As the host of the midnight edition of SportsCenter, Scott Van Pelt is fluent in just about every sport, but golf holds a special place in his heart.
Van Pelt came to ESPN from Golf Channel, where he was an anchor and reporter from 1994-2000. He still feeds his thirst for the game by serving as the main host of ESPN’s golf coverage, including the Masters and the PGA Championship, and he hosts SportsCenter reports and specials from the events.
Van Pelt joined ESPN in early 2001 as the network’s lead professional golf reporter and with the Masters nearly upon us, he made time to speak to Golfweek for a riveting conversation heavy on the Masters with a side of Tiger, DeChambeau and even one heckuva Scott Hoch story.
Q: Let’s get right to it. Who’s your Masters pick and why?
A: I’m going to keep picking Xander Schauffele until he wins because he keeps being close and eventually he’s going to win, and if I don’t pick him and he does win I’ll be livid. Before the PGA I said that this odd calendar year would be a year for breakthroughs, not necessarily people who came from off the grid but who had been lurking around the fringes and when they won you’d say OK. Morikawa was a bit earlier than we would have thought but he and DeChambeau were both first timers, won on Tour, young stars and Schauffele fits that mold and would keep with the trend.
Q: If you were a patron at the Masters, how would you spend the bulk of your day?
A: Get there early and walk the course. The course is the star. Walk directly to Amen Corner just to see it and walk your way back in. I’d go walk the par-3 course which is as beautiful as the “big course.” What’s so cool is that if you’re a golf fan you can go. You can find a ticket. It might cost you big money but if you’re a golf fan you’ve got to go.
Wednesday to me, in a normal year, is the most fun because you do what I just said and then you park yourself somewhere at the par-3 contest. It’s the day before one of the biggest events of the year and everyone’s mind is in a totally calm, happy place. This might be sacrilege to say, but I think any major is a superior televised experience to an in-person one because no matter where you are the overriding majority of what happens is not in front of you. But Augusta is the place to go for all the reasons I said. You can’t believe the place. It’s better than you think it’s going to be. It’s more beautiful than you think it’s going to be. It’s hillier than you can ever understand. You leave the place shaking your head because by like a factor of a million, it exceeds your expectations like nothing else in sports.
Q: What’s the most underrated Masters you’ve worked?
A: Adam Scott over Cabrera. The Masters are moments. As Phil says, history is going to be written here every year. Think about the shots that were made. That Masters doesn’t get brought up enough. It was birdie for Scott – yelling, ‘C’mon, Aussie!’ and he’s finally going to cash in on all that promise, then birdie for Cabrera who stiffs it at the 72nd hole and says, no you’re not, and then Scott rolls in another birdie in the playoff and that tremendous golf sort of Jesus pose and he’s backlit and it’s raining. Any chance I get I bring 2013 up. People always say, it was pretty good and I always say it was better than that.
Q: What historical moment in golf do you wish you could have witnessed?
A: Jack in ’86, just that moment where he puts his arm around Jackie and looks back down the 18th. Now that I’m a dad, I can understand what that moment must have been like. To share that moment with Jackie as his caddie, it doesn’t get any better than that. I did get to watch that moment with my dad, so that was pretty memorable.
Q: How many times have you played Augusta National and what is your most lasting memory of doing so?
A: I played it once. I won the media lottery and I played with the late great Jim Huber. My lasting memory is there’s never been a bigger tourist than I was. I walked around with an Instamatic camera and took pictures the entire time. I played poorly, but I’ll give you a couple.
When you walk across the bridge at 12, I stood there and thought everybody who’s ever been anyone in this game has stood here right where I’m standing. I’m not going to overstate it – it wasn’t religious, it was the 12th green at a golf course – but it’s a parcel that every foot that has mattered has stood here. That moment was great.
As I said, I played poorly and I fanned one on 16 and I’m far right and the caddie went and stood on the top of the hill and he said you need to hit a ball that bounces once or twice and stops here and that’s it. I said, what have I done today to lead you to believe I’m capable of doing that? And damned if I didn’t hit a perfect chip and I walked up with my hands in the air. It didn’t go in but I hit the shot you have to hit at Augusta. I didn’t hit many of them. What I remember is I was a total tourist and I was intent on preserving the memory. But the funny thing is all I have to do is close my eyes and I remember everything.
Tiger Woods crosses the Hogan Bridge during the second round for the Masters golf tournament Friday, April 12, 2019, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Q: If you were to take a buddies golf trip, where are you going?
A: I do take a buddy trip. We play every summer at the beach in Delaware at the Midway Par 3. Every year, me and my idiot friends mark time with this. We’re all older than we used to be. We started it when we were young. As cool as playing in Scotland and Ireland in the elements and all that, I don’t have time for that right now but I always make time for a few days at the beach to play this par-3 event. We all look forward to it the entire year.
