Peter Alliss knew golf’s passion and pain. In the various quirks, idiosyncrasies and outright absurdities of this endlessly interesting, confounding and enjoyable old game, he also respected and delighted.
He said of a television career marked by amiable chatter and genial banter, “I just sauntered along, loving the game of golf and being a careful observer,”
Alliss, who passed away at the age of 89, was guilty of a gaffe or two, too. He was, however, a product of his time. And he did not apologize for that, even though the severely offended had asked for it.
Close your eyes and think of the lengthening shadows at the Open, Augusta’s azaleas, or the russet, Wentworth’s autumn colors, and the voice and mellifluous tone of Alliss may accompany you on that peaceful, reflective meander.
Golf was brought to life by Alliss. But he also added golf to daily life.
A TV camera showing an elderly female spectator sitting behind the ropes, grappling with a thermos as her husband looks happily at a hot drink and maybe a Bakewell apple, could shift the senses of Alliss more than the club Duffy Waldorf uses as he plumbs a challenging approach to 14.
Alliss’ enthusiastic penchant for off-piste excursions brought colour, charisma and “cor blimey, O’Reilly” to golf matters in a game where balls often wander from the straight and narrow paths.
His playfully whimsical gestures were generally as reassuring as a padded cardigan and a bag of Werther’s Originals, whether it was an offhand joke or an impromptu verbal flight of fancy.
His sense of banter came with the twinkling of a mischievous raconteur in his eye, while in the background, his trusty right-hand man, the late Alex Hay, chortled away.
“I haven’t seen a grip like that since they closed the toilets at King’s Cross station,” he said at one point, with a comment more reminiscent of Sid James than of Henry Longhurst. Alliss was as pleased as he was to give observations to make asides.
Alliss was never one to overwhelm the audience with statistics or sophisticated analysis, but this dumb game can easily conjure up a voice of reassuring purpose and experience amidst the many moments of confusion.
As John Cleese noted last night on social media, “The most reasonable and reassuring voice I have ever heard. I always thought I could handle the end of the world if only Peter would comment on it.”
Alliss said the disintegrating French farce was “more Jacques Tati than Jack Nicklaus.” when Jean van de Velde’s golf world collapsed around him on the last hole of the 1999 Open at Carnoustie.
A talented player from a golf-loving family, through experience, Alliss had authority. His style and old-fashioned unorthodoxy made others uncomfortable as the years passed.
Yet he was a treasure of national origin.
He turned down a bid, in his own inimitable style, to grant him an OBE in 2002.
“You have to remember the generation I come from,” he told the Daily Mail many years ago. Those who had OBEs who had not served in the war were considered “Those who got OBEs who hadn’t served in the war were considered ‘for the efforts of others.’ I didn’t feel worthy of that.” I didn’t feel worthy of that.
It was a big blow to Alliss when the BBC relinquished live broadcast rights to the Open in 2016 after 60 years.
The lack of coverage of the Masters that year meant that in 2020 the Beeb had no live golf at all. It is sighing poetry that, in that unfortunate year, the BBC also lost its beloved golf speech.