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Nantz, For the Defense

Jim Nantz, the face of CBS Sports, wants to set the record straight about the significance of the Masters, a friend wrongly accused, why the game gets a bad rap, and more

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Jim Nantz.
Jim Nantz.
David Bergman/SI

This month brings Jim Nantz's 21st Masters telecast for CBS, but when April comes his heart still races as if it were the first time. Irreverence about the Masters was his colleague Gary McCord's bag, but to Nantz the Masters isn't only golf's top event, it's "a chill-bump experience." When SI's Kevin Cook sat down with Nantz, the 46-year-old announcer had just finished a one-hour special in Augusta -- Jim Nantz Remembering Augusta: 1986 Masters -- that will be telecast on Sunday, April 9, at 1:30 p.m. ET. He wore a sweater with the masters logo over his heart.

SI: What's the first thing you saw at Augusta this year?

JIM NANTZ: The first swing I saw was Ernie Els on the tee at the 4th hole. I was on my way to 15 and detoured over to see Ernie launch a two-iron that seemed to hang in the air for about 45 seconds. Draped against the sky, falling just beyond the flagstick. Effortless, like everything else he does.

SI: What do you think of the course changes?

JN: It's a bit shocking to see the new tees at 1 and 11. Those are long holes! It's gotten very difficult for the old-timers to play without tearing down some of their legend.

SI: Does Augusta National want low scores?

JN: Look at the 16th hole. I don't know if they GPS it, but that hole location has been exactly the same on Sunday in recent years. The last two years we've had 94 players make the cut, and three of them have knocked it in from 190 yards there on Sunday. So the odds aren't 10 million to 1, they're slightly better than 33 to 1.

SI: That's where Tiger chipped in last year.

JN: One of the great shots in the history of the tournament. And he had to come off the same ridge, the same slope as the shot from the tee. What were the odds? Maybe 20 to 1. He drops 20 balls at that spot, he'll make one.

SI: So they want that green funneling balls to the hole. It's exciting.

JN: We've seen 10 other shots funneling down there that just missed.

SI: Is Augusta National smarter about that than the USGA?

JN: What's the line they use? "Our goal isn't to humiliate the best players but to identify them." Are you telling me Tiger wasn't the best player at the Masters last year?

SI: The USGA's approach can backfire. It did at Shinnecock.

JN: I'm glad they do it that way, though. That's the personality of the U.S. Open.

SI: But you like the Masters better.

JN: The ratings don't lie. It's America's favorite golf tournament by a sizable margin. Whatever they're doing at Augusta, they're doing it right.

SI: Is the Masters better than the Super Bowl?

JN: Better than any event I could ever cover. People in my industry chuckle when I say that. They call it a momentary loss of sanity. But when a guy comes walking up the 72nd hole at Augusta, my heart gets going.

SI: Does your pulse really speed up?

JN: Yes, and when I open my mouth I'm talking from the heart.

SI: Want to bet a dollar? You can have Tiger or the field.

JN: I've seen a bit of a return to how it was in '99 or 2000, with guys crumbling when they hear his footsteps. Vegas probably has [him] about 2 to 1. I'll say the others fall on their swords before Tiger does.

SI: What sets him apart?

JN: Hunger. Tiger and Phil and some other top players, they're set for life -- their families are set for the next 10 generations -- and they still have the fire to win. That's another thing we should put up in lights: Tiger never gives up. He never stops grinding.

SI: He's pretty guarded in public, as if he's looking through people.

JN: Other players do that too, but Tiger really has that looking-through-you thing down. I've seen him walk out to the 1st tee at Jack's tournament. He goes right past Jack and doesn't know he's there.

SI: Is he enjoying himself?

JN: I think he's shrewd. It's the Me-Against-the-World Syndrome. He makes a coaching change from Butch Harmon to Hank Haney, and the working media wants to know why. Early in the Haney transition someone would say, "Tiger, you only hit three of 14 fairways today." Sometimes Tiger took that as criticism: "You're not supposed to say that about me." But we have to say things people might not want to hear, and we say nice things too. I look at Tiger and think, What do people want him to do?

