Frank Chirkinian, Master of the Masters and Much More, Dead at 84

Frank Chirkinian, who defined televised golf as the innovative executive producer and director for CBS’s coverage of the Masters tournament for 38 consecutive years, died Friday at his home in North Palm Beach, Fla. He was 84 and is survived by his wife, Mary Jane, and their son, Frank Jr. This week, SVG will be collecting remembrances of Chirkinian for posting in a later edition of our newsletter. Please send any memories, stories, or words you would like to share with the sports broadcasting community to Carolyn@sportsvideo.org.

Jim Nantz, CBS Sports lead play-by-play announcer, paid tribute to Chirkinian during last weekend’s CBS Sports broadcast:

“It’s a tough day for many of us at CBS Sports.  It’s very difficult to frame his full breadth of work, or even the man himself in just a couple of minutes.  He won the Lifetime Emmy. He was in the first [class] in the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame (click here to watch his tribute and acceptance videos). And just recently, was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. “

Chirkinian is best described in his own words: “I was probably the most innovative and brilliant son of a bitch that ever worked in television. I’ve done so damn many things I can’t remember half of them.”

The father of televised golf, Chirkinian produced 38 consecutive Masters Tournament telecasts, making golf a mainstay in sports broadcasting. He spent 40 years so transforming CBS Sports that, since his retirement, little has changed in the network’s coverage.

In 1957, Chirkinian moved from CBS news to sports, where he tackled, as he says, “just about every sporting event known to mankind” from polo and Triple Crown horse racing to the PGA Tour and the Olympics.

Chirkinian’s accomplishments range from the small-scale to the sky-high, literally. He invented the IFB communication devices that every announcer now wears in his ear, changed golf’s aggregate scoring system into the now-standard over- and under-par display, and pioneered the use of cameras on blimps.

“There was already a blimp flying over the Orange Bowl so I thought, what if I get a camera up there?” Chirkinian said. “The president of CBS Sports asked how long I was going to use the thing. When I said 10 seconds, he said are you crazy? And I said yes, that’s why you hired me.”

Chirkinian was always fascinated with capturing a sense of motion on camera, so when he televised the Los Angeles indoor track meet in the 1960s, he tried something new for the 11-lap, 1-mile race: He placed a cameraman on a movie crane and wrapped a cable about him 11 times.

“He just kept doing 360s, unwrapping another length of cable,” Chirkinian recalled. “I never made a camera cut, and I got this great sense of speed.”

That allure of motion led him to create quick-cutting golf productions that build an illusion of speed in a sport known for its slow pace. “To me, golf is great theater,” Chirkinian once said. Adding motion to the drama made it all the more enticing.

His “what-if” attitude helped spur the nuances that make golf great television. He painted the cups white for easier viewing; placed microphones on the green, the tee, and the cup; and tried out any idea that occurred to him, because no one had ever attempted it to tell him it would not work.

During his first golf production, in 1958, Chirkinian wanted to put a camera tower behind the 17th green. An oak tree growing in his desired path did not deter the producer: He simply built a tree house for the camera.

“There are so many things he did that I don’t even know about it, that we all take for granted,” says announcer Pat Summerall, who began working with Chirkinian in 1985.

While other networks emphasize storytelling in their golf coverage, Chirkinian steered CBS to focus on the sport. The network concentrates on the swings of the athletes, showing the man who hit the ball rather than its mid-air flight. He instructed his announcers to speak sparingly, advising them to “err on the side of silence.”

His genius earned him four Emmy and two Peabody Awards, and the nickname Ayatollah.

“I read what an ayatollah was. They knew everything, they bossed everybody, they were experts in everything. I thought Frank fit that description perfectly. He was a dominating personality,” said Summerall.

Said Chirkinian, “I accepted that as a compliment. It means you know what you want and how you want it.”

Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman, said in a statement: “In his 38 years with CBS Sports, Frank Chirkinian’s remarkable innovations and contributions have become the industry standard for the way we watch golf on television. Frank has left a legacy of excellence and creativity in golf broadcasting that will never be equaled and is a true Hall of Famer in all of sports television.”

For 40 years, he knew what he wanted and worked to get it, creating the standard against which golf telecasts are still measured. He may not remember half of the things he did to advance sports broadcasting, but the industry will never forget them.

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