At 11 years old, when Jim Nantz was already focused on a career in sports broadcasting, Firestone Country Club was his fantasy land.
As a youngster, he was infatuated with the CBS Golf Classic, a series of matches between twosomes that culminated in a championship. The event played in that format was taped at Firestone from 1964-72 and Nantz watched attentively, excited not only by the action, but for the following week's pairing.
"They would come on at the end of every show and say, 'Next week at the CBS Golf Classic,' you would hear a guy hit a shot, 'Dan Sykes,' whoosh, and Bob Goalby, whoosh, will take on George Knudsen, whoosh, and Tommy Aaron,' " Nantz said. "I thought, 'Wow, that is such a cool show.'
"Seeing full 18-hole coverage of golf was unique at that time. They didn't do it live at any events."
Starting at CBS in 1985, Nantz joined the network's golf coverage one year later at age 26. When Nantz arrived at the famed South Course to call the 1986 World Series of Golf, some of his childlike wonder kicked in.
"I can't imagine anybody who showed up at Firestone for the first time who felt like they knew it better than I did," Nantz said in a telephone interview last month. "For me to travel to Akron the first time, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't wait, I know every hole on this golf course. I know the big water tower with the Firestone ball on top, I grew up with this. Here it is! It's real!' I thought it was make-believe, it didn't feel real.
"In my mind there was a romance to it. I built it up to be this backdrop, this stage with all these fascinating matches and interesting people and all these stories were being told. It just took on a very bigger-than-life kind of presence in my world and I never let go of that. Just to walk around Firestone to me is a true connection to my youth."
Nantz, 59, set his sights on working at CBS because it broadcast the Masters and the NFL. But his parents helped keep his dream alive during his and his sister's spring break, taking annual trips from Colts Neck, N.J., to the site of that week's PGA Tour stop.
"Whether it be the old Jacksonville Open or the Jackie Gleason Inverrarry Classic or the Doral tournament, they would spend four days in the car so I could walk around watching the tour players," Nantz said.
"I spent a good part of that also hanging out at the base of some of those announce towers just so I could get a glimpse of some of the famous broadcasters to see what they looked like in person. I was in awe."
Nantz's favorite story, which he shared in his 2008 book "Always By My Side: A Father's Grace and a Sports Journey Unlike Any Other," centered on one of those trips to Doral.
Nantz's mother always packed him a brown bag lunch — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of chips and a soda she had frozen overnight and wrapped in aluminum foil. But the weather was unusually hot and the soda began to sweat through the bag, forcing him to carry it like a football. So after the last group teed off at No. 1 he surreptitiously climbed a tree between Nos. 1 and 18 and stashed the lunch.
"I came back two hours later, climbed up that tree, sat at the base and had a delicious meal," Nantz remembered. "Fast forward 15 years later, I was 100 yards from there anchoring a broadcast for CBS."
That was his first tournament for CBS after a tryout at Pebble Beach. For that one, with producer Chirkinian giving him a chance as an observer, Nantz stayed at Fairway House No. 2, which belonged to golfer Lawson Little Jr. Nantz now lives within 200 yards of that house with his wife, Courtney, a former executive at IMG whose parents reside in Northeast Ohio, and their two children, ages 4 and 2.
At his first Masters, Nantz was stationed in the 16th tower, one of the final voices heard as Jack Nicklaus captured the last of his 18 majors at age 46.
"Very lucky. Early in my career I got to be one of those documenting the last great triumph of Jack's career," Nantz said. "I got to live through the Tiger Woods era and who knows who's still to come ... from that point all the way to whatever that unknown point is, 15 or 20 years down the road, I hope. It's a pretty remarkable start."
During his 33-year career, Nantz became the first to call the Super Bowl, the Final Four and the Masters in a single year, which he will do for the fifth time in 2019.
But Nantz said the years when CBS doesn't have the Super Bowl are just as challenging because the stretch begins with the AFC Championship Game, the second- or third-most watched show of the year.
"It's a very action-packed nine weeks and just trying to be on top of your game because these are the most exposed moments for those three sports for the whole year," he said. "There were years when I hosted the Super Bowl (a four-hour pregame show) and went on to call the Final Four and the Masters — that still had the same rhythm. I feel like I've been doing it a long time."
Those 63 days also include the Big Ten basketball tournament, the harried first week of the NCAAs, when Nantz calls six games in a span of three days, and the West Coast golf swing. He said there has been discussion about filming a documentary next year that might be titled 63.
"I think it's going to happen. It's not a done deal, but it's something I'm hearing about every couple of weeks as things are getting lined up," Nantz said. "It's not my idea. It's not my production. It's going to be done by a group. I think it's going to be a stand-alone documentary. I don't know if it's a 60-minute or an hour and a half. It's a strong possibility, let's put it that way."
Nantz sounded enthused, although he conceded, "I don't want anything to disrupt my routine or make people uncomfortable in meetings during the NCAA Tournament or leading up to the Super Bowl."
Although he is known as the voice of CBS and the play-by-plan man for the network's No. 1 NFL team with analyst Tony Romo, Nantz has also called polo, speed skating with analyst Dr. Eric Heiden, who won five individual golds at the 1980 Olympics, swimming and diving and track and field. He was the host of a show on the Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson ear-biting fight.
But his most unusual assignment was the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, which he did in 1994, '95, 2000 and 2001. (He's also hosted the Cotton and Orange Bowl parades.)
"My oldest daughter was just a little baby girl and she loved going to the parade," he said of his daughter, now 24, and the famed Macy's spectacle. "I was hosting the NFL studio for the latter two and I had her sitting on my lap for part of it. It was good fun. I like parades.
"It's heavily scripted, which is uncomfortable for me because I'm a reactionary play-by-play guy. Honestly, it's the easiest thing I've ever done. There's a shot of the band from a high school from some faraway part of the United States that's made its way to New York. You had a chance to talk about how they raised money through car washes and bake sales, their town is known for this.
"I felt a sense of pride to be able to tell their story in a very condensed window because right behind them comes Bullwinkle."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.