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4-Iron, I Guess

At home with Gary McCord, who would rather hunt for Sasquatch than do what he’s told

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Photos by Benjamin Rasmussen

Gary McCord and I are sitting on the back deck of his Colorado townhouse, the aspens splashing rivers of gold across the mountains. I remind him of the first time we met. He was living in a self-storage unit not far from San Luis Rey Downs Golf and Country Club, a since-shuttered Southern California sanitarium of golfing miscreants with names like Fairway Louie, Unemployed Lloyd, Quick Pour and The Kitchen. McCord was kind of their Jack Nicholson, the Randle McMurphy of that particular cuckoo’s nest. His hair was years shy of silver back then; the wax and twirl of his handlebar mustache wasn’t yet sharp as a paper cut. The marriage thing had taken a turn for the worse, and the best living arrangement he could come up with on short notice was to drive his Mercedes SL nose up to the rental unit, pull the metal door open with the clattering sound of loose tank treads and curl up on top of a few dented cardboard boxes. For some reason, the thing I remember most about what was inside (other than Gary, of course) was the rubber Halloween mask. He always had someone from his own planet to talk to.

No one—not even his friend and protégé David Feherty, whom McCord describes as a “brilliant total whack job”—has more faithfully communicated the comic idiocy and doleful angst of golf than McCord did for 35 years on CBS. If you want to know what it would have been like had Sisyphus owned a cackling sense of humor and been wired for sound, that was McCord. Like his nickname, Magic, he smuggled this snickering appreciation of the absurd and the bizarre into golf commentating right under the nose of every green coat, blue blazer and officious club secretary the game could array against him. That style got him thrown out of the Masters (or, ahem, disinvited), forever linking his name with Jack Whitaker, which is as close to the crime of journalism as he ever came.

McCord remembers Frank Chirkinian, the CBS director who more or less invented the modern golf telecast, once telling him, “I know you’re going to say something really fucking stupid and that keeps me listening. I don’t know whether that bothers me or I’m proud of you. If I ever hear you tell me what I’m seeing on the television, you’re fired.” So, he never did. Chirkinian gave him a get-out-of-jail-free card and McCord played it like the slide whistle he pulled out in 1988 at Doral to punctuate a bad pitch shot. Whoooop. Whooooooop. It was as though McCord said to himself, “You want crazy? I can do crazy. I know crazy.”

It makes perfect sense that since CBS jettisoned him (and seemingly everyone else eligible for Medicare) in 2019, he now spends his time looking for Sasquatch. Hell, if anyone can find a Bigfoot, it’s gotta be McCord.

“That’s my new summer deal,” he tells me. “I’ve become somewhat of a research scientist in that area. As Joe Rogan says, Sasquatch researchers are middle-aged guys who can’t get laid. You can’t believe what’s on YouTube. Yeah, it’s all bullshit. Ninety-nine percent. What about that 1%?” 

These days, McCord and his buddy, Fall Down Fred, saddle up a Razor ATV and head for the tree line in the mountains above the Eagle River outside Edwards, Colorado, where McCord spends his summers surrounded by mountain lions (one actually built a den beneath the porch where we’re sitting), bears, wildfires and people with nicknames, most of which he’s provided. “I first came here in 1976, playing with Gerald Ford in Vail,” says McCord. “I met some idiots here. Biblical. The boys that started Vail. The nearest sheriff was in Eagle, which is that way about 45 minutes. So, these guys were subversives. They would go to any length to have fun.” The rest of the year, he and his wife, Diane, live near Scottsdale, Arizona, where he’s a member of Whisper Rock Golf Club. There are subversives there, too. There seem to be subversives everywhere McCord goes.

If you want to psychoanalyze…the only way I could survive was to make fun of the whole thing. 

Fall Down Fred is 70. He’s got a pacemaker. McCord is 72. He had heart surgery seven years ago after his doctor discovered, during a routine exam, that the Almighty shorted him part of his left aortic valve. “The doctor said, ‘You’re still running around doing stuff, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Hell, I was just at 13,500 feet with an Army Ranger, hiking up New York Mountain.’ He said, ‘You should still be up there, face down.’ So, Fred and I, we go up looking for Sasquatch, see if we can find structures or anything like that. I got a bunch of videos. I got infrared goggles. The whole deal.”

