Mark Townsend looks back on a very special chat with the voice of golf Peter Alliss
Meeting Peter Alliss – “One Of The Greatest Thrills Of My Life”
Ten years ago Peter Alliss was the face, and voice, at the launch of a new membership scheme. For these types of occasions the PR company would generally do well to get half a dozen interested parties for a 15-minute one-to-one with the star turn but, for Alliss, it was standing room only as the national and local press gathered.
Even for one of the most familiar voices in all our lives we were all here to hear a little more.
Given the demand there was the option of playing a few holes to fill some time while Alliss would sit down and entertain everyone individually.
My slot was the final one of the day, six hours after he had got going and I settled myself in for what I expected to be five, maybe 10 minutes at best or, as likely, a gentle let-down and the promise of some emailed responses.
Over half an hour later we chinked glasses and I left fairly overwhelmed by both this 79-year-old’s stamina to simultaneously talk, remember intricate dates and facts and also put away white wine.
The man who had provided the soundtrack to much of my adolescence, and who reminded me so much of my late dad, had just given me one of the greatest thrills of my life.
I enjoyed it so much I wrote to thank him and to try and clumsily get across how much of an influence he had been in mine and so many other people’s lives and, a few days later, I received a note back to say thank you.
It is barely imaginable to think that anyone could fit 31 tournament wins, eight Ryder Cups and 24 Open Championship starts, before commentating on well over 200 majors and designing over 50 courses, but Alliss somehow managed it.
In between all that he brought a galaxy of film stars, actors, musicians and sporting heroes into our living rooms, to play alongside the very best golfers on the planet, through Pro Celebrity Golf and Around with Alliss for over 180 episodes. He’d soften any egos, quietly hand out a few shots and away we’d go for the highlight of the TV week.
Around With Alliss gave those of us who had missed his playing days the chance to enjoy his classical swing, perfect grip and gentle critique of the action – ‘not your Sunday best, sir, but you’re there for nothing’ as Val Doonican sclaffed one off the tee.
Some people just look like they’ve had a club in their hands since being a toddler which, in Alliss’ case, he had. There would always be little mentions of having ‘missed one this length in 1964’ over any short putts but, for now, they always seemed to drop. The beauty of television…
The reality from his playing days was quite different, as he explained in his Desert Island Discs in 1987.
“I was playing at Augusta in 1966 and I was playing with a great chum of mine, Gene Littler. I had done a 71 in my first round and I was out in 35, I parred the difficult 10th and was beside the 11th in two. I chipped it up to eight feet and got over this putt, it’s a very fast green, and the ball had suddenly gone 12 feet past and I don’t sort of remember drawing the thing back.
“Then something else happened and I found myself four feet short. I was beginning to sweat a bit now, then I hit the ball like a machine gun – buh buh buh buh – and I stubbed the ground and the putter kept catching the ball on the up and I ended up 15 feet past again.
“Gene Littler looked up and said ‘what the hell are you doing?’ And I said ‘I don’t know’. I finished with an 86 and that was the first time it ever happened that I had no control, the mind just disappeared and it’s been on my mind ever since.”
His putting would also let him down when he came up four shots shy of Peter Thomson at Birkdale in 1954, one of five Open top 10s, and it was during our chat that the mention of his dad, Percy, left Alliss looking quite wistful.
“Looking back I played well at Birkdale in 1954 but putted like a bloody fool. We got round in two-and-a-half hours then. You went up and you putted straightaway and you missed, now they are more meticulous.
“I had a couple of good runs at Lytham and finished with a 66 the year Tony Jacklin won. Maybe on romance the Alliss family deserved an Open, the old man had opportunities but it never quite happened.”
The theme of our chat was the Open Championship and all its encompassing magic. His favourite venue was Lytham, not for the bunkering or brutal finish but for the fun and normality of the whole place.
“It’s cottage industry, it’s all there. I like the big old clubhouse, you can watch old Fred putting out and you can play little permutations of holes, and have a nice Sunday lunch. It’s all old-fashioned and yet the members are young, they’re old but they’re young, they’re cheeky. They’re almost members from another world, doctors and lawyers but not stuffy, quite rakish. You’d think they might throw a bread roll. I love it.”
One of his favourite memories was, again, something quirky rather than the norm. To set the scene the great Bobby Locke had joined him on a patch of rough ground to the right of the 1st fairway at the Old Course to hit a few balls ahead of his opening round in 1957.
“He had about eight balls and he sent his caddy, Bill Golder, who was about 65 then, down on to the beach. We spent the next five minutes chatting about this exhibition match and that exhibition match before I said ‘Well, I must be off’.
“He asked what the time was, I told him it was twenty to and he replied ‘Oh God, I must be off.’ He never hit a ball, he waved to his caddy and he was off. It is bizarre to think these days that there are rows of Titleists and there’s his caddie, who has clambered down across the beach, and he never hit a ball. He went to the 1st tee and went on to win the championship by three shots.”
We would also finish at St Andrews, the stage of so much of his commentary work, with, in time-honoured golfing fashion, his perfect fourball. Six and a half hours in to a day of interviews his memory and that lovely, silky voice went into gear for the last time.
“Locke would be in there, Peter Thomson would be another. I always have great fun with him and my father. You are very restricted with four – I would have loved to have had a game with Walter Hagen, I met him when he was an old man. Also Bobby Jones, I caddied for my father in 1946 when he was playing with Jones at Parkstone. Then there’s Tony Lema, who won at St Andrews, I caddied for him in half a dozen matches and (whispering) I got £100 a time you know.”
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