when the light on his monitor turns to red at precisely 7.28am at Gleneagles next Friday and his frontman hands over to him for the start of play, Ryder Cup commentator Ewen Murray will feel no nerves. “The only time I can hear properly is when I’m working,” reveals Sky Sports’ voice of golf.
“I’m 60 per cent deaf and have been since birth. I have trouble in noisy bars and restaurants so as a result spend a lot of time on my own and people think I’m a bit of an oddbod. There isn’t much patience out there for those who can’t hear very well. But when I’m wearing my special headphones everything is alright with the world and I’m at my happiest.”
I’m talking to the 60-year-old Murray, a son of Currie and a pro golfer himself back in the day, via his special telephone. He’s at home in West Sussex, having just walked the dog and made a trip to the tip – a brief opportunity to rest up before Europe and America do battle for the 40th time. But if this Ryder Cup – and Murray has commentated on every one covered by Sky – won’t quite give him the jitters, there will still be plenty of emotion swirling about the Perthshire air as our man enjoys the best seat in the house.
“My dad was the assistant pro at Gleneagles and that’s how he and my mum met,” Murray explains. “She was a chambermaid in the hotel, just down from Stornoway with hardly any English, so the old place has always been special to me. It was my dad who first put a club in my hands and after he died I lost the will to keep playing. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about all of that during the competition.”
I must admit to not expecting very much from this interview. I didn’t know Murray’s story and probably thought it would be delivered in Sky’s house style: that is, a bit too slickly for my tastes. But it turns out to be a fascinating tale with a bizarrely colourful list of walk-ons: the Human League, Ron “Chopper” Harris, Kenneth Kaunda, Ronnie Corbett and Archie MacPherson. And I certainly hadn’t anticipated a chilling first-hand account of one of football’s blackest days.
On 11 May, 1985 Murray was in the crowd at Bradford City’s Valley Parade, having competed in the Tournament Players Championship alongside Gary Player at Leeds’ Moortown course earlier in the day. “I was there with Mike Farrar, a good friend who used to caddy for me down in Jersey. His dad owned Hammonds Sauce and Mike had his own plane. We had seats in the old wooden stand and I still have my ticket stub. About 25 minutes into the game we saw some smoke. Mike said: ‘I think we should get out of here.’ I said: ‘No, it’ll be fine.’
“The stand doors were all locked. The only escape was onto the pitch. I was reluctant. Perversely at that moment, I was still of the view you didn’t encroach on the field of play. Thankfully Mike threw me over a wall. I landed on my head and was knocked unconscious, coming round in the centre-circle with a policeman running past with his hair on fire.” At this Murray pauses and must fight back tears. “I’m sorry, but that was such a horrible day. I looked up at the stand, tried to spot this old guy, maybe in his eighties, who was sat next to us at an aisle because of a bad leg, but I couldn’t see him. In the space of four minutes the whole thing was reduced to matchwood. There were players with coats over their kit searching for their children. Just horrible.” Fifty-six fans died in the blaze and Murray didn’t attend another football match for 20 years.
He got into commentating through luck and boldness. “In 1990 a guy I knew in Dubai phoned to ask if I could recommend someone to commentate on the Desert Classic. I said: ‘I might just be the man.’” Previously he’d applied to the BBC only to be told that in Alex Hay the corporation had its token Scottish voice. At United Arab Emirates’ Channel 33 he was teamed with a presenter who’d previously managed the Human League and a cameraman who’d never covered a golf tournament before. “It was hairy at times but we all learned on our feet.”
Next stop Paris and a cupboard under the Eiffel Tower. Archie MacPherson aficionados might recognise these as the working conditions of the great ginger owl while he was at Eurosport. Well, Murray was in the neighbouring booth, describing crucial putts sometimes thousands of miles from the action.
For his first Ryder Cup at the mic he commentated solo; a tough job. In 1991 and 1993, Bernard Gallacher had come close to captaining a winning team – the same man who Murray played against in his very first tournament, aged ten. “Bernard won that day at Ratho; I came away with a pound note I spent on six balls. He was my idol, really: always smartly dressed, played in a cavalier style – lovely golf.”
But in ’95 – at Oak Hill – Murray wondered if it was going to be third time unlucky for his old hero. “It looked like we might be level with the Americans going into the singles and then Corey Pavin in the last four-ball chipped in at the 18th from the rough. My reaction, at least the one which was broadcast was: ‘Goodness gracious me.’
“The Europe team was full of these guys I’d played with – Sam [Torrance], Mark [James], Seve [Ballesteros] – and on the Sunday they all found something from way down deep. Howard [Clark] had that hole-in-one, Seve was swinging like mad, never hitting a fairway the whole front nine, and [Nick] Faldo struck the most amazing shot to 18 from 94 yards.
“We won. Seve had never been pals with Faldo but they were hugging each other. Bernard was jumping up and down. I said ‘The Ryder Cup will be on Concorde tonight – it’s coming back to Europe’ and almost stumbled over the last word with the emotion. We went to a commercial break and I turned round and everyone in the production team had a tear in their eye.”
Was he envious of his contemporaries in that thrilling 14½-13 ½ triumph? “No, I wasn’t. The guy in charge at Sky, David Hill, told me: ‘I’ll give you a contract but there’s no running back.’ My playing days were over.” Starting out as a commentator the advice was not to copy anyone although he admired Bill McLaren as the best in the business for being “so unbiased and correct”.
