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Frank Chirkinian

Frank Chirkinian died Friday. As Richard Goldstein explains in the NYT obituary, he

defined televised golf as the innovative executive producer and director for CBS’s coverage of the Masters tournament for 38 consecutive years … .

When Mr. Chirkinian first oversaw CBS’s coverage of the Masters at Augusta National in 1959, televised golf was a black-and-white affair with bulky stationary cameras.

Mr. Chirkinian transformed it into an imaginative spectacle, using more than two dozen mobile cameras as well as a camera in a blimp along with split screens showing two golfers putting at the same time. He cut briskly from hole to hole. He showed his audience where the leaders stood in relation to par as play progressed, not simply their total score, and he placed microphones on the greens to pick up chatter between the golfers and their caddies.

It’s worth a moment to appreciate the importance of his scoring innovation. In most golf tournaments (as I explained at length a week ago), scoring is handled by counting how many strokes each player takes to get around the course, and the player with the fewest strokes wins. They play 18 holes each day for four days, and typically they may take somewhere between 65 and 80 strokes each day. Thus, in the middle of the last round, as the tension mounts, a player who has finished 9 of the 18 holes may have taken 245 strokes. A player two holes ahead may be mounting a charge, having taken only 249 strokes. And a player two holes back may be collapsing, having taken 241 strokes.

Um, how do we keep track of that? How do we measure just how far ahead each player is compared to the others? The basic data are number of strokes taken and number of holes played. But we can’t see at a glance how some 70 or so players on the last day (and 156 on the first day) are doing relative to each other with a listing of these pairs of numbers.

Enter Mr. Chirkinian, with a stroke of genius. Let’s measure a player’s performance not through absolute numbers — strokes taken and holes played — but through the relative information of number of strokes taken compared to par. Thus, rather than saying that Tom Morris has taken 245 strokes through the 9th hole on day four (or 245 strokes through 63 holes), we’ll say that Morris is 3 under par. This would mean that if someone had played each of the 63 holes to that point in par, that player would have taken 248 strokes, making 248 the cumulative par, and so Morris, with 245 strokes, has taken 3 fewer strokes than the par player would. In contrast, the fellow two holes ahead who has taken 249 strokes, having played a par 5 hole at 10 and a par 4 hole at 11, is comparing his 249 strokes to a cumulative par of 254 and so is 6 under par. Viewers would see that Morris is at 3 under and his opponent up the course is at 6 under, allowing immediate comparison.

For more on Chirkinian, see the appreciation by NYT golf writer Larry Dorman. Dorman quotes Davis Love as saying on Friday, when asked to describe Chirkinian’s contributions to golf, that “Frank invented golf, the scoring system for golf and then golf on TV. That’s a pretty good résumé.”

Chirkinian’s greatest legacy is surely the Masters on CBS, the single finest TV sports broadcast of the year. The NYT obituary captures his greatness perfectly, and I’ll end as it does:

Notwithstanding his aura of dominance, Mr. Chirkinian was determined to let the game of golf show itself off without being overwhelmed by clever TV techniques.

“I showed lots and lots of golfers and lots and lots of golf shots,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1995, “and I try never to subordinate the event to my ego. When I die, I want my epitaph to read, ‘He stayed out of the way.’ ”

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Categories: Golf, Obituary
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