Bill Nichols

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Straight Shooter: David Feherty holds nothing back

By Barry Horn
 Dallas Morning News

“You know, since I saw you last I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar,” David Feherty volunteers, sitting in the upstairs office of his Preston Hollow home on a rainy Monday morning.

The declaration, delivered as matter-of-factly as if making small talk about the dreary May weather outside, alters a conversation that had been focused on Feherty’s latest obsession: military sniper rifles and his meticulous making of high-grade bullets in his downstairs workshop.

Feherty, who may be the funniest, wittiest sports broadcaster in America, is dead serious about the diagnosis, detailing the latest findings. He has battled myriad addictions for years, always on the lookout for what may have triggered them. His psychiatrist’s bipolar diagnosis may be another clue.

All the while, Feherty has charmed the outside world, establishing himself as one of the most popular voices in golf. His style, which will be on display at this week’s Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, includes the usual analysis spiced by satire and impish self-deprecating humor. He has the uncanny ability to make the likes of Tiger Woods smile even after the most unsettling of rounds. His lithe Irish accent is the bow on the package. Think the racing mind of comedian Robin Williams crossed with the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

It’s been almost two weeks since we last talked. There was nothing funny about most of the topics covered during a morning rush at a nearby Starbucks. As passing latte sippers angled in to catch what they hoped might be the very recognizable Feherty at his unplugged finest, they caught snippets of him discussing his diagnosed clinical depression; his alcohol addiction; and his past dependency on pain killers.

Feherty, 52, maintains he is sober these days and battling hard not to fall off the wagon as he has done too many times in the past. In his desperate attempt to keep busy, he is consumed now by long predawn bicycle rides, the ammunition he makes for himself and his friends, and his foundation for wounded American soldiers.
“They are so therapeutic for me,” he says of his passions. “They absorb me.” He pauses for a sip of coffee.
“Spare time,” he concludes, “is every addict’s worst enemy.”

Feherty, who analyzes golf swings and interviews golfers for a living on CBS and soon will host his own weekly show on the Golf Channel, is himself an ideal interview subject. Born to talk, he comes with no filters. He welcomes prodding into his most personal recesses and, when need be, volunteers as tour guide, adding detailed nuggets when it appears a subject has been exhausted.

One drawback: He constantly needs to be steered back to remain on topic. For that he blames his attention-deficit disorder.

Such transparency is necessary, he says, because it is essential others know where he has been and what he needs to help him survive. Additionally, his candor may help others suffering similar mental illnesses know they are not alone.

‘Nobody is perfect’

“I can’t think of anything I could say that would embarrass me,” Feherty says back in his soundproof office moments after getting up to put an album on a turntable. In a moment, Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” fills the room and Feherty, once a teenage tenor deemed strong enough to sing opera, is momentarily lost in the music.
Feherty prefers the turntable and vinyl to more high-tech equipment. It allows him, he says, closing his eyes, to hear sounds and imperfections that technology digitally filters. He delights that the vinyl allows his keen ears a taste of Cash’s difficulty pronouncing his S’s.

“This is simply more real,” Feherty says. “Nobody is perfect, and that’s perfect.”
Feherty has been up this day since 4:30 a.m., relatively late for his troubled sleep pattern. The rain washed out his morning-darkness bicycle ride, so he retreated to his workshop, a converted garage, to build bullets. It’s an exact science that calls for a craftsman’s patience and steady hands. His scales allow him to measure gunpowder down to the precise one-thousandth of a gram that his charts demand. A nearby trash can is weighed down by those deemed less than perfect.

A bullet two-tenths of a gram off that explodes from the barrel of a sniper rifle favored by military sharpshooters can veer 10 feet off course at 800 yards, he explains. A moment later, amid talk of “ballistic coefficients” and “bullet drops,” he offers up for inspection a rifle from his collection, a Finnish-made Sako .308.

“For a sniper in Iraq or Afghanistan, those tenths of a gram can be life or death,” Feherty says, pausing 
uncharacteristically to let his words sink in.

Feherty’s fascination with sniper rifles and homemade ammunition has its roots in a Thanksgiving 2005 goodwill tour he made to Iraq. He accompanied Tom Watson , the legendary golfer, and Butch Harmon, the sainted instructor. Mostly, he went along to tell a few jokes, lend insight into the likes of Woods and Phil Micklelson and help soldiers improve their swings.

The trip, however, proved transformative, triggering something in his psyche. He returned with a new mission, determined to do something to better the lives of those he calls “American heroes.” It also sparked a desire to become an American citizen, something he accomplished last year.

Feherty had a history with hunting and shotguns. He found many of the soldiers fascinated with their rifles. He hoped guns might make for a common bond.

And so he threw himself into “Troops First Foundation,” which among other good deeds works with wounded soldiers who come home without limbs or have been severely disfigured.

