For years, members of the Furman women’s golf team have dreamed of walking in the footsteps of former LPGA star and current television golf analyst Dottie Pepper ’87. But nobody has done it quite so literally as Marra Burton ’20.
Burton spent the summer shadowing Pepper as she worked on the CBS broadcast crew, and job duties that started with driving a cart evolved into following Pepper step for step inside the ropes at Bellerive Country Club in Town and Country, Missouri, during the most dramatic tournament of the 2018 golf season: The PGA Championship.
Tiger Woods, once the most dominant male player in the sport’s history, was trying to chase down Brooks Koepka for his first major win in almost a decade, and that resurgence increased ratings 69 percent compared to the year before while drawing a gallery of thousands. Pepper was assigned to follow him all weekend, which meant Burton was right there the whole time, too, just off camera holding the monitor and other equipment as Pepper did live commentary.
That crackling energy isn’t something she’ll soon forget.
“That was unbelievable, being yards, feet, inches away from Tiger Woods,” Burton said. “It was crazy to just feel his emotion on the course, because it was infectious to the entire crowd … It felt like the crowd was cheering for me, and they weren’t. I was so excited about the whole thing I forgot to eat on Saturday.”
Despite shooting 64 on Sunday, the best final round at a major in his career, Woods ultimately came up two shots short thanks to Koepka’s record 72-hole score. Burton called that the highlight of a summer that saw her also work The Memorial in Columbus, Ohio, the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tennessee, and A Military Tribute in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, but the cumulative experience has solidified her career aspirations.
“TV is what I want to do,” Burton, a communications studies major, said. “Ever since I was 8 years old my dream was to be the anchor on The Today Show.”
Golf is perhaps the most complicated sport to televise, and Pepper gave Burton the opportunity to be exposed to as many aspects of the production as possible. One that stands out was being allowed into a broadcast trailer.
“It was like conducting an orchestra,” Burton said. “The biggest thing that was shocking to me about the whole thing is I didn’t realize how many people were involved.”
“They had a transformer blow on Friday, and she was right there in the middle of all of trying to get that truck online for the weekend,” Pepper said. “That’s experience you can never buy … She was full of questions. Her ears were wide open, eyes were wide open, and I hope she got a lot out of it.”
A member of the Furman Athletics Hall of Fame, Dottie Pepper is one of the most decorated athletes in school history. A three-time All-American, she led the Paladins to three top-four finishes at the NCAA Championships, highlighted by a runner-up showing her senior year in 1987 and a second-place individual performance as a sophomore in 1985.
Pepper went on to win 17 tournaments on the LPGA Tour from 1988-2004, including two majors, and after retiring as a player she became one of the most sought-after television golf analysts, working for The Golf Channel, NBC, ESPN and now CBS.
Burton got up the courage to ask if she could be an intern of sorts when Pepper, in town to serve as the emcee for the 2017 Athletics Hall of Fame Banquet, had breakfast with the women’s golf team. Pepper was impressed with how Burton presented herself in an e-mail query, and while many Furman players have sought her advice on the course Burton was the first to seek Pepper’s television expertise.
“(Television) was my Plan B pretty much the whole time, but we didn’t have a communications major at Furman so you sort of had to plug in the things that would help you cobble that together,” Pepper, who majored in health and physical education with a minor in business, said. “I put her in situations where she had to interact with people who were at a level that she would like to get to and beyond and put her in social and work situations where she excelled. She was terrific.”
So terrific CBS ended up paying Burton for all four tournaments, and she’s been offered the chance to pick up where she left off next summer.
But first, Burton, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, will turn her attention to helping Furman reach its third straight NCAA Championship. Asked which Dottie Pepper inspires her more – the player or the analyst – she couldn’t say.
“She is a huge inspiration to me in my golf game and in my studies,” Burton said. “She was a legend in golf, and now she’s a legend with broadcast as well. I have so much respect for her.”
Furman opens its season Sept. 9 at the Cougar Classic in Charleston.