Radio’s ‘Voice of Golf’ Still Misses the Oiled Sand Greens

Bob Bubka, the internationally known pro golf radio broadcaster
Fortuitous events in the early 1960s set Bob Bubka on the path to a worldwide pro golf broadcasting career. World Golf Radio

“As a little kid from Sag Harbor my life has been a real fairy tale,” Bob Bubka, the internationally known pro golf radio broadcaster, said during a conversation this week.

Radio’s “Voice of Golf,” who lives now in Houston, traced his eventful career to two fortuitous breaks that occurred about a half-century ago. “In 1963, I volunteered to go to the Air Force’s base in Thule, Greenland — the inducement being that if you went there you’d get out three months early.”

While at Thule, Bubka joined the Armed Forces Radio staff, and, just before he was to be released from the service, learned from his mother that a new radio station, WLNG, was about to open in Sag Harbor. 

Back in civilian life, he joined WLNG as a news reporter — and as Marv Albert’s replacement as East Hampton High School’s football announcer. 

“I never had a real desire when I was growing up to be on radio — it just happened,” Bubka said.

Nor had he from an early age been a golf fan. Basketball had been his first love. “I loved playing the sport and I was on Pierson’s varsity team, which Bob Vishno coached, by the time I was in ninth grade. But one day, probably when I was 12 years old, my father [Stanley] took me out to the Sag Harbor Golf Course to play and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much that I’d ride my bike from our house on Jermain Avenue with my clubs every day to play.”

A nine-hole course at that time, Sag Harbor was notable for the fact that its greens were made of sand heavily packed down with oil to provide a smooth putting surface. On a hot day the strong odor of oil wafted along the informal Barcelona Neck course, which is surrounded by a dense stand of oaks. (By the early 1990s the sand greens had been replaced by natural grass.)

“I miss those sand greens,” said Bubka, whose family owned Sag Harbor’s Madison Market for several decades. “Anyone who grew up playing there knows what I mean.”

He was stirred by his newfound passion to urge Vishno to start a team at Pierson, which he did. “Bob was very supportive, and by my senior year we had a team. Trouble was, I was the only one on it. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy securing matches with other schools.”

About 20 years into his career, he began to specialize in golf reporting and broadcasting, working initially with the legendary voice of Notre Dame football, Al Wester, for Mutual Radio Broadcasting, an association that ultimately led to play-by-play coverage at all of the best tournaments.

By 1995, Bubka, who continues to file regular golf reports for WLNG, was named the voice of golf for Tournament Radio Broadcasting and World Golf Radio, covering the P.G.A. tour and major golf events worldwide. In 2000, he was named talkSPORT’s voice of golf in the United Kingdom, the largest sports radio station in the world. He remains with these media outlets, and has, for the past eight years, been the co-host, as well, of “The Grill Room Golf Show” (thegrillroom.net).

He’ll be broadcasting for all of the above from the U.S. Open, which is to be played from June 14 through 17 at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton.

He’s not ready to predict a winner just yet. “There are so many talented players who can win it. While he’s not playing that well now, few are better than Dustin Johnson when he’s on his game. I also like Brandt Snedeker too, an excellent putter. Putting will be the key at Shinnecock.”

Speaking of predictions, Bubka’s anointing of Lucas Glover — who had never made the cut before — before the 2009 U.S. Open reportedly set off a betting frenzy in Ireland, shortening Glover’s odds from 175-1 to 11-8 on the final day. Paddy Power, a legal betting company in that country, reportedly lost the equivalent of $1.6 million as a result. 

“We’re hoping Bob gets a bad case of laryngitis before the British Open and keeps his mouth shut,” a Paddy Power spokesman told talkSPORT radio at the time.

“Yeah, that certainly made some noise for sure,” he recalled.

The Sag Harbor native over the years formed longstanding friendships with a number of golf greats, Arnie Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods among them. 

“I was in Southampton Hospital a few years ago, and the phone rings. The person on the other end said, ‘Hi, it’s Tiger.’ I thought someone was playing a joke on me. He kept repeating it, though, and I finally realized it was him. He just wanted to see how I was doing and wished me the best. When I told the doctors and nurses, they thought I was delusional and wanted to give me some medication. . . . That was very special.”

He looks forward to seeing Nicklaus at the coming U.S. Open. “Jack and his wife, Barbara, are two of the nicest people I know, solid people who put friends and family first. Arnold Palmer was also very special, a warm person too. I remember interviewing him at Oakmont. It was his last U.S. Open as a player and he was crying at the end of his final round when I spoke with him. I started to cry too — it was very emotional.”

“So, as I said, it’s been a fairy tale. I never would have ever dreamed how my life has turned out. I’m beyond lucky, I’m blessed to have been able to do what I’ve done.”

Despite having played some of the most exclusive and famous golf courses in the world, Bubka’s first choice to play a final round is Sag Harbor.

“I would love to play 18 holes there,” he said in parting, “but I’d want the sand greens to be back.”