Maybe the only people to see the dark humor in the demise were the union guys—the cameramen, the soundmen, the electricians—entrenched veterans, largely protected from the foibles of upper management. They knew the golf-rich history of their once feisty network, the American Broadcasting Company. They knew that in 1966, when Arnold Palmer collapsed and Billy Casper won the U.S. Open at Olympic, it was their network that covered the tournament. That in 1977, when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus engaged in their 36-hole duel at the British Open at Turnberry, ABC broadcast the epic back to the U.S. That in 1986, when Bob Tway holed out from a greenside bunker at Inverness to win the PGA Championship over Greg Norman, ABC had the shot covered from the front, back and sides. And now these men were telling jokes about an especially distinguished troika of tournaments on ABC's schedule: the JCPenney Classic, the Diners Club Matches and the Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge. "Our new majors," they called them.
But that was a long time ago. That was last year. Change can come quickly in television, and over the winter ABC reinvented its golf coverage. By the time the network showed last month's Mercedes Championships, golf at ABC had a new analyst, a new host, a new look—and the place was under new management.
One change led to all the others. Last April, Dennis Swanson was forced to resign as the president of ABC Sports and was replaced by Steve Bornstein, who is now the president of ESPN and ABC Sports. It was Swanson who made Brent Musburger a golf host, a job for which, with his too-rich voice and overblown oratory, he was never well suited. It was Swanson who fired Dave Marr, the amiable Texan with a worldly golf view. It was during Swanson's 10-year reign that ABC lost the rights to televise USGA and PGA of America events.
And now the golf team at ABC is where it was three decades ago, and the network wants the good tournaments back. The Ryder Cup contract with NBC runs through 2005, but CBS's deal for the PGA Championship expires at the end of 1998. All the network and cable contracts for PGA Tour events also conclude in '98. The deal between the USGA and NBC expires at the end of 1999. ABC plans to bid aggressively for all these events. In the meantime it will try to reestablish its credentials with its coverage of events such as this week's Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif.
Among the first things Bornstein did in his new job was to give one man, senior vice president of production Steve Anderson, the task of fixing golf. And the first big step taken by Anderson (the son of Dave Anderson, the venerable sports columnist for The New York Times) was to hit the ultimate mute button. With Bornstein's urging and blessing, Anderson removed Musburger. To replace him, he and Bornstein chose Mike Tirico, a plainspoken 30-year-old ESPN studio pro with a strong announcing background in almost every sport—except golf.
Anderson's next step was less bold and more delicate. For most of this decade, golf at ABC had no single producer. The job was split between Jack Graham and Terry Jastrow. Jim Jennett, who has directed golf at ABC for 25 years, and everybody under Jennett had to respond to one producer's style at one tournament and a different style at the next. Anderson also wanted a producer who was committed only to ABC. He weighed his choices. Jastrow lived in Los Angeles, had a contract to produce six telecasts a year for ABC and was also busy with his work as the president of Jack Nicklaus Productions. Graham lived in New Jersey, near ABC's New York offices, and did virtually all his work for ABC. Anderson settled on Graham.
But Jastrow is an entrenched figure in golf and a skillful TV person whose telecasts included primers on golf history, incisive camera work and—pre-Musburger anyway—understated announcers. Jastrow, who is married to the actress Ann Archer, had worked for ABC since 1970. He's a leading player at his home course, Bel Air, the fabled Los Angeles golf club. He is also a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which runs the British Open. And he has good working relationships with many formidable golf people, particularly Nicklaus. Anderson proceeded carefully.
He flew to Los Angeles and told Jastrow how much he valued his work. But Anderson also told Jastrow that he needed a producer who could commit to working all 25 tournaments televised by ABC, somebody who would be available for regular meetings in New York. The conversation never got to money. Jastrow resigned. Graham became the producer of golf for ABC.
There remained one more significant hole to fill. ABC needed an analyst whom viewers would talk about on Monday morning, as they do about Johnny Miller of NBC. Graham had an answer: Curtis Strange. His friendship with Strange was longstanding, going back to Strange's victories in the 1988 and '89 U.S. Opens, which were covered by ABC. For several years Graham had tried to persuade Strange to become an analyst. Late last year Strange signed on.
This year Strange will work at least 10 Tour events—along with several unofficial tournaments—and he plans to play in seven of the events he is scheduled to work. Strange is 42, and what kind of golf is left in him is unknown. If he's in contention on his ABC weeks, he won't be available to do much analysis. If he misses a cut, well, would you want to be sitting next to Curtis Strange for a weekend in a cramped space after he misses a cut?