GOLF'S MISSING LINK

WITH HIS WIT AND EXPERT TV COMMENTARY, GARY MCCORD BRINGS PANACHE TO A PRIM AND PROPER GAME. BUT SOME GOLF PURISTS THINK HE'S OUT OF BOUNDS.

The lords of the Masters have issued a long list of dos and don'ts for its TV announcers. No one is to use the phrase "prize money" during a telecast. Flowers are not to be called "flowers"--they are rose bushes, azaleas, etc. The word "beautiful" is encouraged.

Years ago, the tournament committee had placed McCord on double-secret probation for other irreverent remarks. "Bikini wax" and "body bags" put the committee over the edge.

After the tournament ended, CBS weathered Augusta hot air. No more McCord here, the Masters told the network. End of discussion.

Golfer Tom Watson injected himself into the fray with letters to Masters chairman Jack Stephens and to CBS' Frank Chirkinian. In one missive, Watson called McCord "the Howard Stern of golf," and urged his removal from Masters telecasts.

In terms of revenue and prestige, the Masters means more to CBS than any sporting event except the NCAA basketball tourney. The network sacrificed McCord, just as it had jettisoned commentator Jack Whitaker in the mid-1960s. Then, the tournament chairman had demanded Whitaker's removal after he referred to a crush of spectators as a "mob scene."

Years passed before Whitaker got another chance at Augusta. It isn't known if McCord will ever get a reprieve.

But shed no tears for him.
McCord's exile from the Masters has enhanced his image as a maverick--and his marketability. He's a one-man cottage industry, pitching golf products, giving speeches and starring at lucrative golf shindigs with corporate wheels.

"I couldn't have paid the Masters any amount of money for the publicity I'm getting," McCord says. "It's the greatest publicity stunt of all time, and it wasn't a stunt. It's gotten me out of the confines that I work in--right into mainstream America."

He has one of the best gigs going, with or without the Masters, and he knows it. This, McCord says, is the best time of his life.

He's happily married to an unforgettable woman named Diane, dotes on his four granddaughters, and has beautiful homes in Scottsdale and Vail, Colorado. He still plays occasionally in PGA tournaments, and his golf game is in fine shape.

But not so long ago, the only Zone that McCord knew was hosted by Rod Serling.

In the mid-1980s, his game was on life support and he'd pulled the plug on his first marriage. He was as well-known for being a magician as he was for being a pro golfer. McCord could quote lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Chevy Chase in the same breath, but that didn't help his depleted bank account.

Then, in 1985, CBS gave McCord a microphone and told him to be himself.
The hire paid off for all concerned.
Viewers perennially give CBS the highest marks of the five networks that televise golf. And in surveys conducted by golf journals, McCord has become the fans' favorite announcer; 84 percent sided with him in one poll taken after his dismissal from the Masters.

"Gary is the best thing since sliced bread," someone typed last month on America Online's golf bulletin board. "When the guy on screen lets us down, Gary is there to let everyone know that the pro still puts his pants on the same way we do."

Another correspondent begged to differ: "By any purist golfer's standard, Gary has been offensive, vituperous [sic] and ungentlemanly an untold number of times. Who does he think he is! Tom Watson obviously decided that someone had to take a stand for propriety in golf."

Like most of his peers in the golf broadcasting business, McCord is a middle-aged white guy. But he's been able to tap into an audience that considers the sport--and McCord--cool.

"You've made so many Sunday afternoons so much more pleasant," a Northwestern University co-ed wrote him last August, one of about 700 letters he received in the Masters' aftermath. "I appreciate every crazy line that comes out of your mouth."

Many older viewers--such as grandparents Shirley and Marjorie Carter of Goshen, Indiana--are behind McCord, too.

"The Masters committee of arrogant, noble elitists have spoken!" the Carters wrote him. "Does this pompous group really believe the Masters to be so perfect as to be elevated above criticism? We enjoy your tournament expertise, and wish you the best in your work."

McCord makes do with a slightly nasal vocal quality that doesn't match his more-mellifluous CBS peers Verne Lundquist, Jim Nantz and Ben Wright.

His sculpted handlebar mustache also sets McCord apart.
Whether he's broadcasting or golfing with bigwigs, his marching orders at all times are, Gary, be Gary.

For this, Gary, we will pay you handsomely.
The corporate get-togethers have become a gold mine for sports-marketing firms and popular golf personalities. Companies use the "outings" to build rapport with clients. McCord plays a round with the clients, then gives a dinner speech.

He's there to make folks laugh--at him, at themselves, at the maddening futility of the sport.

McCord laughs, too--all the way to the bank. He collects an average fee of $10,000 for each daylong gathering. If he's just giving a speech, his check is $5,000. He did about 20 outings in 1994, says his agent, Barry Terjesen, plus five speeches. (McCord also performed gratis at about 30 functions last year, most of them junior golf clinics and other pretournament activities.)

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