After the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach, I took my three children to Los Angeles for a vacation and we checked into the Beverly Hilton Hotel just off Santa Monica Blvd. only a few blocks from the famed Rodeo Drive.
It was a memorable few days for all of the reasons that make Los Angeles intoxicating.
My good friend Rudy Durand has all the mystique that one acquires through decades of navigating the ill-defined world of the movie business and all the friends. One of those friends owns the Beverly Hilton Hotel and when I go to L.A., Rudy makes sure that I, and in this case my kids, are well taken care of.
Most days were lazily spent at the pool, mere steps away from the bar Trader Vic’s where Elvis used to hang with his paisanos. The manager, Chai, is addicted to golf and to taking care of the guests of the hotel. He treated my children like family – my daughter to the salon, my boys ordering ice cream, soft drinks, hamburgers and an inconceivable amount of french fries.
One day as my oldest son, Brandel Jr. and I were walking through the restaurant near the pool, I spotted a man that I knew much about but had never met: Frank Chirkinian.
The first time that I had heard Frank’s name was shortly after the 1986 Masters – which many people readily agree is the best major ever – which Chirkinian produced for CBS.
Of course people remember that Jack Nicklaus won the championship, but that event was famous for many more things. It introduced us to Jim Nantz who was then on the 16th hole. It gave us Ben Wright’s great call when Jack eagled 15 on Sunday. It gave us the great exchange between Nantz and Tom Weiskopf as Jack deliberated over his shot at 16, a shot that would almost go in. The magic would continue with Verne Lundquist’s call and Jack’s putt at 17.
While the golf was exemplary, so was the coverage with crisp commentary, spot-on analysis and interesting conversation that sucked the viewer in. Frank hired these men and in an industry full of egos, he knew how to subdue, manage, motivate and make them come together as a team that was not unlike a choreographed play. The story goes, as I have heard it, that Frank knew they were on the cusp of something special and also knew that the fever of the moment could get the better of everyone, especially amped-up broadcasters.
So, he called a meeting and said, “Gentlemen, we are in the making of a great event with Norman, Ballesteros, Watson, Kite and Nicklaus all in position for a run and the only way we can mess this up is to TALK.”
He didn’t use the word “mess,” but used something stronger that started with an F. Imagine, having brilliant men, paid to talk, ready to talk and telling them not to talk. He then said that he wanted everyone to think of two and three word responses to great shots and use them like exclamation points.
So, the world was given Ben Wright’s, “yes, sir!” when Jack holed the eagle at 15 and then, a few minutes later, Vern Lundquist’s “maybe….. yes, sir!” when Jack holed the birdie at 17. In between when the stage was set at 16 and Jack was walking off the green having tapped in for birdie, Nantz added, “and the Bear has come out of hibernation.”
These comments – all quick – added to the drama, and as improbable as it sounds gave the show more weight. The tournament was Jack’s but the show was Frank’s. He was a soloist who never wanted to sing in the choir. He was a leader, a pioneer, an innovator, who yelled, screamed, cursed, demanded and was loved. Loved because he made people better, he made shows better when nobody even knew what it meant to produce live golf, he knew.
So I stopped, and for a moment and deliberated whether I should go interrupt Frank as he was having lunch with another man, absorbed in conversation, looking serious and as animated as I had imagined. I turned to Brandel and said, “Come on, I want you to meet a man that is a living legend.” As we got close he saw us, stood up, smiled and called my name.
“Mr. Chirkinian,” I said, “I just wanted to say hi and tell you how much I respect what you have done in your life.”
I shook his hand and introductions were made. His son, Frank Jr., was there and we talked for 10 minutes about the game and TV. He knew and called by name everyone at Golf Channel and had opinions what should be done to make them better, what should be done to make shows better, but was overall very complimentary.
He was sharp, polite, commanding, and above all, healthy. He had a rosy look, similar to Ronald Reagan, similar to every person in North Palm Beach, where he had a home. It was one of those times in life, where the moment holds you in awe. Only a few weeks later I would read that Chirkinian was diagnosed with lung cancer and that it was terminal.
In his passing, I was reminded yet again how quickly we can be robbed of people. I was also reminded of what one can do with a life if they never settle for anything but excellence. Frank Chirkinian demanded it and he delivered it.