Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 6, 2011

The Man Who Invented Televised Golf

As Rory Sabbatini tamed both windy conditions and the difficult Champion Course at PGA National to win the Honda Classic this weekend, holding off a Sunday charge by Y.E. Yang, there were thousands of fans on hand to witness the South African’s first PGA Tour victory in nearly two years. But many times that number witnessed Sabbatini’s triumph through the medium of television. While nothing can beat witnessing a sporting event first-hand, the realities of time, cost, and proximity dictate that most fans see most sports through the pixels on the flat screens in their living rooms.

Golf is especially well-suited for television. Because the game’s “playing field” typically covers several hundred acres, anyone watching a tournament live is going to see only a small fraction of the play. Whether that sliver will include a particularly crucial shot or putt is something of a crap shoot. In the hopes that it will, some fans at each weekly tournament station themselves at course locations known to have been spots where a turning point has come in the past, and wait patiently for the action to come to them. Others choose to walk the course following the tournament leaders, or their own favorite golfer. Of course, if their favorite is also a leader, then the walking strategy must take into account the reality that many other fans will be joining in the hike. The walking fan will likely spend at least part of the day with a better view of the back of another fan’s head than of the shot just struck. And if one’s favorite’s first name happens to be Tiger or Phil, then the walking strategy is not so much a means of actually seeing a golf tournament as it is a decision to march in a massive human parade, with the golfing hero as its grand marshal.

For the fans sitting at home in their living rooms, those challenges don’t exist. Thanks to camera locations spread all across the course, they can be assured of seeing every important shot up close. To be sure, they won’t all be live, but that too is an advantage of television; it allows the fan to witness something that actually happened while the fan was busy watching something else.

The Honda Classic was broadcast on NBC, the network that for years now has hosted the Florida portion of the PGA Tour’s annual schedule every March. But the identity of the network covering any week’s tournament really doesn’t matter. The reality is that the coverage of golf that can be seen on whichever network carries any given tournament owes virtually everything to one man; the legendary CBS producer Frank Chirkinian, who died Friday at his North Palm Beach home, not far from PGA National. At age 84, Chirkinian finally lost a lengthy battle with lung cancer.

As anyone who has ever walked a tournament course and observed the miles and miles of cable run throughout the premises can attest; Chirkinian was an innovator who transformed televised golf from a stationary set piece of a handful of holes to a colorful immersion into every part of a round. Aided by advances in technology making cameras smaller and lighter, Chirkinian first expanded the number of camera locations around courses, and added cameras on top of cranes to provide long overhead views. In time he added crews carrying hand-held cameras walking with the leading groups, showing the top golfers up close as they made their way around the course. Along with the traveling cameras he introduced roving commentators, who could report on club selection and the quality of a player’s lie in the rough. He placed microphones around the greens to pick up conversations between players and caddies; and on the tees to add to the aural experience of the telecast with the sound of initially persimmon, and eventually titanium, launching golf balls down the fairway. He even convinced PGA Tour officials to paint the inside of the cups on each green white, correctly reasoning that this would make the holes more visible on television.

While at CBS Chirkinian produced other sports as well. He was the first to place cameras in the curves at auto races and in the clubhouse turn at thoroughbred events. At NFL games he would have one camera focus tightly on the head coach on the sidelines, adding to the viewing experience by showing the man’s reactions to the play on the field.

Easily his most ubiquitous contribution to televised sports came from an idea he had while preparing to produce the CBS telecast of the 1960 Orange Bowl. Learning that the Goodyear blimp was going to be on hand, he arranged for a camera to be placed in its nose, offering viewers at home a panoramic view of the stadium and its surroundings. Today of course, no major sporting event is complete without a shot from the blimp, even when that shot is a rather pointless view of the roof of a domed stadium.

For all of his innovations in what a viewer sees and hears while watching a tournament, Chirkinian’s most important contribution to the game of golf was in changing the way results are reported. Most stories about Sabbatini’s Honda Classic victory will lead with the news that his winning score was 9 under par. But prior to Chirkinian the report would have been that the South African won with a 271, one better than Yang’s 272 total. While it is commonplace today, Chirkinian was the first to report golfers’ results in relation to par. That change made it possible to have meaningful scoreboards, both at the course and on television. It also meant that fans could instantly understand where two golfers stood relative to one another, even though they might not have completed the same number of holes.

Long-time CBS announcer Pat Summerall nicknamed Chirkinian the Ayatollah in the late ‘70s. From all accounts he could be a brusque, demanding, and profane boss. Innovative minds all too often have little patience for those who can’t keep up. But the fans sitting at home didn’t have to work for him; they just got to sit back and enjoy the fruit of his creativity. On May 9th, Frank Chirkinian will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida. Sadly, the Ayatollah won’t be there.

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