Peter Alliss was not everybody’s cup of tea. But he certainly was mine. Gossipy, amusing, unpretentious, interested in you and what you thought about the price of fish, he was a good man with whom to while away a delay at an airport. Alliss could talk for Britain and when he did there was rarely a dull moment.
Oh, all right then, he was right-wing, old-fashioned and politically incorrect on many subjects. But when he died on Saturday he was also a few months shy of his 90th birthday and for most years of his life (certainly his first 50) his opinions would not have been so unacceptable as they were to some in his last two decades. His view was that if he was to be hung, then it might as well be for a sheep as a lamb.
His voice had a chuckle in it, his mind was of mischievous bent, his conversation contained turns of phrase that often made you smile. For years on BBC Television he was “the Voice of Golf,” following in the footsteps of Henry Longhurst, whom he described as both his friend and mentor.
That he was a very successful professional golfer enriched and enlightened his commentaries and made him a valued member of the group gathered together by the BBC. These included Dan Maskell on tennis, Bill McLaren on rugby, David Coleman on athletics, Richie Benaud on cricket. Alliss on golf was every bit as good at his sport as they were at theirs. The Daily Telegraph once said of him: “When it comes to painting a picture with words, he’s nothing short of a Rembrandt.”
Perhaps Alliss was at his mischievous best when going off on a soliloquy about a little child in a pushchair, an old man walking slowly down the fairway, straw hat on his head, shooting stick in his hand or a small boy taking a swing with a golf club taller than he. “Go on, my son, give it a bit of wellie” are words that are almost Alliss’s alone.
Here are some others: “Oh, he’s here. Chloroform, nurse,” on hearing a spectator shout “in the hole.”
“5-5-5-4-7 it’s like the dialing code for Tierra del Fuego.”
“Not in those trousers sir. Not at this club. Try the municipal course.”
“I am the only Pisces that doesn’t like it. Water that is. Vast areas of water and I don’t get on.”
“One good thing about rain in Scotland is that most of it ends up as Scotch.”
With Alliss, his voice came first, his humour a close second. When he appeared in his one-man shows he would walk on stage, settle into a chair and look at the youngest and prettiest woman he could see in the front row and ask, with mock indignation: “You’re not looking up my trouser leg, are you?”
This would bring a titter from the audience, perhaps even a guffaw, and it would be followed by his story of how when he was born in 1931 he weighed 14 pounds 11 ounces, a European record. “My mother was only a small woman,” he would say, followed by a pause. “After my arrival in February she couldn’t get back on her bike until Christmas.”
Of course, there were those who couldn’t stand him, saying he was pompous, anti-women, a stick-in-the-mud, a dinosaur. Those in this camp should consider how many young people followed Alliss; how many young people were always in his house; how many friends of his children visited and reported back to their parents that “Peter Alliss was good fun.” Some of Alliss’s extreme views, and perhaps only some, were deliberately exaggerated.
His voice had a chuckle in it, his mind was of mischievous bent, his conversation contained turns of phrase that often made you smile.
One day in 2004, I was given a demonstration of what made Alliss so popular when I attended a book-signing he was giving in Bracknell, and people were queuing outside the doors of the bookshop long before it opened.
Similar enthusiastic scenes had been enacted in Glasgow, where tickets for an evening with Alliss sold out in record time; in Bournemouth, where all available copies of his book were bought within 15 minutes; in St Andrews, where he signed 300 copies in an hour.
“We knew he was popular but this has exceeded our expectations,” Karen Geary of Hodder & Stoughton, the book’s publisher, said. “Everyone says to him, ‘Don’t give up commentating.’ He’s a national treasure.”
In The Times the next day I wrote how Alliss divided golfers and television watchers into groups:
“One group, the smaller, is against him for being old, stereotypical and for waffling, for wearing a cardigan or for being the sort who might wear a cardigan, for his commentary on the closing stages of the 1999 Open. The other, the larger, likes the quirkiness of his commentaries, believes he has done a huge amount to promote golf and wonders who on earth can succeed him?”
