If I hadn’t seen the Open on TV, I’d never have played
It’s 1970 – or perhaps the summer after, no less blissful – and the fifth-oldest golf course on the planet is about to welcome a new boy. Montrose has already given the world Gordon Smith, will soon see another of its sons, John McGovern, lift the European Cup, and football had been very much this lad’s sport of choice. But the mashie niblick hasn’t been out of his hands for a while and, after thwacking scores of old balls into the North Sea, he’s ready for the town’s links.
Before playing he inspects the modest merchandise in the club shop. He needs something to complete his golfing ensemble – or, more accurately, start it. He open the cellophane wrapper and tells the man behind the counter: “I think I’m missing a glove – there’s only one here.” Cue much guffawing.
The boy tries to take out his embarrassment on the course. Scoring 105 (he still has the card), you’d have to say the course wins. But he loves his very first round and will regale his younger brother how he made par on the third, one of the great links holes, which requires a confident shot to a table green and is called, in that douce Montrose way, “Table”. With the story’s every re-telling the valley gets deeper, more dense and dangerous, until the plateau resembles the one in the movie version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where dinosaurs still roam.
Now, this day and its golden memory wouldn’t have happened if the BBC hadn’t put golf on the goggle box. If I hadn’t had Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and Gary Player to inspire me on free-to-air TV – there being no other kind in those days – then I would never have practised on the seafront where a dancing butterfly, thinking the ball a flower, helped me keep track of stray shots. I would never have borrowed a Tommy Armour how-to book from the local library to learn about stance, grip, etc. And I would never have played that round, thus entering golf’s weird, one-glove world.
So who is going to inspire the young with the Open transferring to Sky – and a year earlier than planned as well? The handover was supposed to be 2017, giving the BBC one more tournament, but now you’ll have to pay to watch the 145th staging at Royal Troon after the corporation asked the R&A to tear up the last year of its contract.
The temptation here is to portray Sky as a trampler of tradition. The R&A, therefore, is like one of those old dears on Antiques Roadshow, dependable guardians of the family heirloom almost fainting with money-lust. And the BBC, therefore, assumes the part it always plays so well: that of the poor, put-upon state broadcaster, powerless to stop Rupert Murdoch taking over the world. As with that junior golfer’s story of the ever-expanding hazard on the third, however, some perspective is required.
Sky does what it does. It bids for events and, at least until BT Sport came along, usually outbids everyone else. Then it coats them in a sheen with some left over for the presenters’ suits and smiles. The style is American rather than British, but so what? We seem to like a bit of that in our lives.
Sky is much younger than the Beeb and we think it brasher, but actually it’s more conservative: ties will be worn. The wacky presenters who can flourish unchecked on the big, sprawling corporation don’t exist on Sky. Jim White, bless his royal blue socks, is the only one you’d call idiosyncratic so maybe Sky is the best place for golf. Ah, but conservatism is killing the sport… Image problems, cost problems, time problems – who’s got four hours to spare for a round any more? The R&A knows it must address falling memberships and a decline in young people taking up golf, otherwise it really will have an elitist pastime, played by the very few. It promises that Sky’s money – £75 million over five years – will go straight back into the game to boost participation. But the governing body doesn’t really know for sure that its initiatives will work; all it can do is hope they will.
The R&A has to believe that the advantages of the deal – the increased funding – will outweigh the disadvantages of the deal because you can argue that cricket, boxing and rugby league don’t have as strong a hold on the nation’s consciousness since throwing in their lot with pay-TV. But golf is entitled to ask: “Did the BBC just stop loving us?”
The answer is yes. The corporation is having to deal with swingeing cuts. It must prioritise, which means stopping doing certain things. The swinging sport is being sacrificed while it desperately tries to hold on to tennis, rugby, the next couple of World Cups and three more Olympics.
Ask the Beeb of itself right now: “Who do you think you are?” As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not your auntie and certainly not your presbyterian patriarch – it’s the groovy cousin living in a reclaimed part of Salford who steps out in tight trousers alongside his friends of all nationalities. I just don’t think this guy is a golfer.
Sky will ask viewers to trust it with golf, pointing to its coverage of the Ryder Cup, although that’s a brazen competition very much in keeping with the broadcaster’s personality. The Open is different and, even if the BBC has cooled on the sport, it could always present the tournament pretty well.
To some, Peter Alliss, below left, was more of a hindrance than a help, being emblematic of golf’s fusty, fuddy-duddy image, but it seems a shame that his employers have pulled the plug without allowing him a proper sign-off.
One more contented sigh as the champ-to-be strides up the 18th, one more namecheck for the course greenkeeper, one more politically incorrect aside. Well, maybe not.
And your correspondent’s game? I don’t play any more – just don’t have the time. My golf peaked, I think, that day at Montrose, and in particular, on the third, where I wrestled a tyrannosaurus rex into submission in the light rough to secure my par. Of course if I’d been supplied with two gloves I might have managed a birdie.