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.