Jim Nantz: "The StoryTeller"
The following is an interview of ASA Board Member Jim Nantz by Alan Bastable, Senior Editor of Golf Magazine, that appeared in the April 2010 issue.
As he prepares to work his 25th Masters, Jim Nantz dissects his best calls, one of his worst nightmares, and why with or without Tiger, the show must go on.
On a recent evening at the CBS corporate headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, Jim Nantz was waiting for the elevator on the 24th floor. "I don't believe it!" the 50-year-old announcer boomed as the doors slid open. Standing against the back wall of the elevator was Nantz's boss, the network chief, Leslie Moonves. The pair shook hands and after a lighthearted razz — Moonves joked that he was considering replacing Nantz and his NFL partner Phil Simms with NBC's team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth — the conversation turned to a certain golf tournament. "See that?" Nantz said in the lobby, moments after Moonves departed. "Masters talk. I get it everywhere I go."
That's what happens when you're as rooted to the tournament as the azaleas at Amen Corner: people want to gab about it. Fortunately for Nantz, so does he. After nearly a quarter century behind the mic at Augusta National, the man bleeds pimento. He is an unapologetic Augusta-holic, "hopelessly in love" with the club's storied tournament. If that sounds schmaltzy, deal with it. Nantz is a sucker for the tradition, lore, and pageantry of the game — and he's unafraid to show it, on the air or off. "The fan in me," he says, "is right out there for people to see."
Sports reporters aren't supposed to root for the teams they cover. Is there any danger of you being too enamored by the Masters?
No, I'm a storyteller. I'm there to cover the tournament. If you talk about what I'm describing on the fringes — the scene, the tradition, the history of Augusta — I've studied that pretty hard. I love Augusta. I get to cover what I consider to be the best golf tournament of the year, and I really would like to think that one day — God willing, CBS willing — I'd be able to say that I worked 50 Masters.
That passion comes across in your openings. Do you write them yourself?
I write all my openings, yes. And we work on those a long time in advance, especially for Augusta. This is all very, very carefully thought out, and then to shoot it, edit it, and get the orchestration behind it, it's hundreds of hours that go into that two-and-a-half minutes.
As the final groups march up 18 on Sunday, you've said you feel a "tremendous responsibility...to frame that moment for them." Do you script any of those narrations in advance?
Nothing's scripted. But I have story ideas floating around my head. Saturday night going into Sunday we have what we call a nugget hunt, looking for nuggets and stories about each conceivable champion that we can use — if we're given a chance. You never want to jam anything in there. The Masters isn't about Jim Nantz and his storytelling. It's about golf's greatest tournament.
What about your calls of winning putts — for example, the Tiger Woods call in 1997: "There it is, a win for the ages!" — are some of those lines written in advance?
Some of them are, yes. If you take the eve of Tiger winning his first Masters, and he has a nine-shot lead, and you understand the significance of that moment, you realize that that clip is going to be played back for 10, 20, 50, maybe 200 years. I was looking for a summation line for a moment that was going to transcend the parameters of the sport and have a social significance far beyond the game. How do you document that? I actually felt a lot of pressure to make sure I had that spot on. I didn't want to wait until the last minute.
Is it true you have an uncanny ability for remembering dates?
It's not just dates. I can remember stories, quotes. I file lots of stuff away. I have in my head the Zach Johnson file, the Tiger Woods file, the Phil Mickelson file. If someone wanted to sit here for the next week and a half talking about one of those individuals, I could probably do that.
Let's start with Tiger. What was your initial reaction back in November when you heard that he was in a car accident?
I was at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where JFK was assassinated, just taking in the scenery. I've got a curious mind, and I've been there many times. As I walked back to the car my BlackBerry went off. It was Tommy Spencer [a CBS colleague], and the message said, "Have you heard? Tiger's been in a car accident and it sounds serious." So from that spot, where conspiracy theories abound, I called Mark Steinberg [Woods's agent] and he picked up right there on the spot. I thought that maybe [Woods] was going to die. I had no idea where the story was going — no clue. I said, "Steiny, my heart just sunk. Is Tiger okay?" He said, "I've got a lot of things going on right now, but he's going to be fine." But it was a shock.
