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Ben Wright: Frankly Speaking

Appeared in the March 2006 LINKS

My debut with the CBS golf team came at the 1972 U.S. Professional Match Play Championship. Despite the torrid August conditions at the Country Club of North Carolina that year, my reception was a frosty one. Producer-director Frank Chirkinian uttered not a word to me, except when it was my turn to speak, throughout the weekend-long trial run.

But “the Ayatollah,” as Chirkinian was (somewhat) affectionately known, later had plenty to say upon my first full-time appearance with his crew, at the season-opening Los Angeles Open in 1973.

Two factors fueled his open hostility toward me. First, I had been hired by then-CBS Sports President Bill McPhail, who had not consulted Frank on the decision—a cardinal sin. Second, I was late for rehearsal on Friday morning—an unforgivable sin in the eyes of the Ayatollah.

The day before, after driving eight hours to London, I had learned my flight to L.A. would be delayed at least that long. I finally arrived at 4 a.m. Friday. Setting foot in California for the first time, I checked in at the Bel-Air in a state of complete exhaustion.

The good news was that a white-coated Englishman greeted me with a fine pot of tea. The bad news? Rehearsal began less than six hours later. I booked a cab for 9 a.m., but my driver could not find his way to Riviera Country Club, and I was of little help.

When I reached the CBS compound around 10:15 a.m., associate producer Chuck Will informed me I had better hasten to the par-3 16th hole, which happened to be at the far end of the course. I ran as fast as decorum would allow—with several stops to avoid interrupting play—and finally flopped, breathless, into my seat in the tower.

Then the barrage opened up. “How kind it is of the Limey to condescend to join us,” intoned Chirkinian in my headset. “Roll tape.” What followed was an accelerated recording of my erratic progress along the course, broadcast to the delight of the assembled crew stationed throughout the grounds.

When the humiliating show ended, Chirkinian was back in my ear: “Now, Limey, I want you to know that if you wish to continue with this crew, when I schedule rehearsal for 10 a.m., you shall be in your seat at 9:45. Take it away at 16.”

A short time later, one of the tournament leaders bunkered his tee shot into the 16th green, then skulled his ball clean across the putting surface into another bunker. After the poor fellow holed out with a sorry triple bogey and retreated into the pack, I commented, “Now it’s a whole new ballgame.”

“From whom did you learn that expression, you dumb Limey?” Chirkinian roared. I glibly replied that I’d learned it from his American underlings. “Well, let me tell you this,” he bellowed. “You are employed as a Limey, and all Limeys speak like they have plums in their mouths—wah, wah, wah—and nobody here understands a thing they say. If I ever understand another word you say, you’re fired!”

I was so distraught over my failure, I actually telephoned British Airways, fully intending to flee home to London, but all seats were booked on that evening’s transatlantic flight. Otherwise my CBS career would have come to a premature end that weekend.

So I stayed, and after some reflection, I concluded that Chirkinian was absolutely right, even if he had the strangest ways of making his point. As I would learn over the ensuing years, Frank was passionate about making each broadcast the best it could be, and his forceful methods were simply his way of ensuring the vision was achieved. I also learned that beneath the gruff exterior was a warm, compassionate man. Over the years, I came to consider him not only the best producer-director golf has ever seen, but also one of my dearest friends.

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