Maybe the only people to see the dark humor in the demise were
the union guys--the cameramen, the soundmen, the
electricians--entrenched veterans, largely protected from the
foibles of upper management. They knew the golf-rich history of
their once feisty network, the American Broadcasting Company.
They knew that in 1966, when Arnold Palmer collapsed and Billy
Casper won the U.S. Open at Olympic, it was their network that
covered the tournament. That in 1977, when Tom Watson and Jack
Nicklaus engaged in their 36-hole duel at the British Open at
Turnberry, ABC broadcast the epic back to the U.S. That in 1986,
when Bob Tway holed out from a greenside bunker at Inverness to
win the PGA Championship over Greg Norman, ABC had the shot
covered from the front, back and sides. And now these men were
telling jokes about an especially distinguished troika of
tournaments on ABC's schedule: the JCPenney Classic, the Diners
Club Matches and the Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge. "Our new
majors," they called them.
But that was a long time ago. That was last year. Change can
come quickly in television, and over the winter ABC reinvented
its golf coverage. By the time the network showed last month's
Mercedes Championships, golf at ABC had a new analyst, a new
host, a new look--and the place was under new management.
One change led to all the others. Last April, Dennis Swanson was
forced to resign as the president of ABC Sports and was replaced
by Steve Bornstein, who is now the president of ESPN and ABC
Sports. It was Swanson who made Brent Musburger a golf host, a
job for which, with his too-rich voice and overblown oratory, he
was never well suited. It was Swanson who fired Dave Marr, the
amiable Texan with a worldly golf view. It was during Swanson's
10-year reign that ABC lost the rights to televise USGA and PGA
of America events.
And now the golf team at ABC is where it was three decades ago,
and the network wants the good tournaments back. The Ryder Cup
contract with NBC runs through 2005, but CBS's deal for the PGA
Championship expires at the end of 1998. All the network and
cable contracts for PGA Tour events also conclude in '98. The
deal between the USGA and NBC expires at the end of 1999. ABC
plans to bid aggressively for all these events. In the meantime
it will try to reestablish its credentials with its coverage of
events such as this week's Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif.
Among the first things Bornstein did in his new job was to give
one man, senior vice president of production Steve Anderson, the
task of fixing golf. And the first big step taken by Anderson
(the son of Dave Anderson, the venerable sports columnist for
The New York Times) was to hit the ultimate mute button. With
Bornstein's urging and blessing, Anderson removed Musburger. To
replace him, he and Bornstein chose Mike Tirico, a plainspoken
30-year-old ESPN studio pro with a strong announcing background
in almost every sport--except golf.
Anderson's next step was less bold and more delicate. For most
of this decade, golf at ABC had no single producer. The job was
split between Jack Graham and Terry Jastrow. Jim Jennett, who
has directed golf at ABC for 25 years, and everybody under
Jennett had to respond to one producer's style at one tournament
and a different style at the next. Anderson also wanted a
producer who was committed only to ABC. He weighed his choices.
Jastrow lived in Los Angeles, had a contract to produce six
telecasts a year for ABC and was also busy with his work as the
president of Jack Nicklaus Productions. Graham lived in New
Jersey, near ABC's New York offices, and did virtually all his
work for ABC. Anderson settled on Graham.
But Jastrow is an entrenched figure in golf and a skillful TV
person whose telecasts included primers on golf history,
incisive camera work and--pre-Musburger anyway--understated
announcers. Jastrow, who is married to the actress Ann Archer,
had worked for ABC since 1970. He's a leading player at his home
course, Bel Air, the fabled Los Angeles golf club. He is also a
member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which
runs the British Open. And he has good working relationships
with many formidable golf people, particularly Nicklaus.
Anderson proceeded carefully.
He flew to Los Angeles and told Jastrow how much he valued his
work. But Anderson also told Jastrow that he needed a producer
who could commit to working all 25 tournaments televised by ABC,
somebody who would be available for regular meetings in New
York. The conversation never got to money. Jastrow resigned.
Graham became the producer of golf for ABC.
There remained one more significant hole to fill. ABC needed an
analyst whom viewers would talk about on Monday morning, as they
do about Johnny Miller of NBC. Graham had an answer: Curtis
Strange. His friendship with Strange was longstanding, going
back to Strange's victories in the 1988 and '89 U.S. Opens,
which were covered by ABC. For several years Graham had tried to
persuade Strange to become an analyst. Late last year Strange
This year Strange will work at least 10 Tour events--along with
several unofficial tournaments--and he plans to play in seven of
the events he is scheduled to work. Strange is 42, and what kind
of golf is left in him is unknown. If he's in contention on his
ABC weeks, he won't be available to do much analysis. If he
misses a cut, well, would you want to be sitting next to Curtis
Strange for a weekend in a cramped space after he misses a cut?
Tirico is not worried. He's busy with other stuff. Homework, in
particular. Recently he has been reading John Feinstein's A Good
Walk Spoiled--for the second time. He's reading golf magazines
and watching old highlight tapes. The culture of golf is not
totally foreign to him. He's a 17 handicapper at Tower Ridge
Country Club in Simsbury, Conn. He has been around the game
enough to know the difference between a pitch and a chip. He has
watched enough golf on TV to talk comfortably about Nicklaus at
Augusta in '86 and Watson at Pebble Beach in '82.
