Jim Nantz: Remembering a poet who will remain with us forever
Long ago in Philadelphia, when America was still rebuilding from the Second World War and owning a television was considered a luxury, two young upstart broadcasters were learning together a love for golf. Frank, the shorter kid with the booming voice, was an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania with a major in drama. Jack, the older of the two, had come home several years earlier after earning a pair of Purple Hearts for, among other things, being injured while storming Omaha Beach as part of the Normandy Invasion.
They would play Main Line Golf Club or Bala early in the day before heading to work at WCAU-TV. The director and the sports anchor. One day the war hero hit his tee shot into the trees right of the fairway.
His playing partner was safe down the left side. When they reached the green, Jack said, “I made a 5.” Frank challenged him. “No, you didn’t. That was a 4, wasn’t it?” Jack replied, “No, when I was over in the trees, my ball moved at address. It’s a 5.”
Frank Chirkinian would tell that story, always adding, “Only God and Jack Whitaker knew that golf ball moved.” Frank, who would later be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and recognized as “the father of golf television,” called that moment of truth the instant he fell hopelessly in love with the game. It also marked the occasion when he realized that Jack Whitaker was an incredible human being.
Jack would create his own legendary career, first with CBS and then ABC. He called virtually every sport there is, including Super Bowl I, but it was commentating golf where his poet’s tongue made the largest impact. And boy, could he write.
I first met the great man at the 1986 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Frank Chirkinian summoned me to observe his legendary operation before putting me in the tower a few weeks later at Doral. Frank assigned me to a house that CBS had rented off the first fairway. It was a classic Spanish-style home that for years belonged to the most underrated of golfers from the first half of the 20th century, Lawson Little Jr. My roommate for the week was the famous writer from Pittsburgh, Bob Drum, who made a name for himself chronicling Arnold Palmer.
Upon arrival, Drummer suggested we walk over to The Lodge to partake in “an adult beverage.” When we walked into Club XIX, there, standing at the bar with a martini in hand, was Jack Whitaker. Drummer immediately introduced me as “the new kid.” For me, it was tantamount to randomly meeting Ernest Hemingway. Although it had been almost five years since Jack had last worked for CBS, he would occasionally join his old colleagues at a tournament. His ties with Frank and the rest of the crew were unbreakable, and we would remain bonded as friends from that night on. I had 33 years of listening and learning from the best of the best.
Jack is one of the few broadcasters to have covered all four majors. In later life, he and Chirkinian were reunited, globe-trotting with “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.” Jack, who passed away in August at 95, brought exotic parts of the world to our doorsteps, capturing the soul of golf and its people with a perspective that remains unmatched. Of his dozens of famous essays, none was greater than his observation of the Old Course at St. Andrews during ABC’s telecast of an Open Championship:
Nobody designed this golf course. Nobody with a pencil, and two million dollars, and five bulldozers. This was made by nature. It comes out of the ground. It was done with wind and rain and sun, and with the help of a few sheep. And so, while for most Americans and other people it’s not love at first sight at St. Andrews, St. Andrews’ Old Course is like a dry martini. An acquired taste. And as such, it remains with you forever.
Only God and Jack Whitaker could write like that.