Michael Collins, the unlikely ESPN golf analyst, was doing the broadcast for a PGA Tour event not long ago when he heard a producer’s voice in his ear.
“He goes, ‘Hey, someone just emailed and said that dude sounds like Tupac and Fat Albert had a baby — can you take him off the air please?’ ” Collins recalled with a chuckle.
When the live broadcast turned to Collins a few minutes later, Collins didn’t hesitate. “It’s a birdie putt up the hill, breaking a little bit left. Hey-hey-hey, that’s three birdies today!” he said, injecting a subdued Fat Albert impersonation into the play-by-play.
Golf is restrained and deferential, filled with whispers, pregnant pauses and reverence for rules and etiquette. By comparison, Collins — who writes and reports for ESPN from live events, including this week’s British Open — is a knee-slapping, voluminous, rolling chortle, peppering his analysis with punchlines. He approaches the sport like a helicopter descending on a stack of napkins.
Collins is not a trained journalist. His background, in fact — comedian turned golf caddie turned golf analyst — makes him a unique character in the sport, granting him access that eludes most sports journalists.
“He’s of the sport,” offered ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, the “SportsCenter” host and longtime golf commentator. “He’s a caddie — he knows the game because he lived the game. And so he has the respect of the people in the game, which is why he can be who he is unapologetically. He can bust chops, he can have a laugh, he can get guys to put their guard down.”
Collins, 47, is easy to recognize on screen — bald head, bushy beard, shaped a bit more like a golf ball than a golf club — but even more so by his cheerful on-air presence. He also knows his style isn’t for everyone, and for many, his approach makes him one of the network’s more polarizing personalities.
“One of my producers said to me, ‘You get more emails than anybody else in the company,’ ” Collins recalled. “’Seventy percent of the people email just because they love you so much and they’re mad when you’re not on the coverage. And that other 30 percent? They want to kill you. They hate you because you’re so different.’”
He makes no apologies. As golf’s audience ages and younger sports fans gravitate toward other pursuits, Collins wants those in the game to take themselves less seriously, to remember that it’s all supposed to be fun.
“I take it as a challenge. I like the fact that there are people that don’t like that I do things in a certain way. I get to prove them wrong,” he said.
The golfers’ comedian
Collins didn’t touch a club until he was 22. He grew up hoping to entertain and make people laugh. He still remembers the first joke he told on stage.
“My name is Michael Collins,” he told the audience in Lancaster, Pa., his hometown. “I’m half-black, half-white, look Spanish — I don’t know who the hell to date. I gotta go to the United Nations to pick up girls.”
Even more vividly, Collins remembers what happened next. That brief moment of silence where time stood still, followed by a jolt.
“It felt like thunder happening,” he said. “I kind of looked at the audience and then boom — just an explosion of laughter in that little tiny room.”
He started grinding out a life as a touring comedian, for nearly 20 years, traveling anywhere that would give him a few minutes on stage, a chance to feel that thunder again. He’d drive hours to earn $100 and says in one calendar year he put 90,000 miles on his Honda Civic, going from show to show. “And then had the car repossessed because I wasn’t making enough money,” he said.
A couple of years into comedy, he was introduced to golf by a fellow comedian. Initially, Collins had little interest. “I used to be the kid that would chase golfers home from school,” he says. But he played a round on a par-3 course and was hooked. His next gig paid $400 and he spent $300 of it on golf clubs.
In 1998, a fellow comedian couldn’t make a show in Hilton Head, S.C., and gave Collins his spot. With the PGA Tour in town, Collins eagerly accepted and attended a practice round with a buddy. Collins didn’t know protocol and struck up a conversation with tour player Omar Uresti and his caddie (and brother), Rusty Uresti. They ended up at his show that night, and by the end of the week, Collins says, 50 golfers and 100 caddies had watched him perform.
Collins went to the course each day that week, staying close to the action, befriending other players and caddies and wandering places closed off to fans.
“I wore khaki pants and a golf polo and I threw a towel over my shoulder just like the caddies,” Collins said. “So I’d just walk straight onto the driving range looking all pissed off. I remember Omar saying, ‘What are you doing here without credentials?’ I said, ‘I’m an angry black man that looks like a caddie — no one’s stopping me.’ ”
Collins started booking gigs in towns that were hosting PGA Tour events. He’d spend his days on the course and nights on the stage.