You go up to 13,000 feet at night? 

“Not too late. I’m afraid of what I might fucking find,” he says.

McCord’s attraction to the mythic is as learned as a Vardon grip. “I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. My mom and dad were Ozzie and Harriet. The picket fence, everything,” he says of his Southern California upbringing. “I was just a normal kid in high school. Grew up playing baseball. Didn’t play golf hardly at all. 

“I went to Garden Grove High School for one year before we moved to Riverside. Everybody’s got a guy you remember—‘Oh, that guy is different.’ That guy, for me, was the head cheerleader at Garden Grove High School. He was the head of the drama class. The office secretary had a microphone and it went into all the classes over the loudspeaker. Well, this guy got on the loudspeaker and told everybody to go home because we had an outbreak of syphilis. This was 1963. Then I’d see him in the quad, sitting there playing his banjo. I was a freshman; he was a senior. He was playing with this guy named John McEuen, the banjo player for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who went to school there. It was Steve Martin.

“At Disneyland, they had a bridge going over the moat into Fantasyland. There was a little store to the right, a magic shop. On weekends Steve Martin would set up his table in the middle of the bridge. He had balloons and an arrow going through his head, doing all this magic stuff. I’d sit there and watch him. That’s why I started doing magic. Head cheerleader. Head of the drama club. He was nuts. I hadn’t seen him in a long time and I’m watching Johnny Carson one night and there’s a guy with balloon animals and an arrow going through his head, playing banjo. Shit, I know that guy. I went, ‘Man, if I could be just a little different.’ All the stuff I got to do, it’s because I saw twisted when I was young and wanted to be that twisted. If you want to psychoanalyze me without the electric shock, the only way I could survive was to make fun of the whole thing.”

It’s been 25 years since the movie Tin Cup came out. Bill Murray might not think it’s the best golf movie ever made, but it would be in the conversation. If McCord wasn’t exactly the blueprint for Roy McAvoy, he at least supplied some of the body parts. “It started right here,” says McCord, pointing at the mountains. “My agent sends a script. Tin Cup. Warner Brothers. Starring Kevin Costner, written by Ron Shelton. The first thing you do, you look through it really fast to see how many times you see your name. I started to read it and [saw] two things in there I did for real that no one should know about.”

Shelton borrowed Costner’s private jet and flew to Colorado to talk to McCord. He wanted him to be the film’s technical director. He wanted McCord to teach Costner how to play golf, but, more than that, how to play golf like a Tour player whose bubble is a bit off-center. No, way off-center. Shelton had come to the right place.

“I asked him, ‘Where did you get these stories? No one knows I made 15 on the 16th hole at Colonial,’” says McCord. It was in Memphis, Tennessee, at the old Danny Thomas (now the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational). “I kept hitting it in the water and didn’t want to drop up there because I was pissed. My caddie, Alaska Joe, came up to me after my sixth ball in the water—I was hitting 4-irons to the island green—and he had another club and a ball. I walked up to him and met him. We were nose to nose. ‘What’s this for?’ And he says, ‘Three-iron, and this is your last one.’ Now, in golf there is nothing worse on the Tour than ROB: running out of balls. If you did, the next week someone would get all the range balls and pack them into your locker so when you open the locker all the balls come bouncing everywhere, all over the locker room. I said, ‘This is it?’ He says, ‘This is it.’ So I hit it on the green. I remember I made a 45-footer for 15. Then I shot away from the water on the last two holes. On 18 I hit the snack shed—it was 40 yards right of the fairway—because I had to finish with the one ball I had. We did that scene exactly the way it happened.”

McCord gave them the bird, too. “‘All right, the pelican: Where did you get that?’” McCord asked Shelton. “He said it was in a magazine article. I go, ‘Bullshit.’”

