Golf Celebrity David Feherty Defies Darkness with Humor and Love

Last Updated: 17 Dec 2020
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The back story of the famed golf commentator and humorist’s success at life and love detours through ADHD, addictions, and bipolar depression.

Golf celebrity David Feherty


Almost through happenstance, David Feherty has spawned the Feherty brand. As in: Feherty, his Emmy-nominated series on the Golf Channel, a combination of interviews and antics now in its ninth season.

And “Feherty Off Tour,” the one-man show combining autobiographical anecdotes and highly personal opinions—often not suited for prime time—that he performs around the country about two dozen times a year.

And the seed of it all: His uniquely colorful style as a longtime golf commentator for CBS and, more recently, for NBC and the Golf Channel.

The Feherty brand revolves around the man’s indisputable charm, unfettered wit, and ability to entertain—paired with a disarming ability to share his heart and bare his soul. (His Irish accent doesn’t hurt with American audiences, either.) The New York Times dubbed him “a cross between Johnny Carson and Oprah Winfrey.”

Feherty’s mordantly comic take on life and his self-deprecating humor are authentic. Yet they also reflect a protective persona he first crafted while growing up in Bangor, County Down, a seaside town not far from Belfast.

Feherty, 61, was dubbed “stupid” in the days before attention deficit disorders had been heard of. He decided it was better to make fun of himself before his schoolmates could.

“I developed humor as a self-defense, in a way,” he confessed to the audience when I caught up with “On Tour” in upstate New York. “And it stood me in good stead.”

Persona and personality intersect when Feherty opens up—sometimes jokingly, sometimes with earnest vulnerability—about his ADD and other behavioral health challenges.

As in: The depression that’s plagued him all his life—actually part of a bipolar disorder only diagnosed in 2011. And the racing thoughts and insomnia that regularly spur him out of bed at 2:30 a.m. And the addictions that were a major coping method for decades.

Feherty has been sober for 13 years—barring one painful relapse after the death of his son Shey two years ago. Humor remains his default means of dealing. Indeed, several of the stories he rattled off reveal he’s especially partial to people who can laugh at themselves.

“A sense of humor is the last hope for the human soul,” he told the packed house of fans ready to be amused.

A LIFE IN LAUGHS

Feherty credits his comedic perspective to growing up in Northern Ireland during “the Troubles,” listening to his father’s cronies banter over a pint or while he caddied for his dad on the weekends. Early on, he says, “I learned not to take things so seriously.”

During his 90-plus minutes on stage, Feherty trots out many an entertaining anecdote about his own shortcomings: His blackout drinking binges while he played on the European pro golf tour in his 20s and 30s. His troubled marriage to (and painful divorce from) a South African beauty queen. His disastrous first date with his wife of 23 years, Anita.

Not all of his stories aim for the funny bone, though. Part of Feherty’s appeal lies in his ability to switch from sharp-edged mockery to heartfelt poignancy. For example, the way he recalls approaching his father—a “brown-collar worker” with a job at the docks—after Feherty dropped out of high school at 16 and set his sights on golf as a profession.

“My dad said the strangest thing. He said, ‘Does it give you goosebumps?’ … ‘Yeah, Dad, it does.’ ‘Well, you better do it, then, or you might end up in a job you’re not happy in.

(His first career choice, opera singer, went by the wayside when his voice changed at puberty: “I was always interested in music from a very early age. But when I turned pro at age 17, I haven’t sung a note since. Now, I only sing to punish my children.”)

I’m living proof that even someone who doesn’t know a birdie from a bogey will find Feherty laugh-out-loud funny—if cringe-inducing at times for the golf equivalent of locker-room humor. But the man knows his demographic, so his performance includes plenty of name-dropping from four decades on the links.

Rory McIlroy grew up playing at Holywood Golf Club outside Belfast, where Feherty was employed as a golf pro before he was 20. Tiger Woods is a prankster who once dosed Feherty with laxatives just before they had to walk the course for the day.

Tom Watson’s intervention put Feherty on the road to sobriety. Jack Nicklaus offered his private plane to fly the pair from Prince Edward Island, Canada, to Kansas so Watson could take Feherty to his first AA meeting.

TOO-BUSY BRAIN

Feherty himself lives in Dallas. Or as he puts it from half a country away, “that’s where I keep my stuff now and then.”

If that makes Feherty sound cavalier about his family back in Texas, nothing could be further from the truth. He’s completely serious when he says Anita saved him, and she continues to be the angel on his shoulder.