Were you surprised when the news broke of Tiger's transgressions?
Of course. Who wasn't surprised? I didn't have a window into his life off the course.You have since taken issue with observers who say that golf without Tiger is doomed. Has his importance to the game in some ways been overstated?
I don't think what he has achieved has been overstated. But sometimes I think his placement in the game of golf overall is overly emphasized. The sport is not about one player, and I say that with a world of respect for his talents on the golf course. But the game is bigger than Tiger Woods. The doom-and-gloom theorists really don't understand the sport. His stepping away from the game is not the end of the world. There'll be some time when he's going to retire. Is that the end of golf? Of course not. The game has been around for centuries and now all of a sudden it's so fragile?
Are you concerned that the Woods scandal has tarnished the game's reputation?
Not a bit. Tiger's personal life doesn't have anything to do with golf. Somebody asked me, "How worried are you about the Masters without Tiger Woods?" I said, "Are you kidding me? I'm not worried about it all." If he decides to play, it will be great to have him in the field, and we'll cover it. But that tournament's going to be very special whether he's there or not.
Last fall your own personal life made headlines when you and Lorrie, your wife of 26 years, divorced. How difficult was it to have the trial and details of your private life covered by the media?
I just feel like the whole thing was so misrepresented, so inaccurately reported. And once something gets reported... there's layering and layering and you can never get back down to the original truth. It's really hard to believe what came out publicly, and how salacious it sounded. It's just really hurtful, and it's left me feeling really distrustful of everything I read or hear. I heard people I'm close to speculating on the radio about the divorce and ridiculing and laughing about some things that were written that just weren't true. I thought, Gosh, you know me better than that. I would never do that. How could you do this? Where's the sensitivity? That's all I'm going to say about that.
But you could use this as an opportunity to set the record straight.
No, no, no, no. I'm not going to sit here and tear anybody apart.
The whole ordeal must have been emotionally draining.
It's really hard. It's really hard when you're a parent and you have a daughter [Caroline, 16] who is everything to you. You can't keep your kids off computers, so they'll see what people will say out there in the blogosphere.... Sometimes you sit back and you can't believe you've gotten to this point in your life where people are writing about you. You've gotten to the point where you're on Page Six [the New York Post's gossip page] not once, not twice, but three times. It's like, When are we going to stop perpetuating some myths here? This didn't happen. I don't make that much money. It's not the truth. So you just want to surround yourself with people who were hurt by this, and you just want to have a big hug with your family. You just want it go away.
Back to the booth. Your ability to store and recall data must be an invaluable asset.
No question. What we do is so fast — the moment's right in front of you — so you don't have five minutes to reflect on it and then go back and insert the caption. But golf is not a sport about numbers, which is why I don't want to see the screen get covered up with too much detail. I understand that there are people out there who want their information overload. But I look at that screen as a canvas and golf is the greatest painting in sports. I think that canvas is sacred in a lot of ways, and it shouldn't be cheapened with a whole bunch of stats.
If golf isn't about stats, what is it about?
It's a story-driven sport, a heartbeat sport, a sport about humanity, tradition, history, heritage, and those are things that are important to me in my own life. I'm a nostalgic guy. I get emotional about a lot of things. Poignancy often gets me. Whether it's a moment with my daughter, or I'm at a movie, or I'm watching a sporting event, I feel it, and sometimes I can't contain some of the emotion I have.
Do you ever leave the booth with regrets?
Every show. There's not a backspace bar up in my booth. I'll often think, I could have phrased that with fewer words, that wasn't as eloquent as it could have been. That's the perfectionist in me.
In 2008, a New York Times media critic wrote that your opening script for Masters Sunday was "fattened with phrases...that made my blood sugar spike. Whatever happened to subtlety?" How do you respond to those who say your style is too syrupy or sentimental?