The closing words of this article were as follows:
“And so it went on. An hour’s work, 150 copies sold, more recruits added to Alliss’s army of supporters to overcome those who feel that he should retire. It was another reassuring sign that Britain, famously a nation of shopkeepers, is also a nation of book buyers.”
The BBC employed Alliss for more than a half century. His first involvement was during the 1961 Open at Royal Birkdale when he was 30. By the time he was 38 he had retired from competitive golf and by 1978, when he was 47, he was the BBC’s chief golf commentator. Despite this long, mainly very happy relationship with the organisation known in Britain as “Aunty,” Alliss always spoke his mind, sometimes to the displeasure of the BBC.
Neither he nor his followers minded that he had said “bollocks” on television nor that he was confused when Phil Mickelson won the 2004 Masters, suggesting on air that Mickelson would now face a playoff with Ernie Els. “I’m more popular than ever because of saying bollocks,” Alliss said. “I’m top of the pops in a punk golf magazine and I’ve had more people comment favourably to me about that. Doesn’t bother me that I said it.”
In September 2015 the BBC relinquished its grip on the Open Championship one year early because of financial restrictions. Alliss did not hold back in his criticism. After it was announced that Sky Sports would provide live coverage of the 2016 Open at Royal Troon, Alliss told The Times he was “embarrassed” by the decision. Alliss said he accepted that the BBC’s financial restrictions made such a decision inevitable. He also attacked the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, one of golf’s governing bodies, for accepting the bigger pay cheque from Sky in return for taking golf’s oldest major championship away from free-to-air television, thus ending a 60-plus year association between the R&A and the BBC.
“I am embarrassed that an organization the size of the BBC with its worldwide reputation is in this situation but it is inevitable,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, golf is a minority sport and covering the Open doesn’t come cheap. I was once told its costs were exceeded only by the cost of a State funeral.”
It is often overlooked how good a golfer he was. Between 1954 and 1969 he won 21 professional tournaments, including three PGA Championships in Great Britain, and was twice winner of the Vardon Trophy. In September 1958, he won the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese opens in consecutive weeks. He finished in the top five at the Open on five occasions. He played in the Ryder Cup first in 1953 and then in every edition from 1957 to 1969, building a solid record of 10-15-5 for winless GB&I teams.
He regretted few things, one being that he was never a Ryder Cup captain. He thought that he had done enough. He got caught up in a row about members at courses he had designed being badly treated by the ownership. Time and again he said something on TV that had some viewers reeling in horror. After his comments on Jean van de Velde’s play on the 72nd hole of the 1999 Open at Carnoustie, and then the playoff, the Daily Mail started a campaign among its readers to say whether they thought he should be pensioned off. The campaign was never completed, largely because those who wrote in were in favour of Alliss by a considerable margin.
He was a handsome looking man, well over 6ft before his back started to crumble, with broad shoulders and a full head of hair. He was always well dressed. His swing – taught to him by Percy, his father, who also had been a Ryder Cup player – was sound and safe. He was a magnificent driver, a good iron player and, early in his career, a good putter.
In the end the yips got him as they had got Longhurst, in Alliss’s case at Augusta National. He was on the 11th green, a few feet from the hole after three strokes. “I remember taking the putter back and then it was de-de-de-de-de.” He spat the words out. “I might have hit it five times. I have no idea. A strange feeling comes across you at times like that. It’s just as if the whole of your body has turned to liquid.”
Alliss and Gene Littler, his playing partner, settled on a 12 as Alliss’s score for that hole. “I knew then what Henry Longhurst had meant about the yips when he said, ‘You can’t describe them until you’ve had them.’”
Alliss commemorated his putting in the number plate of his car: PUT 3.
That was typical of him, a man who was very comfortable in his own skin, and generally said what he thought. In his first autobiography he wrote of his second wife, Jackie: “We met in 1965 … and it was more than three years before we made love.” Alliss, a witty man, was not afraid to make fun of his own weaknesses nor did he have a false sense of his own importance. He loved the fact that a variety of potato – solanum tuberosum rex petrus – was known as King Peter after him. His humour brought a great deal of pleasure to watchers of golf on television.