Introducing the world’s greatest golfers was never supposed to be a full-time job for Ivor Robson. But he ended up providing the soundtrack to The Open for five decades and became one of the game’s most recognisable voices
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Ivor Robson was as much a part of The Open Championship as pot bunkers, punch shots and Peter Alliss. From the moment the first ball was hit until the last putt dropped, he never once left his post in the starter’s hut – not even for a toilet break.
He spent 40 years as the official starter before hanging up his microphone at St Andrews in 2015. During that time, he sent 18,998 players off in pursuit of the Claret Jug, including legends of the game such as Tiger, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, with his unforgettable Scottish tenor.
We caught up with the much-loved announcer to reflect on a lifetime of introducing everyone from Arnold Palmer to Peter Akakasiaka – and why he’s currently got a Claret Jug sitting in his dining room…
I was a club professional when I joined Accles & Pollock, the golf shaft company, who also supplied the official starter for The Open. I started in July 1975 and my first job was to be on the first tee at Carnoustie that year. I was actually announcing players I had played with a couple of months earlier. Keith Mackenzie was the secretary of The R&A then and he sent a letter to my boss, asking if he could retain my services for the foreseeable future. That was how it started.
No one ever told me what was required. But my thinking was that players don’t want to hear a biography. They want to get off the tee quickly. So I just kept it simple by saying, “This is game number… so and so”. I did the same spiel for so long that people started to imitate me.
I had a strict routine because it was always a one-tee start. I had to condition myself so I didn’t eat or drink anything. I went without a toilet break all day. There was never anywhere to go and I didn’t have time. My belief was if you don’t have any input, you shouldn’t have any output.
I was once told that with the more difficult names you should take one stab at it and try to sound convincing. I used to do it phonetically. I would cross the name out and write above it the right sounds. There was a player at the Dunhill Cup at St Andrews and the guys in the press room were taking bets that I would get it wrong. It was Peter Akakasiaka. So I asked him how to pronounce his name and he said, “It’s dead easy, Ak-Aker-see-aker”. He then told me that he was in Ireland the previous week and the starter there had said, “On the tee, Peter Ak…”. He then played his shot and was walking off the tee when the starter looked up bewildered and said “aker”.
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I did 41 Opens, but St Andrews was particularly demanding. It was fine until players started coming up the 18th. You had to dovetail the tee off times so as soon as they hit their second shots, we’d go. You had a short window to get them off before they started putting because by then the following group would be coming up the
1st and 18th fairway.
I knew it was time to go before I was told. I got diagnosed with type two diabetes and it was starting to get difficult for me. I’m OK now but at that time I wasn’t good. I ended up in a clinic in Barcelona and got a fright, I can tell you. But the diagnosis wasn’t surprising because I wasn’t eating properly. My body was telling me I had to stop so, regrettably, I had to leave.
‘Guys in the press room were taking bets I would get Peter Akakasiaka’s name wrong.’
I had one of the greatest jobs in the world. The players were great. Lee Trevino never stopped talking on the tee. I’ll always remember Tony Jacklin saying to him, “I don’t want to talk today” and he said, “You don’t have to talk, just listen”. Then you had Sam Torrance. Whenever I announced him, he would stand behind me tapping my ankles with his driver to put me off. Sergio Garcia would poke me with the back of his driver… the list goes on and on.
I was the official timekeeper for Rolex at tournaments all over the world. I covered about 30 in a year. Sometimes I was on the road for seven weeks in a row. There were Ryder Cups too. They were always totally different. When
I announced the first group in The Open, there were only ever a few fans in the stands and then it would gradually build up.
But when I started the Ryder Cup, there were always thousands of people around the first tee. You are walking into an arena, it was quite frightening actually. Lots of chanting. It’s just rowdiness I suppose. It was not my favourite event. I remember being at Walton Heath (in 1981) and seeing firefighters pumping water out of the bunkers. There were hardly any spectators watching back then. It’s changed so much.
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At one of my final tournaments, in China, I was presented with a plaque making me an honorary life member of Lake Malaren Golf Club. It was funny because a bulldozer moved in on the Monday morning to dig the golf course up because it had been built without planning permission. The owner was in prison on drugs charges and the hotel we were staying in, the Crowne Plaza, was going to be made into flats. So, I had the honour of being a member of a golf club that doesn’t exist.
The Open is the one event all players want to win. Every time it comes to the last four games on Sunday, no one is telling jokes. They are all deadly serious. And when you see the white knuckles trying to get the ball off the tee, that tells you something.
I’ve seen tops and all sorts off the first tee. There was one at Royal St George’s. Tom Lehman duffed it off the tee but still holed the putt for a four. He said to me once or twice, “I remember what I did last time I was here…”
At Fulford one year there was a chap who was so nervous he hit the ball with his practice swing and it went 150 yards up the middle. He looked up rather sheepishly. “I’ll take that,” he said.
One of my greatest regrets happened at Fulford in the Benson & Hedges event. There was a two-tee start. I’d done the first two hours and then went to the practice ground. Seve was hitting practice shots and he invited me to hit shots with him. I kept making excuses, saying I had a blazer on and didn’t have my glove. I wish I had teed it up with him, but I was worried about fatting it. Seve and I were great friends. He called me, “Ivor, my amigo”.
I never had a problem with Tiger, but his entourage were a problem. As soon as Tiger hit his ball off the tee, they were on the move when we still had two more left to tee off.
My last Open at St Andrews (in 2015), we had four seasons in the four days – and there was a Monday finish and a play-off. I was supposed to be at Sunningdale for the start of the Senior Open Pro Am on the Tuesday but I couldn’t get there.
I always used to keep one eye on the clock. It doesn’t happen very often but if the player is not on the tee when the game is called, they are deemed to be late. Funnily enough, I had to report Tom Lehman at the K Club in 2005. That went down well, a two-shot penalty for the then US Ryder Cup captain, but he was on the other side of the barrier. I had to get the referee involved but the following day he apologised for getting his timings wrong.
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I never stayed to watch any of the golf. I never wanted to show favouritism by following a group. I was also working from 6.30am to 4.30pm and I’d seen enough golf for one day, all 156 players. I was ready to get something to eat. I didn’t mix much with the players in the evenings – I had to think of my voice.
I bade farewell to The Open on the same day Tom Watson did. He gave me an 18th green flag which had a message on it: “We have travelled this long road together. All the best in your retirement. Tom Watson.” That was lovely.
The R&A gave me a Claret Jug when I retired, the only one of its kind. The winner gets a 90 percent copy, mine is a 50 percent copy with all the names on. It was presented to me at the Champions Dinner on the Tuesday night. On the top of the case it’s inscribed: ‘1975 to 2015, Ivor Robson. With his outstanding contribution to the Open Championship’. When I was coming down the steps from the dining room, I turned to Darren Clarke and said, “I’ve got a Claret Jug as well now”.
I was the only one to be invited to the Champions Dinner who wasn’t a past champion. I was sitting there surrounded by Mark O’Meara, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, John Daly. It was quite something. I haven’t been back to any Opens since, even though I keep getting invitations to go. I’m not sure whether I’ll be at St Andrews for the 150th celebrations yet. I hope so.
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