Interview: Ken Brown, the elusive butterfly of golf

HE’S always been a distinctive figure on the course and enjoys cult status among fans for his TV segments live from the fairways and rough but that famous laugh proves harder to track down
Ken Brown in his famous oncourse commentators role. Picture: Ian RutherfordKen Brown in his famous oncourse commentators role. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Ken Brown in his famous oncourse commentators role. Picture: Ian Rutherford

He’s got this really incredible laugh, says someone who knows him. This intrigues me, all the more so when I ask Ken Brown for his favourite golf gag and he says, sorry, he can never remember any. “I get told jokes all the time. People want to hear my reaction. It’s my laugh, you see.”

I’ll have to take the entire, jolly, dimpled- pebble constituency’s word for it – the cult following which has grown up around his Ken on the Course pieces-to-camera like so much rampant gorse – for Brown doesn’t laugh today. In fact, I’m afraid to say we have a bit of an issue. Halfway through the interview he gets up and walks out – well, not really out, because this is his house, up a lovely leafy lane in Harpenden, Herefordshire where he’s always lived. But he exits the dining-room and continues to complain about my line of questioning from the kitchen.

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What did I say? What could possibly have gone wrong in a chit-chat with the fellow who brings so much fact-based fun to the BBC’s coverage of The Open? Maybe if you love Ken on the Course, as I do, you won’t know about his past as a player, a maverick, a bit of a rebel. I remember him back then. In my admittedly lively imagination I saw him as golf’s punk rocker, this being 1977 and thereabouts. I liked that he was young, impetuous and different and try to tell him this as I attempt to find out what that phase was about, but it’s no use. Brown simply doesn’t want to go back there.

Challenging Tom Watson at the Open at Muirfield in 1980. Picture: Ian BrandChallenging Tom Watson at the Open at Muirfield in 1980. Picture: Ian Brand
Challenging Tom Watson at the Open at Muirfield in 1980. Picture: Ian Brand

We’ll come to that – the interruption happens halfway through so, in golf parlance, around the turn, and maybe we could have done with a chap in a R&A blazer to sort it out – but let’s start at the beginning which for Brown, 58, is Harpenden, a pretty commuter town with Roman remains as well as slightly more current glimmers of footballer bling. Eric Morecambe lived and died here and has the public halls named after him.

Brown has his imprint, too, having designed one golf course and re-shaped part of another during the years immediately after quitting playing when he wondered what he would do with his life, before TV happened. It was at the Harpenden Common club where Brown learned the game – self-taught, he’s always been his own man – and later met his wife Dawn. They’ve been in this house for 30 years, seen their two sons grow up in it, and in all his golfing globetrotting has never remotely felt like living anywhere else. There’s a gate at the end of the garden leading directly to lush parkland and, given how Brown on the box can never let a butterfly flutter by without remarking on it, you imagine he would contest any threatened greenbelt encroachment here with a sharpened five-iron.

Brown was a skinnymalink as a golfer and not much different now so I’m surprised he can no longer get into his 28ins slacks from the late 1970s.

I’ve brought along old newspaper cuttings reminding us of his groovy haircut – like that of Peter Tork of the Monkees – and his many nicknames, some you couldn’t get away with now such as the Belsen Babe. He was the Walking Cigarette, the Walking One-Iron (“That was Lee Trevino and possibly my favourite”). Or how about this from The Scotsman’s great golfing correspondent Norman Mair: “Looking in the distance, in his red top, more than ever like a flagstick playing truant, Ken Brown yesterday turned in 34… ” He loves this and thinks he might borrow it for TV, the next time a beanpole competitor makes a charge.

Ken Brown at the 2004 Open at Troon with Colin Mongomerie. Picture: Ian RutherfordKen Brown at the 2004 Open at Troon with Colin Mongomerie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Ken Brown at the 2004 Open at Troon with Colin Mongomerie. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Harpenden is very English but Brown played golf for Scotland, the land of his father. “I have an affinity for Scotland, it draws me there,” he explains. For their holidays, he and Dawn are gradually working their way round the coastline. Last year it was Barra, this year Mull. His other great passion is fishing – always in the company of the same chum, another Harpenden native, some kind of troubleshooter – and a favourite spot is Dalmunzie at Spittal of Glenshee. But the affinity he speaks about was cemented in boyhood.

