July 14, 2023 12:00pm

The TV Personalities of Golf

On the subject of television golf personalities, the field of choices past and present (and future?) offers broadcasters and analysts to suit a variety of tastes. Some are better than most, and our pollsters are mixed on who they prefer. Some favor their commentary straight and steady down the middle while others are more partial to wild swings that might land anywhere.

Photo of Scott Michaux
By Scott Michaux
Golf Correspondent

On the subject of television golf personalities, the field of choices past and present (and future?) offers broadcasters and analysts to suit a variety of tastes. Some are better than most, and our pollsters are mixed on who they prefer. Some favor their commentary straight and steady down the middle while others are more partial to wild swings that might land anywhere.

The range of tastes is illustrated in the top two vote getters for poll favorites: CBS host Jim Nantz and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee.

“Jim Nantz and Dan Hicks are above average air-traffic controllers but seldom tread on controversial or insightful subjects,” said J. Roger Graves, senior writer and editor for PGA Magazine. “On the opposite side of the spectrum, Brandel Chamblee provides thoughtful analysis, but is not asked to do so spontaneously while sitting in a booth in real time as players are grinding on the course.”

Nantz has been a staple voice coming from out TV sets since he first called the Bear coming out of hibernation at the 1986 Masters, and he’s delivered memorable tags to historic finishes including: “A win for the ages” (1997 Masters); “Is it his time? Yes! At long last” (2004 Masters); and “The return to glory” (2019 Masters). That latter was accompanied by 2 minutes of perfect silence as the camera followed Tiger Woods in the emotional aftermath of his 15th major win.

Chamblee, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to stir things up and tell viewers what he really thinks on any and all topics in the game. He rarely backs down from a fight, even with his cohorts from Frank Nobilo to Brad Faxon. That explains why Chamblee got half as many votes as least favorite (12) from our pollsters as he did as favorite (24).

Ron Borges, the longtime Boston sportswriter, encapsulates Chamblee’s polarizing appeal: “I find Chamblee thought provoking but sometimes he speaks like he thinks he’s Moses coming down from the mountain. An occasional bit of ‘there may be another side to this’ would be wise.”

As for down the road, it seems clear from our pollsters that they might like to see a little less sugar and more vinegar, as golf’s most opinionated modern player, Phil Mickelson, is atop the wish list for a future role in the booth. Considering all the headlines he’s generated since his shift to LIV Golf, it remains to be seen if the left-hander has burned too many bridges to ever get the opportunity.

Here’s a breakdown of results and some responses to this week’s Golf Power Poll questions:

The voice of CBS Sports, Jim Nantz, got more than a third of the votes (48) but generated almost none of the comments. His work for nearly four decades speaks for itself.

The more passionate comments hailing favorites were delivered on behalf of others (especially runner-up Chamblee) as well as a few write-in candidates such as Frank Nobilo and Karen Stupples.

“Frank Nobilo and Arron Oberholser are the two clearest, most engaging voices in live golf today,” said Bill Hobson, executive producer/host of Michigan Golf Live.

“I think Frank Nobilo is an insightful and intelligent commentator and should be given more air time,” said Patricia S. Norton, owner of On Course Strategies.

Golf course industry contributor Rick Woelfel notes that while everyone on the list is solid, but said “my favorite broadcaster among those working today is Karen Stupples. She is knowledgeable about the game, doesn't talk down to her audience, and doesn't sugar coat when a player hits a bad shot. Morgan Pressel has the potential to be as celebrated a figure in the booth as the woman she succeeded, Judy Rankin.”

Verne Lundquist – whose memorable moments include “Maybe. Yes sir!” (1986 Masters) and “Oh wow! In your life …” (2005 Masters) – had a small (5 votes) but vocal fan base. “I think Verne Lundquist is the most underrated golf commentator of all time,” said Kevin Drum, owner of Drum Media Group.

“Verne is my favorite because, well he’s Verne,” said sportswriter George Willis. “But mad respect for Brandel Chamblee for telling it like it is. Otherwise, golf commentary might be the most boring and redundant in sports.”

Former Sports Illustrated and ESPN columnist Rick Reilly endorses Chamblee: “Brandon (sic) Chamblee is so smart, and so prepared and so willing to tell the truth. I admire him.”

Said Tod Leonard, senior writer and editor for Golf Digest: “Brandel Chamblee is perhaps the most polarizing golf commentator of all time. He makes Johnny Miller look like a wallflower. He's intelligent, passionate and always seems well prepared and researched to speak on any subject in the game. He is THE voice of golf at this moment.”

Paul Azinger, who edged out Paul McGinley for third choice, gets a thumbs up from Terry Moore, the founding editor of Michigan Golfer: “Azinger does his homework, knows the players, imparts the pressures of the game and delivers commentary in his own distinctive voice. Brad Faxon is also very good.”

