Bubka Looks Back at a Career that Began in Sag Harbor

Bob Bubka inside the cavernous media center at Shinnecock Hills for this week's U.S. Open Men's Golf Championship. Gavin Menu photo

Bob Bubka and Paul Sidney pulled onto the grounds of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in the old WLNG motorhouse on June 7, 1986. It was the Sunday before the U.S. Open and, in many ways, the beginning of a new partnership between the Sag Harbor radio station and Bubka, the station’s quickly evolving sportscaster whose career following the game of golf would span the next three decades.

“Paul and I pulled up in the WLNG mobile unit, we parked and about five minutes later the head of the USGA, a fellow by the name of Frank Hannigan, came screeching down in a golf cart,” Bubka remembered on Monday as he began coverage of his fourth U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, just up the road from his hometown of Sag Harbor. “And he said, ‘Bob you have two choices. You can either get that piece of shit off the property or you can put a tarp over it.’ So we went and got a tarp.

The old WLNG motorhouse at Shinnecock in 1986. It was the first foray into the world of golf for Paul Sidney, wearing the red coat. Photo courtesy of WLNG Radio

“Paul didn’t know anything about golf,” he continued, remembering the legendary WLNG radio personality who passed away in 2009. “We were next to the ABC TV compound and I asked if we could get a couple of monitors in our mobile unit. They gave us three different monitors, showing different holes. I made up index cards numbered one through 18, and I said to Paul, ‘When I hand you the card, whatever number is on it, you say ‘Let’s go out to Bob down at 14.’ It will make you sound like a real sportscaster.’ I’ll never forget when we came back into Sag Harbor that first night, and so many people said, ‘Damn, Bob, you have to be tired, how did you get all over the golf course like that? They thought I was everywhere.”

As it turned out, the game of golf did take Bubka just about everywhere, from Australia to Europe and all over the continental United States. It all began with bike rides from his family home on Jermain Avenue to the sand greens at the Sag Harbor Golf Club, where he developed his love for the game of golf at an early age, a love that continued through high school when Pierson coach Bob Vishno started a golf team to accommodate Bubka alone.

Following his graduation from Pierson in 1960, Bubka, who is now 75, joined the Air Force. As he moved toward the end of his service, he was offered an opportunity to work in Greenland, an assignment that would shave three months off his final year of service.

“That meant I would be getting out June 1, rather than September 1, which meant I would get back to Sag Harbor,” Bubka said. “As it turned out, that trip changed my life. I was there two weeks and my roommate said they were looking for people to go into Armed Forces Radio. The ironic part was I wrote a letter back to Sag Harbor telling my mother I was going on the radio, and at the same time, my mother wrote a letter to me that they were opening a radio station in Sag Harbor.”

Bubka joined that station, WLNG, in 1963, taking over for a young sportscaster named Marv Albert, who went on to become one of the most recognizable voices in the history of sports. “I ran into Marv recently, and he remembered WLNG, and I said ‘Something is wrong, Marv. You got your start on WLNG Radio and look where you are. I replaced you on WLNG Radio and I’m still at WLNG Radio!’”

In 1981, when the United States Golfing Association announced that it would return to Shinnecock for the first time since 1896, Bubka contacted Al Wester, a well-established sports radio executive, who agreed to meet Bubka in New Jersey. It worked out that Bubka took a job with Wester and for the next 10 years worked for the Mutual Broadcasting System. His biggest break into the world of golf came when Talk Sport, a London-based sports radio station, brought him on board to cover golf, a job he holds to this day.

“I got an opportunity to combine the two things I really loved, and I’ve done golf tournaments in Australia, New Zealand, all over Europe, later on this year I get to go to Paris to do the Ryder Cup, and I’m going to St. Louis this summer and the PGA will be celebrating 100 years, so that’s a very special event,” Bubka said inside the cavernous media center at Shinnecock on Monday. “I have been so blessed in my life.”

Bob Bubka on the air for this week’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Gavin Menu photo

Bubka spoke at length about his old friend Paul Sidney and said “if he could talk to us right now, and if we asked what was the finest week of radio he ever had, he would say the ’86 U.S. Open in a heartbeat. It meant that much to him.” During that week, Bubka and WLNG became good friends of the USGA, a partnership that has continued as Bubka has also kept his relationship with WLNG intact.

“A huge motivating factor for me to stay at WLNG, even though I really love them, is it afforded an opportunity for my mother and father to hear my work,” he said. “If I didn’t have that outlet, they wouldn’t hear it, and they were the two listeners I wanted to hear it the most.”

Along with his affinity for radio, Bubka’s love for Shinnecock was on full display Monday as he began what he described as a “very special week” at the Open.

“I played this golf course as a youngster myself. I thought it was a good golf course. But before I started traveling the globe, it was only then that I realized how good it was,” he said. “In the opinion of many pros, this is their favorite golf course. If you took a poll of all the players and asked them what the best U.S. Open golf course is in America, the majority of the players will say Shinnecock.”

When asked who he thinks might win this week, Bubka said he likes Rory McIlroy, Brandon Grace, Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson, who won a tournament last week. He also mentioned Kevin Kisner, whose caddy, Duane Bock, is a native of East Hampton.

“My golden rule is they’re the story, I’m not the story,” Bubka said about the players he follows. “Tiger is a very good friend, I’ve been at every one of his majors. To have Tiger’s yacht in Sag Harbor this week, I haven’t seen him yet, but I’m going to tell him he’s in my town. My dream this week is Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in the final twosome on Sunday. It would automatically become the most watched sporting event in history, globally, so then all those eyes would be focused on Shinnecock. That would be like a dream.”

Aside from the golf course and all the other pomp and circumstance that comes with covering the U.S. Open, a task that will put Bubka through 18-hour work days as he broadcasts all over the world, this week was all about family. And coming home to Sag Harbor.

“For me to do what I’m doing is wonderful, to be able to share it with my family makes it even better,” Bubka said. “Coming out of church Saturday night, there was Bob Vishno, and seeing him again meant the world to me. I consider myself extremely fortunate and blessed to be born and raised in a place like Sag Harbor. My father was a volunteer fireman in Sag Harbor for 67 years. Talk about something you love. Sag Harbor is in my blood.”