Frank Chirkinian walked into Augusta National Golf Club to produce his first CBS broadcast of The Masters in 1959. The cameras were stationary. The colors were black and white. The microphones, well, there weren’t many.
“Frank is universally regarded as the father of golf television,” said Jim Nantz, CBS’s longtime lead golf announcer. “He invented it. He took a sport that no one knew how to televise and made it interesting. He brought the Masters tournament to life.”
When Chirkinian, who passed away in March 2011, was selected for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame & Musuem, he called it the apex of his career. His selection brought adulation from throughout the golf world. It even came from rival networks.
“I loved Bob Jones. It was my custom, upon arriving at Augusta early in Masters week, to go to Bob’s cabin and visit with him.”
“Frank Chirkinian was a true pioneer,” said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports. “There certainly would not have been a golf television business without him.”
Chirkinian grew up in Philadelphia, the son of Armenian immigrants. He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, but left in 1950 to take an assistant director position at the local CBS station. The 1958 PGA Championship was at Llanerch Country Club near Philadelphia. He produced it for CBS, and his work earned him a job with the national network.
Over the next few years, Chirkinian would take his street-wise instincts and hone them into his signature brash, maverick style. It wasn’t bluster – he was simply relentless in his pursuit of the best way to capture sport’s unfolding drama.
This passion, coupled with no fear of a gamble, led to myriad innovations. He pushed his cameras off the stationary mounts to be more mobile. He painted the inside of the cup white so it could be better seen. And he put microphones everywhere from tee boxes to fairways to inside the cup.
Chirkinian was the first television producer to put a camera on a blimp.
During his career, he produced golf, college and pro football, the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, the U.S. Open tennis tournament and several thoroughbred Triple Crown events. It was during one of his college football broadcasts that he dreamed up the idea of putting a camera in the blimp flying overhead.
These ideas seem so simple to today’s viewers. At the time they were revolutionary. It is no wonder that he collected five Emmys and two Peabodys during his career.
It is with CBS and the Masters that Chirkinian is most closely associated, for good reason. His broadcasts in the 1960s featured a blossoming star named Arnold Palmer. Chirkinian was able to perfectly capture Palmer’s heroics on the course and America fell in love. The union of the Masters, Palmer and television ushered in a golden age in golf. Chirkinian was in the middle of it all, barking out orders.
“The convergence of television, Arnold Palmer and The Masters in the late 1950s and early ’60s sparked growth across every golf metric,” said PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem. “Frank’s vision for presenting the game on television made a huge impact on that trajectory.”
Chirkinian is responsible for so many iconic Masters images, from Palmer to Tom Watson to Jack Nicklaus raising his putter in triumph in 1986. He also played a role in developing so many of golf’s great voices, including Pat Summerall, Jack Whitaker, Jim Nantz and Gary McCord.
Through force of will, Chirkinian – who was dubbed “The Ayatollah” by Summerall in the 1970s – demanded that everyone in his presence respect the game and let the drama play out.
One paragraph from his New York Times obituary wonderfully sums up Chirkinian: “When Brent Musburger broadcast the Masters for the first time, Mr. Chirkinian feared that Mr. Musburger’s enthusiasm might overwhelm the stately aura of the course. As he related it to The New York Times, he told Mr. Musburger,’I’ll kill you if you raise your voice one-half a decibel.”