Vartan Kupelian, a long-time Detroit News reporter who spent decades as one of the most respected golf writers in the country and who figured he had covered 168 major championships spanning all the tours throughout his career, died Thursday. He was 73.
His friend, George Eichorn, confirmed Kupelian’s death to The Detroit News.
Kupelian had been battling heart and diabetes complications for some time, having undergone quadruple-bypass surgery in May 2017.
“He could cover anything, he was that good,” said Mike O’Hara, Kupelian’s long-time friend and colleague at The News. “A sport he’d never heard of, he’d write 18 great inches.
“And he broke story after story after story, before Twitter, when you couldn’t recover in 20 seconds.”
Kupelian was born in Germany before moving to Michigan at a young age. He graduated from Highland Park High School, where he lettered in basketball and played golf (“but not very well”) and earned his degree from Wayne State, where he commuted to via bus every day, before eventually landing a job at The News.
He quickly ascended to Red Wings beat writer.
One of his most memorable assignments was to chronicle Gordie Howe’s time, nearing age 50, with the New England Whalers, just before Christmas in 1977.
“Going to Red Wings games with my father was a ritual,” Kupelian wrote following Howe’s death in 2016 — it was Kupelian’s last byline in The Detroit News. “He was a factory worker, but back then, even blue-collars could afford to sit in the upper deck or buy standing room and sit on the steps. That was a different time, in a lot of ways, but always special because we were privileged to see Howe, the greatest athlete I ever covered.”
Hockey was Kupelian’s first specialized beat, covering the Red Wings from 1974-88 — once, on the team flight, Bugsy Watson took and hid his typewriter; “Try explaining to the sports editor that you’ve lost a typewriter,” he once wrote — but wasn’t his last.
In 1994, he became The Detroit News’ golf writer, succeeding Jack Berry — 21 years after Kupelian covered his first golf major, Johnny Miller’s legendary win at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania.
Among the majors he covered were two U.S. Opens at Oakland Hills, Andy North’s win in 1985 and Steve Jones’ in 1996, as well as the Ryder Cup, also at Oakland Hills, a European rout over the U.S., in 2004. He also covered three PGA Championships at Oakland Hills, won by Gary Player, David Graham and Padraig Harrington. Among his most memorable majors in Michigan was the 1991 U.S. Senior Open, when Jack Nicklaus outdueled Chi Chi Rodriguez. That ended in a playoff.
“Chi Chi was the perfect foil, who said things like, ‘I’m a little mouse and he’s a big bear, what chance do I have?’” Kupelian told The News last summer, for a story about the PGA Tour’s long-anticipated return to Michigan with the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club. “Any time Jack wins, it’s historic.”
In 2009, after his official retirement from The News, Kupelian began a two-year term as president of the Golf Writers Association of America. In February 2010, he was president when the association unanimously refused to take part in Tiger Woods’ first public comments since his scandal broke the previous Thanksgiving. Woods’ camp wanted to allow just six pool reporters, but the Golf Writers Association of America refused to participate if questions weren’t allowed.
Despite that public mini-dustup, Woods respected Kupelian. Woods would always close his press conferences at the Buick Open at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc with, “Are we finished, Vartan?”
In 2014, he was elected to the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, and won the Golf Association of Michigan’s Distinguished Service Award.
“The world of golf and sports journalism lost a great friend this week in Vartan Kupelian,” the PGA Tour said in a statement. “While we at the PGA Tour primarily knew Vartan as the knowledgeable and well-respected golf writer for The Detroit News, he had a legendary career and a loyal following in Detroit and throughout Michigan, covering all major professional sports as well as the Olympics.
“Vartan always had a story to tell and smile on his face that would brighten the days of everyone he encountered on the PGA Tour, especially our communications staff. That smile will be sorely missed.”
Interestingly, Kupelian didn’t play a ton of golf — though he was quite good, between an 8 to 10 handicap at his best. He always told friends, “If you want to play a lot of golf, don’t become a golf writer.” He routinely would avoid tournament pro-ams and media days, believing a journalist accepting free golf wasn’t proper etiquette. That was his personality, always low-key. He wasn’t loud, but he was observant and smart.
Kupelian also covered five Olympics, as well as Super Bowls, Stanley Cup playoffs, the World Series, Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Triple Crown and the NBA Finals. His favorite Tiger was Dick McAuliffe, and his favorite Red Wing was Reed Larson.
He also was the Lions’ beat writer — for exactly two days. O’Hara once got mad at another colleague (who shall remain nameless), and abruptly quit, forcing Kupelian into a last-minute road trip to Seattle, until the sports editor eventually got O’Hara to reconsider.
Kupelian wrote on just about every sport for The News, his coverage spanning the globe. He also co-wrote a popular “Behind the Scenes” column for more than 20 years with O’Hara. The column was observational and humorous.
One time, at the 1996 U.S. Open, they took a light jab at Greg Norman, suggesting he left the grounds in his Bell helicopter after avoiding the media. The next day, Norman’s public-relations person was outside the press center, waiting for both of them, with a hand-written note from Norman, saying, “For your information, I left in a Detroit-made Chevy Suburban.” He had a sponsorship deal with Chevy, except he misspelled Suburban. “Hey Vartan,” O’Hara said, “here’s a tap-in.” The News printed the letter, which eventually was auctioned off for a local charity, fetching about $100.
In all, he spent 38 years as a writer and columnist at The News, starting in 1971, and left via buyout the same day as O’Hara, in the summer of 2008, after the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.
“No looking back,” Kupelian, who was tight with many of golf’s greats, from Arnold Palmer to Woods, wrote in the final “Behind the Scenes” column with O’Hara, published Aug. 15, 2008, their last day. “It was a great run but it’s time to move on. It’s true that when you have a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Kupelian and O’Hara met at Wayne State in the mid-1960s, when Kupelian was editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, and O’Hara wrote columns. After graduation, Kupelian went on to work at the Royal Oak Tribune, and O’Hara joined The News. They reunited at The News in 1971, when Kupelian joined the staff, and O’Hara had just returned from a stint in the Army.
After retiring from The News, Kupelian stayed in the golf-writing business, penning columns for PGATour.com as well as Masters.com. He recently covered the Champions Tour, and throughout his career also covered the LPGA Tour and European Tour, as well as the state’s pro and amateur scene.
Kupelian, of Farmington Hills, wrote four books on golf, one on Woods, as well as historical texts on Oakland Hills and Red Run Golf Club in Royal Oak.
Kupelian, who was to turn 74 next Wednesday, is survived by wife Betty and daughter Lisa. Funeral arrangements were pending Thursday night.