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MIKE SORENSEN: From Mac to Jack to Slammin’ Sam, my most memorable interviews

  Recently I wrote about my long career as a sportswriter, reminiscing about the highs and lows, mostly highs of a vocation spanning four decades.

  During my time as a sports journalist, a staple of my job was the interview, talking to people, whether after an event or a set-up for a feature story, While I’m not always comfortable talking to people — especially strangers, in this business it wasn’t as difficult because most times you were talking to athletes or coaches about themselves or their teams. While a few athletes and coaches could be jerks, most people in general enjoy talking about themselves. So usually, athletes and coaches were happy to talk, although there were times when you had to ask tough questions and you’d get bad answers or no answers at all.

Here are five of my most memorable interviews: 

Mac O’Grady, 1991 Utah Open 

 For those who may not remember Mac O’Grady, he was an eccentric golfer who played on the PGA Tour for a few years after trying and failing 17 times to earn his PGA card. He won twice on the Tour, but his career didn’t last long and he later made his mark as a golf instructor. His real name was Phillip McGleno, but he changed it while in his late 20s. 

Anyway, he came to the Beehive State to play in the Utah Open in 1991 as a favor to an old friend in the business and because he was trying to get his game back in shape after an injury.

I had been waiting at the Willow Creek Country Club clubhouse for him to finish a practice round, but when the time had passed that he should have finished, I went out searching for him. All the other golfers had finished but I found O’Grady out in the middle of the 17th fairway, leaning on his cart, casually talking to a couple of fans. After a couple of minutes I got his attention and started asking questions. He was extremely glib and acted like he had all the time in the world. It was starting to get dark, so we proceeded down to the green to finish the interview. He was absolutely fascinating, talking about once living in a plywood box in a garage at a southern California mansion (“I was down and out in West L.A.”), calling the PGA Commissioner a “thief with a capital T” and quoting lines from obscure episodes of The Twilight Zone. When we finally finished, the sun had gone down and he still had the 18th hole to play. Did I say he had two sets of clubs, one right-handed and one left-handed? As I headed back to the clubhouse, I looked back and saw him teeing off in the fading light with his left-handed driver (the ambidextrous O’Grady usually played right-handed). I headed straight into my office and spent half the night, writing a 1,500-word feature after a most extraordinary interview.

Jack Nicklaus, Red Ledges Golf Club 2015

 I had the opportunity to interview Jack Nicklaus several times over the years, beginning in 1982 when he came to Utah to christen the Park Meadows CC course he had designed. One time he entertained a handful of writers at the Champions Challenge at Thanksgiving Point with stories  for a half hour because he didn’t want to go out and hobnob with sponsors and fans.

In the summer of 2015,  I received an invitation to interview the Golden Bear about some additions to the Red Ledges Course in Heber that he’d designed a few years earlier. I took my 21-year-old son Andrew and was surprised to find no other media around (a couple showed up later). It was lunch time, so we shared a table with Nicklaus and an aide and later his wife Barbara. Jack couldn’t have been nicer and listened intently when my son explained the game of pickleball, with which he was unfamiliar. What impressed me was how Jack talked about the importance of family and how he never went more than two weeks being away from his family during his career. He was also gracious enough to pose for a picture with my son and I, a thrill for us both. Being able to spend a half hour basically one-on-one with the greatest golfer of all time, is one interview I’ll never forget.

Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer, Denver, 1981

I was still a young punk sportswriter when I was assigned to take a day trip over to Denver to interview some of the prominent golfers who would be coming over to Utah a couple of weeks later for the first-ever Jeremy Ranch Shootout. The Senior Tour had barely begun and there were all sorts of golfers I could interview, but two I just had to get were Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer.

Because it was a practice round day, it was hard to know where or when to find players at a place I had never been to before. I wandered around and finally found four golfers sitting at a table in a nearly-empty restaurant. One of them was the legendary Snead.

At this point he was nearly 70 years old, well past his prime, but still competitive on the Senior Tour and one of the big attractions. He was known as a cantankerous sort, so it was with much trepidation that I approached the table to ask for a few minutes. After a slight pause, he waved me to the table and allowed plenty of time for me to carve out a good story for the following week.

I still needed to get Palmer, so I followed him as he played his final holes of his practice round. While he was always great with the fans, he was in a hurry this day, so I followed him to the parking lot, where I was able to get in a few questions as he put his clubs in the trunk of his car. A month later, the scene was repeated at Jeremy Ranch and I was flattered when he called me “Mike” as he discussed his round. Did he remember me from the previous month in Denver? No, Arnie had stolen a look at my nametag and was trying to make a young sportswriter feel important. 

Rick Majerus, Huntsman Center 2003 

In being assigned to University of Utah basketball for more than 25 years, I had dozens, perhaps hundreds of opportunities to talk to Rick Majerus, who I covered for more than a decade. I’ll have to admit he was often ornery and wasn’t the greatest interview much of the time although there were occasions when he could be simply charming during our after-midnight chats from his hotel room at the University Marriott.

One of my most memorable interviews came in 2003 when one of my questions left him speechless for one of the few times in his life. 

It was after a March game against Colorado State at the Huntsman Center when the Ute coach had been kicked out of the game as the first half ended for complaining to an official. The two technical fouls gave the Rams four free throws to start the second half and they went on to win on a last-second 3-pointer. Majerus wasn’t around for the second half and was apparently listening to the game outside the arena. However, he was gracious enough to come back and answer questions after the game. Considering that the Utes had lost without their head coach there to lead them, I asked what I thought was a logical question. Do you think you let your team down by not being there in the second half?

For perhaps the only time in the hundreds of times I talked to him, Majerus was speechless. After a few seconds, he finally stammered, “I’ll have to give that some more thought.” 

He never got back to me.

Michael Jordan, Delta Center 1993  

Back in the day, interviews were more free-for-all than they are now. 

These days, coaches are brought into a room to address the media together and in the rare cases when you are allowed into a locker room, all the reporters crowd around the same athlete when he’s ready to talk before moving on to another. It used to be that you could go up to a player as he was getting dressed and you might have 10 different players being interviewed at the same time.

Michael Jordan was always good to talk to when he came to town with the Chicago Bulls. Knowing he loved golf and being a golf writer in the summer, I waited until other reporters had finished with him on that early February evening in 1993 when he scored 37 points in a Bulls’ victory. I wanted to ask him about playing golf during the upcoming All-Star break in Utah, because he had been criticized by local fans for saying the All-Star Game should be played in warm-weather cities so he could play golf. He had been quoted as saying he would be playing golf in Las Vegas that weekend and Delta Center fans had booed him and made signs like “Take a Hike Mike.”

 Anyway Jordan brightened right up when I mentioned golf and he said he had been misunderstood about not wanting to come to Utah and that he just wanted to play golf “a hop, skip and jump away” in Las Vegas. He reiterated that he still planned to play right before the All-Star Game in Utah and then flashing his famous smile, said, “And I hope they don’t boo me.” Four years later he played a fair amount of golf when the Jazz and Bulls met in the NBA FInals and he raved about Utah courses such as Wasatch Mountain and Park Meadows that he played in between games. 

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