APRIL 2014 - BY MATT HOOPER: "The history books re-written by 12 heroes in Chicago. Unbelievably, it's Europe's Ryder Cup! Seve must have enjoyed that"
Simple words at the perfect time, which is the artistry of the narration that Ewen Murray puts to each event, big or small, that he commentates on for Sky Sports. These opening words are of course from the climax to the incredible final day at Medinah in September 2012 when Europe came from 6-10 down to lift the Ryder Cup.
Growing up in the 1990’s and 2000’s watching golf on television for me the familiar voice in the commentary box was Ewen Murray. Sky have golf every week of the year and cover three of the four majors and the Ryder Cup.
I had the honour of sitting down with Ewen recently to discuss his career and much more.
I started by asking him about his playing career and what life was like on tour when he was playing in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Ewen Murray: “I had a very good boy’s record, but disappointed as a pro. I didn’t win on the main tour but won two on the Safari Tour back in the 80’s.”
“It was very different then, it was a six month season with no practice ranges, no courtesy cars, no player’s lounges but it was what we knew then and it was fine. There was a strong camaraderie with all the players that perhaps there isn’t now. Players tend to go their separate ways a bit now, understandably as it is a bigger business.”
“But I wouldn’t have swapped it, I enjoyed my playing days. I played a lot abroad in the winter in South America and Africa.”
Matt Hooper: So you played very much where you could get competitive golf then really?
EM: “Definitely, I had an airline contract with British Caledonian Airways which made life a lot easier. I could go down to South America and Africa when I wanted.”
MH: Why did you decide to move away from competitive golf?
EM: “I was 35 years of age and I had a putting problem and I knew that it would be very difficult to win because I wasn’t good enough in that department.”
“The older I got the worse I got. I didn’t like playing for money, if you are a tournament player you play to win.”
MH: You moved into golf course design briefly?
EM: “Yeah I have done a couple of designs, I did one in Southampton and I was involved in the Goodwood project but that is about it really.”
MH: Was it something which you felt it was too time consuming?
EM: “Quite the opposite, there wasn’t that many chances. The ones who wanted courses wanted signature courses designed by the likes of Nicklaus, Miller, Faldo and others.”
“They either wanted the top end of the market or the bottom and I was in the middle. So that didn’t really take off.”
MH: So you moved into golf commentary, how did the opportunity with Sky come about?
EM: “I did a tournament in Dubai for a satellite station Channel 33 and Sky was in its infancy then, it was actually Eurosport that was the Sky sport station.”
“They put together a highlights package and then asked me if I would do the following week, which was down in Spain, which I did and then I did the next half a dozen and then Eurosport was sold so I went to France with Eurosport every weekend.”
“It was miserable, horrible and then I came back to a company called Screensport, and did the American golf and the European, it was all done in a studio in London. You did the European (golf) in the afternoon and the American (golf) in the evening.”
“Then Sky Sports won the Premiership rights and moved straight into them on day one”
MH: Did you envisage being there for over twenty years?
EM: “I remember the boss back then, David Hill, he put the score (football) in the top left of the screen (he was the first to do that) and he is now president of FOX Sports.”
“He said if you are coming in here we will give you a contract but you cannot go back to play, you either do this and do it properly or you don’t do it.”
“I said I will be here for the next 25 years if I am good enough, and that 25 years comes up just after the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.”
“That will be my 12th Ryder Cup.”
MH: Have you ever been approached by the BBC or other broadcasters?
EM: “The people I have worked with at Sky, then and now, I have a great loyalty to because it was they who gave me the chance.”
“I was a bit rough around the edges in the beginning. I had very good people to say look don’t do that there is another way of doing that, so I felt very loyal to them very quickly.”
“And I feel pretty similar today. The way it has grown; The Masters, the majors apart from The Open, the World Golf Championships and the best tournaments in the world.”
MH: So what makes Sky’s coverage so good?
EM: “They are innovative, other broadcasters stayed still. It is the same with the football, if you look at Sky’s style, not just the golf.”
“If I am home on a Monday or very rarely a Sunday I will sit and watch the football, and I will watch all the bits around it. I will watch the chat at the start and what the expert thinks.”
“I like all that, and I think football fans do. They enjoy what they are being told and they are being educated at the same time. It adds to the enjoyment of watching football. Golf is the same”
MH: “Certainly when we look at the Ryder Cup the way Sky cover that event is so good”
EM: “What people forget is on the first morning of the 1985 Ryder Cup the fourballs or foursomes weren’t shown live, there was a programme called Play Better Badminton from 1973 on, that was the programme that was on when they (BBC) could have been at the Belfry.”
“The Ryder Cup is no good shown in bits, you need to see the whole thing live. I think people say don’t bother me for three days I am going to sit and watch it.”
