Meet Alison Whitaker, the groundbreaking television host U.S. viewers hear but rarely see

Alison Whitaker was having lunch on her birthday in China at a Ladies European Tour event when someone from the television crew asked if she’d be interested in filling in during the coverage later that day.

The affable Aussie said sure, she’d love to. The crew member went on to explain that ideally, they’d like to have a European voice. Whitaker said no worries, she’d be around for another 40 minutes in player dining if they couldn’t find a better option. Either way, no hard feelings.

“Lucky for me, they didn’t find anyone,” Whitaker said with a laugh. By the end of the day, she’d been offered a contract for the following season.

That was a decade ago, and now Whitaker, the former Duke player with the razor-sharp mind and infectious personality, is busy crisscrossing the globe making history in the commentary box.

LPGA Hall of Fame player and television trailblazer Judy Rankin calls Whitaker the most versatile person in broadcasting. She can walk the fairways as an on-course reporter and serve as both an analyst and lead host – sometimes in the same week.

Whitaker, 38, will be in the booth at this week’s Blue Bay LPGA event in China but does most of her work in the men’s game on the DP World Tour and is mostly off-camera, making her a sneaky low-profile TV personality.

“She’s tremendous,” said Rankin, adding that “here, she’s definitely under the radar except for the true golf junkies who watch a lot of the European Tour and so on.”

Whitaker made it to Durham, North Carolina, via a 2005 American summer tour that culminated in a semifinal appearance at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, where she beat future LPGA players Ryann O’Toole, Maria Uribe and Amanda Blumenherst before falling to eventual champion Maru Martinez.

Alison Whitaker played for Duke from 2006 to 2010. (courtesy Duke athletics)

When Whitaker arrived at Duke, the mood of the team lightened, recalled Blumenherst. She’d be the one printing out the lyrics to the “Little Mermaid” to bring in the team van. When Blumenherst played her last competitive round at the Evian Championship 11 years ago, Whitaker was there on the last hole to give her a hug.

Blumenherst was actually working for the Golf Channel on set when she first heard Whitaker’s voice on a broadcast. She watched as someone hit a thin shot out of a bunker that caught the top edge, prompting Whitaker to say, “Oh, those lips don’t lie.”

Right from the start, Blumenherst said, it seemed Whitaker belonged on television.

At one point this season, it looked like Whitaker might be on the road working events for 17 straight weeks. She deleted a few in the middle so she’d remember where to put the coffee mugs at her home in Melbourne. She’ll typically work five to seven weeks in a row and then have a couple off.

Saying yes to television was made rather easy given that she’d been battling glandular fever and vertigo as a touring pro. Plus, she absolutely loved it, noting that her work ethic exploded.

For many former players in the commentary world, television feels like the next stage. But for Whitaker, professional golf felt more like the lead-up to what she was meant to be doing.

When Whitaker first got recruited to work on the LET, she was in her late 20s, which was young for the time. After working the LPGA’s Asian swing and some of the men’s and women’s events in Australia, Whitaker started covering the DP World Tour for European Tour Productions, which provides the world feed for Golf Channel and Sky Sports, among others.

“She’s the most conscientious, diligent person I’ve ever come across,” said booth mate Tony Johnstone. “I think she’s surrounded by more laptops than when they put Apollo on the moon.”

Covering the men’s game meant that Whitaker had a lot to learn in a short amount of time, given that playing professional golf on a women’s tour leaves little time to watch the men.

Sitting next to men in the commentary box who had witnessed something firsthand that Whitaker had only read about drove her to work the range and talk to as many people as possible.

Even so, it was deeply intimidating.

“You kind of just have to make sure you fill your shoes with a little bit of self-belief,” said Whitaker, “which is so much harder than people would think when you’re sitting down the row from Nick Faldo and Trevor Immelmann, and I’m just trying to convince myself to talk.”

