OMAHA, Neb. – If all goes well this week at the U.S. Senior Open, Gary Koch won’t be climbing up to a television tower.
As one of NBC Sports’ lead golf analysts, the 60-year-old Koch is scheduled to work the telecast from Omaha Country Club.
Last month, however, Koch threw a wrinkle at the production team by qualifying for his second Senior Open – 10 years after his first start in 2003.
Since he wasn’t assigned to the 18th-hole tower as the lead analyst with play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks – Johnny Miller will be in that role for a second consecutive year – Koch was given the blessing to file an entry by executive producer Tommy Roy.
“He said, ‘Go ahead, and if you make it, great. It just adds credibility to our team,’” said Koch of his boss at NBC.
This is the third time that Koch has earned a playing opportunity that conflicted with his regular job. He missed the cut at the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., and missed out again at a Senior Players Championship at Baltimore Country Club.
Trying to pull double duty isn’t easy. For starters, Koch doesn’t regularly compete on the Champions Tour, so preparing to play against the world’s top seniors is a challenge.
Fortunately, NBC has given Koch some leeway this week. He won’t be required to attend Wednesday’s production meeting, which will permit him time to focus on playing golf. If he makes the cut, the network will likely move Mark Rolfing into Koch’s regular role in the alternate tower.
“We have ample people here,” said Koch of the assembled talent. “Mark Rolfing can man my outer tower and he does that very well. Notah Begay and Roger Maltbie will both be here. I think they’ll be able to cover it. But if I play well all week and don’t have to work my TV job, I will owe them big time.”
Koch’s chance to compete in another Senior Open became available when NBC moved Miller from the Women’s Open to the Senior Open last year. Previously, Koch had worked the 18th tower with Hicks at the Senior Open, which prevented him from trying to qualify.
“Obviously when I am in that position, I cannot [play],” said Koch, who began his broadcasting career with ESPN in 1990 and moved to NBC in 1997. “Now that I am not in the 18th tower, it kind of opens it up.”
While most people know Koch from his television work, he did enjoy a fine amateur and PGA Tour career. He won the 1970 U.S. Junior Amateur and played on a pair of victorious USA Walker Cup Teams in 1973 and 1975, as well as the victorious 1974 USA World Amateur Team. Koch won six PGA Tour events in 452 starts, including the 1983 Doral-Eastern Open and the 1984 Bay Hill Classic in his home state of Florida.
When he turned 50, he competed briefly on the Champions Tour, playing in 85 events. He still plays a few Champions Tour events when his NBC schedule permits, and he teams annually with Maltbie to play the Legends of Golf tournament in Savannah, Ga., where they have captured the Raphael Division three times (2003, 2008 and 2009).
But the Senior Open is a different competition.
Koch got an early scouting report on Omaha Country Club from Hicks and Roy, who played the course last summer while in town for the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials.
“They kind of warned me to be ready for the hills,” said Koch. “I hate to say it; I don’t think they warned me enough. It’s pretty hilly. Hopefully the weather will cool a little bit and won’t be as severe as it was [Monday] or [Tuesday].”
Koch’s game appeared to be sharp Tuesday on the practice range, as he hit beautiful draws with irons and woods. A four- to five-day-a-week regimen that includes Pilates and stretching keeps Koch fit, although he says it’s more difficult now that he’s 60.
“I have a trainer that I work with, trying to stay flexible and avoid the aches and pains of getting old,” he said. “I am trying to fight old age.”
This week, he will have another tough battle.
“I like the way I am hitting the ball,” said Koch, who missed the cut in 2003 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, with rounds of 79-82. “The biggest challenge for me is not having played much competitively, and there’s a difference. This is championship golf in a big-time way.
“A lot of [my success] will depend on how well I handle the competitive aspect of it, and not be overly anxious. Those are things you don’t know until you get out there and start playing.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.