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Arnold Palmer ushers in golf on television

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Like most of us, Frank Chirkinian’s first impression of Arnold Palmer came through the television set.

The long-time CBS producer, who brought so many innovations to televised golf, could not invent what he saw in the TV truck in his first Masters’ telecast 50 years ago.

“It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” says Chirkinian, who’s retired today and part owner of a South Florida golf course. “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, `Wow, who is this guy?’” 

Arnold Palmer
The TV camera still loves Arnold Palmer. (Getty Images)

Chirkinian instantly recognized what made Palmer a star.

“Charisma,” Chirkinian said.

With Palmer celebrating his 80th birthday Thursday, Chirkinian is proud to call Palmer a friend. He’s also grateful for what Palmer brought to Chirkinian’s job. It was in following Palmer in the early development of televised golf that Chirkinian was able to elevate the medium to something beyond sport.

Chirkinian’s important innovations directing coverage included a new way of scoring, the notion of scoring in relation to par. He added microphones to tee boxes, and he added blimp shots, but his real legacy was in transforming competition into unscripted drama. It was in his storytelling ability.

In Palmer, he had a real star for his stories.

“The camera is all knowing,” Chirkinian said. “It either loves you, or it doesn’t. It loved Arnold Palmer, and it still loves him.

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, is it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where fans will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

Chirkinian learned that Cinderella isn’t a popular story to tell in golf.

“Jack Fleck was reviled for beating Ben Hogan,” Chirkinian said.

In Palmer, TV had a star for the masses.

Palmer was James Dean in golf spikes. His personality might not have compared with Dean’s, but he had the look. Leaning on a club, cigarette dangling from his mouth, Palmer had a rebel’s heart over the ball. He had a go-for-broke style that made viewers lean into their TV sets.

Though his swing wasn’t the prettiest, a blacksmith’s lash into a corkscrew finish, Palmer’s style connected with the average fan.

“Arnold dispelled the notion golf was elitist,” Chirkinian said. “He was a blue-collar kid, and the average player could relate to his swing. I think Ken Venturi once said, 'I think I saw a swing in that lunge.’ Arnold developed a new corps of viewers. He created Arnie’s Army.”

Palmer’s style helped create drama, because he was always escaping some sort of trouble, carving shots out of the woods to make birdie or save a par.

“The manner in which Arnold won, the way he attacked and made birdies, it was very spectacular,” said Dow Finsterwald, an 11-time PGA Tour winner and friend to Palmer.

It didn’t hurt TV that Palmer cut such a dashing figure.

Bob Toski, the Hall of Fame teacher who won the PGA Tour money title in 1954, knew how Palmer expanded the game’s fan base.

“My wife, Lynn, is a big Arnold fan,” Toski said. “When he came around, she would swoon.”

So would grown men.

“They related to the way Arnold played,” Toski said. “He would be over in the woods, but he was so strong, he had such strong arms and hands, he could play shots out of deep grass and bad lies and still make a 3. He could do that from places where high handicappers made 6.”

All of that helped make Palmer compelling TV.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

For that, golf will always be grateful.