I was lucky enough to have had the honour and pleasure of working for the BBC on the British Open where Peter was, as always, the Commander in Chief over all the other commentators. I was young at the time and had just given up playing on the European Tour and had only ever commentated on the Irish Open. I was one of the ‘rovers’ on course, which I loved. I went to Peter early in the week to ask his advice, as he knew and had a fondness for my father and the Irish in general. He graciously took the time to sit me down; ‘now’ he said, in his beautifully oiled and elegant English ‘clip’….’never forget the old granny or grandpa sitting on the couch watching, even though they may not be golfers….there are many of them, remember to speak to them”. This was one of things that set him apart for all the rest.
He loved it when the cameras picked up the unusual – a young boy having a pee in the woods with his father, ‘daddy I have to pee’ he’d comment….or two ducks hard at it just off the 16th green by the lake in the midst of all the people and noise, ‘plenty more duck for dinner tonight!’.
I laugh every time nowadays when the modern day commentators are caught in similar situations and they simply go speechless, which is an oddity in itself. It was all about less is more, timing and delivery. Dan Maskell the legendary tennis commentator from Wimbledon was a master at it and Peter learned from him. He would watch a 15 shot really with Borg and McEnroe and never speak till the applause has subsided and then simply say – “stupendous”.
All that week at the Open he would advise me to ‘shut up’, meaning talk less, be more concise and set the atmosphere and communicate the feeling on the ground especially during tense moments. He did not like modern day American commentating where it is almost a competition on who talks the most. He hated when commentators talked over the communication between the player and his caddy. He was right.
I got to know him well over the last 15 years playing in the Grand Match, a competition he created which was a ‘Match’ between Old Walker and Ryder Cup players. He loved the nostalgia of the old days, of life ‘on tour’ when it was fun and the great stories that were told after dinner over a glass of port and a cigar. He was a masterful after dinner speaker, often shocking people with his brutal honesty and his irreverent roasting of some unsuspecting guest but always spoken with such eloquence. He made it look so easy, but few knew the groundwork he had prepared in advance.
He had the ability to laugh at himself which was aptly demonstrated by the number plate carried on his Rolls Royce – ‘PUT 3. This was a reference to the terminal dose of the dreaded ‘yips’ he suffered in the latter part of his career, which certainly prevented him from reaching his full potential and possibly winning the Open Championship. The last Open he visited was last year at Royal Portrush, where he played the last time it was played there in 1951. He was there raising money for wheelchairs for kids; I will never forget it with his beloved wife Jackie, who minded him so beautifully to the end.
I reminded him of the story he had told me years before about the 72nd hole of that epic Duel in the Sun shootout between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977. After Watson hit his second shot with an 8 iron to three feet, he let it hang for a moment as the crowd erupted and then said; “Elementary my dear Watson’. He told me he had saved that line for 71 holes and one shot and didn’t know if he was ever going to get to use it! Pure class.
Five years later he was commentating for ABC in the US Open that Watson won with that great chip in and lap of honour on the 71st. hole. He knew the Americans had not heard his BBC line and had held it up his sleeve. Unfortunately he had been allocated the 72 hole and never got to use it, ‘the luck of the draw ‘ as he would say. He was a true Gentleman and iconic British voice of this game who gave millions of ordinary people so much pleasure just listening to his dulcet tones that brought them closer to the game and all that it stands for. He was brave but always fair with his opinions and not many had the courage to tackle him in a war of words.
My sympathies to Jackie and his family. It was an honour to know you Sir. (see min 5.47 of video below)