On arriving at one more DP World Tour event, Iona Stephen, the Sky Sports Golf commentator, is apt to make the practice range her first port of call. Back in 2020, when she was starting out in the TV world, she would probably have been assessing the moods of the various players and wondering how she should start the necessary conversations. Today, that happens rather less often; many of the professionals only have to see her coming to interrupt their practice sessions and ask after her dogs.
In recent weeks, they would probably have gone on to request an update on how Iona and her two Labrador pups, Dealas and Las, fared in the ‘dog-on-course’ trial which is taking place over the Queen’s Course and the Wee Course at Gleneagles between now and the end of the year.
Iona Stephen with her pups Dealas and Las at Gleneagles
(Image credit: Iona Stephen)
Andrew Jowett, the Head of Golf at the five-star complex, said he was unable to comment on specific dog behaviour before acknowledging that the initial feedback had been “relatively good… All the dogs thus far have complied with the required golfing etiquette.” (Their number would have included Dealas and Las who, in their owner’s opinion, behaved decidedly well for a pair of pups who must have seen golf as a painfully slow version of the crazy ball-chasing games they had known in their first nine months.)
Iona, incidentally, has been campaigning for more dogs in golf on the grounds that dogs and golfers get as much fun out of a golf course environment as each other. Meanwhile, the anti-dog faction, who will have a say on what happens at Gleneagles, will tell you that there are enough hazards in the game without stepping on dog waste. Where the two sides are in agreement is in believing that the dogs need to be on leads.
Following on from her Gleneagles experience, Iona took Dealas and Las to St Andrews for the Sunday of the Dunhill Links championship. There, she met Eddie Pepperell’s canines whose on-course etiquette was in a class of its own. Not only did they walk the links with one of Pepperell’s friends, but they watched their master’s every shot. All of which left you with the thought that had Pepperell and his playing companions suddenly found their spectators moving on to a better-scoring group, those loyal dogs would presumably have stayed put.
“The great thing about having a dog or dogs,” said Iona, “is that they don’t care how you’ve played or, for that matter, whether, your latest player interview went well or badly. They’re pleased to see you no matter what and it’s easy to understand why you get carers taking them into hospitals and care-homes as a source of therapy.”
There have always been dogs in Iona’s family and her father’s Labrador, Ghilly (mother of Dealas and Las), would have been a great source of comfort to Iona when, in 2019, she was a woebegone figure sitting in a Sainsbury’s car park and wondering what she should do with her life. Wrist injuries had put paid to her playing aspirations and, though a series of steroid injections had helped her get by at the start, “a horribly intrusive operation” turned out to be a complete waste of time.
(Image credit: Iona Stephen)
By way of a last throw of the dice, she headed out to the States to investigate the possibility of a stem-cell procedure, only for that to be ruled out when an update to her diagnosis shook her to the core. She had developed Stage 4 osteoarthritis, and all because she had had too many of those early steroid injections. “I’m happy to share my story because I would hate for other golfers to make the same mistakes as I did,” she said at the time.
While cars came and went in that grim supermarket setting, Iona embarked on a desultory if automatic scroll through her emails. Though she was not expecting anything of interest, there was one message to interrupt her sobs. It came from IMG’s London HQ and said that they were looking for a presenter for an anonymous golf show. “I wasn’t holding out much hope,” she said, “but I did an ok interview and, a fortnight later, I got this phone-call asking if I wanted be a presenter for Golfing World at the WGC event in Mexico.”
To borrow from the R&A slogan used at this year’s Open, “Everything has led to this,” Iona’s golfing low has been replaced by an all-encompassing career in the TV world in which she is entrusted with everything from commentary, to presenting, to interviewing players on and off the course and to having her own blog, “On the Road with Iona”. She has done duty at one major event after another, though such is her love of dogs that you get the feeling that she would at some point like to have a crack at Crufts.
Many pros interrupt their practice session to ask about Iona’s dogs
(Image credit: Iona Stephen)
Intriguingly, she sees ‘doggy qualities” in plenty of the top golfers, with ‘consistency of mood’ taking pride of place on her list of qualities which matter most for dogs and golfers alike. Among the women, Iona hit on Dame Laura Davies as “one of the most consistent people I have ever met”. Then came Lydia Ko, “a lovely calm person”, with this young star followed almost in the same breath by the Korda sisters, Jessica and Nelly: “The two of them are rock solid, personality-wise. What you see is what you get.”
Moving on to the men, Ryan Fox, who won the Dunhill, got an early mention, as did Victor Hovland, George Coetzee and Jon Rahm. Yes, Iona appreciated that Rahm could be a bit fiery from time to time but she nonetheless sees him as a good man through and through. Next, she mentioned Collin Morikawa in tones to suggest that his name should have tripped from her lips at the start.
The 2021 Open champion and his partner, Katherine Zhu, have what they call a Golden Doodle by name of Koa who posed with the Claret Jug. Morikawa and Zhu, by the way, have at various points been involved with the dog adoption process by helping dog adoption agencies to sort out appropriate owners via Zoom calls.
When I asked if Iona had forgotten Shane Lowry who, in my book, would seem to have all the characteristics of a much-loved and friendly dog, she emitted a few ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ before deciding on how best to couch her reply. When ready, she conceded that though Lowry was everything I had suggested, he lost a few marks when it came to ‘consistency of mood’.
But there was a way round that problem. On the grounds that his caddie, Bo, ticked every one of her boxes, the Open winner of 2019 was given a special dispensation.