Peter Oosterhuis Was Underappreciated in the Booth and on the Course

February 18, 2015

The saddest thing about Peter Oosterhuis’s retirement was the media’s description of him as “a golf analyst” — as in one of many. Even CBS, in a Jan. 23 press release praising the tall, barrel-chested Englishman for his 20 years of concise reportage on its behalf, employed the indefinite article. Nobody mentioned that the network once had Oosterhuis penciled in as the golf analyst, the man who would replace the retiring Ken Venturi on PGA Tour telecasts and sit next to Jim Nantz at the Masters.

File it under If Only. Looking for someone edgier than Venturi, CBS gave the job to Lanny Wadkins — no match for NBC’s acerbic Johnny Miller — and then, five years later, to a suddenly loquacious Sir Nick Faldo. The uncomplaining Oosty, no longer an heir apparent, languished in the 17th-hole tower at Augusta National, where he provided, in the opinion of golf blogger and author Geoff Shackelford, “a steady presence.”

What a waste. Anyone who remembers Oosterhuis’s circa-1990 work on Golf Channel’s European tour telecasts knows he had everything you could want in a lead analyst — acuity, judgment, perspective and an ultra-dry wit, along with the credibility gained from 18 pro victories, four European tour Order of Merit titles and six Ryder Cup appearances.

Don’t forget the voice — precise, mellifluous, full of British pep and good humor. “It’s very listenable, a voice you never get tired of,” said Renton Laidlaw, the sonorous Scotsman who shared speaking duties with Oosterhuis on the Eurotour’s three-hour telecasts. Possessing the pipes and vocabulary of a Wodehouse character was a must, because the two men worked in a cramped van, watching the tournament on tiny monitors. They lacked real-time intelligence of the It’ll-break-left-at-the-end variety, so they simply conversed, uninterrupted. It gave their shows a narrative arc that U.S. golf producers, with their hordes of on-course reporters and ready-with-a-quip sidekicks, rarely achieve.

At CBS, alas, the biggest questions Oosterhuis got to answer were How’s the lie? and Can he get home in two? He was a novelist among tweeters, a symphonist with a kazoo. You’d see him in the press tent every morning, poring over interview transcripts and stat sheets, preparing diligently for his eight-second riffs. He was, and is, a warm and gregarious man. If he ever harbored the wish that the BBC’s octogenarian commentator, Peter Aliss, might suddenly lose interest and pass the microphone to him, Oosty never expressed it in public. He just smiled and waited for his cues.

It is likely, then, that Oosterhuis, 66, will leave no significant tracks on the media landscape. His legacy as a golfer is more secure — especially where the Ryder Cup is concerned. One classic tale has Lee Trevino, at the 1973 showdown, telling his teammates, “If I don’t beat Oosterhuis, I’ll kiss every ass in this room.” After halving the match, Trevino entered the U.S. locker room and found all of his teammates sitting with their pants around their ankles.

Another evergreen has a 23-year-old Oosterhuis, in his first Ryder Cup, in 1971, drawing Arnold Palmer on the last afternoon. By the 13th tee, Oosterhuis was 5 up on the seven-time major champion. It was raining, and the Americans had already won, so Palmer jokingly asked, “You just want to go in?” To which Oosterhuis replied, “Are you conceding?” Palmer, of course, was not. The wet Englishman had to take the King to the 16th green before dunking him, 3 and 2.

A match-play specialist, Oosterhuis was unbeaten in singles (6-0-1) in his first four Ryder Cups, defeating Palmer twice and Gene Littler once. (At the time two rounds of singles matches were played on the final day.) Facing Johnny Miller in ’75, Oosterhuis came back from 2 down and then made five straight 3s to win the point. Two years later, at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, he partnered with Faldo to beat Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd in foursomes. “I’m proud of what I achieved,” Oosterhuis said at the end of his playing days, “but everything has to be tempered by the fact that we lost every match.”

Well, sometimes you can’t win for losing. That’s something to keep in mind as we bid adieu to the prince of pith, the minder of McCord, the factotum of Feherty, the nattering nabob of Nandina.

Peter Oosterhuis: the golf analyst that time and CBS forgot.

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