The voices most missed on the air encompass a diverse threesome of Johnny Miller (43 votes), the late Peter Alliss (33) and the recently retired Judy Rankin (17). Some pollsters feel the current generation can’t keep up with their predecessors.

“As the new breed of golf commentators supplants the old guard such as Johnny Miller, Nick Faldo, Roger Maltbie et al, there is a growing credibility gap,” said Graves. “Miller and Faldo had a knack for accurately predicting what might happen next because they had walked (or choked) in the shoes of those now competing. Former players such as Trevor Immelman and Paul Azinger, who each tasted a brief moment of major glory, are maturing as credible golf announcers, but their analyses are inconsistent – birdies some days and bogeys and double bogeys other days.”

Sean Fairholm of Global Golf Post strongly begs to differ: “Trevor Immelman has been a phenomenal replacement for Nick Faldo. Immelman does his homework, has a close relationship with tour players of all ages and is very knowledgeable about the golf swing. Faldo rarely added anything of value. The CBS broadcast immediately improved without him.”

Some voices of the dearly departed that we can never get back still resonate with pollsters.

“Too bad Renton Laidlaw and Henry Longhurst weren't included in the choices,” said James A. Frank, author and writer for Links Magazine. “Their mastery of not saying anything when the moment asked for it was admirable. Just because there's a microphone in front of someone's mouth doesn't mean it has to be used.”

“The Brits on Euro Tour are a good model for golf broadcasters: say something when appropriate, don't continually run at the mouth,” said Peter Georgiady, executive director of The Golf Heritage Society. “The late Renton Laidlaw was a master of that.”

“Peter Alliss and Henry Longhurst remain my favorites,” said Patricia Norton.

Said Keith Jones, Tee It Up! Radio host: “Miss Mr. Venturi (and Ben Wright) immensely.”

You can’t please everybody. Former CBS host Brent Musburger received the most unfavorable votes (27) ahead of NBC analyst Paul Azinger (20) and former CBS second chair Nick Faldo (16).

Eight poll voters even dislike Nantz.

“I think it’s best to watch the PGA Tour on mute,” said radio host Keith Jones. “(Ian) Baker-Finch is someone l can definitely do without.”

Steve Habel, owner and publisher of GolfDaily.com, has this assessment of the field: “It's hard to listen to broadcasts at times these days because of the repetition from some announcers and the general pandering to the masses rather than the golf-specific viewers. I can literally pick apart broadcasts for bad grammar, stupid inferences and general poo journalism. I'm a true believer of less is more.”

Most folks were diplomatic with regards to commenting (or even voting) for least favorite, adhering to the if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice school of thinking.

Bob Sherwin, writer for Golfers West, was not so shy. “Steve Sands is the absolute worst,” he said. “I've begun to mute the TV when he's on.”

The top choices for a future spot in the broadcast booth leaned for the provocative (Phil Mickelson with 36 votes) or cerebral (Geoff Ogilvy with 22). Tiger Woods (18 votes), basketball analyst Charles Barkley (12) and the dryly witty Paul Goydos (11) all got double-digit endorsements.

Mickelson, who made several notable cameo broadcast appearances before he was suspended from the PGA Tour for joining LIV Golf, is a popular wild-card pick should he be given a chance.

“Mickelson commentating during broadcasts would bring insight from a HOF top-tier player (ultimate credibility) and a plethora of ‘wide-open’ takes (incredibly entertaining),” said public relations rep Dan Shepherd.

Said Ron Borges: “Phil would be amazing because he has no filter. Refreshing.”

Others seem to feel Mickelson has cost himself the chance for a second chapter in broadcasting.

“It’s too bad Phil has removed himself from a broadcasting role in his later years. He would’ve been fantastic if he were in a better mental place,” said Bill Hobson.

Said Terry Moore: “Before his fallout with fans, Mickelson would have been terrific as a TV golf announcer.”

Herb Gould seems to agree, but believes that fallout is revealing: “I used to think Phil Mickelson blew it. He could have followed Faldo, Johnny Miller and Venturi as the next great analyst. With hindsight, though, he really wasn’t that guy.”

Matt Lawell, the managing editor for Golf Course Industry Magazine, had a different kind of write-in take.

“You know who could be great in the booth? Justin Timberlake,” Lawell suggested. “Seriously. He loves the game and plays regularly. He could easily be the modern Bob Hope or Dinah Shore, hosting an annual tournament and playing the role of ambassador for the game, and his easy delivery suggests a top broadcast. Maybe Tiger and Rory could bring him in for their indoor broadcasts.”

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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