The Loop

The BBC's understated brilliance

July 16, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- The British Broadcasting Company's telecast comes on early each day of the British Open, and sitting up in bed at our B&B in nearby Girvan watching the beginning of the first round, I was struck once again by how good the coverage is.

The BBC doesn't do many tournaments anymore, ceding most of its work to Sky Television, but the network pulls out all the stops for the British Open, going on live for more than 10 hours a day. The telecast has some wonderful innate advantages - no commercials, a stunning links panorama as its palette, and near HD technology that shows off the distinctive British seaside colors in a riveting way. Its producers have the opportunity to linger on all sorts of beauty shots, and their slow motion replays of swings are frequent and timely.

But what made the telecast satisfying is a distinct knowingness - the right pace, the right tone, the right words.

Wayne Grady and Ken Brown are both very solid analysts with great knowledge and relaxed deliveries. Hazel  Irvine does a very good job with post round interviews. But the difference maker is Peter Alliss.

I will say it - he's the best golf commentator the game has ever had. And though he's 78 in a job he began in 1965, to my mind he's as good or even better than ever.

Alliss has tremendous knowledge. An eight-time Ryder Cupper who was a superb striker of the ball (he was undone by a dodgy putter), Alliss grew up in the game. He and his late father, Percy, who finished tied for third in the 1922 British Open, make up arguably the best father-son duo since Old Tom and Young Tom Morris.

Accordingly, Alliss speaks with the confidence and conviction of someone who knows that he knows. There are former players turned commentators who possess similar golf intelligence, most notably Johnny Miller, who is perhaps superior to Alliss in the ability to intuit what the players are feeling. But what sets Alliss apart is how he says it.

It comes down to grace. While he never attended university and is admittedly not particularly well read, Alliss is a wordsmith in the British tradition. He has produced vast portions of his more than a dozen books by dictating them to a secretary. On the air, Alliss has a special ability to describe and enhance - with insight, sensitivity and especially humor - what the camera shows. And when he turns his mellifluous tones on a subject, the results are often anecdotally memorable.

I can't remember the precise words, but once when a player I believe was Greg Norman took three in a bunker tromped out, Alliss described the mess by saying something close to "I daresay it looks as if two Shetland ponies were mating in there."

Some of his best lines are random observations or playful constructions. For example, "Very hard to tell the sex of a parrot, you know." Or, "And now to Hole 8, which is in fact the eighth hole."

And so on.

He seems to most revel in humanizing the game and its competitors, and it's why the casual golf viewer finds him so easily digestible. Alliss doesn't go for citing stats or doing swing analysis. I wouldn't mind if he did. If he has a weakness, it's that he thinks such information is inherently boring, when in fact it can be enlightening and lead to interesting ideas and thoughts.

But bottom line, Alliss understands the essential core of the game, and his impressions and intuitive musings on the best players are what I have always found so enjoyably educating.

Thursday morning he was studying the old warrior face of Tom Watson after he'd saved par on Turnberry's 14th hole to keep his superlative round going, and described a "quizzical smile, as if he has some secret knowledge." I've seen that smile on Watson for years, but never heard a better description. Like all of the best of Alliss, it gracefully went to the heart of the matter.

-- Jaime Diaz