“Every summer and for all of the school holidays from the age of seven I was packed off on a train on my own to Carlisle where my grandparents would collect me and take me to their smallholding at Johnstonebridge – chickens, sheep, pigs and a few cows. Each morning at six there would be a knock on the door asking if I wanted to help with the first chores of the day and I always got up. Some of the eggs were so big they had three yolks and, really, these summers are my fondest memories of anything.

“The farm was right on the River Annan, a lazy stretch, and that’s where my grandfather taught me to fish. I could take you to the millpond and show you the exact spot where I caught my very first trout.”

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Because he had problems with golfing officialdom although I haven’t yet mentioned these, I’m wondering whether, forced to choose between his passions, he might opt for fishing. “I don’t know. Golf obviously became my career which brought the pressures of earning a living. I suppose the desire to do well at it, be the best I could, took over my life. There are some similarities between golf and fishing. Casting a rod is not unlike swishing a club. You’re required to get lost in a whole world of concentration, focusing on a bit of fluff or a little white ball. There’s something really invigorating about that but you have to love it. If you don’t it can be the worst thing ever.”

Ken Brown's book One PuttKen Brown's book One Putt
Ken Brown's book One Putt

Best of all, he says, these pastimes take you into the countryside. “There is no more lovely arena in sport than a golf course and even if you’re fishing on a London canal you’re outdoors and getting closer to nature.” Surely, though, there are golfers who are concentrating so hard on their game they don’t smell the flowers. “Well, that was me. I played in The Open at Muirfield twice and didn’t notice the sea looking down the first until I went back as a commentator.”

Harpenden also boasts one of the world’s oldest agricultural research stations and it was this which brought Brown’s father George down from Dumfries and Galloway. “He was a soil scientist and a smart, smart man, incredibly well-read.” Brown speaks with pride about him, and admiration for the way he didn’t caution his son about packing in school for something as scientifically variable as a career in golf. “Neither he nor my mother said I was going to become the next Jack Nicklaus but nor did they say: ‘Don’t do it.’ Mind you, they wouldn’t have been able to stop me and probably they knew that.”

It was Nicklaus in the company of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player who inspired Brown. The stellar trio participated in exhibition matches organised for TV by Mark McCormack, the omnipotent sports agent. These were about as competitive as Harlem Globetrotters games invariably screened on bank holidays but great fun and, for students like Brown, valuable opportunities to see great men swish. We’re getting along fine at this point and when I mention how McCormack, occasionally a guest commentator at The Open, used to remark of a wrongly-played shot, “He’s mis-clubbed himself”, Brown smiles and very nearly offers up that fairly famous laugh.

When he broke through Brown certainly made an impression with his skinniness, hickory-shafted putter and tea-cosy hats but the big win would ultimately elude him. “Majors are hard to come by,” he says. “You need one week where everything goes right and you cause people to go: ‘Eh? I don’t know how he managed to do that.’ Early on I wondered if I might be able to win one but that was probably wishful thinking. I loved links golf especially – the turf, the bounce, the feel I seemed to have on the greens – but I realised later the elite players were that bit better and I just wasn’t good enough.”

This frank self-examination prompts my attempts to ask about his “bad boy” reputation, as the headlines of the day would have it. Brown was regularly in bother for slow play and there were rows with other golfers and bust-ups with caddies and assorted fines – ten penalties in three years, according to one of my yellowing clippings. If you’re not a golfer some of the offences might seem trivial but, in this sport, rules are rules. The most significant contravention arose out of the 1979 Ryder Cup at the Greenbrier when along with Mark James he was accused of missing team meetings and expressing some ambivalence about wearing the official jackets. Brown was fined £1,000 and banned from international golf for a year, the first time the PGA had taken such action.

Brown says there were “dozens and dozens” of such incidents. Most were “fairly schoolboyish”. He “can’t remember” the specifics of many of them although of the one in West Virginia he admits: “That wasn’t the greatest moment of my career.” He’s got his arms folded now and he looks tense.

