Chirkinian's impact on televised golf can't be overstated

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Photo courtesy CBS Sports
Frank Chirkinian (far left) was known as the 'father of golf on television.'
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Mar. 4, 2011

Editor's note: Longtime golf and sports producer Frank Chirkinian passed away Friday evening at his home in North Palm Beach, Fla., after a long bout with lung cancer. He was 84. This column originally appeared on PGATOUR.COM earlier this year when it was announced that Chirkinian had been selected for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Before Frank Chirkinian entered a TV trailer more than a half-century ago, golf was as exciting to watch as a Charlie Chaplin movie.

About the only sound you heard was when an announcer spoke. There was no smash of the club hitting the ball, no words from the player reacting to the shot, no roar from the crowd cheering for a birdie.

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Chirkinian decided that silence was not golden, so he started putting microphones wherever he could. On the tees, near the greens, in the rough, even on some players.

"Golf was like watching silent movies," Chirkinian remembered. "It drove me crazy."

To be sure, Chirkinian drove some announcers a little nutty with his iron-fist approach to producing golf telecasts. But televised golf has never been the game, thankfully, since Chirkinian did his first producing for CBS Sports at the 1958 PGA Championship near his Philadelphia home.

Bringing sounds to golf is just part of the reason why Chirkinian -- who is considered "the father of televised golf" -- was elected Feb. 9 into the World Golf Hall of Fame on an emergency vote. Friday, Chirkinian passed away in his North Palm Beach, Fla., home after a long battle with lung cancer.

Chirkinian to Hall of Fame

The World Golf Hall of Fame annnounced on Feb. 9 that longtime CBS television executive Frank Chirkinian has been selected for Induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Chirkinian was selected via the Hall's Lifetime Achievement category. Click for story

Chirkinian broke more ground as a golf producer than Vijay Singh did during a year's worth of beating balls on the range. Under his 39-year watch as CBS' lead golf producer, the network was the first to use high-angle cameras in blimps, trees and cranes; he put roving reporters on the ground; he painted the cups white; he created the IFB device that allows producers to talk to their announcers during a telecast; and in 1960 he was the first to list a player's score relative to par instead of their total strokes for the tournament.

"That's what I'm most proud of," Chirkinian said of his move that enabled fans to clearly know where their favorite player stood without needing a calculator.

Chirkinian knew he wasn't the most well-liked person in the business, but he didn't care. He often viewed his relationship with the announcers as a teacher would a misbehaving student. When they made a mistake, it was up to him to point that out. And, man, he did. He earned his nickname as the "Ayatollah."

"You had to consider me an iconoclast," Chirkinian said recently. "What I did nobody else had done. I produced and directed my own shows. I had complete control. I couldn't turn around and blame a producer or a director."

Chirkinian knew a good story when he saw it, and he never hesitated to showcase the game's charismatic figures such as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Over and over again, because he knew that's what his viewers wanted. Chirkinian realized when Nicklaus shot the back-nine 30 to win the 1986 Masters -- one of 38 Masters he produced for CBS -- he was going to take the viewer there for every moment of Nicklaus' magical run.

Chirkinian also made sure his cameras showed as many shots -- golf shots, we mean -- as possible. You weren't going to listen to an announcer drone on for 45 seconds while a player lined up a putt. Few network executives challenged his decisions.

"When a new guy came in, the first thing they would tell him is, 'Don't bother Chirkinian,' " he said. "We made a lot of money for CBS. We used to make more money than the (David) Letterman show."

Chirkinian says he was the first to tell former PGA TOUR Commissioner Deane Beman that THE PLAYERS should be moved from March to May, giving golf five consecutive months with showcase events. Once again, Chirkinian was proven correct.

"Frank is universally regarded as the father of golf television," said Jim Nantz, CBS' lead golf announcer since 1989. "He invented it. He has touched every golf production we watch today. Frank is a genius. He helped popularize the sport as much as anyone. He took a sport that no one knew how to televise and made it interesting. He brought the Masters Tournament to life.

"Golf was good to Frank Chirkinian, but Frank was great to golf."

After retirement, Chirkinian typically made it clear he didn't like the way golf telecasts had evolved.

"You've got the screen cluttered with incidental information, all of it totally unnecessary and completely irrelevant," he said. "You've got a bunch of arrows pointing on green, a meter that shows how fast a player is swinging ... You no longer see the golf swing, and you never get a reaction from the player."

Chirkinian knows he made his share of bogeys. He rues the day he suggested putting a camera in a blimp. "They've been droning around up there, being a nuisance ever since," he said.

The father of televised golf may no longer be working, but his ideas remain forever. And he takes so much pride in that.

"I was probably the most innovative and brilliant (person) who ever worked in television," he once famously said. "I've done so many things I can't remember half of them."

Craig Dolch is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.

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