Peter Alliss: 'I always thought it could all go wrong for Tiger'

The Brian Viner Interview: The garrulous <i>Voice of Golf</i>, delivers his typically forthright verdict on the scandal of the year &ndash; and much else besides

Friday 18 December 2009 01:00

At least six weeks before a fire hydrant, a Cadillac Escalade and a bevy of cocktail waitresses entered the remarkable story of Tiger Woods, Peter Alliss said something strikingly prescient to me. "I'm probably the only person left in the world," he ventured, "who thinks that Tiger won't beat Jack Nicklaus's record [of 18 majors]."

I gave him the fond, indulgent smile you might offer a slightly doolally uncle at Christmas, reasoning that with the first three of next year's major championships at Tiger's favourite courses – Augusta, Pebble Beach and St Andrews – he could even be heading for Whistling Straits in August, for the USPGA, lagging Nicklaus by just one.

But that was then. Now, hardly anyone thinks that surpassing Nicklaus's record is a matter of "when" rather than "if" for Woods; indeed, it's become a pretty monumental "if". But Alliss is too long in the tooth to revel in his prophecy. "I just thought there were so many things that could go wrong for him," he says. "His health and fitness, all sorts of things. He's a handsome black man married to a beautiful white girl, and there are some strange people in America, who take exception to that. Who knew what would derail him, but I always thought something might. I've seen him become much more distant, more grumpy, these past two years.

"No, it's very sad. Of course, people say his advisers must have known what was going on, and should have put a stop to it, but he's the goose that lays the golden eggs. If you'd worked for one of the old press barons, would you have gone up to Beaverbrook and told him to stop misbehaving? This is no different.

"We're supposed to feel sorry for his family. But I don't know his family. She [Elin] might be a cow to live with, I don't know. What I do know is that the jokes will go on for 20 years. 'In the hole, Tiger' has a whole new connotation now, and will he be able to put up with that? If he can, if he does go on to win another five majors to move ahead of Nicklaus, I think everything he's done in the last 12 years will pale into insignificance. It will be a huge achievement. Of course, you can gain forgiveness in America even from those who would like to whip you with thorn bushes or whatever. You can go on Oprah. You can own up to things, like Jimmy Swaggart, the evangelist. But that won't stop the jibes. And Tiger's a proud man. He'll hate the jibes. But he's got to re-enter society sometime."

None of us know when that will be, but Alliss isn't convinced by his widely publicised intention to take a "break" from the game. "He never played much before the Masters anyway, so it might not be much of a break. If it is, then the game will miss him, and the ratings will go down, but golf will go on."

Alliss, comfortably ensconced in his favourite armchair, in the drawing-room of his handsome home in stockbroker-belt Surrey, leans forward for a sip of coffee. But not a biscuit. Jackie, the fragrant Mrs Alliss, has delivered a plateful of biscuits leaving strict instructions that her old man is not allowed one. He will be 79 in February and can't put the portliness down to middle-aged spread any more. Nor can he get round a golf course without a buggy, but he still enjoys the odd knock. "If I was fitter, I'd be very disappointed if I couldn't get down to scratch in three months. As it is I'm very happy to break 80."

For the rest of us, the only thing that matters about the Voice of Golf seems in decent nick. An hour with Alliss glides easily into two; he loves to talk, and still has the perfect instrument for the job. There seems no reason to imagine that when his BBC contract runs out on 31 March next year, it won't be renewed.

"But I don't want to end up with them saying, 'He's doing well for his age'. Wogan is a dear friend, and he was bright enough to leave with them wanting more. I hope I'll do the same, and I hope I'll know when it's time to go. In the meantime, I've been with the BBC since 1961 and they've all come and gone, but I think there's still a place for me. I listen to my fellow commentators and I must say I get tired of statistics. I don't want to know that this is so-and-so's 485th tournament and he's just three-putted for the 94th time this year. Or that he's gone in a bunker, which I can see for myself. I want something more than that. I prefer to be conversational."

His style of conversation does not suit everyone, indeed it's hard to think of a commentator who divides armchair fans quite like Alliss does. For some, he's a reactionary old fool; for others, a cherished institution. I belong unashamedly to the latter camp but every time he calls K J Choi inscrutable, or suggests that society would be better off with a bit of birching, I can understand why he alienates some of his audience. At the same time, however, he offers a genuinely unique perspective on the royal and ancient game.

