I had the misfortune to spend much of last Sunday afternoon watching the final round of the Open on television. Golf is a very good game to play, and the final round itself was exciting, enlivened by some terrific play by some of the world's best players, so why did I find the experience of watching the events at Royal Troon so extraordinarily enervating? The reason, I think, was to do with the commentary, with the voices of those who were mediating what was happening out there on those windy links.
Sports broadcasting, especially at the BBC but increasingly elsewhere as well, is an exclusive club, condition of entry to which is to have been a former (or, indeed, present) sportsman or sportswoman. Very few journalists, if any, are invited into this club. Golf broadcasting is no exception.
This year the BBC team, led by the wittering whimsy of Peter Alliss, featured Seve Ballesteros, the once-great Spanish golfer, who speaks English almost as badly as he now plays the game. "What do you think of Ernie [Els], Seve?" he was asked at one point in the afternoon.
"Ernie, he stand well. He is brilliant player."
It was useful, as Philip Larkin might have said, to get that learnt.
To listen to the BBC team - the monotone dirge of Mark James,
the lugubrious Sam Torrance, the incomprehensible Seve - was to lament all over again the disappearance of the articulate, informed journalist from the arena of sports broadcasting. "This man is a genius," droned James as Phil Mickelson chipped the ball out of the rough and close to the flag (there were rather too many geniuses out there on the Scottish links that afternoon). "What a brilliant shot," exclaimed Torrance. "I can't believe this," said Alliss, with no suggestion of disbelief in his voice. "It's as if it's being scripted." I had heard him say this, or something very similar, innumerable times before.
Elsewhere, our man on the links, stumbling over the bumps and wading through the knee-length grass, was someone called Julian Tutt. The lone journalist perhaps? Tutt certainly sounded different from everybody else: he sounded fruity, like an old-style public-school toff. In fact, I was pretty sure that I'd heard him on Radio 4 providing deferential commentary on grand royal occasions, his voice lowered, his head no doubt ceremoniously bowed. The perfect man for Royal Troon, then -
someone who could at last elevate the occasion with his eloquence.
"You've been in there, Julian," Alliss said to him as the camera panned to a ball lying in thick grass. "What's it like?"
"It's not beautiful in there," Tutt replied. He paused. I waited for further elaboration, for the perfect metaphor. "It's a bit . . . er, cuppy," he said.
This was meant to have been a "golden" summer of British sport. Sven-Goran "Svennis" Eriksson, who is paid more than £4m a year for a part-time job as England coach, was to have led the national team to victory at Euro 2004; Tim Henman, following his attacking performance at the French Open in Paris, was to have excelled at Wimbledon; the sun was meant to have shone on our improving cricketers; the rugby players were to have demonstrated why they were world champions on their tour of Australia and New Zealand; one of our emerging golfers was to have starred at the Open; and the forthcoming Athens Olympics are something, we are told, to get excited about. In the event, it has not turned out very well at all.
Svennis may have a flamboyant and unpredictable amorous life, but his team played with a startling lack of daring and ambition in Portugal. Henman crashed out in the quarter-finals, as he does, this time to an "unknown" giant Croat. It rained on our cricketers, who were well beaten in the one-day series. The rugby players were awful, as were our young golfers at Troon. And Dwain Chambers, our best hope - indeed, our only hope - for a gold medal on the track at Athens has long since been banned for illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs.
In fact, it's all been rather . . . er, cuppy.
This column now takes a summer break. Hunter Davies returns in September