The recent passing of Frank Chirkinian, the storied and award-winning CBS-TV golf producer, brought back memories of an exclusive inside-the-truck story on the legendary television pioneer who helped shape a generation’s perceptions on tournament golf, the Masters, and the game itself. Here’s the story.
A rookie editor for the fledgling Michigan Golfer magazine, I interviewed CBS golf commentator Ken Venturi in June 1983 when he was in Grand Rapids as a headliner for a charity tournament. Following that interview, I asked him if there would be any chance of me spending a day with the CBS golf crew, witnessing first hand how producer Frank Chirkinian molded a telecast. Ever gracious, Venturi encouraged me to make the request, mentioning his name, by writing letters to Chirkinian and to his Associate Producer Chuck Will.
I wrote the letters and after receiving a positive reply from Will, I found myself in July at Butler National GC outside Chicago where CBS was doing the Western Open telecast. Stepping inside the CBS administrative trailer I introduced myself to Will and after some good-natured bantering it was apparent I was going to have my story about CBS Golf. Unfortunately, inclement weather spoiled my plans. Just when I was going to enter Chirkinian’s production truck, I was told the round was cancelled due to thunderstorms.
But a silver lining in the clouds later appeared: I was invited down to Akron, OH, by Will for the telecast of the World Series of Golf, the crew’s last tournament of the season. And so, with that as long-winded background, let me relate some of the highlights of that day—Aug. 15, 1983–when I was granted an “all-access” pass inside the CBS golf truck with Frank Chirkinian.
- At Firestone CC and just outside Chirkinian’s truck, I was met by a crew member who asked me belligerently, “Hey fella, where do you think you’re going?” After telling him about my “go on over to meet Frank” clearance from Will, he said, “OK, but Frank doesn’t like being disturbed. It’s your butt, pal.” Feeling like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, I tiptoed into the inner sanctum of the CBS golf wizard already engaged and animated in front of 38 different monitors. Quietly I took a seat in the corner but with an ideal vantage point to witness the proceedings.
- After Chirkinian put the finishing touches on the telecast’s opening and closing credits, PGA Tour official Clyde Mangrum entered the darkened room and asked if Frank could show him some videotape of Jack Nicklaus from yesterday’s round. Mangrum explained that Nicklaus, a notoriously slow player, didn’t believe it took him 71 seconds to line up and finally stroke his first putt on the 13th green. Chirkinian motioned to the videotape coordinator and soon the footage appeared on the monitor.
- With Mangrum holding a stop watch, the tape confirmed his charge. The Golden Bear indeed had hibernated for seventy-one seconds before pulling the trigger on his blade. Then Chirkinian, a low handicap and avid player in his own right, began an acute analysis, joined by CBS announcer Steve Melnyk, of Nicklaus’s recent woeful putting. “Watch him,” said Chirkinian, “he’s taking his putter way too far on his backstroke and then he’s decelerating.”
- In my Grand Rapids interview with him, Venturi summed up one of Chirkinian’s many gifts as “knowing his subjects.” Venturi explained that Chirkinian knew every player’s pre-shot routine. Said Venturi: “Frank knows, for example, that if one player normally takes two practice swings while another player on a different hole takes a quick look and just hits it, he’ll be ready to show you the fast player first before showing the one with two practice swings. He gives you two-for-the-price-of-one.” During my time in the truck, this trademark player knowledge played out numerous times. His camera never dawdled or waited on a player unless it somehow contributed to the story, to the theatre of the telecast.
- A few minutes later, the guy who confronted me outside the truck entered the booth, came over to me and whispered, “Hey, I’m sorry about what I said out there. I didn’t know you were doing a story on Frank. You see, when it’s time to work around here it’s all business. That’s why we’ve got the greatest truck in the business.”
- During a lunch break, I had a conversation with another member of crew. “To me, it’s the little things that count. I mean, Frank gives everyone a credit at the end of the show. Unlike some networks, everyone at CBS Golf gets a credit from producers to cameramen.” He continued: “The biggest plus is the knowledge of the game. I mean, most of the guys here play golf and know it inside-and-out. And Frank’s a heckuva player, a three or four handicapper.”
