When people saw Dottie Pepper trudging up the fairway at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this past weekend, she may have been mistaken for one of the golfers.
She attacks the fairways as an analyst/fairway reporter for NBC/Golf Channel just like she used to attack them as a Hall of Fame-caliber golfer on the LPGA Tour.
But that’s Dottie.
She probably walks the dog back home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with that same intensity.
“No, when I am home, I’m home. I don’t take any of this stuff with me. Married, dog, very comfortable, wonderful neighborhood,” says Pepper, who retired from the tour in 1999 with 17 victories, three wins shy of Hall of Fame-status. “But when you are on the course, you have to be focused. I have all these voices in my ear and if you are not listening you can look pretty stupid out there.
“You have to do your homework and you have to know where those cameras are out on the course. They don’t want me in the shot, so sometimes they are yelling at me, ‘Get out of the shot, get out of the shot.’ You just have to be alert at all times.”
Alert so that when NBC Sports Group producer Tommy Roy, working with co-producer Tom Randolph, says, “You’re on, Dottie,” she knows she’s going live. It may not even be for more than a quick 15-word description of a shot, but Pepper is always ready.
Her concentration on the fairways leads to fans thinking Pepper is ignoring them. They holler the entire time she walks the course, or try to create small talk when she’s near the ropes. “We love you, Dottie,” is a common outburst.
“Some people probably think I’m being rude, but it’s just not something I can control,” Pepper said.
Pepper has been a full-time part of the golf TV scene for NBC and Golf Channel since 2005, working 35 events a year. Last year, however, she left Golf Channel to cut back her events to 23 a year with NBC and some Golf Channel crossover for Thursday and Friday shows, along with Roger Maltbie and sometimes tower reporter Mark Rolfing.
“It was just too many weeks to go and then also have a life at home,” Pepper said. And life at home has become her prime focus.
“When we’re not out here, golf is not the priority. Not even close,” said Pepper, who married author and golf historian David Normoyle last year. “Normal life is a priority and being involved in the town and in trying to get junior golf moving forward in upstate New York. … we’ve been pretty lucky to have some good opportunities for that to grow.”
Pepper said her transition from playing the course to just watching others play was not a difficult transition.
“It really wasn’t. I wasn’t healthy enough to go out and do it full-time,” Pepper said. “I kind of have the mentality that if I can’t do it full-tilt, then it’s not really worth doing. This was a wonderful opportunity that came at the time it did.”
She had surgery on both of her shoulders, evidence of wear-and-tear from too many golf shots. She says she’s in pretty good shape now and the shoulders only hurt if she sleeps on one of them wrong.
“I feel great. I’ve skied a lot this year and will probably sneak a couple more days in this year before it’s all over,” Pepper said.
And as for golf?
“Last year I played about 12 rounds and I still can get it around even par,” she said. “It’s not real pretty, but I figured out a little something the last time I played and it’s fun to hit good golf shots. I can still go out and enjoy playing and to have the game that way, I’m more than happy.”
Yep, still working on her swing in her never-ending pursuit of perfection, which is why guys like Roy enjoy working with Pepper so much.
“Oh, we love Dottie,” Roy said. “She’s our eyes and ears out there and she just does a great job with it.”
Which is extremely important when Roy is on the headset. The ever-so-particular producer once had the enormous broadcast tower moved to another spot on a course so it would not come within TV camera shots.
That’s a perfect match for Dottie, two perfection-seeking people working with numerous others with the same goal. The crew works everything at a crisp, clean, precision, chaotic pace.
“I am still amazed that all of this stuff gets on the air,” Pepper said. “Everything happens so quickly and mistakes are magnified. There is an emphasis on giving people the best seat in the house, and giving them the best information you can possibly give them and make them feel they are part of the show and it has to happen really quickly.”
It’s not like shooting a football or baseball or basketball game. Roy says, “With football or basketball or most other sports, there is one focal point, where the ball is, and you might have 20 cameras but they are all focused on the same point. We have that here, but we have 16 different cameras covering 18 different holes, so it’s much more demanding.”
With so many different aspects and angles and many times even two groups of golfers playing the same hole, it’s no wonder that Jeremy Friedman of Golf Channel Public Relations said he and others call it the "Traveling Circus."
At the Arnold Palmer Invitational this past weekend, there were 39 cameras (21 hard cameras in towers, booths and Golf Central studio), seven hand-held cameras, four radio-frequency minis, a Slow-Motion camera and a Protracer camera. The 18th hole camera tower was 80-feet high and there were more than 200 workers on the live tournament and news crew.
All for a little bit of weekend golf. Golf by professionals, that is. On the course and behind the scenes.
“That’s what you are trying to relay, to tell the viewers something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to know and try to do it, as our whole crew does, relay it through your eyes as you would as a player,” Pepper said.
“We also want people to realize that it’s a really hard game. And when somebody pulls off an unbelievable shot, and we say it’s unbelievable, it’s really unbelievable. The same as when somebody hits a bad shot. It’s probably what most people at home feel all the time … and that’s ok.”
And we know what those of you at home are asking yourself right now.
“Oh everybody wants to know how we know what clubs they are using,” she said. “That’s easy, either I’m told on the tee box like at the Par 3s, or I get signals from the caddies.”
And many times she relies on her own golf sense. “When everyone is hitting wedges to the green, that’s pretty easy to figure out. No signals needed.”
Dottie Pepper has rarely needed signals anyway. Her mind’s eye has guided her this far. Why stop now?
Chris Hays can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.