This story originally appeared in the Charlotte Business Journal
Every summer since 1995, Ernie Johnson Jr. has anchored the PGA Championship for cable network TNT. Next month, he’ll be in the same role, this time from Charlotte as Quail Hollow Club hosts its first major championship.
For Johnson, who will turn 61 during tournament week, it is but one stop on an enviable assignment list that, each year, takes him through the NBA, Major League Baseball, March Madness and his annual golf major. He is best known as the voice of reason on TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” a basketball studio show beloved for its relentless spontaneity and frequent digressions. Former players Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith joke, argue, scold, talk trash and occasionally discuss the state of the NBA as part of raucous halftime and pre- and post-game segments anchored by Johnson.
Beyond the NBA show, Johnson handles play-by-play on TBS’s coverage of Major League Baseball, including the post-season, and is a studio host as part of a Turner Sports-CBS joint venture broadcasting the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
All of his sports talking comes naturally: Johnson’s father, Ernie Johnson Sr., pitched for the Milwaukee Braves and became a broadcaster after he retired. Johnson Sr. called Atlanta Braves games for 33 years, becoming a familiar face and voice with Pete van Wieren and Skip Caray when Braves games were nationally broadcast as part of a pioneering cable TV package created by Ted Turner. The elder Johnson died at age 87 in 2011.
Johnson Jr. is equally busy off-air. He and his wife Cheryl are the parents of six children, four of them adopted. An adult son with special needs has helped Johnson’s family grow even closer over the years, Johnson has said in numerous interviews.
As for his upcoming stint in Charlotte, Johnson will steer six hours of coverage on TNT for the first and second rounds (1 p.m. to 7 p.m., Aug. 10 and 11) and three hours apiece for the final two rounds (11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Aug. 12 and 13).
He recently spoke to me about the PGA Championship, Charlotte’s role as tournament host and what might happen if his “Inside the NBA” pals hijacked a golf telecast. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
It’s kind of the same way that I do everything else that I do, and that’s a little bit overboard from time to time. What I like to do when I’m getting ready for the PGA Championship, and this probably began a couple of months ago, when you’re doing one tournament a year — obviously the one golf tournament I do a year is the PGA Championship — you’re watching from week to week and making mental notes. And then you’re just kind of going back through the season — looking at who won and who played well, how did they win, that kind of thing — and then you’re just making notes.
I team up with Joe Underhill (the senior researcher at Turner Sports) and he’ll send me some things, and I do some on my own, and then that’s the bulk of the homework.
When I get to Charlotte, it’s walking the course Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and talking to players and getting a feel for the place. Then you’re ready to go.
Sometimes you luck into a big-time storyline, and that’s certainly what we have for the PGA Championship now after Jordan Spieth’s win at Birkdale. He’ll head to Charlotte with a chance to become the youngest man to win the career Grand Slam— that much we know. What we don’t know, obviously, is how that will all play out.
For all of the prediction-making and analysis that came before and during the British, nobody thought the day after would be filled with tales of how Jordan Spieth played the 13th hole from the driving range. That’s the beauty of sport really — how players handle the unexpected and either fold or thrive. I can’t wait for Quail Hollow.
My first PGA Championship was 1995. So in all that time, in my 22 years, whatever, I’ve been able to watch the whole Tiger Woods phenomenon happen. And I can remember being asked at one point, when do you think he’s going to break Jack’s record? ( Jack Nicklaus holds the record with 18 major championship victories in his career.)
This is after he’s rolled into his 14th major and it’s, like, OK, when’s he going to break it? And everybody’s weighing in. And now you’re looking at a situation where you’re saying, at least in my mind, that record’s never going to be broken. I don’t think Jack’s 18 majors is ever going to be broken. And that’s in large part because of the parity that’s out there now. You have so many players who are so good but so close in talent level, it’s hard for anybody to dominate.
This a drive to the event deal for me, which I love. Because I live outside Atlanta, north of the city, and so it’s not a bad drive from where I am — Braselton, Georgia — up to Charlotte. So I’m looking forward to that part of it. Any time I can avoid going to the airport, I’m all for it.
I don’t know much about (Quail Hollow) — that’s what Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are going to be all about. But I’m familiar with the area.
I’ve been up there for various NBA events and that kind of thing, and I remember going up there when the (Carolina) Panthers (started), back in the early days with (owner) Jerry Richardson. I’m familiar with the Carolinas and can’t wait to get up there.
I think you’re just keeping up with it and it’s not that bad. Right now, during the baseball season, Brian Anderson and I are splitting play-by-play duties on our Sunday games (on TBS). So it’s not like I’m working every Sunday (on baseball).
It’s just making sure you stay up to speed on what’s going on in baseball and in golf and you’re keeping an eye on the NBA. When it’s really going to get crazy is when the baseball playoffs start (TBS has MLB playoff games as well) in October, and the NBA season is going to start earlier this year, so they may intersect — that’s going to be the time where it really gets busy.
I don’t get interrupted nearly as much as I do when I’m doing the NBA show. That’s kind of nice. (laughs) That’s such a free-for-all doing that show with Kenny and Chuck and Shaq.
When you’re doing golf and calling hole by hole, you know, we’ve basically got our responsibilities split between our half of the tower — that being the Turner half and the CBS half — so you’ve got four announcers in the tower at all times and you’ve got a couple of guys on the ground who are walking.
For instance, when we start the day around 1, Ian Baker-Finch and I will be in the Turner side of the tower and like in years past, maybe it’s Verne Lundquist and Peter Kostis (for CBS) and we’ll divvy it up, we’ll do the even-numbered holes and they’ll do the odd-numbered holes. And we’re just waiting to hear from the producer who’s in our headset, saying, “We’re going to No. 6,” and we know it’s an even number so we know we’re covering the hole. It’s a lot more clear-cut, but we still encourage, if it’s our hole, the guys on the other side to jump in. It’s a feel thing.
Meantime, the NBA show, we’re just like guys sitting in a living room and whoever talks loudest gets heard. And nobody’s asking for permission to talk, nobody cares if they cut somebody else off. They’re totally different, but they’re both so much fun.
If you love the game of golf — and I’ve loved playing it all my life — there’s nothing more fun than a week doing this. Walking the course is one of the best parts of the whole week, just having those three days where you’re walking the fairways while these guys are playing their practice rounds, and you’re talking to them and you’re seeing how they play the game. If you love the game, there’s nothing better than watching a guy up close, saying, so this is the way that’s supposed to be done. You learn something about the game and you learn something about the event and you learn something about the player while you’re out there.
Oh, it would be a total train wreck. It would be mayhem. You would be hard-pressed to understand who had the lead and by how many and what round it was.
You know what, Chuck loves the game.
And he’s working on it. I saw him in Tahoe the other day, I saw a video of him playing the celebrity gala, he’s still working on it.
We had Charles on one year when we were up at Baltusrol and he was living in Philly for the summer and he came over and spent about a half-hour in the tower with us calling golf with us. And it was a blast as it always is, but, no, I don’t think you want Shaq, Kenny and Charles trio trying to call the season’s final major.
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