The Good Life

Golf Talkers

Faced with five-hour broadcasts and 18 stages, TV’s golf commentators must rely on experience and each other
| By Jeff Williams | From Usher, September/October 2014
Golf Talkers
Photo/Golf Channel
Steve Sands is one of the Golf Channel’s most respected on-course reporters

“Hello friends.”

How often have we heard Jim Nantz use that welcoming phrase to open a CBS golf broadcast?

The network’s lead golf anchor has been beckoning us into the CBS den for more than two decades now, inviting us to sit down, relax, throw our feet up and watch golf on television as if surrounded by all the CBS commentators, themselves with their feet up and maybe a cold one in their hands. And the same can be said for NBC, ESPN and the Golf Channel crews. Each channel talker comes into our homes like family.

Unlike any other sport on television, golf broadcasting is a weekly sit down with commentators full of lively discussion and pastoral images of a sport played in 18 different arenas at once with more than 100 balls in play—and no timeouts.

Evolving out of the pioneering efforts of the late and legendary CBS producer and director Frank Chirkinian, who brought us fast-paced multiple-camera shots, the blimp and plus-minus-to-par scoring, golf on TV is a family affair on every network that broadcasts it.

We know these people, don’t we?

From the previously imperious Nick Faldo, a knight by the way, we now have the fuzzy-wuzzy lead color commentator for CBS. 

From the failed PGA Tour player Gary McCord, we have the witty, and a bit daft, CBS man in the tower.

From the major winner and dashing ’70s icon Johnny Miller, we have the acerbic and sometimes cutting NBC main man in the booth.

From the former European tour cut-up David Feherty, we have the peripatetic on-course cut-up for CBS.

From the ink-stained reporter for newspapers and magazines (and quite a good one), we have the Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte giving us the insider scoop.

And with the assistance of production staffs that can number more than 200 people, the voices of these families of commentators tell us about birdies and bogies, courses and conditions, injuries and insights week to week nearly all year long. 

“We have an eclectic group. That’s the way Frank Chirkinian wanted it,” says CBS’s Nantz. “He wanted different voices, different characters. We are living out Frank’s game plan every day. 

“Frank’s view was that golf was a boring sport and he spoke of incorporating synthetic drama into the broadcast through wonderful pictures, commentating, dressing up the edges, bringing in a foreign voice with a foreign point of view, doing what you could to connect with the players. He brought the blimp into television coverage at the 1960 Rose Bowl and it’s been a part of our golf coverage for such a long time. He put microphones in the cups. He invented the scoring system of plus and minus to par which made it much easier for the viewer to keep track of the players positions. He brought an ensemble together, a tapestry of broadcasters. I am so proud to be part of this family.”

It’s all about family as well for NBC/Golf Channel producer Tommy Roy.

“It’s certainly different from people whose job requires them to go to an office every day and sit in a cubicle for eight hours. Maybe they get to know someone in the next cubicle, but do they know them that well? For us, we come in on a Tuesday and don’t get out until Sunday night or Monday and we are basically living out here on the road with each other as a family. We eat dinner together, we eat lunch together, we work
together, we play golf together. 

“When we are working together, the thing about live television is that it’s very stressful. We are seeing each other at our best and at our worst. Unmasked, if that’s the way to say it. And in that way we really are so very much like a family. The NBC and Golf Channel teams, we really enjoy each other. We are laughing from the time we land until we all get out of town.”

CBS lead golf producer Lance Barrow has carried on Chirkinian’s legacy and extended the CBS family since taking over in 1997. For years he sat beside Chirkinian, a man who the late CBS golf anchor Pat Summerall nicknamed the Ayatollah for his brusk and demanding style. 

“Frank Chirkinian, his deal was you are together. You go out to dinner together, you hang out together,” says Barrow. “And when you do that, something always comes out about what we are going to do the next day on the broadcast. This becomes your second family. You spend more time with the men and women on this crew than you do with your immediate family. It’s like a family reunion every week, the more you are together, the more you get the teamwork together, the more you end up talking about things that will help you in the broadcast. 

