Recently, Golfing Magazine caught up with Jason Sobel, golf columnist and blogger for ESPN.com. Jason grew up in Islip, N.Y., attended Brandeis University in Waltham, Ma., and wrote for newspapers including Newsday and The Boston Globe. He was also a member of the Brandeis golf team during his junior year-- not for his on-course skills but because he owned a car and didn't mind driving teammates to practice, he says with a smile. Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He was ESPN.com's golf editor from July 2004 until becoming a columnist/blogger in April 2008.
How does covering the PGA Tour differ from other sports assignments you have had?
The PGA Tour beat allows me to cover a sport I love in fantastic locations around the world, while oftentimes working outside in sunny weather during tournament rounds. And let’s face it: With fewer journalists covering professional golf than, say, the NFL, I’m able to provide more in-depth stories that aren’t available anywhere else. I enjoy football and baseball and soccer, but wouldn’t trade this beat for any of ‘em.
How are the players different than athletes in other sports? Are they more difficult/easier to cover/access?
For the most part, 99.9 percent of the professional golfers I’ve dealt with have been amenable to interviews, generous with their time and thoughtful with their answers. The only downside is that because of the nature of this being an individual sport, it’s sometimes difficult to track them down. Whereas a team sport athlete will always be in the locker room before and after a game, golfers aren’t beholden to such rules, which means I spend plenty of time on the driving range and practice green, “stalking” players until they have time to be interviewed.
What is your favorite tournament to cover and why?
I like the Tour Championship for the course, the British Open for the history, the FBR Open for the atmosphere and the Mercedes-Benz Championship for the chance to hang in Maui for a week, but there’s nothing better than the Masters. I still get goose bumps making that left turn off Washington Road into the media parking lot at Augusta National. And my favorite day of the year is the Sunday before the tournament starts. It’s the last day for members to play the course, but many competitors are on the grounds, too. This year I watched Tiger Woods tee off, followed by a foursome of members, then Phil Mickelson. It’s the most informal practice round you’ll ever see.
Compare the Travelers Championship to other PGA Tour stops you cover.
There’s a great sense of community at the Travelers Championship every year and I think that permeates into the PGA Tour membership as well. These players know that the longtime Hartford event nearly ceased to exist a few years ago and they understand the hard work and effort of so many people to resuscitate it back to life. That knowledge shows in their collective attitude during the week, as players are more willing to make themselves available – to both the media and fans – throughout the tournament.
Who are your favorite one or two players to deal with and why?
One or two? Can’t do it – I have too many favorites! OK, I’ll go fast. Geoff Ogilvy is the most cerebral, Paul Goydos is the most sarcastic, Mark Calcavecchia is the funniest, Charles Howell III is the nicest, Lucas Glover is the most genuine, Padraig Harrington is the most loquacious, Anthony Kim is the most confident, Boo Weekley is the most quotable and Tiger Woods is the most in control – the dude never tells you anything he doesn’t want you to know.
How about your least favorite player to cover?
Doesn’t exist. Really. Part of this is just knowing when and where to speak with a player. Catch a guy after finishing with a triple-bogey on the final hole and ask, “Hey, Champ, how’d it go out there?” and he’s likely to rip your head off. But if you time it right, there’s no player who isn’t helpful with the media. OK, fine, Vijay Singh can be a bit bristly at time. But when he feels like it, he can also be a terrific quote.
How is Tiger to deal with? Phil Mickelson?
They’re different guys, but when it comes down to it, each one is remarkably unremarkable away from the course. And what I mean by that is they are just normal dudes who happen to be extraordinarily talented at golf. If they were 10-handicaps, they’d probably be working in your office and competing in your fantasy football league. A few years ago, I rode through Manhattan on a bus while sitting next to Tiger. We talked about the weather, baseball, music – basically, anything you’d talk about while sitting next to any other guy on a bus. It’s not like his entire range of conversation doesn’t extend past golf or breaking Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major championship record.
