The CBS golf crew on what you don't see on TV, handling feedback from fans (and players), and how Tiger Woods changes everything
Tiger Woods' PGA Tour return will get most of the attention at this week's Farmers Insurance Open, but the CBS golf crew will also be back to kick-off another year of coverage. This year's slate features 19 tour events, including the first two men's major championships of 2019 thanks to a scheduling change that moved the PGA Championship from August to May. In April, CBS will broadcast the Masters for a 64th consecutive year, but months before the most-watched major in golf tees off, we talked to the on-air team that will bring you the action.
In a roundtable discussion with Jim Nantz, Nick Faldo, Peter Kostis, Gary McCord, Dottie Pepper, Ian Baker-Finch and Amanda Balionis, we covered a variety of topics from what fans don't see on TV to their favorite tournaments to how they handle feedback from fans and players. Here's a glimpse into the minds of some of golf's most recognizable voices and how this close-knit group interacts when the cameras aren't rolling.
How important is chemistry to a good golf broadcast?
Nantz: It is absolutely essential. It’s what defines us more than anything. We are friends and we are friends 365 days a year. It’s who we are, and it’s authentic on the air. You can tell there’s a kinship there. We laugh a lot on the air, we laugh a whole lot off the air as well. It’s what makes it a special team. It’s the continuity, the authentic chemistry and the care for one another.
Kostis: Frank Chirkinian (CBS Golf executive producer from 1959-1996) started it. He used to talk about putting together an ensemble of voices. He hired people to fit in with who he had rather than to be what he had. When he hired me, he said, “I’m not hiring you to be funny, I’ve got McCord for that.” And he was right. And so we have personalities that complement each other, and we come at things from different directions with different perspectives and attitudes.
McCord: I remember I started the week before Jimmy did, and we were at Doral and here comes Chirkinian. “Hey, I want to talk to you. Now, listen kid, I want you doing this, and that, and da-da-da-da-da, do this, do that.” Frank started to walk away, and I’d been working there a week and we’d never had a talk. So I said, “Frank, what do I do?” and he stopped and said, “I’ll tell you when you f* up.” When you do a sitcom, you don’t put four people around the table or the bar and they’re all alike. You make them all ethnically different, socially different, religiously different. Everything’s different and you throw them in the pot and see what comes out.
Balionis: I can’t tell you how many times people say to me, “It seems like you guys are having the best time on air.” And I don’t think that’s anything you can fake. Everyone’s a professional when you have to do your job, but with this team, we all love being with each other and getting a chance to work together. When big life things happen, the first people to text me or call me are these people around the table, and Lance (Barrow), and our whole family.
'I still like to prepare myself as a golfer. I always go out and see the golf course, I still draw my own greens to make sure I know when someone misses the green long right, I can blurt out, “He’s dead,” and be 99-percent right.' — Nick Faldo
What are some challenges to broadcasting golf that the average fan sitting at home doesn’t realize?
Pepper: Everything. It’s a city that gets put up and broken down every week and relocated. The logistics of it are incredibly thick. If you just think about the towers that go up however many stories, they have to have an occupancy certificate. So this is so far in advance, but people think you just flick the light switch and it magically happens. There’s miles and miles of cable, and trucks, and it’s a city that moves every time we move. It’s not like you can just plug it in and press play.
Kostis: There’s also when they watch the show they see this seamless transition of Jim to Nick talking, to throwing it to 16 to this and that, and it’s very soothing. What they fail to realize what’s going on in our ear pieces. An announcer’s first rule is never, ever let what’s going in your ear come out your mouth. Ever. So while it seems like it’s a slow-moving sport, in our world, our lives exist in six-second increments, and we’ve got two people talking to us in our headphones while we’re trying to say something on air. From our perspective, it can be chaotic at times, even if it comes across as anything but.
Pepper: There are no timeouts. There’s a ball in the air all the time, even if we’re not on the air live. So that has to be covered as well.
How do you handle the various roles you play on the broadcast, and what’s your weekly prep schedule like?
Faldo: I still like to prepare myself as a golfer. I always go out and see the golf course, I still draw my own greens to make sure I know when someone misses the green long right, I can blurt out, “He’s dead,” and be 99-percent right. I like to chat to players to get an inside scoop on where they are, what they’re working on. You can know where there confidence level is. So I do all of that and then when I jump in the tower, Jim tees us up and I react to a picture.