“To oversee golf, we have 200 something people who travel around the country together. It is a family, we take care of each other, we yell at each other, we get mad at each other. But like I always said, I can yell at my brother but you better not yell at him. That’s the way we do it here.”

“Lance likes to call us a traditional family with a dysfunctional
aspect,” says CBS color commentator and dedicated swing analyst Peter Kostis. “Because we all bring something different to the telecast, we each have our little piece of turf that we provide insight into the telecast—Nick with his major championships, McCord with his humor, Feherty with his irreverence, me with my instruction, [Ian] Baker-Finch with his stories. Not many times are we in dispute with each other.”

Leave it to McCord to dispute that. As he sees it, no family can get along without conflict 24 hours a day, and in his mind, conflict can make for good television.

“You know, it’s like a sitcom, like the ones I grew up with, like ‘I Love Lucy.’ You had four people arguing, one with a foreign voice. That’s kind of like what we do. Heck, you don’t want to just agree on things. That’s boring. 

“I remember Ian Baker-Finch said something on air, and I jumped on it and argued the other side of it. After the broadcast he comes up to me and says why did you jump on me like that. I said ‘Ian, I agree with you 100 percent, but this is television, we need to argue.’ 

“Our ensemble, we’ve got a knight in Nick Faldo, a flaming idiot in David Feherty, a mouth like me and a bunch of fairly sane guys, so that makes for some good arguments.”

The arguments, the insights, the pithy lines and the close-up shots of faraway players are consolidated in a golf broadcast unlike any other game on TV. CBS’s Barrow knows this all too well as the coordinating producer of NFL broadcasts.

“Unlike a three-and-a-half hour football game where there is constant action but they quit playing when you go to commercial and they have time-outs and halftime, when you go to commercial [for golf] they don’t quit playing, golf is on the air three, four, five hours a day and they are playing constantly,” says Barrow. “I’ve always said that golf is the hardest sport to do on TV because there is so much stuff going on. Football, basketball or even baseball, it’s all right there in front of you. In golf, you might be on the 18th hole one moment, the third hole the next, the sixth hole the next. You are covering 18 stages. If you hear two voices all that time it would become mind-boggling. You need other announcers to give their thoughts. We are basically doing entertainment.”

“It is a slow sport. I don’t think golf is boring. It’s the most challenging sport to broadcast because you have 18 stages, nobody stops playing and nobody has numbers on their backs. There’s no timeouts. You can’t yell down to Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods and say we have 45 seconds to come back from a commercial, wait until you hit this shot or this putt.”

Golf commentary is more than calling out yardages and clubs and wind directions and leaderboard changes. There are stories to tell, and often there is time to tell them. 

“I try to have the announcers have a running conversation on the air,” says NBC’s Roy. “You have these former tour players, it’s almost as if they are sitting on a couch around a TV watching the event unfold and having this running discussion that America gets to eavesdrop on. The other networks make it when you go to a particular announcer’s hole, that announcer talks to the viewer directly. We are having this running conversation.

“The way golfers make it on the air is: A. if they are on the leaderboard, B. if they hit a great shot, C. if they hit a terrible shot—most viewers who play golf hit terrible shots, so when they see best players in the world doing the same thing, they enjoy seeing that—D. if you are a star even if not on the leaderboard, we’ll show them.”

And for sure, most of those doing commentary have been there
between the ropes, have had the cameras on themselves, have felt the heat of battle on a Sunday afternoon, have fought back throwing up on their shoes coming down the stretch. Faldo is a six-time major winner, Miller twice a major champion, Andy North and Curtis Strange have each won two U.S. Opens. Baker-Finch has a British Open to his name, Paul Azinger, Lanny Wadkins and Rich Beem, PGA Championships.

