Augusta might not just be witnessing Tiger Woods' competitive comeback next week but also Peter Alliss's farewell from the Masters. Barbara Slater, the BBC's new director of sport, will travel to the season's first major to try to persuade the green-jackets to remain with the corporation. But one industry insider last night claimed that the BBC is "almost resigned" to losing the rights to Sky.
The current contract expires after this year's tournament and talks are already underway with British broadcasters regarding a new three-year deal to begin next year. When Augusta agreed to stick with the BBC in 2007 it is believed they did so on the understanding it would have to pay the "market rate" for the next renewal. Sky outbid its rivals on that occasion and will undoubtedly do so again as it seeks to tighten their stranglehold on professional golf. The Masters would see Sky televising the three American majors, as well as the Ryder Cup.
The suspicion the BBC has already thrown in the Masters towel will only be strengthened by the revelation that Mark Thompson, the director-general, will not be accompanying Slater to Georgia. Three years ago, when the rumours were rife of a Masters defection to Sky, Thompson flew in with Roger Mosey, the then director of sport, to hold talks. The director-general's intervention is believed to have proved the BBC's commitment. This time around, Slater will have to do the convincing herself, although a BBC spokesman last night claimed it is "very keen to continue" the long association. The BBC first screened the Masters in 1967 and after wresting it back from Channel 4 in 1986 has covered the last 24 stagings.
"Talks with the organisers have been underway for some time and Barbara Slater, BBC director of sport, will be travelling to Augusta to meet with them and hold further talks," a spokesman told The Independent.
Slater's best hope hinges on Augusta carrying on prioritising viewing figures over finance. The BBC's Masters coverage regularly commands viewing figures in excess of four million, while Sky would obviously attract a fraction of this. However, in terms of ongoing dedication to the sport, Augusta cannot be failed to be more impressed with that displayed by Rupert Murdoch's operation. While Sky's golfing monopolisation gathers pace – with the demise of Setanta, they recently regained the PGA Tour rights – the BBC's own golfing portfolio is becoming more pathetic by the year.
Five years ago, the BBC showed 30 days of live golf. This year it will drop to 16 and if the Masters goes to satellite it will fall to 12. That will include all fours days of the Women's British Open and all four days of the Open Championship – which is protected under the "crown jewels" legislation. Accusations that they have all but turned down their back on big-time golf are becoming ever more difficult to counter, particularly when their output is put alongside their tennis coverage, which currently stands at more than 30 live days. Such indifference might seem strange at a time when British golf has an unprecedented number of players in the world's elite. This is the first time since the inception of the world rankings that England will have three members of the top 10 going into the Masters. Furthermore, one of those, Paul Casey, credits the BBC's coverage as being influential in this surge.
"I was watching when I was a kid back in the 80s and early 90s," said Casey. "Faldo, Seve, Woosnam, Langer, Lyle, Monty... they got me interested in the game. That was why I loved to watch and I got to see them live in the Masters. I think if you asked these other Englishman, Brits and Europeans who have now risen in the world rankings, that's what got them hooked."
Alliss has been an Augusta mainstay in the last quarter of a century and in an interview in Golf World last month the veteran commentator conveyed his concern that this could be his Georgian goodbye. "That would be very sad," he said. Many in Britain would feel the same. The explosion of colour – of the greens, blues and pinks – which characterises the Masters has become a symbol that spring has begun as much as that the golf season has begun. But if this is to be the swansong of Alliss and the BBC, at least they should go out on a high note.
They will certainly have welcomed yesterday's news that Augusta are allowing the world to see Woods' first tee-shot in Thursday's first round. The green-jackets have lifted their infamously strict broadcasting restrictions to make it possible for this long-awaited moment to be screened live. However, that will very likely be the only televisual glimpse of Woods until the 10th. What Murdoch would make of such limitation is anyone's guess.
BBC bunkered: Shrinking coverage
Live golf on BBC in 2005
Masters, PGA, British Masters, Scottish Open, The Open, Women's British Open, World Match Play – all four days; The Walker Cup – two days.
Total: 30 days
What BBC might show next year
PGA and Scottish Open – both Saturday and Sunday; The Open and Women's British Open – both four days.
Total: 12 days
Number of Masters tournaments BBC has covered since winning coverage back from Channel 4 in 1986.