Balionis: If it’s a course I haven’t been to, I try to come in on a Thursday as opposed to a Friday and walk the course to get a feel for it. It’s not like I’m doing any analysis, but it makes me feel more comfortable with my whereabouts. And then it’s a lot of watching the broadcast Thursday/Friday, reading every article possible, and really keeping an eye on social media because we’ve found players are less likely sometimes to talk to a reporter than they are to directly connect with fans. But I also go to the range to talk to coaches and caddies to make sure I can ask informed questions. You can never have too much information going in.
Kostis: Like Nick said, it really isn’t much different from playing in the sense you do all your practicing, you do all your work, you do all your drills, but when you get to the first tee, you leave all that behind and you just play. For Dottie and I, we often don’t even know which groups we’re going to be walking with. So you prepare for a whole bunch of stuff, but you can’t guarantee that you’re prepared for that group because you never saw them coming when we were in rehearsal.
Pepper: You have a bit of a safety net because you’ve prepared for so many, but if I had to put the math to it, I think I use about 3 percent of what I’ve prepared for on the air.
Nantz: Times have changed, though. Early in our careers, we didn’t have cable coverage that came right up to within 15 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever the window is until we take over the broadcast. It used to be, in Chirkinian’s world, really important to nail the rehearsal. We seriously rehearsed.
McCord: Yep, half hour. Solid.
Nantz: You’d go through golf action, cutting from hole to hole. He wanted everyone to get into a flow so we’d do the full broadcast like you were doing a rehearsal for a play. Then we’d turn around and go on the air. And if you screwed around, he would yell at you. So by the time you came on the air, it was just a continuum of what you’d done. You were duped into feeling you’d already been on the air. Obviously, those days are long gone now. It was different.
Balionis: I think some of the best preparation is watching some of the early coverage, because we’re all in the truck watching it together.
Faldo: Why, thank you.
Balionis: Yeah, we’re all watching Nick. I can’t tell you how many times a player changes his putting stroke or is working on something with his swing, and I can turn to Dottie and say, “OK, for the viewer at home or for someone like me who has never played competitively, what does that mean?” And how do I ask that question so I understand it, but viewers at home understand it. Or if I’m doing the Smartcart, I can ask Peter, “Does this make sense?” and he’ll say, “That’s kind of dumb, do this instead.” These are the people who know this game the best. They’re such a wealth of knowledge.
Has the viewer’s ability to know more through modern stats, round-the-clock coverage and social media changed how you present information on air?
Faldo: It’s out there now, so if you go with something you half read or you get your bloody numbers wrong, up there goes your phone. “No, he didn’t three-putt the 14th, it was the 13th!”
Nantz: I know I’m in the dark ages, but I really respect what Amanda said about social media, and that piques my interest to want to get in the game, but I don’t go there. I don’t assume anybody knows anything. I’m not going to cut corners with anything, it doesn’t matter if it’s from social media or in Golf Digest. The story is worth starting from scratch and telling it. But you don’t have long stretches in our world to do longform storytelling. We’re cutting around quickly, and that’s not a criticism. We’re doing the right thing, it’s just you’ve got to be ready to take a story, a feature, pull something out of it and you might be able to go a minute. But you never know if you’ll have that minute, because you never know when Lance, who sees all our monitors, will say, “Send it to 16!” One of the things you’ll learn quickly is how to get to the end of the story with Lance bearing down on you. Everybody here has a tremendous ability to ad lib. It’s all extemporaneous speaking, it’s one of the little nuances of live television, particularly golf television, that goes unrecognized.
Pepper: I think it’s the Twitter mindset, though. It’s almost like you have to start to think in a small amount of characters, because you don’t know when they’re going to pull the plug. You start to think in bites that have some fluidity to them, but they might not have the chance.
How much more have you incorporated stats into broadcasts?
Kostis: I prefer not to. I think it’s boring. I think golf is an art form, I don’t think it’s a scientific equation. Having said that, I will understand the statistics of a certain player or group I’m walking with and I’ll know someone’s driving accuracy the last month and a half has been pitiful. So I might say, “The difficulty for him is trying to put this in the fairway because he’s not been good at that lately.” But I’m not going to say, “He’s only hitting 37.2 percent of his fairways.” I think that’s really off-putting to me.
