Chirkinian – April 11, page 18
When news spread that legendary sports television producer Frank Chirkinian was battling lung cancer earlier this year, officials of the World Golf Hall of Fame held an emergency session to include him in the 2011 induction ceremony, scheduled for May 9.
Chirkinian, who lived in Augusta for more than 20 years, will not get to enjoy his induction into the WGHoF, or this month’s Masters.
The 84-year-old Chirkinian died early last month at his home in North Palm Beach, Fla., and was remembered by colleagues and those within the golf community for his decades of innovation that shaped the broadcasting of golf, as well as other sports.
Chirkinian virtually invented golf broadcasting, beginning with the first PGA Championship telecast in 1958. His use of different camera angles and the introduction of roving reporters altered the way golf was broadcast, but his most notable contribution to golf may have been the introduction of an under/over par scoring system that replaced the awkward cumulative scores that had been the televised norm.
To millions of golf fans, Chirkinian was best known for his production of the Masters, which he did until his retirement in the late 1990s. Chirkinian helped make Augusta National the iconic course it has become, capturing the beauty of the course with one captivating image after another during the 38 Masters telecasts he produced.
Chirkinian was known within the broadcast industry as a brusque and demanding leader, but also inspired fierce loyalty among those who worked for him during his long tenure with CBS.
In the late 1970s, Chirkinian was saddled with the nickname “The Ayatollah” by Masters announcer Pat Summerall, and that stuck as an oddly endearing tribute to a producer who knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish with each broadcast and made sure his minions followed his orders to the letter.
In addition to golf, Chirkinian also produced baseball, college football, Triple Crown horse racing, the Indy 500, the Winter Olympics, and non-sports events, and during his career won a combined six Emmys and Peabody awards. He is also credited with introducing blimp shots to sports broadcasts, for which he won the eternal gratitude of blimp pilots, but no awards.
It was golf that Chirkinian was best known for, the Masters in particular. In the wake of his death, glowing tributes poured in from all over the broadcast and golf communities. But as someone who was never shy about voicing his opinions (he portrayed himself quite adeptly in the movie “Tin Cup”), here are some of Chirkinian’s observations from a one-on-one interview conducted with him in the Augusta National clubhouse for a story prior to the 1993 Masters.
Comparing broadcasts of the Masters to other golf events:
“There are a lot of notable differences. One is the lack of commercials. Commercials are like an island of retreat. You can stop for a moment, catch your breath and plan what to do next. I miss those things here at Augusta because things can get frantic.”
On the pre-renovated Augusta National layout:
“The venue hasn’t changed all these years. That’s the strength of the tournament and the telecast – the continuity. It’s like an old, comfortable sports jacket. It fits your body. People who don’t play golf tune in to see how beautiful the setting is. It transcends being a sporting event.”
On the value of the roving reporter, a topic he had mixed feelings about:
“We started the roving reporter with Bob Rosburg. But it didn’t take me long to realize that a subjective view of a shot was the worst view. The worst vantage point is from the fairway. That’s why we put announcers in booths above the fairway.”
(That still doesn’t explain David Feherty.)
On the role of announcers and the need for more than a few differing voices:
“To listen to one or two guys droning on for two hours is death. Golf by its very nature is inherently dull to watch. The amount of time that players hit the ball is maybe six minutes in a broadcast. You don’t want to have a single perspective or a single view.
“You want the announcers to interact and create an atmosphere of excitement. But we’re still basically in the picture business. If you need a narrative, you’ve blown it. My guys offer captions.”
On the CBS announcing crew at the time, and broadcasters in general:
“What we have is a perfect balance. There are an awful lot of players who would like to be broadcasters, but they have no qualifications other than being professional golfers. You need to be able to articulate the sport.”
(Switching sports, that still doesn’t explain Terry Bradshaw.)
On covering golf tournaments, which take place in an entirely different setting than other sports:
“This is not a structured sport. There are no time frames or innings and no natural breaks in the action. It’s just a giant amoeba. You create the form and the form becomes the telecast. The decisions in the truck come from a vast amount of experience and training. You factor them in within an eyelash.
“No event holds the challenge that a golf tournament does because of its unpredictableness. You can make no concrete plan because anything can happen to make it change.”
On dealing with the vagaries of an ever-changing leaderboard in the days when producers weren’t blessed mobile cameras that can cover all 18 holes.
“The movement of the cameras is predicated on the leaders. If it’s the last group, there’s no problem. But on Sunday, if somebody catches fire five groups from the end, see what that does to your mini-cams. That’s the nightmare; that all of a sudden the leader comes from the middle of the pack and you have to improvise.”
Case in point. The 1986 Masters is still remembered as perhaps the greatest Sunday ever in tournament golf, and Chirkinian’s broadcast was a work of art. But his cameras completely missed one of the most incredible feats in golf history.
Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite, playing two groups in front of the final pairing and just behind Jack Nicklaus, both holed out for eagle on consecutive shots from the 8th fairway. But no video of their shots exists, which would have been a major issue had either player won.
Fortunately for Chirkinian, Nicklaus took care of that for him.
That tournament ranked no better than second in Chirkinian’s all-time list of greatest Masters. That title belongs to the Nicklaus-Tom Weiskopf-Johnny Miller duel in 1975, with a big assist from some “captions” from veteran British commentator Henry Longhurst. (Broadcasting Brits, another Chirkinian idea.)
“Evil music to Mr. Nicklaus’s ears,” Longhurst intones as Weiskopf birdies the 15th with Nicklaus standing a short distance away on the 16th tee.
“Now Mr. Weiskopf must take it just as he dished it out,” says Longhurst a few minutes later in response to the across-the-green birdie putt on 16 that propelled Nicklaus to his fifth Masters title.
Even though Longhurst’s observations required more than four words, Chirkinian probably considered them more on a par with his artful visual broadcast than Verne Lundquist’s pithier and more dramatic “Yes, sir,” 11 years later.”
Or maybe it was just the British accent.
By Mike Blum