DATELINE | Mark Rolfing managed to escape.
The native of DeKalb left the area shortly after finishing college at Northern Illinois. He wound up taking a job as an assistant pro on the Hawaiian island of Maui in the 1970s and has remained based there ever since. For him, winter means watching the waves and whales do their thing in the blue Pacific. The only snow he sees is on TV.
Yet while Rolfing may have departed physically, his heart always remained in Chicago. He lives – and mostly dies – with his beloved Cubs and Bears.
Rolfing also has his deepest roots in Chicago golf. That’s why he can’t wait for the upcoming Ryder Cup at Medinah.
Rolfing, 63, has worked countless huge and memorable events as an on-course reporter for NBC. But a Ryder Cup on his old home turf? Well, the thought almost is overwhelming.
“In a lot of ways, it’s going to be the highlight of my career,” Rolfing said. “All the ingredients are going to be there. A Ryder Cup. Medinah. Chicago. It’s going to be the ultimate for me.”
Looking back at how his career has played out, it is remarkable that Rolfing has a prominent role on a network airing the Ryder Cup. His tale is about as unlikely as it gets in television.
“A billion-to-one shot,” said Rolfing of landing a job as a golf commentator.
Rolfing didn’t have a career on the PGA Tour and had no experience in television prior to the 1985 Kapalua Invitational. As the head pro, he gave himself an exemption into the tournament.
A solid first round got him an invitation to join Vin Scully and Lee Trevino in NBC’s booth. During the interview, a ruling was required on the 16th hole. Rolfing was asked for his insights, and he analyzed the situation.
Shortly after leaving the booth, Rolfing got a call from NBC Sports producer Don Ohlmeyer.
“He said, `You were terrific – can you come back tomorrow as a guest?’ ” Rolfing recalled.
Rolfing did 45 minutes the next day, and then Ohlmeyer asked him to work a tournament the next week.
“I was totally shocked,” Rolfing said. “I didn’t know if I would be any good.”
Rolfing initially thought he muffed his opportunity during his first event in Palm Springs. He was asked to conduct an interview with Jumbo Ozaki. Not only had he never done an interview before, Ozaki didn’t speak much English. He realized he had been set up when he heard people laughing in his earpiece.
“It was like being initiated into a fraternity,” Rolfing said.
Rolfing eventually was hired by ESPN, and shortly thereafter by NBC. The whole thing was improbable at the time, and it’s improbable now.
“Back then, if you hadn’t won a major, it was difficult to break into television,” Rolfing said. “Don said, `Your playing record won’t matter because you’ll be a recognized authority.’ ”
Ohlmeyer was right, as Rolfing quickly established himself as an on-course reporter. He recalled working the 1992 U.S. Open during a stint he had at ABC.
When Tom Kite hit an errant drive on the ninth hole, Jack Nicklaus, who was analyzing for ABC, said he had no shot. But Rolfing saw that the ball was practically teed up on a tuft of grass.
“My perspective was better than his,” Rolfing said. “Even though he has won 18 majors, sitting up in that tower he could not understand what was happening on the course like I could.”
Rolfing said nothing beats the Ryder Cup when it comes to walking the fairways. Only the players and caddies are closer to the action. The on-course reporters are embedded in a sense, allowing them to hear the labored sighs and gasps that accompany the pressure of playing in a Ryder Cup.
It can get overwhelming, Rolfing said. He recalls covering the epic final match between Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer at Kiawah in 1991. It was Rolfing’s first Ryder Cup as an on-course reporter. Rolfing could sense the Cup was going to be decided on the last hole. Sure enough, Langer missed a putt on 18, clinching the Cup for the United States.
Flash forward to 2010 in Wales, and Rolfing is walking with the Graeme McDowell-Hunter Mahan pairing. He had a sense of déjà vu, as the match evolved into determining the outcome. This time, McDowell and Europe won.
The common thread for Rolfing: suffocating pressure.
“I remember thinking (at Kiawah) it doesn’t seem fair that it should come down to one putt for Langer,” Rolfing said. “It struck me as wrong. I felt the same way at Celtic Manor (in 2010). It was just excruciating to watch.”
Those are moments that only a Ryder Cup can produce. Rolfing will be working his 12th Ryder Cup in September.
He expects that the Chicago connection will elevate this Cup beyond the others he has covered.
“This is a like a dream come true for a Chicago kid,” Rolfing said. “People talk about their bucket lists. Covering a Ryder Cup at Medinah will mean my bucket list is empty.”