Faldo: I agree with that because they’re not … you can miss every fairway by a foot and I’d take that. I never counted that when I played. And you could miss every green by a foot and be within 18 feet, I’d take that over hitting the green and being 65 feet away. I keep harping on proximity to the hole because I like that one, it makes sense. I had my own stat when I played. I had a 15-18 foot circle.
Kostis: The stats have become more comprehensive, but they also create more issues. Take proximity to the hole, someone could be leading at 29 feet, eight inches, but that isn’t the story. The story is he hit it inside 10 feet 11 times and inside of 15 feet another 10 times. So he’s hit it close, but he hit a couple foul balls that got his average up. So those stats can be deceiving if you don’t dig deep enough.
Pepper: If gives us an idea if we’re on the ground of their tendencies. It gives you something to create a basis for your observations that day.
Balionis: I also think it helps to approach a player after a tough round with statistical facts. If you say, “Wow, it really seemed like you were terrible off the tee today,” you’re opening yourself up for someone to get defensive. I remember Sunday at the PGA Championship when Tiger didn’t hit a fairway until the 11th or 12th hole. That was a big story, but how do I ask him that when he’s not in a great mood and you don’t come off as trying to put him in a bad spot? So that to me was a great use of statistical data. I find that’s really been great with a lot of players. And it’s also fun to show players before interviews what they’ve been doing well, and nine times out of 10, they get a big smile on their face, because they didn’t know that.
'I don’t think I’m being critical when I discuss their swings. I’m being honest and evaluating. Nine times out of 10, if he’s hit the ball right, I’m figuring out what he did that caused that.' — Peter Kostis
How do you balance covering players while maintaining good relationships with them? Peter, how much blowback have you gotten for breaking down players' swings?
Kostis: Other than the fact Tiger wouldn’t talk to me for a year-and-a-half.
Faldo: Only a year-and-a-half?
Nantz: That’s pretty good.
Kostis: I don’t think I’m being critical when I discuss their swings. I’m being honest and evaluating. Nine times out of 10, if he’s hit the ball right, I’m figuring out what he did that caused that. There’s too many different golf swings out there to say this one is no good and that one is. I just describe what happened, and I’ve had way more players come up to me and say I was right than have complained about what I said. I’ve had less than a handful of players complain.
Nantz: By the way, what Peter has done in concert with our high-speed cameras, is revolutionary, and the best in the history of the medium. It’s not something the layman or person at home gives much credit to, but when you try to sum up a golf swing, albeit even in slow motion, that’s still a 15-20 second window, how many of us have had a golf lesson and it takes you awhile to get the thought, the cogent description of what you need to work on. And Peter is able to do this every time. Some of them are on tape, a great many of them, though, are live. He’s walking in the fairway with a monitor on him, and on the spot he identifies something he sees that makes sense to the viewer. It’s exceptional, and I don’t think people understand how hard it is to do.
McCord: You should put that speech on your website.
Anyone else have run-ins with players?
Nantz: You know, they’re really decent guys. And I have the context of seeing a lot of different sports, and for golfers, it’s different for me. By in large, your stars of the sport are around for a long time, and you travel in the same circles. We see them at our hotels, we see them at restaurants, a great many of us, full disclosure, see them at outings together away from tournament weeks. You get to know the player, the family, their children. My wife gets to know some of the wives. And this is not an exception, we all travel in the same circles. You can’t put a wall up and say “I’ve got to cover them, I can’t really get close to them or get to know them.” Part of what makes it so good is we have really great relationships with the subjects we’re covering. And I think that comes out on the air every week.
What are your thoughts on the amount of coverage Tiger Woods gets during a telecast?
Kostis: It’s a cliche, but he doesn’t move the needle, he is the needle right now. You’ve got to cover him. He’s got a tremendous amount of stories to tell, too, with all the injuries and surgeries. Look, half the people who watch Tiger hate him and hope he shoots 90, and the other half hopes he wins by 15. So you’re always going to make someone unhappy with your coverage, too much or too little. Hey, he’s changed the game.
