Esteemed golf announcer Rich Lerner was running errands the other day when he was asked about his next assignment. This one is a doozy, even for him.
“Tokyo,” Lerner said, “is a long way from North Broad Street.”
If the internet is to be believed, it’s exactly 6,771 miles from Tokyo to the heart of North Philly. But for Lerner, the distance is a lifetime.
Lerner, who grew up in the west end of Allentown and graduated from Temple in 1983, has had a terrific career thanks to numerous people, including his mom, Arnold Palmer, and “Big Al” Meltzer. He’s been at the Golf Channel since 1997, and has worked all the majors. Starting Thursday, he’ll add another notch to his resume: Olympic play-by-play.
The world is a volatile place, and Lerner, speaking from his home in Orlando, Fla., hopes the next couple of weeks in Japan can help us heal.
“I get that there are challenges to having these Games, but if we can’t come together once every four years to do this, to celebrate what we’re capable of as human beings ... “ he said, his voice trailing off.
“I don’t have my head in the sand. I pay attention to what’s going on in politics. But I believe these games matter. They matter to the athletes, but in the larger sense, they should matter to all human beings. We can set aside our differences.”
Meeting John Chaney
Lerner, 60, reminisced about his time at Temple, broadcasting games at the Palestra, working at campus station WRTI, and his first interaction with John Chaney, who became the Owls coach when Lerner was a senior.
Lerner, who transferred from Lehigh, decided to try out for the Owls’ basketball team as a walk-on. Reality quickly set in during a one-on-one drill with Terence Stansbury, Chaney’s first great Temple player.
“I was 6-foot-4 and had played in some suburban leagues. [Against Stansbury], my shot never made it to the rim,” Lerner said. “Coach, who was just wonderful, came up to me after the practice, put his arm around my shoulder and said in that raspy voice, ‘Son, you’ve got a nice 15-footer. But not at this level.’”
So broadcasting it was.
Lerner bounced around professionally, interning with Meltzer, a larger-than-life sports broadcaster in Philadelphia for the last quarter of the 20th century. He was in Dallas in 1997 when an opening came up with the Golf Channel, which had been on the air for just two years.
Lerner’s mother, Elaine, learned that a golf legend was one of the network’s co-founders and (ahem) gently advised her son, “If Arnold Palmer is connected with this, you better get [your butt] over there!”
The Olympic vibe
Lerner was in Rio in 2016 when Justin Rose and Inbee Park won the first Olympic golf competitions since 1904. But his role was hosting the Golf Channel’s on-site show “Live From.” There was an interesting transformation from the golfers he sees every week on the PGA Tour to what he witnessed in Rio.
“The Olympics hit them in a way I don’t think they anticipated,” Lerner said. “They were, to a person, really moved. They were Olympic athletes in the same way as Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Katie Ledecky.”
Lerner said to truly appreciate what golf can mean in the Olympics, it’s best not to look at the familiar names but rather those grinding it out on obscure tours around the globe.
He recalled a golfer named Siddikur Rahman, who finished in 58th place in the 2016 Games, 27 shots back of Rose. Rahman was introduced to the game as a 10-year-old boy in Bangladesh when he would fish golf balls out of the drink at 10 cents apiece. “But there he was carrying the flag of his country into the Olympic stadium in 2016,” Lerner said.
“Until you are there,” Lerner said, “it’s really hard to fully wrap your head around what it means to be wearing the colors of your country on that stage. It’s powerful.”
Dustin Johnson, who was ranked No. 2 in the world when Olympic qualifying was finalized in June, does not share that vibe. He opted out, citing the extensive travel. He also skipped the 2016 Games. At 37, he’s not going to have many more cracks.
“I think if there was a little more time, especially if you weren’t trying to fly right from Tokyo to Memphis [for the Aug. 5-8 PGA tournament], I obviously definitely would have thought about it a lot more,” Johnson said in March. “If there was a little more space between there, for sure.”
Lerner will be paired on air with Justin Leonard for the men’s competition and Paige Mackenzie when the women compete.
“I am absolutely thrilled with this assignment. It’s an assignment, but in some ways, it’s an honor,” Lerner said. “I will do my level best to represent Golf Channel and NBC, to represent our sport, and to, you know, represent Temple U., Philly and the U.S. of A.”
About the competition
The Olympics became more interesting with Collin Morikawa’s win at the British Open. Morikawa, born in Los Angeles and schooled at the University of California, is of Japanese descent. Going to Tokyo will be extra special for him.
The men’s four-round tournament is July 28-31. The women tee it up Aug. 3-6. First tee each day is 6:30 p.m. (ET). There is no team competition.
In addition to Morikawa, Patrick Reed, Xander Schauffele, and Justin Thomas are representing the USA men’s team. Bryson DeChambeau made the team when Dustin Johnson declined to compete but tested positive for COVID-19. He was replaced by Reed.
Danielle Kang, Lexi Thompson, and sisters Jessica and Nelly Korda are the four American women.
Countries can have no more than four to a team.
Golf was reinstated as an Olympic sport in 2016 for the first time since 1904 for the men, 1900 for the women.