“The hours are long. The days before Sky there was 2 hours of golf on the final day. Things were different then, we didn’t have the technology that we do today. People do forget what it was like before, they didn’t have a choice.”
“Sky are a dedicated sports channel, they don’t have to move the golf for a horse race or cricket because they will be on Sky Sports 2 and 3.”
“And you pay for it so you should have a choice.”
MH: What would be your favourite events each year to cover?
EM: “The Masters is tremendously special, having waited quite a while to do that. I did The Masters in 1991 in the early days of Sky but we had to wait quite a long time to get the next one. I don’t think I have a favourite though.”
MH: Do you still get a buzz and enjoyment out of each event you go to?
EM: “That was my one worry when I finished playing that the feeling when you walk on the first tee would struggle to be replaced.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted to lose that. But I get more nervous on television than I ever did playing.”
“If I go in and that doesn’t happen then that will be the time to say you have probably run your course.”
Ewen is of course ably backed by arguably the greatest golf broadcasting team in the world, on and off screen. From the presenter David Livingstone, who according to the legendary Des Lynam “never fails to ask intelligent questions or lose his composure or let his ego get in the way of the event.”
To the studio experts Colin Montgomerie, Butch Harmon, Denis Pugh, Simon Holmes, Andrew Coltart, Mark Roe and others. And Ewen’s on air partner Bruce Critchley, whose soft voice, wise words and wealth of knowledge compliments the Scot perfectly.
Sky Sports acquired the rights to broadcast all four rounds of The Masters live in the UK in 2011 and I asked Ewen about his reaction to this announcement and his Augusta experiences.
MH: What was your reaction when you found out Sky would broadcast The Masters?
EM: “Of course, I was thrilled. Sky had in the past tried to add the Masters to its impressive portfolio of world events and eventually, because of its excellent production values, alongside innovative coverage, the Masters graced our screens. Augusta's chairman, Billy Payne has been a revelation.”
“A few years back, the last nine holes with firmer greens took much of the excitement away. Billy recognised what changes had to be made, and making the right ones, he gave us back the Masters we knew and loved. It’s a huge privilege to put the words over the idyllic pictures.”
MH: When did you first visit Augusta National and how did that happen?
EM: “My Sky Sports colleague of over twenty years, Bruce Critchley asked me if I would like to join him, a friend from Scotland and a member of Augusta National for two days golf after the Players Championship in 2000, just two weeks before the Masters. George Whisler, who owned a bottled water company in Atlanta greeted us at the majestic, understated clubhouse.”
“After our round, we retired to the Butler Cabin, yes, the one where they put the green jacket on the champion, for that was our residence for the night. We had dinner in the clubhouse which was so elegant. Beautiful food, wine and service, and the scent of history.”
“We played again in the morning before departing after lunch. If there ever was the perfect way to visit Augusta, I was well aware I had just been blessed with it.”
MH: What were your feelings as you made your way down Magnolia Lane for the first time?
EM: “Like many golfers of my age, I had grown up watching the Masters and every year, couldn't wait for the second week of April.”
“So when I passed through the gates by Washington Road for the first time, I was like a child on Christmas morning. Excited and happy, anxious, with a steady flow of adrenaline. When I looked over the course from the end of Magnolia Lane, it was as beautiful as I imagined it would be.”
MH: How many times have you played Augusta?
EM: “That is the only time I have played there. I've been there several times since with the job I do today, but the first visit was so special, I'm happy to leave it at that. Now, the evening before the first round, I take a walk from the commentary position by the 11th around Amen Corner.”
“There is virtually no sound, the only movement comes from the Fox Squirrels and the Azaleas sparkle in the fading sunlight as the day grows old. Its beauty is breath-taking.”
MH: What is your favourite hole at Augusta and why?
EM: “I am of course spoilt for choice, but I would go with the par 5, 15th. It comes at just the right time in the round. Two good shots can yield an eagle, one bad shot can result in a double bogey. Sarazen's albatross won him the Masters, dear Seve's second shot demise cost him his third Masters.”
“The pressure in a major is arguably at its strongest coming down this hole on Sunday. It's a hole that has decided much down the years and will continue to do so.”
MH: What is your least favourite hole at Augusta and why?
EM: “Not such a big choice here.”
“The 7th. I believe this was a much better hole when it was 70 yards shorter. The green is designed to receive a wedge. In today's world, it can be as much as a six iron. Since it's been lengthened, it’s cost many a player a double bogey or worse. I preferred this one the way it was.”
MH: Would you like to see the Masters invite more players, create exemptions for, European Tour winners in the future? Do you think this could happen?
EM: “No, and No.”
