Slip of the Lip

Slip of the Lip

I’m in a slump. We’re getting toward the end of the season and I am carrying my brain around on a stick. Everyone on the CBS crew is experiencing difficulties at this stage, even Bobby Clampett, who can no longer distinguish between Peter Kostis and myself. I find this particularly upsetting, as Kostis is a gnarly old Greek and I am a svelte young Irishman. I love Bobby dearly, but Peter and I neither look nor sound alike.

Before I go any further, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Bobby (the human laundry basket) on his incredibly cunning plan to capture the U.S. Open. Not a lot of people picked up on this, but the Reverend Bob ran his golfing machine at dead slow, at a grave risk to his own personal self. In fact, he seized up completely a couple of times, and had to be loosened with a surreptitious squirt of mineral oil in his left ear. Had the tournament been a 15-rounder, I’m pretty sure this evil ploy would have worked and put everyone, including Tiger, into a coma.

If this sounds like sour grapes, that’s because it is. Before the qualifying, I hit him in the knee with a crowbar, but wouldn’t you know, it just served to make his address position look a little more natural.

Anyhoo, we were working the Memorial and Clampett asked Kostis instead of me about Tiger’s second shot at 11. And, he asked me to read Justin Leonard’s putt on the 15th green, even though I was 500 yards away, back on the tee with Tiger. Kostis was with Justin, and did his best to impersonate me. That confused Bobby to the extent that someone had to be sent to the 15th tower with a blunt object to restart his mind. Meanwhile, Tiger marched on relentlessly toward victory, unaware that the soundtrack to his movie was being butchered by two idiots and a man who looks like a clone of Harpo Marx.

It’s just that time of the year. Having said that, mind you, earlier in the season we were at Colonial, the site of perhaps Clampett’s greatest verbal blunder a few years back: After watching a second shot hit the green and spin back violently, he blurted, “Good heavens, look at the jism on that one!”

The remark was totally innocent, indicating something of a sheltered past for the man who, due to his deeply religious beliefs, has been known as “The Reverend Jism” ever since.

Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new. Announcers have been making verbal blunders on the air for years. Sir Henry Cotton, one of the greatest players of all time, worked on the occasional telecast with Peter Alliss, and our editor in chief, Sir George Pooper, recently reminded me of a famous broadcast blunder during one such occasion. In a ladies’ event many years ago, Sir Henry and Peter were watching a helicopter flyover of a short par four on their monitor in the 18th tower, all the time thinking that the viewers were watching the same image.

“A pretty little hole,” said Peter to Sir Henry, who replied, “Yes, but I can assure you, it was a good deal tighter in my day.” Which of course would have been perfectly innocuous, had not the folks at home been treated to the sight of Marlene Floyd bending over to pick her ball out of the hole during the exchange. Oops!

Steve Melnyk once uttered at Augusta that, “the wind is rushing from the player’s rear,” and once, as an announcer, Floyd was describing the awkward stance of another LPGA star and said that she was in real trouble because, “She has a huge bush between her legs!”

One of my favorite golf broadcasters was the great Henry Longhurst, who for years worked for the BBC with Alliss, his budding young assistant. Renowned for having a morning snifter or 12 before he got on the air, Henry was an economist when it came to words, but every one he used somehow seemed to fit the occasion perfectly.

On the 72nd green of the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews, Doug Sanders had just missed his famous three-footer for the championship, when, after a perfect pause, Longhurst quietly uttered, “What a pity.” No analysis, no post mortem, just, “What a pity,” and the feeling that Henry knew all along that Nicklaus would be the champion.

Longhurst was also an extraordinary writer who was obviously in love with golf, and in the early days of televised golf, he was largely responsible for educating the great unwashed on both sides of the Atlantic in the vagaries and subtle nuances of the game. In his later years, he was prone to letting his mind wander off, back to the days of thick flagsticks, slow greens, and stories from smoky clubhouse snugs.

Often, there would be golf going on in the background as he was reminiscing, but what he had to say was always more interesting, in a decidedly Wodehousian fashion. One of my favorite tales of old Henry took place at the Sumrie Better Ball championship at Bournemouth, in the south of England, back in the 1960s. The tournament was being led by the great English duo of Neil Coles and Bernard Hunt.

After a liquid lunch, Henry needed help to climb the steps to the 18th tower and seemed unsteady as he sat down. Someone asked him if he was going to be able to get through the broadcast, to which the great man shot back indignantly, “I shall be fine, as long as I don’t have to say Hunt and Coles too often!”

