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The Voice of Spring

Jim Nantz is planning to leave the broadcast booth after his 50th Masters (he’s got 21 to go). Or maybe he’ll add one more after that…

By: Ed Sherman

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of LINKS.

In his mind, the script already has been written. Jim Nantz’s broadcast career will be bracketed by the Masters. 

Part One is already in the books. In 1986, at age 26, Nantz—just a few years removed from being a dreamy-eyed college kid at Houston—was tabbed by legendary television director Frank Chirkinian to work his first Masters.

Now jump forward a few years and the grand finale also takes place at Augusta. In 2035, Nantz plans on being on the call for his 50th Masters, at the age of 75. 

How important is it to him? Nantz already has consulted a calendar for the exact date.

“I would say goodbye to the career on April 8, 2035,” he says. “That’s the second Sunday in April of 2035.”

In between that first and last Masters, if all goes as planned, Nantz will have worked as the play-by-play man for several Super Bowls and even more NCAA Final Fours. His resume will make him one of the supreme sports voices of his generation.

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus sums up Nantz’s budding legacy: “If you turn on the TV and hear his voice, you know it is a big event.”

Nantz, 54, maintains a whirlwind schedule that includes myriad endorsements and speaking commitments that barely leave him time at his home that peers out over Pebble Beach. Besides his work at CBS, his main passions are growing a new wine brand and raising funds for the Nantz National Alzheimer Center in Houston, dedicated to his father. Coming along for the journey is his wife of two years, Courtney. She is intricately involved in his endeavors. Nantz says, “It is a team effort.”

Yet through it all, it always comes back to the Masters.

“It’s the one event which people relate with me the most,” Nantz says. “I might be talking to a football coach in August, and he’ll ask me, ‘What about Augusta?’ Fans at games ask me, ‘Who’s going to win the Masters this year?’ It’s the one event I think about all year long. The Masters is in my heart.”

And in his head. Nantz has a photographic memory for details. Ask him about the first time he stepped onto Augusta National and the stories come out as if they occurred yesterday. Nantz recalls Chirkinian sending him to the club a few weeks prior to the 1986 tournament to shoot some promos. The camera crew was late and Chirkinian, affectionately known as “The Ayatollah” for his dictatorial ways with the CBS golf team, informed a startled Nantz that he was to immediately join a threesome on the first tee.

“I didn’t have any shoes, clubs, anything. He says, ‘Just shut up and let me take care of things.’”

A few weeks later, Nantz was back at Augusta to work his first Masters for CBS. Quickly, he learned a couple of important lessons. Late for a rehearsal and running to his position in the 16th tower, he was stopped by a club official. “He says, ‘We don’t run around here. We’ve got a golf tournament going on here. We walk.’” Nantz has been walking ever since.

The other lesson has served him a lifetime in the booth. Noting that he was working at the par-three 16th, he asked Chirkinian what he should say if there was a hole-in-one.

“He said, ‘What kind of silly question is that?’” Nantz recalls. “‘Jimmy, dear boy, you are working in a visual medium. Don’t ever tell me something that I can already see on my own. You would supplement the picture. You would not state the obvious.’”

Nantz didn’t see an ace, but he did call Jack Nicklaus’s kick-in birdie on 16 during his legendary Sunday charge. As Nicklaus’s tee shot neared the cup, Nantz could barely speak.

“I was having a hard time getting my mouth to move. My teeth were chattering. I had chill bumps up and down my arm.”

Chirkinian let the Augusta roars tell the story while Nicklaus walked to the green. When he made the putt and headed to 17, Nantz proclaimed, “There’s no doubt about it, the Bear has come out of hibernation.”

No sooner had the words come out of his mouth than Nantz went into a panic, worrying that someone had already said what was a somewhat obvious line. After the tournament, he nervously approached Chirkinian.

“He hugged me and said, ‘That’s one of the lines that will always be remembered with this tournament. No one said it but you.’ So I thought, ‘Hallelujah, I get to come back next year.’ I was just looking for top 16 and ties, you know?”

Nantz has been coming back ever since. And he has been saying the signature line about the tournament that he first uttered when Chirkinian summoned him to Augusta National in 1986: “A tradition unlike any other.”

After Nicklaus’s victory, Ken Venturi famously told the young announcer, “You may one day live to see 50 of these. You will never see a day like this ever again around Augusta National.”

Venturi was right, but Nantz has witnessed more than his share of memorable moments. There was Tiger Woods (“A win for the ages!”) winning his first in 1997, and Phil Mickelson also finally getting on the board (“Is it his time?”) in 2004.

Yet if Nantz does indeed do 50 tournaments, it will never get more personal than Fred
Couples’s victory in 1992. In a story straight out of Hollywood, he and Couples, along with Blaine McCallister, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, were roommates at the University
of Houston. 