The couple met through a mutual friend in the summer of 1995, at one of the lowest points in Feherty’s life. He was unhappily single again, holed up in an apartment, trying to care for his two young sons. His playing career was on the skids. His substance use was heavy, varied, and constant. He was running obsessively—“like Forrest Gump,” in his words—and he looked scrawny and unwell.

Anita, meanwhile, was running an interior design business from her home and raising two sons of her own from her first marriage. She wasn’t impressed on their first date, when Feherty showed up late and lit, then dunked a straw in her drink and slurped it down.

Nonetheless, she consented to a second try. By the end of the year, Feherty had moved in with her. Anita was captivated by his heart, his kindness, his sharp mind. She doesn’t hesitate to use the word “genius,” an opinion echoed by several of Feherty’s colleagues.

That mental quickness comes at a cost, however. Feherty used to credit his heavy drinking, like his humor, to his Irish heritage. Now, with greater knowledge of his underlying brain-based disorders, he recognizes that he was self-medicating to try to literally get some peace of mind.

He used alcohol “to get to where, it seemed to me, other people started in terms of feeling ‘normal.’ My head was always tremendously busy,” he explained to Canadian interviewer Ken Rockburn.

Feherty mostly confined his imbibing to the evening hours, he continued: “You have to get to that place … where it doesn’t hurt anymore. For me, it was when I was able to go to sleep.”

THE HOLLOW MAN

Anita’s love and support weren’t a magic balm for Feherty’s demons. Despite his best intentions, Feherty wasn’t able to stay clean and sober after they were married on May 31, 1996, or even after their daughter, Erin, was born in 1998.

It wasn’t until Watson, himself a recovering alcoholic, became Feherty’s unofficial sobriety sponsor that Feherty climbed firmly on the wagon in 2006. As a substitute for substance use, he took up long-distance bicycling, riding hundreds of miles a week in the empty hours before breakfast.

“Spare time is the addict’s worst enemy,” he often points out.

The bipolar diagnosis five years later gave Feherty retrospective insight into not only his craving to numb his oversized emotions, but also his intense empathy for both friends’ and strangers’ troubles, his daily dips into “overwhelming sadness,” his anxious conviction that something horrible was going to happen to little Erin.

In common with many who benefit from psychiatric medications, Feherty had periods when he thought he was done with depression, with that “hollowness inside that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.” And, like others, he’s learned that going off his meds is always a mistake.

“Whenever you have a period of getting it right, you think, ‘I don’t need this anymore.’ Well, I’m going to need it for the rest of my life,” he explained in a Hollywood Reporter article.

Whatever equilibrium he’d achieved through medication and counseling was blown apart when his elder son died of an overdose on his 29th birthday, July 29, 2017. The family knew of Shey’s struggle with addiction. Feherty speaks openly and movingly about the regrets he carries: how he gave Shey money against all advice, how his own addictions cost him time with his children when they were younger.

He’s also made no secret of relapsing in the wake of his loss. Ground down by grief and guilt, Feherty succumbed to the lure of a bottle of Irish whiskey while visiting a friend’s ranch.

He recalled his mindset while talking with Bryant Gumbel on an episode of HBO’s Real Sports: “I thought … ‘I’m tired of being sober. I wanna feel better.’ And I convinced myself that it would make me feel better.”

It didn’t, of course. Feherty had to battle back to sobriety while facing his sorrow anew every day. “It doesn’t get better,” he told Golf Digest a year later. “It just gets farther away.”

Here again, Anita is his angel. When she spots him slipping toward darkness, she’ll pester him to get out of the house, have lunch with her, do something to distract himself and set his mind on a different track.

UP SIDE

As for the other end of the bipolar spectrum, Feherty disclaims having “the manic highs that you often see.” Still, he displays many traits of a hyperthymic personality: his restless energy, his ability to function on limited sleep, his gregarious nature, his agile mind, the filter-free rants he lets loose in private conversation, and, sometimes, in his stage show.

At the performance I saw, he detoured into riffs on drug testing in sports and why we can’t all “just be Americans” instead of hyphenates—including Irish-Americans. (Feherty became a US citizen in 2010.)

Feherty also talks about his “hyperfocus” on things that interest him, one of the symptomatic overlaps between elevated mood and ADD. On the flip side, he admits to distractibility and absentmindedness. He says he needs a keeper to stay on track; Anita, as always, takes on the biggest role in that regard.

Hyperfocus on his passions can take Feherty in interesting directions. At one point, he was avidly devoted to hunting feral hogs, which are considered a menace to the ecosystem in Texas.

