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The Soul Of Jim Nantz

A Masters Week Throwback

By Ron Green Jr.   •   April 8, 2018

On a cool, damp Scottish night, in the old graveyard in the ancient town of St. Andrews, a small group of people have gathered around a marble monument near the back of the cemetery.

A light rain is falling and the low clouds float like spirits above the cemetery as the bells of midnight approach. The towering ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, built in 1158, loom over the resting place, tucked against a rocky edge along the North Sea.

The graveyard closed at dark but this being the Saturday night of the 2015 Open Championship at the Old Course down the road, the dozen or so visitors climbed the stacked stone walls, jumped inside and, with the help of cell phone lights, picked their way through the weathered headstones that remember lives lived long ago.

Tom Morris gravestone
The gravestone of Young Tom Morris in St. Andrews

Side by side are the gravesites of Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom Morris, the most influential men in the evolution of golf in the motherland. Old Tom won four Open Championships, became a master course architect and was a guiding light in the burgeoning field of course maintenance.

Young Tom was a prodigy, winning four Open titles by the age of 21, including three in a row beginning in 1868. He died on Christmas Day, 1875, succumbing – according to legend – to a broken heart.

On the eve of another Open Sunday at the Old Course, the trespassers have come to honor the game’s founding fathers.

At midnight, Jim Nantz, the voice of golf in America who has made the journey not to work but to experience another Open at St. Andrews, reads the inscription on Young Tom’s tombstone. Warm and reverent, Nantz is a tad amused that he is in this place though it’s not the first time he has done this.

“In memory of ‘Tommy,’ son of Thomas Morris, who died 25th of December, 1875, aged 24 years,” Nantz reads, his familiar delivery cutting through the darkness. “Deeply regretted by numerous friends and all golfers, he thrice in succession won the champion’s belt and held it without rivalry and yet without envy, his amiable qualities being no less acknowledged than his golfing achievements.”

Hello ghosts.

No Person Left Behind

The road to Jim Nantz’s 33rd Masters telecast does not run directly to Augusta National, though the tournament and the place are never far from him.

Rarely a day goes by, Nantz says, that someone doesn’t want to talk about the Masters with him. It could be November in Green Bay, Wis.; or July in Pebble Beach, Calif., where he lives. The Masters is like his eternal flame.

“What a nice thing that people relate that event to me,” Nantz says.

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As the voice of CBS Sports, Nantz has called Super Bowls and Final Fours and a dozen or so golf tournaments every year, including the Masters and the PGA Championship. It’s golf, though, that’s in his soul.

Three weeks to the day before the Masters begins and one day before University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s monumental NCAA basketball tournament upset of No. 1 Virginia, Nantz is courtside in Charlotte, N.C., watching eight teams practice, talking to coaches, players and staff members, absorbing as much information as possible to be ready to call four games the next day. His NFL season didn’t end until January, then Nantz spent the better part of two months calling PGA Tour events before diving into college hoops.

Nantz, 58, makes his work seem effortless. It’s the same with the people he comes in contact with, whether they are co-workers he sees almost daily or strangers who ask him to please say, “A tradition unlike any other” just for them. He almost always obliges.

“It’s his involvement with humankind,” says Gary McCord, who joined the CBS Sports golf team in 1986, one week before Nantz made his on-air debut. “I’ve never been around a guy who is so endearing to everybody that works around him and near him. That’s a helluva compliment to pay to usually inflated egos who are usually pontificating in front of people. Jim is not one of those.”

The Nantz Family
The Nantz family

Sitting courtside as one practice session rolls into the next, Nantz is home in one sense – he was born in Charlotte – but a continent away from his family in Pebble Beach. Nantz has a grown daughter, Caroline, from his first marriage and two young children, Finley and Jameson, with his second wife, Courtney.

On his phone, which is covered by a case featuring a family photo, Nantz pulls up a video of his daughter Finley’s fourth birthday party the day before. “Watch this,” he says.

The video shows Finley’s younger brother digging his 2-year-old fist into his sister’s beautifully designed birthday cake. Nantz laughs each time he sees it.

With all of his travel, Nantz keeps count of how many days he’s on the road each year. In Charlotte, he looked forward to spending five uninterrupted weeks with his family upon heading to the Final Four in San Antonio.

“That’s a goal,” Nantz says. “I can see it.”

Until then, there are games to broadcast and the Masters is calling.

