Peter Alliss was nattering to a friend on a flight back from Ireland, discussing how he had missed a chance to win that week’s golf tournament. It was a conversation that led to one of the greatest careers in sports commentary.
Alliss’ tale of golfing woe was clearly wonderfully told and it was overheard by someone working in television who could spot broadcasting potential. Ten days later a letter arrived from BBC producer Ray Lakeland.
It said, so Alliss told me: “I was sitting behind you and you were telling the story of how you lost and it was very amusing. Would you like to come and work with us at The Open?”
“I was only 30 years old, I was still trying to win The Open,” Alliss continued. “But they said just come up after your round and tell us what it was like out there, and that’s what I did and I’ve been there ever since.”
And so, at the 1961 Open at Royal Birkdale, Peter Alliss, who has died at the age of 89, embarked on a broadcasting career that made him the undisputed ‘voice of golf’.
His final broadcast came only last month when he described Dustin Johnson’s Masters victory at Augusta. Because of recent ill health and caution surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, he commentated from a screen at his home in Surrey.
Back in in 1961 Alliss combined his very first efforts behind the microphone with playing duties, and finished in a share of eighth place behind Arnold Palmer.
The charismatic American champion was starting to popularise golf across the globe, paving the way for figures such as Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Severiano Ballesteros to become international superstars.
And thanks to the chance of an airline seating plan, television sport had discovered the perfect voice to accompany their exploits. The images were initially monochrome but Alliss had the words and delivery to turn them technicolor.
He brought knowledge and authority having come from a golfing dynasty that made him one of Britain’s best players of the 1950s and ’60s. The son of leading professional Percy Alliss, he was born in Berlin on 28 February 1931.
Weighing 14 pounds 11 ounces, he was believed to have been Europe’s heaviest baby at the time. He left school aged 14 and devoted himself to the game of golf, playing for the England boys team in 1946.
A year later his went to his first Open after travelling with his father to Royal Liverpool.
“I was obviously excited,” he told me earlier this year. “The journey up on the train, going to Bournemouth from Ferndown. We went on the bus with golf clubs and suitcases and everyone looked at us if were mad. ‘What the hell have you got in that bag?’ Then the train up to London and up to Chester and then we had a bus along to Hoylake.”
The youngster was somewhat overwhelmed and failed to qualify, but went on to post five top-10s in 24 appearances between 1951 and 1974. He won more than 30 tournaments at home and abroad, including the Spanish, Italian and Portuguese Opens.
Alliss missed the cut in his two Masters appearances in 1966 and 1967 but won Britain’s PGA Championship three times – in 1957, 1962 and 1965. He made his Ryder Cup debut in 1953 at Wentworth.
A fluffed chip on the final hole cost him a vital half in his singles match against Jim Turnesa as Great Britain suffered an agonising 6½-5½ defeat. “We should have won,” Alliss later admitted. “And we would have done if Bernard Hunt and I had won our matches.”
Alliss added: “The Ryder Cup is one of the world’s best sporting events. It’s such an honour to say I’ve played in golf’s greatest team event eight times.”
And there was to be triumph to follow the initial disappointment. In 1957 he was on the GB team that claimed its first win against the Americans in 24 years. “There was great jubilation,” he remembered.
Alliss could boast an unbeaten record against Palmer in singles matches, taking one and a half points from their two encounters, played when the American was at the height of his powers.
But it is for his broadcasting skills that he will be most remembered.
Following the death of Henry Longhurst, Alliss took over as the BBC’s lead golf commentator. Golfing gravitas was supplemented by sharp wit and whimsy that made his a uniquely charming voice. It brought him millions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
As golf grew ever more popular, he became one of Britain’s most famous figures, hosting the highly successful Pro-Celebrity Golf programme on BBC television and his own chat show ‘Around with Alliss’, which attracted many of the biggest entertainment stars of the 1970s and ’80s.
His influence on golf stretched far and wide. He had a course architecture business with Dave Thomas that included among its commissions the Belfry, which has hosted four Ryder Cups. Alliss also wrote several books on the game.
He was a traditionalist who enjoyed the peculiarities of golf club life and he remained a brilliant and buoyant raconteur until the very end. When we met at his house in February this year he spent two hours energetically regaling me with tales of Opens past and his views on the modern game.
He wondered where manners had gone and whether today’s stars were as skilful as those who played in the early 20th Century. But above all, he was still interested and fascinated by the sport. He was determined to carry on commentating, looking forward to being there for the 150th Open at St Andrews in 2022.
He had been to the last 69 of them and saw no reason to stop. The game was his life and within it he was an immense and irreplaceable presence.
A colossus in his sport and in broadcasting, he will be greatly missed.