Before Jim Nantz fielded the inevitable question about Tiger Woods, he told a corker of a story about the first time he arrived at Augusta National way back in 1986.
Speaking to reporters on a video call on March 31, the CBS Sports mainstay recalled how he’d been summoned to the club by producer Frank Chirkinian, who’d tapped the 26-year-old to shoot some on-site promos for the Masters. (The plan was to air the spots during the NCAA hoops tourney.) Nantz had joined the CBS team in the fall of 1985, just three years after the network had wrested the rights to the college basketball showcase from NBC for a then unheard-of sum of $48 million.
When the young broadcaster arrived at the course, he was told that the crew assigned to tape the promos were stuck in Atlanta, having missed their connecting flight. As Nantz told it, Chirkinian practically thrust a bag of clubs at him. “Frank said, ‘Well, kid, I guess you’re just gonna have to play while you’re waiting for them to get here,’” Nantz said. “I’m in a shirt and tie, and I’ve got no clubs or anything. But Frank goes, ‘Don’t worry about that. … Just shut up and get ready. You’re gonna be playing in a few minutes.’”
After buying Nantz a pair of proper shoes (wingtips don’t cut it at Bobby Jones’ club), Chirkinian secured a place for the new-ish hire in an outgoing group. Ten minutes after he’d shown up to shoot a hype reel, Nantz was swinging a driver from the first tee, hoping that the grounded production crew would take their time covering the 146 miles that separated them from Augusta.
No such luck. Nantz was shooting a three-over round and powering through one of Amen Corner’s forsythia-garlanded districts when he spotted Chirkinian gaining on him from behind the wheel of a requisitioned golf cart. The crew had made their way from Atlanta, and it was time to get down to business.
Nantz responded to the disappointment of getting yanked from the course on the 12th fairway by ad-libbing the tag line that’s been inseparable from the Masters (and himself) ever since. “That day was actually the first time I ever uttered the phrase, ‘A tradition unlike any other,’” Nantz said. Augusta has since gone on to trademark the slogan.
Whereas some duffers would have been tempted to bop Chirkinian over the head with a pitching wedge, Nantz responded by conjuring up a catchphrase that’s been in use for 35 years. But that’s the sort of thing that makes Jim Nantz Jim Nantz, and why he’ll be with CBS until he hangs it up for good.
In other words, last month’s contract extension was basically a fait accompli. “There was never a plan at CBS Sports to go forward without Jim Nantz,” said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “It was never going to happen. There was no Plan B … and Jim Nantz is going to be with us, thank heavens, for many years to come.”
While talk about Nantz’s new deal threatened to overshadow the Masters call, the siren song of ratings speculation helped steer things back to golf matters. When asked about the impact Tiger Woods’ absence would have on the broadcast, Nantz was quick to talk up the star power of “a whole brigade of guys,” including November’s champ Dustin Johnson and the pile-driving 2020 U.S. Open kingpin Bryson DeChambeau.
“I think we’ve arrived at the point now where we don’t have to rely on just Tiger,” Nantz said, adding that the PGA’s “pool of [young] talent is being recognized, which is reflected in the ratings.”
Which isn’t to say that Woods’ absence won’t be as palpable as a missing incisor. As ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt said earlier in the day, Augusta is synonymous with Eldrick Tont Woods. “More than any other place, it’s there you think of Tiger,” Van Pelt said. “From that bookend in ’97 hugging his father to ’19 hugging his children in essentially the same spot, you can’t help but think about him. … His presence will be sorely missed.”
For the last quarter-century, the TV turnout for the Masters has been beholden to fashion, which is to say that the ratings meters only catches fire when Woods is sporting his Sunday finery (red polo shirt, black slacks). But the thing is, accident or no accident, the man with 15 majors under his belt was never going to suit up for this year’s tourney. Woods was still recovering from his fifth spinal surgery when he crashed that Genesis GV80. More to the point: There’s probably no major sporting event for which the ratings are more exquisitely meaningless than the Masters.
For starters, the tourney’s feather-light ad load—commercial breaks are restricted to just four minutes of air time per hour, or roughly a quarter of the average broadcast hour—is shared by three brands (IBM, AT&T and Mercedes-Benz). The sponsors serve as virtual producers of the event, in the Hollywood studio sense of the word, ponying up around $24 million to air their spots in the singular clutter-free environment that Augusta provides. That’s enough of a cash infusion to defray CBS’s production costs.
The fact that CBS doesn’t sell its Masters inventory on the open market is a testament to the old-fashioned idea that revenue isn’t the only hallmark of value. If the limited commercial interruptions and brand exclusivity weren’t enough to convince you that ratings aren’t the be-all and end-all, there’s this: As is the case with the Super Bowl, the Masters is one of the exceedingly rare sporting events that isn’t covered by a ratings guarantee.
That the Masters is sacrosanct is evident in how McManus and the rest of the CBS Sports crew speak about the tournament. Toward the end of Wednesday’s call, the chairman revealed that he thinks about his father, the late Jim McKay, whenever he visits Augusta National. Immortalized for his three-word summary of the attack at the 1972 Olympics (“They’re all gone”), McKay is also remembered as the host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and the voice of the Masters during the 1960s.
“Every day I step foot on Augusta, I think of my father,” McManus said. “He loved the Masters. He loved Augusta, and for me, this is like life coming full circle. Whatever legacy I have, it is small compared to my father’s.”