Nicholas Owen meets the voice of golf, Peter Alliss
12:01 26 October 2010
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2010
Photos by Andy Newbold
As you drive along the road to the Hindhead home of Peter Alliss, it becomes clear that golf is something of a local passion. As well as Hindhead Golf Club itself, several of the house names pay homage to the game, both past and present. One is called ‘St Andrews’, another ‘Fairways’ and yet another ‘Niblick’ (the old name for a particular club). It is a bit of a surprise that Peter’s own house has no obvious connection to the game he is so identified with. But he says it does have a ghost.
At nearly 80 years old, he is still in good physical shape, although a broken ankle a couple of years ago means he rides a buggy for his own regular golf games nowadays. “I still shoot under my age!” he says proudly. For non-golfers, that means he goes round in fewer shots than 79, a score many younger players can only dream of achieving.
Arriving in Surrey
He moved to Hindhead some 30 years ago, after being asked to design a golf course a few miles south, in Hampshire. “I love it here,” he says. “There is the heather, the pines, the rhododendrons. They remind me of where I was brought up, in Dorset. We’ve five acres of garden here. My wife Jackie is the gardener. I’m just good at bonfires. I love a good fire.”
Even if you don’t understand or even like golf, he is still a name that almost everyone knows – thanks to his years as a commentator famed for his historical knowledge and wry asides. In fact, he is respected enough to be an honorary member of no less than 33 clubs, “from Dornoch in Scotland to Trevose in Cornwall. And I have played them all.”
At least three are in his home county: Wentworth, Coombe Hill and Reigate Heath. Which gives the two of us a connection. This year, he opened Reigate’s new professional shop, serving a long-established nine-hole course he has described as “a little gem”. A few months afterwards, I declared open the refurbished bar and lounge at the same club. We chuckle about that, agreeing that he knew everything about the game of golf, while I was more at home concentrating on food and drink.
At home in Hindhead
In the sitting room of his sprawling, comfortable home, the cabinets crammed with many of the trophies he has won over the years, Peter looks back on a life full of achievement, though one marked by that most awful of family tragedies, the loss of a child. He and Jackie, his second wife, had a daughter born severely handicapped. “She was like a little doll,” says Peter, his familiar rumble of a voice quieter and certainly sadder than most golf fans will have heard. Victoria died at the age of 11.
As well as two other daughters, Peter also has three sons, all involved in golf professionally. If all the Alliss men play – not forgetting that his father Percy was a renowned professional in his day – neither of his daughters nor his daughters-in-law do. Neither does Jackie, who pops in to say hello, returning from one of her jobs, on the magistrates’ bench in Guildford.
Why did she not take up the game? “Oh, well,” she says, “every time I started, then I would get pregnant. And I wasn’t much good.” We both agree that if nine or even a dozen holes had been the standard layout, many more people would want to try this famously time-consuming sport.
As we chat about this, husband Peter growls: “Women? Oh, keep ‘em off the course.” Actually, he says he has made considerable efforts to encourage women’s golf, and is sad that so few British female players are of world standard.
On the microphone
The story of how he came to be a commentator is fascinating. “In 1960, I had a letter from a BBC producer. I had just played in a tournament in America, in Detroit. The producer was sitting behind me on the plane home. He told me he had been listening to my conversation, and found it very amusing. So he asked, did I fancy commentating?”
Peter was very doubtful. Still, when he had finished a professional round in Lancashire, he dropped by the commentary box “to answer a few questions.” The programme was, incidentally, being fronted by Cliff Michelmore, then one of the BBC’s senior presenters, who later became one of Peter’s great friends. Michelmore played most of his own golf close to his home at my club, Reigate Heath.
Eventually, Peter went on to graduate to fully-fledged commentator. His style, full of anecdotes, memories of great players of the past, and whimsical references to odd goings-on around the course, has endeared him to many. It has also irritated a few, including some newspaper columnists.
