The gentleman on the left in the backward white hat looking disinterested as LaDanian Tomlinson celebrates his touchdown is my uncle. His name is Tom Kovtan. He actually knows “LT,” but he’s not allowed to show any support for the teams while he’s on the field. Tom’s a professional photographer. He is also a lover of golf and a Stick and Hack member!

Name a sport, and Tom’s got a picture and a story for you. From NFL to NASCAR to once being Tiger Woods’s “personal photographer,” Tom Kovtan has photographed some of the biggest events in sports, including a historic US Open. He was kind enough to recently share some of those pictures and stories and explain why one of the most iconic moments in golf history was also a personal victory for him.

S&H: You and I talked Stick and Hack a little earlier, and the people want to know, are you a stick? Or are you a hack?

Tom Kovtan: Hack. Proudly.

S&H: When did your love of golf really blossom?

Tom: I didn’t get serious about golf until I was in my 30s. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but some guys from work invited me to play with them, and I got hooked.

S&H: That sounds about right. If you had to put an estimate on it, how many pictures have you taken over the years for jobs alone?

Tom: Several million. Take a typical football game, that’s between 800 and 1,600 pictures. I’ve done close to 400 football games between college and pro. And that’s just football.  

S&H: How did you get involved or started in photography? 

Tom: I’ve been doing it all my life. Never taken a photography class either. 

S&H: Did you shoot for the school newspaper or anything?

Tom: No, just started out a hack photographer I guess you’d say. Used my dad’s camera.

S&H: What kind of camera was that; the kind with the fishing reel on the side that you looked down into?

Tom: Yep. An old Kodak. Single shot. Cameras have changed so much over time that it changes the way you shoot. You used to buy a roll of film and that was 36 pictures. The cameras I use today take 10 to 12 pictures per second. Comparing that to the film camera, I could take an entire roll of film on one football play or a long putt. 

S&H: How did you start photographing sports professionally?

Tom: Actually, I substituted for another guy. 

S&H: You Wally Pipped him?

Tom: Not quite. He kept his job, but there was a fella that worked in a photography store with who I used to do my business. He was aware of my other [not sports] work. This guy used to shoot for the [San Diego] Chargers. He was getting married, and one day he just said, “Will you substitute for me?” I said, “Hell yes!” 

I went down and shot the game. I carpooled with some other photographers, and as we were leaving, the editor for San Diego Sports Magazine asked me if I got any good shots. I told her, “Yeah, I think so.” She said she’d like to see them, so I put them on a disk or whatever it was back then and took them over. She liked them, and I was hired by this magazine. 

One thing led to another, and I’m doing NCAA sports, MLB, the PGA Tour, NASCAR, and whatever was around. Right place at the right time I guess.

S&H: Of all the stuff you shot through the years, sports or not, what’s an experience that stands out above the rest?

Tom: It’s something you wouldn’t even think of. Women’s rugby. I did an event in the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista between San Diego and Tijuana. There must have been eight or 10 fields there, and every field was full of women’s rugby. And those people are just nuts.

S&H: Rugby players?

Tom: Yes, and the one thing that’s really seared into memory was this player from a team in Chicago, and she had three or four of her teeth knocked out of her mouth. I mean the chicklets were just flying.

S&H: Actively? She didn’t come into the game missing these teeth?

Tom: Nope. During the game she had three or four teeth knocked out. And she refused to come out of the game. You wanna talk about some tough people. 

S&H: PGA Tour or just golf in general, what was the first golf event you worked on?

Tom: An assignment for the San Diego Sports [Magazine], and it was the Buick Open at Torrey [Pines]. I learned a good lesson. Golf is a difficult sport to shoot. You really only got two things to shoot: a guy swinging a club or a guy with a putter, but it relates to all other sports in that the really good pictures come from showing emotion. No matter what the action is. 

S&H: What makes a good sports picture? What’s the recipe?

Tom: Usually, a good sports picture has a guy’s face and the ball or his equipment in the picture. I sent you a picture of Phil Mickelson from the [2008] US Open, and you can see that he missed the putt just from the emotion on his face. 

