Jim Nantz, Live from Augusta: An Interview with the Voice of The Masters

Joe Concha@ConchsportsContributor IIApril 9, 2011

Location: Augusta National Golf Club.

Date: April 8th, 2035.

A balding, 44-year-old Rory McIlloy stares over a seven-foot downhill putt on 18 for birdie…

“If Mcllroy sinks this,” whispers 76-year-old Jim Nantz into his familiar CBS microphone, “he will be the Masters Champion.”

A nervous Tom Watson can only watch from the clubhouse as he clings to a share of the lead. No, not that Tom Watson, but that Tom Watson’s great grandson who hasn’t even been born yet as you read this.

It seems like only yesterday when Nantz was on the 18th hole at a fictional major calling a tragic (and heroic) finish on the big screen featuring a golfer with a similar name to Rory’s Mcllroy (Kevin Costner’s Roy McAvoy). But that was back in the stone age of 1996.

Ten years prior to Tin Cup, it was Nantz who made arguably his most memorable call of his career. Jack Nicklaus, age 46 (which actually seemed more like 56 for professionals at the time), in the midst of this impossible, ludicrous rally on the back nine of the Masters in pursuit of his 18th major, draining a short birdie putt at 16 after nearly acing the hole.

The roar from the gallery, distinct and deafening.

“And there’s no doubt about it,” a 26-year-old Nantz declared after pausing a few moments to allow the crowd noise speak for itself. “The Bear has come out of hibernation.”

2035 marks fifty years since that celebrated day. A full half-century since Ken Venturi once predicted to Nantz this moment would come:

"'How old are you, son?' Nantz says Venturi asked him after Jack walked off with his sixth green jacket. "I said, 'I'm 26'. He said, 'I'll make a prediction: One day you will be the first broadcaster to ever work 50 Masters.’”

“Ever since he put that thought in my head, I've always thought about 50,” Nantz says before laying out the happy task before him. “I finished the first nine, the first 25 years, and I'm ready to go out for 25 more."

Back to the present known as 2011, it’s another dreary, drizzly day in New Jersey, the kind only good for indoor sports like bowling or beer pong. A little past noon, up pops Jim Nantz’s number on my cell phone. The fellow Jersey native had promised he would call in response to my interview request, but given his itinerary that day which included prepping for five hours of live coverage that afternoon, it would was understandable, even expected, if he had to take a rain check (particularly since we had never met). But to my surprise, he somehow found a few minutes and was ready to roll. 

Twenty six is a popular number for the former Houston Cougar this year: 26 years since climbing into a broadcast tower for CBS at the Masters, a climb completed in the ultra-competitive industry of sports broadcasting at just 26 years old.

So after being the voice of Augusta for so many years, what does it feel like to experience and describe an event few ever witness outside of their living rooms on TV? 

"I feel gratitude in being given the chance to do all this every year when I come back to Augusta coming off the Final Four," he explains. "It's just a very special thing for me, Joe. As much as it sounds like, 'Oh yeah, it's a manufactured answer', I truly get the chance to live out the childhood dream." 

That childhood dream began in the Garden State town of Colts Neck when Nantz began practicing calling the Masters at age 11. His broadcast equipment was relegated to three items: A tape recorder, a microphone and a television tuned to The Masters on CBS.

Just 15 years later, he was at Augusta for the '86 tournament, again calling the action, but this time for millions across the world. 

So did he realize then that his first Masters would also be the most unforgettable? 

"Little did I know at the time that I had been walking into this epic Masters victory by Jack Nicklaus,” reflects Nantz. “What a way to begin my Masters career! If Tiger ever does get to number 19 (major victories), I just hope it happens at the Masters or the PGA Championship (CBS currently owns the rights to both), because I definitely want to be the guy to be there." 

There have been two trains of thought when it comes to the much discussed "Tiger Factor" as it pertains to ratings and interest in professional golf in general. On one side, there's the argument that no tournament without Woods in contention could possibly be compelling to an audience outside of die-hard golfers. On the other, there's a philosophy that says golf will always be bigger than one individual. 

Put Nantz in the latter camp.

"The game has to learn how to live and exist without it being dominated by one player,” he argues. “A lot of people have predicted doom and gloom for golf without Tiger Woods winning tournaments with the frequency he once did. But there was going to be a point where golf was going to have to exist without him, just as it learned to exist without Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. "

So the obvious question is, after 17 long months without a victory, can Woods regain his championship form and eventually pass Jack in the majors department despite seemingly losing a mental intimidation factor not seen since a young Mike Tyson? 

Nantz feels the math is in Tiger's favor.

"I think he has another ten years if his knee can hold up. That's 40 majors in 10 years.

Everybody wants to ask, 'Can he break the Nicklaus record?’ Well, can he win four out of 40? I definitely think so. Can he win five out of 40 to break the record? Absolutely." 

Nantz is now 52. He calls dozens of rounds of golf per year, sees hundreds of top players each spring and summer. So with so many swings and putts to study and observe, just what does he shoot at Augusta when getting the chance to play the role of golfer?

"I think I shot 78 one time. My golf game is so overrated,” he chuckles. “People think I can really play golf, but it's actually been almost an albatross for me. I really struggle not only to break 80, but sometimes to break 90.”

“People think I can just walk out and shoot 75 without taking a warm-up shot. But believe me, it's not that easy. I've played one round since last September."

Back to the future in 2035, Rory Mcllroy barely taps his ball before it rolls quickly to the hole. Just like Danny Noonan’s putt in Caddyshack to beat Judge Smails and Doctor Beeper, it sits at the edge of the cup before gravity wills it in (minus the Carl Spackler induced-explosions).

Nantz's call is the usual lesson in word economy: A simple, "Yes..." as the ball disappears from sight, followed by what is referred to in the business as NAT (natural) sound to capture the roar of the crowd. He allows the viewer to soak it in for about ten seconds before adding, “The old man has finally done it.”

Perhaps Nantz will renege on his word.

Perhaps 50 years of being the voice of a tradition unlike any other won't be enough. 

Perhaps 60 will be the new goal. 

Either way, he's already counting his blessings.

"Every little crazy dream that I had has come true, and more,” Nantz concludes, his voice trailing off a bit. “And I’m always mindful that this is not a birthright, that one day I would have the chance to come to Augusta every year. Just a crazy, really, almost obsession for me.”

“I just do it the way I know how to do it, and that's from the heart." 

Joe Concha is a Bleacher Report contributor based in Hoboken, NJ and once also shot 78 at Augusta (on the front nine). Email joeconcha@yahoo.com, visit him on Facebook or try the Twitter thing @ConchSports

Jim Nantz's best-seller, “Always by My Side: A Father's Grace and a Sports Journey Unlike Any Other” is available online or in bookstores everywhere. 


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