Ernie Johnson’s favorite aspect of hosting TNT’s coverage of the PGA Championship has nothing to do with being in front of the camera.
It’s Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - the practice rounds leading up to the golf major, which starts Thursday morning at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club.
Johnson roams the course continuously those days, though what he’s doing is anything but random. He’s gathering morsels of knowledge and color.
At Baltusrol, the New Jersey course the PGA used for the event a year ago, Johnson spent four holes hanging with Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas. Not to be a fanboy, but to connect with the players likely to create the drama Johnson will describe. (Turner has Thursday and Friday coverage this week, then shares Saturday and Sunday with CBS.)
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Sometimes he’s probing how the course is playing. Just as often, he’s chatting up players, caddies and officials about things that have nothing to do with golf. You never know when something will happen, and this homework provides context at a key moment of a major.
“That’s the most fun I have the whole week,” Johnson said in an interview with the Observer. “I love the homework part. Learning a lot about (each) course.”
Johnson is best known for hosting TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” Turner’s boisterous pre- and post-game show that has won nine Emmys. Johnson is part traffic cop, part camp counselor, riding herd on huge personalities Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal. That show works because it’s naturally edgy and improvisational.
Golf coverage is staid by comparison, but Johnson describes the carryover in whatever he does as a television host.
“What I’ve always tried to do, whether it’s the NBA or baseball or golf, is be charged with getting the color,” Johnson said, adding its important he gets out of the way of others’ expertise.
“They (the analysts) are the ones who played. They have been in every situation conceivable. No one cares what I think about a 6-foot putt. They care what Ian Baker-Finch thinks.
“I set up our guys.”
Not that Johnson lacks golf credentials. He first broadcast the sport – some play-by-play, some hosting – as early as 1999. His past credits include the PGA Championship, the British Open and the President’s Cup.
If any one thing marks Johnson’s career, it’s the breadth of sports he has called: In addition to the NBA and golf, his career has included Major League Baseball, NFL and college football, and tennis at Wimbledon. Since 2011, he’s been studio host for Turner and CBS coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Johnson has deep roots in the South, particularly Atlanta. His father, also named Ernie, was a major-league pitcher in the 1950s who had a long career as a broadcaster on Atlanta Braves telecasts. Johnson and his father (who died in 2011) worked together from 1993 through 1996 on Braves telecasts.
His favorite golf story includes both his dad and Georgia: The day the Johnsons played Augusta National, home of the Masters tournament.
Johnson memorized the date, Dec. 10, 1998, and the two reminisced about that round every time they sat together: Masters week, the walk down Amen Corner, how each played the par-3 16th hole, where one of them lost a ball.
“He taught me how to be a man, a husband and a father,” Johnson said of his dad.
“That might be the one round where I wanted everything to go slower.”
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TV schedule (EDT)
Thursday and Friday, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., TNT.
Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., TNT; 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., CBS.
Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., TNT; 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., CBS.