Ernie Johnson’s first PGA Championship that he covered for Turner Sports was in 1995 at Riviera Country Club. On the golf course that week, Colin Montgomerie nearly won his first major championship, but Steve Elkington bested the Scotsman in a playoff.
Johnson’s biggest takeaway that week happened while sitting on a golf cart.
“I was sitting in a cart with Verne Lundquist and was asking him what it was going to be like when I filled in for him for a half hour on Thursday and Friday,” Johnson said. “The greatest piece of advice he gave me was, ‘Just remember, you’re a caption writer.’ It’s not about the length of the story you tell, it’s about writing a caption and painting that picture.
“… That set the table for 23 years of doing the PGA.”
Johnson, 62, who is best known for his MLB and NBA coverage, has missed only two PGA broadcasts since. It’s a great change of pace to those other gigs, he said, especially his NBA work alongside Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith.
“And I don’t get interrupted nearly as much,” he quipped.
With TNT doing coverage Thursday, Friday and weekend mornings, Johnson’s best PGA memories aren’t winning putts or Sunday collapses. Instead, he remembers the “passing of the torch” between Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at Valhalla in 2000.
“Them walking up the fairway together was pretty darn cool,” Johnson said.
And Woods’ near-62 at Southern Hills in 2007.
“And him lipping out that putt for 62,” Johnson added.
The best golf memories, though, are of Johnson and his dad, Ernie Sr., who played in the MLB and later was the longtime play-by-play and color commentator for the Atlanta Braves. The time they play Augusta National together ranks at the top.
“Dec. 10, 1998,” Johnson said, like it was yesterday.
The round was a gift to Ernie Sr. for his 50th wedding anniversary. The weather was perfect, too – 70 degrees and sunny – as the Johnsons both broke 100 that day. Ernie Jr.’s scorecard had few highlights, he said, but he did make par on Nos. 9 and 10. He also made bogey from the front bunker at the par-3 12th.
Ernie Sr. lost only one ball, in the pond at the par-3 16th. In the years after, whenever the two would watch the Masters on television, Ernie Jr. would say, “There’s the one place you lost a ball all day on 16, Dad.”
“The one round of golf that you wished would go slower,” Johnson said. “That day had so many memories.”
If he had to write a caption for it, perhaps this would work: “Unforgettable.”