Nantz is a master at painting the picture, regardless of the sport.

“He never tries to dominate the broadcast and he doesn’t try to be the star himself,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “You can listen to him do a three-hour broadcast and not get tired of him.”

When Ken Venturi retired as the CBS golf analyst, Nantz helped Nick Faldo find his unexpectedly entertaining voice. The same when Tony Romo replaced Phil Simms on NFL broadcasts with Nantz last season.

“He never tries to dominate the broadcast and he doesn’t try to be the star himself. You can listen to him do a three-hour broadcast and not get tired of him.”

– Sean McManus
Chairman, CBS Sports

Ken Venturi and Nantz in 1999

“He is the last of a dying breed,” said Grant Hill, who works the NCAA tournament with Nantz, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson. “You have a guy who is an icon, a brand, almost the face of a network. You don’t see guys like that in the pipeline.

“When I got this job, I had done two NBA games in my life and I was terrible. My initial instinct was to say, No,’ because I wasn’t ready. But you know this opportunity may not present itself again. I knew (Jim) would be great to work with but he far exceeded my expectations. He’s the best.”

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Faldo, who had a brilliant ability to close out the world on the golf course, still marvels at Nantz’s ability to tell a story in the middle of what often seems like a circus.

“He’s the glue that sticks the team together,” Faldo says. “Anything can happen. As little as three seconds before you see our picture come on the screen, it can be mayhem. It is not all ducks in a row.

“He can cope with it. I hear what’s going on in his ear and how (coordinating producer) Lance (Barrow) changes direction and he copes with it. He just walks through it and you wonder, ‘How the hell did he do that?’ He had six different thoughts going on in his head and he keeps talking as if you don’t know. That’s his best gift.”

For every football and basketball game he works, Nantz fills out a roster board on a piece of wide, thick white paper, listing all the players with key numbers and facts related to them. He has room to write in points he wants to make during a broadcast and stories he wants to tell. “I want to shine the light on these kids. This may be their only shot at this,” Nantz says.

Nantz with the North Carolina Tar Heels after they won the 2017 NCAA basketball title

“He is the last of a dying breed,” said Grant Hill, who works the NCAA tournament with Nantz, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson. “You have a guy who is an icon, a brand, almost the face of a network. You don’t see guys like that in the pipeline.

“When I got this job, I had done two NBA games in my life and I was terrible. My initial instinct was to say, No,’ because I wasn’t ready. But you know this opportunity may not present itself again. I knew (Jim) would be great to work with but he far exceeded my expectations. He’s the best.”

Faldo, who had a brilliant ability to close out the world on the golf course, still marvels at Nantz’s ability to tell a story in the middle of what often seems like a circus.

“He’s the glue that sticks the team together,” Faldo says. “Anything can happen. As little as three seconds before you see our picture come on the screen, it can be mayhem. It is not all ducks in a row.

“He can cope with it. I hear what’s going on in his ear and how (coordinating producer) Lance (Barrow) changes direction and he copes with it. He just walks through it and you wonder, ‘How the hell did he do that?’ He had six different thoughts going on in his head and he keeps talking as if you don’t know. That’s his best gift.”

For every football and basketball game he works, Nantz fills out a roster board on a piece of wide, thick white paper, listing all the players with key numbers and facts related to them. He has room to write in points he wants to make during a broadcast and stories he wants to tell. “I want to shine the light on these kids. This may be their only shot at this,” Nantz says.

Jim Nantz
Nantz with Billy Packer

The Jayhawks rallied from nine points down with just more than 2 minutes remaining and forced overtime on a Mario Chalmers 3-pointer.

“My first thought was, ‘Yes, I get 5 more minutes, an extended play with Billy,’ ” Nantz says. “My favorite moments are just the people I’ve been able to hang out with. These are lifetime friendships.”

It’s as if there’s no person left behind. It’s a theme that runs through Nantz’s life.

Cherished Keepsakes

Nantz’s first memories of being on a golf course go back more than 50 years. His parents, Jim and Doris, had joined Pine Lake Country Club, a new club on the edge of Charlotte.

Young Jim Nantz
A young Jim Nantz

“One of these days I need to go back over there, pull in and walk around,” Nantz says. “I remember them building the course when I was probably 5. People were walking in a single line up the first hole picking up rocks. I can still see it, walking up the hill.”

One of these days, Nantz probably will show up at Pine Lake Country Club to look around because he does those things.

