Saturday 9 April 2011
Brian Viner: Sky or BBC? Easy eloquence of Monty swings it – as long as the wallet is willing
The Last Word
Our Monty has been withdrawn from this afternoon's Grand National, much to the disappointment of Katie Walsh, Ruby's sister, who was due to ride him.
Happily, our other Monty looms large, commentating on the US Masters for Sky Sports. So what is the difference between Our Monty 1 and Our Monty 2? I suppose you could reasonably conclude that one of them boasts a formidable rump and, when displeased, has an alarming tendency to snort fiercely and paw furiously at the ground, scattering the people around him, and that the other's a horse.
It is, though, the benign version of Colin Montgomerie that is on show this week, great jowls wobbling with bonhomie. And there is no doubt that his easy eloquence lends Sky's coverage of its inaugural Masters a touch of class.
It was a masterstroke to sign Monty, who either has or is successfully feigning a fondness for the Augusta National's verdant fairways and billiard-table greens, even though the US Masters was the major championship least suited to his game. He finished second in all the others at least once, yet at Augusta, handicapped by that natural high fade of his on a course that so favours the draw, his only top 10 finish was joint-eighth in 1998. Moreover, he missed five cuts in his last six appearances there, so we can probably assume that Augusta's caddies, stewards, rules officials, greenkeeping staff, spectators, dogwoods, azaleas and locker-room wastepaper baskets have all felt either the basilisk menace of a Monty glare, or the toe of his Footjoy.
In a way, though, Monty's singularly low point of combustion on the golf course is an asset in the commentary box, for he doesn't just analyse good and bad shots, but also offers a psychological perspective that is beyond his more temperate colleagues. On Thursday, for example, the Venezeulan player Jhonattan Vegas – whose name somehow reminds me of our own more familiar Johnny Vegas signing his autograph after 12 pints of Boddingtons – saw a careful approach putt slide 8ft past the hole. "And he feels he's done nothing wrong," hurrumphed Monty on Vegas's behalf. It was a useful insight into the why-me mindset that is Monty's own worst enemy, and perhaps was also partly responsible for the wheels coming off Ian Poulter's opening round, which he finished at two over par, having made it safely through Amen Corner at two under.
Whatever, for armchair viewers of the 75th US Masters, or at least those armchair viewers who don't mind lining the Murdoch pockets, the forthcoming weekend action presents a stark choice: Sky Sports or the BBC, who rather humiliatingly have had to wait until today to broadcast live. The advantage of the Beeb's coverage, of course, is that it contains no commercial breaks, whereas every break on Sky, at least on day one, was prefaced by a snippet of James Brown's version of "Georgia On My Mind", a fantastic song with added resonance because the late Godfather of Soul grew up in Augusta (we'll overlook the fact that he wouldn't have been allowed within a dozen bargepoles of the Augusta National clubhouse, except as a waiter or binman), and yet which was unwisely presented as a bizarre little jingle, which strangely sounded like someone in pain crying "oh John", as if John Daly, pre-gastric band surgery, had stepped on their toe. On the other hand, Sky have Monty, which might just swing it for me.
Either way, and notwithstanding the excellence of Sky's golf coverage, which includes the 3D facility that reportedly so excites Augusta chairman Billy Payne, it is utterly shameful that all those among Britain's golf lovers who do not pay Uncle Rupert 50-odd quid a month, have not yet been able to watch this year's Masters at all. And it's not as if this creeping disenfranchisement is limited to golf. A fortnight ago I received an email from a reader, Mark Flack, who had already contacted me last autumn to express his incredulity that the Switzerland v England Euro 2012 qualifier was not shown on terrestrial TV. This time it was Wales v England that drew, if he'll forgive me, his flak.
"There's been lots of preamble to today's game," he wrote, "what with Capello and Terry and Bellamy... the minor point of this being an international derby. And is it on TV? Nope. Only bloody Sky again, of course. Actually, I tell a minor lie, I can catch highlights on S4C later ... must brush up on my Welsh. Why is there no anger in the press about this? Does none of this matter any more?"
The answer is that it does matter, enormously. That there is no longer much anger in the press is partly because sports writers are either at these events in person, or have Sky at home, and partly because, as King Canute knew, it's futile trying to turn back the tide. I don't share Mr Flack's irritation with Sky, incidentally. They're a commercial organisation who, misjudged James Brown jingles apart, do a cracking job. What is upsetting is the diminishing responsibility the BBC and ITV seem to feel towards armchair sports fans, and the increasing likelihood that even the so-called crown jewels currently protected for universal access, among them our beloved Grand National, will one day belong exclusively to subscription television. The way it's going, Sky will end up not just with our Monty, but the full Monty.
When the other sportsman's grass looks greener
As if US ownership of Liverpool FC were not enough to stir Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley in their graves, now comes the news that Miami Heat basketball legend LeBron James has bought a stake in the club. Still, I quite like it when stars of one sport show interest in another. On the three or four occasions I have interviewed A P McCoy, nothing has made him sit up quite like the subject of Arsenal FC. And when I met Ruby Walsh on Monday, he revealed that his boyhood hero was not John Francome or Peter Scudamore, but the Australian rugby union scrum-half Nick Farr-Jones.
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