Forget Phil Mickelson’s cake-walk to a second Green Jacket and the predictable capitulation of the European contingent – Forget even the flustered, po-faced media condemnation of Tiger Wood’s confession that he “putted like a spaz” *, – the key question on lips of British sports fans this week was did Gary Lineker cut it on his Masters debut?
And, for me, the definitive answer is no. Well sort of. Hmmmm….maybe. Alright then, yes. But there’s a lot of work to do.
Augusta embraces tradition like no other golf course: There are the azaleas, Rae’s Creek and Lyle’s bunker; there is the endearing pomposity of the Butler Cabin and the solemn rite of passage as the new champion slides on that famous jacket; American anchors called Bob wear expensive blazers and talk about Arnold Palmer; Doddery pensioners shoot 97 and are cheered all the way around; and for the BBC, there is, and has always been, Steve Rider. Debonair. Urbane. Consummate.
I remember one year he performed his entire introductory piece to camera while speeding to the studio on the back of a golf buggy that looked like it was being driven by Chevy Chase in Caddy Shack, yet still he remained poised, cool and able to describe Lee Westward shanking it into the trees at the eleventh with the gravitas it deserved.
I think it’s largely in the hair. Rider’s barnet looks like it has been lovingly woven by a specially trained troop of silk worms – glossy yet regimentally rigid; smooth yet rakish with that tiny hint of smouldering danger. He is, in many ways, golf’s answer to Clark Gable (though I would wager the ex-BBC man is considerably more capable of coaxing another Bobby Jones anecdote out of Peter Alliss - and that's not just because Gable's been dead since 1961.)
Do you mind? I'm trying to broadcast here...
More intuitive viewers have surely, like me, detected a blossoming love story amid the BBC’s past Masters coverage. You could usually find Rider on the eve of the tournament enjoying an informal chat with Colin Montgomerie (or MontgAmerie, as Steve playfully mispronounces it) – catching up with him on the driving range or, even better, strolling with him across the pristine turf – gently probing and encouraging – blind optimism momentarily replacing tired inevitability. “This is your year, Monty,” he would say firmly – wanting it, willing it to happen. Invariably the interview would pre-empt the latest Major disaster for the big Scot – a missed cut and more hurtful Mrs. Doubtfire taunts perhaps - and, briefly, almost imperceptibly, a forlorn sigh would pierce Rider’s professionalism as he relayed the news back to his faithful viewers.
But we’ve moved on. Rider is now fronting ITV’s Formula 1 coverage and presumably culturing a similarly obsessive relationship with Jenson Button so it is left to Lineker to develop his own object of affection. He was suitably toadying when interviewing Gary Player, and many of the other golfers are clearly affable acquaintances from the pro-am circuit, but I was impressed by the promising rapport he had with the charming and eloquent David Howell – an Englishman who had underperformed to a suitably Monty-esque degree on the final day, leaving them plenty of time to get to know one another as the real action unfolded.
As for his regular pundits, Gary found it harder to gel with the unfamiliar Wayne Grady and Ken Brown. Having carved a niche for himself on Match of the Day, he seemed a little unsure whether to wheel out the impish effrontery often inflicted upon the likes of Mark Lawrenson, but eventually contented himself with ingenuous nodding and questions like: “So Ken, a double bogey for Faldo there – will he be disappointed with that?”
It quickly became evident he was in some discomfort despite the customary open-necked shirt, pressed camel chinos and boyish grin. With CBS’s frequent commercial breaks, Lineker was confronted by a leaderboard and some pan-pipe muzaq at alarmingly regular intervals. “Chad Campbell leads by three…(pause)…as he has for…er…some time,” was a common observation on day two, and we soon realised that anchoring a major golf tournament is slightly harder than reading out loud and making scripted wisecracks about Alan Hansen’s polo-neck.
Lineker: Tough debut at the Masters
It is the ability to effortlessly ad lib in the face of such mundane, unchanging visual aids that sets the likes of Rider and Jeff Stelling apart from a hungry crowd of ex-sports stars clamouring for presenting work. Lineker is good, but he is yet to achieve that authority, that easy fluency.
There was much to enjoy about this year’s BBC coverage though – largely due to the hiring of Sam Torrance who is not only a loose cannon but also borderline psychotic in his affection for Freddie Couples. During the final round he proclaimed his desperate desire for the veteran American to win no fewer than twenty-seven times. “There may be snow on the roof but there’s still a roaring fire in hearth,” Alliss concurred sagely, hopefully referring to Couples’ salt and pepper hair and his bulldog spirit, not his fiery loins.
Yet Lineker toiled. Maybe it was nerves, but the slickness was gone. Gags were at a premium in Brown’s dour company and he made a series of routine blunders. I lost count of the number of times he confused birdies and bogeys and at one point Jose Maria Olazabal “equalled” the 15th to move into contention for the title.
Slips of the tongue, maybe, but if one were being unkind it would not be an overstatement to conclude that Lineker has tumbled from supreme soccer frontman to timorous gurning amateur in the time it took ITV to sign Rider’s cheque and gleefully wave goodbye to Jim Rosenthal. He’ll improve with time, but until he can simultaneously ride a golf buggy, keep his hair from fuzzing up and talk us through a bogey-free 67 from Ernie Els, I’ll still be pining for Steve.
* Heaven forbid a sportsman should actually make a spontaneous honest remark instead of spouting generic, uninspired clichés.
Obviously the smug hacks who threw their arms up in disgust at a simple mistake from an otherwise quiet, unassuming man with a microphone thrust in his face have never mocked the afflicted or poured scorn on those less fortunate than themselves.
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