What's your favorite moment covering the Tour?
There are so many of them but this one always sticks out for me: At the 2005 Presidents Cup outside of Washington DC, the United States team clinched the victory with a late flourish in the Sunday singles matches. As is the norm, the winning team was brought into the interview room afterward – all 12 players, plus captain Jack Nicklaus and assistant Jeff Sluman. On their way through the media center, though, the entire squad stopped in the aisle right next to me, frozen by a TV showing the final two minutes of a New England Patriots/Pittsburgh Steelers game. Collectively, these 14 multi-millionaires and worldwide superstars refused to enter the interview room until the game was over, instead glued to screen while consuming a few cold beverages. If that doesn’t prove they’re just normal guys, nothing will.
Anything you would like to see changed about the Tour and why?
Wow, how much space do we have? The biggest thing I’d like to see changed isn’t a specific rule or bylaw; it’s just the overall general attitude of the folks in the ivory tower at their Ponte Vedra Beach , Fl. , headquarters. It’s a sports league that is very resistant to change, lagging behind others in finally catching up to the 21st century.
Is the FedEx Cup a success in your opinion? How about the WGC events?
I know a lot of people have panned the FedEx Cup for its points system (which is still too difficult for the players to figure out, let alone the fans) and its marketing campaign (it’s not bigger than any of the four majors and never will be). But look at it this way: Prior to the inaugural FedEx Cup in 2007, the PGA Tour was an afterthought following the PGA Championship. In the last non-playoff season, even Tiger and Phil skipped the Tour Championship. Now? At least it keeps golf within the consciousness of the mainstream sports fan for another month, and that’s a good thing. As for the WGC events, they’d be fine if not for that “W” in the acronym that stands for “World.” Currently, the PGA Tour is locked into hosting these tournaments in Tucson, Miami and Akron, Ohio. If officials want to be true to the original concept of this series, they should expand their vision of the “world” beyond these three cities.
What would surprise us about PGA Tour players?
They work just as hard at their profession as anyone else, if not harder. I think there’s a sense from fans that once players reach the big-time they can just kick back and let those oversized paychecks roll in. That’s not the case, though. These guys spend hours of time each day fine-tuning their games – from the very elite players to those struggling to keep their cards. Sure, success can bring fortune and fame and there are worse ways to make a living than playing golf, but no one should believe that it comes easy for any of these guys.
Do you play much golf?
My standard line is: The more tournaments I cover, the less golf I actually get to play. I probably average one round a week during the summer months in Connecticut, but that number is pretty inconsistent, as I’ll play four times in one week then won’t touch a club again for a month.
What's your handicap?
Unfortunately, I’m about a 13 trending toward a 36. I have my good days here and there, but I tend to learn very little from watching the pros every week. Mostly, I try to remain as pessimistic as possible about my game. That way, if I actually do something positive on the course, I’m pleasantly surprised.
Favorite course in Ct? New England ? Anywhere?
My favorite in Connecticut has to be my home course, Tower Ridge Country Club in Simsbury. I’ve probably played 300 rounds there over the years and it still piques my interest every time. There are so many great tracks in New England. I have a standing date with a friend to play Newport Country Club every year, which is an absolute treat, and Boston Golf Club is understated, underrated and under-appreciated – the late John Mineck put together a terrific course. Overall, numbers 1A and 1B on my list are Augusta National and Pebble Beach. Don’t ask me to choose; it’s like trying to pick a favorite child. I’ve played each of ‘em once and I’m not embarrassed to say I had a blast at both, while failing to keep the scorecard in double-digits. Oh well, there’s always next time.
Have you played golf with anyone on the PGA Tour?
Nope – I’m pretty sure that in their eyes, watching me hack it around would destroy my credibility as a golf writer. I did caddie for current PGA Tour player Roland Thatcher two years ago on the Nationwide Tour. He was the number one guy on the money list entering that week and we missed the cut. I must be a bad-luck charm.