Nantz remembers CBS colleague Chirkinian
With Frank Chirkinian’s death, the golf world lost one of its legends. Chirkinian never hit a ball, but instead was an artist with a vision for golf that in so many ways had never been painted. His creativity helped the sport appeal to a mainstream audience and reach the level of success that it enjoys today.
Nicknamed “The Ayatollah” for his fiery demeanor in directing traffic on telecasts, Chirkinian was a father figure for many in the television industry. Perhaps his most famous pupil was Jim Nantz, who came to CBS Sports in 1985 as a relative unknown. Today, he credits Chirkinian with helping to elevate Nantz into the iconic face of the Masters. As Nantz says, when you hear him on CBS broadcasts, there is some of Chirkinian in everything.
Alex Miceli of Golfweek had a chance to catch up with Nantz at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am and talk about Nantz’s friend and mentor, who succumbed to cancer March 4 at age 84.
MICELI: Can you share some Chirkinian stories?
NANTZ: I knew all about him since I was a kid and studied network sports television, and that was really where I learned about Frank. When I got the call in 1985 to join CBS Sports, I knew that at some point there was going to be an introduction to the great legend. I was 26 years old, so I’m not going to lie: I was very timid and in awe of him. I got some really good vibes early that Frank was aware of my hiring. The back story on this is that the week I was interviewing for CBS, in August of ‘85, Fred Couples was staying at my place in Utah. I was working at Salt Lake City at the CBS affiliate, and he was there for a senior-junior event at Jeremy Ranch in Utah, and he played with Gay Brewer in a best-ball format. Anyway, (Couples) knew I was going through all of this with CBS and auditioning and flying back and forth to New York, and it was very comforting to have his easygoing manner at that time in my life, to be reunited with Fred and to be facing this really watershed moment. So as he’s playing in that tournament, I actually went to meet with more people again, and by the time I came back, the tournament was over and he was gone. But the next week, he happened to go to the U.S. Open tennis, which Frank used to also of course direct and produce. And Frank saw him there. And he said, to Fred, he says, “Hey, there’s some guy interviewing here at CBS who claims he knows you and you guys roomed together in college. Do you know who I’m talking about?” Of course Fred was completely aware of the process I was going through and Frank said, “Well, do you think he could handle golf one day?” And I think Fred assured him that I could. And that was it. It was the very first time that I had any awareness that Frank knew about my auditioning. Anyway, Frank’s was not part of the decision-making process – I don’t want to mislead you on that – but that was the first time I had any feedback that Frank had any idea who I was. And it came via a very close friend running into him at the U.S. Open. So I got hired the end of August, 1985. I immediately was told that my role there would involve a lot of things. It would involve first off hosting the college football studio show, the Prudential college football scoreboard show. And then after, that there would be some basketball and there would be some golf. Of course, I was tickled to death to know that I would be somehow involved in the tapestry of CBS golf. My first tournament involving Frank – my first appearance in front of Frank – was 25 years ago: the ‘86 AT&T at Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Interestingly, Frank flew me out there. I stayed for the week; they didn’t have rooms. They were out of rooms at the lodge, CBS only had so many rooms, so they put me in a house off the first fairway at Pebble – those ones right there on the elbow of the dogleg, on the left side. Fairway house No. 2 is what it’s called. It was the old Lawson house. And I roomed for the week with Bob Drum. “The Drummer.” Yeah it was pretty interesting. It was a great time. And I was all excited to get the chance to meet Pat Summerall and Ken Venturi, Ben Wright and then especially Frank. Interestingly, he brought me there, we had several team dinners and functions and parties. I was invited to be in the middle of all of this. He took me out to play golf. I really got to kind of know him that week and then Frank said, “I’m not putting you on the air. I want you to observe.” He was like a coach being handed a young running back and then making him inactive right before kickoff. I didn’t know quite how to take that. But I was out there for the week and he says I want you to observe, sit behind me in the truck, go out to the towers, and that’s what I did.
NANTZ: So I had a one-week Frank Chirkinian tutorial and a get-to-know-me week at Pebble Beach. During that time, oddly enough he was both gentle and very kind-hearted and supportive, and other times he would rough me up a little bit. Frank had that big bark, and you quickly snapped into line right on cue. He’d say, “I want you to learn how we do things around here. I don’t want you to say anything obtuse. Watch the way we do this. Keep your words to a minimum. Don’t tell me what I can see on the screen. This is a visual medium, son. This isn’t radio. A guy misses a putt, if I ever hear you say the guy missed a putt, I’m going to come out of the truck I’m going to climb up the tower and I’m going to strangle you.” I said, OK, I got it. I understand.