I know some people have criticized me for that, but I can't help it — that's how I feel. I'm in love with calling golf tournaments. I'm a hopeless romantic about it. That's the way I look at it. It's nothing manufactured. It's nothing contrived. That's just what's in my heart. That's just the way I call it, and I wouldn't know any other way.
Have you considered toning down your approach?
I'm not going to change. Why would I? I've done it the same way every year. The fan in me is right out there for people to see. If you walk around at Augusta on Tuesday or Wednesday as I'm out there trying to cobble together a few cogent thoughts and pick up a few last-minute anecdotes, I think you would see that the reaction of the Augusta fan is overwhelmingly beautiful to me. And the letters I get; the golf fan so identifies me with that tournament that I get letters year round. People have a very strong positive reaction, and that's the feedback I get everywhere I go. I'm talking about the Masters 365, and I Iove that. I like to have the Masters on my mind 365.
You think about the Masters every day?
Well, pretty much anytime I step out of my house, or anytime I walk into a locker room — football or basketball — the players and coaches all want to talk to me about the Masters. If I'm hanging around the gate at an airport, people will often come up and ask me to repeat the line: "The Masters, a tradition unlike any other." Hey, Jim, can you put that on my phone? I get that all the time. Even as a kid I was hopelessly in love with that tournament, and that was my motivation in my youth, my teens and early twenties: to one day be lucky enough to broadcast the Masters.
When did your announcing career begin to take off?
By my junior year [at the University of Houston] I started to catch a lot of really good breaks. I was working for the CBS radio affiliate, KTRH, and I was working for the CBS television affiliate, KHOU, and I was freelancing a lot. I was a public-address announcer at the home basketball games at the University of Houston, I was the backup P.A. man for the Astros at the Dome. I was narrating films for NASA. Every day I had something going on.
Did you recognize early on that you had a voice for broadcasting?
I really don't think I have a particularly distinguishable voice, but people do say that. I think part of it is that I've been on the air so long now that I've become associated with certain events, or people have adjusted to hearing me in their homes. It's amazing — people will ask me, "Hey, would you mind donating your voice to charity for a live auction. Would you do an outgoing message?" People auction these things off for like $1,000 a pop. I do Chris O'Donnell's message. "Hello, friends, Jim Nantz here for Chris O'Donnell. You know that tradition unlike any other — leave your name, number and the time that you called, and he'll get back to you."
You famously played on the Houston golf team with Fred Couples and Blaine McCallister. How did you wind up on that all-star squad?
I was a fairly decent [high school] player in New Jersey. I was not setting the world on fire. I was named first-team Jersey Shore by the Asbury Park Press, the paper I used to deliver as a young boy. I got to Houston and Coach Williams invited me to walk on the golf team. I was the 18th man on an 18-man golf team. I think he saw me as a serious-minded kid who maybe would be a good influence on his three incoming scholarship freshmen. So he put me in a dorm room with them and I think he thought maybe I would be the one who made sure they got up and got to class every day.
You were Mother Hen.
That's what it felt like, yeah.
Was Couples a wild man?
Are you kidding me? Not at all. None of us were. We were really, really boring.
Did Freddie do well with the ladies?
No, he never had a girlfriend until his junior year; he had never even been on a date to my knowledge. He used to claim that there was someone back in Seattle, but I don't think any of us were buying it. [Laughs.]
Animal House it wasn't.
No, we were good kids. We never drank, much less anything beyond that. I never saw marijuana once. Never was a factor. These were gifted athletes — myself way excluded from this list — many of whom had a legitimate shot at playing on the PGA Tour. They weren't there to have wild times.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Has the time flown by?
It has. I sometimes think you get stuck in a vacuum where you're running off to the next tournament, or the next football or basketball broadcast, and it tends to accelerate the time. The perspective is that you see guys who you covered earlier in your career and suddenly you realize that, boy, they're now in a different phase of their lives. When Jack Nicklaus won the Masters in 1986, it was mind-blowing. How in the world could a 46-year-old win the Masters? Well, I'm 50 now, and I still feel like a kid. I'm on warp-speed time, and I want it to slow down.