If the question is this: “Is there life on the European Tour during COVID-19?” Then the answer is: “Yes.” This was obvious when the tournaments that made up the hastily arranged six-event UK swing in England, the headquarters of the European Tour, were concluded successfully at the end of last month. On the final day of the sixth tournament, Keith Pelley, chief executive of the ET, visited the Belfry where the ISPS Handa UK Championship was taking place, and it would not be inaccurate to say that as he did so he looked like a cat that had swallowed the cream.
“It feels good to be here,” Pelley said. “I am incredibly proud that we have raised over £600,000, donated to 15 charities, recognised the everyday heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic by giving NHS staff and key workers 12-month memberships of one of the six host golf clubs and given away 11,000 golf balls to the host golf courses. It has a good feel. I cannot tell you how proud I am of the team. It is so well done and so well executed. It’s great.”
Sam Horsfield spoke for his colleagues when he tweeted a short statement: “I want to say thank you to the European Tour for putting on the UK swing. I know a lot of the players are grateful that we had tournaments to play in during these tough times.” Horsfield went on to explain that by finishing second on the UK swing order of merit, he was given £50,000 to donate to a charity.
In fact, the last few days of August proved that golf – whether amateur or professional, male or female – was in far better shape than it had been expected to be. Far healthier, for example, than in March or April when the debilitating effects of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown were taking effect and almost all sport was banned.
I think back to Friday morning, March 13, in Florida when I sat in a temporary media centre, otherwise known as a tent, at the PGA Tour’s headquarters as PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced that the Players Championship, which had begun the day before, was ending abruptly because of the pandemic and its effects. As Monahan was ushered out of the room, someone shouted out, “Good luck, Jay.” We thought then that he needed it. We had not had time to assimilate fully what had just been announced and we certainly didn’t have any idea of what would happen in the coming months.
Yet here we are almost exactly six months later and things are far better than could have been expected.
The UK has experienced the biggest spike in golf growth in the world, according to a trade magazine there. Sales of golf equipment is up. The UK’s golf market had its best-ever July in terms of the amount and volume of golf equipment sales. It is true that the European Tour has cancelled the Nedbank Golf Challenge, due to be held at Sun City in December – an event often referred to as South Africa’s major. But this is counterbalanced by the ET’s announcement of three new events later this year including the first in Cyprus.
“It feels good to be here. ... I cannot tell you how proud I am of the team.”
It is not only that golf at all levels was being played. It is that, for the male professionals at least, life in the European tour bubble – as it moved from Close House, Newcastle, to Hanbury Manor near Hemel Hempstead to Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales, and then to the Belfry near Birmingham – was a small triumph in the ongoing struggle with the pandemic despite being markedly different from anything that players and officials have experienced before.
It didn’t do professional golf any harm that an articulate teenager from Denmark took the swing by storm. Rasmus Højgaard, who is not yet 20, finished in the top 10 of three of the six tournaments and won a fourth. Slim, cool, undemonstrative and composed, he looked as though he will be around for many years to come.
Also at the end of last month came news that the senior tour in the UK, which had taken an almost deadly hit during the past summer, had been relaunched as the Legends Tour. It will have a new owner, who was putting some money of his own into the venture, and a new format that involves amateurs. Seven famous players, four of whom are winners of major championships, were announced as ambassadors for this tour – Paul Lawrie, Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Paul McGinley, Mark James, Michael Campbell and Darren Clarke.
If there is a disappointment in golf’s current situation it is this – a personal one, as it was brought home to me when I played an early-morning round at my club last week. One of the best practices, if not traditions, at this club has been that members due to play soon after breakfast would convene in the clubhouse for a coffee and a chat before teeing off. At such times and gatherings, humour ricocheted around the room. Pomposity was pricked, seriousness ridiculed. Participants would be called to order for misdemeanours, often contrived.
It’s a Welsh version of the famous round table of wits, actors, playwrights, etc., hosted by Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin Hotel in New York after the first World War. For some, this interlude was likely to be more enjoyable than the golf that followed. Now, this has gone. Social distancing has seen to that, though one hopes these impromptu sessions will restart once social distancing has ended.
But social distancing has had nothing to do with the rise in vandalism experienced at golf clubs in the UK. There have been nine attacks in the past month at clubs in Scotland, northwest England, in Bristol and Bournemouth in the south of England and a particularly vicious one at Painswick in Gloucestershire.
The general consensus is that the vandals are driven by jealousy. Golf still has an image problem and, ironically, it is the game’s current surge in popularity that is making this image more compelling to those who are jealous. “A toff’s game.” “Middle-class nobs.” “Over-privileged.” These are some of the words you hear from those disenchanted with their lot in these COVID-19 days. And golf clubs, players and the game’s manicured pristine acres, are an easy target.
So not everything is rosy. Just a lot more than had been thought in the spring.