CONTRARY to common belief, Dougie Donnelly is neither retired or dead. There may have been a coffin-like feeling to the tiny black room where he was working in Durban last week, but he’s both alive and kicking. In a working sense, in fact, he’s probably never been happier.
It’s nearly four years since he made his last appearance on the BBC, the channel where he’d become synonymous with a whole host of sports since turning his back on finding a “proper job” to pursue a career in broadcasting.
Sacked by voicemail, his departure hurt like hell at the time. Deep down, it probably still hurts him today. Donnelly, though, has moved on, Thousands of miles, in fact. Over and over. As a commentator for the Golf Channel, he travels the world these days covering European Tour events, the circuit’s wings having spread in recent years to the Middle East, Far East, Australia and South Africa.
He finished 2013 in Durban describing the action in the Nelson Mandela Championship, which finished the day before the former South African President’s funeral. He was back there to pick up the microphone again in 2014, this time for the Volvo Golf Champions.
The first tee at Durban Country Club looks out on to the Indian Ocean; Donnelly’s base for the week was somewhat less spectacular. Tucked away in trees where monkeys roam free beside the 16th fairway, the TV compound certainly wasn’t a Hollywood studio.
During our chat in the canteen where cameraman and technicians were being fuelled for a busy afternoon ahead, though, it was easy to detect that Donnelly, who turned 60 last June, has almost been rejuvenated by his current role away from mainstream television.
“I started with the Golf Channel in 2005, though I was still working with the Beeb at that time and stayed with them until the 2010 Scottish Cup final,” he recalled. “Initially, I was doing ten to 15 events but it started to increase as things were winding down at the BBC in the sense that they had little sport. What little football they had quite often coincided with a week when the Golf Channel wanted me to cover an event, so it was the right time to move on. I also think that money was an issue for the BBC. Not that I was paid fortunes but I think they wanted to make some changes and it worked beautifully for me.
“This is now really the only TV work I do. I’ve clocked up a few thousand miles doing it and it’s lovely. I’m so fortunate. We all know it’s a great sport to be involved in. You are not quite away with your mates every week, but I won’t lie because it sometimes feels like that. We’re a very happy team. I do about 20-22 events, which is about five months of the year away from home, and professionally it is very challenging.
“There are no frills, as you can see from looking around this particular TV compound. I do an in-visual piece every day, which means I’ve got to wear a shirt and tie at the start of the programme. We’ve also got to write and voice the programme opening then have four hours on the air, which is going up to five this year, to somewhere around the 70 to 80 countries around the world that take live coverage of the European Tour. It is a potential audience of 400 million, but even if 10 per cent of that is watching it’s still 40 million viewers which is a big audience.
“What also makes it challenging is that you don’t know your audience. Our big clients are America, Australia, South Africa, the Middle East and the Far East – a large portion of the English-speaking world. You’re aware that there are people watching you in all these countries so you can’t be too insular about it. You can’t talk about British football, for instance, as that would mean little or nothing to a large chunk of your audience.
“I get into taxis in Glasgow these days and drivers will turn round and say, ‘I thought you’d died or retired as it’s so long since I’ve seen you on the TV’. That’s strange because I’m actually working for the biggest audience I’ve ever worked for. It’s just that I’m not on mainstream TV in Scotland any longer.”
He was once the Beeb’s main golf reporter at the Open Championship, grabbing players for a chat after they’d signed their scorecards in the game’s oldest major. When he lost that role to Irishman Shane O’Donoghue in 2009 due to ‘celebrity presenters’ having become the vogue at the time, it was the beginning of the end for Donnelly, a two-times Scottish Radio Personality of the Year. His love affair with the Corporation was cruelly ended in a cold message on his answerphone with no explanation other than that changes were being made.
“It came from a guy I knew well, who I’d worked with for a long time and thought was a pal, but he wanted to make changes, which he’s perfectly at liberty to do. I just felt it could have been handled a lot better. I have since seen the guy who left the voicemail. I was civil – but let’s just say we didn’t go for a beer,” he said of the episode.
“After 32 years at the BBC, I did find it strange to be leaving and thinking that I’d not be doing things like the football and Six Nations in particular. But there was a real feeling that it was the right time to move on. I certainly wasn’t less enthusiastic about the job or bored with it. I just felt it was time to move on to another challenge and, to be absolutely honest, we’ve not exactly seen great times in Scottish football in recent years.
