The Voice of Golf has a secret to share. Peter Alliss, seasoned BBC broadcaster, settles into a familiar whisper to explain how he turned golf commentary into an art form. “One of my dear, dear friends is Terry Wogan,” he says conspiratorially, “and late at night, when we’ve had a drink or two, he always says, ‘We must never tell them’ – this is going to sound very arrogant to some – ‘we must never tell them how easy we find it.’”
Ease is what marks the 84-year-old’s delivery, a velvety chumminess that has enraptured, and sometimes infuriated, for 54 years. Like John Arlott, Bill McLaren, Murray Walker and Dan Maskell, Alliss’s turns of phrase have defined his sport. He is the last in a generation of Voices. “I’ve always found it ridiculously easy, but that’s because I’m not a statistician,” he says gingerly, as if statistics was a dirty word. “I never went out of my way to learn the art of commentary. To me it was just two friends, sitting on a hillock with one programme between them, talking about the day.”
And there have been many friends. Alliss turned professional in 1947, before first picking up a microphone for the BBC in 1961: “I played in eight Ryder Cups and ten times for England at the World Cup, and I won 21 tournaments. There are only a handful of people who have done better than that since the tour started in 1972. So I think I know what I’m talking about. “I would go up against anyone to talk, entertain and bring the public into my world of golf.” However, “his” world is coming to an end. The 2016 Open Championship will be the last to be broadcast live on the BBC before Sky Sports takes over. The Ryder Cup, PGA Championship and US Open have all gone the same way.
If Alliss is the friend sitting on a Surrey slope, then Sky Sports, with its stats and analysis, is the chief executive treating you to 18 holes in order to close a deal. Professional and brusque. “I was watching golf from Dubai a couple of weeks ago,” Allis recalls. “It is a masterpiece, one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World. Every skyscraper is different. And in the middle of the desert they have created a golfing oasis. “Not once in over four hours did the commentator say, ‘What an amazing place this is.’ You hoped the camera would pan round, lift up from the course. I would have said something daft like, ‘If you’ve got very good eyesight, you might just see Lawrence of Arabia over that hill.’ People either like it, or think I talk a lot of balls.”
Alliss doesn’t have to use Twitter to know he has his critics. There have been plenty waiting to call time on what they see as a cantankerous oldtimer whispering sweet nonsense for the benefit of his clubhouse mates. “I think they just don’t like my delivery. They either think I waffle on, or don’t know enough about the young players coming up. ‘You’re living in the past! You’re one of the old Colonel Blimp school: must wear a tie to go and have a pee in the clubhouse.’ That sort of thing. I think I’ve moved very well with the times. But there are certain standards in golf that have been there forever.”
The standards are not just sartorial. Alliss, his ire roused, takes an iron to the delicate subject of gender equality: “There’s been a hell of a row because four golf courses that hold the Open Championship didn’t have women members,” he explains. St Andrews and Royal St George’s both recently voted to admit women members for the first time, while Troon and Muirfield are reviewing their membership policy. The 2010 Equality Act challenged all courses to examine their club rules, including reserving tee times for men only.
A move with the times? Not for Alliss: “I’m told the Ladies Golf Union has lost 150,000 members since equality for women came in. Hundreds of women have left golf clubs because they’ve gone from paying half fare to full fare. It’s caused mayhem. “All of the wives of members at these clubs could have used the facilities for free. When I was at Muirfield a couple of years ago talking to a few of the lady members, I said, ‘What about this equality? You must be happy about that?’ ‘God no,’ they said. ‘We can come here and do what we like, we can play golf and don’t pay anything.’ “The equality thing is a great part of golf. Equality for women: a few people battled away to get it, they got it, and they have buggered up the game for a lot of people.”