As he prepares to work his 25th Masters, Jim Nantz dissects his best calls, one of his worst nightmares, and why with or without Tiger, the show must go on
On a recent evening at the CBS corporate headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, Jim Nantz was waiting for the elevator on the 24th floor. "I don't believe it!" the 50-year-old announcer boomed as the doors slid open. Standing against the back wall of the elevator was Nantz's boss, the network chief, Leslie Moonves. The pair shook hands and after a lighthearted razz Moonves joked that he was considering replacing Nantz and his NFL partner Phil Simms with NBC's team of Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth the conversation turned to a certain golf tournament. "See that?" Nantz said in the lobby, moments after Moonves departed. "Masters talk. I get it everywhere I go."
That's what happens when you're as rooted to the tournament as the azaleas at Amen Corner: people want to gab about it. Fortunately for Nantz, so does he. After nearly a quarter century behind the mic at Augusta National, the man bleeds pimento. He is an unapologetic Augusta-holic, "hopelessly in love" with the club's storied tournament. If that sounds schmaltzy, deal with it. Nantz is a sucker for the tradition, lore, and pageantry of the game and he's unafraid to show it, on the air or off. "The fan in me," he says, "is right out there for people to see."
Sports reporters aren't supposed to root for the teams they cover. Is there any danger of you being too enamored by the Masters?
No, I'm a storyteller. I'm there to cover the tournament. If you talk about what I'm describing on the fringes the scene, the tradition, the history of Augusta I've studied that pretty hard. I love Augusta. I get to cover what I consider to be the best golf tournament of the year, and I really would like to think that one day God willing, CBS willing I'd be able to say that I worked 50 Masters.
That passion comes across in your openings. Do you write them yourself?
I write all my openings, yes. And we work on those a long time in advance, especially for Augusta. This is all very, very carefully thought out, and then to shoot it, edit it, and get the orchestration behind it, it's hundreds of hours that go into that two-and-a-half minutes.
As the final groups march up 18 on Sunday, you've said you feel a 'tremendous responsibility...to frame that moment for them.' Do you script any of those narrations in advance?
Nothing's scripted. But I have story ideas floating around my head. Saturday night going into Sunday we have what we call a nugget hunt, looking for nuggets and stories about each conceivable champion that we can use if we're given a chance. You never want to jam anything in there. The Masters isn't about Jim Nantz and his storytelling. It's about golf's greatest tournament.
What about your calls of winning putts for example, the Tiger Woods call in 1997: 'There it is, a win for the ages!' are some of those lines written in advance?
Some of them are, yes. If you take the eve of Tiger winning his first Masters, and he has a nine-shot lead, and you understand the significance of that moment, you realize that that clip is going to be played back for 10, 20, 50, maybe 200 years. I was looking for a summation line for a moment that was going to transcend the parameters of the sport and have a social significance far beyond the game. How do you document that? I actually felt a lot of pressure to make sure I had that spot on. I didn't want to wait until the last minute.
Is it true you have an uncanny ability for remembering dates?
It's not just dates. I can remember stories, quotes. I file lots of stuff away. I have in my head the Zach Johnson file, the Tiger Woods file, the Phil Mickelson file. If someone wanted to sit here for the next week and a half talking about one of those individuals, I could probably do that.
Let's start with Tiger. What was your initial reaction back in November when you heard that he was in a car accident?
I was at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where JFK was assassinated, just taking in the scenery. I've got a curious mind, and I've been there many times. As I walked back to the car my BlackBerry went off. It was Tommy Spencer [a CBS colleague], and the message said, "Have you heard? Tiger's been in a car accident and it sounds serious." So from that spot, where conspiracy theories abound, I called Mark Steinberg [Woods's agent] and he picked up right there on the spot. I thought that maybe [Woods] was going to die. I had no idea where the story was going no clue. I said, "Steiny, my heart just sunk. Is Tiger okay?" He said, "I've got a lot of things going on right now, but he's going to be fine." But it was a shock.
Were you surprised when the news broke of Tiger's transgressions?
Of course. Who wasn't surprised? I didn't have a window into his life off the course.
You have since taken issue with observers who say that golf without Tiger is doomed. Has his importance to the game in some ways been overstated?
I don't think what he has achieved has been overstated. But sometimes I think his placement in the game of golf overall is overly emphasized. The sport is not about one player, and I say that with a world of respect for his talents on the golf course. But the game is bigger than Tiger Woods. The doom-and-gloom theorists really don't understand the sport. His stepping away from the game is not the end of the world. There'll be some time when he's going to retire. Is that the end of golf? Of course not. The game has been around for centuries and now all of a sudden it's so fragile?
Are you concerned that the Woods scandal has tarnished the game's reputation?
Not a bit. Tiger's personal life doesn't have anything to do with golf. Somebody asked me, "How worried are you about the Masters without Tiger Woods?" I said, "Are you kidding me? I'm not worried about it all." If he decides to play, it will be great to have him in the field, and we'll cover it. But that tournament's going to be very special whether he's there or not.
Last fall your own personal life made headlines when you and Lorrie, your wife of 26 years, divorced. How difficult was it to have the trial and details of your private life covered by the media?
I just feel like the whole thing was so misrepresented, so inaccurately reported. And once something gets reported... there's layering and layering and you can never get back down to the original truth. It's really hard to believe what came out publicly, and how salacious it sounded. It's just really hurtful, and it's left me feeling really distrustful of everything I read or hear. I heard people I'm close to speculating on the radio about the divorce and ridiculing and laughing about some things that were written that just weren't true. I thought, Gosh, you know me better than that. I would never do that. How could you do this? Where's the sensitivity? That's all I'm going to say about that.