A Man of Words: Jim Nantz

A golfer delivers the ball from the tee to the hole as directly as possible. Broadcasting is similar, where a commentator delivers words from the brain to the microphone as smoothly as possible, while trying to avoid whatever hazards appear ahead. Jim Nantz is a pretty good golfer but put him in the broadcast booth and he shoots under par every time. The voice of the Super Bowl and the Masters on CBS spoke to Robin Barwick

At CBS, they knew Jim Nantz had something special from the start. He had covered local sports in Houston and Salt Lake City but when he sat in a New York studio to audition for the national network back in 1985, they fired all the ammo they had as Nantz reported game summaries to camera. He had to run through college football games while the scores appeared on-screen, except the control room mixed it up so the order of games in the notes didn’t match the scores on screen, just to keep Nantz off balance. Then he had to interview an analyst who was intentionally difficult. Long, rambling answers at first and then some abrupt one-word cutters. Nantz dodged every bullet, got the job and he hasn’t been lost for words since.

But then came the day in October 2016 when Nantz was invited to pay tribute to his great friend, Arnold Palmer, at Palmer’s memorial service and more than the Super Bowl, the Masters or college basketball’s frenzied Final Four, Nantz feared for the first time that an occasion might get the better of him.

Jim Nantz speaks at the memorial service for Arnold Palmer at the Saint Vincent Basilica, Latrobe, in October 2016

“When I flew to Latrobe the gravity of the moment became too big and I felt overwhelmed,” starts Nantz in an exclusive interview with Kingdom. He was set to speak at the memorial service on October 4, 2016 at Saint Vincent College, along with Palmer’s grandson Sam Saunders, Jack Nicklaus, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and Annika Sorenstam among others. “I was honored beyond belief that I was asked to say a few words but in the hours leading up to the service I was terrified of standing before that room and thinking of Arnold and having a complete meltdown and not having anywhere to go. This is foreign to me by the way; I am never short of confidence in being able to stand up in front of people and speak, but my gosh, this was Arnold Palmer.

“I carried four pages of notes to the Basilica, tucked into my inside pocket. I sat there praying for the strength to get up there and to have the confidence to talk about my friend with love and passion and hopefully with some humour and some poignancy. I was one of the last people to speak and I can’t explain it but as soon as I opened my mouth I felt completely relaxed. I never took those notes out of my pocket.”

It was standing room only in the old Saint Vincent Basilica­—which dates back to 1905—and the giant church was gripped by emotion. Nantz captivated the congregation and his eulogy featured this memory:

Before Arnie’s last Masters round in competition, he had shaken so many hands on the way that he got to the putting green just in time to hit a couple of putts. I was standing there and as soon as we locked eyes he said, “Have you made your decision?”

I was at a significant career crossroads. Was I going to go over and do News in the morning? I told him, “I have. I am staying with sports. It was my dream to one day broadcast the Masters and there’s no way I’m going to walk away from that.”

He said, “Was it a tough decision?” I said, “It was.”

At that time my father was deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s, a battle that he would lose soon after, and Arnie was aware of all that. I told him, “It was the first time in my life that I could not seek my father’s counsel.”

Here he was, Arnold, about to tee off for the last time, and he leaned over and he pointed right here [pointing to heart] with great force. He said, “You don’t understand; your father helped you make that decision. You were listening to him. He was right here the whole time.”

We’re going to miss him, the captain of our game, but you are going to find him in a lot of places. He is going to spring to mind. It’s going to hurt that he is not going to be there to pick up that phone, it’s going to hurt when he is not going to be there on the first tee when our springtime tradition rolls around, but I hope you will always remember, he’s right here [pointing to heart].

Jim Nantz with Arnold Palmer at the 2007 Masters

Way to get the congregation reaching for their handkerchiefs, Nantz.

“I got up there and felt totally at peace,” adds Nantz, 61. “I just felt like I was channelling Arnold while I was up there.”