Sky is more excitable, more tabloidy than the good old BBC and Murray hasn’t shied from criticism when it’s been deemed necessary. He called Tiger Woods’ spitting during the Desert Classic “one of the ugliest things you will ever see on a golf course”. He upbraided Colin Montgomerie for telling a sound-man: “You’re only here because of me – remember that.” For a while there was friction between them. “We behaved like kids but it was sorted out. I admired Colin, he was different, but I told him if he didn’t behave I couldn’t ignore it and he accepted that. We’ve been good friends ever since.”
Then, returning to the Ryder Cup, there was Ian Poulter’s selection as a 2012 wild card. “We had a tiff. I said I didn’t think he should have been picked because he wasn’t playing well enough and he said: ‘I’ll show you.’ And he did. He turned his phone off for two weeks and he practised. His performance at Medinah was extraordinary – those five birdies on the spin amounted to the greatest hour of golf I think I’ve ever seen.”
Any gaffes? He admits to one: Howard Clark again, St Andrews, and the unveiling of yet another new caddie, this time female. “I said that Howard had ‘been through a few’, meaning her predecessors had all been sacked. My producer popped his head round the door: ‘If I were you I’d shut up for a full minute.’”
With his elder sister, Murray grew up in a Currie council-house, his dad Jimmy by then the pro at Baberton. He was always at the club, either waiting for four o’clock when kids were allowed to play, or, if he was lucky, being taken round by a senior member, and Rangers’ Ralph Brand often obliged.
He was a natural at golf but liked football too. Playing for Currie Boys’ Club he’d come up against Graeme Souness and, like everyone else, marked him down as the boy most likely to. So was he Hibs or Hearts? “Arbroath, actually. That was my dad’s town and team. His brother Frank was a director. Gayfield is one of the loveliest grounds in football and it’s high time I got back there.”
Back on the course, Jimmy was a demanding teacher. “If I played well he wouldn’t say much. If I was rubbish there would be quite a lot said – he was a disciplinarian. But that was what dads were like back then. Sam [Torrance] and I have swapped notes on his. His father Bob – our dads were pals – was strict, too.” But in 1971, aged 16, Murray scored a notable hat-trick – Scottish Boys’ Championship, Scottish Boys’ Stroke Play, World Junior. And the following year he was waving goodbye to his parents at the airport, Surrey-bound as Walton Heath’s new assistant pro on £5 a week.
“Golf came easy to me when I was younger but then it got more serious,” he reflects. “I liked the club and stayed there for 16 years.
“Maybe teaching took away my competitive edge because I didn’t enjoy going away for tournaments. But I had my independence and a flat of my own and I was discovering that there was more to life than golf.”
In winter-time to keep in trim he trained with Crystal Palace. This was the Malcolm Allison-Terry Venables “Team of the ’80s” who eventually got relegated but Murray enjoyed turning out for the youth team and playing in testimonials for “Chopper” Harris and George Graham. He also struck up a friendship with Ronnie Corbett who knew his dad and was a regular at Selhurst Park at the time.
Murray met his wife Nicky when she was a flight attendant with British Caledonian Airways who flew him to Africa in the close season to teach Zambia’s Kaunda and other presidents. In his own game there were always putting issues. He battled away with a split-hand grip on a normal shaft, winning twice in Africa. In the ’84 Nigerian Open, Ian Woosnam birdied eight of the last nine to almost overhaul him but he hung on for his biggest payday of £25,000 – “A lot of money back then” – which went on a house.
“My dad was dying when I won that and I like to think he inspired me. He hung on for another year but was riddled with cancer by the end and he went like a little boy, just four or five stone. That was a shock and I think part of me went him because afterwards I just didn’t have the same interest in playing golf and wanted to do something else.”
The sport was to have more poignancy for Murray in the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club when Darren Clarke, newly-widowed, played his part in another thrilling win for Europe. “I’d been teaching Darren for three years; he’s like a younger brother to me. When Woosie [Ian Woosnam] gave him a wild card he phoned and asked: ‘Do you think I can take it? Can we get my game in shape?’ I said we could but that he’d just lost his wife. The competition made a show of the wags and he’d be on his own. ‘I’ve thought of that,’ he said, ‘and I’m bringing my mum.’
“For a fortnight we hit balls seven hours a day but things didn’t go too well. It was very difficult for him: his children were at home and suddenly they’d got no mum. I said to him: ‘I think you’re nervous.’ He said: ‘Of course I f****n’ am.’ Things got better. Then at five o’clock on the first morning he phoned up. ‘I’m shaking,’ he said. ‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘Embrace the feeling.’ I couldn’t do any more because I was commentating. I remember looking at him on the monitor – there was sun and rain and wild Irish cheering but I was concerned he was going to use a tee off the first. I thought: ‘This could come off the nose and hit Ivor the starter.’ It didn’t, of course, the rest is history. That moment will stay with me for a long time.”
Murray has plenty more Ryder Cup memories where that one came from. Some are not expecting a stone-cold classic at Gleneagles, arguing that only complacency can stop another Europe win, but he’s not listening. “I do think that Paul McGinley could be one of the best-ever captains but Tom Watson will bring some of the old-school to America – and don’t forget that 12 of their team are in the top 32 in the world.”
He can’t wait to strap on those headphones. “Whatever happens I’m going back to where my story began. Let’s hope I don’t lose it.”
l Sky Sports will ‘Bring The Noise’ from The 2014 Ryder Cup exclusively live on TV, mobile, online and via NOW TV including the Week Pass