Would a Return to Wordsmiths Make American Golf Broadcasts Better?

Another golf season is upon us which, for me, most certainly includes plenty of time sitting in front of the television imploring various announcers to just “Shut up!” I produced golf on television for two decades and spent some of that time saying those exact words, and a few more colorful ones, into the headsets of the announcers with whom I worked. Just ask Grant Boone, Jerry Foltz, Kay Cockerill, Curt Byrum, Frank Nobilo, Brian Anderson, Kraig Kann, Brandel Chamblee and many, many more. My philosophy and the message was simple, “Nothing you have to say is more important that what the player and his caddie have to say. In fact, more often than not what you have to say is less important than saying absolutely nothing at all.” I believe this to be especially true of the host or play-by-play announcer. In my perfect broadcast world his or her job is that of a traffic cop, getting the viewer from one place to the next, setting up the analyst or hole announcer, and occasionally setting the scene. Rarely more, mostly less. Sadly very few do this or even try to do this well.

Listening, for as long as I could, to the Sony Open in Hawaii broadcast on Thursday I heard Steve Sands, Mark Rolfing, Frank Nobilo, Gary Koch, Roger Maltbie and Jerry Foltz and I thought back to my youth. I have been playing the game for more than 50 years and watching it on television for almost as long. I remember, as a kid, hearing the accented voice of the great Henry Longhurst who once described a professional’s shot that ended up in a greenside hazard as having “found a watery grave.” I then vividly remember repeating those same words, many times during the course of various rounds, when one of my shots, or the shot of a friend or brother, ended up wet. “It’s found a watery grave,” we would say in our best attempt at a British accent.

Before he was hired as an announcer Longhurst plied his trade as a writer, serving as the golf correspondent for The Sunday Times for 40 years. He worked golf telecasts for the BBC starting in the late 50’s until his death in 1978. He also worked on American telecasts starting in 1965 when the late, great Frank Chirkinian hired him at CBS. Chirkinian once said about the hiring of Longhurst and others, “The best announcers I ever hired were good writers. Henry Longhurst, Ben Wright, Jack Whitaker and Jim Nantz, all good writers.” That’s my problem with most golf broadcasts today; there are too few writers, too few thinkers and too many prolific talkers and former players.

Like Longhurst, Ben Wright never played the game professionally but wrote and spoke about it extensively since 1954 when he became a sportswriter and golf correspondent for The Daily Dispatch in Manchester, England, The Daily Mirror in London and eventually the Financial Times. That’s where Chirkinian “discovered” him. Ben Wright once told me Chirkinian said he was, “nothing more than a caption writer in the picture business,” and if he (Wright) “couldn’t improve the pictures with your best chosen words then keep your mouth shut.” Man do I miss Frank Chirkinian. Every golf fan, over a certain age, knows Wright lost his gig for comments he made during an interview at the LPGA Championship in 1995. Many fans, of any age, don’t know that it was Ben Wright who actually first uttered what many consider the two of the most famous words in golf broadcasting. He did it a little more than half an hour before a colleague echoed Wright’s words and to this day gets credit for them. Ben Wright was in the tower behind the 15th green at Augusta National in 1986 when he understatedly but excitedly proclaimed, “Yes Sir!” after 46 year old Jack Nicklaus rolled in an eagle putt. Then after he had the good sense (probably with Chirkinian threatening firing or death through his headset if he spoke) to let the TV audience enjoy an uninterrupted, enthusiastic and lengthy ovation he added for good measure, “There’s life in the old bear yet.” My guess is Frank Chirkinian accepted those seven words as improving the pictures with Ben Wright’s best chosen words.

Sadly that and much of Wright’s great work is long forgotten. Instead what we remember is the Verne Lundquist call two holes later when he simply said, this time after Nicklaus made another crucial putt (this one for birdie), “Yes Sir!” Longhurst and Wright, they were legendary broadcasters, amazing storytellers and for most of us, more importantly, they were the perfect golf watching companions.

I am fond of saying and I’m sure my friends, family, and those who once worked for me are sick of hearing that viewers don’t tune in to golf broadcasts because of the announcers. Not anymore, in fact probably not for at least a dozen years. I think some used to, heck I used to. I looked forward to listening to Longhurst on CBS or Peter Alliss on ABC. I always enjoyed what Ben Wright had to say and almost always enjoyed the back and forth banter between Wright and once upon a time funnyman Gary McCord. I joined millions in thinking David Feherty was a hoot but lately even the irreverent Irishman seems to have lost a step. It seems now, more often than not, we just get babble, constant inane chatter, much too wordy descriptions of action we can easily see for ourselves and repetitive platitudes. Maybe American golf broadcasts have gotten so hard to listen to because producers and the network brass for whom they work have gotten away from hiring wordsmiths and have instead fallen in love with handing microphones to ex-players, between jobs on the PGA TOUR and the Champions Tour.

I hired my share of those guys too when it was my job to staff golf broadcasts. Some became very good broadcasters but the majority of them did not and sadly, because of that, we all suffer as viewers. I think if I were still in the game today and had the same autonomy I enjoyed while heading up the Golf Channel teams, instead of combing through the PGA TOUR media guide looking for a 46-year-old one-time TOUR winner I would take a flyer on a scribe or two. Alan Shipnuck, Gary Van Sickle, Doug Ferguson, Ron Sirak, Ryan Ballangee, Adam Schupak, Geoff Shackelford, Jeff Babineau, Beth Ann Nichols and Brian Hewitt are just a few of the folks who write and speak about golf for a living and they know how to use words descriptively. So what if they’ve never played the game professionally? Neither did Longhurst or Wright. They might be good, they might not but I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts what they said and how they said it would be intelligent and it might just be interesting and entertaining as well.

In the meantime we’ll just have to remember phrases like “it’s found a watery grave” and try to enjoy the shows.

About Keith Hirshland

My name is Keith Hirshland and I am a four decades television veteran who has spent time both in front of and behind the camera. During nearly forty years in broadcasting my path has crossed in front of, behind and alongside some of the best in the business... And some of the worst. Many of those people I count as friends while others wouldn't make the effort to spit on me if I was on fire. This television life started early watching my Mom and Dad found, fund and run a local affiliate TV station in Reno, Nevada. As a teenager approaching adulthood I worked for them, first as an on-air sports reporter/anchor and later as a director and producer. Jobs in the industry took me across the country and then to many places around the world. Sports is my passion and putting it on TV has been my business. Production credits include auto racing, baseball, basketball, bowling, college football, field hockey, soccer, volleyball and water polo but the majority of my time "in the chair" since 1990 has been invested in the game of golf with both ESPN and The Golf. Channel ( I was one of the first forty people hired by TGC in 1994 ). I am a fan and I watch TV sports as a fan but I also have hundreds of thousands of hours watching from inside a production truck. I think that makes me qualified to comment, my hope is you agree. I have written two books, Cover Me Boys, I'm Going In (Tales of the Tube from a Broadcast Brat), a memoir that is a tribute to my parents, the hard working, creative people who started ESPN2 and The Golf Channel and a look back at my life in television. My second book is a novel, Big Flies, and is a mystery that tells the story of a father and a son with four of the world's most notorious unsolved robberies as a backdrop. I look forward to sharing new thoughts about golf, golf television, sports in general and the broadcast industry with you. The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They are not connected to nor endorsed by any other person, association, company or organization.
This entry was posted in general observations, Golf, golf on tv, sports and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s