After a playing career which saw him scoring goals for England, Leicester City, Everton, Barcelona, Tottenham and Nagoya Grampus Eight, the Leicester, UK-born footballer turned pundit is now a high-profile presenter for BBC’s flagship football show ‘Match of the Day’, as well as fronting the BT Sports coverage of the UEFA Champions League.
Lineker’s love of sport often translated into other pursuits, and golf has been a family favourite for several decades, even leading him to defeat a former Major winner along the way…
RSNG How do you think the BBC’s loss of The Open to Sky Sports has affected people taking up the sport?
GARY LINEKER, PUNDIT ‘Well, I could certainly say that the popularity of golf is not as high as it once was. The Open Championship was one of the few major golfing events that was available to watch on terrestrial television, so to lose that was a big blow.’
‘However, it was a puzzling one as to why that was actually allowed to happen by the golfing powers that be, because the access to golf is seen as a little prohibitive with the costs of equipment and such. So, to also put another barrier in the way of young people getting to view the game – as a paywall – was surprising, but money talks doesn’t it?’
‘It’s good that we still have a few of the other so-called ‘crown jewels’ sports events protected from pay-per-view, such as the Grand National, the Epsom Derby and the Wimbledon finals. I was just amazed that the British Open Championship wasn’t part of that list.’
RSNG How did you first get into golf?
GL ‘I’m not really sure, to be honest. I know a lot of footballers play the game during their career and then take it a lot more seriously when they retire. I wasn’t one of those players who played at all during my playing days. I had team-mates who did, but I just didn’t fancy it.’
‘However, once I retired that changed somewhat. I had always watched The Open and then, once I started enjoying that over the course of a few years, I began to take notice of the Masters at Augusta. I didn’t really watch golf until then because when I was a kid, it was always on too late and I would be in bed.’
‘I got playing and – pardon the pun – just got hooked! It’s quite a simple sport in the fact that it’s very pure, there are so many legends and a huge array of golf courses, all requiring different approaches and specialisms. So, no matter where you are, you can usually find a course to play at.’
‘I played against Ernie Els at Queenwood and I shot 71 so I beat him 2&1 in matchplay, with my six-shot handicap’
RSNG How much do you play nowadays?
GL ‘Unfortunately, nowhere near as much as I would like to. I had to stop playing regularly because it was no good for my back. I think I played too much and that’s what has made my injury worse.’
‘However, when I did play I had some really tremendous experiences, and getting to play at lots and lots of iconic courses and venues around the world has been a pleasure. That’s something that I will always have; the great memories and the great feeling of when you hit that perfect shot.’
‘Then, the aches and pains started to creep in, and work commitments and general life meant that I got less time to play, less time to practise and work on my game. I would genuinely be so fed up with what was up with my game, that I wanted to quit halfway through a round!’
RSNG What was your handicap at the best point?
GL ‘It was five, believe it or not. Then, because I wasn’t able to play too much, it slipped to six. But that didn’t prevent me from the biggest win of my golfing ‘career’ – if you can call it that.’
‘I played against Ernie Els at Queenwood in a place called Ottershaw, in Surrey, and I shot 71, which meant that I beat him 2&1 in matchplay, with my six-shot handicap. However, there’s almost no limit to the amount of times that he gained revenge on me, after that!’
‘You’ve got to admire the legendary players, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods – but for me Rory McIlroy is the man’
RSNG Does golf still need to make itself more accessible?
GL I think so, yes. You’ve got to make it interesting to young people. It takes a long time to play a round, so I suppose something that would make playing easier. Make golf clubs more approachable and perhaps less expensive. And not shift all golf away from terrestrial television! But they don’t seem to be doing much about that one.’
RSNG Who is your favourite player then?
GL You’ve got to admire the legendary players – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods…. But for me Rory McIlroy is the man. He’s done magnificently, he’s such a wonderful talent. He handles himself so well and he’s so good for the sport.’
WHAT NEXT? Highlights from Gary Lineker’s tremendous ‘career’ (the football one).