JIM NANTZ, FRED COUPLES AND Blaine McCallister, those three wild and crazy roommates from the University of Houston golf team, are all at the Masters this week, just like they used to dream they'd be 10 years ago, when they shared the rent in Taub Hall, the golfers' dorm on the UH campus.
Obviously, there's no stopping drive, determination, and the desire to succeed. These guys arethree prime examples. Couples and McCallister can trace their roots directly back to those formative Houston years, where, under the watchful eye of venerable Coach Dave Williams, they went to work turning their games into lifetime sports. And Nantz, he can trace his roots back to those formative Houston years, too, when he shut his clubs in the trunk.
Nantz's road to Masters glory didn't move in the right direction until he came to the realization he could talk a better game than he could play.
He had a decent enough swing, and he was encouraged by Williams to enroll as a freshman and join the Houston team. That much was true. But so were a couple of dozen other guys. At Houston, the stiffest competition was always at practice. After that, playing against the rest of the country was a piece of cake.
In truth, Nantz played only one official tournament as a Houston Cougar. That was as a freshman against Wharton College of Texas.
As Nantz does the flashback play-by-play:
"I shot 35 on the front. Even par. Then I birdied 10. I was leading the tournament. I'm thinking, `Hey, this is all I needed. A chance to show them I can play.' Then I came to the 12th tee, a short par four. A one iron and a wedge and you've got a good birdie chance. I hit the iron. It was a shank. It went so far right it went behind the ball-washer, behind my fellow competitors. The ball went into a bayou. I made double bogey, then another double bogey. I finished with a 42 - 77. I never played another tournament. That disaster at the 12th tee was it for me."
Nantz continued to live in Taub Hall, and to room with McAlister and Couples, and even to play a little golf. But the next year, Williams brought in another couple of dozen young hopefuls who could "knock down flagsticks and make 20-footers with regularity," and Nantz, never one to fight against the waves, switched majors then and there.
"I started taking broadcasting classes," he recalls.
This was his real boyhood affection, anyway. Growing up in New Jersey, he spent a good deal of his waking hours either listening to sports broadcasts, or re-listening to them. He bought a cassette recorder and taped his favorite events and announcers. When there wasn't a golf tournament, or a baseball game, or a basketball or football game, on the radio or TV live, he'd tune into his own greatest hits.
When the PGA Tour came to Houston in the spring of 1979, Nantz interrupted his classwork and went out to the golf course. There, he approached the NBC-TV trailer and told the security guard he'd like to talk to Don Ohlmeyer, the director of NBC Sports.
When Ohlmeyer appeared, Nantz told him he was a sophomore at the University of Houston and he'd like to work the tournament. He said he was willing to do anything, from announcer on down.
"We don't have any openings at announcer just now," said Ohlmeyer.
But he told Nantz he could work as a runner, delivering the announcers back and forth from their locations on the course. He wouldn't get paid, but he would get the experience.
Nantz accepted the offer, and when the tournament was over on Sunday, he asked Ohlmeyer if he could do the same thing the next week at the PGA stop in Dallas for the Byron Nelson Classic. Ohlmeyer agreed, and said this time he'd put him on the payroll, at $20 a day.
It was a start, and through contacts made at those two golf tournaments, Nantz vaulted into a Houston sportscasting career that included radio reports for KTRH, the host commentator job for the Guy Lewis basketball show, and a fill-in sports anchor for KHOU, the CBS affiliate.
He had turned himself into something of a schoolboy phenom. As soon as he graduated, he was hired by KSL-TV, also a CBS affiliate, in Salt Lake City. Less than three years later he was hired by the CBS network as a staff announcer.
He has since become CBS's college basketball and football host, as well as its rising golf commentating star. In 1986 he was first assigned to the Masters, to work the 16th green. It was there that Jack Nicklaus, on the final day, sank a clutch birdie putt on his way to his most dramatic Masters championship. Nantz's understated, "The Bear has come out of hibernation," became the most quoted line of the week.
Now, this year, Nantz has been pulled from the 16th tower. As you'll note if you tune in this afternoon, he has become CBS's host, replacing Brent Musburger in that role. It will be Nantz, along with colorman Tom Weiskopf, who will interview the winner in the Butler Cabin at the end of the show.
Alas, that winner won't be McCallister, whose first Masters appearance this year came up two strokes short of missing the cut; and it probably won't be Couples, who made the cut but was well back in the pack going into today's final round.
But maybe one year these former Houston Cougars will make it into the Butler Cabin, there to be joined by their former teammate and roommate, who is living proof that you can get where you want to be, as long as you're willing to change directions when necessary.