“Yes, it is wounding when you are criticised,” he says. “I try not to worry about it too much, though. When I’m commentating, I just imagine I’m with a friend. I just ramble on. I have one of those strange minds that remembers lots of weird things. You’re bound to make mistakes occasionally. It is live television after all.”
He was a successful professional player for nearly 30 years. As his career wound down, the commentating took over. And not just for British ears. He has worked as well for US television, his measured tones a nice contrast with the often brasher American voices.
Away from the mic, there has been the lucrative business of course design, and he is the author of some 20 books. How does he manage to be so prolific? “I can’t type. And I can’t spell. I dictate it all. I can’t use the computer either. E-mails are so impersonal. If anyone writes, though, I reply to every letter I get.”
The name’s Bond...
As well as TV and the books, Peter helped mould a cinema legend. Sean Connery was to be James Bond in Goldfinger, a part that required him to play some tension-filled golf with the evil Goldfinger himself. First, however, Connery needed some instruction. “He was sent to me,” Peter remembers. “He had a couple of lessons. After that, he became an absolute golf fanatic.”
Peter demonstrated his own skills very early. There is a lovely picture in one of his autobiographies showing him as a two-year-old, wielding a club that had been trimmed down for him by his father Percy. Peter had been born in Germany, near Berlin, and Percy Alliss was the resident professional at a club where those he taught included the future Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and the actress Marlene Dietrich. The Alliss family left Germany as Hitler’s terrible rise to power loomed. Percy became the professional at the Ferndown club near Bournemouth, and it was there that his son learned to play – and do so rather well. At 14, Peter was a ‘scratch’ player, meaning he needed no handicap to help his scoring. That year, he left school and at 15 turned professional, as an assistant to his father.
Another leading figure in the golf world whose father was a great influence at an early age is Tiger Woods, the American sporting superstar brought low this year as seedy details of his personal life came to light. Peter rubs his chin and thinks before delivering his verdict on the now-divorced Woods and his woes. “I just don’t know of another sportsman who has been in the limelight so much. And it has all become a witch-hunt. You know, I think his father has a lot to do with how Tiger is. His father was a frightening bully. And now I am not sure Tiger will come back and be the best again. He is 35 soon, so he is getting on.”
I wonder if personal misbehaviour by top golfers is really anything new. “I can recall a couple of players who would go to hotels… well, you know what I mean. But back then, newspaper people weren’t interested in people’s private lives. They were only interested in how they played their golf.”
A nationwide tour
It is a game that has been very good to Alliss, and a personal industry has grown up around him. Jackie masterminds golf tournaments in his name, often raising large sums for charity. And he may be 80 next year, but there is no sign of him slowing down. This autumn, he is on a nationwide theatre tour, an opportunity for golf fans to hear from the man himself some of his many stories, and get the chance to ask him questions.
“I could never have done anything else,” he says. “My one regret is not winning the Open championship, but otherwise it’s been a wonderful life. I’ve been around the world a dozen times and someone else always paid. I never planned anything. I’ve never been ambitious.”
Of his future in television, he adds: “If I’m losing it, or if I’m no longer enjoying it, I want to leave before they say they’ve had enough of me.”
Golf has always been central to his life, and of course it’s why he is such a household name. He does have another big interest though: a surprising
passion for red squirrels. In fact, he is a prominent supporter of an organisation dedicated to their protection. Finally, before I leave, there’s one more thing I want to ask him about: that small matter of his century-old house being haunted.
“Well, it’s just a sort of presence,” he says. “There’s a back staircase here that is always cold, even in the middle of summer. And often I know I have switched a light off somewhere, then it’s on. Or I know I’ve shut a door and there it is open again.”
However, the affable Peter Alliss is perfectly relaxed about his ghostly guest: “No, it doesn’t worry me at all. He, or she, is quite friendly.”
- For more information about Peter Alliss’s theatre tour and his charity golf matches, visit his website at www.peteralliss.co.uk