SI: Smile more?

JN: He has the greatest smile in the world. We see it a lot. And no one gives you more cutaways in golf.

SI: Cutawaysbeing great TV moments, like his fist pump.

JN: Right. There are guys who could smile more. Vijay [Singh], for one. People don't know what a likable guy Vijay is. When he smiles, he lights up a room. Davis Love is a good friend of mine, and we've talked about this. Could Davis smile more? Maybe, but that's not who he is. He's concentrating.

SI: Down the stretch at Augusta, in their primes ... Tiger or Jack?

JN: (laughing) Comparing generations is hard. I'm not ready to anoint Tiger the greatest ever. That is still Jack Nicklaus. But we all see it coming. Jack sees it and cheers it on. He was in the tower with me at the Memorial the year Tiger fluffed a pitch at 14, then knocked the next one in for par. Jack was so excited he jumped up with his hands in the air.

SI: In '86, calling your first Masters, you were at 16 on Sunday when Nicklaus made birdie. You famously said, "The Bear has come out of hibernation!" Was that line prepared?

JN: No. I was thinking, I've got to say something. I had fallen silent for almost two minutes. Imagine it -- you're 26, it's your first Masters, and Jack Nicklaus almost knocks it in from the tee on your hole.

SI: They hadn't funneled that green quite right yet.

JN: Right. They hadn't quite found that spot where all roads lead. When he made the putt, I made my remark and then regretted it. I thought someone else had to have said that line before. I was flooded with fear, thinking, Don't blow this and be one-and-done at the Masters at 26!

SI: It was a great line.

JN: Here's the postscript. When I saw Ernie Els there this year, he said, "I was in Jo-burg, watching that live with my father." Ernie would have been 16. He told me, "I remember when you said, 'The Bear has come out of hibernation.'"

SI: What did you say to Els?

JN: I said, "Ernie, you honor me."

SI: Was it a masterstroke for the Masters to go commercial-free during the Martha Burk controversy [2003]?

JN: That was overblown by you guys in the print press. It's not as if we were doing a standard broadcast with something like 42 minutes of golf in an hour, and 18 minutes of commercials. We were only showing four minutes of commercials an hour anyway. People often ask if the commercial-free Masters was different for me. It wasn't. I don't go have lunch during commercial breaks; I follow the golf.

SI: Were you surprised by what your friend and former CBS colleague Ken Venturi said about Arnold Palmer in his book, Getting Up and Down?

JN: Tell me what he said.

SI: He said Arnold broke the rules at the 1958 Masters, where he beat Venturi. Arnold got a favorable ruling. [Palmer was allowed to play, and count, a provisional ball on the 12th hole on Sunday.] It was played in the press that he said Arnold cheated, though he didn't use that word in the book.

JN: The word cheat was in the [newspaper] headlines. Look, I wrote the foreword to that book. They completely misportrayed the book, which was 99 percent flattery for Arnold.

SI: The other one percent was unflattering.

JN: The coverage made it sound like a cheap shot at Arnold. There was a lot of damaging, irresponsible reporting on "cheating and Arnold Palmer." And Ken Venturi got dragged in as the guy putting it out there.

SI: He did write the book, resurrecting the story after almost 50 years.

JN: But not the way it came out. All people know is the headline. That episode hurt Kenny's reputation a lot, and it didn't help Arnold, either. I love both of those men, and I think that story needs to go away.

SI: The negativity of the print press seems to trouble you. Do you think we're biased toward sensationalism?

JN: I think golf gets a bad name from the mainstream media. Somebody needs to defend the good name of the sport, and I'm ready to do it.

SI: The mainstream media?

