In appreciation of Tony Johnstone – Golf’s David Attenborough

Mark McGowan

A herd of elephants walk behind Branden Grace at the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek Country Golf Club (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

I’ve a confession to make. It’s pro golf silly season in the States and as the DP World tours the southern hemisphere, most golf fans have mentally and physically tuned out. Not me though. This week, I’m glued to the Alfred Dunhill Championship coverage from Leopard Creek, and not for the reasons you’d expect.

Ok, the actual golf is part of the reason. There’s three Irish rookies in the field and we’re naturally following their progression, but I don’t think the Sky Sports camera operators even know what John Murphy or Gary Hurley look like yet, and Tom McKibbin’s not going to make aces every week. No, the real reason I’m glued to the coverage is Sky Sports commentator Tony Johnstone.

Younger readers won’t recall – I barely recall myself – but Johnstone, a Zimbabwean native, is a six-time European Tour winner and one of the finest short-game exponents of his era. His dulcet tones and knowledge make for easy listening on regular weeks, but on weeks like this, Johnstone is truly in a class of his own.


Leopard Creek borders Kruger National Park – Southern Africa’s largest nature reserve – and cameras will regularly pan to feature lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, crocodiles, hippos etc. Being something of a wildlife buff – going on safari remains high on the bucket list – I could watch that footage all day, but Johnstone’s contributions are priceless here.

He is, you see, something of a David Attenborough himself. I’ve been following Johnstone for years on Twitter, and his timeline is filled with wonderful photography of nature and wildlife at its spectacular best. Able to accurately identify the birdsong heard on golf courses the world over, his knowledge of the big mammals and reptiles we see adjacent to Leopard Creek is equally impressive.

Today, in a fifteen-minute window, he gave us a running commentary of a hyena stalking wild boar piglets – hyenas may be best known as scavengers, but are actually some of the most prolific killers among the larger predators, he informed us – a lioness gnawing on the bones of some unfortunate creature, and starred in a ‘cut-to segment’ where he explained the difference in texture, colour and content of elephant and rhinoceros droppings.

I regularly criticise televised golf coverage and brand it a figurative ‘load of s***e’ but here was Johnstone with a literal ‘load of s***e’ and it made for excellent viewing.

Touching, picking at and sniffing the faeces was not beneath him, and then he rounded it off by giving a demonstration of picking a ball clean from the top of a steaming mound as relief is not allowed should you find yourself in such a predicament. Ordinarily, I’d much rather cameras stuck to the on-course action, but I’m certainly willing to make exceptions for these sorts of scenarios.

It reminded me in some ways of Ken Brown’s ‘Ken on the course’ segments on BBC which were always enjoyable, especially at Augusta National which, along with the absence of commercials, was one of the main reasons I always chose their coverage over Sky Sports’.

Of course, there was plenty of golf on display too, and come the back nine on Sunday, it will be very much the focal point, but in the meantime, I’m more than happy to have it take a back seat as often as possible and let Tony Johnstone and mother nature take centre-stage.

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One response to “In appreciation of Tony Johnstone – Golf’s David Attenborough”

  1. Edward avatar

    Excellent tribute. You brilliantly described Tony to a tee, no pun intended but very apt anyway.

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