Interview: Ken Brown on the 1980 Open at Muirfield

Ken Brown, aka 'Ken on the Course'. Picture: SNS
Ken Brown, aka 'Ken on the Course'. Picture: SNS
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AS WITH other former professional sports men and women who have made such a successful step into broadcasting, Ken Brown has paid a small price for the ease with which he has swapped roles.

Among the younger generation especially, there are many who are unaware of his previous life.

He is now more widely-known as “Ken on the Course”, the knowledgeable, if slightly quirky, broadcaster. Brown is just as happy pointing out the lizards lurking among the azaleas at Augusta as he is when explaining how to read the grain of a green.

This segment even has its own Ken on the Course Appreciation Society page on Facebook, one which includes such gushing comments as: “Well, after we’ve all recovered from the ecstasy of Ernie’s win and Adam’s tragic finish, let’s all remember who is the true hero of the Open 2012..fantastic work, Ken!”

This contribution makes it seem as if he was actually participating. But then, of course, he was once a player – and a rather capable one at that. Not many manage to rack up five Ryder Cup appearances by the age of 30, while he was also something of a trailblazer when becoming one of the few Europeans to join the PGA tour in the early 1980s. He lost the equivalent of one whole month and more by criss-crossing the Atlantic in a two-year period. Topically, there is also the time in 1980 when he challenged for the Open Championship title at Muirfield, where the tournament returns next week.

On the fifth-last occasion that the Open was held on the East Lothian coast, Brown strolled down the first fairway on the Sunday, having teed off just behind Tom Watson, the tournament leader, in the final group. The previous afternoon Ken wasn’t just on the course, he was burning it up. Word quickly got round Muirfield that a slim Scot was making a charge. Crowds flocked to cheer him on.

He self-deprecatingly dubs himself the “antidote” to Seve Ballesteros. In a tribute to the late golfer, Brown described the Spaniard as “the pilot”, who was “flying the Concorde”. By contrast, Brown, in his own words, was “a grafter, whose chief attribute was my concentration”. To this day he still pops up in polls listing the slowest-ever players.

Ballesteros had announced his arrival by winning the Open the previous year at Royal Lytham. However, 12 months later, Brown’s three-under-par 68 on the Saturday pushed him into contention, while Ballesteros floundered. Although born in England, Brown played under the flag of Scotland and excitement grew in the galleries. He hesitates when seeking to describe how it felt in retrospect, fearing he will be guilty of comparing himself to the indisputable current star of British sport.

“It was a little bit like being Andy Murray, but on a completely different scale,” he says, following a long period of silent contemplation, as if sizing up a particularly tricky putt. “I was not someone they would necessarily pull for, but because you are in the hunt to win the Open Championship, they are rooting for you.

“I remember most of the greens you would come on to, they would be shouting ‘C’mon Ken!’ This did not happen often in golf, and certainly not for a home player in 1980 – it happened infrequently, shall we say.”

While it wasn’t a drought to rival the British tennis fans’ thirst for a Wimbledon winner, it had still been 11 years since Tony Jacklin lifted the Claret Jug, watched on television by a 12-year-old Brown, among others.

“He gave British golf a real kick in the pants,” Brown says now. He credits Jacklin with inspiring a raft of British talents such as Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo, as well as Brown himself. “All of us were trying to match his majesty,” he says. Brown might have stolen a march on the others at Muirfield, as British golf fans marvelled at the then 23-year-old’s performance.

As for a Scot winning the Open, this hadn’t happened since George Duncan in 1920. Sadly, Scottish and, indeed, British fans had to wait another five years before Lyle ended the run of domination enjoyed by America and – thanks to Seve – Spain. Brown slipped back and finished tied for sixth. There was some talk of Brown “surrendering” because, the previous evening, when asked his thoughts on who might win, he had replied: “Watson”.

