RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIFORNIA | Fifteen minutes before airtime at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the usual amount of frenetic energy is bouncing about inside Golf Channel’s broadcast booth behind the 18th hole.
Producers and directors are chirping instructions into the earpieces of anchor Terry Gannon and analyst Judy Rankin. Greg Thorne, who runs the small trailer that doubles as the studio, is relaying messages to others and making last-minute adjustments to the camera.
Rankin is studying notes and the yardage book that are nearby. In front to her left is a large television monitor that shows the scores. On her right is an even larger television screen showing the telecast.
Always prepared and ready to go on the air, Rankin is trying to quell the telltale signs of nervousness. There is a slight fidget in her chair and minor handwringing. Thorne announces the number seven, counting down from there, much like a launch of a NASA space shuttle flight, to signal the beginning of the first-round telecast. The microphones open, the camera flicks on and the minor nervousness Rankin had instantly washes away.
After Gannon introduces her, Rankin speaks with that smooth, gentle, reassuring voice that reminds anyone who has heard it like a graceful, authoritative melody. Despite the chaos associated with live television, Rankin’s demeanor matches the voice, steady and unflappable.
Achieving that state this week has been harder than any previous broadcast in her more than 30-year television career or any tournament the Hall of Fame golfer ever entered.
While the champion of the Kraft Nabisco Championship will ceremoniously jump into Poppie’s Pond beside the 18th green, Rankin will have already been awash in memories of Mission Hills Country Club and continue the grieving process.
Walter “Yippy” Rankin, Judy’s husband of 45 years, lost his battle with throat cancer Feb. 24. The two were inseparable and the Palm Springs area was a big part of their lives. They owned a home here for several years. Rankin won this event in 1976, represented the course and is still an honorary member.
If it wasn’t for her association with this event, she wouldn’t be here. She’d be back in her home in Midland, Tex., rattling around an empty house filled with memories.
Their son, Walter Jr., nicknamed, Tuey, has taken over a parental role with his mother, and urged her to return from an eight-month hiatus from television.
“My son has reminded me how lucky I am,” Rankin said. “I think it would be hard to be in the house by myself.”
Not that being at Mission Hills Country Club is any easier.
“Everything I did here, from the area to the golf course, everything we were always together,” Rankin said. “It’s a big hole for me and not one I envisioned going away for a long time.”
Jack Graham, Golf Channel’s vice-president of golf events and event producer, who worked with Rankin at ABC, has known her for more than 30 years.
“I know this week is hard for her,” Graham said. “The last time I actually spent any time with Yippy was here a year ago,” Graham said. “We all went to dinner Sunday night and I can remember Judy telling me at the time Yippy was getting very emotional driving around. They used to have a house here, and he said to her, ‘This is probably the last time I am going to see this.’ It was very difficult.”
The ensuing months were even harder. It always is when someone is taken away by a brutal disease like cancer. Graham checked in on his friend frequently.
“I know talking to Judy the last few months were terrible,” Graham said. “I talked to her (Thursday) and I asked her how she was doing and she said, ‘I’m just numb.’ Theirs was a 45-year love affair, it’s very difficult for her.”
When Rankin made the decision to stay at home with her ailing husband and take a break from the broadcast booth, Graham had to urge her to renew her lapsing contract last December.
“She didn’t think it was fair,” Graham said. “She only gets paid if she works, but she still thought it wasn’t right to sign a contract when she wasn’t going to be around. I had to convince her it was okay.”
Players who know about the tragedy embraced her when they saw her last week at the Kia Classic, a tune-up Rankin felt she needed to prepare for the first major championship of the year. This week has been even more emotional; more players to hug, more fans to sign autographs for, more old friends to say hello to.
“Everyone has been great to me, I don’t have any complaints,” Rankin said. “It has been a little much at times, but I truly appreciate it.”
For someone as private as Rankin, it has been a little overwhelming. She skipped the Friday morning telecast to take a break, and returning to the Palm Springs area has been harder than she admits. Despite the painful memories, Rankin thought this event was too important to miss.
“If it wasn’t this tournament, I wouldn’t be back yet,” Rankin said. “I’ve had big doses of pain the last year. I also tend to see the importance in my own little tiny life of having had this television experience and having something to do.”