Faldo: He’s probably the most intriguing sportsman on the planet so you have to be there whatever he does. Everything is a story with him. People will start about Augusta and what he’ll be able to do there, he’s like no athlete ever in any sport.
Balionis: I remember there were more people following him at Torrey Pines last year during the pro-am than I’d ever seen there. So the ones complaining on social media are really loud, but they can’t be the majority, because if they were, you wouldn’t see him affect the ratings like he does or see the crowds he draws.
Does Tiger’s presence make your jobs harder or easier?
Faldo: Easier. There’s less to talk about in a way. When the golf is good, you can just shut up.
Pepper: Well, it does make it harder for us to get around. You have to be thinking about where Tiger is, those are the speed bumps on a golf course where you’ll get caught up. When I came to CBS at the end of 2015, Tiger wasn’t in the picture, and I had forgotten about how much you have to plan into your day just to get to the television compound.
Are there any tournament venues that present extra challenges logistically?
McCord: Phoenix. Don’t go out there.
Faldo: The easiest way is to walk on the golf course, because no one’s there.
McCord: I walked from my house, it’s about two miles. But people try to jump on your cars to get rides, because they’re all drunk. They physically jump on your car.
Nantz: I love everything about it, though, including the Thunderbirds who run it. We’ll miss it, but we’ll be back next year. (NBC has coverage of the Waste Management in 2019 because Nantz and CBS will be busy broadcasting Super Bowl LIII.)
Pepper: It’s good that it’s different.
Balionis: I love when the first group comes through and all the fans sing the national anthem. They’re already drunk, but it’s so patriotic and everything that’s great with sports. It’s such a fun event because it’s different.
What are some other events you particularly enjoy outside of the Masters, PGA Championship and the Waste Management, which apparently, you all love?
Faldo: For the views, obviously, Pebble.
Nantz: That’s my favorite.
Pepper: Well, the commute’s terrible for you!
Nantz: Yeah, the commute’s terrible.
Kostis: A lot of the ones for me that you wouldn’t normally expect are the John Deeres and the Greensboros, and …
Pepper: Hartford has turned into a rockstar.
Kostis: Hartford. Because the people who put the tournament on and the people in the community are so doggone nice. Those small tournaments that often get overlooked, especially by big-name players, are wonderful.
Pepper: They’re the heartbeat of the community 52 weeks a year, but they just happen to be on TV for four days. But they make so many things happen from a charity standpoint. When the tour comes to town, it is THE thing to do.
Baker-Finch: My favorite PGA Tour event is the Memorial. Jack has always made his tournament stand out from the crowd with the best course conditions, player amenities and fan experience. The Memorial led the tour to where it is today in my opinion, and the Players Championship and all the other events had to follow to keep up.
Balionis: Travelers Championship by far. When people ask me what tournament to go to for the first time, that is my No. 1. It’s a birdie-fest, which the players love coming off the U.S. Open, that final stretch you can watch on the hill, there are concerts every night. It’s unbelievable.
Nantz: The quaintness of the Colonial, which CBS has a long history with, we love that event. … Charlotte’s fantastic. I mean, there are so many.
Faldo: Well, you have 14 hometowns, Jim.
'I watch everything and I love it, and I root for everyone. I watch the Golf Channel all the time when my kids aren’t watching cartoons and I can get the TV.' — Jim Nantz
How often do you seek out or happen upon criticism from something you’ve said on air?
Faldo: We get a lot of it, but it’s live TV, we do the best we can. We do it like playing golf, you have to judge yourself. You walk out the tower at six o’clock and say, “I did alright today, I did well.” And someone will write “You ass, you got this wrong, you said that, da-da-da-da.” Then you look it up and they have 17 followers, so you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.
Kostis: Well, there’s very little that’s social with social media. At least, in the golf world. Everybody is an expert so you just have to learn to not take anything personally, either the good or the bad.
Balionis: Or have people you trust to get the proper feedback. I love social media. There’s obviously the downside and you can’t get caught up in it. Jim was actually a great reference for me when I was getting upset about people saying negative things about us. If five people want to sit there and tear you apart, think about how much that matters in the grand scheme of things. You have to trust yourself and the team you’re around to have each other’s backs. And if there is something that needs to be fixed, I have zero doubt in my mind that Peter or someone will pull me aside and say something. And those are the opinions that matter.
