Thursday 8 December 2016

Open microphones still have the power to shock

Dermot Gilleece

Published 30/01/2011 | 05:00

T hree years ago this month, in what could be seen as the nearest televised golf has got to what happened on Sky last week, America's leading female presenter on the game, Kelly Tilghman, was suspended for two weeks. Her crime on the Golf Channel was to suggest that the only way Tiger Woods' rivals could curb his dominance would be to "lynch him in a back alley."

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The intended humour seriously misfired against the historical background of such things actually happening to black people in the US. In the event, she overcame the difficulty and remains in her job, frequently alongside Nick Faldo in the "tower".

All of the other cases leading to bans for golf presenters have had to do with perceived sins against institutions. And the most celebrated of these, unquestionably, has been the banning of Englishman Ben Wright by the CBS Network in January 1996.

Wright, a familiar voice on one of the climactic holes at the Masters, was alleged to have given highly inflammatory quotes about women's professional golf to a reporter from the Delaware News-Journal. These included: "Let's face facts here. Lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf. There's a defiance in them in the last decade. They're going to a butch game and that furthers the bad image of the game." He has been effectively exiled from working as a golf analyst ever since.

As individuals, however, professional golfers have learned to be pretty thick-skinned. For instance, there were no consequences for NBC's Johnny Miller after his on-air remark about Rocco Mediate in the duel with Woods for the 2008 US Open title. Miller suggested that Mediate "looks like the guy who cleans Tiger Woods' pool".

Then there was his unfortunate remark on the Saturday of the 1999 Ryder Cup about Justin Leonard, the player who would become the hero of an unlikely American triumph. "My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on television," he said.

Established institutions, however, are not quite so forgiving. In this context, Jack Whitaker had the unwanted distinction of becoming the first TV victim of Augusta National. And in a chat I had with him some decades after the event, it was clear the hurt remained. Whitaker, who can be seen and heard these days presenting repeats from the Shell Wonderful World of Golf series on Sky, did the unthinkable by describing Augusta National fans as "a mob", long before a successor on CBS, Gary McCord, was shown the door for references to body-bags and bikini wax.

"Oh, you mean 1966," he recalled, as if surprised by my question. "Yes. I was with CBS at the time and I said there was a mob scene at the 18th when they all broke . . ." He paused to gather his thoughts. "It was a very long day, a Monday play-off and if you go over 6.0 on American television with a sporting event you're into the local news which is a no-no. An absolute no-no. This was going over 7.0 o'clock, which was the network news with Walter Cronkite and that was absolutely anathema."

As it happened, there were a number of first-time spectators there that day, using badges they had got from regular ticket holders who couldn't wait for the play-off. And as the three participants, Jack Nicklaus, Gay Brewer and Tommy Jacobs, approached the final green, Whitaker was fearful the crowd's unruly behaviour could cause a further delay.

"I was rushing to get off the air as Nicklaus sank the winning putt and I said 'Here comes the mob'," he recalled. Augusta's chairman, Clifford Roberts, was so incensed by the remark that he instructed CBS to remove Whitaker from future Masters telecasts. "It really stung," he went on. "But I was more angry with CBS than I was with the Masters for not notifying me earlier about my so-called fall from grace. I never quite believed the reasons they gave me."

Six years elapsed before CBS invited Whitaker back to Augusta as their guest. "So I went back and I'm up on the second floor of the clubhouse having breakfast with Claude Harmon and Cary Middlecoff," he said. "Suddenly, there's was a tap on my shoulder and Frank Chirkinian (CBS golf producer) says: 'Henry Longhurst has just gone to the hospital and you're going to do 16. So we'd better go down and talk to the old man (Roberts)'."

Whittaker was understandably apprehensive. "Down we went to the man, the ogre who had banned me and who used to critique every telecast," he recalled. "As I walked in, Chirkinian said 'Mr Roberts, this is Jack Whitaker'. And he got up and said: 'Young man. We're very fortunate that you're here. Welcome'. And that was it. I was back. And I remember thinking that maybe he wasn't such a bad guy after all."

But there was still a price to be paid. Longhurst returned to broadcasting action the following day and though Whitaker was retained for the 14th hole that year, he never regained the anchor position. Later he was assigned to cover the long 13th, which he loved, and remained part of the Masters team until 1982 when he joined ABC. McCord wasn't so fortunate. There has been no way back from his on-air remarks in 1994 that the greens at Augusta were "smoothed with bikini wax" and that some mounds on the course resembled body bags.

Since then, David Feherty has trod on the odd piece of thin ice without falling through, as has Richard Boxall on Sky. Neither man will need reminding about the precariousness of his craft.

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