Q: When did you start believing Tiger might win the Masters last year?
A: Not until Sunday. The Masters almost always does the same thing. So many good players play well there and they all end up in a funnel and they are all packed together and then it’s a question of who can survive the second nine. Remember who was there and remember how well they were playing. Molinari hadn’t made a mistake. Not one. He hadn’t wobbled and then he rinsed one. It took not just him but all three of them – Finau and Koepka included – to rinse it on 12. Often times history isn’t just what you do but what the others don’t. It was all happening and it was all happening in real time. It allowed Tiger to step forward and once he did it was like oh, my God, it’s going to happen. And, of course, it did.
Q: Will Tiger win another major?
A: I don’t think so, just because of the depth of the fields. It will require not just him to play great, but somebody else from that group not playing great. Cosmically, if the first was with his dad and the last was him with his kids, I can’t speak for him but I think I could in saying if that’s how it started and ended, well, that’s not a bad way to start and finish the book. Think about what that took out of him and what that sapped from his reserves. It seemed to be most everything last year. If there really are golf gods and Tiger was sitting around a table with them and they said this is what the cost is but this is what you get, he would’ve pushed all his chips in and said give me that, I’ll take that.
Q: Who’s the best interview in golf?
A: I’m pausing because I really want to give you the right answer. Really what a good interview is, is someone who will honestly tell you something. Among the very best players, I really enjoy talking to Justin Thomas because he’ll tell you what he thinks, he’ll be self-deprecating to a point and he’ll be honest with you. He got caught with a hot mic and dropped an F-bomb at the PGA at Harding Park. I refuse to apologize for the language because anyone who plays golf knows that’s what you say. There was this brief pause and I said, ‘Well…Everyone loved it, including JT.’ His emotion is palpable, he’s fiery as hell and he wants to win so badly, but he’ll be honest when he doesn’t with why he didn’t. That’s all I want from people.
Q: What current golfer would you pay good money to watch?
A: It’s a long list, man. I guess DeChambeau just to see how fast he can swing and how long he can do it. I was at Harding Park and a highly-ranked player who has won a major, I won’t identify him, said, have you seen him hit the driver yet? I said, no. He said, stick around it’s worth watching. You know this, Tour players don’t watch other players hit shots because they’re Tour players. There’s a bit of a ‘step right up and come into our big top and watch the strong man put on a ridiculous show’ to what he’s doing.
Bryson DeChambeau hands his broken driver to caddie Tim Tucker on the seventh hole during the first round of the 2020 PGA Championship. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Q: If you weren’t doing what you do, how would you be making a living?
A: I was in the process of hooking on with an insurance company when I got an interview with Golf Channel. I’d never been on TV before. None of this was supposed to happen. I just try to project gratitude into the universe because I’m sincerely grateful – whether that’s God or the universe – I want somebody to know that I’m appreciative of all this. I truly don’t know the answer. I hadn’t found my path yet when this one presented itself to me. I’m sure something would have revealed itself but I don’t have a clue what it would’ve been.
Q: How do you feel about the Golf Channel digging up its Orlando roots and moving to Connecticut?
A: It’s crushing to me. I understand the business. It’s happened to everybody given the challenges of the landscape and how things are constantly evolving and changing. It was really painful because I was an original. I could get to the Golf Channel offices from the Orlando airport blindfolded. People lost jobs that mattered to me, talented, good people, and lives left in a state of flux. I’m proud of what I got to do there in my time and for lack of a better word, it sucks.
Q: What’s the most valuable lesson you learned working at Golf Channel?
A: To respect the game. I learned an appreciation and respect for the people in it and golf as a metaphor for life that I don’t think that’s corny or hokey. No one sat us down and told us this is how you’ll treat the game. It’s just the way the game revealed itself to me.
Q: What’s the all-time bad beat in golf?
A: I think for me, at the Masters, it’s Scott Hoch. He had a helluva career, but he missed a putt that he could’ve made in his sleep. A couple of years ago I was standing under the Oak tree and a guy said hello and I realized quickly that it was Scott Hoch. He’d driven up that day with Andy Bean and he’s wearing one of those elastic white ties around his belt for his day badge. We chit-chatted for a bit and I walked away and sometime later I sat and thought about it for a bit and it shook me. If he makes that putt, every year since then he’s on this side of the rope with his family and friends to remember the greatest moment you have in golf. You get to do some corporate appearances where you get paid to eat a steak and tell about how you beat Faldo in a playoff and instead he drove up with Andy Bean to walk around the golf course. He wasn’t sad but just think about how different life would have been had he made that little putt, how different the trajectory of his life would have been.
Winning the Masters is a life changer.
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