Brian Viner: Greatness you didn't need a periscope to see

'Golf really needs to be seen... but the game's unsuitability for radio has not deterred 5 Live'
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The Independent Online

Was it the greatest Ryder Cup ever? Whatever, there were a number of ways of following it, and over its duration I experienced most of them.

Was it the greatest Ryder Cup ever? Whatever, there were a number of ways of following it, and over its duration I experienced most of them.

On Friday I was there, scurrying around The Belfry trying to find that elusive grassy knoll not already colonised by 10 couples from Gothenburg on a Ryder Cup package holiday incorporating tickets for all three days of competition, bed and full English breakfast accommodation in a city centre hotel in rooms overlooking one of Birmingham's most scenic multi-storey car parks, a mauve polo shirt and a round of golf at the Forest of Arden. Over the weekend I swung between watching Sky Sports, listening to Radio 5 Live, and watching highlights on BBC2.

Each of the above had its merits. There is no substitute for being at a golf tournament unless you actually want to watch the golf, in which case it is best to stay at home. But at home, even with a six-pack, a European Union flag and a healthy supply of cheesy nibbles, it is impossible to replicate the atmosphere on the course. Besides, there are ways and means of seeing over the heads of the multitude in front of you, notably by periscope.

I bought my first Ryder Cup periscope in 1977, at Royal Lytham and St Annes.

That was the last fixture between the USA and Great Britain and Ireland, before the rest of continental Europe was invited into the fray, and like all but three of the previous 21 Ryder Cups, it was shaded by the Americans, 12 1/ 2 points to 7 1/ 2. So from a patriotic point of view, what I saw through my periscope was not especially pretty. Nor, in truth, was there even much need for a periscope; for obvious reasons, principally the numbing predictability of them, Ryder Cups in those days did not attract half as much interest as they do now.

The event has changed beyond recognition, as have the periscopes. The 1977 version was a flimsy cardboard affair, with two artfully angled mirrors, of the kind my mother used when she applied her lipstick, wedged at the top and the bottom. It wore the logo of a tobacco company, I think Benson & Hedges, and it cost £1. I got Hubert Green to sign mine. Whatever happened to Hubert Green? It was, incidentally, just a couple of months after he had become the answer to one of the great sporting trivia questions, finishing a distant third in the two-horse race, between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, that unfolded in the Open Championship at Turnberry.

Anyway, the periscopes being flogged outside The Belfry last week cost £30, and were sleek, black jobs which looked like miniature versions of the kind you might find on nuclear submarines, but were rubbish for collecting autographs and therefore of less value, ultimately, than their 1977 counterparts. Which perhaps conceals a truth about the evolution of many things, although not of golf coverage on the radio, which gets better and better, and has almost overcome the fundamental problem that golf is an inherently lousy sport for radio.

Like tennis, golf really needs to be seen. And on the subject of tennis on the radio, just to meander away from the 34th Ryder Cup for a moment, Des Lynam, although not a man generally given to self-aggrandisement, recently told me that he did quite a bit of Wimbledon commentary way back when, and helped to invent a new style.

"Max Robertson, the doyen of radio tennis commentators, saw it as a challenge to describe every shot," Des recalled. "But if you've got two Czech players against two Japanese, by the time you've got the names out the ball has been across the net five times. You used to have no idea what was going on. So when Gerald Williams and I were asked to do it, we decided we had to follow the server. 'He serves, but he's passed.' That sort of thing.

"That way we felt the listener might have a half-decent chance of knowing what's going on."

Golf coverage, too, offers the listener only a half-decent chance of knowing what's going on. But the game's unsuitability for radio has not deterred 5 Live, who threw lots of resources at the Ryder Cup and did a splendid job, especially on Saturday when so many football score updates were required.

"McGinley over the ball now, Celtic 4 Kilmarnock 0, and, oh, he's left it just short," whispered John Murray, memorably.

The 5 Live coverage was brilliantly anchored by John Inverdale, who can be forgiven his mixed metaphor about Scott Verplank's impressive start against Lee Westwood in yesterday's singles. "Scott Verplank was out of the traps like a demon," breathed Invers. And so he was. And it carried him through to a 2&1 victory. But it was not enough to keep Europe from winning. Was this the greatest Ryder Cup ever? However or wherever you followed it, I think it was.