“The Masters is unique and I guess if you asked every golfer across the world today, they would say, they love The Masters. Its works beautifully as it is. A field of, usually just below 100 and limited television coverage.”
“One of its secrets is that it always leaves you wanting more. Augusta still recognises the worlds Amateurs, the games top 50 players and the champions in the run up to the event. We all love the Masters, the qualification is crystal clear, let's leave it as it is.”
Sky Sports then launched a dedicated Ryder Cup channel - Sky Sports Ryder Cup, to cover the matches at Gleneagles. Ewen was ecstatic about that. “The launch of the "Sky Sports Ryder Cup Channel" for the duration either side of and including the match is wonderful news for golf fans. I remember sitting at home as a youngster eagerly awaiting the start of The Masters and there it was, Augusta National in all its glory, then it was straight into the golf, then it was over. It's what we did then.”
“Nowadays, through the innovations Sky Sports are famous for, golfers can now access the pre-tournament build up, be part of it, and be right up to speed with the interviews, the form of both sides, the course lay out and the views of the two teams and their Captains. This is the complete Ryder Cup experience.”
“In between all of that is the history of golf's greatest show. Sky's ﬁrst Ryder Cup was from Oak Hill Country Club in New York State in 1995, when against all the odds, Bernard Gallacher's team turned a two point deﬁcit into a glorious victory on Sunday singles day. Who can forget Seve's contribution in his homeland two years later?
“Then Brookline, when American Captain, Ben Crenshaw turned the tables on Mark James side. Sam Torrance's side triumphed at The Belfry 17 years after he himself holed the winning on the West Midland's ﬁnal green.”
“Following that, the wonderful European domination at Oakland Hills and The K Club, where Darren Clarke bared his soul to the world and won the hearts of many with his courageous display. Paul Azinger restored American pride taking the Cup across the Atlantic two years later, before Monty and Jose wrestled it back.”
The last of these producing what truly was, "The Miracle at Medinah”.
“I mention these moments because those of you who watched them will have vivid visions still fresh in the mind. It's what The Ryder Cup delivers. Throughout Sky's "Ryder Cup fortnight", you will relive these glorious memories which will surely whet your appetite for this year’s showcase.”
“During the match itself, with the aid of Ryder Cup wiﬁ, spectators and fans can keep themselves up to date via Sky Go and Now TV. That greatly enhances the spectators viewing as when the match gets underway, you can only be in one place at one time!”
“For the majority who can't be at Gleneagles, you can enjoy the very best analysis from my esteemed colleagues. It’s a special week for David Livingstone, as he presents his tenth Ryder Cup in his homeland.”
“The American view is delivered by the evergreen Butch Harmon, the home thoughts from Colin Montgomerie, and in a special preview program, former Captains, Sam Torrance and Tony Jacklin will air their views on what lies ahead.”
“The Ryder Cup deserves this innovative coverage and Sky Sports are thrilled to be able to provide it. I have no doubt the viewer’s enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by "The Sky Sports Ryder Cup Channel". You will have the greatest golﬁng show at your ﬁngertips.”
Barney Francis, managing director of Sky Sports, said: “We’re dedicating a whole channel to the biggest event in golf, providing viewers with the complete Ryder Cup experience all in one place.
“There will be nowhere better for sports fans to enjoy the passion, drama and excitement of this incredible event as we’ll offer round-the-clock build up, the opening and closing ceremonies and exclusive live coverage of all three days from Gleneagles.
“We’re incredibly proud of our partnership with golf and its fitting we mark our tenth Ryder Cup on Sky Sports with an entire channel.
"We can’t wait.”
I concluded our time together by asking Ewen about his experiences in St Andrews. He played in the 1978 Open where he made the cut but finished in last place after a 10-over-par weekend. He returned in 1984 and finished in a tie for 37th place on 1-over-par.
MH: When did you first come to St Andrews and when did you first play the Old Course?
EM: “I was 10 years of age, I played with my father.”
“When you first look at the Old Course you think how about this!”
“I was at The Open in 1964 here.”
MH: What is your favourite hole on the Old Course or in St Andrews?
EM: “There are so many, it is hard to decide but if I had to go for one it would be 18. It maybe isn’t the hardest but you have the R&A Clubhouse, Hamilton Hall, the town. It is like you don’t walk up that fairway. You glide up it on a magic carpet.”
If you are fortunate enough to be in front of a television that has Sky Sports this April and throughout the summer you will hear the words of Ewen Murray and his colleagues on what Butch Harmon says is the “best golf broadcaster in the world”.
He might not have the fame and notoriety of Peter Alliss but that is just fine by the unassuming Scot who finds the right words at the right time and doesn’t let his own performance become the talking point after the 72nd hole.