An interview with Katherine Downes, the journalist and sports presenter, about her career and love of sport (particularly golf)

The voice of Katherine Downes will be familiar to many sports fans, whether it be from listening in to coverage on BBC Radio 5 Live from the likes of the AIG Women’s Open or Ryder Cup, figure skating at the Winter Olympics, diving at the Summer Olympics or epic battles on the court at Wimbledon – to name but a few sports that she has commentated on in recent years.

Combining her passion for sport with a talent for storytelling, Kat has carved out an impressive career in the world of sports journalism. Her journalism career did not start in sport but an unplanned turn of events led her to become one of the recognisable and sought-after commentators across many sports.

Ahead of the U.S. Open, when you can listen to Kat on BBC Radio 5 Live, Emma spoke with the journalist and sports presenter about her career and love of sport.

The unexpected path to sports journalism

Kat’s career began in commercial radio, then transitioned through BBC local radio and regional TV. Initially focused on news journalism, she covered a wide array of topics from energy prices to court cases. However, a pivotal moment came when her colleagues encouraged her to specialise, pushing her to pursue her passion for sports.

"I had never thought that I would or could work in sports," she recalls. Despite being an avid sports fan and a recreational athlete, she didn't see herself as a professional in the field. Her break came when she approached the sports desk at the BBC and inquired about correspondent jobs. Although there were no immediate openings, she was offered a presenting position when BBC Sport moved to Salford. This opportunity in 2012 coincided with the London Olympics, immersing her in a whirlwind of sports coverage.

A decade with the BBC

She spent over ten years with BBC Sport, starting as a presenter on the news channel and eventually becoming a familiar face on BBC Breakfast. Her role expanded to reporting for major news bulletins and she gradually took on commentary roles, beginning with golf. Her commentary training started at Wentworth for the BMW PGA, where she remembers following Darren Clark around in the pouring rain, learning where to stand, how to speak and what to say.

After a break for maternity leave, she was asked if she’d be interested in covering figure skating at the Winter Olympics and then she picked up diving as well. Although totally different sports, they have similarities from a commentating point of view. You introduce the athlete to the field of play, they perform, you react to what you've just seen, the scores come up and you know where they are in the competition. Two niche specialisms that allowed her to diversify her experience and showcase her expertise.

The moment at Wentworth started her deep dive into golf commentary five years ago, leveraging her lifelong connection to the sport. Kat’s family roots in golf run deep, with holidays in West Wales where the entire family engaged in the sport. "My grandparents, my parents, and now my children all play golf," she shares, highlighting the sport's generational influence.

Golf: A personal and professional passion

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that golf holds a special place in her heart, both as a personal passion and a professional pursuit. Her intimate knowledge of the game (with a handicap approaching single figures), cultivated from childhood, complements her role as a commentator. She enjoys the unique challenge of bringing golf to life for radio listeners, creating vivid narratives that capture the essence of the game.

She explains her approach to preparation for golf commentary: "I write my own scorecard for the course, note yardages, and key features, and include bits of history to enrich the narrative." This meticulous preparation allows her to deliver engaging and informative commentary, whether she's covering a Major championship or a regular tournament.

“Golf is just a dream to work on. I love bringing it to life on the radio, for people who are interested in it but can't see it. They can take it with them wherever they go. They wake up with it in the morning, they listen to it in the shower. They listen to it on a drive to work. They've got it in their ear, or they're sitting at their desk. You can reach people that TV can't reach on the radio, and the stories that we've been able to tell over the past five years since I've been doing this have been absolutely phenomenal.”

The joy of covering diverse sports

Beyond golf, Kat has a broad appreciation for various sports. She is particularly fond of tennis and the Olympics, finding joy in the stories and performances they bring. Her ability to switch seamlessly between different sports is a testament to her adaptability and professionalism. For example, at Wimbledon, she relies on her deep interest and enjoyment of the sport, while golf requires extensive preparation due to its complexity and historical richness.

Collaborative efforts in broadcasting

She also has an appreciation of the collaborative nature of sports broadcasting. She has experience working alongside different teams, such as the BBC Radio Five Live and IMG's Open Radio. This collaboration enhances coverage and provides diverse perspectives, enriching the listener's experience. "A mixture of voices, accents, and backgrounds makes the broadcast lively and colourful," she notes.

Adding: “Nothing compares to being out on the course and seeing the whites of those players' eyes, and listening to the connection between the ball and the club, and feeling the wind and feeling the rain and watching as they kind of battle around.”

Listen out for Kat across BBC channels over the coming months, with five Majors still to be contested, two weeks of Wimbledon, Olympics in Paris and the Solheim Cup to finish off in September, there will be many a scene to set and story to tell.

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