Why Peter Alliss was so much more than just another talking head
It should be said, right here at the start, as we revisit the life and interesting times of Peter Alliss, who died on Saturday at age 89, that he was an outstanding golfer. I never saw him play, but I have heard Jack Nicklaus, an authority on golf in the 1960s, when Alliss was in his prime, talk about the quality of Alliss’ golf.
He was such a golfing polymath, and such a truly large figure in the game, that it would be easy to overlook that part. But his golf skill and playing record were the foundation for all the many things — the TV commentary, the writing, the design work, the high living — that followed.
Peter Alliss, the son of a noted English professional golfer, Percy Alliss, left school at 14, as World War II was ending. He, like Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, was a member of golf’s Greatest Generation, those golfers who came of age in the years after the war.
A teacher at Peter’s private school in the south of England, a Mrs. Violet Weymouth, wrote in a report to Peter’s parents, “I fear for his future.” Her fears were misplaced. Peter turned pro at 16 and played in eight Ryder Cups, flying the flag for GB&I, as the team was known then, in the 1950s and ’60s. Long before the invention of Team USA and Team Europe, the biannual event was simply the Americans versus Great Britain and Ireland. Alliss crossed paths with some of the American giants at those Ryder Cups, and he was closely associated with the event. He was a co-designer of an English course called The Belfry, where the Ryder Cup has been held four times, in 1985, ’89, ’93 and ’02. Europe won two of those events. Part of Alliss’ charm, as a player and commentator, is that he never seemed to particularly care who won and lost. Although when Jean van de Velde was coughing up his lead on the 72nd hole at the 1999 British Open, Alliss was moved to say, “Would somebody kindly stop him, give him a large brandy and mop him down? It’s beyond a joke. He’s gone ga-ga.” C’est la vie.
As it happens, Alliss was on one winning team, in 1957. The American captain that year, by the way, was Jackie Burke, now 97, who founded the club, Champions Golf Club in Houston, where the U.S. Women’s Open will be played next week. (Golf does long well.) Alliss won no points in the winning cause.
Alliss had four top-10 finishes in the Open Championship. It’s telling that Burke, the ’56 Masters champion, never played in a British Open, and that Alliss never played in a U.S. Open or a PGA Championship. They played in a different golf era, before one could fly over the Atlantic Ocean — or any ocean — with such comfort and ease.
Alliss was a legend in European golf, and he won the national championships of Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Italy, plus scores of other tourneys, as they were known, big and small. In 1966, he won an English event fittingly sponsored by Martini & Rossi, Italian manufacturers of various adult beverages. Alliss knew his way around all parts of your better dinner menus and wine lists. He was a large man who lived large. The license plate on his Rolls Royce read PUT 3. Late in the day, he was afflicted with the yips, and he had more than his share of three-putt greens. What saved him was his sense of humor, and his talking ease. Hit it, Alice, a common and mildly sexist phrase for putts that do not reach the hole, began, Peter Alliss would sometimes suggest, with him talking to himself: “Hit it, Alliss.”
The end of his playing career led to a remarkable second one, as a golf commentator on TV, most notably for the BBC in Great Britain but also for ABC and ESPN in the United States. You could say that Alliss and his contemporary Ken Venturi had similar career paths, morphing from player of note to broadcaster of note. Venturi will forever be associated with the Masters on CBS as Alliss will be with the Open “on the Beeb,” as the Britons say. But that, while true, is also limited. Venturi, who stuttered as a child, believed, as a broadcaster, that less is more. Alliss believed that more is more. There was really very little difference between Alliss as an after-dinner speaker and as a “golf presenter” on TV.
Over the years, particularly late in his career as standards and mores changed, Alliss was chastised now and again for various comments, ones that were perceived to be sexist or too harsh on players. He would semi-apologize, or not, and move on, not battered, not bowed.
In Great Britain, in Alliss’ broadcasting heyday, the Open was on TV for long, long stretches, with no commercial interruption. A phrase of the Kingdom — “we’re watching the golf” — was another way of saying, “We’re listening to Alliss prattle on about this and that.” When Alliss was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on a May night in 2012, he spoke without notes and at one point said, “I could waffle on for another four or five hours.” Have you ever heard the word waffle used quite that way before?
I certainly had not. But his meaning was entirely clear. I was in the audience. I could have listened to him waffle on. He had the posh accent of sophisticated (and educated) southern England, but without a bit of pretense. He was both working-class and aristocratic at the same time. He had a knack for making all his ventures, including the two dozen or so courses he co-designed and the hundreds of magazine pieces and books he wrote, look like effortless creations that just tumbled out of him, as did his words as a broadcaster and his swing as a player. He had a beautiful, big rhythmic swing and a perfect grip. It was artful.
My affection for the man, whom I knew mostly as others did, as a commentator, was deep. He impacted my life directly in one particular way. In 1991, newly married and traveling with my bride, I worked as a caddie on the European Tour. I caddied in many of the events that Alliss won. He was sometimes around. The journeyman golfer for whom I caddied, Peter Teravainen, would sometimes recall a phrase of Alliss’ for journeymen golfers: “There he is, the old dog from the hard road.” Peter Alliss had a gift.
At one event, I believe at the 1991 Open at Birkdale, I made my way to the TV compound, found Alliss and introduced myself. I told him I was a caddie and a writer on an extended honeymoon trip and that I was looking for a Scottish golf teacher who was, let’s say, not weighed down by the mechanical and the technical. I was asking the right person. Alliss took an interest in my inquiry and mentioned a name: John Stark of the Crieff Golf Club. If he’ll take you on, Alliss said, “you’ll be very lucky indeed.” Only some people can use indeed that way. Stark improved my life immeasurably and became a central figure in a slender book I wrote about our travels that year.
A few years later, I saw Alliss at Augusta, standing near the clubhouse. I reintroduced myself, told him about the book and Stark’s role in it and said I could send him a copy of the book, if he liked.
“Don’t send the book,” Peter said comically. “Send a check!”
Living large is expensive. Alliss lived in a mansion.
The exit he made at his Hall of Fame induction is one I have tried to describe now and again. Maybe you had to be there, but this is how it went, with minor editing. This was when he used waffle so inventively, and introduced the world to Mrs. Weymouth, his school teacher.
“I was quite bright, but I remember my last report which was sent home,” Alliss said. “We had a headmistress at my modest school, Mrs. Violet Weymouth. She was a short Welsh woman. She always had a cigarette dangling out of her mouth, and the smoke used to trickle up. You didn’t mess about with Mrs. Weymouth, I can tell you that.
“I remember the last report she sent back to my parents, and it went something like this: ‘Peter does have a brain, but he’s rather loath to use it. His only interests appear to be the game of golf and Violet,’ a pretty girl I liked. She never knew about Iris Baker, but they were the two that introduced me to some of the ways of the world, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. And although we were very young, I wish to God we could do it today.
“‘I fear for his future’ were the last words she wrote on my report. My mom and dad died a long, long time ago. If there is such a thing as heaven and if people do look down, well, mom, dad, here we are. Look at this lot. Look where I’ve been, look what I’ve done. Never worked very hard at it. But it’s all fallen into place. Lovely family, lovely wife, looks after me, shouts a bit, occasionally. But they are remarkable. They put up with all my nonsense, and I love them dearly.
“And Mrs. Weymouth, if you are there —”
And with that, Mr. Peter Alliss walked off the stage in a hotel ballroom off I-95 in North Florida, his right hand high in the air, as high as it would go, the middle finger of it highest yet.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com.