Roger Maltbie has collected winner’s checks (one he famously left in a bar afterward), and though McCord never won a PGA Tour event (he calls himself and a book he wrote Just a Range Ball in the Box of Titleists, he and his brethren in the booth, and on the course, know what it is to have shaky hands and a pounding heart.

Mostly, they use what’s been built up in their heads over long careers to figure out what’s going on in the heads of those fixed in the camera’s lens.

“You are trying to play somebody else’s golf,” says the Golf Channel’s Frank Nobilo. “If you are looking at Tiger Woods, you have to anticipate the capacity he has for the shot as opposed to another player who is a much shorter hitter or not as good. You wouldn’t critique a seven-year-old the way you would critique a 15-year-old. Bubba Watson is going to play a golf course totally differently, and therefore has to be critiqued differently to, say, a Jim Furyk, who is very methodical and straight down the middle. So therefore you have to be fair in your assessment. If Jim Furyk is 260 yards from the green, he can’t reach it. Bubba Watson could reach it with a bunch of clubs. You want your critique to be fair. Doesn’t mean it’s sugar-coated, but fair and honest. A bad shot is a bad shot, but if a guy doesn’t have that shot in his bag, then you can’t expect him to hit it.”

For Nobilo, the New Zealander who won around the world until
arthritis took its toll on his game, his role as commentator still requires putting in time on the practice range.

“You have to stay current. I go to the range every day,” says Nobilo. “I talk to the caddies a lot. If I need to know what’s in his bag, I’ll go straight to the caddie. They always tell the truth. For example, I saw Brandt Snedeker and we were talking about the putter, changing his putting grip. Also, he had a back problem, and I know from my experience I don’t want to be asked directly how’s your back. But his caddie is going to know. So I went to his caddie and he said his back was fine. A caddie will tell you the truth.”

Nobilo, like all the other pros-turned-commentators, was part of pro golf family until he became an announcer in 2004 with his career on a downslide. By joining the media family, he knows he no longer is part of the pro fraternity, something that is largely shared by his colleagues.

“My Christmas card list is probably 10 percent of what it used to be,” says Nobilo. “I suffered with that more than anything. I felt I had a lot of good friendships out there, you are part of a fraternity when you walk those fairways in a competition. You are a made man inside the ropes, like the mob. When you are outside the ropes, you are Sammy the Bull, you’ve squealed. It’s different. I have a different empathy for the media than I used to.”

NBC’s Mark Rolfing never made it to elite status on the PGA Tour, and when he was asked to do some commentary on ESPN broadcasts in 1986 by producer Don Ohlmeyer, he wasn’t sure he would become a
respected member of the television family. 

“I was very nervous. I didn’t think the broadcast team would accept me as a non-star player,” says Rolfing. “I really didn’t think the American public would accept me. The greatest advice that Ohlmeyer gave me was just be yourself and you’ll be fine, you’ll be fabulous. If you try to be something else, if you try to be a comic on the air, if you are not you, it’s not going to work. He was absolutely right. It didn’t take long for people to accept my opinion, my analysis of a situation. I never said this is what I did when I won the Open.”

The same uncertainty applied to Judy Rankin, even though her
resumé included 26 LPGA victories. She just didn’t realize how close-knit the television families become, how abiding they are. She’s been part of the ABC/ESPN/Golf Channel families for 30 years now.

“I came from and learned from a really tight-knit golf family way, way back with ABC Sports,” says Rankin. “I know that environment really helped me to be able to do what I still do today. I wasn’t self-confident enough or brave enough to deal with it had it been confrontational or anything. It wasn’t about us. It was about the tournament, the players and a really good show.”

That good show requires family ties. 

“The goal for the bosses, the ones who hire the broadcast team, is to  get a group of guys together who get along,” says ESPN’s Azinger. “I like to refer to us all as egoless egomaniacs on the ESPN team. Nobody steals anything from anybody else. We all share information. We are doing everything we can to make everybody better and make the broadcast better, to articulate to the viewer through a relaxed conversation what interests us.” 

