Forget the batter's box and the Louisville Slugger.
This is about another pressure-filled sports arena, the one featuring a square booth and a powerful microphone.
|CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz on golf: 'It's the hallmark of who we are.' (Getty Images)|
Now 50, Nantz was an impressionable kid in the 1970s as golf took off as a televised sport, his nose pressed to the glass of a cathode-ray tube as he soaked up the sage words of Vin Scully, Jack Whitaker, Pat Summerall, Ken Venturi and Jim McKay.
Nantz has broadcast every meaningful big-league entity in sports, including the NCAA Final Four and Super Bowl earlier this spring, but there's little doubt in his mind where the identity of CBS Sports is found. Usually, it's between 3-6 p.m. on the weekends, for those who haven't been paying attention for the past few decades.
"It's so related to who we are as a network, and I don't mean just as a sports division," said Nantz, who has 25 years at the network under his belt. "It's part of the DNA of CBS.
"The NFL draws the monster ratings, and yes, it's [the Super Bowl] the most-watched event in American television history. But CBS golf is the hallmark of who we are."
It may sound a tad self-indulgent, but this month represents a landmark time for the network, too. Before everybody's eyes start rolling back in their heads like Fernando Valenzuela during his windup, understand that June marks the 60th year that CBS first beamed fuzzy images of grown men chasing little white balls into America's living room, if not its subconscious. That might not sound as sexy as the streaks posted by iconic boob-tube staples such as Gunsmoke, Guiding Light or 60 Minutes, but golf has been a near-permanent fixture, a soap opera and reality TV show that unfolds each weekend -- without a script.
From Hogan and Snead, Jack and Arnie, to Tiger and Ernie, CBS has helped supply the broadcast spackle to fill those incredible generation gaps. The beginnings were humble -- at least as far as anybody knows. According to network broadcast logs, golf on CBS was first broadcast in June, 1951, when Hall of Famer Roberto De Vicenzo won the Palm Beach Round Robin at Wykagyl Country Club in suburban New York. No recording of the tournament apparently exists, because back then, recording devices were rudimentary and the film cannot be located.
Based on the incredible evolution in the delivery of news, video and information, maybe that's for the best. It not only wasn't hi-def, it was probably closer to tone deaf. No question, when it all began, they were doing the directorial equivalent of drawing up plays in the dirt, using twigs and bottlecaps. De Vicenzo was from Argentina, which seemed only fitting, because at first, golf on TV seemed rather foreign -- it surely was as ragged as some of the courses they played back then.
The game's rough-hewn broadcast beginnings truly came a few years later, when network golf godfather Frank Chirkinian was hired to direct the CBS coverage of the 1958 PGA Championship near his home in Philadelphia, where the PGA Tour is playing this week. Chirkinian set up six massive cameras on the four closing holes, including one placed in an oak tree, while McKay climbed onto the clubhouse roof near the 18th green. Imagine covering a mobile sport played over hundreds of acres in spotty lighting with stationary cameras -- the mobile handheld units used today were not invented for several more years.
Because CBS didn't have anybody in Manhattan that knew the first thing about televising golf, they hired the 5-foot-5 Chirkinian as producer/director and the game would never be the same again. "They threw a lasso over me and sent me to New York," he said.
Though Chirkinian ruled with the brusque discipline of a four-star general, rope burns were comparatively few based on the length of his tenure. In 39 memorable years of barking into headsets and pushing buttons, he invented a broadcast template that, to this day, largely stands. Thanks to Chirkinian, CBS was the first to use high-angle cameras positioned in blimps and trees. He used roving reporters on the ground, put microphones in tee boxes, and in 1960, first listed scoreboard totals of the players relative to par. Before that, tracking the leaders required an abacus, slide rule or crystal ball. Chirkinian broke more ground than a driving range filled with 40-handicappers.
As for consistency, over the arc of the CBS golf experience, Chirkinian and one other guy, his former sidekick and eventual successor Lance Barrow, have called the shots. Barrow took over signal-calling duties when Chirkinian retired in 1996. Having only two choreographers on a Broadway show of this length is almost unthinkable.
"The success of any entity, corporation or company has to do with continuity of management and that was our strength -- and it still is," Chirkinian said.
The network ties to the game predate television, which barely existed 60 years ago. CBS Radio covered the inaugural Masters in 1934, a broadcasting first, and after World War II ended, Masters chairman Clifford Roberts recognized the potential of the small screen -- even though only an estimated 6,000 households had them at the time. A local television station in Missouri televised the last hole of the 1947 U.S. Open, but the sport was tough to follow because stationary cameras were the lone option.
NBC broadcast the 1954 U.S. Open live nationally and Roberts wanted his increasingly important event to receive the same treatment, but the peacock network wasn't interested. As his second option, Augusta National cut a quick deal with CBS and an estimated 10 million saw the broadcast in 1956 as Jackie Burke beat Ken Venturi, an amateur and future CBS analyst, by a stroke.
With 2½ hours of airtime over three days, the broadcast was choppy and not particularly memorable, especially by current standards, but viewers were delirious. The brass at CBS wrote a letter to Roberts that read in part, "our department has been literally flooded with letters from all parts of the country." A marriage with the Masters, and later, the PGA Tour, had been joined. CBS is broadcasting 21 PGA Tour-sanctioned events this year, including two majors, the Masters and PGA Championship in August.
After six decades, it's hard to recall a time when CBS wasn't involved in televising the sport. A talented junior player, Nantz grew in the 1970s when TVs first became affordable and commonplace, so he inhaled everything the network broadcasts had to offer. So did millions of others.
"There seemed to be something about the chemistry on CBS golf," Nantz said. "I am not trying to promote what we do now, because I'm talking about well before my time.
"There was a kinship, something that made you think those guys were buddies. It was like the broadcasters coming into your living room were your friends because you shared a lot of time with them on the weekend."
Nantz, in the midst of his 25th season at CBS -- representing exactly half his lifetime -- believes that after all these years, there's a continuity at the network that longtime viewers find comforting.
"When you say CBS, it's not just about seven announcers, because there are about 250 people who put on the show who are responsible for what it looks and feels," he said. "I think there's a respect for the game, that CBS produces a golf show in a style that was set by Frank Chirkinian and followed by Lance Barrow.
"I think they follow the same kind of outline and have the same kind of vibe that they always did."
At times, Nantz sounds almost paternal about the product, which continues to evolve, but acknowledges its 60-year-old roots.
"If you want irreverence, we've got it," he said. "If you want outstanding swing analysis, we have that. Former major champions, we have them. If you want the history of the game, we have it covered. If you want the storyline, everyone's capable.
"There's an interesting mix and no two people sound alike and everybody lends a little different personality to the show. So, yeah, we all are very proud of that."