McCord leans into yesterday like a feather pillow. “Pensacola. Rainout. There’s four of us staying in a condo right on the wharf. Ed Sneed, Bill Calfee, John Schroeder. We got nothing to do. Everybody’s got their golf clubs in their room. I go to take a leak. I start walking down the hallway and I see this pelican sitting on a post on the end of the wharf. I said, ‘Guys, I got a bet. You let me move a couple of pieces of furniture, I bet you in 10 shots from my bedroom I can knock that pelican off its perch.’ OK, money down. I don’t know how much. We got a hallway, sliding glass doors. I had to move a lamp. What am I going to hit? Fuck, 4-iron, I guess. Calfee was hiding in the bathroom in the bathtub. Schroeder was in the kitchen. I have no idea where Ed Sneed was. ‘OK, boys, fire in the hole!’ I got two things going on: I can’t beat anybody, and I’m broke. I can’t take a divot out of the carpet, and if I hit one of those sliding glass doors, that’s going to cost a lot of money.” 

McCord picks it clean. It just misses the sliding glass doors and clears the porch railing. “The ball went right over the top of the pelican’s head and he flew off,” he says. “I went nuts. This was the greatest shot ever hit.”

At various checkpoints in the life of the financial juggernaut that is the PGA Tour, someone has opined that anyone making a living on Tour owes a percentage of their winnings to Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods—whoever was moving the needle at the time. This may or may not be true. What isn’t a matter of dispute is that half of the guys playing the PGA Tour can thank Gary McCord for their ability to live what passes for a normal (if you can ever call Tour life that) existence. For it was McCord who came up with a new system to restructure how many players qualified for each event. Someone else would likely have come up with the inelegantly named “All-Exempt Tour,” eventually, maybe, someday, but it was McCord who had been whacked upside the head often enough with a mashie niblick to sit down and draw it up on paper. He still has the original plans he shared with Tour officials, who used them to expand exemptions from the rigid top 60 into what is now the top 125. “I got tired of watching the psychosis,” he says.

No sane person has good memories of the old rabbit days when the majority of players had to Monday qualify. What they have is PTSD. McCord, who won the NCAA Division II individual championship in 1970 while at UC Riverside, sailed through Q-School in 1973. Eight rounds: half in Pensacola, half in Myrtle Beach. Ben Crenshaw finished first; McCord tied for third. All it gave him was balcony seating on a psychiatrist’s couch. 

“That’s where the crazy comes in. You had to deflect somehow because the odds were enormously against you to do this,” says McCord. “Monday. New Orleans. You’re done qualifying; you get out there in the parking lot. You open the trunk of your car. Depending on how pissed off you were, that was the distance you were away from the car when you threw your clubs in the trunk. You might change your shoes sitting on the bumper, looking out. Now what am I going to do for the next six days? Another guy would throw his clubs from 3 feet. ‘Didn’t make it?’ ‘Naw.’ Here comes Rocky Thompson. He’s got a red Cadillac. Beautiful. He’s the mayor of this town in Texas. He owns the liquor store. It’s the only one in town because he was the mayor. He gets in the trunk. He jumps out and he’s got his 7-iron. You can hear the spikes on the asphalt. He gets on the hood of the red Cadillac with his spikes on. He takes the 7-iron and pretty soon, whack!—toe deep into the hood. Now everybody’s watching. He starts beating the living fuck out this red Cadillac. He got done, jumped off the thing and everybody started clapping. Now that’s how you do it. It was that kind of stuff that was indelible. Every week. It was awful.”

We were nose to nose. “What’s this for?” 

And he says, 

“Three-iron, and this is your last [ball].”

In his small, dark office in Colorado, the one where he watches Sasquatch videos and sets up virtual golf outings like an oversubscribed version of Hollywood Squares, there’s a framed photo of a beardless Feherty carrying a parasol and wearing one of Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses from Gone With the Wind. The subversives had gotten loose in the costume warehouse at Warner Brothers. “I was down in the locker room at The International. Feherty was holding court. I didn’t know him. I’m listening like everybody else,” says McCord. “I kind of search him out. ‘David, I’m Gary McCord. Have you ever done television?’ He goes, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Listen, I’m out at the 15th hole. Come out, we’ll put the headset on you and we’ll have some fun and talk about stuff. I left knowing he would never come up. I get out there and there he is.” 

There was one hurdle: Chirkinian.

“Frank, I got a guy up here who is going to sit with me for an hour or so.”

“Who is it?”

“Feherty.”

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three.

“Are you fucking kidding me? You and Feherty together?”

