John McGrath: Boeddeker is the eye in the sky for golf broadcasts

The light gray sky was not what John Boeddeker wanted Friday, but just because the NBC cameraman works close to the clouds doesn’t mean he can control what they do.

Since 1995, Boeddeker has been tracking golf shots atop the 120-foot crane set up near the signature hole of a course. The benefits of the occupation begin with an indisputable truth: Whenever he goes to a tournament — Boeddeker has covered more than 500 of them — he’s got the best seat in the house.

But climbing to that seat isn’t for everybody. In fact, it wasn’t for Boeddeker, either.

“I was scared to death of heights,” Boeddeker recalled Friday as he prepared to spend an afternoon above the No. 18 fairway at TPC Harding Park. “I had to climb 12 eight-foot sections of scaffolding about 100 feet high. I had a harness on but still had to literally crawl to my camera on all fours.

“I was OK once I got in my black-and-white, two-dimensional world,” Boeddeker continued, referring to the shade housing of his camera viewfinder. “But at the end of Sunday, I kissed the ground.”

Sensing expanded employment opportunities awaiting a cameraman with a specialty, Boeddeker climbed another scaffold a few days later. The fear gradually abated, enabling him to pursue a career full of both intangible riches and unique challenges.

Tracking a small white ball soaring into the not-so-blue yonder, for instance. Overcast days aren’t optimal, but they beat those days that bring rain or hail or lightning.

“ ‘How do I follow the ball?’ is a question I’m asked a lot,” he said. “It’s mostly about confidence: If you’ve any kind of doubt about where the ball will go, you will lose it.

“The guys who play golf at this level are so consistent, I’m not surprised very often. It would be much more difficult tracking the shots of amateurs who hit the ball all over the place.”

Space up there is cramped during work days that last as long as 16 hours, so a crane cameraman can’t bring much more into his “office” than a small ice chest packed with snacks. Believing a personal camera with an extended lens to be too unwieldy, Boeddecker never was able to photograph the unique vistas he encountered.

Thanks to some technological advancements — specifically, the 2009 introduction of the Samsung Galaxy smart phone — Boeddecker began to share still images on Facebook of the more than 30 tournaments he annually works.

Friends were wowed to the point one of them talked him into assembling a book of his most dazzling photos. The publishing industry is as thick with trademark rights and legal loophole issues as any other industry — only more so — and Boeddecker was tempted to call the project off on several occasions.

“I’d hit these walls, and it became frustrating,” he said. “Except every time I hit one, something happened that made me want to continue.”

It helped that his bosses at NBC Sports were on board, as well as the PGA Tour and USGA. Upon learning that Boeddeker used a Galaxy smart phone to take his photos, Samsung helped fund publication.

Boeddeker’s hard cover book, “My Office Window,” was released Feb. 12. Containing his favorite 40 full-color photographs out of thousands, it costs $39.99 and is available at

Boeddeker plans to donate portion of the proceeds from his book’s sales to the Wounded Warrior Project. The cause coincides with the San Diego resident’s tradition of planting an American flag on top of the TV crane, in memory of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack victims.

Although NBC won’t televise the 2015 U.S. Open, Boeddeker is making arrangements to work at Chambers Bay as part of the Fox Sports camera crew. He doesn’t know if Fox will assign him the crane camera, only that he’s sure he’ll be in the merchandise tent for book signings.

“It’s been a really cool career,” Boeddeker said. “My brother is a successful businessman — an extremely successful businessman — and he has told me he’d trade his job for mine in a minute.”

Boeddeker smiled as he put on some nasty-weather gear in anticipation of the brisk Pacific Ocean breeze, a San Francisco trademark as indelible as cable cars.

Moments later, the guy who grew up with a fear of heights was climbing halfway to the sky.