DeKALB – Mark Rolfing had the inside track.
It was the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course and Rocco Mediate had pushed Tiger Woods to the edge. A giant underdog, Mediate had the greatest golfer in the world on tilt in a Monday playoff and Rolfing, an NBC golf analyst that grew up in DeKalb, had front row seats.
“I wouldn’t trade anything to be out there with Rocco and Tiger on that Monday morning,” Rolfing said. “It was electric, there were 27,000 people and two players. It was the highlight of my career.”
Such is life inside the ropes for Rolfing, who graduated from DeKalb in 1967 and played safety for a Barbs football team that was co-conference champions of the Upstate 8. He did his undergraduate studies at DePauw College in Indiana and completed graduate school at Northern Illinois.
His summers were spent as a lifeguard at the Hopkins Park Pool, where he worked until 1973. At a reunion of pool employees on Monday, Rolfing, who has rubbed shoulders with the world’s top athletes, reminisced with old friends, paged through DeKalb High yearbooks and flipped through worn newspapers yellowed by age.
“The pool was a constant in my life,” Rolfing said. “Life revolved around the pool. Even when I went away to college, it was my summer job.”
As a constant on NBC golf broadcasts for 20 years, Rolfing saw Mediate pull a batch of tees from his pocket during the playoff with Woods. He stared down at the white tees and suddenly was talking to a single black tee in his hand.
“Rocco hates to use black tees,” Rolfing said. “He looks at his hand and said what are you doing there, he talks to the tee and throws it in the trash can. He tees up the ball and makes a two and goes on a run.”
Then there is this gem, also from Mediate. On the sixth tee, while waiting for a crosswalk to clear, Mediate confided to Rolfing that if he is pacing around the tee box he is calm on the inside regardless of what his face or body language indicate. But if he walks in circles, his nerves are on edge.
When Mediate striped a hybrid 240 yards to the green on the par four 12th into a stiff breeze, he turned to Rolfing and said, “I can beat this guy.”
These are the moments Rolfing has captured and provided viewers with after an impromptu audition while playing at a Maui Tournament in1985. Legendary TV producer Don Olmeyer was impressed with the ease Rolfing provided in regards to a ruling that had then analyst Lee Trevino confused. Broadcasts weren’t as behind the scenes savvy as they are today, so when Olmeyer asked Rolfing to come back the next day, regardless of what he shot at the tournament, it was a bit of a shock at first.
But Rolfing was a natural fit and was asked to work the World Cup of Golf the following week. The new job didn’t come without rookie hazing however.
“I said ‘As like an announcer?,’ ” said Rolfing when he received the new job offer. “It was like a fraternity initiation. The first thing I did was interview the Japanese team. There was no translator, they didn’t speak any English and were in next to last place. I could hear everyone laughing in the mobile unit at me.”
Now a veteran broadcaster, Rolfing has called Hawaii home for 34 years. He’s moved into the tower as a host at NBC rather than just an on-course analyst. His role is constantly evolving, but he treasures moments like the 2008 U.S. Open Playoff. Because Mediate was ranked 158th in the world at the time, Rolfing could relate to the career the Florida Southern College product had ground out.
“I didn’t have a great playing resume, so I had to work harder at developing relationships with players,” Rolfing said. “When I started in the late 80s the analysts were Ken Venturi, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. You couldn’t get a job without majors. I broke the mold. I had to go the extra mile.”
Being on the course for a Ryder Cup, though, is a perfect day at the office for Rolfing.
“There is way more pressure in the big chair,” Rolfing said. “I always think, what would (NBC play-by-play host) Dan Hicks do? I like it but if I were in a tower at the Ryder Cup it wouldn’t be the same passion. I’d rather be out there walking around and feel like a part of it.”