“I’ve not missed out on Scotland featuring in World Cup finals or teams doing particularly well in Europe. I can still hold my hand up and say I’m passionately interested in the game; I’m still a season-ticket holder at Clyde and still go to games whenever I can but I don’t miss not being involved in football. That surprises me because the first summer I knew I wasn’t going to be doing any football, I thought it would be really hard but it really hasn’t.
“I joined the BBC in 1978. I was actually still at Radio Clyde at the time doing the morning show there. I started basically as a football reporter doing an hour and a half at full time. It expanded into presenting and I was doing football at the start. But the great thing at that time was that the the BBC – even BBC Scotland – had everything in sport.
“So, in reply to being asked what other sports I liked, I said golf and rugby. ‘What about curling’, I was asked. And, though I didn’t really know anything, I went away and did my homework on that for a couple of days and was soon covering that. I did snooker, too, and, of course, indoor bowls, another sport I knew little or nothing about at the start but managed to learn enough to cover it for a few years.
“I once worked out that I had covered 27 different sports and, through that, I got myself to seven Olympics, which is fantastic. I think I’m one of only three BBC commentators that have done a British gold medal in both Summer and Winter Olympics. I did Rhona Martin and the girls in the curling and also Scottish-born Stephanie Cooke in the Modern Pentathlon in Sydney, which was a real thrill. To do both those commentaries was a real highlight and I’ve been very fortunate. For someone who should have been a lawyer and for the first two years in radio thought, ‘this is good fun but I’d better get a proper job’ it’s amazing that after all these years I’ve still not done that.”
Donnelly’s appearances on home soil these days are mainly as Master of Ceremonies at glittering sports functions. “I was thrilled to have Sir Alex Ferguson, who has been very good to me since the Aberdeen days, ask me to host the theatre interviews with him in Glasgow and Aberdeen around the launch of his autobiography. Three thousand people giving him a standing ovation in the Armadillo in Glasgow was very special,” he reflected.
“Around the same time, I also hosted both the Scottish Rugby and Scottish Football Hall of Fame Dinners at Hampden and Murrayfield within three days of each other, did two PGA lunches in Glasgow and London and, next month, I’m doing the Scottish Golf Awards.”
His 2014 schedule also includes the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, where Donnelly not only has a home but plays the majority of his golf – “I’m clinging to a 12 handicap but I’m not going to win any prizes these days” – and can often be found holding court in the plush Dormy House. “For the Ryder Cup we’ll lose our American audience as our US colleagues tend to come over in force for that and do their own commentary,” he said, licking his lips at the prospect of Scotland staging the event for the first time since 1973. “But I’ll be the lead commentator for the rest of the world at Gleneagles. That will be a thrill because I’ve got a house there and it’s basically my home course. It is going to be huge and we are destined to see a Scot in the team, though it is going to be tough.
“I try to have dinner with the Scots on Tour as often as I can. When I first started in football, we were able to have that type of relationship with the players as well. Now the barriers are up and, to be fair, there’s many more people in the media these days. But it was good that you were once able to go out for lunch with a player. With the golfers we travel together, try to stay in the same hotels and go out at night a lot. I feel quite close to them, both on and off the course, and you find yourself going through the ups and down. I’m desperate to see Stevie Gallacher, Marc Warren, Paul Lawrie or Scott Jamieson get into that team and they are all quite capable of it, I’m sure.”
Sitting on the opposite side of the wall to Donnelly in that dingy portacabin in Durban was Ewan Murray, the former European Tour player from Baberton who is now the lead golf commentator for Sky Sports. “Ewan and I play to different audiences and I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t really understand,” he said of his fellow Scot. “They think that Sky cover golf, which isn’t the case. They have the rights to show golf in the UK whereas the actual coverage is done by European Tour Productions. Even here this week there’s probably a crew of 50-60, including presenters, cameramen, graphics etc, and that’s all these people do. The cameramen are fantastic as all they do every week is cover golf. They fly around the world every week. We leave on a Sunday night, maybe have a couple of days at home then turn up the next week and, thanks to the crew having driven thousands of miles, the kit is rigged up and we’re ready to go at another event. It’s a huge operation and incredible how it works.
“I like coming out to South Africa. I love the courses and I like the people. I also like Asia, Hong Kong in particular, and Crans sur Sierre up in the Swiss mountains is spectacular. Covering events in Scotland, of course, is also a thrill. But there’s not many places you go that I don’t like. I’ve almost become blase about going to places like China and Korea which is such an adventure because of the different cultures there. I’m covering a sport I love and seeing the world at the same time – what could be better?”