After visiting combat units in Iraq as part of a USO-sponsored delegation of golf personalities, he was captured by the need to do something for the men and women who fight for our country. In 2008, he co-founded Feherty’s Troops First Foundation to assist wounded soldiers and first responders.

He sees the organization as a way to honor their service and sacrifice—“just us trying to pay back a very small part of the check that we owe them,” he says.

(The issue now hits very close to home for Feherty: His surviving son, Rory, belongs to the Texas National Guard and was deployed overseas in 2018.)

Among its program, the foundation organizes golf, hunting, bicycling, and skiing outings for the recovering heroes.

“It’s one of the honors of my life,” Feherty says earnestly of the chance to spend time with the participants.

Feherty calls his involvement “selfish” because, he says, he gets more out of it than he gives. No matter how down he feels, he draws inspiration from the courage and strength he sees in the men and women—many paralyzed or missing limbs—working to rebuild their lives.

TALK THE TALK

Feherty doesn’t have many tales involving bipolar in his repertoire, although it’s not because of shame. Shortly after he received the diagnosis, he casually shared the interesting tidbit with a Dallas News reporter in a “what’s been happening since we last talked?” kind of way.

“You know, I tell people I don’t suffer from bipolar disorder, I live with it,” he later commented to a Rolling Stone writer. He even mentioned an upside: “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.”

Naturally, Feherty has a story with a punch line to explain how he switched from competitor to on-course reporter in the mid-1990s.

At that point, his playing résumé included 10 international wins. He captained the winning Irish team in the 1990 Alfred Dunhill Cup, a prestigious tournament held in Scotland, and he played for Europe in the 1991 Ryder Cup—the infamous “War on the Shore” on Kiawah Island, South Carolina—where he beat Payne Stewart 2–1.

When his first wife unexpectedly pulled up stakes and moved to America in 1993—while Feherty was away at a tournament, the story goes—he followed, joining the PGA Tour.

In Feherty’s version of how his broadcast career began, he’s in the clubhouse bar during a tournament when he’s approached by a pair of CBS producers. He turns down their offer because he’s intending to play a few more years before retiring.

“Then they told me how much they would pay me, and I said, ‘Would you like to buy a set of clubs? Because I won’t be needing them.’”

The raconteur extraordinaire discovered that talking for a living was his true calling: “I always enjoyed talking more than playing, and now CBS is paying me for what I like to do most,” he said at the time.

His skills translated into writing as well, including the Sidespin column he wrote for Golf Magazine and best-selling books of comic fiction (including A Nasty Bit of Rough) and opinion (most with some form of “idiot” in the title).

Feherty’s self-titled TV show charted new waters in his career when it debuted on the Golf Channel in June 2011—and became the cable network’s most-watched original series. The man’s warmer, more low-key side comes through as he chats with not only golfing figures, but also a range of celebrities from other sports, politics, and entertainment.

His guest list includes past US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama; Charles Barkley and Stephen Curry from the NBA; and actors Matthew McConaughey, Larry David, and Samuel L. Jackson, to name a few. And, of course, anyone who is anybody in the golf world, from Nancy Lopez and Lee Trevino to Jordan Spieth and Michelle Wie.

European golf icons Ian Poulter and Tommy Fleetwood appeared in the first episode of Feherty to air on Sky Sports Golf. The UK-based sports network added the show to its lineup in February 2019. Feherty notes with delight that now his mother can get the program back in Ireland.

“I’ll have to warn her about all the bleeping,” he told the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper. “Not that she’ll be surprised. There has been a lot of that in my life. Just one long bleep, I suppose.”

Feherty’s entrée into stand-up was as serendipitous as his start in broadcasting. “Off Tour” came about because a Canadian promoter heard Feherty speak at a corporate event in London, Ontario, in 2014 and convinced him to do a couple of stand-up shows.

Despite the gut-clenching panic he feels before every performance, Feherty definitely rides the high of connecting with an audience and giving people a laugh. Though he may lighten the harsher parts of his life story with a joke, he’s aware of how important his willingness to lay it all out there can be.

“The thought of my honesty perhaps being of help to somebody else is therapeutic to me,” he mused in a Sporting News Q&A.

He’s also happy to give a single-finger salute to stigma.

“The more people like me and Mike Wallace or Catherine Zeta-Jones, who have these problems and talk about it and make it more open, I think that helps.… There’s sort of a snowball effect. The more people that come out, for want of a better word, the easier it becomes for everybody else.”


Printed as “David Feherty has a tale to tell,” Winter 2020

About the author
Elizabeth Forbes, a veteran reporter and editor, has been overseeing content for esperanza and bp Magazine since 2009.

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