David Feherty's Charmed Life: Golf's Iconoclast Comes Clean

How a hard-partying former pro cheated death, got sober and changed the game – all while remaining unquestionably cool

David Feherty has done it all – and lived to tell about it. Credit: PRNewsFoto/Hyundai/Getty

Next year, golf is returning to the Olympics for the first time in more than a century – and a Vandyke-bearded bipolar alcoholic who sometimes covers PGA tournaments while dressed like a pirate will be doing the play-by-play.

"I've never been sure about the whole drug-testing aspect of the Olympics," says David Feherty, 57, a former European Tour player from Northern Ireland whose training regimen once included weed, cocaine and a daily dose of 40 Vicodin and two and a half bottles of whiskey. "If they come up with a drug that helps you play golf better, I am going to be so pissed – I looked for that for years."

In the staid world of pro golf, Feherty is a smart, funny wild card whose cult celebrity is transcending the sport. He covers PGA tournaments while describing a player as having "a face like a warthog stung by a wasp" on live TV, does standup, writes bestselling novels and hosts a Golf Channel show where he gets guests like Bill Clinton and Larry David to open up about their games and lives. Feherty's secret? Sober since 2005, he's now got nothing to hide. "One of the advantages of having a fucked-up life is that other people are more comfortable telling you about theirs," he says. "I see from a different side of the street than most people."

Born on the outskirts of Belfast, Feherty turned pro at 18 and quickly embraced the European Tour's hard-living lifestyle. In 1986, after winning the Scottish Open in Glasgow, he went on a bender and awoke two days later on a putting green 150 miles away – alongside Led Zeppelin's road manager, with no recollection of getting there or what happened to his silver trophy. Once while playing in the Swedish Open, he went out for a drink and arose the next day in Denmark. "After that, I always kept $600 in my wallet," he says, "because that's exactly what it cost me to get back to the golf club just in time to miss my starting time."

After a middling pro career, he became a PGA Tour commentator in 1997, eventually moving to Dallas, raising a family, getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sobering up. An insomniac who still struggles with depression – "I get overwhelmed by sadness several times a day and spend a lot of time in tears" – Feherty has managed to achieve success by channeling his restlessness into his work. "I now take 14 pills a day – antidepressants, mood stabilizers and amphetamines," he says. "The Adderall is enough to tear most people off the ceiling, but I can take a nap."

For Feherty, 2016 will be a turning point. After 19 years working as a commentator for CBS, he'll move to NBC – a transition that allows him to take his talent beyond the fairways. In addition to the Olympics, he'll cover the international Ryder Cup and other tournaments while continuing to host his talk show – and is even looking to conquer new sports. 

"Remember Fred Willard in Best in Show?" he asks. "If there's a place somewhere for a golf analyst where no technical knowledge is required, I would love to jump in – I just want to be challenged again."

As he prepares for the next chapter in his improbable career, Feherty spoke to Rolling Stone about partying like a rock star, cultivating his rumpled mystique and changing the face of golf.

A lot of musicians are also avid golfers – why do you think that is?
So many musicians play golf, especially people in rock & roll, but most of them use golf as an alternative to drugs and alcohol. I think for addicts, spare time is their worst enemy. And you know, golf takes up time – actually it's one of the problems with the game, but it works in our favor.

Speaking of, there's lot of talk these days about trying to make golf faster, to attract younger viewers and get more people playing. Does the sport need to change to survive?
Golf has always gone against the image that it's for rich white men, and to a certain extent, it is, but before Sam Snead it was a bunch of twitty old duffers smoking pipes and wearing jackets. Sam Snead really made it look like an athletic pastime. Arnold Palmer kind of started the modern era – he made it sexy back in the '50s and '60s. And Tiger Woods reinvented the game. We're seeing the effect of that now, with these youngsters that have come up – Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and Jason Day and Rickie Fowler, and dozens more of these colorful characters – they were 9, 10, 11 years old when Tiger Woods was on his feet, and they're making the game cool again. Golf reinvents itself every 20 or 30 years or so.

Thirty years ago, you won the Scottish Open – then woke up two days later on a green alongside Led Zeppelin's former road manager. Can you tell the story there?
Well, I won the 1986 Scottish Open and it seemed like a good idea. That was back when I was really just getting into not just golf and being successful, but the rush of performing in front of a bunch of people and applause and adulation. I didn't know it at the time, but I'm bipolar and it was something to deal with the strangeness in my life. I got addicted to pain killers fairly early. You know, "comfortably numb," as Pink Floyd put it. And that's where I needed to be at the time. And I'm Northern Irish, so I remember the last physical I had with my doctor where alcohol became a problem. He looked at the numbers and said, "Hey, have you ever thought about getting help?" And I said, "No, I can drink it all by myself."