- After lunch and back in the truck at 2:00 pm I witnessed how Chirkinian handled rehearsals before the broadcast began. He directed each announcer to run through the intro and description of each hole. Chirkinian cued them on particular features of a hole. For example, at one hole he instructed the announcer to point out a pivotal large tree protecting the right side of the fairway. His attention to detail was apparent and commanding.
- Less than ten minutes into rehearsal, a sighting of lightning immediately moved Chirkinian to bellow: “OFF your towers, gentlemen.” Safety was paramount—no questions asked. As a torrential storm bombards the course, an associate producer asked Chirkinian for permission to shut down cameras as another safety precaution. Chirkinian barked: “Do it! But have ‘em ready at four o’clock!” Or it’s your butt, I said to myself.
- During the rain delay, a former president of Firestone CC walked into the truck and he and Chirkinian began a friendly conversation, one centered on “sandbaggers”—aka players with ‘cooked’ handicaps. About one such sandbagger, Chirkinian said with a smile: “Sure he had a phony handicap—but I didn’t mind—he was my partner.”
- The former club president later sat down next to me and outside of Chirkinian’s earshot told me: “Frank’s a genius. You have to be very quick in this business—switching from one player to another…Frank must produce the show while it’s happening.”
- At 4:30 pm, the CBS golf telecast went on the air. Chirkinian directed the action with his right hand while giving verbal instructions to Charlie Donofrio who was manning the electronic switches. In tandem with Donofrio, here was the regimen behind the production: 1) Chirkinian selected the camera and hence the player; 2) Chirkinian ordered up a graphic to inform the viewer about the player and his standing to par; 3) Chirkinian ordered the graphic to be removed; 4) Player hit the shot; 5) Chirkinian ordered camera to catch ball in flight; 6) Chirkinian ordered camera to catch ball landing on fairway or green. In the meantime, Chirkinian decided what action must immediately follow. My take: Wow! There’s little room for error for a mind that stutters with indecision.
- Fifteen minutes later, a CBS sound man was caught on camera, being too close to a player he’s following. An irate Chirkinian yelled: “Get that sound man out of there!” Later, Chirkinian’s blood pressure spiked again when some sloppy camera work was noticed: “You let Nicklaus fall out of the frame, you turkey.”
- Chirkinian called for a Venturi Stroke Saver feature. In June, Venturi told me Chirkinian produced all these popular segments. “He’s got cameras all over—side angles and everything else,” said Venturi. “And those are continuous takes—there are no cuts. Everything we show is as if it’s live.” On this day, Venturi’s golf prowess was demonstrated in a nifty trouble shot from the greenside rough. Using a putter, Venturi sharply hit down on a buried ball and astonishingly it popped up onto the green and next to the flagstick for a tap-in. Chirkinian and company were all very pleased with the segment.
- When the usually flawless Ben Wright failed to mention the player on camera at his hole, Chirkinian chided him through his earpiece: “Very fine, Ben, but who’s the player?” In his next breath, Wright made amends by identifying the player.
- At 5:59 pm, while the CBS golf theme began its familiar refrain, Chirkinian raised his right hand and told Donofrio to “crawl it.” The trail of credits crawled down the monitor, with all of the principals and crew dutifully mentioned. After the final credit the show ended
- At 6:10 pm, Chirkinian walked out of the truck and I was waiting outside. I thanked him for allowing me access to his office and to see how a golf telecast is produced. “No problem,” said Chirkinian. “Glad you came. Too bad we couldn’t give you a better show.”
I was too green and dumbstruck to challenge that ridiculous claim. Later I wrote up my experiences in the Michigan Golfer in a lengthy article entitled, “Inside the Truck with the Wizard of CBS Golf.” I sent Will a copy and asked him to share it with his boss. Through the years, I was always welcomed when I stopped by to see Will and the crew at their annual stop at Warwick Hills for the Buick Open. I always sensed they sized me up as “golf guy” and a “fan” and as such posed no threat to their realm. And they were right. No one did televised golf better than CBS and if you loved golf you wanted to breathe in some of that rarified air.
That climb to the summit all began with Frank Chirkinian.
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Photo courtesy of the PGA of America