Elegance and Eloquence: Remembering Jack Whitaker
Jack Whitaker died Aug. 18. Exactly a week later, a crew of NBC golf broadcasters did him proud. The image is unmistakable. As Dan Hicks, Paul Azinger, David Feherty, Gary Koch, Jim (Bones) Mackay, Roger Maltbie and the rest of the team wove a picture of drama and consequences never before seen on a golf course — describing each putt and twitch and breath in the FedEx Cup final from Atlanta’s East Lake GC — Whitaker was up there somewhere, smiling. They probably didn’t even think about it, but to screw it up with his memory still so fresh in the world of golf would have been unacceptable.
They didn’t screw it up. If there is such a thing as a Whitaker standard, they reached it.
For those of us a bit long in the tooth, Whitaker was a benchmark guy. If his broadcast standards slipped, the door would open for the rest of us in the world of sports media to drop a notch, too. All too often, we did. Whitaker, never.
Jim Nantz, who does golf for CBS and whose standards seldom slip, wrote after Whitaker’s death that his friend and occasional broadcast partner brought “a steady elegance and eloquence” to
his work. Those five words covered it all.
There were so many Whitaker essays and colorful characterizations of the world of sport that reached beyond our capabilities of description and focus and left us dazzled. None more so than his take on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
“Nobody designed this course,” he told his viewers. “Nobody with a pencil and $2 million and five bulldozers. It comes out of the ground. It was done with wind and rain and sun and the help of a few sheep.”
And so, the NBC crew took the stage for what Feherty correctly characterized as “the richest round of golf ever played.” The pressure on the golfers was tremendous — $15 million to the winner, eight paychecks in seven figures or more, single putts worth as much as $1 million. The first mistake the NBC crew could have made would have been to underplay the elephant in the room — money … great, gob-smacking wads of it. If that premise seems unthinkable, remember the history of the too-pure-for-reality nature of the game.
Remember that, in 1966, Whitaker had referred to a fast-gathering crowd of spectators jockeying for viewing position on the 18th hole of the last day of the Masters as a “mob.” For that comment, he was banned for a few years from doing the event. Remember that, in 1994, Gary McCord referred to the slippery, speedy 17th green at the Masters as possibly being prepared with “bikini wax.” For that comment, McCord was banned by the Masters stuffed shirts and has yet to return.
Golf likes to think of itself as above the dirt and foibles of other sports. Big money would be something it might treat as similar to a 10-year-old at dinner — to be seen but not heard. The sport’s new $15 million man, Rory McIlroy, even gave that a shot when he said in a post-match interview that, while all the players certainly were excited about the money, the big goal was “the title.” To which Azinger pointed out, “You can’t take that big trophy into the grocery store.”
Throughout, it was a telecast done with class, color and creativity. When McIlroy continually hit it long and straight off the tee, on a course where being in the rough was not a death sentence but maybe 15 years with no chance of parole, Feherty described his fellow Irishman’s smooth swing as “looking like snow falling off a tree branch.”
Koch pointed out just how good these players were, despite the challenges of near-impossible pin placements, by pointing out, “It’s hard to hide a flagstick from these guys.”
But money was the story, and NBC’s crew handled that perfectly:
Hicks: “Fifth place, by the way, is worth $2.5 million.”
Feherty, as McIlroy faced his final challenge heading up the 16th fairway: “It’s a long walk, with a $15 million weight on his shoulders.”
And Azinger, always well-spoken, outspoken and clever and now getting paid for it, called McIlroy’s two clutch putts on Nos. 16 and 17 “all world,” and added, “He will be able to draw on those two putts for the rest of his life.” Then he summed up the outcome and the entire day by saying: “Rory McIlroy is showing that even $15 million can’t make him choke.”
Golf fans needed, and deserved, this broadcast crew to rise to the occasion. It did exactly that. Somewhere, Jack Whitaker was nodding. ▪