The powers that be, in their wisdom, have made a late but excellent roster addition to the list of people who will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on May 9: Frank Chirkinian. The longtime CBS golf producer is one of the true mavericks and original thinkers in the game. If you enjoy watching the Masters on CBS, then you have some appreciation for Chirkinian’s remarkable stamp on the game.
Chirkinian, 84, had been considered for induction for at least a decade. Insiders always assumed that sooner or later he would get in. Years passed. Chirkinian grew up in Philadelphia, lived for years in Augusta and now lives in South Florida. He is street-wise, tough and direct, and he was never trying to win a popularity contest. He never lobbied Hall of Fame voters. But when it became widely known last month that he was undergoing treatment for advanced lung cancer, the World Golf Hall of Fame board, representing different elements of the golf establishment — including the PGA Tour, the LPGA, the PGA of America and the European Tour — held an emergency vote, and Chirkinian was elected.
He will be inducted, in the category of Lifetime Achievement, on the Monday before the start of the Players Championship. He’ll join Ernie Els; Doug Ford, the former Masters and PGA champion; the late Jock Hutchison; Jumbo Ozaki, the legendary Japanese golfer; and George H.W. Bush, the noted speed-golfer. Those elections were announced in September.
Chirkinian, known as The Ayatollah, was a snazzy dresser who at his tallest never sniffed five-six. He is being honored next week at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, where he has held court decades. He’s pretty much a legend wherever he goes, including the tiny, exquisite Bala Golf Club in Philadelphia; Augusta Country Club; Emerald Dunes, a course he co-owns in West Palm Beach; and the French Market Grille, an Augusta restaurant he started.
But Chirkinian became Chirkinian because of his TV work. As the producer of golf for CBS, he ran a fiefdom that included his close friend Chuck Will, a good amateur player who sold cardboard boxes before Chirkinian decided he’d be good in TV, as well as Jim Nantz, Pat Summerall and Ken Venturi. Chirkinian was the producer of the first televised PGA Championship, in 1958 at the Llanerch Country Club in suburban Philadelphia. At the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick, he helped turn John Daly into a folk hero. The camera, and Gary McCord, almost never left his side.
His work at Augusta National, where he was respectful of the members but not intimidated, represents some of the best of televised sports. The Masters has very few commercial interruptions, something that would have been intimidating to most producers, but Chirkinian of course welcomed it. Ed Sneed’s collapse at the 1979 Masters, Nicklaus’s Sunday back-nine 30 en route to winning the ’86 Masters, and caddie Carl Jackson’s soulful comforting of Ben Crenshaw in Crenshaw’s 1995 victory would be included in a very long list of Chirkinian highlights. He retired from CBS in the late 1990s.
If an announcer said, “He missed that from three-feet,” Chirkinian would yell in the broadcast truck, “Is this radio?” His mantra was, “Tell me a story!”
Actually, it still is.