ESPN Experiencing the Slippery Slopes at Augusta

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By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; 1:02 PM

Over the last 15 years, every time I hear a CBS executive insist that it was the network's decision alone to forever remove irreverent golf commentator Gary McCord from its Masters telecast after his "body bags" and "bikini wax" comments during the 1994 tournament, I go back and read the statement put out at the time by then Masters chairman Jack Stephens.

"In prior years, we had expressed concern to CBS about the appropriateness of some of Mr. McCord's commentary," read Stephens' statement. "In spite of CBS's assurances to the contrary, Mr. McCord's remarks in 1994 were even more distasteful and conflicted directly with our goals. We therefore felt compelled to seek a change for 1995."

Last week, ESPN executive vice president John Wildhack said during a conference call that it was the worldwide leader's decision alone not to send Chris "Bluster" Berman, a fixture on its U.S. Open golf coverage, to Augusta for the cable network's debut as the carrier of Thursday and Friday coverage of the 2008 Masters. But please pardon me for being just a tad skeptical in thinking the club had no input in keeping Berman off ESPN's Masters team this week.

Wildhack insisted it was "100 percent our decision" not to have Berman involved. "As we do with all our partners, we discussed it (with the club) and Mike (Tirico's) participation was enthusiastically embraced." Wildhack also said Berman was too busy preparing for ESPN's NFL draft coverage April 26-27, as if Boomer was back home in Connecticut locked in a dark room watching tape with Mel Kiper -- surely a fate worse than water boarding.

In other words, you can bet your green blazer that the Lords of The Masters probably wanted no part of Berman's boisterous, often blowhard, look-at-me approach to broadcasting. Then again, that seems quite understandable and actually something of a relief. After all, could you imagine Berman talking about Tiger "Knock On" Woods, the "toasty tundra" of Augusta National's fairways or describing an errant shot as going "back, back, back, back, back over the green and into Rae's Creek!!!!"

The good news is that Tirico will be the one and only ESPN broadcaster actually involved in the early-round coverage. He's a veteran multi-talented, low-key and all-purpose broadcaster and also was the lead man for ABC's golf package before the network chose not to spend the money on rights fees for the PGA Tour two years ago. Unlike Berman, he knows the game and most of the people in and out of the the game know him to be thoroughly informed and meticulously prepared for any big-time assignment he's ever handled.

Tirico will not be calling any golf shots over the first two rounds. He'll be positioned in Butler cabin, where he'll serve in a host role Thursday and Friday, leading viewers into the telecast, providing re-set updates, the storylines of the day and handle the player interviews.

The heavy lifting of tournament shot-by-shot coverage and analysis will come from the CBS golf division, orchestrated entirely by longtime production maestro Lance Barrow, with Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo anchoring the telecast. The usual cast of regular CBS golf voices -- Peter Kostis, Verne Lundquist, Ian Baker-Finch, Peter Oosterhuis -- will man towers all around the golf course, with the possible exception of wickedly witty David Feherty, listed as questionable for action this week. Poor David can't laugh much these days recovering from three don't-even-sneeze broken ribs and a punctured lung suffered when a truck knocked him off his bicycle last month.

Tirico will do the shot-by-shot coverage of the annual Par 3 tournament contested on Augusta National's gorgeous little mini-course from 3-5 p.m. tomorrow. They've held the low-key, high-fun Par 3 event since 1960, but this year marks the first time any network will be permitted to show it live.

Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion and regular ESPN golf analyst, will join Tirico only for the Par 3 coverage, then will bow out Thursday and Friday. ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt and reporter Tom Rinaldi will be on the grounds all week as well, but only to provide news and feature coverage for SportsCenter and ESPNews. Best of all, Berman literally is totally out of the picture.

"At the end of the day, it's a CBS show airing on ESPN," Tirico said in a telephone interview last week. "For the viewer, it will not be drastically different from what they've seen in the past, with the exception of the Par 3, which will be the heaviest lifting I'll be doing.

"Everything Augusta National has always been about is to show as much golf as possible. We won't be changing that formula in any way on Thursday and Friday. We'd be silly to do that. I think people anticipate that Thursday coverage as much as any golf broadcast of the year, along with Sunday. The main idea is pretty much to just stay out of the way."


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