That particular instance was kind of during the ascent of those problems. I headed into Glasgow that night to a concert and woke up two days later at Gleneagles, which was 150 miles away, and Peter was poking me with a stick like a dead stag. I had half of a train ticket to London that I hadn't used. So I came to London and got back to Scotland – but I had no idea how. It's still confusing to this day. Oh, and the Scottish Open trophy is still lost. God only knows where the hell it is.

What was a typical day like for back then, in terms of drugs and alcohol?
A typical day was 30-40 Vicodin and two and a half bottles of whiskey…real whiskey. Whiskey with an 'e.' There was cocaine, there was dope. When I think about it now I'm like, "Why am I alive?"

You mentioned bipolar disorder and kind of self-medicating. When did you actually get diagnosed?
Really only about ten years ago. That was right at the time when I was sober. That was the first time I had seen a psychiatrist. And I went for about six of those [sessions] before I got properly diagnosed. I was like, "Oh shit, really? There's a word for how I feel?" It was quite a revelation to me. I was with CBS at that point, and let me see…I've been in the broadcasting industry for almost 20 years now.

What finally helped you get sober?
It was two things: My wife and Tom Watson. I was doing a TV thing in Canada with Jack Nicklaus and Tom, and at one point, Tom just put his hand over the camera and said, "You're not well, are you?" and I said, "No, I'm not." I asked him how he knew, and he said, "I can see it in your eyes." And I said, "What do you see?'" and he said, "My reflection.'"

And I didn't know that Tom had a problem at that point. Very few people did. He said, "You need to come with me when we're done here." And I'm trying to back out; we're on Prince Edward Island, and Tom's [lives in] Kansas City, so I said, "How am I going to get to Kansas City?" And I hear this voice behind me say, "I have a G5!" So I'm getting heckled by Jack Nicklaus, who sent me there with his G5, and I went with Tom and he looked after me for 2 or 3 days and I've been sober ever since.

But I would emphasize it has a great deal to do with my wife, as well. When I met her I was penniless, I had lost my damn [playing] privileges in the United States, I was homeless, I had a vehicle that was all I had, because I had been through this horrifying divorce. I was just a penniless, homeless, alcoholic drug addict and she looked at me and said, "Well I can fix that."

I read you have short-term memory loss because of all that. Have you forgotten things on air?
Oh yeah! But to be honest with you, adrenaline kind of kicks in – and I'm not quite sure how much of it is due to the blows to the head. I've had a tremendously accident-prone career with injuries, you know. I've been run over three times by motor vehicles. When I got sober I took to riding a bike, to fill in some of that free time that was so dangerous, and I'd been sober about nine months when I got run over by a trailer on my way home. Well, I got hit by the pickup truck that was towing the trailer first. I remember flying through the air and thinking to myself, "If this is a fucking beer truck, I will actually die from irony."

I've seen pictures of you when you were a younger, clean-cut guy. Now you've got the Vandyke beard and the wavy hair. What inspired your transformation?
You know, my wife says I look like a homeless person that just robbed Nordstrom. That's essentially what it is. I've always been notably comfortable in a necktie that's never been actually tied properly. 

Did you ever think you'd be doing television? Because you're really good at it.
There are advantages to having a mental illness. You know, I tell people I don't suffer from bipolar disorder, I live with it. And I'd rather not have it, but whether it's Autism, those kids are brilliant at something. They are all able-minded people who are good at something and it's our responsibility to find out what that something is. For me, I see from a different side of the street than most people. And I think one of the reasons I got hired to do commentary is the ability to describe something differently.

You had mentioned some of the young players – Spieth, Fowler, Watson – and they're great, but they seem boring compared to some of the guys from your era. Is that a good thing? Does golf need more characters?
Well, we had idiots for sure in my era, but what's not boring about these kids is the way that they play. Anybody who is a fan of the game knows it's a spectacular time to watch golf. The guys are just so much better than we were. Even the best players of my era – the best players now are just better. I guess it's just the way that the world is at the minute; they seem less interesting because they can't afford to be interesting, thanks to social media and all that. And you know, those things are supposed to be a benefit to the human race. I don't know if I see that.

Next year, you'll move to NBC Sports, where you'll be doing the Ryder Cup and the Olympics. You've also got your interview show, Feherty. What's left for you to do at this point?
You know, I find it very difficult to think in terms of the future. I live in the present and wherever that takes me. I couldn't do baseball, I couldn’t do football. So, honestly, I don't know. I'd love to start drinking again [laughs].