While UK golf fans may not be too familiar with his face, Jay Townsend’s voice is almost instantly recognisable. A fixture on Radio Five Live’s terrific coverage of the four major championships, the 53-year-old American has long distinguished himself with his fearless and informed takes on golf and golfers. A rarity amongst his compatriots in that he played full-time on the European Tour between 1985 and 1998, the Ohio native now resident in Florida brings a trans-Atlantic perspective to Scotland’s game.
“I was an oddity on the European Tour,” he says. “My dream was to play on the PGA Tour. In 1984 I went to tour school in the States and in Europe. Jeff Sluman and Robert Wrenn – both Americans – were one and two at the European school but never played in Europe. So the European Tour changed the dates to clash with the American school. Which was a good move. It meant you had to commit to the European Tour.
“I came to love the European Tour, even if it took me a while to get used to the different cultures. But when I did, I learned so much. I picked up more in my first five years in Europe than I did in 17 years of school at home. I saw the world and it made me a more rounded person.”
In Scotland last week working for European Tour Productions’ “World Feed” that will send Townsend’s distinctive tones around the globe, the former All-American at the University of Florida – “I was a better player than my results showed; I was too analytical for my own good” – brings a rare breadth and depth of knowledge to all things golf.
“Thomas Edison put it best,” he says. “He said that failure could be a good thing because it eliminated a possibility and allowed you to move on to something else. That was me, too. I tried all sorts of things to get better. I went to [European Tour chief referee] John Paramor once and asked him if I could have a dot in the middle of the face on my irons. He said I could. Another time, I turned up with a driver that had a smooth face, no grooves. It imparted less spin on the ball and I hit longer drives.”
Townsend’s best finish during his tenure on tour was second place in the 1993 Heineken Open. No victories suggest a level of futility, but that would be a harsh assessment. Anyone who can make a comfortable living for more than a decade on the European Tour can clearly golf his ball. But Townsend would be the first to concede he is a better broadcaster than he was a player.
“A lot of people like golf on the radio because we are actually live,” says Townsend. “I don’t want to burst any bubbles but a lot of times television is not quite live. Plus, we can get a little more intimate about what is going on. We can tell stories. On television they are bound by what is on the screen and they don’t have time for stories. It’s often said by those who have worked on both radio and television: if radio paid as much as television, no one would do television.”
Anyway, as you’d expect from such a keen observer, Townsend has a few things to say about the state of the game today. Good and bad.
“Professional golf has not been in a better state since Tiger drove into the fire hydrant,” he maintains. “We’ve got Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and, nipping at their heels, Rickie Fowler. They are all a similar age, too. Rory is clearly the most talented player to come on the scene since Phil Mickelson. I’ve always thought Phil was more talented than Tiger Woods. But Tiger is the better golfer. Similarly, Jordan is not nearly as gifted as Rory, but he is a better golfer. Jason is talented, but he doesn’t have the intangibles Jordan has.
“As for Rickie, he was a mystery for a while. All I ever heard about him was how good he is. I watched him at Royal St Georges in the 2011 Open and was so impressed by how he played in awful conditions. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t winning big events. He has improved so much since then. 2015 was something of a breakout season for him. He has won three big events. Now he has to keep going. He answered a lot of the critics who felt he was the most overrated player on tour. Not any more.” On the other hand, Townsend is not a fan of other aspects of the modern game – one in particular.
“The golf ball goes too far,” he maintains. “Courses are too big, so maintenance budgets have grown. The professional gets the full benefit of the technology because of swing speed. The amateur, generally, gains next to nothing.
“Here’s my fix. I know the ruling bodies are afraid of being sued by the equipment companies, but all they have to say to the manufacturers is this: You can have a golf ball and a club combination that will be tested to see that a shot cannot fly more than 265 yards with a 117mph swing speed. That’s faster than average on the PGA Tour. So still fast.
“Then I’d tell them they don’t have to make a ball that conforms. But if they want their players to compete in tournaments, here are the new rules: we’re not saying you have to do what we say. But if you don’t, you can’t play in our events.
“If we did that, the historical significance of so many old courses would be restored. The R&A continues to put new back tees on courses because they claim driving distances peaked ten years ago. That’s only because the ball goes so far the top players don’t have to hit drivers any more. So it’s a false plateau. The ball today is going farther than it ever has.”
And there’s more. Townsend also has advice for the authorities battling golf’s biggest scourge: slow play.
“Golf carts? Gone. They slow up play. So do lasers, more so than yardage books. Using a laser, you have to wait for the guy in front to put the pin in the hole before you can calculate the distance. When the group in front is walking off the green, you should already be waggling.”
Anything else? Oh yes…he’s on a roll.
“This so-called ‘fixing’ of the anchored putter is nothing more than a farce,” he continues. “Do I think anchored putting is wrong? Absolutely. Real putting is three-dimensional. It is alignment, the arc of the stroke and the force imparted on the ball. Anchored putting takes the arc of the stroke out of the equation. That can’t be right.
“Here’s the thing though. We’re talking about an aspect of the game that affects only a very few unfortunate people. So how important can it really be? If the R&A and the USGA really want to do something significant, address the distance the ball flies – for the good of the game.”
Amen to that brother.