In time, some caddies would let Collins carry the bag during a practice round, and he’d pepper them with questions. He had no designs on a caddying career but was eager to learn more about the sport he loved. And then, on the last hole of the year’s last tournament, Rusty Uresti took off his bib and handed it Collins, letting him work his first official hole.
The comedian becomes a caddie
The following year, Collins was invited on a whim to caddie a tournament for Robert Gamez on what was then called the Nike Tour. Gamez was struggling coming off an injury and thought Collins might liven up a few rounds. It was lighthearted and filled with banter, and other players began tabbing Collins for spot duty. When they learned Collins could actually read greens and was starting to better understand the courses, the work became more serious.
Chris Couch was the first to urge Collins to leave stand-up comedy. They had found a bit of success on the Nationwide Tour, and Couch had his PGA card for the following year. Collins felt ready to make the leap.
“I thought I had a path in front of me that comedy was going to be my way to do TV and maybe get into movies and acting and all that kind of stuff,” Collins said. “But I was getting married that December, and we’d just won some money and had some fun. So I told him, ‘Okay, you know what — I’m in, brother. You got me.’ I canceled six months’ worth of comedy gigs.”
The two did two tournaments together before Couch made a caddie change, and Collins learned how unforgiving the caddie business could be. “It was a punch in the gut with an uppercut thrown in just for good measure,” he said. “I was devastated.”
But his phone soon rang with another job offer. Others followed. He carried bags over the years for Daniel Chopra, Rich Beem, Scott Piercy, Brenden Pappas and Kevin Streelman.
Streelman hired Collins in the midst of a tough stretch and was looking for anything that might lighten his mood.
“I was concerned about how stressful I was being on the golf course,” he said. “Me and my caddie at the time were butting heads, and I knew Michael would be a good reprieve from that.”
Their rounds included plenty of teasing but not in a way that detracted from the seriousness of the game. Streelman played himself into contention for a $1 million bonus in the Kodak Challenge — a season-long contest involving a designated hole at each tournament — and managed to win the big prize with a second-round birdie on the 17th hole of Children’s Miracle Network Classic.
The two celebrated the big win but because the 72-hole tournament wasn’t finished, Collins couldn’t take the pin flag as a souvenir. Instead, he tore a giant sign out of the ground. “Ripped it off the hinges,” Streelman said. “It was hilarious.”
“It was a big sign,” Collins said. “Five or six pounds. I walked the whole 18th hole carrying it. People kept asking if they could help out. I told them, ‘Hands off. This is mine!’ ”
‘I’m not trying to be “60 Minutes” ’
His jovial personality caught the attention of some media executives and before long, he was doing a caddie segment for USA Network’s Sunday golf show. Sirius XM eventually approached him to assist with live coverage of events.
“I was like, ‘Ha, golf on the radio? It’s hard enough to watch paint dry. You think people are going to listen to paint dry on the radio?’” he said.
But it was fun and provided a steady paycheck. At one point, Collins was filling time during a rain delay. That’s when Rob King, the longtime ESPN executive and noted golf enthusiast, took note.
“I was listening to these interviews with players in the clubhouse that were just hysterical and thoughtful and revealing the players’ personalities in ways I’d never heard before,” said King, the network’s senior vice president for original content, newsgathering and digital media. “I was asking myself, ‘Who the heck is doing these interviews?’ ”
Collins joined ESPN in 2011. His duties run the gamut. He’ll write for the website, appear on live broadcasts and podcasts and do live hits for a variety of ESPN programs.
“The reason guys talk to me differently is because they trust me,” he said. “I’m not trying to be ‘60 Minutes.’ That’s not what I’m trying to do. I think people understand that.”
Just like when he did stand-up or carried the bags for PGA players, Collins wants to keep getting better, but he’ll stick to his own path, eager for others around him to change and match his enthusiasm.
“There are always the old get-off-my-lawn people that just want to keep golf the same. But those are the same people that they don’t understand that golf isn’t growing,” he said. “I want people to love the sport the way I love the sport. I want them to see that I’m having fun out here, and that it’s okay for them to have fun, too.”
Sam Fortier contributed to this story.
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