Interview: Sky’s David Livingstone on his Open homecoming

David Livingstone on golf's frontline, with Sky colleague Richard Boxall. Picture: Getty.
David Livingstone on golf's frontline, with Sky colleague Richard Boxall. Picture: Getty.
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L ike his famous namesake, Sky Sports golf anchorman David Livingstone’s life is a well travelled one. He reckons around 24 weeks of the year are spent away from his Newton Mearns home – “which is a lot less than it used to be” – though his exploration of the world hastended towards more serene locations than the great 19th century missionary.

Through Sky’s coverage of the PGA Tour, much of that time is spent in the United States and the Scot recently enjoyed an 11½-hour road trip from Chicago to Atlanta with his compatriot and long-time colleague Ewen Murray, which took in five states.

He has relished the opportunity to spend so much time discovering what he calls the “real America”, places that are not necessarily top holiday destinations, but this week it will be a trip to a familiar old haunt that 
provides him with the highlight of a long and distinguished career.

Livingstone will be your main host at Royal Troon this week as Sky makes its debut as the live broadcaster of the Open Championship, having won the rights from the BBC in a five-year £75 million deal. It marks the culmination of a 26-year-long odyssey with the satellite broadcaster in which the 
Renfrew man has been at the heart of Sky’s rise in the sport to the point where they now have the rights to all four major tournaments and the Ryder Cup.

The fact that his first shot at 
presenting the Open comes at a place he knows so well gives it added significance.

“I’ve got to make this personal and for me the Ayrshire coast is special,” he tells us from Castle Stuart, where he is fronting coverage of the Scottish Open this weekend.

“As a young working-class kid you’d be treated to a day out at the seaside at Largs or Troon or Saltcoats. To be going there now to lead the Sky coverage at the Open Championship takes my breath away.

“When I sit there on the first morning and look out at that beach and out across to the islands and think that this is where I used to come as a kid with holes in my shoes... well, what an honour it’s going to be.”

It would have seemed a pipe dream back in the early 1990s when Livingstone left the channel’s football beat, where he was a post-match interviewer, to front coverage of the US Tour golf from a London studio.

One of the originals, he joined British Satellite Broadcasting at its inception in January 1990 before the merger with Sky in the middle of that year 
following a career as a newspaper journalist and short stint with STV. It wasn’t long before he was jetting across the pond, with the Players Championship an early adventure before Sky got their first major in the shape of the 1994 US Open at Oakmont. Coverage of the US Tour steadily increased and then came the momentous breakthrough a year 
later when they won the exclusive rights to the Ryder Cup.

The loss of the Open from terrestrial screens has not been without controversy but Livingstone is quick to point to that example when asked if it is right that such an iconic national sporting event should be on satellite TV, with the BBC coverage now reduced to two-hour nightly 

“When Sky got the Ryder Cup people said the same – that it should remain free to air, which it still does in highlights form,” he explained. “People said it would somehow hinder the development of the Ryder Cup but far from it. It’s made the Ryder Cup the biggest event in world golf. It’s taken the competition to a wider audience not a smaller audience.

“That amazing last night in Medinah four years ago [when Europe overturned a 10-6 deficit on the final day for a miraculous win] Sky Sports was the most watched channel in the UK bar none. There’s no reason why the same kind of thing can’t happen with the Open. Sky has never been more accessible. You don’t need a subscription, there’s the Now box and you can get on for the day or the week. It’s open to everyone.

“The BBC has covered the Open with tremendous distinction over 
the years. It’s been an event they’ve really devoted themselves to and we can understand some people are wary of change.

“But we believe it’s a change for the good and the R&A clearly think that too. I think the core golf audience 
feel that too and we want to bring in others with us by providing the best seat in the house.

“This is the biggest thing we’ve ever done. We had the Ryder Cup from 1995 and that was difficult with the resources we had back then. Getting the Masters was big too but there’s 
no getting away from the fact this 
tops the lot. It’s the biggest challenge to our resources and the talent we have. But everyone is hugely looking forward to it.”

Livingstone argues that the “innovation and comprehensiveness” of the coverage means Sky’s involvement can enhance the event rather than lead to it becoming in any way reduced in terms of general public attention.

Sky Sports 1 will become a dedicated
Open channel for the week, with a wire camera at the famous Postage Stamp hole and “bunker cams” among the vast array of technological wizardry that Sky will add to this year’s coverage. “The Open has never seen anything like this,” said Livingstone.

“The idea of us going on air at 6:30am on Thursday morning is one reason. In the past the first tee shot hasn’t been deemed that important. In the Ryder Cup we made that first tee shot an event. Now we’re going to do the same here. The first shot hit to the last putt that drops.

“People who watch golf are obviously interested in the leaderboard and the star names but they also have other favourites. The club pro or the young guy from their club who has qualified. They want to follow these kind of guys. If some young amateur gets off to a flier with a few birdies then he’ll be in the coverage.

“Innovation is what Sky Sports 
has been about from the very start. When we got the Ryder Cup in 1995 
we brought a comprehensiveness to the coverage, from first shot to last shot.

“With the Masters we are limited
as it’s not our pictures, but we wrap around as much as we can, without getting too technical, with green screens, the Sky pad and touch screens and so on.

“That’s always been the name of our game. I think The Open is crying out for us to give it the Sky treatment.”

Livingstone was there when football got the “Sky treatment” back in 1992 with the launch of the English 
Premier League.

