Shhhhh! Not everybody knows this yet. The whisperers are repossessing the world of golf.
Time was, back in the 1950s, before Arnie's Army and the advent of TV golf, the only voices people heard were those of the radio whisperers around the 18th green. Imagine that, we thought. Standing right there and whispering as the guy was putting. The drama was so thick it stuck in your throat.
"Shhhhh! Have to be quiet here . . . Sam. . . Snead . . . Thirty-foot putt . . . Over the ball . . . Coming . . . Coming . . . It's up . . . Does he have it???? . . . IT'S IN THE CUP! (Crowd roars in background) . . . Sam Snead has just tied Ben Hogan for the Masters lead!"
Sadly, TV drove the radio play-by-play men away. Who wanted to listen when you could watch? Plus TV's announcers sat in elaborate erector sets, high above and behind the greens, sometimes behind glass. They didn't really have to talk in whispers, although a lot of them wanted to for special effect.
Now the radio boys have returned, thanks largely to the Mutual Network, which armed them with tape recorders and sent them back onto the course in earnest in 1977.
Today, you can be driving in Cincinnati, ironing pants in Chicago or punching dogies in Cheyenne. Turn on the right station at the right time (WINX-1600 locally) and you will hear Ed Doobrow, greenside, at Congressional Country Club. It's something of a fantasy world. "Nicklaus . . . One foot in the pond . . . The chip is up, up, up . . . Rolling! . . . ROLLING! . . . Ohhhhh, in and out of the cup!"
Mutual first tried radio golf during the 1976 PGA Tournament at Congressional. The idea was to provide a crab claw and champagne freebie for the network's advertisers on the clubhouse veranda, not to keep America informed of Jack Nicklaus' short game.
"Before we knew it, the cart got before the horse," said Mutual's director of sports, Jack Clements. "Suddenly we realized we had a hell of a horse. The client entertainment became incidental."
Mutual discovered that Ma Bell would wire entire courses. Doobrow could carry his recorder to the bottom of some forsaken bunker, tape the leader hacking away, then race to the feed box and send it in. Within minutes, the guy punchin' dogies could hear the leader go kathumppp in the sand with his wedge.
Still, persuading Mutual's affiliates to carry a minimum of four and a maximum of 12 brief reports a day Wednesday through Sunday was a near-impossible task. Clements said only 25 of the network's 900 affiliates cleared air time in 1977 (some 400 do now); the horse--in front of the cart or not--was a money loser through 1980.
There also was resistance from some in the golfing establishment.
Never mind that Mutual had contracts to carry on-course coverage of 11 men's and two women's events a year. Never mind that the audience it reached--generally young and mobile--was exactly the audience golf needed to nurture. Nicklaus, for one, seemed unhappy.
Before the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield in 1980, Luke Griffin, Clements' deputy, tippy-toed up to Nicklaus, who built and owns the course. "We're gonna wire the greens," Griffin chirped.
"You're gonna what?" Nicklaus said.
"We're gonna have guys describing the putts."
"You're joking," Nicklaus said. He was annoyed--the way he would be, say, if he'd been putting for the Grand Slam when Gordy Johncock's Indy car went by playing rock music on the radio.
"Jack," Griffin said, "you don't realize this, but we've been wiring the greens on the tour since 1976."
"Done!" Nicklaus replied. "Wire the greens."
Unlike the live old-time broadcasts, which droned on and on between moments of drama, Mutual's taped reports are short, smartly edited, and often no more than 10 minutes old. The weekend broadcasts run no more than five minutes; the weeknight blurbs are two minutes or less.
That's still enough time for a scoreboard report, some old-fashioned whispering from the green, and an interview with the leader. You won't get Pulitzer Prize journalism--no one from Mutual reached Tom Weiskopf when he kissed off the Kemper Wednesday--but the shows do keep moving.
"Our biggest problem in getting stations to carry this was the word 'golf,' " Clements said. "We said golf and they said, 'Holy horsefeathers! It's boring. Nobody will listen.' They remembered the old days. But our shows are as tightly produced as any Top 40 record show."
One more thing. Mutual's play-by-play men say they're as quiet around the greens as monks in a sacristy.
In 1978, Hubert Green bent over a three-foot putt that would give him a tie for the Masters title. He heard some guy whispering, so he backed off. Two minutes later he missed the putt. Legend has it that CBS Radio announcer Jim Kelly beat a very quick retreat to the parking lot that day.
Last March, Ed Sneed came off the 18th green at the Tournament Players Championship after missing a putt. It was as though Johncock's race car was making a another pass. "Great play-by-play you did," Sneed said, glaring at Doobrow. "I heard every word."
Doobrow was crushed. He and Ken Venturi, the CBS-TV analyst, had been standing together, scout's honor, whispering quietly into their mikes. The loudmouth was the guy behind them, a sporting goods rep who was stringing for the local Jacksonville radio station.
Who served as peacemaker? The former golfer, Venturi. A strange breed, these TV and radio guys. They're rivals, but when the whispering gets tough, they stick together.