Why Ryder Cup golf is sports commentary's greatest challenge
BBC Radio 5 Live's commentator Alistair Bruce-Ball reveals what it takes to cover golf's greatest rivalry – and why it's best to take cover when a tee shot goes awry
The Ryder Cup reaches its climax this weekend, and while some will experience the grandeur of Gleneagles live on TV, the rest of us rely on a select band of radio commentators to be our eyes and ears. So it’s good to know they have the best vantage point.
“It feels almost like voyeurism,” says Alistair Bruce-Ball of Radio 5 Live. “You’re close enough to take a club out of their bag if you wanted, or tap a player on the shoulder.”
If the lofty view from a football stadium gantry is that of a general surveying his troops, then golf is the guerrilla warfare of commentary: quick marching through deep rough; lying prone just yards from the green; reporting back in furtive whispers before the putt goes in.
“If we were outside the ropes or in the grandstand, we wouldn’t get anything like the crackling tension we experience from our privileged view,” says Bruce-Ball.
No other sport gets its commentators so close. It’s the equivalent of perching on the crossbar while Wayne Rooney unleashes a shot – and, occasionally, just as dangerous.
Bruce-Ball discovered this during the Open Championship at Muirfield in 2013. He was watching the American Brandt Snedeker when a tee shot went awry. “We always record the par threes just in case there’s a hole in one, so I was just starting some off-air commentary: ‘Snedeker, six iron, 170 yards to the flag’. You then hear this clonk through the microphone. The ball had hit me full on the head! Fortunately it struck my headphones; if it had been my skull it could have been more dramatic radio.
“I was pleased from a professional point of view that I didn’t swear,” he continues. “All you hear is this incredibly polite, ‘Gosh’. I was fine, and the ball flew so far off my headphones that Snedeker didn’t realise what had happened.
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“We’ve seen some bad ones, people getting clonked on the head and blood spurting everywhere. Ernie Els did it at this year’s Open, and he had a shocking front nine afterwards. I think he was so taken aback by the damage he’d done to this chap, he didn’t recover.”
Errant tee shots aren’t the only hazards facing golf commentators. For Bruce-Ball, there’s also the sand trap of repetition: “Many years ago I walked a course with Tony Adamson, the BBC’s former golf correspondent. He had scribbled down 30 to 40 different words for how a ball might roll towards the hole.
“A lot of what we do is describing putts, and there are so many ways to describe how a ball is travelling across a green: the speeds, bobbles, bumps and curves. Tony was ticking off the words he was going to use during commentary: it was a brilliant lesson to learn.”
If there’s one thing that sets golf commentaries apart, it’s the “golfing whisper”. Some of the most dramatic moments will be reported in barely a murmur, but the change of tone isn’t just to increase the tension. On Sunday, reporters will be less than 10 yards from the pin; woe betide them if they put off a player during a crucial putt.
“Because we have headphones on, we don’t always realise how loud we’re talking,” says Bruce-Ball. “I remember one instance with Darren Clarke – not a man to cross at the best of times – when I put him off at the green. He didn’t say anything, he just gave me a cold stare. I wanted the ground to swallow me up.”
After sharing three days of excruciating match play with the best players in the world, when the moment of triumph or despair does come, the microphones will be there.
“The fabulous comeback by Europe at the 2012 Ryder Cup in Medinah, Illinois, was one of the greatest days of sport I’ve ever witnessed,” recalls Bruce-Ball. “I was on the 18th green and Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose were all in a huddle, bouncing up and down.
“Part of me thought this was their moment, but then I saw all the TV cameras and thought, ‘Let’s get stuck in.’ I ended up the piggy in the middle, a microphone thrust into the circle capturing their singing. I can’t think of another sport where that would happen.”