There’s a tension, a weight, in the air. Laura Davies sits impassively still, hands in her lap. Paul McGinley glances over his shoulder behind him, through the studio glass, at the thousands of European fans massed behind the first tee. Meanwhile David Livingstone, Sky Sports’s golf presenter for the last quarter of a century, adjusts his tie as camera one goes in for a close-up.
The sponsor segment plays. The titles roll. There’s a montage of stars from other sports wishing Europe good luck. The boxer Anthony Joshua. Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Christian Eriksen of Tottenham Hotspur. Joe Root, the England cricket captain.
“I have no idea who any of those guys are,” a nonplussed Butch Harmon observes, sotto voce. “Not an effing clue.”
Ryder Cup 2018 – Best pictures
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It’s early on Friday morning. The start of the 42nd Ryder Cup is just minutes away, and these are the guys who will be calling it. For a team who spend most of the year traipsing around the world covering PGA Tour events to modest audiences, there’s an acute sense that this is their spotlight. At one point on the Sunday night at Medinah in 2012, Sky Sports 1’s coverage was the most-watched broadcast in the UK, on any channel, terrestrial or satellite. The Ryder Cup reaches parts the rest of the sport simply cannot.
And so it’s not just the players on the first tee feeling the nerves. “You’re aware of the scale,” says Livingstone, who’s anchoring his 13th Ryder Cup for Sky. “Pressure’s probably the wrong word, but there’s an expectation on yourself to get everything right. There might be people who have never watched golf before, who have never watched Sky Sports before.”
Europe celebrate rousing victory in the 2018 Ryder Cup
It’s an immense operation these days. Sky have over 200 people working on the site just outside Paris, producing 190 hours of live programming. Almost 100 cameras are dotted around the course. The first advance party arrived almost two years ago, just after the last competition in Hazeltine, to reconnoitre the course and carry out geographical surveys. “And all for just 24 players,” says Jason Wessely, Sky’s head of golf, for whom this is his sixth Ryder Cup at the helm.
Wessely has been at Sky for 22 years now, and despite receiving a Bafta for Sky’s coverage of The Open Championship in 2016, is keen to stress that this is very much a team effort. The core of the operation have been working together not just for years, but for decades. Livingstone keenly remembers Sky’s first Ryder Cup at Oak Hill in 1995, when he anchored the coverage from a little studio by the 15th hole. “Me in the studio, a couple of commentators, a couple of reporters and not much more than that,” he says.
“It felt rustic. Rough round the edges. But when I look back, it was probably my favourite. We were television underdogs, the Europeans were underdogs, and they managed to conjure up this unlikely victory on the Sunday. The event was so small that it allowed everyone to be intimately a part of it.”
Butch Harmon, Laura Davies, Paul McGinley and David Livingstone kicked off Sky’s coverage
And over those two decades, as terrestrial coverage of golf has declined, Sky have essentially supplanted the BBC as the de facto home of the sport. The likes of Livingstone and lead commentator Ewan Murray are now as much the voices of golf as Henry Longhurst, Alex Hay and Peter Alliss were in their day. Which makes it all the more surprising that Livingstone still considers himself something of a broadcasting novice. “I’m not a natural,” he admits. “There are some people who are, who can just be themselves. But I’ve always found TV quite hard.”
This, as it turns out, is a common theme. Do any job for long enough and you would expect the initial puppyish enthusiasm to subside after a while. For Sky’s broadcasting stalwarts, by contrast, the flame burns just as strongly as ever. Tim Barter, their on-course interviewer, is another veteran of Oak Hill, having shoved more microphones in front of more distracted golfers than he would care to recall. He’s been on the range since 6am, trying to grab players before they tee off, before scampering around the course trying to work out where and when matches will finish. On Sunday night, it was Barter who managed to get to a dripping wet Francesco Molinari and get the first verdict on Europe’s crushing triumph.
Butch Harmon and Livingstone have been the regular faces of Sky Sports’ golf coverage over the years
Naturally, over the years Barter’s interviewees have come in all shapes and forms. He remembers interviewing a 10-year-old Rory McIlroy at Ballyliffin in Ireland. “He’s never changed,” Barter remembers. There are the pranksters. “Henrik Stenson is not be trusted,” Barter discloses. “He came up to me one day and asked me to sign an autograph for a charity thing. So he hands me a pen. Electric shock.”
There is a desire among golf’s younger fans to engage digitally with the sport
Then there are the more emotional interviewees. At the start of the final day at Medinah in 2012, it fell to Barter to interview his close friend Jose Maria Olazabal about the memory and the meaning of Seve Ballesteros. “I knew he’d be really emotional if I asked him about Seve,” Barter remembers. “But I had to. And he just lost it. Walked away. After that, I went away and cried for half an hour. Couldn’t stop. Davis Love was coming, and I just couldn’t pull myself together.”
It’s rarely as comfortable a life as it looks, either. The average on-course Ryder Cup reporter covering 36 holes will generally tot up in excess of 20 miles over the course of the day. Then there’s the travel: Barter estimates that he spends around 27 weeks a year on the road, and when asked how well that goes down at home, replies a touch sheepishly: “I’m divorced once.”
David Livingstone is retiring after presenting 13 Ryder Cups
And after 13 Ryder Cups, Livingstone has decided that this will be his last. He’s 65 years old now, even if he could quite handily pass for two decades younger, and for some time now he’s been sensing which way the broadcasting winds are blowing. “It’s a young person’s game now,” he says. “The way people view golf is changing year by year. New digital formats, social media. I don’t know where it’s going. That’s one of the reasons I’m stepping down.
“Everyone has busy lives, and not everyone can just sit down and devote hours to watching golf. So I understand why it’s changed. But I hope the traditional method of watching golf on TV continues. Will we just put on a pair of spectacles, and implants in our ear? I don’t know. That’s why I’m leaving it to other people.”
As a sport with a traditionally older, more middle-class, more affluent audience, golf is perennially locked in a sort of existential monologue, and Sky are conscious of the need to broaden its appeal. “I think we’ve tried to change the tone of golf over recent years,” says Wessely. “It has to appeal to a younger audience. In the past, golf has been criticised for being a little bit inaccessible, a little bit elitist, a little bit expensive to play. Not enough people are playing it.
New segments like ‘The Range’ have been introduced to Sky’s coverage
“The Ryder Cup is a great opportunity to sell the game to casual viewers, people who might be inspired by what’s happening this week and take up the game. So you can’t wrap it with a cloak of gravitas. You’ve got to make the environment, the players and the sport look fun.”
The future, then, is uncertain. But at least everyone can agree on one thing: the present remains as spellbindingly compelling as ever. And as he brings up the curtain on his 13th and last Ryder Cup, Livingstone sits back in his chair, the first tee shot safely negotiated, the adrenalin finally draining from his body, the enormity of the occasion finally sinking into him. “This tournament,” he confides with a conspiratorial wink, “does it to everybody.”
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