Frank Nobilo – the great grandson of an Italian pirate – was a regular on leaderboards in Australia, Europe and, eventually, the United States. Today, his voice is known to millions through his work as a TV commentator following the PGA Tour.
We New Zealanders are proud people. But if you play any sport other than rugby you are always in the shadows. Our golfers have never been held in the same esteem as an All Black. We have a lot in common with the Scots, who populated the southern end of the South Island. Like them, we are born with a chip on our shoulder. We are a small country that always has to prove itself. I’m proud that we Kiwis are the most-travelled people in the world. We’re gruff on the outside but we are sensitive too.
Growing up, golf was an escape for me. My parents were going through a divorce. Tennis was my first love, but I turned to golf when I was 13. I used to play tennis with Mark Lewis. His brother, Chris, reached the final of Wimbledon. On my 18th birthday I won the New Zealand Amateur Championship. That helped me define myself as someone other than a young lad going through a tough time. Golf was my salvation in my teenage years.
Australia has the best courses in the world, relative to the size of the population. The Sandbelt in Melbourne is awesome. As soon as I was exposed to them, I realised any deficiencies I had as a player. I didn’t have the shots required. Or the imagination. I certainly had never putted on greens that quick. I knew then I had to get out of New Zealand to get better.
I turned pro when I was 19. I couldn’t afford to be an amateur any more. I was a liability to my parents. I had two choices: turn pro or go to university. I was going to study accountancy, of all things. I have no idea why. The competition wasn’t as tough as it is today. There were places you could go to learn how to play. I started in Australasia. Then made my way to the Far East. I first went to Europe in the early 1980s. I was so homesick at first. But I had a thirst for knowledge. I wanted to get better.
RIGHT: Nobilo was a wildcard at the 1998 Presidents Cup and he proved vital to the Internationals. PHOTO: Getty Images.
My first win was at the NSW PGA. In 1986 I went to the European Tour school. Scared me shitless. Careers determined by one week. Best friends became enemies that week. It turns you into a bad person in a matter of minutes. But I scraped through. And that led to a great 10 years on the European Tour.
"I’m worried about the game. I think we have lost our way in so many aspects. Golf is too expensive. The courses are too long. We have equipment that is really designed for the recreational player, but which produces unhealthy distance for the elite players."
I played well enough to get the occasional trip to the US majors. I played my first US Open in 1994 and was out in the final group on the last day with the eventual winner, Ernie Els. That got me into the Masters the next year. I got on a bit of a run in the majors. The courses were so damned hard I spent all my time focused on that rather than the leaderboard. My mind didn’t see me amongst those players. So I fought mentally with that. You have to believe that you belong.
It wasn’t until I was about 35 that I believed I was good enough to play with the best. I played my best golf in 1996, when only Faldo and Norman had a lower stroke average in the majors. I was a grinder. I hated to give away a shot. I was Faldo with a smile. I would see a hard par-4 and grind out a par. (Five times Open champion) Peter Thomson told me once that if you can par the hard holes and birdie the easy holes, you will score well. That’s simple and logical, but it is so true in the majors.
The 1996 US Open at Oakland Hills was my best chance to win a major. I was tied for the lead or one shot back and hit a great 3-iron to the 14th green on the last day. But it took a bad bounce and finished 30-feet away. Annoyed, I had a run at the first putt and three-putted. Then I took driver at the next hole – a short par-4 – when I should have played safe and made six. That night, Monty and I shared a private plane to New York, I was really down. When you think you’ve had a chance it really gets to you. I saw the same sort of look on Lee Westwood’s face after the Open at Turnberry in 2009. I knew exactly how he felt.
I’m worried about the game. I think we have lost our way in so many aspects. Golf is too expensive. The courses are too long. We have equipment that is really designed for the recreational player, but which produces unhealthy distance for the elite players. I remember playing in pro-ams and occasionally being out-driven by an amateur. Now that never happens. Now the pros hit their 5-irons past the amateur’s drives.
The professional game has never been more divorced from the amateur game. I think that is extremely dangerous. I’m not one for bifurcation though. One of the beauties of the game should be that everyone can play. But if we went to different equipment we would lose that. The game wouldn’t be what it is supposed to be.
When they started messing with the Old Course at St. Andrews and adding yardage, the R&A lost me. Can you imagine if the All England Club did that to Wimbledon and made the centre court smaller so that the game would be more difficult? In tennis they slowed the ball down. I think we need to do the same in golf. I am amazed when I go to Wentworth now for the BMW PGA Championship. It isn’t the course I remember playing. So any comparison between now and then has been lost. Martin Kaymer, for example, should be able to compare himself with Bernhard Langer. But he can’t. He isn’t playing the same game or the same courses.
