Thursday 21 November 2019

Onus on Sky to avoid taking bite-sized chunk out of a very British tradition

BBC Golf commentator Peter Alliss
BBC Golf commentator Peter Alliss

Dermot Gilleece

At a time when Angela Rippon was the queen bee of her craft, she was asked by Terry Wogan on his BBC television show how you could tell if somebody was a good newsreader. Her disarmingly simple reply was: "When you hear someone reading the news badly."

I thought of Ms Rippon on hearing that the BBC had opted out of its Open Championship television contract a year early. So, instead of next year's staging at Royal Troon being the Beeb's swansong, it will become the launch-pad of Sky's Open coverage. In the process, a treasured form of golf commentary, characterised by gentle observation and charming anecdotes, is gone forever. In its place, Sky offers a confusing mix.

David Livingstone is a polished host; Wayne Riley does informative work on-course; Tim Barter is an excellent scoring analyst and Paul McGinley's periodic contributions are invariably enlightening. On the downside, lead commentator Ewan Murray lacks the depth of personality to make him a welcome guest in one's living room. Then there's the smart-assed prattling from certain one-time tournament professionals, frequently butchering the English language.

We could hardly have a greater contrast with the keen appreciation of language from Peter Alliss, sometimes with a mischievous edge to his offerings. And to forestall accusations of intellectual snobbery here, let it be noted that his formal education ended at the tender age of 14 when he left the private Crosby House School near Bournemouth with 11 passes in the then equivalent of O-levels.

In her report, his headmistress said of him: "Peter has a good brain when he decides to use it. He seems more interested in golf and flirting with girls, neither of which will bring him any success. I fear for his future." She need not have worried.

Following a successful tournament career during which he developed a competitive closeness to Christy O'Connor Snr, he became the voice of golf for the BBC, following in the footsteps of Henry Longhurst. And if the Beeb had made it possible, there was a good chance that Ken Brown would have extended a great tradition, ably assisted by Maureen Madill.

Colleagues marvelled at the way Longhurst, full of gin, could climb up the ladder to the BBC commentary box and entrance his audience. "I think it's obviously possible to walk that very fine line and drink to the point where you become a little more creative, as Longhurst did," David Feherty once told me. "He was probably at his best when he was more than a little on the Anheuser side of Busch, as they say here in the US."

Some weeks before he died on July 21, 1978, Longhurst wrote: "Now it is time to lay down my pen and, alas, the microphone too, and to reflect in whatever time may be left, how uncommonly lucky I have been. And if I have managed to give a little pleasure on the way, well, what a happy thought that is too."

From my limited knowledge of his commentaries, it is probably safe to single out one particular observation of his from all others. That was the occasion when Doug Sanders missed a 30-inch putt on the 72nd green at St Andrews which would have given him the 1970 Open Championship. "Oh dear!" intoned the soft baritone. "There but for the grace of God . . . " It hardly bears thinking how the current Sky crew, with the notable exception of Bruce Critchley, would have treated that situation.

One suspects the Beeb's gently-paced golf commentaries were greatly influenced by its treatment of cricket. But things are very different in the US where it is assumed the viewer is just your average sports fan with a limited attention span, rather than a devoted follower of golf. So, pandering sound-bites become inevitable.

There is also a requirement from the US networks that the chief analyst be a Major winner, as pioneered by CBS with Ken Venturi, whom I met during Rory McIlroy's victory march in the 2011 US Open at Congressional. Venturi was only 37 when he turned to the microphone after hand problems effectively ended his playing career. "Here's a good closing line for you," he said cheerily. "Fate has a way of bending the twig and fashioning a man to his better instincts."

Which leads me to the great Jack Whitaker and a chat we had in New Zealand in 1998. He's the one who lost his job covering the US Masters for CBS after referring to the "patrons" as a mob, when they rushed the 18th to see the play-off triumph by Jack Nicklaus in 1966. Interestingly, he got a reprieve six years later when called in to replace Longhurst, who was ill.

Regarding his relationship with players, Whitaker recounted a story from the 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach, regarding an interview with Nicklaus, tied for the lead after 72 holes with Tom Watson, who was at that moment, walking to his ball on the short 17th (71st).

"When Watson hit it in the heavy rough at 17, it looked as if Nicklaus was certain of at least a tie," said Whitaker. "From the tower, we watched as Watson sank that famous chip on 17 and Jack just sagged beside me. Finally he said, 'That's the second time the sonofabitch has done that to me.' Which, of course, was a reference to the 1977 British Open at Turnberry.

"I was amazed at the way he carried it off. There was no way of knowing how much it hurt him to see the record fifth US Open torn from his grasp. Shortly afterwards he was congratulating Tom and being his usual, charming self."

Sky secured the Open by paying the R and A a reported £15m per year, £5m more than the BBC who will air a two-hour highlights programme instead. Alliss, who was told of the decision a month ago, told the Times: "I'm embarrassed that an organisation the size of the BBC with its worldwide reputation is in this situation, but it is inevitable. Golf is a minority sport and covering The Open doesn't come cheap."

Indeed. The only hope is that all-conquering Sky will come to appreciate that a great broadcasting tradition is part of the golfing jewel it has acquired.

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