MICELI: So I’m assuming that, as much as he would tell you that, I’m sure that you once or twice made one of those faux paus, what was that like?
NANTZ: Oh, yeah, I mean I’m sure Frank was just waiting for me to fall on my own sword. He never really jumped me. He knew he had a young kid in his hands, and he made some remark to me very early on, “I’ve never had a chance to mold somebody into the golf and mold them the way I want. So we’re going to take this thing on my schedule.” He always felt like he had very, very distinguished broadcasters who were doing a lot of things, as I’m fortunate enough to be able to do. But you know, he knew he had someone with a golf background now who was young. And he could mold. And I was an eager pupil – eager to listen and learn from the legend.
MICELI: When you started doing majors, did it become more of a collaborative effort? Or was he always “the guy” and you followed?
NANTZ: Oh, Frank was always the man. He was the coach. For the crew. For the whole crew. We all took his lead. I can remember early on at Doral in ‘86, he put me in the 16th tower with another broadcaster who was new at the game, so we did it as a collaboration. I was there with Gary McCord . Sixteen is the short dogleg par 4. I went up to Frank and I said, Hey, Frank – I actually said Mr. Chirkinian, which drove him crazy; I mean, I was just raised to be a Yes, sir; no, sir, Mister, and Missus-kind of an up bringing -- and he says, “Oh don’t call me Mr. Chirkinian. And another thing: Would you please quit calling him Mr. Venturi and Mr. Summerall on the air? They’re your colleagues, son. It’s Kenny; it’s Pat. I’m Frank.” It’s still one of those things that I would have to kind of gradually work its way out of my kind of my brain. And I asked him, Mr. Chirkinian, I’m really concerned about this golf commentary. I don’t know what my style is supposed to be. What kind of style – and that’s the word I used. He said, “Don’t ever ask me a stupid question like that. You just go up there and be yourself, for God sakes. I don’t want to hear about style. Don’t try to create somebody you’re not; just be you. You know golf. You have a passion for it. You have strong vocabulary skills. Just go broadcast the golf. For God’s sakes, don’t ever talk to me again about style.”
MICELI: When did you last see him?
NANTZ: In mid-December. I went to Florida to surprise him. I left that New England-Chicago blizzard game, and it just dawned on me that wouldn’t it be really an appropriate time to go down there and sneak in to Emerald Dunes (Chirkinian’s home club in West Palm Beach) and see him. It was really great to see him and great to just be able to surprise him.
MICELI: Can you tell me a seminal moment that you can remember with Frank when you guys were doing the Masters? Was there anything that really just stood out to you, when you think back about it?
NANTZ: Well, I just think of those moments when it’s game time, if you will, and everybody’s in the middle of being in that life-on-air zone and Frank is calling camera marks. He’s calling the broadcast around – “Let’s go to 15.” People today don’t produce and direct. He did both. You know unless you’re in the industry and you sit in the truck and looked at the wall of monitors, it looks like you’re inside of – I used to say the cockpit of a 747, but this thing’s probably about five times the size of that – that production truck. And you look at all of the monitors and all the different pallets with which he can choose to paint his picture on that one canvas, that one on-air life signal, and my gosh there’s just so many things out there in front of him and he was calling it. He was calling for camera shots, camera angles, zooms, pans, announcers, listening to the commentary, calling for graphics. Again, unless you’re in the industry and you saw the inside of that truck, you have no appreciation for how complicated that had to be. But in the heat of the moment, as much as he had this reputation for being this barking dictator, I found him to be very sooting and gentle. And almost would lull some kind of trance when we were in the biggest moments in the game. Be it the Masters tournament and something’s unfolding in front of you, and he would be all that’s going on. I don’t hear everything that he’s calling out -- it doesn’t all come into my ear, my head set, if you will – but he would hit the switch and he would say, “Jimmy, he’s coming; it’s coming to you at 16. Paint me a picture. “ He would be almost whispering. You would feel like this was something like the two of us, not millions of people. It’s a gift. It’s just such a gift the way, you know, he was able to get the best out of people and communicate with people and lead.