Gary Koch won the 1969 Florida Open at the tender age of 16. The following year, he won the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. He followed that up with a collegiate career at the University of Florida that included making three All-America teams as well as being a key part of the Gators’ 1973 NCAA national championship. He also was a member of the winning U.S. teams in the 1973 and 1975 Walker Cups, as well as the 1974 U.S. World Amateur Cup team.
He followed that brilliant amateur run with a stellar professional career in which he won six PGA Tour titles, including four here in the Sunshine State (the 1976 Tallahassee Open, 1977 Florida Citrus Open, 1983 Doral Eastern Open and the 1984 Bay Hill Classic). His other wins were at the 1984 Andy Williams San Diego Open and the 1988 Las Vegas Invitational.
Beginning in 1990, he turned to broadcasting and was a golf analyst for ESPN, and in 1997 joined the NBC golf crew. He still plays the occasional Champions Tour event.
While any of these three facets of his career could qualify Koch for enshrinement in the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, to date, they haven’t. This situation will be rectified March 20 when he’ll be invited into the club that claims legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as members.
The only question remaining is what took so long?
“I think you have to reach certain, er … maturity,” chuckled Koch, who will reach a certain level of maturity when he turns 60 in the fall.
To listen to Koch talk about his career, you would think that he just was the luckiest golfer ever to play the game. Modesty is the overriding theme. He considers winning the U.S. Junior Championship at the top of his list.
“It was the last year I would have a chance to play in it (he’d played in it twice),” he said. “I was one of a handful of favorites and to be able to win it meant a lot. It was something I tried to achieve and it confirmed that I was a top junior player and it was a USGA championship.”
You’d think having won the prestigious Florida Open as a 16-year-old would have pretty much established Koch’s reputation, but he looked at that more as a home game.
“It was one of those deals where I chipped and putted like a banshee,” he said. “It was played at Lehigh Acres, where I’d played in the state juniors the year before, so I knew the course. It was one of those weeks where it started and was over before I knew what was happening.
“I remember playing with Pete Cooper (eight-time champion) in the final round,” recalled Koch, who is also a member of the Florida State Golf Association Hall of Fame, “and he congratulated me begrudgingly on the 72nd green and gave me a backhanded compliment, ‘I hope you never forget how to putt.’ ”
In truth, Cooper hit upon the key to Koch’s golf career.
“I wasn’t very big, maybe 5-10, 140 pounds and I couldn’t hit it very far, so I had to develop a short game, and I did,” he explained. “That had a lot to do with my success on Tour here in Florida. I could putt on Bermuda grass greens and guys who weren’t from Florida had a tough time.”
Strangely, there are players on Tour now who think of Koch as a broadcaster first and sometimes only.
“There are times I’ll be on the range and one of the young guys will say, ‘You played the Tour?’ ” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. I’ve been broadcasting longer than I played on the Tour. This is an entirely new generation of players. They don’t have the same sense of history I had when I was 22. I could have told you about everybody because I felt it was important. I might play with them and I wanted to know about them. These young players have more diversions like Facebook and video games. They spend their time differently.”
Koch’s broadcasting career is in its third decade and as many broadcasters will tell you the magic moment when you get to make the defining call may never come. Koch already has had his first and undoubtedly it will be replayed many times during the NBC broadcast of The Players Championship.
In 2001, on the dreaded island green of the 17th hole of TPC Sawgrass Stadium course, Tiger Woods was faced with an almost impossible two-putt to save par. Koch succinctly set the stage as Woods addressed his putt. He stroked it perfectly. As the ball rode a ridge before diving left, picking up speed, Koch simply said, “better than most,” and repeated it as the ball veered to the right toward the middle of the hole. In a louder voice, Koch said again, “Better than most!” as the ball fell into the cup, securing a one-stroke Woods win ahead of Vijay Singh, completing one of the great calls in televised golf history.
Describing the Gary Koch résumé, you’d have to edit that call to “Much, much better than most.”