When they finished, McCord asked Feherty if he had any full-time interest in TV. “I said, ‘Listen, when you’re done, you’re going to do this.’ He wasn’t done yet. He was playing really good,” says McCord. “Six months later he got divorced and he just went into a tailspin. So that was it. I knew he was going to be really good and really different. David is brilliantly spontaneous. Smart and quick. Hates golf.”

Photo by Rusty Jarrett/PGA TOUR Archive via Getty Images

McCord has a documented fondness for the preposterous and the profound, all the better if he can find both in the same package, as he did with Mac O’Grady. “O’Grady went to Santa Monica City College for a year. I watched him argue with some of the best biomechanists in the world. They start arguing about something. I said, ‘Wait, Doc, you’re one of the top guys in the field. This guy went one year to Santa Monica. Why are you arguing with him?’ ‘Well, he’s got a good point.’ I said, ‘What do you mean he’s got a good point? He’s an idiot.’ He goes, ‘No, no, no. Gary, I don’t know anything about the golf swing. I wanted to find out how he measured the flexion on all these joints. I haven’t got one graduate student who can do that.’”

Of course, in the absence of the esoteric, McCord will happily fall back on the merely eccentric, like the Ex-Wives Conflict, a worst-ball event of his invention that made a one-time-only appearance at ye olde San Luis Rey Downs G&CC. “It was the greatest tournament ever conceived,” says McCord. The idea was born as a side bet. They saw The Kitchen coming up 18 and struck up an over/under wager on his Jupiter-like mass. “Tommy, the bartender—he also managed the strip club there in Oceanside—he would always hold the money. The Kitchen got done with the round and I told him the proposition. We went down to the Safeway and I gave the manager 20 bucks and we put him on the meat scale and he weighed 428.

I said, ‘Has anybody seen his wife?’ Someone says, ‘I think he’s divorced.’

So, how about if we had a tournament and we got the ex-wives and played a worst-ball nine holes?”

The highlight might have been making up the rules. No concealed weapons or sharp instruments. Fake jewelry for closest to the hole. “We couldn’t have the cart girl out there with the drinks because I think she was the cause of, like, three of these divorces. Then at the end there was a gala dance with the Los Caballeros, the Mexican band we had there. And the winners had to dance together and then recite their divorce decree to Frank Sinatra’s ‘I Did It My Way.’” 

San Luis Rey is nothing but weeds now, and McCord has been put out to pasture too. No one likes to be told they’re not needed anymore. “I have no problem with trying to get younger. I get it,” he says of CBS’s moves. He was going to step away in another year or so anyway. McCord had put in 35 years in the tower; his on-course cohort, Peter Kostis, 30. “The first tournament [after we were let go] was San Diego, and the [on-air talent was] told not to mention our names on the air. To go out with no sunshine, not to get to say bye to everybody. That’s kind of…so what did we do, exactly?”

Photos by Benjamin Rasmussen

There’s stuff in the works. Hell, McCord’s on the fast track to having five great-grandchildren. He’s signed on with Sirius XM to wax poetic about the majors and the latest cause célèbre; at this particular moment on the patio, it’s Bryson DeChambeau. McCord is neither concerned with nor appalled by DeChambeau’s assault on swing speed. “The ultimate iconoclast,” he says. “He proved everybody wrong. And he’s done it so fast, it’s frightening. Is the game better off? That’s no more than someone’s opinion of what golf should be. Starting from Nicklaus all the way up to Greg Norman to John Daly, they just used length to bludgeon it and then [let the powers that be] figure out what to do.…I think it’s fun to watch.” 

The duck-call ringtone on McCord’s cell phone honks way too often for a retired guy. It might be Jimmy Nantz or Sandy Sandoval, formerly of EA Sports, or the pro up at Red Sky Ranch & Golf Club, where McCord has his own practice area, or Fall Down Fred plotting the next ATV adventure, or Colt Knost and Drew Stoltz, who have their own golf talk show, Gravy and the Sleaze, and want to do a deal, or any one of the cast of thousands—hundreds, anyway—of legendary subversives in McCord’s list of contacts. 

“It’s amazing the shit that’s going on,” he says, “and all I want to do is go out and find fucking Sasquatch.”