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May 09, 2011
The genius of Frank Chirkinian was that in the difficult medium of live television, no one could tell a golfer's story better
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May 09, 2011

The Artist's Touch

The genius of Frank Chirkinian was that in the difficult medium of live television, no one could tell a golfer's story better

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Three days before the start of this year's Players, Frank Chirkinian, the late, great producer for CBS Sports, will finally be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. I'm eager to see the video acceptance speech he made shortly before he died in March. Frank Chirkinian, getting into the Hall of Fame on videotape. There's poetic justice in that.

I read the tributes to Frank after he died. Many focused on his intimidating, cocky personality. I knew what people were talking about, but that's not what comes to mind when I think about Frank, with whom I worked closely during my 20 years as PGA Tour commissioner, starting in 1974. Frank was a superb listener, and in the difficult medium of live TV, he could tell a golfer's story better than anyone. That was at the core of his being. That was his genius.

Chirkinian didn't simply show shots. He prepared the audience for a shot, a shot that was part of a series that would decide who would win and, just as important, who would lose. He brought the shots and the players who made them to life with camera angles, with player close-ups, with long shots of the course from a blimp, with microphones on tees, with postround interviews and with judicious commentary by his handpicked announcers, all of whom were steeped in the game.

Over the past couple of years I did a series of interviews for a book about my years as commissioner (Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force, by Adam Schupak). During those interviews I realized something: One of the most important things I did during those 20 years, right at the start, was to take a chance on Frank. In 1974, for golf on TV, CBS had the Masters, a few regular Tour events and a taped 13-week series called the CBS Golf Classic, which featured Tour players. It was as if CBS had its own little Tour on the cheap. I canceled the CBS Golf Classic, believing that Frank could persuade the CBS Sports executives to televise more live golf. And that's what happened. Within five years CBS was doing 18 events a year. To this day CBS remains a vital part of the success of the PGA Tour, and the network does golf beautifully. That's part of Frank's legacy.

Amazingly, Chirkinian made golf on TV popular and entertaining regardless of who was winning. He didn't have Arnold Palmer to showcase, and Jack Nicklaus always played a limited schedule. In the late '70s and early '80s, there was no Tiger-like personality drawing people to watch golf on TV. Frank had no choice but to make the tournament the story, and that's what he did, week in and week out. He knew how to do that because he truly loved golf himself, loved to play, wanted badly to beat you. He understood the emotions of competitive golf.

Frank had the stage all set when he finally got a star he could call his own: the Australian Greg Norman, who started playing in the U.S. in the early 1980s. Americans then viewed Australia as big and exotic. Chirkinian got all of that. He understood the global nature of the game. He loved Ryder Cup golf and was an early supporter of the Presidents Cup. Norman was a Presidents Cup star, and CBS was there to show it all.

If you watched the Masters on CBS this year you saw Frank's artistic legacy. Tiger's tournament hinged on his putter at the 12th on Sunday. CBS got that. It wasn't that he had to make his birdie putt, it was that he couldn't miss the second putt, for par, which is what he did. He needed to step on the 13th tee feeling confident, make the birdie there, on the short par-5, and he didn't do that either. CBS showed all of that. A good broadcast paints the picture of how a player builds a round, or dismantles it for that matter. That's why Chirkinian showed fewer players making more shots. When golf is good on TV now, it's when producers follow Chirkinian's example.

We were never great buddies. I know we respected each other. Some have said he should have been inducted into the Hall years ago, and maybe that's so. If by dint of an alphabetical seating chart Frank Chirkinian and I become World Golf Hall of Fame neighbors, I'd welcome that. (I was inducted in 2000.) I believe Frank did more for the game than a lot of the people in there. The Hall is about to become a more artistic place. Frank, above all, was an artist.