The Brian Viner Interview: Peter Alliss - Augusta's no wonderland to Alliss

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The Independent Online
THE 1967 US MASTERS does not leap out of the history books. Jack Nicklaus missed the cut, which was a bit of a shocker. The winner was Gay Brewer, who had lost a play-off to Nicklaus the year before. Otherwise there is not much to remember, yet Peter Alliss recalls the 1967 Masters with unfortunate clarity, for he left Augusta that April with the dreaded yips, the putting equivalent of Dutch Elm Disease which would eventually curtail his distinguished playing career.

"I did a 71 or 72 in the first round," he recalls. "In the second round I got to the turn in 36, had a four at the 10th and was on the edge of the 11th green in two. I putted up to about five feet short and then, that's where my bad putting started. Suddenly I was 20 feet past. Boom, boom, boom, boom. The ball just seemed to stay on the putter. I was playing with Gene Littler, and he said `What the hell are you doing?' I said, `I'm buggered if I know.' He said `What should I put down?' I said I had no idea. I think he put down a nine, but I'm sure it was more. It could have been 11 from the edge of the green. And that was that. It was the first time I'd ever really had the yips and it wasn't a good place to have them."

Alliss had played once before in the Masters, in 1965. "But I had turned down eight invitations before that. A dear friend of mine, Norman Sutton, who died last week at the age of 91, and was a footballer with Tranmere Rovers before taking up golf and becoming the pro at Exeter Golf Club, was invited 11 times and never went. Now, when you say you've had invitations and not bothered to go, people look at you as if you have four heads.

"But it was a monstrously long journey with a guarantee of $400 at a time when there were four dollars to the pound, and when you finally got there you'd be up against Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret, Lloyd Mangrum, with next to no chance of winning. I was very proud of the people who did go. The likes of Peter Oosterhuis, Peter Butler, Maurice Bembridge. I've often said that Bembridge's 64 round Augusta 20-odd years ago was one of the greatest rounds in the history of the game."

Ditto Nick Faldo's final 67 to demolish Greg Norman in 1996. And the opening 70 of Tiger Woods a year later. "Tiger arrived with all this ballyhoo, then went to the turn in 40 and all the wiseacres, probably including me, started saying `well, it's different when you get into the cauldron... ' Then he came home in 30 and went on to win by 12 or 14 shots, the most spectacular victory I've ever seen." Was Alliss aware, when Woods won the Masters, of an unease at the Augusta National, where the role of blacks had previously been to carry bags and pick up litter? "No, not at all. But I know that Charlie Sifford, who was the first black player to compete at that level, had a pretty shitty time."

At four below level-fours - 68, if you must - Alliss has now reached the stage at which he is almost as venerable a golfing institution as his near-contemporary, the Masters itself. Along with Richie Benaud and Bill McLaren, not to mention Henry Longhurst, Brian Johnston, John Arlott, Dan Maskell and Peter O'Sullevan in years gone by, he is one of those much-loved commentators who have become part of the fabric of their sports. And one of the many pleasures of spending an hour or so in his company - which I have done several times, never hearing the same anecdote twice - is that he says precisely what he thinks. For example, unlike almost everyone in the world of golf, he is not afraid to criticise Sacred Cow Golf Club, otherwise known as the Augusta National.

"The course is quite ordinary, which is a sacrilegious thing to say. The fairways are up to 70 yards wide, there is no rough as such, and water on only four or five holes. The greens are huge, the speed of the greens is silly, and flags are put in silly places, which is the only protection they have. If I was being brutal I would say there are no more than four very good holes and a couple of great holes. The 12th is just difficult. The 13th, I think, is a stunning hole. The 16th is only made by the slope on the green. The finish is pretty ordinary.

"I believe in my heart of hearts that the Masters is a wonderful occasion which has been slightly inflated. They have done everything they can to make it magical and mystical and they have pretty much succeeded. I have learnt a lot about it over the years. They built the course on the way from New York to the baseball training grounds in Florida, so all the old pressmen used to drop in on the way down, and received wonderful hospitality.

