Even ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,’ Robert Burns, To a Mouse

‘Don’t you miss this Arnie; don’t you dare!’ Peter Alliss, 1995 ‘Open Championship’

There is a reason this editorial is fashioned, “The Long Version.” The reason is simply this: the contents of these editorials are my viewpoint, my position, and largely rely on my memory, which is far from infallible. Quite simply, some of the events I describe, like the one today, are my recollection. 

One of my favorite stories, surrounding golf, involves two giant figures of the game’s past, Peter Alliss and Arnold Palmer. Palmer should need no introduction.

Alliss had been an exceptional golfer on the European tour in his earlier days. He had won 20-professional tournaments, including three (3) Brittish PGA Championships, and had finished in the top-10, five (5) times in what the British refer to simply as the “Open Championship.” We Yanks call it The British Open.

Many golf fans would have known Peter Alliss much better as a golf commentator. He, quite frankly, became “the voice of golf” for many, many golf enthusiasts. 

Alliss began his television work at the Open Championship in 1961, a championship in which he had competed. That same Open Championship would be won by Arnold Palmer and would be his first of two such titles. 

Alliss would become the lead golf commentator for the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) in 1978 and go on to work for both ESPN and ABC Sports from 1975 until 2010. He continued to appear as a guest analyst on ESPN’s coverage of the Open Championship from 2011-2015.

The great Arnold Palmer would make his last appearance, as a “competitor,” in the Open Championship in 1995. He would miss the cut, shooting an opening round of 83 and a second round of 75.

It would be an Open Championship of firsts and lasts. It would be won by John Daly, for his first and last championship at that event. It would be the first time Tiger Woods would play in the British Open, though still an amateur at the time. 

Woods would make the cut but finish well off the pace. It would be the last round played by Arnold Palmer in a tournament Palmer made popular in the US by crossing the pond and competing.

All of the above, I am (fairly) confident is accurate. The remainder of the story will rely much on my recollection.

Peter Alliss, like all great sports’ commentators, had his own distinctive meter, affect, and accent. He was to golf what Vin Scully or Harry Carey were to baseball, Keith Jackson was to college football, or Howard Cosell was to Monday Night Football. 

He was original. No one had ever called a golf championship like Peter Alliss before, and no one has come along to take his place, though Nick Faldo does a nice job.

Those of you who grew up listening to Alliss, like I did, are going to need to rely on your memories of how Alliss sounded calling a golf tournament. Just add your best internal “Peter Alliss” to the words I am about to write.

It was the final hole of the final competitive round for a man whose enormous popularity and blue-collared origins had launched golf’s popularity as a televised sport into the mainstream from a country-club, privileged undertaking. His fans were called an Army. The Army dearly loved its Arnie.

Alliss knew (I would suspect) that were he to “frame” this picture of the great man’s final competitive hole at the Open Championship, where Alliss’s own broadcasting career had begun in 1961, and in the same championship Arnie and his Army had won back in ‘61; he would have masterfully authored a moment which would live forever among the pantheon of great sports’ calls. This was as much Alliss’s opportunity as it was Arnie’s. 

Peter Alliss would prove up to this challenge. Arnie had missed the green short at the Par-4, 18th. He crossed Swilcan bridge, approached his shot, lying two; and chipped his third shot onto the green, just four feet away from what would be, were he to hole the 4-footer, a final par. 

This par would be "window-dressing." Arnie was hopelessly off the cut-line to play the weekend; but somehow, making this final par and in front of a worldwide audience, would graciously give Arnie an out and in a fitting, memorable, and even nostalgic way. 

It would be one last hoorah! It would constitute one final par! It would be the Army's final victory, and its last stand.

Arnie had been wildly cheered as he crossed Swilcan Bridge. Arnie’s chip left Palmer just four feet away from more than a mere par. Arnie was four-feet short of a moment, a memory, and a fitting send-off. It would be Arnie’s final stroke to punctuate Arnie’s incredible career. 

Palmer would card this four and ride off into the sunset through a hailstorm of both tears and memories. That “tiny triumph” would stay fresh in our minds and our hearts forever.

Peter Alliss was going to make the call of a career. “Arnold Palmer, at his last competitive hole playing 'The Old Course,' putting for par!” Alliss was speaking into the microphone, just above a whisper, so as not to disrupt the wrapt silence which had befallen a grandstand joined by an international television audience; collectively holding its breath, for this final attempt, and its final roar for Arnie.

Palmer was looking over his four-foot, knee-knocker of a putt, from behind the ball. Alliss continued, “Arnie’s Army is waiting to cheer its champion a final time. The two-time champion, who first won this championship at Royal Birkdale in ’61, the owner of a masterful putting stroke throughout a brilliant career, aligns the final four-feet to go out with a par at the 18th, here at St. Andrews. Palmer for par.”

Arnold Palmer approached the putt and stood over the ball. Palmer made a few practice strokes. The great Peter Alliss then gently begins to apply the exclamation point, barely above a whisper.

“Arnold Palmer, the man who has done this countless times, who has made countless pressure puts, needs to summon the old nerve a final time. Palmer needs one more, confident stroke into the bottom of that cup.”

Palmer bears down, ready for the attempt. Alliss must be thinking,...now, for all time, for television eternity. In a low, raspy voice; Alliss answers his imagined internal invitation for comment with, “Don’t you miss this Arnie; don’t you dare!”

Man, I wish Arnie had hit that putt! Palmer’s back-stroke looked like a figure-eight and his fore-stroke looked scarcely different. He completely choked the stroke. He was, after all, human.

Palmer’s putt was off-line by a distance golfers regularly reference as a hole and a half, on the low side. The putt never had a chance. Arnie had bogeyed.

I have told this story to my own sons countless times. Both William and Jack Whaley have told me they have many times searched the internet, to no avail, for video of Alliss' call.  

I suspect, knowing how revered Palmer both was and (even in death) still is, the call has been long ago pulled, marked, and burned. It may no longer exist outside of my memory and that of my father’s, which is similar to mine, by the way.

Still, Alliss had this beautifully staged. It would have been a call for the ages had Palmer just made that pesky, 4-footer.

You know what the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote about “the best laid plans of mice and men…;” they “…often go awry.” There is a great lesson in this, I have always felt. 

This is Fletcher Long, and you can take this for whatever you find it worth, but THAT’S THE LONG VERSION!

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