Summerall ‘a good friend of golf’
At some point Saturday or Sunday when you settle in at home to watch coverage of the RBC Heritage, you will see sweeping camera views of the 18th hole at Harbour Town Golf Links.
What will most likely accompany the breathtaking visual will be the voice of Jim Nantz, telling you of this iconic 18th hole, with “out-of-bounds and condominiums to the right, Calibogue Sound to the left, where par is a meaningful score.”
If you are of a generation that remembers black-and-white TV or when there was no cable or when finding a sports telecast of any kind wasn’t at the flick of a clicker . . . well may I suggest that you raise a toast and salute a giant of the industry and a man who came into your living rooms on so many occasions he felt like part of the family.
Pat Summerall died Tuesday.
“He was bigger than life to me,” Lance Barrow, coordinating producer for CBS Sports, said Wednesday. “The TV industry lost a true legend last night.”
Chances are, that sentiment is being echoed far and wide throughout the American sports landscape because Summerall was that good of an announcer, that massive of a presence.
“He was on TV all the time,” Barrow said. “So people all felt like they knew him and they responded to him.”
Summerall was 82 when he died at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and while it will be “sad to say goodbye,” Barrow cherishes the memories he has and the life he has lived, which is owed in great part to the former NFL player-turned-announcer.
“I was a kid from a dairy farm outside of Fort Worth,” Barrow said. “And I got to sit next to him at the best sporting events in the world.”
To an enormous number of sports fans, Summerall was the “voice of the NFL,” the guy who sat beside his best friend, the late Tom Brookshier, to bring pro football into your home every Sunday. He later teamed with John Madden, and though there’s no question that Summerall will first and foremost be attached to the gridiron, he was beloved and respected for the way in which he delivered golf into our homes for nearly 30 years.
“He was more than a special commentator for golf. He cared about golf. He was a good friend of golf,” said former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman.
Part of Summerall’s legacy at CBS is how at his first Masters, in 1968, the infamous controversy involving Robert De Vicenzo dominated the storyline. Having signed for a score higher than he made, De Vicenzo by the Rules of Golf had to accept it and thus lost a chance to be in a playoff with the winner, Bob Goalby. It wasn’t an easy assignment, but Summerall handled it flawlessly and for 25 more years when viewers tuned in for the Masters, it was the one-time placekicker whose voice helped control the CBS broadcast.
Barrow said Summerall, who polished his craft from Ray Scott, was great because he remembered that golden rule: “Don’t tell them what they can see.” It worked in football and with the quieter, gentler game of golf.
“He wasn’t subtle. He was very direct,” Beman said. “He had the unusual ability to take inexperienced announcers that had great knowledge about the sport, particularly in golf, and bring that out as a partnership in the booth. I think that was probably his greatest contribution to golf. He nurtured several golfers in the booth and deferred to their expertise in bringing the best out of them.”
If Summerall felt comfortable and at ease within the storied Augusta National Golf Club, it’s probably because of a man who was important to him during Summerall’s formative years. From a broken home, George Allen Summerall was taken in by his aunt and uncle who called him Pat, but when he went to the University of Arkansas he was befriended by Jack Stephens.
A longtime member at Augusta National, Stephens served as club chairman from 1991-98. In his final years with CBS, Summerall proudly would stand behind Stephens inside of Butler Cabin during the presentation of the green jacket.
With a deep and calming voice, Summerall seemed to put everyone at ease. Brookshier once joked that if he were dying, “I’d want Pat Summerall to tell me I was dying, to make me feel better.” Barrow called Summerall “the greatest straight man on television,” because he allowed those around him — be it Ken Venturi in golf or Brookshier or Madden in football — to do their things.
Nantz, who followed Summerall into the lead golf role for CBS in the early 1990s, annually pays homage to his “hero” by reciting the words about Harbour Town’s famed 18th. They were words annually spoken by Summerall. Like everyone at CBS and within the PGA Tour, Nantz cherishes the coziness of Hilton Head Island one week after the boiler-room pressure of the Masters, and Summerall was the same.
“I treasured the gift of friendship that I had with him,” Nantz said. “I was his understudy for 10 years. He could not have been more generous or kind to a young broadcaster. He was a giant and one of the iconic figures in the history of the CBS Television Network.”
It was a golf tournament that connected Summerall and Barrow, the Colonial in the mid-1970s. Barrow was a college kid who wanted to do whatever needed to be done. CBS took him on, and it wasn’t long before Summerall took him under wing.
“He meant the world to me,” said Barrow, who knew Summerall was in poor health, but still wasn’t expecting the call. But there is a memory he clings to, last Christmas morning when he picked up the phone and heart Summerall’s voice.
“I’m happy he called me,” Barrow said. “I loved the guy.”
Golfweek’s Adam Schupak contributed to this story.