For that Tirico owes a debt of gratitude going back to his
youth, to his mother's brother, Frank Fiordalisi. Uncle Frank
was a golf nut who spent endless hours watching tournaments on
the TV in the Tiricos' living room, in a middle-class
neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. Marv Albert, the quintessential New
York announcer, was Tirico's sportscasting hero when he was
growing up. But the more significant influence would seem to
have been Chris Schenkel, a Hawaiian lei around his neck,
reporting the mellow action from the 16th at Waialae on a balmy
February day in Honolulu while icy winds ripped through the
American golf, at last, is becoming an integrated game, and no
doubt many people will be pleased that ABC has finally included
an Italian-American in its coverage. Yes, of course, some will
say that ABC is just cashing in on the Rocco Mediate craze. The
fact is, Tirico doesn't know how Italian he is, although he does
know that he has great-grandparents who were born in Italy.
Likewise, he doesn't know what percentage of him, to use an
inane but common phrase, is black. "I can't give you, 'I'm
one-eighth this, I'm one-eighth that, I'm one-quarter this,' the
way Tiger Woods can," Tirico says. "I can say I don't think I've
ever been given a promotion because of my appearance. The only
thing I want to be judged on is my work."
Strange wants the same thing. He's not going to try to be Miller
or Ken Venturi, the CBS analyst, or Peter Alliss, the erudite
English announcer who will caddie for Strange in the booth when
the latter is on the course. Strange says if he has a model at
all, it's Tim McCarver, the catcher turned baseball announcer.
"McCarver tells you what it's like to be in certain situations
because he's been there," Strange says. "That's what I want to
do." Still, at the Mercedes Championships it was odd to see a
golfer of Strange's stature reporting on the games of Tom Lehman
and Tiger Woods instead of playing alongside them.
"Curtis should be a wonderful announcer," says Marr, who is now
working for NBC. "He's candid, he's got a good sense of humor.
But any outside job causes some erosion in your game. Sitting in
that booth, watching others play--that'll grind on him for a
while, no matter what he says."
Marr worked for ABC from 1970 through 1991, "the glory years,"
he calls them, and during much of that time his network
televised three majors annually. (The Masters has only been on
CBS.) ABC had other glamorous events, too: Ryder Cups, Hawaiian
Opens, Crosby Clambakes. The "talent" stayed in the best
hotels--the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, The Lodge at Pebble
Beach, the Kahala Hilton in Honolulu. The announcers flew the
Concorde to London. They wore neatly tailored blazers (in often
bizarre shades of blue and yellow). They had a good time. But by
the end of the glory years there were signs of distress. Rudy
Martzke, the TV sports columnist for USA Today, was often
critical of Marr's work, and Swanson, longtime ABC employees
say, apparently took his lead from Martzke. In 1991 ABC lost the
broadcast rights to the PGA and the Ryder Cup. Then one day late
in the year, Swanson, today the general manager of the NBC
affiliate in New York, called Jastrow with news that in
Jastrow's opinion, marked the beginning of the end.
This is how Jastrow recalls that conversation with Swanson, who
declined to be interviewed for this story: "Swanson called and
said, 'Are you sitting down?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Well,
maybe you should be lying down. I'm going to put Brent Musburger
on golf.' Long pause. He said, 'Are you still there?' Then he
said, 'I also think it's a good time to fire Dave Marr. I don't
think Brett and Dave will work well together.' I grew to love
Brent Musburger. He's a nice man and a hard worker. But he was
not a golf person, and our viewers, who are golf people, knew
it. Dave Marr was part of who we were."
Five years later Musburger, who also refused to be interviewed,
was taken off golf. His final work for ABC was one of the new
majors, the Diners Club Matches in La Quinta, Calif., this past
December. At the tournament Bob Rosburg, the longtime ABC
announcer, arranged for a farewell dinner for Musburger at the
Kaiser Grill in Palm Desert. About 20 ABC people attended. At
one point Judy Rankin, another longtime announcer, began to cry.
"Don't worry," Musburger said to the gathering. "I'll be O.K. I
love this scene. You guys were great to be with."
Musburger, for all his announcing skill, stumbled at his first
U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach, in 1992. He was grandiose. He
referred to the walls of sand that separate the Pebble Beach
links from the Pacific Ocean as "the Cliffs of Doom," and
golfers cringed. He mispronounced names and used golf terms
incorrectly. Over the ensuing years he righted himself, but it
was too late. Nobody gave him credit for improvement. Nobody
gave him credit for actually daring to ask aberrant golfers,
like John Daly, necessary questions. In 1994, after 29 years
with ABC, the USGA switched to NBC.
With Tirico, the team of Graham, Anderson and Bornstein have a
fresh start. They know Musburger was given too much time and
filled it up with too many words. The approach with Tirico will
be different. Individual hole announcers will describe most of
the golf. Tirico will pose questions to Strange, to players.
He'll provide the story line, as they say in TV.
ABC has some experience with story lines. It has carried 28 U.S.
Opens and 26 PGAs, and a bunch of Ryder Cups and U.S. Women's
Opens and U.S. Amateurs. ABC doesn't want to be known as the
network of the new majors. What it is aching for are the real
tournaments, the golf events that people talk about for years.
What the network wants back is what it once had. What it wants
is another chance.