Masters Tournament golf broadcasting pioneer dies

Frank Chirkinian made Augusta National 'theater', Jack Nicklaus says
Frank Chirkinian, an executive producer for golf on CBS from 1959 to 1996, died after a bout with lung cancer on Friday. His production skills made the Masters the theater that it is today.

Frank Chirkinian, a pioneer in golf television who dazzled audiences each spring with his production of the Masters Tournament, died Friday at his home in North Palm Beach, Fla. He was 84.


Among the innovations Chirkinian introduced were relation-to-par scoring, multiple cameras, microphones on tees and aerial blimps. He won four Emmy and two Peabody awards during his career, where he was executive producer for golf on CBS from 1959 to 1996.

"Frank Chirkinian was a master storyteller and pioneered how golf - and our tournament - was broadcast on television," Augusta National and Masters Chairman Billy Payne said in a prepared statement. "We salute his many contributions to the game and will always consider him to be an important and enduring part of the history and success of the Masters Tournament."

 "He was never afraid to take a chance," Lance Barrow, who succeeded him, said in a televised interview. "Don't be afraid to do something different. Frank set the standard."

Tributes to Chirkinian poured in Friday on the news of his death after a bout with lung cancer.

"Chirkinian made Augusta National what it is today from a television standpoint," six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus said. "He made it theater. He was a pioneer with some of the things he did bringing golf to television."

Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, said: "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."

CBS will honor Chirkinian during today's programming, and Jim Nantz will deliver a special tribute during halftime of today's Kansas-Missouri game that begins at noon.

In February, Chirkinian was selected for induction to the World Gold Hall of Fame in the lifetime achievement category. He will be enshrined May 9 along with Ernie Els, Doug Ford, Jumbo Ozaki, former President George H.W. Bush and the late Jock Hutchison.

But it was at the Masters where Chirkinian shined.

His career coincided with the rise of Arnold Palmer, and Chirkinian remembered the first time he saw the four-time Masters champion on television at the Masters.

"Here comes Arnold, at the brow of the hill on 15, and this is my first experience with Arnold," Chirkinian said in a 2004 interview with The Augusta Chronicle . "And you know, the camera either loves you or hates you. The camera fell in love with him, standing there next to his caddie, hitching his trousers, wrinkling his nose, flipping a cigarette to the ground. He hitched his trousers again and grabbed a club from his caddie. And he hits it on the green.

"I thought, 'Holy mackerel, who is this guy?' He absolutely fired up the screen. It was quite obvious this was the star. We followed him all the way."

When asked by Golfweek in a recent interview why the Masters was his favorite event, Chirkinian said: "There was always something special. It's probably the greatest theater in all of sports."

Chirkinian also was a part-time Augusta resident who lived in West Lake and was well known around the city. Chuck Baldwin, owner of French Market Grille, said Chirkinian invested with him in the restaurant business when French Market West opened during the 1990s.

"I had great admiration for him. He was a larger than life kind of person," Baldwin said. "He was just legendary the way he did golf."

Chirkinian also had a fierce temper that earned him the nickname of "The Ayatollah" to his CBS colleagues. He expected, and demanded, perfection.

"I can't think of a better nickname for him," Baldwin said. "He had a very, very soft interior. Gruff exterior, but an extremely generous person. He was a unique individual."

NBC's Jimmy Roberts only worked one time with Chirkinian, when he was with ESPN. The network and CBS split the coverage of the inaugural Presidents Cup in 1996. Sitting President Bill Clinton attended one day and Roberts was asked to interview him in the president's booth.

In the middle of the interview, Chirkinian decided to cut to live golf and barked in Roberts' ear, "You guys do the coverage," meaning Roberts with Clinton as his color commentator.

"I've never done live play by play before," Roberts said. "I don't know who I was more intimidated by -- the leader of the free world at my side or the guy in my ear."

Though Roberts didn't know Chirkinian well, he understands the magnitude of his influence in televised golf.

"He was a giant in our industry," Roberts said. "Suffice to say, all of us -- even those who did not know him -- are feeling a great loss today, and we should. They always say everybody who plays professional golf today should give a piece of their winnings to Arnold Palmer. Every TV golf person owes a debt of gratitude to Frank Chirkinian."

Staff writer Scott Michaux contributed to this article.