Nantz, working as a cub reporter for a Houston TV station, would bring the equipment back to their dorm room, where he’d do a mock broadcast of the green jacket ceremony with Couples.

“It happened,” Nantz insists. “We were just kids having fun.”

In 1992, their college fantasy actually took place in Butler Cabin, Nantz presiding over the ceremony on TV in which Couples is being presented his green jacket. Initially, Nantz wasn’t going to make it personal, but ultimately, he had to bring his old roommate back to that dorm room in Houston.

“In the end I said, ‘You know, Fred. I think about our days at the University of Houston and Taub Hall.’

“He turned his head, covered his eyes, and looked off to the side. My voice is quivering. I said, ‘All of us said, One day you’re going to look great in a green jacket.’”

Nantz also was on the Houston golf team, but he quickly realized his route to the Masters would be with a microphone, not a golf club. Born in Charlotte, Nantz was on the move at an early age. Growing up, besides North Carolina, he lived in New Orleans, California, New Jersey, and eventually Houston.

Nantz contends his upbringing conditioned him for his current non-stop schedule. With the NFL, golf, and the NCAA basketball tournament, not to mention his other duties, he rarely spends a complete week at home. The seasons and sports often slide into one another. It is never more graphic than during that unique week in April, when he transitions from the jarring arena noise of the NCAA title game on Monday night to the serene sounds of spring at Augusta the next day.

Nantz downplays the daily double as if it were a two-foot putt.

“I don’t take on things that I’m not passionate about,” he says. “I love the challenge, and I know I can fit it in the framework of a very busy life. I’m organized. I’ve had an ability to compartmentalize things in my life, which has really helped me as a broadcaster. I can basically pull out a file drawer when I’m doing a basketball game and bring back names, numbers, history, anecdotal information about a given team or a player, and the next week be doing a golf tournament, and on recall be able to pull up historical, important, anecdotal tie-in kind of story lines to any number of subjects I’m covering.”

“He’s almost like a savant when it comes to his recall,” says his boss, McManus. “He can remember what happened three years ago on the 17th hole on Sunday at the Greater Hartford Open. He just gives you the impression that he knows more about what’s happening than anyone in the business.”

Away from the booth, Nantz has found balance in his life with his marriage to Courtney, a former executive at IMG. Fittingly, given his golf background, the couple was married on the 7th hole at Pebble Beach. As of this writing, Courtney is pregnant with their first child, due in March. Nantz’s daughter from his first marriage attends USC.

Much like Nantz, Courtney isn’t one for relaxing. “You can’t put enough on her plate,” he says. “She is a buzz saw. I couldn’t get it done without her.”

Courtney helps to oversee their wine business, a venture with partner Peter Deutsch. Called “The Calling,” it is hardly a fleeting hobby for Nantz. They moved to California to be closer to their vineyard in Sonoma Valley.

Another outside endeavor connects straight to his core. Nantz father’s endured a long bout with Alzheimer’s, and the broadcaster’s other signature phrase, “Hello, friends,” was a way to connect with his father while he was suffering.

After Jim Jr. died in 2008, Nantz wanted to do more to prevent other people from experiencing the same pain and heartbreak. In 2011, he opened the Alzheimer center in Houston.

“It really puts everything in perspective for us,” says Courtney. “It most definitely makes us fuller people. We really feel like we’re helping to change lives with the Alzheimer’s research.”

With Nantz’s whirlwind schedule, the one activity virtually eliminated from his life is playing golf. He plays once every three months, he says, if that often. While he lives just steps away from Pebble Beach, he spends more time walking the course with Courtney than playing it.

Ultimately, though, it is about time. Nantz would rather focus on other things, such as preparing for a telecast. He insists he loves doing the research to call a game or a tournament. The process gets even more intense for the Masters. And when it ends on that second Sunday of April, he almost immediately begins thinking about next year.

This year’s tournament will be number 29 on his way to 50. Yet he allows that maybe he won’t do his final signoff on April 8, 2035. There could be a change to the script.

Last year, Nantz made a speech in which he spoke about his grand plan. In the audience was one of his heroes, Jack Whitaker, who covered a few Masters of his own. 

“We were having a drink after the event,” Nantz recalls, “and he said, out of the blue, ‘You know, I think you might want to amend your way of thinking about 50 Masters and do 51.’ I said, ‘Why is that, Mr. Whitaker?’ He said, ‘Because if you look it up, your 51st Masters would be the 100th Masters played. You need to be there for that one.’ So maybe it’s 50 plus 1.”

The second Sunday of April 2036 is the 13th. You can bet Jim Nantz already knows that.                                              

Ed Sherman is a Chicago-based golf writer.

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