That’s where Whitaker’s strong sense of humor comes into play. She has learned to laugh about mistakes and give herself a bit of grace. When it comes to the naysayers online, her family provides some levity, particularly when bad grammar and typos are involved.

“Like many women in men’s realms, especially in sport, I’ve got a healthy dose of imposter syndrome,” said Whitaker, “which I’m trying to get in check, but at the same time it fuels me.”

Alison Whitaker and Iona Stephen pose for a picture at the TV compound. (courtesy photo)

Iona Stephen’s first memory of meeting Whitaker was at the 2019 BMW PGA Championship while working for Golfing World. Whitaker warmly introduced herself, and they sat down for a drink. Right from the start, Stephen felt this was a woman she could trust.

Fast forward to the global pandemic, when Stephen was early into her work as an on-course reporter covering the DP World Tour and tasked with interviewing some of the biggest names in golf – live. It was a tough time learning a new business during the isolated era of Covid, but as luck would have it, Stephen was in a shared accommodation space with Whitaker that week. Stephen grabbed a decorative shell and used it as a pretend microphone as she conducted mock interviews with Whitaker until midnight.

“I’ll never forget that,” said a grateful Stephen.

Whitaker started working the lead of men’s broadcasts toward the end of 2020. With little advice to go on, she dove in, unaware of all the ways she’d soon be making history.

In addition to working as the lead host covering on the DP World Tour on a consistent basis, Whitaker became the first female lead at the Open Championship three years ago at Royal St. George’s for the world feed, as well as at the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. Last year, she was the first female lead on a men’s major for Sky Sports at the PGA Championship.

David Mould, director of live television at the European Tour Group, said Whitaker is also the first person on the world feed to work as both a lead host and analyst, which she does for the DP World Tour’s high-profile Rolex Series events.

“I don’t think Alison realizes how good she is,” said Mould, “and maybe that’s a good thing because it drives her forward to try and be better.”

Whitaker is humble about the history and mostly wants to help other women join her on course and in the booth. She’s open to sharing all of her tricks and tips. And when the pressure gets to be too much, as it invariably does in a profession in which mistakes are amplified, she’s the first to offer those in her small girl gang a hug.

“The environment when I got into it was very competitive because there wasn’t enough room for more women,” said Whitaker. “It felt like there was one woman on each crew and everyone was quite defensive of their patch.”

She describes Thomas Bjorn as her security bear. He’s quick to make sure everyone is taken care of, she said, and will march into any room to make things happen. He’s even fought a few battles for Whitaker, just so she doesn’t have to.

“When you hang out with him, you can see why so many guys respect him and look to him as a leader,” she said. “I got to know that more after his Ryder Cup captaincy when I started to work with him more. He just gets things so right, and he takes care of you.”

Whitaker often works broadcasts without ever being seen on camera. (courtesy photo)

The team environment means much to Whitaker, a noted foodie and wine expert who can direct pals to brilliant food haunts around the world.

Whitaker notes that Scotland’s Ken Brown has a contagious laugh that can heard buildings over. He presented her a watercolor for Christmas – someone pulling a sleigh down a snowy street – and it became an instant treasure.

Richard Kaufman and Kate Burton were early mentors as she started covering the LET. Her goal every day was to find something that Kaufman didn’t know.

At the 2015 Solheim Cup, Whitaker sat in a box with Burton, who was working lead for the first time. At the end of the first day, Burton asked Whitaker to give her one thing she liked, and one thing she could work on for the next day. Learning how to take feedback is very hard to do, Burton explained, but it’s the only way to get better.

“What a massive lesson to learn,” said Whitaker. “Between the two of them, I got work ethic, and the secrets on how to try and improve.”

Of course, Whitaker’s favorite stories to tell are the ones when things didn’t go as planned. Like the time the air-conditioner died during the Joburg Open in South Africa and they had to put their phones in the fridge before finishing up a Sky Sports interview. Not to mention the black mamba curled up under the portable toilet.

“I hope to have a career of that,” said Whitaker. “I don’t want it to be too polished.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek