Posted by: Tom Spencer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 12:25 PM
On September 10th, 1950 Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio blasted three homeruns for the New York Yankees at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. During that same day, the television business received a jolt of energy as a young Frank Chirkinian commenced a career that would last nearly 50 years. By the age of 32, the up-and-coming studio director from WCAU-TV in Philadelphia was hired to oversee CBS Sports’ coverage of the PGA Championship at Llanerch CC. From that point forward he made his sports television product an indelible feature in homes across America.
That first Philadelphia-area major tournament had three announcers—led by Jim McKay—15 technicians and six black and white cameras covering the final three holes. The network showed an hour on both Saturday and Sunday. By the time he retired in 1996, golf broadcasts had grown to where remote compounds resembled small cities and 18-hole coverage was becoming commonplace at the majority of big events.
The players and the tournaments he documented for 38 years at Augusta National are permanently etched into the minds of sports fans around the globe. Three of Arnold Palmer’s four Masters titles were covered by Chirkinian. He showcased all six of Jack Nicklaus’s six Green Jackets as well. Frank helped make the international contingent at Augusta into household names: Gary Player (three wins), Seve Ballesteros (two) and Nick Faldo (three).
He also flourished when covering the heartbreaking stories as well. At the peak of Palmer’s powers in 1961, Arnold inexplicably double bogeyed the 72nd hole to lose the Masters to Player. But what really disturbed Chirkinian was the South African’s on camera stoicism as the collapse unfolded.
“(Player) was just sitting there, doing nothing,” recalled Chirkinian. “For a moment, I thought he was just going to shake hands with his wife (Vivienne). It was a moment that demanded emotion, so I said, ‘Kiss her, you fool,’ which he did.”
Seven years later, Argentina’s Roberto de Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard in the 1968 Masters (he signed for a par 4 on the 17th hole instead of the birdie 3 he’d actually made) and lost to Bob Goalby. In one of the most turbulent years of the 20th Century it was perhaps a fitting conclusion.
“We knew about [de Vicenzo’s error] before he got to the studio,” said Chirkinian. “We made the announcement on the air and when Roberto realized he had made a mistake, he said, with tears in his eyes, ‘I am stupido.’”
Sometimes the agonizing finishes at Augusta were drawn out over long periods of time. In those situations Frank slowed down the pace of the show, cutting fewer cameras and insisting his commentators limit their dialogue, thus allowing us to experience the pain of a Tom Weiskopf or an Ed Sneed or a Greg Norman. On the flip side, when the excitement reached its zenith, Chirkinian conveyed that energy right into the hearts of his announce team and thus to the senses of the viewing audience.
The 1986 Masters, captured by a 46-year old Golden Bear, could be CBS Golf’s crowning day of coverage. But tied for the lead in that category might be the 1975 version when a slightly younger Bear outlasted two heavyweights in Weiskopf and Johnny Miller.
Enhancing the spine-tingling action was the fabulous commentary emanating from the mouths of the announcers - including an exchange between Ben Wright (15th hole) and Henry Longhurst (16th hole) that Chirkinian long considered one of the best storytelling moments in sports television. He once told Sports Illustrated that the reason he hired experienced writers like Wright and Longhurst was to put the proper words to the pictures. He wanted story tellers.
“There was so much drama and great golf it just all flowed and happened and it was mesmerizing,” he remembered. “There was this great duel with Nicklaus, Weiskopf and Miller and great dialogue to go with the action. Jack was always so stoic, but he wasn’t that year.”
(On Sunday April 10th, Jim Nantz Productions will re-air that Emmy-award winning ’75 broadcast just prior to the live final round coverage from Augusta.)
The ’75 tournament was seamless to cover because the action was so good; so palpable that CBS simply documented the three men vying for the title. But through the years, Chirkinian needed all of his and his crews’ creative genius to invent different ways to make golf television better.
The list of elements Frank innovated or enhanced is long and noteworthy: He initiated the universally used scoring system of listing a player’s score over and under par. Chirkinian promoted the use of videotaping, editing and audio mikes to condense playing time and enhance the sounds of the game. He employed the use of cranes to elevate cameras for better coverage and brought the blimp into action at the 1960 Orange Bowl.
To show multiple golfers at once he first utilized the spilt screen in 1968. To display players’ reactions he kept a second camera focused squarely on them after the ball was struck.
Does it make sense to paint the cups white so we could see them better on screen (pre-HD era)? Frank made it happen. Would an announcer have a better feel for the action if he witnessed it with his own eyes verses calling it exclusively off a monitor from a different location? CBS still uses announce towers on the closing stretch to this day.
In the late 70s, Chirkinian suggested sudden death was a better than an 18-hole playoff to conclude the year’s first major championship and Augusta National agreed with him. His philosophy on weekends was to show as much golf as possible on Saturdays, but come Sunday afternoon to simply follow the leaders over and over, only breaking away to feature a “marquee” name crafting a memorable moment.
“Bob Jones loved the way we presented golf,” Chirkinian stated proudly. “He loved the fact that we showed a lot of golf shots. My philosophy was that a Saturday round was inconclusive, so you show as much golf as you can. That’s the way he liked it.”
He also encouraged on air humor to enhance the PGA Tour shows. Viewers recall Ken Venturi playfully winking at the camera after holing a long putt during his famous on-air tips or Bob Drum’s offbeat pieces about tour trends and Gary McCord’s magic tricks to fill time in rain delays. Frank used the pros to playfully promote tournaments—remember Nick Price wearing a cowboy outfit to plug the Western Open? When Ian Baker-Finch decided to hit a shot in his boxers out of a lake at Colonial, it became the focal point of the show.
Unbeknownst to viewers Frank also displayed a boisterous command of the English language, directing rants towards any mistake-prone individual within the sound of his baritone voice.
“And immediately into my headset came the unmistakable voice of “the Ayatollah,” our esteemed producer-director Frank Chirkinian,” wrote Ben Wright in Links Magazine. “It was surely the foulest barrage of oaths and curses that was ever heaped upon my head.”
Back in the early 50s when he just was getting started, Frank spent time around Philadelphia in the company of Ed McMahon, Jack Whitaker and his future associate producer Chuck Will. I never met Mr. McMahon, but if he was as interesting and well spoken as the other three gentlemen, those must’ve been some fascinating conversations.
While covering the 1991 Shark Shootout in Southern California for KNBR Radio, I found myself engaged in one of those conversations with Mr. Will when I was introduced to him in the CBS Production office. Within 15 minutes he inquired if I would like to shuttle Ben Wright around in a cart for Friday’s cable show and spot for him in the 17th tower over the weekend?
That wonderful opportunity gave me my first taste of Chirkinian’s creation—but from behind the curtain instead of in front of the television. I now understood more about the man who had aired the first live Olympic coverage in the States when he directed the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley. I could comprehend the person who aired Muhammad Ali against Leon Spinks, or 39-year old Jimmy Connors joyously leaping in the air at Louis Armstrong Stadium in the U.S. Open, or alternate John Daly’s improbable win at the 1991 PGA Championship.
When Jim Nantz and Will hired me to work on golf in 1995 I jumped at the opportunity to join such a distinguished and respected operation. The special father-son relationship between Frank and Jim and also between Frank and dozens of others quickly became evident in the two years I worked under his leadership. When Lance Barrow took over as coordinating producer of CBS Golf he was, and still is, only the second man to hold that lofty position since 1958. In the same time frame the United States has elected 10 Presidents into the Oval Office.
I learned to understand the loyalty, trepidation, respect and admiration the entire crew, many multi-decade veterans, had for Frank’s personality, philosophy and leadership. The men and women who operated the cameras, enhanced the audio, built the graphics, rolled the videotape, researched the storylines, pulled the cables and drove the trucks combined for a total team effort with one goal: Making the on air product as good as it could be.
While the crew revered, and sometimes feared their leader, Frank was rarely left in awe; except on one monumental occasion. In his 16th year in the business a storied day occurred in which he simply sat in the truck, gazing at his wall of monitors. Fittingly that moment came on Saturday, April 9th at Augusta National.
“From the day I started in television, September 10, 1950 to that first colorcast in 1966, I had been doing Casablanca every day—black and white and round up the usual suspects,” he recalled. “Now all of a sudden, the whole thing just came to life. The first camera we turned on, everybody in the studio was spellbound, mesmerized. I was absolutely bowled over. It changed everything in golf broadcasts, a dramatic transformation.”
Color television and the Masters had been joined.
When Frank’s health became a serious issue late in 2010 a tremendous push was made by close friends, colleagues and dignitaries to get him elected this year into the Golf Hall of Fame; an honor long overdue. He will now be recognized posthumously in the category of Lifetime Achievement.
In his life as a legendary producer-director the one thing Chirkinian always strived for, whenever possible, was to show golf as it was happening live. Taped shots were the last resort. Knowing that he wouldn’t survive long enough to make it to St. Augustine, Florida for the May 9th induction ceremony, Frank recorded his acceptance speech just days before he passed away. His final inspirational words to his crew and his peers won’t be live, but they’ll live in our hearts and minds forever.