CBS Sports' David Feherty on His Mental Illness and Pill-Popping: 'He’s Got Every Psychosis There Is'
In THR's annual Sports Issue, the golf analyst opens up about his struggles with addiction, his inability to censor himself and the reason he thinks Tiger Woods is misunderstood.
This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"Anybody want some drugs?"
David Feherty is rummaging through his backpack. He's diving in to look for his phone so he can show me a picture of his mother, Vi. She was visiting from their home in Northern Ireland recently and Feherty, the Golf Channel personality and CBS Sports analyst, took her to the range. The shooting range, that is.
Phone located, he brings up a photo of an octogenarian with a shock of white hair. In the image, she is grinning, lying on the ground, rifle propped up, peering through the scope.
"Look at that," he beams. "Eighty-five years old!"
Feherty spends considerable time shooting things other than his weekly show. He presently is obsessed with hunting wild hogs near his North Dallas home. To that end, he makes custom bolt-action rifles and ammunition in his garage. He does all this during predawn hours when his unquiet mind rousts him from sleep or -- as he puts it -- "the band starts playing."
His is not a cheerful playlist. Feherty has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has been a full-blown alcoholic, easily sucking down two bottles of Bushmills a day. He has taken dozens of pills -- uppers, downers -- daily.
"He's got every phase of psychosis there is," observes his friend and CBS golf colleague Gary McCord. "He jumps from one [addiction] to the other. And finally all the bad stuff is gone. So now he's shooting feral hogs in the middle of the night -- which, by the way, is not going to end well."
His backpack contains a pharmacy: He's got Abilify, Xanax and Klonopin. Isn't Klonopin an anti-psychotic? I ask.
"It's an industrial strength anti-anxiety," he merrily corrects.
Luckily, the dark places of Feherty's psyche haven't derailed his career in a sportscasting genre known for buttoned-up decorum. Instead, his wry, subversive worldview and habit of expressing every thought that pops into his mind have distinguished him from his peers and earned him legions of fans.
"David is unique in the world of sports analysts," observes Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman. "He's part athlete, part expert, part comedian and part social commentator."
In a milieu drowning in cliche, Feherty is a true original capable of greatness -- if he doesn't destroy himself first.
The middle child of three, he was introduced to golf by his father, Billy, a surveyor on the Belfast docks. Feherty began caddying for his dad when he was 10. Seven years later, he dropped out of school and turned pro.
The drinking had begun when he was 16, and soon he was equally serious about golf and booze. At age 32, he captained the Irish team that won the 1990 Dunhill Cup. He also was a raging alcoholic who drank "savagely." There were drugs, too. "Painkillers were my drug of choice," he says. "Two and a half bottles of whiskey and 40 Vicodin a day. I just got comfortably numb." Yet thanks to his talent and obsessive compulsive tendencies, Feherty netted five European Tour wins, several other championships and $3 million in prize money.
"I didn't know whether I was British or Irish until I was 32 years old because I'm from Northern Ireland and you could have dual citizenship," he says. "I never really thought about it much." But when he saw the Irish flag raised at the winner's ceremony at the Dunhill Cup, it hit him. "I got this lump in my throat," he says. "I thought, 'Shit, I'm Irish.' "
Feherty, 55, says alcoholism and undiagnosed mental illness run deep in his family. "My father was a pretty heavy drinker. Further back, holy shit, it was a freak show." Today, Feherty's dad has Alzheimer's; the last time he saw him was last fall. A 2005 trip to Northern Ireland for his father's 80th birthday kicked off a bender that lasted two weeks.
Feherty emigrated to America in 1993, following his first wife, a South African beauty queen who had moved to Texas with their two sons while he was playing at the German Open. He says the marriage essentially dissolved in 1995.
