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Golf Magazine Interview: Peter Alliss

Peter Alliss
Steve Read
SITTING PRETTY: Alliss outside his home in Surrey, England, an hour south of London.

They don't make golf announcers today like 80-year-old Peter Alliss, the droll Englishman who balances a biting wit with a keen eye and bold confidence. Fifty years after he launched his broadcasting career, the BBC's "Voice of Golf" is still going strong — and he's not afraid to tell you so

When Peter Alliss was 14 and attending a private boarding school in the south of England, he received a stern warning on his report card. "Peter has a good brain when he decides to use it," Mrs. Weymouth wrote. "He seems more interested in golf and flirting with girls, neither of which will bring him any success. I fear for his future." She needn't have worried. Alliss became a successful player (21 wins, with eight Ryder Cup appearances) and a broadcasting icon with the BBC (he's known as the "Voice of Golf"). You can hear his dry, wry observations during ESPN's coverage of the British Open in this, the 50th anniversary of his broadcast debut. "I have a lot of opinions," Alliss said, then proceeded to share them. Ready for the unvarnished truth? Hit it, Alliss!

The Open Championship is your favorite major, but it ranks third in the hearts of U.S. fans, behind the Masters and the U.S. Open. What are we Americans missing?
It's a fuddy-duddy event to some, but there's real magic. I don't usually go on about, "This was how golf was intended," but the Open Championship forces you to put up with the vagaries of weather and humpy-bumpy land next to the sea. And you must play a variety of shots. These robots who play golf through the air, and who know down to the inch how far their gap wedge goes — well, guess what? Links golf cuts through that bulls--t. They moan and groan because they have to take to the ground for some shots, because those shots aren't in their vocabulary. There's no other major like it. Look at the courses. Our fairways are sparse, brown. American courses are manicured to look like a haircut at West Point.

Who's the favorite heading into this year's Open?
It was easier to say that two years ago. Tiger Woods was the odds-on favorite in every event. He was Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians. He beat everybody out of sight. Now you've got 16-20 players who could win at Royal St. George's. It's a quirky course, and it's not many players' favorite. So much depends on the weather.

What do you make of Tiger's latest swing changes?
I don't know why he's looking for a new swing. He got a divorce and decided to change his swing? His swing had nothing to do with his fornication. It would have been like Pavarotti waking up and saying, "I'm tired of being a tenor. I want to be a baritone." How can you change a swing you've had since you were 16, 17? He says, "I'm trying to get back on track." Why did he ever get off track? It's bloody ridiculous. Mind-boggling. I would love to get through to his brain box.

What would you tell Tiger?
I'd have a coffee with him and say, "Forget everything you've thought about over the last three, four years, don't grip it so tight, and take it straight back and through." All that's wrong with Tiger is overcomplicating his swing with too many thoughts.

Do you think he'll surpass Jack Nicklaus, who has 18 major wins?
No. I never thought he would. I've always said that you have to take health and acts of God into account. Look at his knee. Look at the extramarital affairs. His confidence appears to have eroded in a sport where confidence is everything. It wouldn't surprise me if he starts winning again, but the aura is gone. It's possible he wins one or two [more majors], but I don't think he catches Jack. I've watched Tiger since he was 15. He's changed. He used to be nicer. By the time he got to 24, 25 years old, he was famous, famous, famous. Unprecedented publicity. The smile disappeared. He was in a bubble. He was being carried around on a wooden frame like he was Cleopatra. He became grumpy. He gave nothing to the public and hasn't done anything to recapture their affection.

Let's talk about your younger days. You left school at 14. Do you wish you had a more formal education?
No, it's worked out well for me. I was never going to be a doctor or lawyer or architect. My father [Percy] was a famous player, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. It's worked out very well.

You won 21 events in your career, with five top 10s in the Open. What was the highlight of your playing career?
My Ryder Cup matches were very satisfactory. I played well against the greatest players of the time: Palmer, Casper, Venturi. And in 1958 I won the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese championships in successive weeks, by 10, 10 and six strokes. It was an amazing stretch. I thought it would always be like that. But the magic was gone.

You could have used some of that magic in your British Open career.
My biggest regret is that the Alliss family deserved to win an Open Championship. It would have been nice. Father finished in the top 10 several times, and so did I. I got to within three or four shots of the winner, but it wasn't to be.

Did you have the talent to win?
Oh, yes. It just never happened. So when you look at young Rory McIlroy after the Masters, and they all say, "He has plenty of time — he'll win majors." Well, not necessarily, because that's what they said to me. That opportunity may never come again. You never know.

You played in several Ryder Cups against Jack and Arnie. What do you remember about them?
When Palmer came along, he was something new — a blue-collar golfer who played with a crash-bang-wallop excitement. He did things nobody had ever seen. He smoked. He took a crack at the ball. And he thought he was going to hole out every time.

And Nicklaus?
Arnie had adoration. Jack had admiration. But he didn't need the love. Jack was so...inevitable. Playing him was like being crushed by a tank. You've got a little scooter, and he's in a tank. He had the best golfing brain of modern times. I never saw him throw a tournament away.

You began your TV career in 1961 and eventually teamed up with BBC golf broadcasting legend Henry Longhurst. Did you two get along at first?
Henry was wary of new people. He thought they were after his job. I was about the age of his son and his son-in-law. They were both killed in tragic circumstances — his son died in a car smashup. Henry was drawn to me and I to him. I was the cheeky chap who went where angels feared to tread, and he was Longhurst the Great.

You had a drink or two during broadcasts, right?
Yes, we liked to lubricate the tonsils with a bit of Bollinger [champagne], but only in a medicinal way. With a dry biscuit, it's absolutely lovely.

Did that cause any on-air gaffes?
Henry liked to say that the only thing he was worried about was confusing things when [Bernard] Hunt and [Neil] Coles were playing. [Laughs]

What did Longhurst teach you about broadcasting?
Let the golf tell the story. There's a story about someone making a big putt — it might have been Nicklaus at the Masters — and Henry said nothing for five seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds. [CBS golf producer Frank] Chirkinian is waiting for him to talk. "Henry? Henry?" Finally, Henry simply says, "Well, well, well..." And that was it! Perfect. Unless you can add something, say nothing.

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