It has long been a truism of sports broadcasting that the best pictures are on the radio. And nowhere was that more evident than in the coverage of the 44th Ryder Cup over the weekend. I cannot have been alone in finding myself, after completing a couple of short trips, sitting in the car outside our house on Sunday afternoon for half an hour taking in the commentary from the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club. The fact was, so good was the BBC 5 Live coverage, I simply could not pull myself away.
For sure, across the three days of pulsating action, I watched plenty on the television. But when I was obliged to detach myself from the sofa to undertake some domestic chore, it quickly became clear that if you wanted not just to know what was going on but to be transported to the edge of the greens there was only one place to be: listening to the radio. The advantages were immediate and obvious. For a start, there were no commercial breaks.
Despite paying something like £90 a month for a Sky subscription, the number of pauses in the pictures soon proved beyond irritating. Every couple of minutes it seemed there was a break to bring us yet more ads for watches so expensive you would need to have recently won a major to be able to afford one. On the radio, the only disturbance you got from the golf was to deliver brief news from Ewood Park on how Blackburn were faring against Leicester.
But more than that, 5 Live’s work in Italy was simply masterful. Not least because they had mustered a team to deliver the tournament almost as accomplished as the one Luke Donald selected. There was the wonderful football correspondent John Murray, normally obliged to shout over the crowd noise at the Emirates and Anfield, whispering news of European superiority.
There was Alistair Bruce-Ball, acting as our eyes on the ground, full of enthusiasm, charm and wit. And there was the golf correspondent Iain Carter. To listen to his extemporised commentary as Jon Rahm turned things around against Scottie Scheffler on the 18th green was to be in the presence of someone at the top of his game: precise, controlled yet marvellously evocative.
Relive the moment Jon Rahm earned a vital half for #TeamEurope on the final day of the Ryder Cup 🔥
Europe now lead 14-7, needing just half a point to win the #RyderCup
Listen on @BBCSounds 📲 https://t.co/NI1sjtGRxI pic.twitter.com/udQIlPuNZq
— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) October 1, 2023
This was the thing about the Beeb’s commentary team: you felt you were listening to a mate out there on the course. Albeit a mate who knows a lot more about golf than any of your own mates do. This was a team taking you to the very heart of the action. Unlike the television commentators stuck in a studio somewhere, they were all out on the course, following a match each, carrying their equipment on their backs. Friendly, warm, immensely knowledgeable, they were our eyes on the ground. And when you have a pair of eyes as astute and knowledgeable as Carter’s, it really is a pleasure listening.
Plus they knew how to ask a question of the competitors. Sky’s Sarah Stirk framed every query in post-round interviews as if she were presenting a 1980s children’s television science show. “How proud are you of that performance?” “How good does that feel?” “How important was that win?” she would say. The golfers on both teams were way too polite to give her the one word answer she invited: “very.”
But the real treasure of the BBC coverage was the man holding it all together. It is not exactly news hot off the press to suggest Mark Chapman is rather good at this sort of thing. To listen to him over the weekend was to be reminded, however, that he is the closest thing we have in the modern era to Des Lynam. There he was, required to remain unflappable, calm and organised for hours on end as he merged reports from football, rugby and racing with the golf. And above it all he maintained a wonderfully acute, Lynam-esque sense of the absurdity of it all.
At one point deep into Sunday’s drama, he started to bring the listeners up to speed with the scores from round the course. “Don’t do that,” interrupted the former Ryder Cup player Chris Wood who was acting as an expert analyst alongside him, “you’ll jinx us.”
You could almost hear Chapman’s amused disdain as he dismissed the idea of not keeping his audience informed. “Actually,” he said as he returned to his round-up. “It’s my job.”
And nobody does it better.