Newspapermen like you to have a persona, he says, and that for him “bad boy” stuck. The hacks could be free and easy with your quotes although they must have liked talking to him because as he confesses: “I wasn’t much of a diplomat. I always said exactly what I thought.” I decide to try him on something else which fascinated the papers back in the day, namely his nationality. First he was a Scot, or playing for Scotland at least, and then it appeared he wasn’t. His quoted remark “I don’t feel a Scot anyway” was deemed worthy of the intervention of the PGA’s management committee. This was 1978 and The Scotsman speculated that the national football team’s dismal showing at the Argentina World Cup might have been to blame for the apparent about-turn. I mention this, hoping it might produce a chuckle, but he says: “I think you’re scooping for something.” I suggest this would be a 37-year-old scoop and therefore not much of one so, no, I’m not. Then he announces that the interview is over.

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So how are we able to resume? By talking about butterflies. Brown loves them. As a great-outdoors nut, he’s happy to see any wildlife while he’s reporting from tournaments, but a perfect Ken on the Course would have, say, a green fritillary whooshing past just as our guide bunker-hunkers to explain how a golfing superstar would best approach a green.

“I like Royal St George’s, which many people don’t, because it’s got a super-abundance of wildlife,” he says. “As soon as you step into the rough you’re going: ‘Hey, what was that?’ Royal Birkdale is pretty good. If you’re lucky you can see red squirrels there, maybe a sand lizard which are very rare. At St Andrews I’d be very happy to see a common blue.”

Brown twice played the Open there and it’s one of his favourite courses. His biggest Open excitement was challenging Tom Watson on the final day at Muirfield in 1980 before falling back to joint sixth. There was a determined effort to crack America, victory in the 1984 Glasgow Open at Haggs Castle before the event became the Scottish Open, which starts at Gullane on Thursday – plus five appearances in the Ryder. But he quit tournament golf when he was only 34. “I just lost the desire,” he admits. “I never played for the money, it was the challenge that I loved, but I stepped away from it, just like I was about to step away from this interview, and I’ll do exactly the same regarding the telly one day. I’ll wake up and decide I don’t want to do it anymore.”

The best bit of Brown’s game was his putting. His skill at it – he used to practise in the dark – brought him another nickname, One Putt, which has given him the title for a book of how-to hints. The foreword has been written by Seve Ballesteros and Brown smiles at the memory of his friend, who penned his words in 2011, the year he died, and made our man determined to complete a project which had a lengthy gestation. Seve dubs him “a Picasso with the putter” – is that a compliment? “Well, I think he meant I went at putting differently, rather than my stroke was a work of art. Regarding the old hickory-shafted job, the other guys would be like: ‘How the hell do you use that?’ But it wasn’t an affectation, it just worked for me. Same with the hats. They were simply there to keep a skinny bloke warm. I was too busy trying to get the ball in the hole to cultivate an image. I just wanted to play my golf and disappear. I didn’t like all the notoriety.”

His best-ever putt came in the 1985 Ryder Cup at the Belfry, so crucial that it seemed “more important than oxygen”. His worst experience on a green was four-putting in Zambia on the Safari Tour nine years before: “I felt rushed. That never happened again.” We manage to continue chatting for another hour, about how golf is the greatest game even when you’re not playing pro-am with Arthur Montford although that certainly helps, and it’s difficult not to think of Brown as being like one of his cherished butterflies: elusive, intriguing, erratic and tricky, but just about capable of staying still for long enough.

Fans of Ken on the Course, and they are legion, needn’t worry: he’s not giving up TV anytime soon. He loves that the slot is enjoyed by weans and grannies, which he says is part of golf’s USP, and is currently swotting up for The Open. He produces two cut-outs, one of St Andrews’ shared 5th and 13th greens and another of the 11th at Augusta, to illustrate the giant Scottish swathe which – are you ready, fact-fans? – requires the greenkeeper tending it to walk seven and a half miles.

So who’s going to win? Rory McIlroy loves the course and will be favourite, he says, but surely Henrik Stenson must win a major eventually. Lee Westwood would be a popular champion and then – “Jeepers-creepers” – let’s not forget Jordan Spieth who’s going for the grand slam.

Is there an equivalent of that in the butterfly world? “Well,” he says, “out of the 55 native species in Britain I think only nine have ever been spotted at St Andrews. It would be great to find a tenth… ”

l One Putt by Ken Brown is published by Octopus Books (£17.99)