You don't need to be a neurosurgeon to know that Jim Nantz has a mind like a steel trap. The hot young CBS sportscaster, who this week will host the Masters tournament telecast for the second time, remembers stats and scores and nearly every sports event he has ever watched. It was March 5, 1972, when he followed Tom Weiskopf, one of his favorite golfers, around on the last day of the Doral-Eastern Open. He remembers the day he began dating his wife, Lorrie. "April 16, 1977," he says. "I'm such a big date guy that we were married six years later—to the day."
In a field where sizzle often substitutes for talent, the 30-year-old Nantz is neither a self-promoter nor one of those deadly bores who are always on but never funny. "Jim leaves the viewer informed, but not offended," says Ted Shaker, executive producer of CBS Sports. "He doesn't communicate his love for sports in an in-your-face way. And he's not another TV megalomaniac. Of course, there's always time for him to become one."
Even while he's lobbing soft, patsy questions at athletes—which he does often—Nantz projects a faintly earnest air. "My ambition isn't to do stand-up on the Letterman show," he says. "I always ask myself, Would Jim McKay do this?"
McKay, ABC's nonpareil Olympic and Wide World of Sports host, was Nantz's boyhood idol. "McKay's voice is loaded with drama, emotion, the culture of all the world," Nantz says. "He's got all the '-ity's': dignity, credibility and sincerity." McKay remains a strong influence on the young broadcaster, who recently bought a house in Westport, Conn., near McKay's former digs. Nantz told his wife, "Jim McKay raised his family there. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me."
Nantz's father, Jim Jr., played end for Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., during the mid-1940s. "Dad likes to tell how he played against Maryland in the first game Bear Bryant ever coached for the Terps," he says. "What he neglects to mention is that the Terps won, 60-6." As a kid in Colts Neck, N.J., Jim III lay awake nights listening to radio sports talk shows. He could pick up WBZ from Boston, WCAU from Philadelphia and WMCA and WHN from New York City. On a clear night he could even get WWWE from Cleveland. He taped the audios of games on TV and replayed them endlessly, mimicking the announcers' pace and inflection. Sometimes he would go to stadiums and do a running commentary from his seat.
By and by he made his way onto the freshman golf team at Houston. He actually led his first 18-hole tournament—ahead of pros-to-be teammates Blaine McCallister and Fred Couples—until the back nine. On the 12th hole he launched a tee shot that charted a new and bizarre trajectory. "Even the Starship Enterprise couldn't have found that ball," says McCallister. "That shot sent Jim straight into broadcasting." Nantz earned $30,000 during his senior year, doing everything from P.A. work for the Astros to narrating industrial films.
"September 14, 1982," Nantz says. That's when he interviewed for his first full-time sportscasting job with KSL in Salt Lake City.
"December 25, 1983." While reviewing a tape of BYU's last-minute Holiday Bowl victory over Missouri, Nantz saw what he thought was a clip that should have nullified the winning touchdown. He replayed it on his evening sportscast, saying, "Here's an early Christmas present for all you Cougar fans."
"You're nuts, Nantz!" said one irate caller.
"You'll never make it in this town," said another.
As it turned out, Nantz didn't need to.
"September 14, 1985," he says, referring to the date he became cohost of CBS's scoreboard show, The College Football Report.
"April 6, 1989." Three years after his first Masters assignment, Nantz replaced Brent Musburger as the host, handling player interviews with none other than Tom Weiskopf. "Personally, I thought Jim would be in the White House by now," says Dave Williams, his golf coach at Houston. "He has all the requirements—good looks and a comforting voice." For now, though, the only white house in Nantz's future is the clubhouse at Augusta National.