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Alliss revels in golf’s theatre

I‘ve done 41 of these shows in the last six months,” Peter Alliss told me, standing next to the backstage entrance in the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham, a few minutes before the second from- last date on his UK lecture tour to celebrate 50 years working as a commentator for the BBC. “In all that time, I’ve only had two questions about Tiger Woods. I think that’s been the biggest surprise.” Alliss, dressed in matching bright red cardigan and socks, seemed generally taken aback that the questions from crowds during his shows had been a little on the straightforward side. I wondered if he was dropping a hint to my friend Pat and me. Did he want us to be his plants? To ask him, say, about the time he used the word “bollocks” during live midday coverage of the World Matchplay Championship, perhaps, or his mid-’90s spat with Nick Faldo?

Prior to my visit to Cheltenham, a couple of friends asked if I’d met Alliss before.

“Yes,” I said, and I had to stop myself from adding “…years ago.” I suppose I feel like a lot of armchair golf fans in this sense: Alliss’s voice is so calming and familiar, you feel like you’ve not just listened to him for a long time but had one-to-one conversations with him. In truth, I met him for the first time only two years ago, during a break between two rounds at Woburn, but it didn’t feel like a first encounter. Pretty soon, he was away, talking to me about golf books, the Duke’s Course, and a friend of his who’d been sacked from the Financial Times many years ago for claiming that women weren’t as good at golf as men because their breasts got in the way: in other words, doing an only slightly less guarded version of the kind of freeform commentary you might get from him in a lull in Open action when the camera has panned across to the beach adjacent to the fairway.

Dressed in a 2004 Ryder Cup bomber jacket, he would have been easy to imagine in his own septuagenarian rap video, and it could not have been coincidence that myself and two of my playing partners that day had visions of him striding out to a Humvee in the carpark, crammed full of bling-clad groupies. We were late for our afternoon tee time, and didn’t mind a bit.

For thousands of men like us, less than half of his age, Alliss is a nonconformist hero: perhaps more of a noncomformist hero than any actual British pro has been in our lifetime. That his nonconformity comes from an establishment perspective makes it all the more special. His lecture at Cheltenham ended with a small sermon about the old-fashioned joys of a private golf club, and a tangent involving Ray Reardon and Torquay which may be the most Middle English celebrity story I will hear this decade, but before that was a riot of free-speaking anecdote, veering between the opinionated and the spicy. He talked of his friend Ken Bousfield coming back from a dalliance with a dancer and missing an important tournament (“He was slightly lacerated”) and his early experiences as a teen, getting to know a “Ladies’ Man” at his local club (“I had no idea what a Ladies’ Man was but I watched him very closely”).

Alliss sat down to deliver his anecdotes, which, combined with a naughty schoolboy twinkle in the eye that’s still evident at 80 and that cardigan, gave the evening a touch of the Ronnie Corbetts: albeit the deluxe size version. For 18 years Alliss “held the record for being the heaviest baby born in Europe” at fourteen pounds and eight ounces. “My mother didn’t ride a bicycle for 18 months after that,” he added. After the interval, he thanked the two women he overheard loitering near the stage door expressing surprise that he “wasn’t as fat” as they thought he’d be. This is a frequent observation I’ve heard about Alliss: perhaps because his commentary prepares you for more cuddliness than the physical reality.

I once spoke to a committee member at my old golf club who’d seen an after dinner speech by Alliss and remarked: “He really likes the sound of his own voice!” But why not? It’s only logical: after all, millions of other people like the sound of it, too. When Alliss is self-aggrandizing – for example, talking about playing a junior tournament at a time when he was “six foot two and beautiful” against a boy “who looked rather like Wayne Rooney” – he always tempers it with a hefty dose of self-deprecation.

Of course, the stories from his spoken word show have been honed over many years and several autobiographies, which means Alliss has worked out which of them – e.g. his dad teaching Nazis to play golf in pre-WWII Germany and “sending them away with the biggest slice you’ve ever seen” – get the biggest laughs.

This is one of two reasons why now might be the best time ever to hear Alliss talk. The other is the devil-may care freedom his age permits him. He’s been in trouble a couple of times in recent years for gaffs while commentating.

There were fears about him going a step too far while commentating on Tiger’s return at the Masters in 2010, and there is the sense that the modern BBC is a little scared of his loose-canon potential, but, were they to fire him, they’d stand to lose too much. Alliss, meanwhile, stands to lose very little. I blank out the idea of BBC golf coverage without him in the same way I tend to blank out widespread global suffering and poverty from my mind.

At Cheltenham, he got the Tiger question he’d clearly been hoping for. A crowd member wanted to know what the other pros really think about Tiger’s philandering. “Some of them are very envious,” replied Alliss. “He’s got a hundred quid in the bank and a bit of crumpet on the side.” This led Alliss on to one of his favourite topics – Seve.

“I loved Seve to distraction, but he made Tiger look like a celibate monk,” he said. “Of course, he arrived around the time the pill arrived, which helped.” It’s moments like this that have you kicking yourself that you haven’t kept a notebook over the years and noted down all the best moments of Alliss commentary.

Alliss was very candid about his first marriage, which broke up in the late ’60s, and his own youthful foibles. “My brains percolated from here,” he said, pointing to his head, “down into the nether regions.” If I told a non-golfing female friend who wasn’t aware of Alliss about quotes like that, or “Ladies fascinate me: I love them dearly but they’re very expensive” it would probably be pretty difficult to convince them he wasn’t a typical middle English clubhouse bore, but he comes across as anything but that. His reminiscing seems less that of an ageing ‘Ladies’ Man’ and more as that of someone who’s always opened himself up gladly to the world, and talked freely about his foibles. In this sense, he’s the antithesis to the really lamentable segment of the golfing establishment, with its guarded, suspicious ‘look after our own’ mentality.

A question I’d wanted to ask Alliss was: “Do you think it’s possible to be a great golfer and a great human being at the same time?” After an hour or so, though, I realised it was slightly redundant, since, in a way, with almost every story he told, Alliss was already trying to answer it. It’s clearly a conundrum that continues to fascinate him. One senses his opinion on Jack Nicklaus – “someone who got everything right” – answers it to an extent, but that he’s still not certain, still fascinated with the way a golfer battles with himself on and off the course. He did, though, over the course of 90 minutes, answer another question very much in the affirmative: that of whether it’s possible to be a great human being and a great golf commentator.

Tom Cox is the author of the golf books Nice Jumper and Bring Me The Head Of Sergio Garcia.

May 2012

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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