Golf Digest Interview
Jim Nantz: 'Did I Tell You The One About...'
As CBS' voice of the Masters, Jim Nantz has 20 years' worth of stories to tell (and he' s shooting for an even 50)
Spend a day, an hour or even a few minutes with Jim Nantz, and you realize that all he needs is an audience. Whether he's speaking to one person, a few hundred at a banquet or several million from the 18th tower at Augusta National, Nantz is doing what he always wanted to do. "For me it has everything to do with the words, the voice and telling a story that really captures people," he says.
What we learned during four sit-downs in four zip codes is that Nantz is the ultimate fly on the wall. As a result, there are countless stories in his head. Whether it's a special stock tip from Gene Sarazen, cutting practice with Fred Couples at the University of Houston, or an embarrassing on-air slip of the tongue beside Clint Eastwood, Nantz remembers the most minuscule of details.
Nantz's sports savvy goes way beyond golf. He's also CBS Sports' lead play-by-play voice for pro football and college basketball, but from an early age, golf was the key. "The dream for me was always the Masters," he says, "and after my freshman season on the Houston golf team I knew CBS was the only way I'd get there."
Golf Digest: This will be your 20th Masters for CBS. Tell us about your first one, when Jack Nicklaus came to the 16th tee on Sunday, trying to win his sixth green jacket, and you had the microphone.
Jim Nantz: I knew the pin would be back-left that day. Excuse me, the hole location. Before the round I asked Frank Chirkinian [former CBS golf producer] what I should say if somebody makes a hole-in-one.
"Son," he said, "I'll tell you exactly what to say if somebody makes a hole-in-one at 16: nothing! This is a visual medium, you idiot! Now, get out of my office and get down there to rehearsal."
Chirkinian was a tough guy, known as The Ayatollah. Frank was a stickler about punctuality, and Lance Barrow still adheres to it. If it says rehearsal is at 3 o'clock, you'd better be there at 2:50. At 2:51, you're late.
I was doing the 16th that first year, and I didn't really have a handle on the easiest way to get there -- what crosswalks open up a little sooner than others. I remember fearing for my life that I was going to be late for a rehearsal. I was heading down that great valley between Nos. 18 and 8, and I'm in a mild jog, fueled by a fear of being late and maybe being banished forever from the Masters. Suddenly a member came up, a green jacket, didn't know who I was. He stopped me and said, "Young man, we don't run around Augusta, we walk."
So how did you react when Jack's charge began that Sunday?
I ran down to 16. Excuse me, walked down to 16. We're on the air, and he's birdied 9, 10, 11, makes 4 [bogey] at 12, birdies 13. I'm able from my tower to see Jack make eagle at 15. As he marches to the 16th tee, I know we're going to be live, and the whole world is going to be watching. That might have been the most terrifying moment of my career.
So you called upon the reservoir of Jack Nicklaus facts in your head?
I set it up by talking about him winning his first green jacket in 1963, that he made birdie here that day. Then I talked about 1975 and the Miller and Weiskopf thing [Nicklaus' long birdie putt at 16]. I'm waxing like I'm Henry Longhurst, like I've had all the experience of these culturally literate icons that I so much wanted to be like. I'm 26 years old! The whole time I have chill bumps up and down my arms.
One of the CBS rules to this day is you never talk over a shot, and Jack got right to the point of pulling the trigger when, suddenly, he backed off. Knowing Jack through the years, I knew I had another minute to kill before he hit the shot, and I'm completely out of material.
Chirkinian had been telling all of you to pull in Tom Weiskopf from time to time. So that's what you did.
Exactly. "Tom Weiskopf, what is going through Jack's mind right now? He has not experienced this kind of a streak in a long time." And Weiskopf says, "If I knew the way he thought, I would've won this tournament." A classic.
After nearly making a hole-in-one, Nicklaus makes the birdie putt, and you say...
"The Bear ... has come out of hibernation." And as soon as I said it I was completely consumed with self-doubt. I'm thinking, Somebody else has already said that, you idiot. Later on at the CBS compound, Brent Musburger came over and said, "Hey, kid: That was the line of the day."
So what is your most embarrassing on-air moment?
It might've been on Sunday of the 2003 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, shortly after Davis Love had won the event. Clint Eastwood was in the 18th tower with me, live on the air, and I told him that Davis' father had been a huge Clint Eastwood fan. "I'll bet you didn't know," I said, "that when Davis was a young boy, one of the first adult films his father ever took him to see was one of yours."
Without hesitating, Clint turned to me on camera and said, "I have never made an adult film in my life."
My first thought was, What did I just say? It's a moment I'll never forget, and one that Clint probably hasn't forgotten, either.
Your access at Augusta must lead to some memorable behind-the-scenes moments. What comes to mind?
One of my traditions at Augusta is to take a walk around the course late on Wednesday afternoon. Usually very few people are around, and it serves as a little meditation. I like to get out to Amen Corner, check the green conditions at 12 and stand on the 13th tee for a while all by myself.
While doing this a few years ago, I'm looking from the 12th green back up the 11th fairway, and I see two people walking very slowly. One is leaning on a cane and holding onto a lady. It didn't take long, even from 400 yards away, to realize it was Byron Nelson and his wife, Peggy. I thought, How special is this? Byron Nelson is out walking around Amen Corner.
So I scurry up the 11th fairway and pull alongside, and they tell me that Byron is taking Peggy out to the Byron Nelson Bridge [at the 13th tee] for the first time. She'd never seen it. He said, "I just don't know how many more chances in my life I'm going to have to walk Amen Corner."
Trying to be as respectful as possible, I said I'd get out of their way, but Byron says, "No, no, no. Come with us."
About that time, Davey Finch, one of our cameramen, was out shooting some beauty shots for the broadcast. He saw me with the Nelsons, so he came over. Again, not to be an intrusion, I asked Byron, "Would you mind if we recorded this for history? I know the club would love to have it." He said it'd be fine, so Davey got Byron Nelson walking across his bridge for maybe the last time.
Once Byron got across the bridge, he read the plaque that pays tribute to his great record at Augusta. Then, as hard as it was for Byron to do this, he leaned down, kissed his hand and patted the plaque with his hand. It was as touching as anything I've ever seen.
You had a special day with another Masters legend, Gene Sarazen.
Thanks to Ken Venturi's time living on Marco Island [Fla.], he was very close to Gene Sarazen. So I was able to be around Mr. Sarazen quite a few times.
I was host and MC of an event Kenny held at Marco Island in early March of '99. Gene Sarazen came and sat on the first tee all day. As every group came through off a shotgun start -- Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Nick Price, Davis Love, David Duval and more -- I would ask all of them to make a comment about Mr. Sarazen. It was magic.
As I spent that whole day with him, I had the luxury of getting into the kind of stuff that if you had five minutes you wouldn't go there. I said, "Would you mind giving me an idea of what your day is like? What's a normal day for you?"