My first task is to write the names of ABC's announcers—Judy Rankin, Bob Rosburg, Mike Tirico, etc.—on manila folders. (Hey, even Roone Arledge had to start somewhere.) My penmanship isn't bad, but it's not long before my Sharpie produces a folder that reads CURTIS STRANGe. This will not do. It won't ruin me, but it won't Roone me, either. Maybe nobody will notice.
During December's JCPenney Classic in Tarpon Springs, Fla., this is my life. I am a network golf runner, a gofer, a lackey, one of a rare, stubborn breed of hangers-on who invariably lose money on the Tour. Golf seduces in many ways. Without uncommon ability or connections, running for the networks is the best way to get close to the game's magical players and pristine courses. Runners copy and cater in return for $50 to $75 a day (no per diem). They pay their own way to tournaments, sometimes sleeping in their cars. The job, as ABC highlight producer Sal Johnson puts it, is "like caddying for a player who never does well."
Jeff Shapter, one of my fellow runners at the JCPenney, is married to the game. I know this partly because he says so and partly because this is his 36th tournament of the year. Shapter, 42, has no shot at the Nobel Prize in economics. At the 1990 British Open at St. Andrews, he made $200 but spent $1,000. At the '97 Tour Championship in Houston, he ran out of money and needed a loan to get out of town. By the time he reached Tarpon Springs for the JCPenney, Shapter was dining on Quaker Corn Bran. In between bites he told me he could name every U.S. Open winner and venue since 1960. "So who won the last Open at Medinah?" I asked.
"Hale Irwin beat Mike Donald in an 18-hole playoff," Shapter said. "You know Donald was a pro who was going along in relative obscurity until...."
If you can deliver a dissertation on Donald, as Shapter can, you might be a good runner. Almost as important, though, is a good nickname. I've been in the compound half a day when I'm given a fine one—Camera One—by John (Shags) Shirley, a fellow runner and my roommate for the week. We're at a Holiday Inn, and our room features its own coffee in individual filter pouches. The network gets two rooms for runners but doesn't pay for movies or long-distance phone calls. Shapter is nicknamed Shapter One and sometimes Shappy. He's rooming with Brian (B-Russ) Russell. The best nickname belongs to Steve Lee, who is in charge of hiring spotters to stand on the course with a headset and supply scores and club selections. Lee horrified his co-workers at the '96 Mercedes Championships when he called Greg Norman Sharky one night after a few beers at Tuscany's, a posh restaurant near La Costa. Lee has been known as Sharky ever since.
I know my nickname is going to stick because of who gave it to me. At 67, Shirley is running royalty. He has met George Bush (twice) and Dan Quayle, James Garner and Chuck Yaeger. Once, at a 1993 Monday Night Football game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., Shirley introduced Dean Cain, who at halftime was going to promote his new show Lois and Clark, to Redskins center Matt Elliott, who was injured and working for ABC as a runner. Elliott looked at Cain, whose face was caked with makeup, and said in all earnestness, "Oh, you must be Lois."
A story follows Shirley wherever he goes. At the JCPenney the hottest story is about the most recent Kapalua International. ABC had asked comedian Bill Murray, who was playing in the tournament, for an interview, and Shirley had given Murray a towel and a cold drink and otherwise helped the yukster in and out of the booth without hassle. That night, during one of the many parties that characterize the low-pressure Kapalua, ABC producer Jack Graham approached Murray to thank him for the interview. "Who was that shorter, gray-haired gentleman in the booth?" Murray asked.
"That was John Shirley," Graham said. "We call him Shags."
"That man," Murray declared, "is the nicest person I've ever met in television. In fact, he should be running ABC Sports."
From running for ABC to running ABC—amazing the power of a preposition. Will I be so lucky? It seems unlikely, especially when my second assignment is to go to a grocery store with Shirley to pick up drinks and Pringles for a production meeting. Perhaps someday Shirley and I will hold more of the chips in broadcasting. Such ascensions are not unheard of.