A few years back, Nantz knocked on the door of the house his family lived in when Colts Neck, N.J., was their home. It was one of the stops the Nantz family made during big Jim’s career that took them from Charlotte to New Orleans to the Bay Area and New Jersey before they settled in Houston, where Nantz played college golf with Fred Couples and Blaine McCallister, among others.

Jim Nantz and Fred Couples
Nantz with 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples

Nantz’s grandfather was the postmaster who also owned a pool hall in Mount Holly, N.C., just outside Charlotte and during the family’s time in New Jersey, Jim relished the early evenings in the winter when his dad would get home from work and they would shoot pool together in the basement.

On a whim, Nantz wanted to see the house at 3 Highfield Lane in Colts Neck and didn’t tell anyone he was stopping by.

Al D’Avanzo was outside doing some gardening with his son when Nantz pulled up.

“I said, ‘It’s Sunday, shouldn’t you be working?’ ” D’Avanzo remembers.

When Nantz explained why he was there, D’Avanzo invited him in.

“I walked around and saw my old bedroom and the family kitchen,” Nantz says. “Then we walked down into the basement that my dad had built himself. It had wood paneling and a little bar. It was mostly the foundation of the house. It was incredible just to walk back into your life.

“At the bottom of the stairs was this pool table. He said. ‘I’ve kept something that I think belonged to you.’ It had survived all those changes in ownership maybe because it was just too big to move. I immediately recognized it.

“Al said, ‘If you ever want it, it’s yours.’ ”

After Nantz moved in at Pebble Beach, the pool table moved in with him.

That’s not all he brought with him and his family.

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He also has the golf cart Ken Venturi rode around in at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and he has the cocktail glasses that belonged to Frank Chirkinian, the fiery and demanding CBS producer/director who struck equal amounts of fear and respect in the people who worked with him.

Both Venturi and Chirkinian, among the most instrumental figures in Nantz’s professional life, have passed away (Venturi died on Nantz’s 54th birthday, May 17, 2013) but pieces of them have remained with him.

“Ken was adopted by parents named Fred and Ethel, like the Mertzes in I Love Lucy,” Nantz says. “His dad sold net twine to the fishermen in San Francisco. Once a week his father would take care of his accounts on the Monterey Peninsula and he would drive down with his boy, drop him off at Cypress or Pebble and Ken would caddie.

“He had the famous match at Cypress. He had the 1960 Crosby he won there and all the years of broadcasting at Pebble Beach.

“He and Frank used to always talk to me about how they would one day move to Pebble. For whatever reason, they ended up living somewhere else in retirement. They said they were going to do it and they never did do it. I feel like I’m representing them a little bit.

“I have Ken’s cart and Frank’s cocktail glasses. It’s like 20 of them. I can see Frank at the end of the day sipping a cocktail out of these glasses.”

Jim Nantz and Jim McKay
Nantz with Jim McKay

Nantz has become what he dreamed of being and how many people actually do that?

As a kid, he wrote letters to Jim McKay at ABC Sports and McKay answered him. He listened to Pat Summerall and Jack Whitaker, Dick Enberg and Chris Schenkel, giants in an industry when it came into full bloom.

“I studied them. I wanted to be like them. I wanted my career to be in honor of them,” Nantz says.

“I wanted them to be able to look at the next generation and say, ‘Well, that kid, he’s one of us. He’s doing our industry proud.’ That was my goal. I don’t know if I’ve achieved it but that’s what I wanted to be like. I tried to take what they established and did so well and have my career be a composite of all those men because they truly were an inspiration.”

Nantz delivered a eulogy at McKay’s funeral. He provided a taped message that was played at Enberg’s celebration of life ceremony recently in San Diego. He had lunch with Whitaker in Philadelphia in January.

“He delivered a toast at our wedding on the 68th-year anniversary of the day he had stormed the beaches at Normandy, at Omaha Beach. It was June 9, 2012, 68 years to that day. I love Jack Whitaker,” Nantz says.

Nailing the Moment

Before 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus got around to turning grown men and women into weeping bags of mush with his victory in the 1986 Masters, Nantz was already a bundle of nerves and emotion.

He was 26 and situated in the television tower behind the 16th green where it was his job to tell the story unfolding before him. Imagine being a rookie and Nicklaus is putting the finishing touches on a final-round 65 to complete what remains the most heartwarming afternoon in Masters history.