He met his second wife, Anita, through mutual friends in Dallas the following year -- he was "permanently hammered" back then. The first date was a fiasco, but the Mississippi native gave him another chance. His initial failed attempt to get clean came after he retired from playing in 1996. Feherty was on and off the wagon for years, but when their daughter Erin (now 16) was a toddler, Anita issued an ultimatum. "She saved my life," says Feherty, who had his last drink eight years ago.
Feherty now appears to have achieved some equilibrium in a life marked by mania, but he still struggles to stay on the right path. "All of us at CBS kind of pull together and try to keep him sane," says McCord.
That process can be strange. One night in San Diego a few years ago, when they were hosting a CBS late-night golf highlights show, McCord says he was back at the hotel when Feherty called to ask if he could come by because "the minibar is starting to talk to me." McCord continues: "I went, 'All right. Come on over.' I'm [lying in bed]. He comes in, gets underneath the sheets. We had the TV kind of loud and the maid walks in. I went, 'No, no, no! This is not what it looks like!' She just looked at us and walked out."
In 2011, Feherty was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, suddenly offering a clinical explanation for all the drama. Today, he consumes large amounts of prescribed drugs -- more than a dozen pills a day -- to manage his mental illness.
"It's the classic addict's dilemma," he says. "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."
The candid talk about addiction is one way Feherty stands out from a typical jock-turned-sportscaster. He's written six books, including a novel. He reads voraciously (Seamus Heaney, Carl Hiaasen), loves opera (as a boy, he was trained as an opera singer) and has an extensive vinyl collection that ranges from Verdi to Tom Waits. Rather than working as an anchor behind a desk, he walks the golf course with the tournament leaders.
"David's sense of humor is a mix between Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams," says McManus. "It's almost stream of consciousness."
He loves the impromptu metaphor. On friend Tiger Woods' trouble off the tee: "I'm not sure he could hit the sea off an aircraft carrier." On Jim Furyk's quirky swing: "[It] looks like an octopus falling out of a tree." And watching Phil Mickelson play "is like watching a drunk chasing a balloon near the edge of a cliff."
He is unafraid to express a disdain for the game. He says he never watches it on TV and doesn't own a set of golf clubs. "Golf is such a boring sport," he says. "I can't believe I played it for 22 years for a living."
On Feherty, his weekly Golf Channel interview program that debuted in 2011, he has questioned everyone from golf greats Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus (both close friends) to Jack Welch, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Charlie Rose and the infamously media-averse Larry David. Feherty's disarming candor and self-flagellation have won him fans among the game's celebrity devotees like Bill Clinton (who also was an interview subject). He'd love to get Caddyshack legend Bill Murray and Justin Timberlake on the show. And he'd like to sit down for a heart-to-heart with Woods. "I know a very different Tiger Woods, and I would like to be able to reveal that, " he says. "But I don't really want him on the show until he's able to do it. I want him to be vulnerable."
Feherty also has aspirations to host a topical Daily Show-esque program. For now, he satisfies his itch to transcend golf talk with David Feherty Live, a series of specials that the Golf Channel launched in 2012. Essentially a traveling stage show, the program hews closely to the classic variety format, with an opening monologue, wacky stunts and celebrity interviews.
Feherty overflows with opinions. A political independent and new U.S. citizen who supported Clinton and George W. Bush, he says he didn't vote in 2012 because "I didn't have anyone to vote for." A self-proclaimed atheist raised in a Protestant household, he abhors fundamentalism. He writes off the Tea Party as "religious nutcases." And he thinks the pillorying that Woods faced when the superstar's infidelities exploded into public view was partly motivated by race: "It's still a rich white man's game."
Alas, it's not easy being Feherty's boss. McManus says he occasionally has the you-can't-say-that talk with Feherty. And Golf Channel president Mike McCarley jokes about the anxiety of hiring Feherty: "I recall thinking, 'I may have to fire him and I may get fired because he's going to say something crazy.' "
In fact, Feherty sparked an uproar, faced public rebukes from CBS Sports and the PGA Tour and apologized for a 2009 rant in D Magazine about Bush's return to Dallas after leaving the White House -- it included a bizarre Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid-Osama bin Laden death fantasy yarn.