JN: People outside the sports department often say, "Oh, there's a controversy brewing in golf." It might be about Casey Martin or Martha Burk. "Let's write an editorial about those stuck-up snobs and their elitist game." And when all the top mainstream columnists come barreling down the interstate, guns in the air, what do we in golf do? We step aside. Instead of pointing to the First Tee program and other good things about the game, instead of saying, "William Safire and Maureen Dowd, you're full of you-know-what," we act as if we buy their idea that golf is for people who are out of touch, don't care about mankind, stuck up, elitist, racist -- the horrible stereotype. We're too willing to let them sabotage the great reputation of golf.

SI: Is it liberal bias?

JN: It's not politics, it's perception. Thankfully there's no controversy swirling at the moment.

SI: Maybe this question can start one. Are there steroids in golf?

JN: I would be shocked if there's anybody in professional golf doing that. Shocked. You hear, "They're hitting it so far." But golfers are not cheats. The guys up on the pedestal in our sport play by the rules. That's unusual in our society. It's beautiful.

SI: Not one guy using steroids?

JN: One guy can cause a scandal. The fans would be devastated. But there's not a scandal and there's not going to be one. We should not even breathe a hint of suspicion; it's a nonissue.

SI: Distance is an issue, though. David Toms said the 18th at Doral was unfair to him and other shorter hitters.

JN: Some courses have severely limited the number of players who can win. And players are bulking up with weights. At Tour events I'll stay in the same hotel as 50 guys in the field. You'd never know it from looking at me (laughs), but I like to work out, so I'll be in the exercise rooms. I've seen Vijay Singh work out 20 times.

SI: Does he look ripped with his shirt off?

JN: I haven't seen him with his shirt off! But he's cut and he goes hard with his trainer, Joey Diovisalvi, bearing down on him. I've seen Vijay using weights on pulleys, pulling down from behind one shoulder across his body -- a move that's a lot like the golf swing. For minutes! He's got to have 60 or 65 pounds on there.

SI: Did you try it?

JN: Once, and then I had some issues with my back. But it's awesome watching Vijay. You can see how that can give you another 10 miles an hour in clubhead speed.

SI: An SI poll found that almost 90 percent of Tour players said invading Iraq was a good idea, and zero had seen Brokeback Mountain. Is there something beyond socioeconomics going on? Something about golf that suits a conservative temperament?

JN: I don't think golf gives you a political bent.

SI: Is it about control? Focus? Discipline?

JN: Golf is an individual sport. You have to be disciplined. Not that I'm saying liberals are undisciplined. I'll give you my political leanings when I run for office in a couple of years. But do I substitute the word discipline for conservative? Maybe. Guys in golf aren't hanging out in bars late at night, by and large, or trying to find the great nightclub at this week's Tour stop. If you do, you won't succeed. So it's a regimented group. You need discipline to get to the Tour in the first place. You need discipline to hit balls, to train. Nobody's going to cover for you out there -- it's just you.

SI: This is a Ryder Cup year. How important is it for the U.S. to win?

JN: I'm not embarrassed if we lose. I won't feel less of an American. To me the Ryder Cup is not on the same level as the majors.

SI: The Tour's new TV contract was a big win for CBS, not so hot for ABC. Were you surprised Nick Faldo was so good on the air?

JN: I saw it in him before, in brief glimpses. He and I had jousted verbally a few times, and he was always quick with a comeback. I think he hears Peter Alliss in his head. Nick was raised on a steady diet of Peter on the BBC. I think he's the modern-day Peter Alliss, and that's high praise.

SI: Caddyshack or Tin Cup?

JN: An unfair question, since I still get a residual check every three months from Tin Cup. They're not very big anymore.

SI: How big ... $200?

JN: Something like that. Quarterly.

SI: How much has that movie been worth to you?

JN: Enough that if I invested my earnings from it, I could send my daughter to college for four years. Ron Shelton did a great job weaving golf into a love story. People keep saying there should be a sequel.

SI: Tin Cup II? With new equipment, Roy McAvoy might do better.

JN: That's true. With today's technology and a little weight training with Joey Diovisalvi, we could get Roy to clear the water.

Issue date: April 4, 2006