Peter Alliss on the art of commentary, his critics – and why equality is bad for women golfers
The BBC commentator talks Sky Sports' takeover, moving with the times, retirement and the new problems faced by female players
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.”
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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.”
But some things never change: for supporters, his hushed commentary is a reminder that today’s players are a stroke away from the eras of Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, all there in the club bag of Alliss’s memory. “I’m very observant. I would have made a good detective,” he says proudly. “I collect ‘walks’. Who’s the best walker? Jack Nicklaus, the best golfer, he had funny little steps about 14 inches long. Looked like a mouse scurrying about. Others have long languid strides – Phil Mickelson looking like an old farmer coming down to the bottom meadow to see if Old Bessie’s calmed down. Bubba Watson rolling along, Padraig Harrington looking as if he’s just come off a yacht going round the world – on his own. If you want statistics, go and listen to somebody else.”
Watching golf live on TV these days, most of the time you are. BBC only has live rights to the final two days of the US Masters. Did Alliss ever think about working for Sky? “They never asked me. I was a BBC man through-and-through and they paid me well enough. I think Sky is magnificent, and if you like golf it’s amazing, but they do it differently. The presenters look different. If I went to Sky the best I could do is sit in the studio or have a pre-tournament ramble about the players.”
Alliss, Benaud, Maskell, McLaren, Walker, not to mention John Motson and Barry Davies, Peter O’Sullevan… all the commentary greats shaped their craft on the BBC. It’s little wonder then that in a multi-channel, 24-hour sports service these vocal landmarks stand out. “I very much regret that the BBC has lost the Open Championship, but I said it might do ten years ago,” Alliss says. The BBC, he admits, couldn’t compete with the reported £15 million a year Sky was willing to pay for live rights. “I don’t think there were enough people at the BBC dealing with the negotiations who cared enough,” says Alliss. “I can think of a couple of heads of sport from years ago who would have battled harder. But, having said that, when people get used to it I think the highlights will be wonderfully supported.”
His tone suggests he won’t be around to see it. Having seen the birth and now the imminent demise of live golf on the BBC, Alliss admits he has wondered how much longer he can carry on. “I have thought about leaving. I’ve got problems getting about but the brain is still sharp enough. When I don’t think it’s sharp enough, I shall say I’m off. The BBC keep saying to me, ‘Stay as long as you like.’ It’s lovely nonsense. What if I live to be 105? They’ll only keep me as long as I’m all right, and I’ll only stay as long as I’m all right.”