Feherty brushes off concerns that he crosses the line. "People don't take me seriously," he says. "It's one thing that I've got going for me."
Feherty's self-deprecating streak seems to insulate him from the moral outrage that has felled many sportscasters. And if he's aware that he's constantly walking the edge of acceptable public discourse, he just can't help himself. As a passenger on a 45-minute ride from Randall's Island into Manhattan, Feherty toggles between a Twitter chat and radio interviews to promote CBS Sports' coverage of a tournament. "Apologize to them if I sound like I'm in a public toilet. I'm not George Michael," he says, explaining the poor sound on his BlackBerry's speaker.
When the topic turns to tennis, Feherty tells me: "I shook hands with Martina Navratilova once and it destroyed my sex life for two weeks." He quickly corrects himself: "It was actually Chris Evert. I blamed the wrong tennis player."
And then he exhibits a flash of self-awareness. "People expect you to be a certain way," he says. "You're essentially playing a part. Meanwhile, I'm just a miserable motherf--er."
Is it tiring to always play the court jester? I ask. "Exhausting," he replies. "I'm basically trying to get myself fired."
That will be tested soon, as the CAA-repped Feherty is to begin contract talks with CBS Sports this year. His current Golf Channel deal was negotiated as Comcast was in the process of acquiring NBCUniversal, which since has created new synergy between the Comcast-originated Golf Channel and NBC Sports Group, with the cable network's personalities appearing on signature NBC tournaments. Feherty, however, is exclusive to CBS on broadcast TV. And while NBC Sports in June broadcast its final U.S. Open -- Fox Sports poached those rights last year in an industry-rattling $1 billion, 12-year deal -- NBC still has the Ryder Cup through 2030. CBS, meanwhile, has such marquee events as The Masters and PGA Championship.
"I would hope [those tournaments] would motivate David to want to stay at CBS," says McManus. "The relationship has been very beneficial for both David and CBS."
Sources say there have been no formal talks about locking Feherty into an exclusive deal with NBC and Golf Channel. And those close to Feherty point out that his history and comfort level at CBS Sports is paramount. "I was born at CBS," says Feherty, "and hope to die there."
Feherty's success seems to transcend sports and entertainment -- it seems larger than his barbed humor, smart analysis or dark edges. Maybe it reflects how his journey toward recovery is playing out -- or shows that for all his antics, his humanity is unmistakable.
He has done extensive work with veterans since 2005, when he first visited Iraq as part
of the USA Tour. (That trip inspired him to apply for U.S. citizenship, which he earned in 2010.) Feherty also started the Troops First Foundation with Rick Kell in 2008. "I grew up in Northern Ireland -- it was a war zone," he says. "There were troops on the street. They were fighting an enemy that hid behind women and children, that wouldn't wear a uniform. Sectarian murders, bombs going off, it all seems familiar to me, the war in Iraq." In honor of his outreach to veterans, last year Feherty earned the U.S. Army's Outstanding Civilian Service Award, among the highest awards the Army can give a civilian.
He's also become an inspiration for recovering addicts. Golf Channel chief McCarley recalls a meeting with Feherty during planning for the interview show. "He's got everyone in the room in stitches," says McCarley. "As everyone left my office, I said, 'David, hang back a second.' I said, 'You can be funny, but you've got to find a moment in every show where there's a real, raw emotion, where there's real heart.' And he tells me this story of how his daughter [then 7] crawled up on his chest when he was in his La-Z-Boy with an empty bottle of Bushmills next to him and asked if he wanted her to get him another bottle. And he said, 'Yes.' And then he asks me, 'What are you addicted to?' It completely stunned me."
Feherty retold that story during the show's first season. "That's when we really started to get a lot of letters and emails from addicts, from people who didn't really think there were shows on television with people like them," says McCarley. "That's when we knew we were really striking a chord that was greater than golf."