Frank Chirkinian—an Original, a Genius

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2011

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 11:  Fred Couples and Hunter Mahan during the final round of the 2010 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11, 2010 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for Golf Week)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Frank Chirkinian wrote the playbook when it comes to televised golf, and the rest— myself included—have just followed in his wake.

To appreciate what Frank Chirkinian used to do for a living, imagine having between 15 and 20 small television screens—like the portable,  10” monitors— in three or four rows in front of you.  Today there’s probably more.  Each screen has a different camera shot of the live action or the preview shot of what is about to be shown live or the names of golfers or a graphic or some other visual item. 

All the screens are live. You must make a two or three hour program out of what is shown on them, hopefully with no flaws, not missing an important shot, and not killing anyone in the process out of frustration if you make a mistake. It’s important to get it right because this is a major television network, a telecast seen by millions of people. You are deciding what they see, who describes it and in what order people will see it.  In the back room of the production truck, out of sight, or even in a separate truck, there are people anticipating shots that you might miss, and they are taping them for replay on your call and there’s a monitor for that too.   

What you create is never the same show. Each week it’s a new location. New stars.

Every golfer has a different pre-shot routine that takes a different time. If you are Frank Chirkinian, you know how long each one takes before hitting a golf shot. You know if Greg Norman is in the fairway and has just grabbed a club, he is going to be a while, and that you have time to show Ben Crenshaw stroking an important birdie putt before Norman hits. You know this because you have these times catalogued in your head. In addition, you know what each player's score is and what each shot means.   It’s to take the lead, tie the lead, keep the lead, and so on. You know what hole they are on and who your announcers are for that hole and how long they are going to take with an explanation.

It’s easy if it’s a choice of two shots, Norman or Crenshaw, but it can easily be a decision of which of four or five shots to show—what’s the most important thing happening at that moment, and the next moment and the next moment.  Then you have to decide when to go to commercial or when to roll features; you have to know when to let the cameras do the talking, when to have the announcers say something and when to bring in the music.  And you have to know when to yell at the suits in New York and tell them, “No @(#*%()#%$# !! We are not going off air at 6 pm. It’s a *$#&%@*% live sporting event and we are )(@^*&(^& staying on until *$#&%@(#& conclusion!! “  Or something like that, meanwhile you're cutting cameras, adding graphics and not missing a beat.    

That’s a fraction of what Frank Chirkinian did for every CBS Golf telecast for nearly four decades. What you saw in telecasts were the camera shots and graphics and you heard the announcers. Choosing cameras in its simplest sense and telling graphics people when to insert and take out graphics is directing. 

But there’s another part which is producing. That means, at its most basic, deciding what happens in what order. What will be in the show and what won’t, although with sporting events, the action dictates. Are we going to the 15th or the 13th? If we have to show a shot on tape, whose will be on tape and whose will be live? When do we put in a feature?  How many commercials are left to run in the program?  Where is that blasted cameraman and why can’t he get to 18 any faster?

Watching Frank Chirkinian do this effortlessly was like watching Michael Phelps swim butterfly.

Now, as great as Chirkinian was, he had great help. They were hand picked and he had trained all of them to read his nod, his gesture, his point, his growl.  They would sometimes know where he was going with the action before he was ready to go there. After a couple of heart attacks, by the early 1990s, he was kept out of the truck during some of the telecasts for his own health because, let’s face it, this is stressful stuff.

Another of Chirkinian’s duties was organizing, planning and preparing for each telecast, some of which started a year in advance. 

Chirkinian had great assistance through his career from Chuck Will, his associate producer who always said, “I’m just Frank’s caddie.”  But of course Will was much more than that.  There was not a detail overlooked because Chuck Will saw that it was not overlooked. He had lists of lists and back ups for back ups. NASA did not invent redundancy systems. Chuck Will did.

That is why they were so good for so long. Chirkinian and Will trained most of the current crew at CBS which is why, when both retired, it was like they were still there. In a way they still are.

One thing Frank Chirkinian did was unseen except by those who happened to be there at the time. It was corralling his herd. It was tending the flock.  It was getting the best out of different personalities. It was seeing that Venturi and Summerall might work as a team. It was taking a chance by hiring a guy like Gary McCord. It was helping people learn about television.

Sometimes people learned when Chirkinian yelled at them so they would never make that mistake again. It was explained to me that Frank’s yelling was harder for some people than others and he had brought people to tears on more than one occasion. But whoever was on the receiving end did not make that mistake ever again. Sometimes his crew would say, that’s just his generic yell, don’t worry about it. He’s yelling because he wants it right.

He always told Gary McCord, “McCord, you’re not getting paid by the  )(@*%% word.”   In other words, don’t talk so much. So McCord learned to be succinctly funny on cue. Try that some time.  It’s harder than you’d think.   

“You only get two mistakes,” one person in his crew told me. “The second one, you are gone.”

Chirkinan was brilliant at knowing all these things and being able to put on fabulous golf telecasts, which even he said, he never did alone. He needed all those people around him to create the masterpiece.   While we remember the telecasts, Chirkinian’s biggest gift may have been knowing how to get the very best out of everyone in his crew, whoever they were that week, that day, that minute.

Everybody who worked for Chirkinian, had a “Frank” story.  Some printable, some not.  It was all the stuff of a legend.    

Chirkinian delivered in a lot of things we take for granted now. He gave us the over and under par scoring which he introduced at The Masters.  He gave us the blimp shot, which he introduced at the Orange Bowl. Later he said every time he heard it droning on over the golf course he wondered if he had created a monster.  He decided to paint the cups white so that the hole was easier to see.  Remember, it was black and white TV when he started. The grass was gray, the ball was white.  The hole was white.

He may not have invented worm cam, but Gary McCord named it. Chirkinian probably did a lot of inventive things only his crew knows about.  And on top of it all, he inspired an absolutely loyal work ethic.

What little I know about television—keeping in mind I produced a 30-minute syndicated program for ten years—I learned at the beginning from Frank Chirkinian (and later from his son) and from Chuck Will, his long-time associate producer because CBS let me watch what they were doing.

I was fortunate to be able to see how the perfectionists and experts did it, even though I did not understand all that went into it or everything they were doing at the time. They all made it look easy and they were always gracious.

I watched CBS color match the cameras before a telecast.  I saw them sending out people to find out what color shirts the golfers in the televised groups would be wearing so the spotters would be able to help announcers call the shots with accuracy.

I knew they hired caddies as scorers if their players had missed the cut. I learned that you always needed a second phone line in case something happens to the primary one. I found out that they had their own scorers because sometimes the volunteers made mistakes.

I came to understand that you would only climb a tower if the camera was not live or if they were in commercial and not taping or it was preferable prior to telecast if you were lucky enough to be able to visit one.  They are not the only ones who do these things, but that is where I saw some of the details that make up a broadcast.    

My knowledge of television is not one one-thousandth of what Frank Chirkinian knew or of what Chuck Will knows.  But the amazing thing is they were willing to share some of it with a person who wanted to learn. They taught generosity of spirit.

Who knows what televised golf would have looked like if Chirkinian had not played it.  If he hadn’t been asked to produce the 1958 PGA Championship. If CBS hadn’t asked him to produce more golf. What would televised golf be like if he hadn’t loved the game?

Even if you never met Frank Chirkinian, you know him if you watched golf on CBS.  If you enjoyed the telecasts, it would have been his biggest reward.     


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