Great Conversations: John Feinstein and Mike Tirico

By John Gregory | 11/26/18 10:03 AM

Back in the mid-1980s, an up-and-coming sportswriter at The Washington Post thought it would be interesting to embed with a college basketball team for an entire season to follow the behind-the-scene dramas that usually remain hidden from fans. The journalist, a Duke University graduate named John Feinstein, believed the story would even make a great book.

The only problem was he’d never written a book before. And he didn’t yet have a publisher willing to invest in the project. Still there was one coach who actually liked the idea and agreed to open his program to Feinstein – if he was able to secure a book contract.

That coach was Bobby Knight, the famously mercurial, irascible, and abusive coach then at Indiana University. When former Knight assistant and current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski heard about Feinstein’s plan, he thought the sportswriter had lost his mind.

“You don’t know what it’s like to spend the whole winter with him,” Krzyzewski exclaimed.

But Feinstein prevailed and eventually landed a book deal for a modest $17,500. The result was “A Season on the Brink” about Knight and his 1985-86 Hoosier team. It became a bestseller and launched Feinstein to national prominence.

Now nearly three dozen books later, Feinstein is one of America’s most popular sports journalists. He has chronicled stories in college and pro basketball, minor and Major League Baseball, tennis, golf, and other sports. He appeared at the Kentucky Author Forum for a Great Conversations discussion about his career and his 2017 book, “The First Major: The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup.”

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‘The Hardest Game’
Basketball and golf have been lifelong passions for Feinstein. His high school dreams of becoming a pro baller were dashed by a swimming coach who told him he would never make the NBA. But the golf pro at the small Long Island club where Feinstein worked at growing up encouraged his interest in that game. Even though Feinstein never became a good golfer, he says that pro taught him to love and respect the game.

“Golf is the hardest game mentally because it’s the only sport where you can’t make excuses,” Feinstein says. “You don’t get bad calls… You can’t play defense. The damn ball just sits there. You either get it in the hole or you don’t.”

Feinstein’s first book about golf became his second New York Times bestseller. “A Good Walk Spoiled” followed golfers on the 1993-94 PGA tour. The first scene in the book takes place at the 1993 Ryder Cup in England as American Davis Love III faces down his nerves ahead of a crucial shot.

Golf is a sport of solo athletes, gentlemen gladiators wielding swords of graphite, carbon fiber, titanium, and steel. But the biennial Ryder Cup is different. It groups these otherwise independent players into teams representing the United States and Europe. One week on the men’s tour, a golfer is doing everything he can to perfect his own game and beat his competition. The next week, they have to drop their individual differences and unite as teammates. The week after, it’s back to every man for himself.

The other big difference is money. Unlike other PGA tour events, there is no huge prize awaiting Ryder Cup winners. Instead the PGA donates a share of the event revenues to charities selected by each member of the American team.

That makes the event special for those chosen to play on the two teams. Feinstein says Rory McIlroy once said the best thing in golf is winning the Ryder Cup, which he and his European team did in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2018. The second best thing, according to McIlroy, is getting to play even if you lose, which they did in 2016.

“There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie at the Ryder Cup that you can’t feel in an individual sport,” says Feinstein. “It is unique, and those sports events that are unique are the best ones.”

That inspired Feinstein to make the Ryder Cup the focus of its own book. He wrote about the 2016 competition at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in suburban Minneapolis for the book, “The First Major.”

Europeans Unite, Americans Clash
The Ryder Cup dates back to 1927 when an English seed salesman and amateur golfer decided it would be fun to watch the top American players of the day compete against the best from England and Ireland. Samuel Ryder even donated the small golden chalice with a lone golfer on its lid as the trophy for the competition.

The U.S. dominated the early decades of the Ryder Cup, winning 14 matches to England and Ireland’s three. The 1969 competition that featured a rookie American named Jack Nicholas ended in a draw.

Feinstein says Nicholas thought the Ryder Cup deserved more attention that it was getting back then, which was very little from newspapers and no television coverage. So he launched a campaign to expand the contest to include golfers from the continent, including hot young players like Seve Ballesteros of Spain.