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1997. My wrist blew up. Went to Mayo Clinic and was diagnosed with inflammatory mono-arthritis. I tried to play with medication. But it got worse and worse. That should have been a great year, but it was awful. If they hadn’t changed the rules I would have been Rookie Of The Year on the PGA Tour. I won nearly $900,000. But all I could see was the stop sign at the end of the street.
I was resentful when I had to finish playing. I hated everything. I went through all the ‘why me?’ stuff. But I’m lucky. I fell on my feet with the job I have now. But the ‘what ifs?’ still live with me. I try to forget. But I was so angry. I had chunks of time I couldn’t fill. Every now and then I picked up a club and could play. Then days later I couldn’t move. That was so frustrating. I did feel sorry for myself. I remember playing in a pro-am for my fellow pro Jeff Julian, who had ALS and sadly died. I was sitting in my car afterwards and came to the conclusion that I was lucky. Here was I feeling sorry for myself because I couldn’t play golf and this guy was going to die. That helped me put things in context.
I played my last event in the United States in 2002, at Disney, and my last anywhere at the New Zealand Open in Auckland in 2003. I shouldn’t have gone, but I did. It was in my hometown. I ended up missing the cut. I thought it was going to be okay on the Tuesday when I played almost pain-free. But the next day I was like a tin of rusty nuts and bolts. I had so much pain in my wrists, elbows and shoulders.
RIGHT: The Auckllander beat a hot field to win the now defunct Sarazen Wolrd Open. PHOTO: Getty Images.
I stopped playing at the end of 2002. I thought about moving to England because of my daughter. I thought about going back to New Zealand. Then I got a call from a guy at IMG who asked me if I wanted to try television. My wife encouraged me. I did the German Masters and the Dunhill Links for European Tour Productions. I wasn’t very good. I remember moving the microphone during my first interview so that I could be heard but Freddie Jacobson was inaudible. Stuff like that. It was a good interview too.
The Golf Channel was looking for someone to do the Seniors Tour. I was on with Jim Kelly and Mark Rolfing. After 45 minutes I mentally quit. I was too slow. But the next day I tried again. And it was better. They gave me two or three more seconds to sort out my thoughts. I learned a lot from that.
I love to look for those moments when it really matters, which is why I love to commentate live. I like to tell the viewer what might be going through a player’s head when the pressure is really on. Studio shows are different. They are re-caps. We know the result. So all we can do is put a slant on things. I try to tell the truth as much as possible, no matter how raw it might be. I don’t always get it right. I make a few double-bogeys, which is okay. I think too many people in this business are way too aware of what they are saying. They think of good lines and rehearse them. To me, that’s not completely honest. Sometimes, shutting up is the best thing you can do.
I’m an American citizen now, but I’m still a ‘foreign’ voice. So anything I say is going to sound different. I think differently. But that can be a strength. I believe we should stay quiet during shots. Peter Alliss does that. He makes the golf more enjoyable and never spoils it. You can always hear the club hitting the ball.
Back in the early 1990s. I went to the dinner for international players at the Masters. We were still using wound balls but guys were starting to use drivers with maybe six and a half degrees of loft. Launch monitors were appearing so we could measure how much the ball was spinning off the clubs. Sixty-degree wedges were appearing too. Seve was a genius with a 56-degree wedge. But suddenly everyone could hit the shots only he could hit before. But they had to use a different club. In one respect, I agree with utility clubs. If Lee Trevino had been given one he could have won the Masters. So they can plug a gap. But I do think loft should be limited.
"I still love the game like I did when I was a kid, but more and more I am disillusioned by the actions of the people in charge."
Anyway, at that dinner, everyone was very concerned about where the game was headed. I said then we should limit loft. No sand iron should be more than 56-degrees. We needed lines in the sand. Loft has changed the way the game is played. Guys don’t have to think about where they lay-up. They just bash away. Plus, they can use balls that are harder and harder.
I think swing instruction is flawed. And has been for a long time. It’s the only game in which people spend hundreds of dollars and get worse. Imagine sending a child to a school and three months later finding that he is a worse student than when he arrived. You’d take him to another school. Pete Cowen – who I think is the best swing coach in the world – agrees with me. Even with all the diagnostic equipment we have right now, we can’t agree on how to hit a draw or a fade. You can’t definitively tell a new golfer how to make the ball fly left-to-right or right-to-left. There’s more than one school of thought. It’s crazy.
Even now, my wife would say I’m not really happy. And I would have to agree. I’m not sure if I’m a frustrated player or a frustrated analyst though. I want to get better. I’ve always been anti-establishment; I still am. I speak up when things are wrong. I want the best for the game and it bothers me when that isn’t the case. Much of what is wrong today is that those who love golf don’t have a voice. We’re not hearing from them. I still love the game like I did when I was a kid, but more and more I am disillusioned by the actions of the people in charge.