On the very first “Super Sunday” after Nottingham Forest had beaten Liverpool with a stunning strike by Teddy Sheringham, Livingstone found himself on the receiving end of some vintage Brian Clough that lives on for posterity on YouTube. As well as gently mocking his interviewer’s choice of blazer, Cloughie became amused by a pre-emptive apology for what may be deemed a “difficult question”. Eyes twinkling, he responded: “Young man, you couldn’t ask me a hard question if your life depended on it.”

Livingstone recalled: “He was afectionately cheeky with me. And I think that kind of set the tone for the way Sky were going to cover football a bit differently. It put me on the map and I’m forever grateful to Brian.”

He still follows football as much as his hectic globe-trotting schedule allows and describes himself as a “lapsed Rangers fan”.

“When you cover sport and are dealing with all these different teams your passion for one tends to dissipate a bit,” he said. “I travelled with Celtic a few times and I really liked and got on with Billy McNeill. There was something about the club I really liked. I also, like many people, developed a great admiration for Aberdeen and what they achieved in the 1980s.

“Then I came to work in England and enjoyed being around some of those big managers of the day. Most of the journalists were frightened of guys like Alex Ferguson and George Graham but, maybe because I was Scottish, I got on fine with them. They were really kind to me.”

Like the Ryder Cup, the Open attracts a wider audience than the more niche one that would tune in for the Houston Open or the Honda Classic at Palm Beach and the fact that Livingstone does not come from a pro golf background helps him reach out to the casual viewer. His handicap was once down to single digits but a hip operation pretty much confined him to a watching brief.

“I don’t play at all now,” he explained. “I’m a journalist who came into golf, not a golfer who came into journalism. I used to love playing when I was younger and when I started this job it was great having all these experts around me.

“For short periods they gave me a wee chance at being a half decent golfer, which I was for a short time. I was a late learner but I just don’t have the ingrained talent and it got to the stage where I thought, rather than battling around courses, I’d rather enjoy watching these pros do it, hone my interest in their personalities and become an educated amateur.

“Sometimes you feel a bit pedantic at the Ryder Cup explaining how match play works in simple terms and things like that.

“But I don’t think we have to apologise for taking the time to explain some aspects of golf to that wider audience. I think what brings people in to these big events is the personalities of the golfers. We saw that at Medina with Bubba Watson and Ian Poulter vying for attention and roaring away. Then when Europe went into that final day well behind and huge underdogs it unfolded 
as a classic comeback story that 
transcended sport.”

Livingstone’s journalistic instincts attract him to personalities and storylines as much as the technical aesthetics of the game and the defining narrative of his time covering the sport has, without doubt, been the rise, reign and fall of Tiger Woods. Having the former world No 1’s old coach Butch Harmon as a long-time member of the Sky team has presented a valuable insight and, at times, access to that epic drama. There will be no Woods at Troon this week due to his back injury, but Livingstone feels that golf has entered a new and, in some ways, more interesting era.

“I think it was necessary to fill the void left by Tiger Woods, for the time being at least,” he said. “I’m not saying he’s finished – I think he will be back – but whether he’ll ever win a major again remains to be seen.

“I don’t think there was one player who could fill that void. I don’t think anyone will dominate the sport so completely in the same way, certainly not in the near future. The guys who have risen up, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and now Dustin Johnson, it’s been a kind of relay race with them. They do it in spurts. Jordan won two majors in a row last year then Jason took over. Rory has had his periods of dominance and now it looks like Dustin is the man.

“We have a group of them and they bring different dynamics. Rory is a natural talent who can hit his stride and dominate for six or seven weeks. Jordan is a more crafted player who maybe has to work a bit harder at his game than Rory but when he gets it right he is formidable.

“Jason Day is maybe the perfect combination of them both but has yet to show he can really dominate for an extended period. Now some are saying that Dustin Johnson is actually the most naturally complete athlete in golf and is now finding a way to win the big ones.

“And don’t forget the likes of Bubba Watson and Adam Scott who aren’t far off. But it is that big four who I see as collectively taking that Woods mantle. We miss Tiger but I think 
having that cast of characters is a 
positive thing.

“There’s no doubt that Tiger attracted huge amounts of people to the sport with his brilliance and personality but he was so dominant that, at times, people got a bit bored as he was winning everything. Now on any given Sunday we know we could have a different winner.”

A Scot lifting the Claret Jug come next Sunday evening might be a fairytale too far for Livingstone, but the fact Colin Montgomerie, who has been a Sky pundit for a few years now, has qualified to play on his home course is an added bonus.

“That’s a great story,” said Livingstone. “Colin playing at Troon is a fantastic Scottish angle this year. And it will be amazing for us to have someone who is taking part and then coming in to join us in the studio and provide his analysis. It’s an exciting line-up. Butch gives us the inside track on everything that’s going on, not just the players he coaches but everybody down on the range talks to Butch.

“Sir Nick Faldo will be joining us. He’s worked with us before at the Ryder Cup. He’s always contributed a huge amount to the broadcasts. 
He works a lot for the networks 
in America and he’s become very 
popular over there.

“He’s different and quirky and comes out with his English expressions that need to be explained to the US audience. But we’ll all know what he means and he’s won the Open three times as well as the Masters. There’s nothing about golf he doesn’t know.

“Paul McGinley and all the usual Sky team will be on board and we also have Rich Beem this year to give an added American perspective.”

In past Open weeks, Livingstone would be anticipating the rare treat of spending a few leisurely hours in front of the box but this year finds himself braced for his biggest ever week appearing on it. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’d usually be sitting watching 
the Open from start to finish,” he said. “But this year anyone planning on doing that will have to really clear their diaries.”