Jim Nelford has dreamed about the Masters his whole life, and last week he finally made his debut in the event. But the debut wasn't on the course. It was above it—about 20 feet above it, in the CBS TV tower behind the 17th green. Nelford, who had a winless PGA Tour career from 1978 to '91, was the announcer who replaced Gary McCord.
Nelford, 39, considers the CBS assignment the first really good break he has received in golf in a long time. "Maybe the golf gods have a sense of humor after all," he said while sitting atop the tower. "My career has been a series of ugly twists."
The ugliest twist in Nelford's playing career came on the last day of the '84 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. Nelford was in the clubhouse with a one-shot lead over Hale Irwin, who was on the tee at the par-5 18th. Irwin snap-hooked his drive into Carmel Bay, only to have it bounce off a rock back onto the fairway. "Probably the luckiest break a golfer's ever gotten," says Nelford. Irwin's third shot, a wedge, took one hop, hit the flag-stick and stopped five feet from the cup. Irwin holed the birdie putt and beat Nelford in sudden death.
In July 1985, Nelford nearly was killed in a water skiing accident on Saguaro Lake near Phoenix. He was treading water when the boat that had been pulling him suddenly came roaring toward him from 15 feet away. No one knows whether the driver accidentally pressed the accelerator or the engine malfunctioned and started on its own. Says Nelford, "My last thought was, Get to one side of the boat or you're dead."
Nelford moved quickly enough to avoid a direct hit, but the boat's rotor did tear into his right arm between the hand and elbow. "I should have been shredded," says Nelford. As it was, the bones, cartilage and tendons in his arm were damaged so badly that the doctors wanted to amputate. Nelford was unconscious, but his mother, Frances, said no. "My boy's a golfer," she cried. "Save the arm, please."
Doctors put 13 screws in the arm and reattached tendons, cartilage and nerves. Miraculously, Nelford was able to play golf after only five months, but his game never recovered, and he floundered on the Tour. Nelford had done occasional golf telecasts in his native Canada, and in 1991 he abandoned the Tour for good when ESPN hired him as a full-time on-course commentator. He soon became known for his terse, incisive and dry-witted commentary.
"It's never my intention to be the show—the golf's the show," says Nelford in his soft, gravelly voice. When Frank Chirkinian, the producer and director of golf at CBS, dropped McCord for the Masters last summer, his first choices as replacements were Dave Marr and Andy North. But neither was available; Marr was in negotiations with NBC, and North's contract with ESPN prevented him from changing networks. So Chirkinian hired Nelford to work for CBS at the World Series of Golf, the Presidents Cup, the Masters and this year's PGA. Then in January, the Golf Channel hired him to be its chief analyst at men's tournaments.
Nelford handled his first Masters telecast well, but even before last week he had so impressed Chirkinian that the CBS chief talks openly of trying to lure him away from the Golf Channel. "Nellie's got that savvy from his days as a player," says Chirkinian. "He's frightfully good-looking, he's got a keen sense of humor and he's a damn nice guy."