From the infancy of televised sports in the late 1950s through the dawn of the Tiger Woods era, Frank Chirkinian was the autocratic executive producer of golf for CBS. At age 83, he is an owner of the Emerald Dunes Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., and still plays a mean game himself.
You’re just back from the Masters. What did you think?
I did 38 Masters from 1959 to 1996 and this Masters might have been one of the top five all-time in my opinion. Swashbuckling Phil Mickelson did exactly what he’s noted for-playing crazy shots and getting away with it.
How much golf do you watch since you retired?
Very little. I don’t like what I see in most of the golf coverage. Golf is such an emotional game and I think when they take a shot from a 100-foot crane or a blimp of a tee ball you never see the golf swing or the reaction of the player. He’s just a tiny dot on the screen. Who cares about following a dumb golf ball? I just think there are too many toys available to these producers and unfortunately they overuse them.
Ken Venturi told me a few years ago that he puts the TV on the mute during a golf telecast because he thinks that the announcers now talk too much.
There is an excessive amount of conversation. Plus, I think there is too much clutter on the screen. I don’t know what you get from a screen with 50 different analysts pointing in different directions. While they are showing you that three guys are hitting shots live on the golf course. I always made it a point to show as much golf as I could and, thank God, that philosophy is still extant at CBS Sports. Lance Barrow (the coordinating producer) is doing golf just the way he learned how to do it.
This year the Masters was televised in 3-D for the first time.
I said some time ago that the greatest change in televising golf was in 1967 when we went from black-and-white to color. When I walked into my truck in 1967 and saw those colored monitors I almost broke down in tears. It was stunning. I said then that the next great innovation would be to see golf in 3-D and that I hoped it would happen in my lifetime.
But how many people will get it?
It’s just the first step. Some day you’re going to be able to see it without the glasses or a special TV set and receiver. But that’s quite a ways down the road.
It bothers me when I see players being shown using profanity on the golf course, especially the way Tiger Woods is sometimes targeted by the mikes during his cussing rants. You’re responsible for this innovation.
You’re reporting history as it’s happening. Up until I did the 1960 PGA Championship at Olympia Fields in Chicago, watching golf was like watching a silent movie. There was no sound. So I miked the tees and the fairways. No sooner than I did that does Don January get up and hit a tee ball on the 18th hole in the playoff against Jerry Barber and says “Goddamn it.” Everybody flinched.
How did the players at the time respond to the mikes?
Once they realized that there were mikes all over the golf course they started cleaning up their acts and acting like gentlemen. Rarely after that did you hear anybody swear. Unfortunately there are guys like Tiger who can’t do anything but swear and you know who they are. So your audio man has to be alert to turn off the mikes once those players hit the ball.
What do you look for when hiring on-air talent?
The best announcers I ever had were also good writers. Ben Wright, Henry Longhurst, Jack Whitaker and Jim Nantz, all good writers. Then I wanted somebody with a keen sense of humor.
So how did you hire Gary McCord?
I’m on a plane flying to Columbus, Ohio, and I’m sitting up there in first class, the way I should travel, and here comes McCord dragging his butt, headed to the back of the plane, when he stops by my seat and drops to one knee and says, “Please give me a job. I’m desperate. I need a job.” So I put him up in the tower with Vern Lundquist and I liked his humor. I had McCord and Ben Wright playing off each other all the time. It was hilarious.
Did you ever mess up on the job?
In Dallas one year at the Byron Nelson there was a playoff and the guy who lost the playoff, who I don’t want to give his name because it would embarrass his family, is walking hand in hand back to the clubhouse with this stunning blonde who is not his wife. I took the shot of them walking through the heather. I later apologized to the player, but the aesthetics of the shot were so compelling that I just had to take it.
There is so much golf on TV now. Would you have liked to have had 10 hours of Masters coverage on the weekend?
Here’s the problem: They would never let me cover all 18 holes. The network’s main concern was ratings. The HUT level, or homes using televisions, is best as you approach prime time. So I finally got my way and was able to arrange the tee times. I had the players go off later (2:55 p.m.) and that ran us to 7 p.m., almost into prime time, and the ratings got higher and we were an excellent lead-in to 60 Minutes. The club and the network loved that because they could make more money from advertising.
What was the most difficult Masters for you?
From an emotional standpoint, it was 1996 to watch my friend Greg Norman blow a six-shot lead.
Did the Augusta National Golf Club ever give you a list of do’s and don’t’s for the telecast?
That’s a figment of the imagination of the members of the fourth estate. There were never any hard rules. The only request Mr. Bobby Jones made was that we didn’t talk about the money. In fact in the old days they never published what the purse was until the Monday after the tournament. This year they had it in the newspaper on Saturday night before the final round. I was shocked. Things have really changed.
What do you think of today’s Tour pro?
In my day, the players didn’t show up with a posse. Now they have a sports psychologist, a cook, an agent, a lawyer and a trainer. Everybody is carrying a briefcase. And none of them hang out. That’s why we have a problem winning the Ryder Cup.
Have you forgiven Tiger?
We all make mistakes. I’m not sure why Tiger made that mistake. I’m not sure if it was because that’s the way his daddy was. I don’t know. He’s going to have a difficult task getting over this.
Did you ever have any pressure from the network to give special treatment to a player or an advertiser?
One year at the Masters a player was putting out on the 18th green and he was wearing a Amana freezer cap. One of my cameras had a great close up of it and I said that I wasn’t going to put that on the air. I wasn’t going to give Amana free advertising. When it got out the chairman of the board of Amana threatened to have me fired and he went to the CBS sales group and said that his company spent more than $2 million a year with the network and that I should be fired.
How did the network respond?
The network told him, “Sorry, we don’t tell Mr. Chirkinian what to do. If you want to go and take your money that’s your business.” I just thought at that moment that I needed to protect the integrity of our two advertisers.
I guess that’s part of the reason why you were nicknamed the Ayatollah for your dictatorial style.
Tell me about your club, Emerald Dunes.
It may be the best course in the state of Florida. We have a standing offer of two-dozen balls if you have a bad lie in any fairway.
How is your game?
I put a cool 77 on the boys today with two birdies. I’m a 10-handicap now. My lowest handicap was a four when I was a lot younger and suppler. I once shot 75 at Augusta National from the member tees. I birdied Amen Corner. I can still get it out there 210-220 off the tee. That’s not bad for an old fart.