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Time to stop talking, start playing

Gary Koch's 50th birthday present is a chance to play the Champions Tour instead of watching from a TV booth.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003

NAPLES -- The distance from the television tower to the golf course is short. That's why announcers whisper when players are on the green.

But for Gary Koch, it has been a long journey back to the course from the booth. And he's excited about playing again.

A one-time Tampa prodigy, Koch is 50 and eligible for the Champions Tour, which means he'll be in the 81-player field this week at the TPC of Tampa Bay for the Verizon Classic.

Last year he was at the tournament as an analyst for CNBC. And for the past 13 years Koch, a six-time PGA Tour winner, played in just a smattering of tournaments while working for ESPN and later NBC, where he continues to work this year.

"It has been fun," said Koch, who tied for 17th in his senior debut last week at Key Biscayne and was tied for 18th after shooting 71 Saturday at the ACE Group Classic. "I would say probably 90 percent of the players out here who I have met and dealt with have been very positive in welcoming me, saying, 'Glad to have you.' There have been a few who kind of cold-shouldered me a little bit. I kind of expected that a little bit. I wasn't friends with everybody when I played the first time.

"That's kind of the way it is. It's been fun. It's fun to get back in the position of looking on the leaderboard and seeing your name up there. That's why you play."

Koch didn't see that enough in his PGA Tour career, and it took its toll. A three-time All-American at the University of Florida after starring at Tampa's King High, Koch won a PGA Tour event in each of his first two years.

But there were just four victories after that, and high expectations coupled with unsatisfying results left Koch looking for a change.

"I was at a point where I was not enjoying golf," he said. "My wife and kids were at home, my kids were in school. I was traveling by myself. You're 1,000 miles from home sitting in a hotel room staring at the walls, and you've just shot another 73 or 74. All of a sudden you start to wonder if maybe there's more to life than this."

There was. In 1990 Jim Colbert was making the same move Koch is making now. He had been an analyst at ESPN, and Bob Murphy, a fellow UF alum who also does television work and plays the Champions Tour, approached Koch about the possibility of replacing Colbert. In time Koch was given a tryout, and by 1991 he had signed a contract for full-time work. Now Koch works for NBC and plans to do 13 events for the network, including two senior events in which he can play and do commentary.

"NBC has been great," he said. "My contract was up last year, and I asked to do fewer events for them this year. I averaged 18 or 19 for NBC the last few years. They agreed to let me cut back to 13, which I will do each of the next four years. I'm very fortunate that it's allowed me to stay around the game and the people.

"It's going to be a challenge. Having never done it before, I'm not sure how I'm going to do. It's not going to be until the end of the year where I play a lot of events in a row. Because of television it looks like I'll be forced to take a break from playing, which is probably a good thing."

Koch is not a fully exempt member of the Champions Tour because his career money total from the PGA Tour is not high enough. But he benefits from a new exemption category called the PGA Tour Career Victory List that has pushed tournament fields from 78 to 81. Past winners of PGA Tour events not otherwise exempt are grouped into a category in order of wins. Bill Rogers fits into that group, as will Andy Bean when he turns 50 in March.

But the exemption can be used for just a year, so Koch needs to prove himself this season.

"I'd like to think that I am capable of performing at a pretty high level out here," he said. "Certainly a goal would be to win a tournament this year. That would be great. I'd certainly like to finish high enough on the money list (top 31) to be exempt. That would be a good goal for me. I know I'm going to have to play some good golf. These guys play well."

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