He has helped sponsor events for them. He has introduced them to golf’s royalty, including Woods, the son of a Green Beret. He has raised money for them. This month, he hosted a former Green Beret, his face burned beyond recognition, during a job interview. Sam Brown, or “Flamer 1” as Feherty refers to him, was hired by Roger Staubach.

Feherty can rattle off by the dozen the names of the soldiers who have touched him. He can tell you how and where they were injured and detail exactly which limbs they are missing or how disfigured they might appear.
“Me, I am just a screw-up who has muddled through life,” Feherty says. “They are heroes. Just being in their presence is an honor that gives purpose. Maybe ‘honor’ is not enough. It’s a treasure.”
Touring pro
David Feherty was born in seaside Bangor, Northern Ireland , just outside Belfast, in 1958. He dropped out of high school at 17 to play golf not because he was some sort of prodigy but because he developed a determination to make himself better. He had already been drinking heavily for a year.

Feherty developed into a solid professional golfer who feared success more than he enjoyed it. He won five tournaments in Europe and three in South Africa. He contended at two British Opens, playing with eventual winner Mark Calcavecchia in the final round at Scotland’s Royal Troon Golf Club in 1989.

He says he knew he was destined to not win that day when he noticed that the American Calcavecchia’s name was spelled correctly on the scoreboard while his was misspelled “Faherty.” He finished tied for sixth.
The greatest impact he made in the United States may have come at the Ryder Cup in 1991. Feherty beat American Payne Stewart in a Sunday singles match to give the European team a short-lived lead at Kiawah Island, S.C.

It wasn’t a bad career for a golfer who enjoyed drinking with his mates as much as trying to beat them. His biggest win came in 1986 at the Scottish Open, whose trophy might have been his most prized possession.
But that trophy is nowhere in his office, where golf memorabilia is fast giving way to military mementos. His time with the trophy was short-lived. Feherty collected it and promptly went on a 48-hour drinking binge. That he used the trophy as a mug remains his only memory. When he finally sobered up, it was gone.

Along the way, Feherty married a South African beauty queen and fathered two sons. The family had homes in England and South Africa. Husband and wife were building a fairytale home in Northern Ireland when Caroline Feherty decided she would prefer living in a warmer climate. In 1993, Feherty returned to the construction project from the German Open to find a note saying she and their sons had left for Dallas. Her husband dutifully followed.

The marriage, already fragile, disintegrated. It officially ended in early 1995. Feherty’s playing career soon followed. Trying to make good on unfamiliar terrain, he finished 166th on the PGA Tour that year. That cost him tournament playing privileges. His drinking didn’t help. He was an alcoholic even if he wouldn’t admit it. He fancied himself “just another Irishman who liked his whiskey.”

But as luck would have it, something fortuitous did happen that year: He met his angel.
A mutual friend introduced him to divorcee Anita Schneider, a successful interior designer with two sons of her own.

Their first date was at Patrizio’s in Highland Park Village in July. Feherty showed up late. He was drunk and drank even more. When he reached across the table to finish Anita’s Bellini, she got up and stormed away. The date lasted 45 minutes.

But he did call to apologize after he sobered up, and she consented to a second date. He showed up early and they went to a Rangers game. They were married 10 months later in May 1996. Three years later, they were granted legal custody of Feherty’s sons.

“He was hopeless,” Anita Feherty says. “He was pitiful. He was broken. But he was charming and needed someone. I became his Band-Aid.”

Feherty tried to play the European Tour in 1996. He played in 17 events, finishing 91st on the money list. Anita joined him as he crisscrossed the continent. But there were four boys back in Dallas who really needed them.

Just as fortunately, that same year CBS had an opening for a golf announcer. Gary McCord recommended his friend Feherty. There was a three-tournament audition. Feherty was a natural. The next year, CBS signed him to a three-year contract.

Marital struggles

In trying to make a home in Dallas, Anita says she felt like a referee in a perpetual boxing ring.

“We had four boys, two who resented David and two who resented me,” she says. “And I had an alcoholic husband.”

Anita says David was “manic” around the house, leaving the family “to just ride the ride.”

Still, David and Anita decided they wanted a child together. Maybe that would inspire her husband to sober up. He promised it would. Anita, approaching 40 with a difficult pregnancy in her medical history and despite her doctor’s doubts, underwent a tubal reversal. In vitro fertilization proved their salvation.

In June 1998, they welcomed Erin Torrance Feherty to the world. David’s sobriety didn’t last. It was a predictable step in a lifelong pattern. All that changed were the diagnoses.

First it was attention-deficit disorder in 2000, followed by clinical depression a couple of years later. Alcohol mixed with prescribed medicine proved a predictably devastating cocktail.

“I’d try to go to sleep at night and a horrifying clip filled with disasters would reel through my head,” Feherty says. “I was overwhelmed with sadness. I’d watch the news, see other people’s problems and they would become my problems. I’d see knives dangling over Erin’s head.