Nantz and Palmer came to know each other as their respective professions frequently brought them together to talk, whether in front of a TV camera or to an audience at a corporate or charity dinner.

“It was never like work with Arnold,” adds Nantz. “Rolex would bring us both to the U.S. Open course each year for a dinner [prior to the championship week] and Arnold and I would do a Q&A. We would get up on the stage and I knew the golden stories Arnold had and they are always worth repeating to a new audience. We would just get up there and have a chat. Seriously, zero preparation. It was just two friends having a chat. I would not apply the word ‘work’ to it.

“I have thousands of memories of Arnold. He was a man of the people, he could relate to anyone. Arnold made people feel special. He was brilliant at that and he cared. It wasn’t hard work for him to extend himself and to shake hands, sign every autograph and to look people in the eye. He loved people and that is the bottom line, and he enjoyed the fact that people loved him back.”

Jim Nantz with Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus in the broadcast booth at the Memorial Tournament in 2016

Stories to tell

Nantz was a talented high school athlete, an excellent golfer and captain of the basketball team, but right from the beginning his fascination was with the story-telling more than it was with playing the starring roles.

“As a dye-in-the-wool golf fan as a young boy I just couldn’t round up enough information,” remembers Nantz, who was born in North Carolina but spent many of his teenage years in New Jersey as his family moved with his father’s career in sales. “This was pre-internet, pre-cable television and I was completely smitten with everything about golf, and of course Arnold Palmer was on top of the world. He was the ‘King’ and he was just bigger than life.

“I was born in ’59 and I started watching golf in the late sixties and Arnold was in some respects on the back half of his playing career. He last won [on the PGA Tour] at the ’73 Bob Hope and I watched that but he was so beloved that he almost seemed like a mythical figure.”

Nantz played on the University of Houston golf team and roomed with three teammates who would all progress to the PGA Tour: Fred Couples, Blain McCallister and John Horne. They played golf together and got up at the crack of dawn at weekends to caddie at Houston Country Club or at River Oaks. Nantz knew he was not destined to perform inside the ropes for money but there was one college tournament that asked a question.

“In my freshman year I played in a one-day challenge match,” recalls Nantz. “I shot 35, 1-under on the front which was the low score. I parred 10 and 11 so I was still 1-under through 11. I was clearly the weakest guy on the Houston freshman team but the coach came out to watch me play as word had circulated back that ‘Nantz is beating everyone’. As soon as he showed up on the 12th tee I went double-bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey, three in a row.”

An outcome most of us can relate to one way or another, but you can’t take away that 35 on the front.

Fred Couples and Nantz as the careers of these college teammates converged, live on air, at the 1992 Masters

Not much more than a decade later, in April 1992, a pair of lifetime ambitions were fulfilled in one sublime moment—as if pre-destined—when Nantz hosted the CBS broadcast from the Butler Cabin at Augusta National as his former roommate Couples was presented with the Green Jacket as Masters champion.

Another playing highlight of sorts unfolded years later when Nantz was stuck in a traffic jam on I-95 in Maryland in 2004, having visited the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp before a game. Nantz was in a car with his commentary partner of the time, Phil Simms, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the New York Giants, and while the northbound traffic they were in came to a standstill for a matter of hours, the southbound side of the highway was completely desolate. After three hours of sitting there, Nantz and Simms got out of the car to stretch their legs. Nantz gazed down the empty half of highway and had an idea. He managed to borrow a driver, tee and ball from a random car driver nearby, and found a crack in the southbound tarmac that would hold the tee.

Nantz would later write in his book, Always by my side: “The ball began soaring toward New Jersey with a gentle fade, just enough to carry it over the trees on the far-side shoulder and slowly bring it back in line with the fairway (i.e. I-95), but not over-sliced so that it became a danger to the gridlocked gallery… the ball continued bouncing toward the Delaware Memorial Bridge…”

As usual, Nantz nailed it.

Jim Nantz
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