, and I happened to be part of it. It’s taken on a life of its own. At times I get a little tired of hearing it, but it will probably be on my tombstone, ‘Better than most.’ At the Players, I’ve seen ‘better than most’ ice cream, a ‘better than most’ sandwich at another place. One year in the merchandise tent, I saw ‘better than most’ on a kids onesie.
As it became more popular, my agent, Vinny Giles, looked into seeing if there was any way we could trademark it, but it is owned by the PGA Tour because it was uttered on one of their broadcasts. I hear it more at tournaments, when I’m walking around in practice rounds or on the range before they play. There are some people who want me to record something for their voice mail saying ‘better than most’ or get a selfie video and have me say it.
I gave up playing Champions Tour events five years ago. I never played the tour full time, but I still dabbled in it. But once I got to 65, I wasn’t really competitive and I needed exemptions to get into tournaments. At home, I play a couple of times a week. I still get the same sense of satisfaction out of hitting a shot the way you planned it. I just don’t do it as often as I did. I still have days I’ll break my age from the right set of tees. At Inverness recently I played from 6,500 yards and shot 65 and beat my age by four. There are still days like that.
It’s clearly disappointing to hear you’re not wanted anymore. I feel like I still added to our telecasts. To me, it’s one thing to be asked to leave when you start to lose your fastball. I don’t think I had reached that point yet. Some of my colleagues didn’t feel that, either. I understand though that nothing lasts forever. It’s been a great run. My wife and I have talked about doing a lot of things for years. She’s been an attorney here for 30 years, and she’s set to retire this spring. I’ve been all over the world with golf, but I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore. I’d like to spend some time out West, so we may do that.
Somebody said to me the other day that most people are lucky to have one successful career, and (I) have really had two. It’s funny. When looking back on my playing career and I won six times, I would have defined myself as a good player but not great. But when looking at careers, winning six times on the tour is a pretty good accomplishment. To turn around and spend 30-plus years as a broadcaster, I must have been doing something right to hang around that long.
Top: Gary Koch during the 2013 U.S. Senior Open