Royal Lytham & St Annes is a golf club with a mighty championship course that is strewn with bunkers and encircled by houses. It has one of the most commodious of the clubhouses that were built at the end of the 19th century with magnificent rooms upstairs and the more prosaic ones downstairs. In winter, an open fire crackles in the hall. What could be more welcoming? Bobby Jones’s presence is so strong at Lytham you have to shoulder him out of the way to get into the clubhouse or on to the course. The whole place reeks of golf.
So if you want to hint at changing golf history, that you might end more than 50 years of the Open on BBC television, Royal Lytham is a good place to do it. Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, did this last week when he warned the BBC to pull up their socks if they wanted to continue to transmit the Open after the current television contract runs out in 2016. “They have to stay in practice,” Dawson said. “They have to keep up with the advances in technology in broadcasting and they know we’ve got our eye on that for sure.”
The BBC have covered golf very well down the years. Do you remember Jacklin’s hole-in-one on the 16th at Royal St George’s in 1967, the first televised ace? And any number of Opens, numerous Walker Cups, some Ryder Cups, as well as dozens of tournaments in Britain from the PGA in the late spring to the World Match Play at Wentworth each autumn?
The elegant, sometimes idiosyncratic, English spoken by the BBC commentators made them synonymous with their sports. Dan Maskell on tennis, Bill McLaren on rugby, Peter O’Sullevan on racing and Peter Alliss on golf. Alliss learned his trade alongside the revered Henry Longhurst who only talked when he had something to say. “What a corker!” Longhurst exclaimed in admiration at Jacklin’s drive on the 72nd hole of the 1969 Open at Royal Lytham, which Jacklin won a few minutes after that drive. When Doug Sanders missed that very short putt on the 18th green of the 1970 Open at St Andrews, Longhurst merely gave a sharp intake of breath, a sound that was worth one thousand words.
But the BBC are funded by the British taxpayer and unable to screen advertisements. This is an attraction to many who do not like every half-hour’s television being interrupted by three or four minutes of advertising, but it limits the BBC’s financial power. The BBC have reduced their golf coverage from 24 days in a year to the last two days of The Masters and all four days of the Open. In Britain, the Open is known as one of the crown jewels of sport and the law requires that some of it has to be shown on terrestrial television. But the right to televise the Open all day and every day is a prize that TV companies such as BSKYB, which televised the Masters in 3D high definition for all four days in 2012, and ESPN, which had 90 cameras and several remarkable gadgets that helped viewers understand more about a golfer’s shot at last year’s Open, and others so obviously covet.
The R&A have three major television deals, with the BBC, which expires in 2016, with TV Asahi, which expires after this year’s championship, and with ESPN, which expires in 2017 or 2018, whichever the R&A prefer. For some years now, there have been rumours that TV companies other than the BBC might be awarded the Open, though it has yet to happen.
“We do recognise that they (the BBC) have a number of sports and obviously the broadcast of golf has dropped dramatically, so we are keeping our eye on it,” Jim McArthur, chairman of the R&A’s Championship Committee, said. Dawson added: “We do still think they do a good job. Watching the coverage of The Masters and the Open on the BBC is not a bad experience.”
More and more though, the fight between the BBC, the terrestrial national broadcaster, and BSKYB, currently celebrating their 20 years of sports coverage on satellite television, ESPN and who knows what other television companies with deep pockets, seems unequal.
Things may change before the next TV contract is signed but current wisdom suggests the BBC are on the 17th green of their Open coverage deal with the R&A. They may be about to lose 2 & 1 or they may go down the 18th and hold on for one more three-year contract. But it seems inevitable that the BBC, which is as much a part of the fabric of life in Britain as cricket and the Houses of Parliament, will soon be squeezed out.
“It’s very hard to compete with someone with seemingly unlimited funds,” Alliss was quoted as saying in the Daily Mail last week. “The racing has gone and Formula One has gone. It is sad. It is the end of an era.”