“Jack was the one who convinced both the PGA in America and the British PGA to make it into the U.S. versus Europe, and Seve was the one who galvanized Europe,” says Feinstein.

The change became official in 1979, and ever since the event has become much more competitive, with Europe winning 12 times to America’s eight. Feinstein says six-time European member Ian Poulter attributes their success to being much better at cohering as a team.

For the Americans, though, personalities often clashed. After a searing loss to the Europeans in 2014, Phil Mickelson lashed out at American captain Tom Watson at the final press conference that included the full rosters of both teams.

“If you ever watch that press conference, it is beyond awkward,” says Feinstein. “Tom wanted to take Mickelson out back after that was over and beat the hell out of him.”

Mickelson was also intensely competitive with Tiger Woods earlier in their careers. But Feinstein says that began to change in 2006 after the death of Earl Woods, the Army infantry veteran who drove his son’s golf career.

“[Tiger] no longer felt his father looking over his shoulder saying, they’re all the enemy. They’re not your teammates,” Feinstein says. “You give away no secrets. You are an individual.”

Tiger’s softening peaked when, as a vice-captain of the 2016 team, he was constantly on the phone coaching and encouraging his players. Feinstein says Davis Love got to the point where he wouldn’t answer his phone any more, while Grant Snedeker reportedly told Woods he should get a hobby.

The emotional evolution of Woods even made it possible for him to begin to appreciate his old rival Mickelson, who was also softening his own personality. Feinstein says Mickelson became best friends with one-time rival Darren Clarke, an Irish golfer who played on several European teams, after Clarke’s wife died of breast cancer just before the 2006 Ryder Cup. When Mickelson’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Clarke was the first person to call Mickelson.

“That’s what happens with the elite of the elite in any sport,” Feinstein says. “You understand that that guy is the only guy who can come close to really understanding who you are and how you got to be.”

‘You’ll Never Have Another Night Like This’
After the 2014 European victory – their sixth in the previous seven Ryder Cup competitions – several players, including Woods, Mickelson, and Love, created a task force to address problems within the American team. Among other things, the group got the PGA to cede some of its control and allow the players to have more say in the selection of a team captain.

Those changes along with the maturing of Tiger Woods and his rapprochement with Mickelson brought a new dynamic to the 2016 American team. In his book, Feinstein details how Jordan Spieth, then just 23 years old, addressed the team to say that he knew the Americans were better than the Europeans, and that Team USA would sweep the opening match.

“It was Jordan saying… I understand this is only my second Ryder Cup, but I know I have to lead,” Feinstein says.

As Speith predicted, the American foursomes won, 4-0 that Friday morning. But that was just the beginning of a fantastic weekend of golf. The excitement peaked in Sunday’s one-on-one matches before a crowd of 50,000 spectators. Mickelson and Europe’s Sergio Garcia each shot a 63 and racked up a combined 19 birdies between them. Another matchup pitted American Patrick Reed against Rory McIlroy.

“Rory birdied [holes] 5, 6, 7, and 8, and lost ground,” says Feinstein, “because Reed went eagle, birdie, birdie, birdie.”

On the eighth green, Feinstein thought the two men might actually come to blows, the tension between them was that high. Instead McIlroy fist-bumped Reed, and said “great putt.”

In the end, the Americans won 17 to 11. A dozen of America’s best individual golfers had come together as one team.

At the after-party that Sunday night in early October 2016, Tiger Woods gathered the four players he coached and gave them one last piece of advice. It was something Payne Stewart had told Woods after the Americans won the 1999 Ryder Cup. Feinstein says Woods was too exhausted that night to party with his teammates and left early. At midnight Stewart showed up at Woods’ hotel room to urge him to return to the festivities.

“You need to get your butt back downstairs,” Stewart told Woods. “You never know if you’ll ever have a night like this again, and I know you’ll never have another night like this with this group of people.”

“He wasn’t leaving me out,” Woods recalled 17 years later as he talked with his players. “I went back downstairs. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did.”

As it turns out, Woods’ advice to his team wasn’t just about the Ryder Cup experience. It was a hard-earned lesson about life. Feinstein says five weeks after that midnight encounter back in 1999, Stewart died in an airplane crash.