It was not an unreasonable answer – after all, Watson had already won two Open titles, as well as the Masters. Brown, a mere rookie by comparison, was in an unfamiliar position at a major. Reminded that Watson had a habit of blowing tournaments in the final round, he replied: “Well, I have blown more final rounds than he has.”

In any case, he was right about Watson triumphing – which helps explain why he is now making a career out of golf punditry.

Brown does not reflect upon it as an opportunity he let slip through his grasp. Instead, he sounds philosophical. “I regret I didn’t win the Open, everyone would have liked to have done that,” he says. “But I wasn’t good enough.

“I had a chance. Getting in the hunt at the Open is fantastic, but winning it is a bit different. You have to handle those last few holes. Tom Watson was the best player in the world at the time. He was four strokes ahead going into the last day, and playing well. I was a sideshow in the end.

“At the time I was capable of playing some decent golf. Winning the Open was not an impossible dream. I was capable of it, as were a lot of others.”

It was the closest Brown came to winning a major. However, he has been there, and nearly done it. Current players are fond of him because they know he knows what it is like. As if to illustrate the point, Ernie Els walks by and cheerfully raps the plastic pane in the booth at Castle Stuart where Brown and I are speaking.

He in turn is not given to being unjustly harsh on players. Brown, too, has felt their pain. “I am very aware that I have stood over a 3ft putt and missed it, and I am very aware how tough this game is,” he says. “It is easy to pounce on someone. It is a heartbreaking, humiliating and wicked game at times.

“You have been there and you don’t forget how it can make you look a tit.”

He moderates his language when working for various media outlets, including, next week, the BBC. There is something about his manner that is able to connect with a broad section of the golf community, as he gambols around the greens, making expressive gestures with his hands, like a beardless, slimline David Bellamy. They have a shared love of fauna and wildlife. “This is the arena, and what an arena it is,” he says, gesturing to include the admittedly scenic area outside the media tent.

“Come and have a look. Are you interested in the fact there is a certain lizard there, or a toad? It is all part of the arena the players are playing in. It is very easy just to concentrate on people hitting golf balls. But while we are out here, let’s have a look around. Look across the Moray Firth. There are butterflies everywhere. It is beautiful.

“It is a nice place to be.”

There is, indeed, something of the mad scientist about Brown. It is intriguing, then to hear that his father, George, was a scientist based at the Rothamsted Research institute in Harpenden, where he specialised in soil. Brown still lives in the area.

Although he represented Scotland at World Cups, it is understandable if some do not know Brown as Scottish. While the New York Times made a grave mistake in referring to Murray as English in their report of the player’s Wimbledon triumph, more forgivable is the same paper’s headline on a piece about Brown from 1987, on his return to Muirfield: “At British Open, Bright Outlook for an Englishman”.

His accent certainly does not give him away. It is one that speaks not only of a lifetime living in England, but also of an itinerant golfer’s lifestyle. He does, though, have a very strong family as well as emotional connection to Scotland, and he made the decision to represent the country for his father, who was brought up on a small farm holding in Johnstonebridge, outside Lockerbie. It is here where Brown first swung some clubs.

“I used to chip about in my grandparents’ front garden, as cars were whipping by on what was then the A74,” he recalls. Although his father was a fairly decent sportsman, he wasn’t given to watching his son in action. Remarkably, Brown isn’t even sure if he was watching on television when he made his Open challenge in 1980. His father certainly didn’t travel to Muirfeld, and on the “couple of occasions” that he did watch Brown, both times were when he was playing on a course near their Harpenden home.

His father was, Brown reflects, the opposite of a pushy parent. There is not, at first, much to link them in terms of interests. However, perhaps Brown’s meditative style of play was something he inherited from someone who looked upon life as an interrogative exercise. Brown’s desire, meanwhile, to “demystify” golf – which, he says, is his aim as a broadcaster – could also be traced to his father’s profession.