Growing up in the British Isles, I was often enthralled by Longhurst, and of course, Peter Alliss, who is now himself the silver-tongued old devil. Peter is the elder statesman of British golf, and is thankfully carrying on Henry’s grand old habit of reminiscing and ruminating, because, as some of you may have noticed, the action on the screen is not always riveting.

My first foray into television was the old Johnnie Walker World Championships in Jamaica a few years ago, and naturally, I was a little nervous. The leader, Loren Roberts, hit his tee shot on the first par-three on the back nine. It landed in the water just short of the green, but miraculously bounced out just short of the putting surface.

The camera did not pick up what I had just seen, so, under orders from producer Jack Graham, I scurried over to see if I could find the explanation for this bizarre bounce. In the edge of the hazard, I found a coconut bobbing gently up and down, which upon further examination, revealed the telltale dimple pattern of Loren’s ball. Feeling like Sherlock Holmes, I gleefully hit my talkback switch to tell Jack, who told me to find a minicam by the next tee, as he was going to give me the opportunity to explain what had happened to the viewers.

As I took up my position with the coconut in front of the camera, I was enveloped by the sudden realization that this was to be my first ever live on-camera report, which caused my mangoes to shoot immediately northwards, to take up residence on either side of my Adam’s apple. There was a fruit salad stuck in my throat when they threw it to me, and by that time, all I was capable of doing was to wave the coconut in front of the camera and say, “I’m down here, holding Loren Roberts’s bruised nut!”

This prompted a Homer Simpson style, “D’oh!” from Jack Graham, who then suggested in the nicest possible way that perhaps I should elaborate, for the benefit of those viewers who had every right to believe that I had just escaped from the Montego Bay Institute for the terminally nervous. Remarkably, I managed to get hired again, although not by Jack.

Augusta, of course, is the place where everyone feels that I am most likely to put spike marks in my tongue, and earlier this year, I nearly did. Tiger had hit his tee shot from the 15th tee and obviously had spanked it, judging by the look on his face, which we had framed in a close-up on his follow through. Due to a strong draft, no one had got near the second crosswalk all day, but I was curious to see where this one was going to end up, as out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the crosswalk was thick with people.

Then, I made the classic announcers’ mistake. I took my eyes off my monitor and stared up the fairway at the ball, which was bounding down the hill toward a group of ladies who were oblivious to the incoming missile until the last moment, when, with shrieks of amusement, they jumped out of the way.

In my infinite wisdom, I assumed that we were following the ball from the flank camera, and I said, “Whoa, the ladies had to lift their skirts for that one!” This, of course, was a reference to days gone by, when a mouse might have run into the room or something and startled the fairer sex. I thought it was quite a charming comment — that is, until I turned back to my monitor, and to my horror, noticed that we were still tight on Tiger’s face!

Following a small, white object as it hurtles through the sky is a tough job even during the best of times, but in England, in the autumn, when the skies are often a dreary gray, it can be impossible. I was at home watching the World Matchplay Championship from Wentworth, just outside London, and, as always, I was hypnotized by the incomparable Peter Alliss.

A ball had been launched from the 17th tee on the famous old Burma Road course, and the cameraman, perched high above the fairway on a fire truck platform, was giving a fair impersonation of an ack-ack gunner scanning the skies for enemy Messerschmitts. Alliss, who knew in which direction the ball was heading simply by having observed the player’s body language on the follow-through, was trying to coach the hapless lensman toward the spot where the ball had come to rest, as inconspicuously as possible.

“I believe that one is probably over on the left side,” he waffled in his deliciously rich, plummy tone, as the cameraman panned slowly to his left, which of course, was Alliss’s right.

“No, I mean the golfer’s left,” said Peter a little tersely, as the cameraman pulled as wide as he could, and started to pan ever so slowly, still in exactly the opposite direction.

“Okay, to your right,” said Alliss, now clearly having given up any semblance of trying to be covert in his coaching, when the camera stopped abruptly and then started to move back at an elderly snail’s pace toward the ball. Some five seconds of silence passed and the ball had still not made it into the frame, when, in the background, an exasperated Alliss uttered the what-should-be-immortal line, “Dear God, by the time he gets there, Gauguin could’ve painted it!”

Hooray for the men and women who cover our sporting events, say I, and may we never be perfect, or pretend to be so. Just like the athletes we cover, our mistakes are often the best part of the show.

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