One month earlier, Nantz and Gary McCord were working the PGA Tour event at Doral.

“I remember I was taking him out to the 15th hole at Doral, I was going to 16. I was brand new as Jim was. I was probably one week old,” McCord says.

“Frank stopped us. He said, ‘Let me talk to you for a second, son,’ talking to Jim. He is giving Jim every word of what to do today. I was taking Jim out there and said, ‘That was kind of overwhelming. Just hang in here and do this.’

“The next thing I remember Jim and I were at Augusta. We started our careers. Jim went one way. I went the other. And good for him.”

That April Sunday in Augusta 32 years ago, Nicklaus came to the 16th tee having just eagled the par-5 15th, the cheers practically ripping the needles off the pine trees down in that corner of Augusta National. Nicklaus was still stalking Seve Ballesteros but it felt as if the air was trembling.

Chirkinian did not allow his announcers to state the obvious. Add something to what viewers are watching. Give it context. Give it meaning. And it was Nantz’s job to do that when Nicklaus was on the 16th tee.

“I felt like, ‘What I am doing here?’ I was four years removed from my college graduation,” Nantz recalls.

“During the commercial break, Frank was in my ear. He had this act, ‘the Ayatollah.’ … Sometimes he would ream someone out but, by and large, he was very supportive. … He took that moment to gently prepare me for what was about to come. He dropped to a whisper. It was like you were hearing yourself. ‘Jimmy,’ he said, ‘We’re coming back in a few seconds. This is a really big moment. You’re the right guy for this. I know it. You don’t need to say much. You’re going to be fine. This is a special time. You can handle it.’ ”

No doubt about it, the Bear has come out of hibernation.

Like Nicklaus, Nantz nailed the moment, even handling an extra 40 seconds when Jack initially backed off his tee shot. When Nicklaus holed his birdie putt after nearly acing the par-3, Nantz said, “No doubt about it, the Bear has come out of hibernation.”

Nicklaus was playing ahead of the third-round leaders and Nantz stayed parked in his tower as Tom Kite, Greg Norman and Ballesteros came through the 16th hole, playing through the tremors of the Nicklaus earthquake. When his work was done, Nantz stayed in the tower to watch the tournament conclude a few hundred yards up the hill from where he sat.

“I couldn’t believe I had been part of this epic, milestone victory in this sport,” Nantz says. “As I made my way up the hill toward the 10th hole Kenny (Venturi) pulled up in a golf cart. He said, ‘Are you going back to the compound? Well jump in.’

“He said, ‘How old are you son?’ I said, “I’m 26.’ He said, ‘I’m going to make a prediction’ – he was on such a high. ‘You may be able one day to say you’re the first guy to ever broadcast 50 Masters but I can promise you one thing: You’ll never live to see a day greater than this around Augusta.’ ”

That’s why Nantz accepted Venturi’s tricked-out Palm Springs golf cart when it was offered to him – because it reminds of him of that Sunday at Augusta and all the places the game and the business and the people have taken him.

“With 50 (Masters) now in sight, I’d like to adjust the numbers a little if I could and say 60,” Nantz says.

“It would be a blessing to make 50. That’s kind of been the goal. Ken didn’t know it and neither did I but he kind of mapped out my career for me in terms of what I aspire to do, what my career should be. I’d like like to do what Ken recognized that day – 50.”

‘He Has Time for Everybody’

Jim Nantz’s father is buried in his hometown of Mount Holly, in a gravesite with a distant view of the football field at what was Mount Holly High School. It’s where Nantz’s father played football and earned a scholarship to Guilford College.

The legacy of James William Nantz Jr. lives on in Houston, where his son has created the Nantz National Alzheimer Center, a cutting-edge research and treatment facility focused on solving the terrifying mysteries of the disease that gradually darkened the last 12 years of his father’s life.

Jim Nantz
Nantz with his parents, Jim and Doris, and Ken Venturi

“The Nantz Center is not a foundation,” he says. “It’s a thriving research institute. I leave the science to them and I try to be the voice for this.”

He has made presentations to the Department of Defense and to the NFL on behalf of Alzheimer research. The Nantz Center sits across the street from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, one of the foremost facilities of its kind in the world. Nantz believes the facility bearing his name is committed to doing similar work.

As Nantz scrolls through a website detailing the Alzheimer Center’s work and mission, he looks through a list of dozens of doctors now working there. He stops and points to a recent addition, excited by the new doctor in the way an NFL general manager would be about signing a high-profile free agent.

