“I began jumping around. My father-in-law jumped around. Even though we were from the same household, it didn’t seem right to hug each other. So — we just both kept jumping in the air,” the 34-year-old said, a day after his personal triumph at Styal Golf Club in Cheshire, England.
No organized sport escaped Britain’s March 23 lockdown. More than 2,600 golf courses were shuttered and the British Open Championship, scheduled for July at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in England, was canceled for the first time since World War II.
But as of last week in England and this week in Wales, club golf is back — at least for those who don’t mind golfing alone, or sharing their play with just one other person outside their household, along with adhering to other social distancing restrictions.
Scotland, the originator of the modern game, is sticking with its golf ban for now. Among other things, that means President Trump’s courses in Aberdeen and Turnberry remain shuttered; the Trump Organization has applied for government bailouts of those two courses and one in Ireland. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who rebuffed easing the lockdown in Scotland based on infection data there, confirmed on Thursday that golf and some other outdoor activity could resume on May 28.
A sport with about three million participants across the United Kingdom, golf slipped past the coronavirus cordon in part because of weeks of lobbying by industry leaders and cooperation from lawmakers.
David Rickman, executive director of governance of the R&A, which runs the British Open, reached out to Westminster, as well as governments in Scotland and Wales, as rumors of a coming lockdown spread in mid-March. Craig Tracey, head of Parliament’s all-party group for golf, was keen to preserve jobs at the Belfry, home of past Ryder Cups and the Brabazon Course, which dominates the Warwickshire countryside. The PGA also has a course and offices there.
Golf as an industry employs about 74,000 people in Britain and generates tax revenue of about a billion pounds annually, he said.
By the time Britain’s “stay home” order was announced, the industry had secured a key asset: greenskeepers were deemed essential employees. They could continue working to ensure carpet-smooth greens when players returned.
Golf clubs, seen in normal times as more exclusive than neighborly, then pitched themselves as part of the community in crisis. People were allowed to ramble through the roughs for the one-hour of daily exercise enforced in the lockdown. It was a sign of good will, as Tracey described it.
Clubs also offered storage to the government to house emergency supplies, he said. “We wanted to be seen as part of the solution.”
Jeremy Tomlinson, chief executive of England Golf, said all the national organizations were involved and they made their case in weekly meetings with government that golf was particularly suited to social distancing. And certainly, a day of golf, as they all had known it, would have to change.
No boozy postgame lunches at the clubs. No bar staff, cooks or caterers on site. No parties or weddings or conferences for the foreseeable future.
But the game itself, industry executives argued, could be therapeutic.
“Basically, everybody has had a tough time in lockdown, and this gives people a chance to exercise in a different way and to socialize in a different way,” Tomlinson said.
“When we are living in unprecedented times, this is something that people can go out and do and think: Gosh, I remember what this is like. This is nice.”
Club members across England were so enthusiastic about signing up for tee times on May 13, the first day of play, that they crashed the national computer registration system.
Chris Stott drove about 40 miles from his home to Woodhall Spa, a heathland course that Golf World magazine has called one of the best in Britain, for his first round in months. He played on Thursday, had a game with his son on Friday and clinched a third spot on Sunday.
“In lockdown you have a lot of time to think and sometimes that can take you to potentially dark places — about how bad is it going to be, what will happen next,” said Stott, 38. “Golf gives you something else to think about.”
After one round, he and his playing buddy, Sam Czornyj, chatted about the highlights of the day. “Usually we’d be talking about this shot or that shot after a game,” Stott said. “But for once it wasn’t about the golf. It was about being outside and being with a good friend and having a laugh about how bad we played and forgetting the outside world.”
Almost the entire staff, except the greenskeepers, are still on furlough at Chartridge Park Golf Club in Chesham, England. But club manager Eric Roca, 47, was keen to open on the right side of the rules.
The parking lot was reorganized for social distancing. Paths were painted around the club to maintain orderly play. Roca pulled in his 18-year-old son to, among other duties, post hand sanitizer dispensers around the course.
Roca said his 450-member course, like others, is having players change shoes in their cars and head directly to the first tee. “We’ve told people not to touch the pins. We’ve removed all the rakes. We’ve removed all the bins. We’ve removed all the ball washes. We’ve done as much as we can so people don’t touch anything.”
Roca also made a decision to turn his 18-hole course into two nine-hole courses. “If we had kept it to 18 holes, we’d never have enough tee times.”
On Wednesday, 88 golfers played. By Friday, 150 had signed up for tee times. The course was greeting players every 10 minutes for eight hours, from early morning to dusk.
Still Roca, who has managed the club for 14 years, said golf alone won’t salvage a business hard hit by the pandemic. “The massive majority of our income is functions. A party for 200. A wedding for 100. That’s how we make our income.
“The golf industry — every club will tell you the membership has gone down over the last 10 years. After the London Olympics, cycling became big. Here, even the club captain in 2012 stopped playing golf. He’s cycling now.”