“I’d leave my house to check under my truck to make sure that my daughter wasn’t there waiting to be crushed. I’d curl up in a fetal position and sleep for hours on a recliner. I was drinking bottles of Bushmills [Irish whiskey], taking pain killers and mixing them with antipsychotic drugs. I really thought I would have to be institutionalized.”

Inexplicably, he was able to snap out of his doldrums when it was time for work. He managed to keep himself together when he reported to CBS. He never went on the air drunk, never missed an assignment to battle his demons.

“He’s always shown up ready to work,” says Lance Barrow, CBS’ lead golf producer. “We’ve talked about his struggles, but his issues never overshadowed his ability to perform on the air.”
One morning in 2005, Erin found her father coming out of a familiar vegetative state on a recliner, an empty Bushmills bottle by his side.

“Do you need another bottle?” she asked innocently.

When Anita heard that, she demanded 30 days of sobriety. She threatened take their daughter and leave.
David gave Anita her 30 days and more before heading back to Ireland for his father’s 80th birthday celebration.

He decided he would celebrate with one drink to prove to himself and his parents he had beaten his alcohol problem.

His subsequent binge lasted three weeks.

Help from a friend

But the drinking did stop.

In June 2006, Feherty visited Canada’s Prince Edward Island to tape a television special with golf icons Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

Between takes, Watson told Feherty, “You’re not well. I can see it in your eyes.”

“How do you know?” a defensive Feherty responded.

“I’ve seen that look before,” Watson told him. “I see my reflection in your eyes.”

Watson invited Feherty to join him at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting back in Kansas City, his hometown. Feherty, who had religiously avoided going to AA meetings in Dallas, respectfully said he would when he could.

“You better go with him,” Nicklaus interjected. “You look like crap.”

Just to make sure Feherty accompanied Watson, Nicklaus sent them to Kansas City on his private jet.
Watson became Feherty’s unofficial sponsor. They began regularly emailing and calling each other back and forth.

“It was like Tom has ESP,” Anita says. “When David was feeling low, an email sending encouragement would appear. And when David needed help, he’d call Tom to have him walk him through his problem.”

Ultimately, Anita and Watson persuaded Feherty to start attending AA meetings in Dallas.

That’s when Feherty’s obsession with bicycle riding began. He’d bike the two miles from his home to his AA meetings along North Central Expressway. He found the rides exhilarating. One day, he just kept riding.

White Rock Lake is a favorite destination. He’s ridden the Central Expressway service roads 120 miles to Sherman and back. He’s made the 80-mile round trip to Princeton to watch Erin ride her horse. He ramped up to averaging 200 miles a week.

The riding became part of his 12-step plan. He built his own bicycles with the same Feherty fervor he exhibits in the workshop where he now makes ammunition.

Almost always, he rides alone. He’s been hit by cars or trucks three times. The very worst was in March 2008 when on Park Lane, returning home in the early-morning darkness, he was knocked senseless by a pickup truck hauling a trailer. When he awoke in the hospital, he had a separated shoulder, three broken ribs, a torn bursa sac in his left elbow and a punctured lung.

“It started as a passion and became an addiction to replace the alcohol,” Anita Feherty says. “The riding was supposed to help save his life. Maybe he could be more careful. Maybe it would be better if he rode in a large group. But he won’t. He would have to give up control. He will never do that.”

Feherty says he loves the solitude afforded in riding alone. “It is such a reward to give your pain to the ride. The endorphins the ride creates give great strength to battle everything else.”

Target practice

Now it is Tuesday and noon is fast approaching. Feherty, up since 2:30 a.m., already has completed his bicycle ride and packed his SUV for an afternoon of shooting at a private range.

He is cruising out U.S. Highway 175, heading toward Eustace, about 70 miles east of downtown Dallas. Feherty doesn’t mind making the trip often. Unlike ranges closer to home, this one has targets at 500 yards, a better test for him and his bullets. Membership is limited. Rarely is anyone else there.

It is the morning after Feherty had hosted a writer and photographer in his home. Somewhere along the road between the federal prison in Seagoville and Gun Barrel City, Feherty clears his throat and asks a favor from his passenger. All the talk the previous day about mental illness and his sharing the bipolar diagnosis combined with his passion for guns and shooting, he says, might prove a problematic cocktail for some who hear his story. Almost certainly, it will cause an uproar in some circles.

“I know there will be plenty of ticked-off people reading about it who will want something done about me,” he says. “Ordinarily, that would make me happy. But I have been thinking about this. Maybe we should skip the bipolar diagnosis.”

Three mornings later at 5:57 a.m. a text message arrives from Feherty off in North Carolina, where he’s covering a tournament for CBS.

“Write away sir and don’t worry,” it reads. “I have to be ADJUDICATED insane for it to be an issue. So far, so good.”


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