"When Henry Longhurst went, and Pat Ward Thomas from the Manchester Guardian, they were given a lovely place to stay, with a cook, and a fridge full of New York strip steaks or whatever. So they did a lot to build it up, especially once Palmer arrived, because the Masters wasn't much before him. Of course, there is no doubt that if you go for the first time as a spectator, and the weather is nice, and the flowers are out, and you have the right tickets, then it's magic. It is certainly very well run. I've been going for 35 years and I've never found a weed. I've looked everywhere, even in the car park."

The two men responsible for creating and nurturing the mystique of the Masters were Bobby Jones - the all-conquering amateur from Atlanta, still the only golfer to win the hallowed Grand Slam, in 1930, for which he was honoured with a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York - and his friend Clifford Roberts, a wealthy investment broker.

"Roberts," Alliss recalls, "was a tyrant of a man. A racist, you could argue. And he and Jones fell out at the end. He didn't go to Jones' funeral. He was a strange man. There is a great story about the cabins that they built at Augusta. The first was the Eisenhower cabin, a four-bedroomed place just off the putting green, and one of the members said `hey, that's a good idea Cliff, we could do with another of those'. The next time the man went, another cabin had been built. And he said `that's nice'. Then someone told him the house manager wanted to see him. And there was the bill, for $27,000, which was a lot of money 30 years ago. That's the sort of thing Roberts did.

"The membership, you know, is very carefully controlled. There are, more or less, a couple of members from each state, and let's say one of the members from Oregon is in the timber business. If he dies, they will try to find another timber man from Oregon. They won't have a timber man from Oregon and another from Wyoming, because there might be a clash of interests. They don't like to think of business being done on the course, although there is, millions and jillions of dollars' worth.

"You know, I can't tell you the number of times people have said to me that they are going to Atlanta on business and thought they might pop over to take a look at Augusta. I say, `you can't'. They say `no, I don't want to play, I just want to take a look'. I say `you can't'. They don't believe there are guards, and that you can't even get up the drive. There isn't one golf club like that in the UK. Even at Muirfield you can drive up and have a look around. I suppose the secretary might wander out and say `can I help you?' But in America there are probably 300 golf clubs where you can't get up the drive. Golfing snobbery is in its infancy here... Its infancy."

In other respects, though, the gap between American golf and British golf has narrowed. Not so very long ago the idea that a British player might win the Masters once was absurd enough, let alone three different Brits - Faldo twice, Woosnam and Lyle - in four consecutive years. So what about this year? My own feeling is that of our three best hopes, Montgomerie wants it too badly, Westwood doesn't yet want it badly enough and Faldo can't nail the crucial eight-foot putts any more. Alliss is less specific. "I would like an Englishman to win, and if not, a British player, and if not, a Continental. I must say I would like to see Seve have a good Masters, as well as Norman, Lyle, Woosnam and Faldo."

A couple of years back it was said that Alliss and Faldo loathed each other. Their supposed feud was built up to the point that it was a surprise to see them at the same tournament without duelling pistols. Mostly stuff and nonsense, insists Alliss. "We never failed to send each other Christmas cards," he says. "And I admire him enormously. Although I've never understood why he took his game to pieces. Under pressure he still has that little flaily loop at the top, and we've never known what he would have achieved if he hadn't rebuilt his swing. I couldn't understand why he was always tweaking things. It was like Damon Hill, with a perfect car, saying `let's just put an extra puff of wind in the tyres'. You wanted to say `It's OK, leave it alone'."

The saga started when Alliss said something slightly critical about Faldo and the golfer, asked for his response, sneered at those who climb a few steps to a commentary box and think they know it all. Or words to that effect. Alliss would, I think, be the first to admit that he doesn't know it all. There was a time when he didn't even know how to negotiate the 11th green at Augusta in fewer than 11 putts. But he knows a good deal of it. And long may he share it with us.

Television coverage of the Masters begins on BBC2 tomorrow at 9pm.

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