“He didn’t take much interest in my golf,” explains Brown. “He would have been happy I was representing Scotland, but he didn’t take that much of an interest. But I admire my dad for never saying ‘don’t do it’.

“I played a little bit of golf when I was 11 or 12, and then we moved to a house that was quite near a golf course and my dad had some old clubs. I took them out and thought: ‘this is a nice environment to be in’. By the time I was 14 it was my be all and end all. I was going to leave school and be a golfer.”

And this he did. After picking up some sponsorship from a local businessman, he was able to commit to the European tour, before his gaze was directed west, to the land of hope and opportunity. Brown qualified for the PGA tour, enticed by the belief that this was where the best players were playing. He also had a romantic longing to visit places that sounded so exotic to a boy growing up in the not-very badlands of Hertfordshire.

“It was unusual,” he recalls. “But that was my make-up. I would probably have made an easier living by staying in Europe and playing there. Growing up I wanted to go and play at San Diego; what is it like at the 18th green at the ‘Bing Crosby’, as it was then. Let’s go to Phoenix and see where Johnny Miller shot all the low numbers and mix it with the best players in the world.”

“I lived here not there, so in my first two seasons I crossed the Atlantic 44 times,” he recalls. “That’s 44 days sitting in seat 47J at the back. That’s not all I am doing. When I got there I had to go out and play. You are straight on the range and you try to be competitive, which was hard in any case.”

However, he did win once, at the Southern Open, in Georgia, just a week after he had helped Europe to a first away victory over America in the Ryder Cup, in 1987. “After all my graft and hard work, I felt vindicated,” he says. The Ryder Cup is where he really felt like he was at the top of his chosen sport. He made his debut in 1977, on the last occasion when it was Great Britain and Ireland versus America. He was only 20, and, he estimates, had probably earned only £6,000 that year. He was selected to play in the four-ball only, but it meant everything to him, even though he and Mark James lost at the final hole. “If you go the Ryder Cup and play well then you know you can stand up to the pressure of most tournaments,” he says.

“European players were starting to win majors. The power was shifting. In ’83 we lost by a point in America. I played my best golf there – I was on top of my game, but we lost. When it came to ’85 at the Belfry we basically had the same team, together with home support, Sandy had won the Open. Seve and [Bernhard] Langer had started to show. It was now or never. We should win this – and we did.”

Because of all this travelling, he doesn’t have a strong Scottish identity, he admits. But he is glad to be back in Scotland this week and next. An elderly aunt who still lives in Dumfries and Galloway is the only family connection to the country. He won the Glasgow Open at Haggs Castle in 1984, and is slightly miffed that it is not counted as a Scottish Open title, since it was a forerunner of the tournament currently being played near Inverness.

And then next week it is back to Muirfield. Now that Alex Salmond, the First Minister, has made a stand against single sex golf clubs by refusing to attend, you wonder how Brown views a place where he has such vivid memories. He is evangelical about making golf open to all. “I think golf has to look at itself in the mirror,” Brown says. “Does it want to be just about private members’ clubs, which clubs are entitled to be, or do they want to move the game forward? I am talking about all golf clubs in Britain, not specific ones.

“They have to say: ‘we want you, come and have a game. You might not have the right shoes on, don’t worry – just so long as you don’t have your arse hanging out your jeans’. Golf needs to become more user-friendly because it is the best game in the world.”

He wasn’t likely to trip up on this question. His retirement from the sport in 1992, at the age of only 34, was well-timed, since it coincided with Sky’s arrival on the scene. Brown was quickly invited to provide expert analysis for the satellite station. He has now been doing this for longer than he played.

At a time when the stock of sports broadcasters is low after the misadventures of both John Inverdale and Garry Richardson at Wimbledon, Brown is someone you can trust to help repair a tattered reputation. Despite the props – he used a banana at the Masters this year to explain a right-to-left fade – it is a job he says he takes “very seriously indeed”, just as the son of a scientist should.