Golf Magazine Interview: Peter Alliss

July 1, 2011

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.

You intentionally don’t befriend players. Why?

You can’t give a fair opinion of play if you make friendships. You can find yourself siding with one player or promoting them.

Johnny Miller operates the same way.

He probably copied me.

What’s your broadcast philosophy?

I observe. I don’t recite endless facts and statistics. I don’t know or care if a certain player is 29 years, 18 days and 22 hours old, first held a club at age 3, and his mother had a butterfly collection. They go on and on. I watch a player, see the way he greets the crowd, observe the swing. I make them into characters. Golf needs characters. And I try not to state the obvious. It’s crippling when a player has a five-foot putt, leaves it short, and the announcer says, “Oh, he’s left it short.” You can see that. Don’t state the obvious.

CBS’s Jim Nantz loves going on about a player’s background. Are you referring to him with the butterfly comment?

No, I’m not talking about anyone in particular. Jim Nantz is a very good presenter — the one who says, “Hello, welcome back,” and then passes it off to other people. I mean that generally [announcers] rattle on and on as if they’re the kings of the jungle. They’re full of themselves. They like to hear the sound of their own voices.

What do you consider your finest on-air moment?

That I can remember? [Laughs] At Turnberry in 1977 Nicklaus and Tom Watson went at it like heavyweights. On the last hole, Jack made that long birdie putt. As they walked together, I said, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Then there was a women’s event, and it came out on the air that a female from Australia would send video of her swing to her coach. [A colleague] said, “But you don’t see everything on a video.” And I said, “I don’t know about that — I have some friends who have videos that show you everything.” There was a long silence, followed by laugher.

What is your weakness? What could you do better in the booth?

[Pauses] Nothing comes to mind. It sounds arrogant to say. I don’t have an answer. I have my own style, and it’s been very successful for 50 years.

There must be a comment you regret.

Probably, but I can’t think of anything.

What about calling Shigeki Maruyama a “wily oriental” during the 2002 British Open telecast? You don’t regret saying that?

I was brought up to think that “wily” meant clever and that “oriental” meant mystical. Then someone writes and says that “wily” means sneaky, but that’s not the way I intended. I meant it in a good way. I meant it as street-smart.

So you don’t regret the comment?

Not at all.

Last year at St. Andrews, the BBC apologized on your behalf after you said “unless you end up like that” while the camera showed a fan in a wheelchair.

That was all misconstrued. There was someone very obese standing there when the picture came up. I started talking, and he moved away and showed the wheel-chair. I’ve been doing charity work with handicapped children and [people in] wheelchairs for 35-40 years. I was not being derogatory to people in wheelchairs. It’s nonsense.

Do you blame these mini-controversies on a “gotcha” mentality?

Yes, that’s what people do. We live in a litigious society, with political correctness, which you started in America, and which we’ve copied here. If anyone says anything you don’t like, you go to a lawyer who takes your case, and everyone sues everyone. It makes life ridiculous.

When you look at today’s young players, how are they different than when you started?

Today, I hate to say it, there’s too much money in sports. You can be the 80th player in the world and take care of your family, and there’s no disgrace in not having won a major. You wonder how that affects a young player’s drive to be great.

What player would you like to see in the booth 10-15 years from now?

No one. I can’t think of anyone who has the combination of a good voice, a sense of humor, knowledge of the game and interest in TV. I thought Lee Trevino would be a terrific broadcaster, but he didn’t enjoy it. He didn’t like being critical. There’s no point in doing it if you can’t be honest.

You’re 80 now. What have you learned about growing older?

I try not to be old. I keep my sense of humor. I’m tolerant. And I don’t suffer fools. If someone is rude, I’ll tell them, and in forceful terms. I’ve been blessed with good health. In life, you get bouquets and you get brickbats.

Who’s tossed a brickbat at you?

I’ve never met anyone in golf I’ve detested or hated. And that’s remarkable. I see golf as being a mirror of life. People hurry to the course, and they’re shattered before they begin, because that’s how they are in life. Always rushing, always grasping. And their older opponents arrive a bit early, sit outside, smoke their pipes and marvel at the nature. They’re at peace.

Sounds like a philosophy: Stop and smell the azaleas. How many years do you have left in the booth?

I’ve had a wonderful career. I might go on another year or two — if I’m still contributing. I must be doing something right. I haven’t gotten the sack yet.