“What amazes me about (Nantz) is how dedicated and how much effort he put into having his dad and taking care of his dad when he had Alzheimer’s,” Barrow says.

“What he has accomplished since that time with the (Nantz Center) and the almost every day trying to figure out how you get rid of that disease. … It might not happen in his lifetime but it’s going to happen and not just because of Jim Nantz but because of a lot of people around this world. It’s giving back.”

Jim Nantz Tie

In time and with careful deliberation, Nantz has become a brand unto himself. He got into the wine business several years ago and in 2017 a chardonnay from his label, The Calling, was named among the top 100 wines of the year by Wine Spectator magazine.

His newest venture is with the clothing company Vineyard Vines, which will introduce a new Jim Nantz line of golf clothing next spring. Nantz had partnered with Vineyard Vines to produce a limited edition ‘Forget Me Knot’ necktie in which 20 percent of the proceeds went directly to the Alzheimer Center. The ties were a big success and led to Nantz helping the company create a golf lifestyle category.

Nantz spent eight years on the board of Ashworth when it was arguably the hottest apparel brand in golf and he is leveraging that experience, along with his own lifestyle, to craft the new line, which will have classic styles, slightly roomier fits than many contemporary golf styles and include premium touches. His wife is also involved in the new venture.

“I keep telling Jim, ‘Slow down. You’re a hundred years old. You’ve got two kids under the age of 5, what are you doing? Relax a little bit.’ But he has time for everybody. Believe me, that’s rare in our business,” McCord says.

Nostalgic By Nature

If there’s a rap against Nantz, it’s that he’s too sentimental. Too mushy. Too Nantz.

Hello, friends

He willingly cops a guilty plea.

“That’s who I am,” he says.

Nantz isn’t on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. He is thriving in the new instant age of social media without being a part of it. He’s aware of what’s happening but chooses not to participate in the hyperactive scene.

For all he has said and written and done regarding his late father, it’s his mother, Doris, whose personality colors his.

“I get it from my mom. She cries over everything. She always has,” Nantz says. “She has more feeling for people than anyone I’ve ever known.

“She wishes everybody could be OK, could be well, could be happy. I’d like to be everything she is in that regard. If you see that, you can’t help it but that’s the way you look at the world. That’s the map you were shown.”

It’s why Barrow calls Nantz “one of the great friends you could ever have.”

When the NCAA tournament ends and another version of One Shining Moment plays, Nantz will feel it well up inside him again. And one day later, when he’s back at Augusta National, he will see old friends and hear new stories, time and place tying them together.

He will make his traditional Wednesday afternoon walk to the 12th hole to stand and breathe in the Masters. He will think about his father and his family and the friends he has found along the way.

“I think a lot of people think I’m very nostalgic or sentimental. That’s what I get. I think that’s a good trait. I’m glad people think that way though some people think of it as a negative,” Nantz says.

“The game of golf is rooted in those two characteristics. It’s a nostalgic sport. It’s a sport that you have to play with a humble heart. You have to. It’s not a hot take kind of sport and I’m not a hot take kind of a guy.

“But I hear it. You can never make everybody happy. If you try to be somebody else, that’s unnatural. I would never try to satisfy a small faction. It’s just what I feel in my heart.”

After Saturday night had turned into early Sunday morning in St. Andrews three years ago and Nantz had finished reading a tombstone, he spent a few minutes with friends in the cemetery, sharing stories before making his way back toward town.

As he walked down the wet street in the company of friends, a teenager asked Nantz to tape a voice-mail message for him. There are several famous people whose cellphones have Nantz’s voice answering calls and Nantz was happy to tape another one.

“Hello, friends. In a tradition unlike any other … ” Nantz says with the spirit of St. Andrews surrounding him.

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PHOTO CREDITS

Jim Nantz, Vineyard Vines (Gary Land)

Young Tom Morris grave (Barbara Ivins-Georgoudiou, Global Golf Post)

Nantz with North Carolina Tar Heels (Ronald Martinez, Getty Images)

Nantz with Billy Packer (Courtesy CBS Photo)

Nantz with Jim McKay (Bob Straus)

Nantz with Ken and Jim’s parents (Bob Straus)

Nantz and Fred Couples (Augusta National/Getty Images)

Nantz at Masters (Rob Carr, Getty Images)

All personal photos (Courtesy Jim Nantz)