NBC and the Golf Channel have extended their families beyond the pro realm with commentators like former unfulfilled lacrosse player Jimmy Roberts and print journalist Tim Rosaforte. Both are tasked with bringing the personalities of the game to the fore, providing insights and allowing the viewers to become acquainted with players in the most intimate of sports.

Roberts didn’t last in his tryout for the University of Maryland lacrosse team, but because he went on to broadcast their games, he got connected to ABC Sports. He followed a path as producer and writer that saw him eventually emerge on the air with ESPN and then NBC in 2000. He does a magazine-type show on the Golf Channel, “In Play.”

“The old George Plimpton line, the smaller the ball the better the writing,” says Roberts of his affection to reporting on golf and the family atmosphere it promotes. “Just because the way golf is set up, we have extra-ordinary access. I hosted Wimbledon for 10 years for NBC. If I wanted to talk to Andy Roddick or Serena Williams it was a much different process than if I wanted to talk to Phil Mickelson. I’ll call him. Or I will walk into the lockerroom and say Phil, do you have a minute. That’s not the way it works in other sports. If you are curious, and I think I’m a curious person, you can follow your curiosity in golf without all sorts of official restraints on it.”

Roberts has inhabited just about every household in the TV family. “I’m kind of like the utility infielder,” says Roberts. “I did interviews for a long time. I don’t really do that anymore other than a couple of events. I do essays, reporting, sometimes in the tower; a little bit of everything. My first event with NBC Sports was a man winning the U.S Open by 15 strokes (Tiger Woods in 2000). What I’m really proud of is to be part of a really top-notch team.”

Rosaforte found his way from newspapers and magazines to a couch in the Golf Channel studios to doing tournament broadcasts for Golf Channel and NBC, providing insider reports. He’s a TV family guy, even if he has to think about it. “There are families within families, teams within teams,” says Rosaforte. “CBS has its own family, NBC has its own family, the Golf Channel. I am in so many different families I have to remember the names of the different family members.”

He earned his stripes as a print reporter, gaining credibility with players as he moved into television. TV helps open doors, but it doesn’t necessarily keep the door open. “Just because you are on television doesn’t mean you keep your credibility with these guys,” says Rosaforte. “You have to earn that and keep it. Just because you are working for the Golf Channel doesn’t mean they are going to give you the time. But they will give you time if they respect you enough.”

It all comes down to the familial threads that are woven through the game.

“You spend a lot of time working together, spend a lot of time not working but together, so you develop some nice relationships,” says NBC’s Gary Koch. “We’ve watched ourselves change and grow and age, the families, kids. You feel like you are part of their family. You can tell when someone new comes along and is added to the team, there’s a period they have to be accustomed to what is norm, where they fit in. Everyone who is already there encourages a person as much as they can. Those of us who have been there for quite some time, there is a chemistry there, a sense of knowing each other, knowing their tendencies, knowing how they present what we are doing.” 

Steve Sands, the Golf Channel and NBC multitasker who finds himself in the tower, inside the ropes or on the range, was an all-around sports reporter and anchor before getting a job with the Golf Channel in 2000. For Sands, golf holds a special place in his professional life, and the family ties of the game can’t be denied. “One of the coolest things is that every day we are around greatness,” says Sands. “Whether it’s the players that we cover or the people we work with—Frank Nobilo, Gary Koch, all the great players who are part of our broadcast. And it’s from the executive producer to the unpaid interns. Everybody plays a role in making our broadcasts the best they can be.”

“I’ve said it many times, if asked if I could only do one sport for the rest of your life, what would it be, it would probably be golf because I couldn’t bear the thought of not being involved in the sport. I love it,” says NBC anchor Dan Hicks. “There’s something about golf that has a romanticism about it the other sports don’t have.”

Maybe it’s all in the family.

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.



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