Interviews of a Lifetime

By: Blaine Newnham

I've chatted with Joe Namath in front of his locker in New York, laughed with Willie Mays at spring training in Phoenix, and put my arm around a disconsolate Steve Prefontaine after he finished fourth in the 1972 Munich Olympics. You get to do those things in 40 years of writing a sports column.

I think all journalists think of themselves as introverted. They'd rather be a fly-on-the-wall than actually have to talk to people. They don't like chit-chat, but they do like long and introspective conversations.

Most interviews are forgettable. Too many athletes are too cynical and too vulnerable to allow themselves to open up.

I bet I've listened to 20 hours of Tiger Woods talking to the media at major golf tournaments and haven't quoted him once. He's articulate, at times charming, but never forthcoming. Woods controls what he has to say better than he does executing an approach to the green.

Pro golfers tend to be conservative, beyond just being Republicans. They understand protocol better than most athletes, which is good for them but not for the guy trying to write a story.

I think my most enjoyable interview at a golf tournament came at a former Champions Tour stop in Seattle. It was the final day of the annual GTE Northwest Classic at Inglewood Golf Club in 1995. Though Arnold Palmer wasn't in contention to win the tournament, he still had big fish to fry. He needed a birdie on the final hole, a downhill par-5, to shoot 66 - his age, on his birthday.

It all came together in glorious fashion. He sank the putt and, in so doing, shot his age for the very first time, in a professional tournament no less. In the locker room afterward Palmer was absolutely giddy and completely unvarnished. What you saw for a few minutes was the real man.

I finally said to him, "Arnie, you're acting as if you just won the British Open? Is it really that big a deal?"

Rather than be bothered by my doubt, Palmer simply smiled and said, "Well, you know, it is." Here was one of the all-time greatest players showing that what he loved was not the money, or the adulation or even his spot in the sport's history. It was about just how much he loves the game, and his understanding of the personal significance of shooting your age.

The best talker in golf? My favorite is Peter Jacobsen. I interviewed him first when he was in college at Oregon. We've been friends ever since.

Jacobsen understands promotion as well as journalism. And he is genuinely a very nice man. Jacobsen always took time to introduce me to his wife, and to tell anyone around about the length of our relationship.

The fact that he's funny helps, but here is a guy who goes out of his way to help you with a story. He cares about golf, especially how it's played and perceived in the Pacific Northwest.

I covered Annika Sorenstam's historical entry in the 2003 Colonial - PGA Tour event - in Fort Worth, Tex. Jacobsen was in the field. When I asked him for an interview, Peter invited me to accompany him during the pro-am.

"She's bringing world-wide attention to golf," Jacobsen said at the time. "It looks like a spaceship just landed on the 16th green (where Sorenstam was playing). If the guys don't know the value of being on the first page of every sports section in the world then they just don't understand. It takes great courage for her to come out here."

Talking about courage, doing interviews can put you in harm's way. My most "exciting" moment came after a Mariners baseball game in 1995, the year the team roared from way back in the standings to beat the Yankees in the first round of the American League playoffs.

It began with a win over the Yankees in August. As I waited to talk to Ken Griffey, Jr., who had homered in the victory, relief pitcher Jeff Nelson confronted me. He was unhappy with a column I had written months before and took the occasion to berate me.

At one point the 6'6" Nelson warned, "If I see you around here again I'm going to smack you upside the head." Then, fully in some kind of rage, he apparently couldn't wait for my later return. He started toward me and Griffey, worrying about his teammate's fate, not mine, pinned Nelson to an adjoining locker.

I wasn't assaulted and Nelson missed what probably would have been an expensive and embarrassing release for his frustration. In any case, it was great locker-room drama.

Fred Couples is interesting in a different way. Painfully private, he shuns most requests, but once you get him talking you can't get him to stop. I find him delightful.

In the Mariners locker room where I spent a lot of time, you'd run the gamut from such greats as Ichiro, who would face his locker while an interpreter translated his muffled thoughts, to Edgar Martinez who, once realizing we would have a lengthy talk, crossed the room to retrieve a chair so I could sit down.

This just shows there are all kinds of characters in sports.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.

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