Kostis: If 50 people said the same thing, then there might be some relevance that one of us screwed up. If one person takes a shot at you, it’s one person taking a shot at you. You just forget about it.
When you’re not working, how much golf do you watch on other channels?
Nantz: I watch everything and I love it, and I root for everyone. I watch the Golf Channel all the time when my kids aren’t watching cartoons and I can get the TV.
McCord: How do you have time to watch golf? You’re on the road 24/7?!
Nantz: During the fall I was watching all those events over in Asia in the middle of the night. I love it, it’s relaxing. I watch the U.S. Open and Open Championship gavel to gavel, and I root for everybody because we’re all guardians of the game. It’s not like the NFL. One network a week has this thing we all care about in their hands and we want it to be treated with respect, advance the game. I don't criticize anyone, I pull for them. And I’m proud of what we do. CBS Golf, this crew right here, and the hundreds of men and women behind the scenes who should be a part of this interview, I think we have the responsibility of representing CBS more than any other property, any primetime show, anything, because I think this network is so identified with this sport for so long.
What are you looking forward to seeing unfold in 2019, and do you have any bold predictions?
Kostis: I think the main storyline will be the change in the schedule. Every month we’re going to have a spectacular event from March to August. Players are going to have to readjust and figure out what to do. As far as Tiger’s concerned, all bets are off with him because everything is health related.
Faldo: Who is going to leave the flagstick in at which tournaments?
Kostis: They can’t keep that rule. It makes putting too easy.
Faldo: I said when they changed that rule you have to look at course records. The day they came out with that, I went out for a laugh and played nine holes and shot 32 because on six footers you just whack it and bang, right in. It’s like a backstop.
Kostis: There will be a player who completes the career Grand Slam. It’s either going to be Rory at the Masters, Phil at Pebble, or Jordan at the PGA.
Faldo: I’ll go with none of them doing it.
Kostis: A bottle of claret on that?
Faldo: A bottle of claret, of course.
Baker-Finch: I think Jon Rahm will be the young player to watch early in 2019 after his impressive play at Tiger’s event, where he looked very solid in all departments of his game, especially on the greens. He has only just reached 24 and has immense potential. Watch him in the majors this year. Also watch out for Tiger Woods. He may very well add major No. 15 to his impressive list of achievements, and I believe he will pass Sam Snead’s record total of PGA Tour wins.
Pepper: I think Tony Finau will have a big year. The scar tissue is building from all the close calls, but he’s too talented not to start winning.
Nantz: I will go with Brooks Koepka winning at Augusta because I’m going to give him his due. Everyone should stop looking past him. I really do think he has a point. His year was fantastic, and no one ever asked me a question about Brooks this year. So I’ll take Brooks at Augusta, I think Tiger’s best chance to win a major will be the second one of the year at Bethpage.
Faldo: It’s too cold for his back!
Nantz: How do you know it’s going to be cold? Should we be going to get the Farmer’s Almanac out? As he’s coming up the 72nd hole, I’ll remind you. And my other prediction is that Phil will win the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Balionis: You also predicted I’d meet my future husband in six months.
Nantz: And how long has it been?
Balionis: Six months.
Nantz: Well, who says you haven’t met him?
Faldo: Oh, that’s deep!
McCord: I predict someone who wins a major this year will have an equipment contract, because no one did in 2018.
Nantz: That sounds interesting.
McCord: Well, at least I can probably guarantee mine coming true unlike yours.
Balionis: I’m taking Rory to win the Masters. If you asked me last year after talking to him on Saturday night, I didn’t think anyone could beat him, and then that first tee shot. … He has some demons there, but he wants it so badly that I think he’ll figure it out and get it done. And I think Cameron Champ wins at least two more times this season.
Nantz: The prediction business for us as people who are documenting it is a no-win situation. I said Brooks because I think he needed to be in our discussion today, and you asked about Tiger, and I think it’s his best chance. And the Phil thing, it’s not one of the tournaments we broadcast, but I just think there’s a lot of family history there and sometimes a script that comes out of the sky, the golf gods drop one in our lap and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, it all makes sense now.” That one would make sense for a multitude reasons—which will be coming in a later Golf Digest column. Check your local listings.