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Posted April 5, 2019, 1:12 pm
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NBC's Koch, Mackenzie thrilled to call inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur

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    Gary Koch [GOLF CHANNEL]

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    Paige Mackenzie [GOLF CHANNEL]

Gary Koch long ago gave up hope of ever calling live tournament golf at Augusta National Golf Club.

Koch, who has been a golf announcer for NBC for the past 22 years, knew CBS had been the TV partner of Masters Tournament since the tournament’s first live broadcast, in 1956, and that likely wasn’t going to change.

Then came the announcement on the eve of last year’s Masters that the final round of the inaugural 54-hole Augusta National Women’s Amateur would be played at Augusta National Golf Club this year. On Sept. 12, Augusta National announced that NBC would cover the final round live.

“Yes, the assumption was that was never going to happen,” said the 66-year-old Koch, of calling competitive golf at Augusta National. “Absolutely. Having played in the Masters and obviously watching the Masters, you’re used to the call by the rival network. When we got the information that we were going to be part of the Women’s Amateur it was tremendous, very exciting.”

That didn’t mean Koch was going to be in the booth for the final round, which takes place today, with NBC picking up live coverage at noon (the final pairing of the day will have gone off at 10:20 a.m.)

Koch’s regular work with NBC is the PGA Tour, but he had worked with Paige Mackenzie in the booth on the Women’s PGA Championship the past two years.

“I was selected (for the women’s amateur), fortunately,” Koch said. “I have worked with Paige Mackenzie on a couple of other women’s events that we have worked together in a three-person both with Dan Hicks as the host. I guess the powers that be thought we were a good team and would be a good fit.”

Mike Tirico will be the host in the booth Saturday with Koch and Mackenzie. Kay Cockerill and Frank Nobilo will be the hole announcers.

″(Never) in my wildest dreams did I ever anticipate that (calling an event at Augusta National) would be part of my future, but I also didn’t know I was going to end up in broadcasting necessarily until the last several years, either,” Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie, 36, is part of NBC’s LPGA Tour broadcasting team, so she knows women’s golf and is fully aware of what a monumental event this is. It wasn’t until 2012 that Augusta National took in its first female member, and women have never played competitively at the course.

“I’m thrilled. I’m so excited to be a part of this broadcasting team. It’s such an exciting event. For the female golfer, it’s so unique and special that these young women are going to have an opportunity to play the most iconic golf course in the world in front of the world audience,” Mackenzie said.

On air, Koch will be able to provide insight on how to play Augusta National since he was a 10-time Masters participant. His last round at Augusta National was in 1989.

Koch said one of his focuses will be on how the 30-player field handles the most challenging part of Augusta National - the severe undulating greens. They won’t have had much time to study them since their only practice round was Friday, though a handful of players visited the course in the fall.

“I remember the first Masters I got to play in, I was a 21-year-old amateur in 1974,” Koch said. “When I got there, the No. 1 thing was the greens, the undulations and the speed. It was like nothing I ever played. I played in the U.S. Open the year before at Oakmont and made the cut.

“Those greens were just mind-boggling,” Koch said. “They were something I had never experienced. That to me will be the biggest question mark for these ladies, especially only getting one practice round in.”

Koch and Mackenzie can see some good scores being posted today. Jennifer Kupcho is the leader by one shot after rounds of 68-71 at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It will not surprise me at all if we see some very good play,” Koch said earlier this week at Champions Retreat. “These ladies are very, very talented. They’re powerful, they can hit the ball a long way. So I don’t think the yardage of the golf course will be an issue. Watching some of the young ladies (at Champions Retreat), they were driving the ball 260, 270 yards.”

Indeed, Maria Fassi, who is in second place, led the field at Champions Retreat in driving, averaging 278.5 off the tee.

Said Mackenze: “There is a possibility that they could shoot under par. As we know, the golf course rewards great shot. They’re going to have to play defensively around the greens. That was the biggest learning lesson I had when I moved from amateur golf to professional golf. I think that golf course can expose the weakness in any player. These are the best women in the world. The scores will be authentic to what the playing conditions are. I don’t think we’re going to see a super, super low scores. I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of high scores. I think we’re going to see a good mesh we’ve expected to see from the men.”

In another time, Mackenzie would be one of the players in this tournament. She was an All-American golfer at Washington from 2004-06 and was the No. 1-ranked amateur when she graduated.

“I am nothing but grateful that it’s happening now,” Mackenzie said. “Obviously, I would have loved the opportunity in my time to have competed here. I actually find it equally special to be able to cover the first. Whether it was playing in or covering the first, I feel like it’s a trailblazing event. There are nothing but positive things that are going to come out of this week and weekend.”

Koch, who is friends with Augusta National Golf Club and Masters Tournament Chairman Fred Ridley, feels the same way. Ridley, who came up with the idea and the execution of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, has been friends with Koch since they were in their early teens, playing against each other in junior golf in Florida. They played on the college golf team at Florida and were roommates at a fraternity house and later at an apartment.

“I think it’s going to be very positive,” Koch said. “Obviously, Augusta National chairman Ridley has reached out to a segment of the golfing population that previously had not been afforded the opportunity to play at Augusta. That’s an extreme positive. It goes hand-in-hand with Bobby Jones and his love of amateur golf and everything else that goes along with that.”