The Professor, Golf Channel’s Tom Nettles and…..George Bush The Elder??

Updated: July 21, 2015
senior skins featured

Presidents aren’t supposed to have senses of humor—or at least that is the prevailing impression. I beg to differ, at least in the case of former President George H.W. Bush, with whom I had a brief encounter.

I mentioned in a previous posting that I used to “work” with my childhood friend Tom Nettles when he covered Senior Tour events for the Golf Channel when they were held in California and Hawaii. This was back in the days before the GC televised many PGA tour events. Tom’s role was to be Golf Central’s “eyes on the course,” meaning he looked for story lines during the tournament, interviewed leaders and winners, and sent a video feed back to the station in Orlando. Sometimes this was problematic because Golf Central aired at 7:00 EST, meaning it was 4:00 back in California, often too early to report on Sunday who won. It was a bigger issue in Hawaii, which was five hours ahead. Tom had to be very creative.

tom nettles

Tom Nettles: Golf Channel Personality, Pro-Football Player and US Open Golfer

My role was to try to make myself useful, which usually meant carrying the tripod for the cameraman who worked with Tom. On a few tournaments that Tom was not sent to cover, such as the Raley’s Gold Rush in Sacramento and the TransAmerica Championship at Silverado in Napa, I became GC’s eyes on the course. My job was to look for any tidbit that might be useful on Golf Central. They used a few.

At tournaments, I sometimes recommending story lines to Tom, though he didn’t much need my input since he was very good at coming up with interesting ideas. Nevertheless he did buy into a few of my ideas. One was when we were on the Big Island of Hawaii covering the MasterCard tournament of champions and the Senior Skins Game, which were held on successive weekends in January. I believe it was 1998.

After the MasterCard TOC ended, we were free to hang out on the Big Island until the Skins Game the following weekend. We mostly played golf and enjoyed the libations that were an essential aspect of the night scene. It was a good time to think about possible story lines. I came up with the idea: why don’t we do a segment called “Our Misadventures on the Big Island.” We can film a variety of staged funny misdeeds. And so we did; our staged misdeeds included:

  • Getting thrown out after trying to sneak into a Luau.
  • Tom tried to rent a motorcycle to tour the island, but upon being questioned about his experience on a big hog, and demonstrating he was clueless, they end up renting him a small scooter. We filmed him put-putting away on the little scooter, his knees nearly under his chin.
  • We filmed Tom trying to get money out of an ATM only to have a message come up saying “sorry, your transaction cannot be completed.”
  • The Pepsico Corporation was throwing a 100th anniversary celebration on the Big Island. They invited several thousand employees and hired the Rolling Stones to play a concert. They also brought in George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher to give inspirational speeches. For the concert a gigantic tent was set up adjacent to the Waikaloa resort. We tried in every trick and pulled every string to get tickets, but no luck. So we filmed Tom trying to get into the concert only to be turned away by the security guards.

Well all this set up perfectly for what was to come next. On Wednesday we were sleeping in following a night of a bit too much liquid intake when the phone rang. It was the Golf Channel informing Tom that Larry Gilbert, the reigning Senior Open Champion, had died. They wanted comments from the Skins Game participants: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin, and Raymond Floyd. So we had to roust ourselves, wake up the camera man and head to the Mani Lani course where the Skins Game was being held. We hope to find the players on the practice range or on the course.

When we got to the range, Palmer was just finishing up and getting ready to head to the first tee. Tom did a quick interview, with Arnie saying the expected things: “Larry was a great guy. He’ll be missed. My sympathies to his family . . . .”

A short while later Irwin arrived. After expressing his sympathies about Gilbert, he started hitting balls. To kill time, the cameraman and I started pitching golf balls toward a wire basket. We made up a competition based on horseshoes—three points if you get a ball into the basket, one point if you’re within a foot away. We were pitching about 30 feet.

While we were entertaining ourselves, Irwin walked over and said: “You like horseshoes, huh? I’ve got a friend who’s good at horseshoes; we’ll take you on. A couple of minutes later, George and Barbara Bush drive up in a golf cart. Well, Tom and I took on Hale Irwin and the President in a couple games of “golf shoes.” We each won one, but didn’t have time for a tie-breaker since Irwin and Bush had tee time with the CEO from Pepsico.

Irwin returned to hitting balls and so did the former President. He had three new clubs given to him by Adams golf that hadn’t yet hit the market: 3, 5, and 7-woods. Well, we all proceeded to hit shots with the new clubs—Hale, his wife Sally, Tom, I, the President, and even his wife, Barbara, who was recovering from hip replacement surgery. She was wearing one pink and one chartreuse tennis shoe, attire that brought good-natured teasing from her husband.

George Bush

George H.W. Bush

I mentioned to Tom that we should try to get President Bush to contribute to our misadventure story. We found him more than accommodating. This is how the script went:

Tom goes up to Hale Irwin and says: “Hale, it’s real expensive here in Hawaii and I’m out of money. My ATM card won’t even work. Can I caddy for you today?”

Hale was supposed to just say “no, Tom, I have a caddy,” but he played it up big, laughing and coughing for about 30-seconds, nearly rolling on the ground, and then said: “No, Tom.”

So Tom says: “I really need to find a loop, maybe this guy needs a caddy.” He walks over and picks up the President’s golf bag and says “Mr. President we better get to the tee.” The next scene is Tom walking toward the first tee carrying a golf bag with President Bush following behind.

Bush says: “Let’s pick up the pace. Hay lady with the different colored shoes, stay behind the ropes.”

The final scene in the 5-minute segment that aired on the Golf Channel was of a local singer strumming a guitar and singing a Hawaiian song against the background of a beautiful sunset. Priceless! It aired on the Golf Channel the next night.

It was a rare experience. I found former President Bush to be, as they say, “a regular guy.” He was fun, unpretentious, humorous, and eminently likeable. I mentioned to Barbara Bush that I was a university political science professor who, at times, had said less than complementary things about her husband. I noted the contrast between the image I had of Bush and the actual person I met. “Goes to show you can’t trust media-structured images.”

“Tell me about it,” was her response.

All in all, it was a wonderful and memorable week, highlighted by our funnin’ with the President.


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