"Do you know," he says, "I was looking through the golfers' handbook the other day, and realised that I have met or played golf with probably 90 per cent of everyone who's won the Open since 1900. That's extraordinary, isn't it? Harry Vardon, James Braid, dear old J H Taylor, Walter Hagen. I don't think Tiger's the best player ever. For me, the best players were between 1900 and 1920, because look at the tools they had. James Braid won the Open at Muirfield in 1908 averaging less than 73 over four rounds. People say the courses were shorter in those days. Well, yes. But the wind still blew. Bunkers weren't raked. The greens were cut with scythes. The balls weren't even round. It's remarkable."

By implication, then, players these days don't know they're born? I don't expect Alliss to disagree, and nor does he. "I was probably the most successful player in Europe in the 1960s. I won 20 tournaments, and my total prize-money was just under £30,000. Now they can get that for finishing 25th in a single tournament. I know it's all relative – you could buy a Rolls-Royce back then for £3,500 – but even so. In many cases they're very successful without having what I would describe as success. That's why you can't name any amateurs now. They might play in one Walker Cup and then they turn pro, because they know they can gross £2m a year by finishing no higher than third a couple of times. And they're treated like royalty. 'Where's my courtesy car? Where are my free sandwiches? What about my free dry-cleaning?' "

A basso-profundo chuckle. "It's a long way from Ben Hogan sleeping in the back of his car, and in many ways that's marvellous, but it makes them soft. And they get very touchy. Young Nick Dougherty, who's a nice enough lad, got cross with me for criticising the play at Wentworth last year. He said I should get out there and play the course in those conditions. Well, he doesn't have to tell me to get out there, I've bloody well played it. And I've seen Neil Coles playing it, keeping the ball below the tops of the trees, landing it 30 yards short of the green in dry weather. They couldn't do that, you see, because they all play the ball through the air these days."

This is what I like about Alliss; he says things that other commentators, and not only in golf, aren't brave enough to say, for fear of upsetting the multimillionaire performers. And it's not only golfers he skewers, but golf clubs, too.

"Societies turn up, paying hundreds or even thousands in green fees, and they're made to feel unwelcome. Some golf clubs want your money but they don't want you, and that saddens me. At least in America they're honest about it. There's far more snobbery and elitism over there than there is here. The land of the free? They leave us for dead. There must be 500 clubs over there that won't even let you down the drive if you don't fit in."

Example No 1, the Augusta National. "Yes, and I criticise them, but I will also defend them to the death. Here's a private club, that has created one of the great sporting occasions. The nearest thing we have to it here is Wimbledon. For most of the year there's nobody there, and suddenly the eyes of the sporting world are upon it. I was invited to play in the Masters six times, and went twice. It was very Deep South, very racist, yet here's this club in an unfashionable part of the country becoming an icon in the world of sport. And at every sporting event spectators are ripped off. Not at the Masters. Beers are a couple of dollars, the sandwiches are cheap..."

It was while playing in the 1967 Masters – on the 11th hole of the second round – that Alliss developed the dreaded yips, the putting equivalent of Dutch elm disease, that would curtail his distinguished playing career.

"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. And that was that."

Well, to a point. Over 40 years after walking off that green in a state of shock he still makes a decent living from the game, and reveres it still. "It's such an amazing game, you see. It shows so many qualities. The people who play quick, who play slow, who ponder, who cheat, who fiddle, who connive. They'll do that in business as well. It sounds pretentious to say that it's a mirror of life, but it is."

So where does that leave Tiger? In the hole, I suppose.

'Golf: The Cure for a Grumpy Old Man' by Peter Alliss is out in paperback, published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £8.99

Tiger Talk: What they said about Woods

"Time usually heals all wounds. I think the hardest thing is obviously his family. That's a private matter for him and his family. He's a great athlete. He'll figure it out." Jack Nicklaus

"I'm not too happy with what some of the players have said about him. Theoretically, it's because of Tiger that we're playing for so much money. With his record and the way he plays, he just brings people out and he raises the bar for all of us to play better golf as well." John Daly

"Let's hope the tabloid press finishes quickly and we get on supporting good golf. He is suddenly, I hate to say, more normal now. There was an aura, and that has been split slightly, so I feel it gives us more opportunity of winning these big events now." Colin Montgomerie

"I would be especially sad about it since me and my wife were at fault for hooking [Elin] up with him. We probably thought he was a better guy than he is." Jesper Parnevik

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