Peter Alliss was one of the pioneer broadcasters who learned their trade as they went along and, as most of them put it, “by the seat of their pants”. That was in the primeval days around the middle of the 20th century when fuzzy monochrome pictures of live sport were the province of the BBC outside broadcast department. But while Alliss, who has died aged 89, qualifies for membership of such an ancient company, he could equally be celebrated as the trailblazing first of a brand new breed.
For unlike the peer group he joined at the television microphone in the early 1960s – which included David Coleman, Harry Carpenter, Bill McLaren, Eddie Waring and the two Peters, West and O’Sullevan, who had all come to the BBC from print journalism – Alliss took to the commentary box after a career as a sportsman. One of the world’s best professional golfers, in a 21-year span he won more than 20 tournaments, half a dozen national championships, and appeared in 10 World Cups and eight Ryder Cups. When he stopped playing the game he went on to describe it – and so helped to effect the now established idea of a former player working in the commentary box.
The first professional tournament Alliss qualified for, at 17, was the Spalding at St Andrews in 1948. In the clubhouse, a member first cheered him up by remarking, “Laddie, you putt just like your famous daddy,” before immediately deflating him by reconsidering: “No, on second thoughts, you putt even worse than he does.” Alliss’s last was in 1969, the Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale, where he lost his singles match by 2&1 to Lee Trevino after missing a string of putts from five foot or less.
He knew then that it was time to swap one stage for another, not only because he had already put in an impressive part-time broadcasting apprenticeship, but also because he knew his putting was beyond redemption. Although he was standing tall and hitting long and true off tee and fairway, on the greens his once delicate pokerwork with the putter was by now in tatters. Simply, he had “the yips”, the nervous twitch at putting which has affected generations of golfers from the club hacker to such giants as Ben Hogan and Harry Vardon.
Alliss had no such nervous tribulations in the commentary box; in 2011, at Royal St George’s, he celebrated a half century at the microphone, and did his last commentary only a few days ago, at the US Masters. At the Open Championship at Birkdale in 1961 he had been asked on spec “to come up to the box and describe how the course was playing” at the end of his round, by a prescient BBC producer, Alan Mouncer, who paid him six guineas for the debut.
Through the rest of that decade Alliss combined his serious golf with film work, presenting Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf travelogues and conducting interviews with golf-loving celebrities over a game, a format that later became the popular BBC long-runner Around With Alliss, which lasted from 1979 until 1986.
Alliss was born to golf – among the pine forests at Wannsee, Germany, on the outskirts of Berlin, where his Yorkshire-born father, Percy, three times a British Ryder Cupper, was the professional at the fashionable Golf-und-Land club. In the mid-1930s Peter’s father and mother (Dorothy, nee Rust) returned to Britain, where Percy became the professional at the Ferndown club in Dorset and Peter attended schools in Wimborne and Bournemouth.
After national service, in 1952 he won the assistants’ matchplay prize (£200) at Hartsbourne which, the following summer, qualified him for the Open at Carnoustie where, to general excitement, the youngster finished a spectacular ninth behind the great Hogan, and in the Manchester Guardian Pat Ward-Thomas proclaimed that “22-year-old P Alliss shows he has the ability to do justice to his strength”.
The performance swept him into Henry Cotton’s 1953 Ryder Cup team against the USA, where on the final singles afternoon against the experienced Jim Turnesa, the Dorset rookie twitchingly muffed two stone-dead putts on the final hole to surrender the game and, in effect, the whole match. Even six decades later, Alliss could readily be cued up to curse himself for “my ridiculous, childish, unbelievably delinquent passage on the greens that day”.
But his career was also studded with some outstanding, sometimes spectacular golf. In one utterly memorable passage in 1958, for instance, he won the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Opens in successive weeks, trousering (a good Alliss word) a total of £1,154 in prize money, a fortune for a young man then.
He always relished talking of those days, and over a drink at the finish of a long day “up the TV tower”, you could jog Peter’s memory into a reverie of, say, just a single richly satisfying stroke of so many aeons ago – “… oh golly, like the fairway wood I hit to the last at Birkdale when Christy O’Connor and I beat Arnold Palmer and Dave Marr in the Ryder Cup of 1965 – I hit it with all my power, all my control, all my calculation, and I needed to … and it came off perfectly, the ball doing exactly as I’d told it and finishing just 10ft from the hole … sheer magic or what?”
Alliss, who wrote a number of golfing books, of memoir, history and humour, did love a good chortling chunter, and such clubhouse ruminations were to define his broadcasting appeal and skill. After his early career as a youthful, enthusiastic sidekick to the founder of modern golf commentary, the purply-faced patrician Henry Longhurst – “my guide, teacher and greatest friend in golf”, said Alliss – he would in his turn assume Longhurst’s place in the broadcasting pantheon. In both of them there was something of PG Wodehouse’s “oldest member”, that is the amiably burbling, dogmatic true-blue reactionary ancient waffling on about the great game from a bar-stool in the clubhouse.
In fact, Alliss would say, he learned his style not so much from his hero Longhurst, but from Southern Television’s sagely ruminating old countryman-presenter Jack Hargreaves. Such ripe romance did not satisfy Alliss’s critics – and there were quite a few of them – who later bridled at the BBC’s continued employment of him into his 80s.
Leading the charge after Peter’s 50th jubilee Open in 2011 was the columnist AA Gill in the Sunday Times: “Alliss is by far … the worst sportscaster I have ever come across and that’s a crowded field,” he said. “He just meanders off on some embarrassing private stream of consciousness about sunsets and ooh girls these days and that’s just the sort of game it is and the old ways weren’t all bad you know … It was like listening to a Toby jug having a stroke. Alliss must be able to clear a clubhouse bar over a single gin and tonic.”
Alliss, who courted controversy on a number of matters, including opposing the opening up of Muirfield golf club to female members, doubtless harrumphed with dismissive scorn at Gill’s assessment. In any case, he continued turning in the performances that were so highly valued by another audience for their singular style and originality. In the same week as Gill’s admonishment, for instance, the Oldie’s vintage columnist Diarmaid Ó Muirithe wrote: “Alliss’s description of a hard, low shot out of a wet rough was memorable, and typical of the man’s way with words. The ball came out ‘quail high’, he said. An old fowler like me really appreciates such a perfect description.”
Alliss gave a typically entertaining speech when inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame in 2012, in which he claimed: “I’ve done very little in my life, just waffled a lot. Loving the game of golf, and being observant, things have always just come my way.”
To the end, he could be outrageously and sharply pointed but also poetically, tellingly simple at the microphone, like this sotto running-commentary advice at Sandwich in 2011 as the young Irishman Rory McIlroy came into view down the fairway: “Just keep playing nicely, gently, m’boy … keep finding the fairways, keep finding the greens … You can’t force this game … some people think you can … some players think they can … but you can’t … Golf is all about patience … Good old-fashioned word ‘patience’ … ask kids today about ‘patience’ and they pull out their iPhones, whatever they are, and say it don’t say anything here about ‘patience’ but I can tell you the population of Madagascar … ”
Ah, great stuff – and, in his own special way, a great man.
Alliss is survived by his second wife, Jackie (nee Grey), whom he married in 1969, and with whom he had two sons, Simon and Henry, and two daughters, Sara and Victoria. He had a son, Gary, and a daughter, Carol, from his first marriage, to Joan (nee McGuinness), which ended in divorce.