By Evin Priest
There are many contenders for the greatest job in golf. But one man gets to watch the world’s best golfers, playing the game’s most beautiful holes, from 120 feet in the air. Meet NBC golf cameraman John Boeddeker.
JOHN Boeddeker starts his working day by climbing into a safety harness. In one hand, he has a packed lunch, snacks and water. In the other, his trusty Samsung smartphone. The 59-year-old then scales 12, 10-foot sections of scaffolding up to his tower office – a platform on which an NBC television camera sits. This transient workspace could be sitting 120 feet above The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, and at other times it could be hovering over a US Open at Pebble Beach. The only constant – in Boeddeker’s line of work – is filming the world’s best golfers hitting shots we’ll be talking about for years to come.
The best job in golf does not come without its highs and lows. Sure, there are far more ‘pinch yourself’ moments than bad times.
But the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines is a wonderful paradigm of the ebb and flow of a network TV cameraman’s career. In his hometown of San Diego, Boeddeker welcomed the US Open for its first visit to the southern Californian city. And it delivered – Tiger Woods played on a broken leg, finished tied with Rocco Mediate after 72 holes, battled an 18-hole playoff on Monday before winning in sudden-death for his last Major victory. Boeddeker had the best seat in the house.
It was also the first ever Father’s Day Boeddeker was able to spend with his two sons. Speaking on the phone with Australian Golf Digest from Santa Barbara, Boeddeker’s voice is tinged with slight regret. “Unfortunately, this business has not allowed me to spend as much time as I’d like with them,” says Boeddeker. “I just wanted to spend Father’s Day (in 2008) with my boys for the first time, and the (NBC) network accredited my family so they could come and hang with their dad.
“I don’t know if it was local pride but I still think that was one of the greatest US Opens ever – Tiger battling Rocco on a broken leg and that 18-hole playoff. With (sons) Ryan and Jeffrey and my wife Mary there, it had that significance to me.”
You see, there are few cameramen who can capture the golf ball leaving the tee box at speeds of up to 297 kilometres per hour (Bubba Watson). NBC golf calls this the ‘Speed Shot’ – filming the golf ball from above, tracking its path down the fairway or to the green. As such, Boeddeker has been in high demand for more than 20 years.
“To follow a golf ball is 80 per cent confidence and 20 per cent ability,” he says. “And golf knowledge – that Bubba is going to hit more to the left and hook it, or knowing when Tiger is going to hit that low stinger.”
His unique skill has seen him perched above golf’s most iconic moments, but none more compelling than the US Opens of 1999 and 2000. At the former, Payne Stewart captured a third and final Major victory four months before his tragic death in an aeroplane accident. It was, says Boeddeker, redemption through golf.
“Early in Payne’s career, he wasn’t the most outgoing or friendly guy on tour. But towards the end of his career, Payne became really approachable and fun; a great guy to be around and I heard he also found religion, which I believe settled his home life.
“We developed a good working relationship on tour. When he won the US Open in 1999 it was a great experience to be there on the course at Pinehurst with him.”
A year later, the emotional tributes for Stewart at Pebble Beach were forever etched into Boeddeker’s memory – a bagpipe lament providing the soundtrack as 40 US PGA Tour players hit balls from 21 tees (similar to a 21-gun salute) out into the Pacific Ocean. “It was very surreal. For the Wednesday practice round it was a grey morning with dew on the ground,” recalls Boeddeker. “The bagpipe players came out of the fog, played and then walked back and you could only see their footsteps as they disappeared. The 21-ball salute was very moving, too.”
The emotion settled, but the fog didn’t. Regardless, Woods came out and obliterated the field to win by 15 shots. Boeddeker filmed the largest winning margin in Major championship history from above the iconic par-5 18th fairway. And yes, it was Boeddeker who shot the footage of Woods snap hooking that infamous drive into the ocean on the 18th tee during the second round.
“The other camera crew picked up those vocals of Tiger (swearing in frustration),” laughs Boeddeker. “I was following the ball as it went into the water. But even in that moment, Tiger had this uncanny ability to take those situations that would ruin any normal person’s game and focus that into more power and talent. He seemed to find another gear when something like that happened.
“Tiger dominating that week was … really surreal in an almost religious way.”
Of course, the 14-times Major champion usually comes to mind when Boeddeker recounts the greatest moments he’s witnessed in golf. During the 2001 Players Championship, Woods sank a famous 60-foot, triple-breaking putt on Sawgrass’ 17th hole en route to his win.
“Tiger was at the peak of his career, and you couldn’t squeeze another person in that gallery,” says Boeddeker. “The whole crowd erupted … I still get goosebumps talking about it now.”
Despite the endless list of renowned holes he works above, the 17th at TPC Sawgrass remains Boeddeker’s favourite. “It’s unbelievable. When that hill fills up on a Sunday, I don’t think there’s a prettier place in golf. With its island green, it’s so recognisable and such an icon in golf.”
Boeddeker has spent between eight and 13 hours of every working day up on a crane or scaffold tower, covering 30 tournaments a year and amassing more than 500 events’ worth of experience. He spends so much time there that the most common question Boeddeker is asked is, how do you go to the toilet up there?
“Well, I go up with a bottle of water and I come down with a bottle of something else,” laughs Boeddeker. “The longest I’ve been up there was 12.5 hours at the 2002 US Open at Bethpage (Black Course). I take up plenty of water, a packed lunch, plenty of snacks, and of course my 4-point harness.”
For the majority, Boeddeker’s head is buried inside the camera viewfinder. He juggles using his hands and feet to operate the camera with listening to the instructions of multiple producers and TV announcers. The limited downtime Boeddeker gets he uses for other purposes.
Some are emotional: “A week before the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, my brother passed away,” says Boeddeker. “There couldn’t have been a better place to be there that weekend – overlooking the beautiful scene of the beach and the Monterey Peninsula while going through the mourning process was emotional. And I could be up there and not worry about people seeing me.”
Some are patriotic: “Two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks (2001), I was at the Tour Championship in Houston (Texas) and a greenskeeper asked if I would fly his flag. He gave me two flags, and I’ve flown them up there with me ever since.”
And others, life changing – several years ago, Boeddeker began to take pictures of his incredible views of the golf world with his Samsung Galaxy smartphone. After posting them on Facebook and gathering a large following, Boeddeker was encouraged to publish a pictorial book he named My Office Window. With licences from the US PGA Tour and USGA, Boeddeker is now selling his incredible visual story for $US39.99 at myofficewindow.org
“My Office Window represents 18 months of hard work and getting it off the ground, and years of me taking photos. I’m astonished at how well it’s going but humbled by the response to it.”
And to think this cameraman was terrified of heights during his first stint filming from the tower at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, Florida more than 20 years ago.
“I was so scared. I got up to the top of the scaffold and I had to crawl to the camera. When the tournament finished I got down and kissed the ground and promised I was never doing that again.
“Now I love it – there’s a freedom up there you don’t feel anywhere else. The beauty and the colours are … something else.”