Tirico is not worried. He's busy with other stuff. Homework, in particular. Recently he has been reading John Feinstein's A Good Walk Spoiled—for the second time. He's reading golf magazines and watching old highlight tapes. The culture of golf is not totally foreign to him. He's a 17 handicapper at Tower Ridge Country Club in Simsbury, Conn. He has been around the game enough to know the difference between a pitch and a chip. He has watched enough golf on TV to talk comfortably about Nicklaus at Augusta in '86 and Watson at Pebble Beach in '82.
For that Tirico owes a debt of gratitude going back to his youth, to his mother's brother, Frank Fiordalisi. Uncle Frank was a golf nut who spent endless hours watching tournaments on the TV in the Tiricos' living room, in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. Marv Albert, the quintessential New York announcer, was Tirico's sportscasting hero when he was growing up. But the more significant influence would seem to have been Chris Schenkel, a Hawaiian lei around his neck, reporting the mellow action from the 16th at Waialae on a balmy February day in Honolulu while icy winds ripped through the outer boroughs.
American golf, at last, is becoming an integrated game, and no doubt many people will be pleased that ABC has finally included an Italian-American in its coverage. Yes, of course, some will say that ABC is just cashing in on the Rocco Mediate craze. The fact is, Tirico doesn't know how Italian he is, although he does know that he has great-grandparents who were born in Italy. Likewise, he doesn't know what percentage of him, to use an inane but common phrase, is black. "I can't give you, 'I'm one-eighth this, I'm one-eighth that, I'm one-quarter this,' the way Tiger Woods can," Tirico says. "I can say I don't think I've ever been given a promotion because of my appearance. The only thing I want to be judged on is my work."
Strange wants the same thing. He's not going to try to be Miller or Ken Venturi, the CBS analyst, or Peter Alliss, the erudite English announcer who will caddie for Strange in the booth when the latter is on the course. Strange says if he has a model at all, it's Tim McCarver, the catcher turned baseball announcer. "McCarver tells you what it's like to be in certain situations because he's been there," Strange says. "That's what I want to do." Still, at the Mercedes Championships it was odd to see a golfer of Strange's stature reporting on the games of Tom Lehman and Tiger Woods instead of playing alongside them.
"Curtis should be a wonderful announcer," says Marr, who is now working for NBC. "He's candid, he's got a good sense of humor. But any outside job causes some erosion in your game. Sitting in that booth, watching others play—that'll grind on him for a while, no matter what he says."
Marr worked for ABC from 1970 through 1991, "the glory years," he calls them, and during much of that time his network televised three majors annually. (The Masters has only been on CBS.) ABC had other glamorous events, too: Ryder Cups, Hawaiian Opens, Crosby Clambakes. The "talent" stayed in the best hotels—the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, The Lodge at Pebble Beach, the Kahala Hilton in Honolulu. The announcers flew the Concorde to London. They wore neatly tailored blazers (in often bizarre shades of blue and yellow). They had a good time. But by the end of the glory years there were signs of distress. Rudy Martzke, the TV sports columnist for USA Today, was often critical of Marr's work, and Swanson, longtime ABC employees say, apparently took his lead from Martzke. In 1991 ABC lost the broadcast rights to the PGA and the Ryder Cup. Then one day late in the year, Swanson, today the general manager of the NBC affiliate in New York, called Jastrow with news that in Jastrow's opinion, marked the beginning of the end.
This is how Jastrow recalls that conversation with Swanson, who declined to be interviewed for this story: "Swanson called and said, Are you sitting down?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Well, maybe you should be lying down. I'm going to put Brent Musburger on golf.' Long pause. He said, 'Are you still there?' Then he said, 'I also think it's a good time to fire Dave Marr. I don't think Brett and Dave will work well together.' I grew to love Brent Musburger. He's a nice man and a hard worker. But he was not a golf person, and our viewers, who are golf people, knew it. Dave Marr was part of who we were."
Five years later Musburger, who also refused to be interviewed, was taken off golf. His final work for ABC was one of the new majors, the Diners Club Matches in La Quinta, Calif., this past December. At the tournament Bob Rosburg, the longtime ABC announcer, arranged for a farewell dinner for Musburger at the Kaiser Grill in Palm Desert. About 20 ABC people attended. At one point Judy Rankin, another longtime announcer, began to cry. "Don't worry," Musburger said to the gathering. "I'll be O.K. I love this scene. You guys were great to be with."
Musburger, for all his announcing skill, stumbled at his first U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach, in 1992. He was grandiose. He referred to the walls of sand that separate the Pebble Beach links from the Pacific Ocean as "the Cliffs of Doom," and golfers cringed. He mispronounced names and used golf terms incorrectly. Over the ensuing years he righted himself, but it was too late. Nobody gave him credit for improvement. Nobody gave him credit for actually daring to ask aberrant golfers, like John Daly, necessary questions. In 1994, after 29 years with ABC, the USGA switched to NBC.
With Tirico, the team of Graham, Anderson and Bornstein have a fresh start. They know Musburger was given too much time and filled it up with too many words. The approach with Tirico will be different. Individual hole announcers will describe most of the golf. Tirico will pose questions to Strange, to players. He'll provide the story line, as they say in TV.