S&H: Your job doesn’t seem dangerous but you have had some close calls with injury right? 

Tom: That was the California Speedway. Tony Stewart almost flattened me at that race. In the garage area, a lot of the toolboxes are outside between the two garages. And earlier, I was out at the end of the toolboxes, and I was crouched down getting shots when Tony Stewart was coming in, and as he made the turn into his garage, I can’t remember if I tripped on something or tried to jump or whatever, but I hit the side of his car. And he jammed on the brakes and he was out of that car so fast you couldn’t believe it. I thought I might have messed up the car, and here he was worried about me. Couldn’t have been a nicer guy.

S&H: Back to the ‘08 US Open? You’ve been to Torrey Pines to shoot other tournaments, but what’s something you automatically remember as unique from that championship?

Tom: That picture of Tiger doing the fist pump on the 72nd hole after forcing the playoff. I’ve shot a lot of Tiger over the years, and I was never able to get a fist pump. He just didn’t do it when I happened to be there. There’s something you gotta remember about him doing that. He actually does it twice. He does it once towards the hole and once towards his caddy. And I remember trying to get a place on the outside of the green where I’d be in between both those fist pumps. You gotta figure out where he’s gonna be standing when he’s putting, where the cup is, and where the caddy is. And then you try to position yourself, to get those shots. And I was just lucky enough that I did it. 

S&H: Any other Tiger tales?


Tom: At one of the tournaments I shot at La Costa, we were coming off the green, heading to the next tee, and the marshals put the ropes the wrong way. I was with the players and caddies, and we were stuck. So we’re waiting for them to figure this out, and I heard somebody behind me saying, “That’s quite a machine gun you got there.” And it was actually Tiger. He was looking at my camera with the long lens on it. He said, “How much does something like that cost?” I said, “Tiger, you could afford it, but I don’t know if you could operate it.”

Finally, the ropes got opened up, and we were walking up to the next tee together, and he said, “Do you want to get some tight shots?” I said, “Sure!” So he went up to the captain of that hole and told him, “Let this guy go wherever he needs to — he’s my photographer.” 

I was actually laying down, on my back, just off to the side of the tee markers shooting up towards the guys. And the funny thing is, after that group went out, I stayed there. Later, I looked down the fairway, and the guys from the San Diego Tribune, Sports Illustrated, and all these other photographers were looking at me mouthing something about sunny beaches. I thought they were talking about surfing. But they weren’t saying “sunny beaches.” They were referring to me. 

S&H: What other favorite golf memories? Doesn’t have to be photography-related, but what’s a memory for you and the game? Playing, watching, whatever. 

Tom: Talk about being in the right place at the right time. A long, long time ago, I went to an exhibition match in Seattle. It was Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, the local pro, and another pro. The guys were walking off the 18th green, and Arnold Palmer walked straight towards me. We couldn’t move, because there were so many people bottlenecked trying to leave, and there was Arnie right in front of me. I had my program and a felt pen, and I said, “will you sign my program?” He said sure, signed it, the place cleared out, and he finally left. 

I didn’t want to fight the traffic leaving, so I went into the clubhouses, grabbed a beer, and walked out back onto this veranda. And there’s Jack Nicklaus out there. He was nice enough to shoot the shit with me for a minute, and I said, “Will you sign this?” And I got the autograph of Nicklaus and Palmer on the same page of my program. 

Tom is currently living the retired life, still in San Diego, but he still does shoot when asked or he’s feeling frisky, especially for his annual Christmas card. It’s a fan-favorite among the family — always some incredible shot with a fun backstory. If not golfing, the safe bet to find Tom is shooting pool, bowling or in a garden. Renaissance man.

Bud Copeland

A self-taught stick with a hack brain, Bud grew up playing golf year-round in north Florida. Born-again New England, Bud learned what an “off-season” is. He now lives in Salem, MA with his wife, daughter, two cats, and dog, Miller. He is the sole Y chromosome in the house, believes we did land on the moon and strongly advocates for walk-up music on the first and eighteenth tees.