With his avuncular bass and pithy playcalling genius, Verne Lundquist is as popular as he has ever been, equally beloved by the green-jacketed patriarchs of Augusta as the face-painted youngs of March Madness. On the heels of his 29th NCAA basketball tournament—and as he heads to Augusta National this week to call his 29th Masters—SI caught up with the 72-year-old for an extended conversation on his 50 years in broadcasting and a life well lived.
Let's start with some things I learned about you from reading a recent Washington Post profile. Your preferred drink is Johnnie Walker Black?
Yeah, but you know.... Well, yes. When I saw that in print I kind of winced.
There's nothing wrong with Johnnie Walker Black.
No, it's quite good, as a matter of fact. I said something after a game recently that Bill Raftery and I would be going back to the hotel to enjoy unsweetened iced tea. It became code. Oh, yeah, unsweetened iced tea.
You also love Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and you wanted to be a conductor when you were young.
My wife, Nancy, was a voice major at the University of Texas, and she did radio and television commercials throughout the South. I sang four years in the college choir at Texas Lutheran University, and of all the things I got involved with at TLU, that experience has had the most impact in my life. I was a bass. I could not sing a melody. But I will tell you something I've never said in an interview: I once sang in a rock and roll group.
It was in high school. We were called the Flat Tops. We played what they used to call teen canteens around Austin, where I grew up. I couldn't even play guitar. My role was to sing "Doo-wah. Doo-wah."
You and Bill Raftery have received more positive press recently than Jon Hamm and George Clooney. What's it like to be a septuagenarian sex symbol?
[Laughs] Unexpected. Let's put it that way. We've had a great run together. They actually first put Raf and me together for back-to-back weeks in 1983. [They've been permanent partners since 2000.] We called two South Carolina games. Billy and I had hit it off so great the first week that he suggested we bring our wives along for the second week. We became fast friends, and the reaction from New York [CBS Sports's headquarters] was that we sounded great together.
In addition to the Post, The New Yorker recently profiled you and Bill. Now SI. Why is this happening for two men with a combined age of 141?
I don't want to be self-aggrandizing, but one of the joys of working with Bill is seeing him interact with young people. I feel comfortable with young people as well. We are not talking about a generation removed—for Raf and me, it's two generations since we were in college. So it's a great honor to remain viable with the college kids. The rest of the audience too, but I think the joy for us comes from the interaction on campuses and with the players themselves. Somehow the comfort factor comes through the screen.
You must be asked to say "Yes, sir!" all the time by golf fans.
Yes, and now occasionally in airports, people come up to me and say, "In your life ... !" I take it in the way it is intended: It is a very nice recognition of the moments I have had at Augusta.
That call of the birdie by Jack Nicklaus at number 17 in 1986 is considered by many to be one of the great sports calls of our time. What were you thinking during the hole?
The back nine at Augusta that Sunday remains the single most thrilling sporting event that I have ever witnessed. I remember when he walked toward the green saying to myself, If he makes this putt, he is going to have the lead at Augusta at the age of 46. So my thought process was, Just get out of the way. We bounced around the course, and when we came back, Jack was about to line up for the putt. I thought to myself: Don't screw this up. So I said, "This is for sole possession of the lead." He hits the putt, and about a foot and a half [from the hole] I said, "Maybe." Then it dropped in and I hollered, "Yes, sir!" Because I have seen it 6,487 times [laughs], to me what makes the moment memorable, or maybe the call memorable, is when I said, "Yes, sir!" there is a synchronicity in Jack's reaction and my words. Exactly when I said, "Yes, sir!" he pumped both of his arms. He was giving an orchestra a downbeat.
You really wanted Nicklaus to make that shot, right?
Of course. I am a huge Jack Nicklaus fan. I just think he was a noble man in this sport. Tiger may ultimately surpass Jack, but Nicklaus for me will always be the guy.
You moved to the 16th hole in 2000 and called Tiger's famous chip shot in '05. We all love the call, but how did you come up with that?
I had a reporter call me afterward and ask, "Did you script that?" [Laughs] I said, "Yeah, I could not sleep on Saturday night so I thought, Well, if Tiger comes to 16 and pulls an eight-iron 180 feet to the left and [his chip] breaks 90 degrees and sits on the lip for 1.8 seconds, here's what I am going to say." No, it was all instinct, and that comes from trusting yourself. I would never have said what I said in 1984. It comes from being there, at the time, 20-some years and having the confidence to find a phrase that fits. I said what I believed: "In your life, have you seen anything like that?" I had not.
What do you expect from Tiger this year?
I think he is going to win. If you are making a small wager, and I understand certain people do, why would you want anyone but him?
How much money did you get paid for Happy Gilmore? You should really pay Adam Sandler, given how often it's on TV.
It is the gift that keeps on giving. I was paid $15,000, and I get a residual. Every three months I get $45. But here is the extraordinary thing about it: It has given me a connection to young people. I could not be more serious. I did a commencement [speech] last year at Hampden-Sydney College. It was the first one I've ever done, and I never worked as hard on a public presentation in my life. It is an all-male school in Virginia that was started in 1775. This was a dignified circumstance. So I am standing in front of a sea of young men, and before I could begin, a kid two thirds of the way back hollered out, "Hey, Verne, who the hell is Happy Gilmore?" That added a certain dignity to the occasion.
You told a reporter recently that you were not particularly proud of your call ("Yes!") on Christian Laettner's famous shot to beat Kentucky in 1992. That surprises me.
I didn't feel personally the call was up to the magnitude of the moment, and I know that sounds pretentious. It was O.K. for the moment, but in my view nothing terrific about it.
At this point in the interview, I have a great desire to shout, "Onions!"
How to describe what Bill means when he uses that?
You've never used the phrase on air, but I feel like you must be dying to, just to tweak Raftery.
Well, of course, but Bill has earned the right to use that as often and in whatever circumstance he chooses. I get more Happy Gilmore or "Yes, sir!" references in arenas than anything else, but for Bill, nobody says, "Man to man." Everybody just yells, "Onions." And you can hear it from the third level of the arena.
I've seen SEC fans get on you, including calling you Verne Drunkquist. Have you read any of that stuff, and how much does it bother you?
I am aware of the criticism, but I've never heard that one. I can promise whoever wrote that, I have never gone on the air in a state of inebriation [laughs].
It seems that you love to laugh more than any other announcer.
Yeah, and it's not fake. I get that from my dad. My dad was a large man—not in height but in girth. He had a big laugh, and there was a warmth to it. I am thankful I have inherited that.
Is there a sporting event that you have not yet called that you wish you had?
I would love to do a Final Four, but that is not going to happen. I would love to have done a telecast of a Super Bowl, but that is not going to happen. But my answer would honestly be no, because I am very comfortable with how things are winding up for me. When I do retire, I will retire as a very happy person, both personally and professionally.
Do you have a favorite two-word expression?
If you are making a small wager, and I understand certain people do, why would you want anyone but Tiger?
For more of Richard Deitsch's conversation with Verne Lundquist, go to SI.com/mag or download the digital edition of SI, free to subscribers at SI.com/activate
PHOTOGRAPH BY LISA KRANTZ FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED