On Christmas Eve last year, Peter Alliss left me a voice-mail, mostly about how unfortunate we had been in trying and failing to arrange a pre-Christmas lunch – “we’ll think of it as a pleasure postponed,” he said. Among other things he said “thanks for the friendship”, which sounded somewhat prematurely valedictory, and it was in the sense that we had quite a few conversations during this past year. But, mostly because of coronavirus, we never did make that lunch nor meet up in 2020. As you will know, he passed away at home on December 5.
Peter would have been 90 on February 28. For many years, he held the record for being the heaviest baby born in Europe. “My mother wasn’t a big lady,” he would say. “She couldn’t ride a bicycle again until Christmas.” That record was 14 stone 11 ounces; he would have grinned at the typo and consequent non-sequitur that appeared in the Daily Telegraph: “a baby who weighted 4lb 11oz but grew up to bear the lightest of touches”.
Peter was a terrific golfer. In October 1958, he won the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Opens – a remarkable hat-trick. Five times he finished in the top-10 in the Open Championship. His first autobiography, Alliss Through the Looking Glass, published in 1963, is a tremendous read, not least about his first two experiences of the Ryder Cup.
At Wentworth in 1953, if he had beaten Jim Turnesa, Great Britain & Ireland would have won the match for the first time since the Second World War. Alliss was 1 up with three holes to play. He missed from three feet to lose the 16th, drove out-of-bounds on the 17th and with a three-foot putt for a five at the last for a half, he missed again – “a ridiculous, incredible, childish, delinquent six. I don’t quite know how I lived through the next 15 minutes of my life”. He knew he had become ‘the man who lost the Ryder Cup’.
He wasn’t picked for the match in America in 1955 but he was in the victorious GB&I team at Lindrick in 1957. The triumph was achieved while he was still playing his singles against Fred Hawkins. “[Dai] Rees and [Ken] Bousfield came charging up to me saying: ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s all over, we’ve won the Ryder Cup, we’ve won.’ Don’t worry, they said! There I was, wrestling with Fred Hawkins, wrestling with Wentworth, wrestling with the fact that I might be the only man in the team not to win his singles match, not to win a single point in two Ryder Cup appearances, and don’t worry, they said.” Hawkins won at the 17th. Alliss was the only man on the team to lose his singles.
He played in eight matches in total, a personal highlight being the beating of Arnold Palmer in the singles in Atlanta in 1963. But soon the ‘yips’ began to inflict his putting stroke, perhaps most horribly at the Masters in 1967 when he took five putts from six feet on the 11th. Nevertheless, he was picked for the 1969 Ryder Cup match at Royal Birkdale. He contributed just a half-point from a foursomes, but it was significant. The match finished a tie. From there the sticks were pretty much stowed away and it was into the BBC commentary box with Henry Longhurst.
He described his style of commentary as “I’m talking to someone stuck in a tiny flat on the 23rdfloor of some high-rise in Bermondsey.” In essence, that was a trick he picked up from Longhurst: the reality is you are broadcasting to millions, but you imagine your audience is just the one. He delivered some great lines, to take simply one example, this talking about Tiger Woods after he had shot an 81 in the third round of the Open in 2002. “You can’t trust anyone these days. It’s like turning up to hear Pavarotti sing and finding out he has laryngitis.” The smooth gentleness of his timbre prompted John Cleese (who for 16 years was married to the former wife of a PGA Tour pro) to say: “I always thought that I could cope with the ending of the world if only Peter was commentating on it.”
You will have seen the obituaries, which also covered his work in golf-course design. He was never offered the captaincy of the Ryder Cup team, which was something of a slight, and nor a knighthood. Perhaps the latter was down to an earlier rejection of an OBE, this on the grounds that his father, bearing in mind how gongs were handed out around the War, told him he felt that OBE stood for ‘Other Bugger’s Efforts’.
Nick Faldo, the greatest British golfer not called Harry Vardon, said of Alliss on Twitter: “He had that gift of being able to wax lyrical at great length about anything, could probably talk about the colour of his front door for five minutes and somehow work the Archbishop of Canterbury into the story! RIP Peter” He had commentated on Faldo winning three Masters’ green jackets and did the commentary, from home, as Dustin Johnson won at Augusta last month.
Obviously no one will miss him more than his wife, Jackie, and the other members of his family. But it is a loss felt by all who knew him and by millions who didn’t but were very happily familiar with that mellifluous voice and trademark turn of phrase. We will not see or hear his like again. I understand that he wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea (who is?) but, my goodness, if you enjoyed hearing golf stories from someone who knew their stuff, there was no one better to enjoy a glass with.
RIP Peter. And stay safe all of you. Happy Christmas!?
You can follow me on Twitter @robrtgreen and also read my other blog at f-factors.com