Hanging out with Dottie Pepper
NBC and sister station Golf Channel are broadcasting the Transitions Championship from Innisbrook. As a part of the coverage, Dottie Pepper, the LPGA star turned star broadcaster, will report from the course as, she says, "a liaison between the players and the viewers.'' She is among the best golf analysts in the business. Last week, Tampa Bay Times staff writer Tom Jones tagged alongside Pepper, 46, as she followed the group of Luke Donald, K.J. Choi and Justin Rose to find out what she does and what makes her so good. Here are snapshots of her afternoon.
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Pepper’s work day starts several hours before the Golf Channel’s afternoon coverage begins. She sits in a trailer at Innisbrook next to broadcaster Gary Koch, constantly refreshing her laptop to get the latest scores from those golfers out on the course. A few minutes before 3 p.m., Pepper puts on her gear -- a headset, fanny pack and a radio transmitter the size and shape of a walkie-talkie -- and heads to the sixth hole to pick up the group of Donald, Choi and Rose. In her hands, a microphone and her trusty yardage book, telling her everything she needs to know about the Copperhead course. Riding in a golf cart, she passes fans who quickly recognize her.
"Hey, there's Dottie,'' an elderly woman shouts.
Pepper arrives at the sixth hole, hops off the cart and begins her three-hour walk. It's 3 o’clock. NBC and Golf Channel's producer for golf, Tommy Roy, gives everyone a few last-minute instructions and says, "Have a good show everybody.'' The Golf Channel’s coverage begins.
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Standing on the sixth fairway as the players stand on the tee, Pepper picks up a few blades of glass and tosses them in the air to check the breeze. Moments later, all three players are walking toward their golf balls lying in the fairway. Pepper beats them there. This is what she does. She checks the distance, she checks the lie. She knows their next shots before they do.
Just before the players putt, you hear director Doug Grabert telling the crew that they are about to go to the green at No. 6. Then he will say something that he will repeat about 30 times over the next three hours: "Dottie's there.''
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Walking to the tee box at No. 7, Pepper shares a quick laugh with Rose. It's the only time all afternoon that she speaks to any of the players.
"I never approach them,'' Pepper says. "I talk to them only if they talk to me. Rarely do they talk, and I would never approach them. It's their world. It's kind of like sacred ground to them.''
She knows because she played from 1988 to 2004 on the LPGA Tour, winning 17 times, including two majors.
"Funny thing is,'' Roy, the producer, says, "“is when she played, our analysts were afraid to even look at her on the course. She was one intimidating person. Seriously, our people were scared to death of her.''
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Standing on the green at No. 8, Pepper already has studied Donald's tricky 6-foot putt longer than he has. Ever so quietly, standing just a few feet off the green with her hand in front of her mouth so as not to disturb the players, she tells viewers how Donald's putt is going to break severely from left to right. Turns out, Pepper has read the green better than Donald has. He misses the putt.
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As Donald prepares for his drive at No. 9, Pepper, without the use of notes or any hints in her ear, rattles off Donald's driving stats for the year. Impressive considering she didn't know she was following the Donald group until moments before the broadcast.
"Obviously, a lot of homework needs to be done,'' Pepper says.
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The drives of the three players on No. 9 all land within a few feet of one another, making it easy for Pepper to figure out the distances to the green. Michael "Ike'' Inguagiato is her walking partner, and he helps Pepper with yardage. Or she does it herself. Look at it this way: Pepper does everything on a course that a player does except hit the ball. But everything else -- reading greens, walking off yardage, gauging the wind -- is the same.
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On the ninth green, Pepper reads the layout in front of Choi and says, "This putt is going to fall right off the world to the left.'' Choi misses the putt to the left.
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Pepper would make one heck of an investigator because she notices everything. When Choi's drive on No. 11 heads way right, Pepper, stationed just off the fairway, notices and chuckles as several fans duck for cover even though the ball is not that close to them.
"That one sent the fans scurrying,'' Pepper says. It's a cool way to say it was not a great drive. Pepper has plenty of those moments throughout the day -- describing something we’ve all seen a million times, but in a different way to spruce up the broadcast.
"That's what makes her so good,'' says the Tampa native Koch. "She is a great communicator, and she does it intelligently and succinctly.
She makes a great point and she can do it in 10 or 12 seconds, which is what you have to do.''
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Pepper doesn't have to be on the air to make the broadcast better. Because she was the only reporter on the ground Thursday, Pepper was able to get up-close-and-personal with the course. After a few holes, she relays, off the air, just how soft the greens are -- a point made on the air later by another announcer.
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As the players are set to hit their drives on the par-3 13th hole, the flag on the green is barely moving. But Pepper notices decorative flags just beyond some trees behind the green that are stiff to the right. Pepper tells the viewers, "I would not be surprised if someone left it right here.''
Sure enough, Choi’s drive drifts far right.
Donald puts away his 6-iron and pulls out a 7-iron. Ever wonder how an on-course reporter such as Pepper knows which club a golfer is using? Well, occasionally, a network "spotter'' will tell her, but more often than not, the players’ caddie will flash Pepper a sign just before the shot.
In this case, Pepper, standing 40 yards away, sees the caddie's sign and whispers to the viewer, "Donald is going with a 7-iron here.''
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Pepper must have been a masterful putter because her ability to read greens is uncanny. It happens again on No. 14 as Rose lines up for a 10-footer.
"This will have lots of pace and will move from left to right in a hurry,'' Pepper says.
Too bad Rose wasn't able to watch the broadcast. He flies the ball past the hole and misses badly to the left.
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Walking up the 15th fairway, Pepper stops to pet a yellow Labrador retriever and quickly is greeted by smiles from those in the gallery. The Saratoga Springs, N.Y., native is as popular, and more recognizable, than most of the players. What's especially noticeable is how much respect she has from the fans and players even though she is a female broadcasting on the men's tour.
"I hired her (in 2005) because I wanted to have a female voice,'' Roy says. "She has her job now because she is so good at it.''
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On the 16th fairway, Pepper stands about 100 yards away from the tee box but about 375 yards away from the green. She needs to see, but she needs to stay out of the way more.
"My second tournament, I realized I was in Tiger (Woods') sight line and I was like, 'You idiot,' '' Pepper says with a laugh. "That has never happened again. You can never get in the way out there.''
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As the players walk off the 17th green, it’s 6 p.m. and the Golf Channel's coverage comes to an end. Pepper jumps into a cart and heads back to the production compound, her work day over just before sunset. Not long after the sun rises again, Pepper will be back at on the course reading greens, checking yardage and telling viewers exactly what they need to know to enjoy the broadcast.